by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“How can the U.S. bomb ISIS jihadists in Iraq and not bomb them in Syria?” The contradictions of the West’s reliance on Muslim fundamentalist jihadis to do their dirty work have become acute with the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq. Despite its vast weaponry, the U.S. cannot control events on the ground if their jihadist gunmen pursue their own objectives, which are ultimately antithetical to imperialism.
ISIS Iraq Offensive: Can the Empire Reassert Control of the Jihadists?
by BAR executive editor Glen Ford
“The wholesale unleashing of the jihadist dogs of war was a sign of profound imperial weakness in the Arab world.”
The United States is considering whether to bomb ISIS, a jihadist Frankenstein of Washington’s own making, whose breathtaking offensive in northern Iraq threatens the survival of the Shiite-dominated regime. Many on the Left surmise that U.S. intelligence is the evil genius behind the ISIS-led Sunni seizure of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and a string of population centers stretching towards Baghdad, as well as the Kurdish takeover of Kirkuk, the oil center on the edge of de-facto autonomous Kurdistan. However, such an assessment posits the U.S. and its European, Turkish, Israeli and monarchist Arab allies as masters of the universe, fully in charge, when in reality, they operate from a position of profound political and moral weakness in the region – which has led to dependence on jihadists. And, the jihadists know it.
It is true that the U.S. has been the great enabler of ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), its al Qaida-inspired rival Jabhat al-Nusra, and the smaller Islamist outfits that have been arrayed against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the last three years. (As even the New York Times admits, all of the significant armed opposition in Syria consider themselves Islamist warriors of one kind or another.) But, too often, western leftists assume the jihadists are merely wind-me-up robots that can be pointed at designated targets, and then turned on or off or put on hold at the CIA’s whim, as if they have no ideology and agency of their own, but exist for the convenience of Empire.
In the real world, the U.S. can only point armed takfiris in directions they already want to go: at secular opponents like Muammar Gaddafi or a Shiite-dominated (Alawite) government in Damascus (and, in decades gone by, at atheistic Soviets in Afghanistan). But, when the means are available and the time is right, by their reckoning, they will pursue their own objectives, such as establishing a caliphate in Sunni areas of Iraq and Syria and waging endless war against Shiites wherever they find them – which is the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s reason for being. To assume, as some do, that the ISIS-led blitzkrieg in northern Iraq is part of a grand U.S. plan, is to dismiss jihadists as a genuine indigenous presence in the region, as well as to minimize country-wide Sunni grievances against the Shiite regime, which has called forth a kind of Sunni united front against Baghdad.
“Too often, western leftists assume the jihadists are merely wind-me-up robots that can be pointed at designated targets, and then turned on or off or put on hold at the CIA’s whim.”
It also assumes the U.S. has decided it has no further use for a viable Iraqi state, with or without already semi-independent Kurdistan, and that Washington would rather create conditions that would risk further solidifying Shiite Iraq’s ties to Iran, thus creating an even larger oil giant outside the sphere of U.S. hegemony. It assumes that the U.S. would purposely create a situation in which it might be compelled to deal with Iran as an equal player in a zone of great economic and political importance – a prospect that looms, as we write.
There is no question that the United States, like the European colonizers, has often pursued a general strategy to break up states (whose boundaries they often imposed, in the first place), so as to better manipulate them, and that this was an active option for Washington in Iraq in the early years of occupation. However, this does not mean that miniaturizing states is the holy grail of imperialism, under all circumstances. The truth is, the U.S. got as good a deal as it could have expected in Iraq, under circumstances of defeat – which is why George Bush agreed to the principle of total withdrawal by the end of 2011. The U.S. hung on to influence in Iraq, through the corrupt and sectarian al-Maliki government, by the skin of its teeth. (Remember that there was significant Shiite sentiment to cut all ties to Washington, in the person and militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, who launched two uprisings and called for a common front with Sunnis against the American occupiers.) U.S. policymakers are not the brightest people in the world, but rolling the dice in Iraq – where ‘craps’ could leave the U.S. in a far worse position – is simply not worth the risk at this time.
Indeed, the ISIS offensive, in which all the jihadist savageries of Syria (and Libya before it) are replayed in yet another theater of U.S.-subsidized war, presents such grave contradictions for U.S. policy in Syria as to hasten its collapse on that front.
How can the U.S. bomb ISIS jihadists in Iraq and not bomb them in Syria (along with al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and all the other takfiris, now that the Free Syrian Army mirage has vanished)?
“The U.S. got as good a deal as it could have expected in Iraq, under circumstances of defeat.”
As a superpower, the U.S. always has options (“all options are on the table”), but that doesn’t mean any of them are good – and it certainly does not mean that every desperate option that Washington avails itself of is part of the grand plan. The U.S. has relied on jihadists in the region, especially since the so-called Arab Spring, not because it wanted to, but because they were the only foot soldiers available to reassert Euro-American and Gulf potentates’ power. Without the jihadists, the imperialists could only bomb Gaddafi and sanction Assad – but on behalf of whom? An armed “opposition” had to be created on the ground, which only the Salafists could effectively provide. The wholesale unleashing of the jihadist dogs of war was a sign of profound imperial weakness in the Arab world, where the U.S. is hated with a kinetic intensity and the monarchs shiver at the thought of what their own people would like to do to them – and what the jihadists will do to them, if the young warriors are not exported and kept busy.
Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, in collaboration with Pakistan, spent billions to create an international jihadist network that had not previously existed, to bedevil the Soviets in Afghanistan. The U.S. did not invent Salafists, Wahhabism and takfiris; they are indigenous to various Muslim cultures. However, their incorporation into the imperialist armory gave this most reactionary brand of Islamic fundamentalism a global presence, capability and vision. It behaves like a form of nationalism – much like the old, secular Arab nationalism of the Fifties and Sixties, only from the Muslim Right. No respecter of borders, it seeks to unite, protect and wage war on behalf of, the “Ummah” – the “community” or “nation” of believers. As a nationalist-like current, it is inherently incompatible with U.S.-led imperialism, and will also inevitably turn on the paymasters in the obscenely corrupt Gulf monarchies. (The half a billion dollars ISIS seized from Mosul banks will surely hasten the process.)
The jihadists cannot be controlled by their imperial enablers – as the U.S. ambassador to Libya learned, in his last moments – not reliably, in the short term, and not at all in the long term. The contradictions of the relationship are now acute, the unraveling has begun, and the U.S. has no substitute for the services the jihadists provided to Empire.
So, yes, the ISIS-led offensive in Iraq is a horrific crisis for the peoples of the region, another descent into Hell. But it is also a crisis for U.S. imperialism, whose options diminish by the day.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at [email protected].