It is no doubt true that America’s mistakes in the Middle East, from the Iraq war to the recent bombing of a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, have helped to fan the flames.
Fanning the flames. Two recent events in a century-long history of bad behavior. Maybe we could look back a little bit further to see who, exactly, set the fire in question.
Why don’t we start in Iran. You might think that’s strange, given the origins of ISIS, but give it a bit. In 1953, the CIA deposed the democratically-elected, politically moderate prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh, as a favor for the British, who were angry that Mossadegh had put an end to the flatly-exploitative conditions under which British Petroleum was extracting Iranian oil. In Mossadegh’s place, they helped re-install the Shah, a member of Iran’s vestigial monarchy and, as it happens, a brutal dictator whose secret police Savak tortured and murdered his political enemies. The repression and corruption directly created the conditions which allowed for the Ayatollah’s revolution, which swept into Tehran and ended the House of Pahlavi’s control for good. The Shah could not be brought to justice, given that we were still helping our old buddy out with his cancer treatment, and anger over our protection of this hideous dictator helped contribute to the hostage crisis in Tehran. Iran and the Ayatollah quickly became high-profile enemies for the people, government, and media of the United States.
Things were far more stable, and far more conducive to the interests of the United States, in Saudi Arabia, which is often (clumsily but more-or-less accurately) represented as a Sunni counterbalance to Shiite Iran. There, the ruling House of Saud had already established warm ties with the American government, which was only too happy to look past the Saudi government’s theocracy, corruption, and aristocratic system of governance, in exchange for consistent access to the world’s largest proven oil reserves and the stability of despotism. That corrupt theocracy reigns to this day, where it tortures dissidents, executes countless people for petty crimes, keeps women in a state of near-total subservience, and steals the country’s abundant mineral wealth to fund impossibly lavish lifestyles for the decadent princes. This decadence does not damper the Saudi enthusiasm for being the leading funder of Wahhabist extremism, an arch-conservative strain of Islam.
With the hostage crisis seen as a humiliating rebuke to a proud superpower, and with the Cold War amplifying this country’s desperation to always appear powerful, our leaders sought to punish the nascent Islamic regime in Tehran. The United States looked to a state that had been created by Western powers in the early 20th century, under the typical policy of establishing puppet governments to exert control over territory they could no longer directly occupy. In Iraq, an enterprising young dictator named Saddam Hussein seemed like an ideal vehicle through which to oppose Iranian interests. Hussein, an almost unimaginably corrupt and brutal ruler, was the head of the country’s Ba’ath party, which functioned as a kind of Sunni political domination of Iraq’s Shiite majority. Hussein’s fear of rising Shiite power, and his natural expansionistic nature, made him a perfect representative of American interests in the region, in the eyes of American leadership at the time. Naturally, we gave Hussein money, arms, and intelligence, which he used against Iran in one of the most brutal and endless wars of the 20th century. That he also used our help to brutalize his own people was well known within our government and considered an acceptable price of doing business. Among other things, the Iran-Iraq war helped empower hardliners within the Iranian political systems, as wars inevitably do. We also provided Hussein’s military with satellite imagery that was used to undertake the kind of chemical weapons attacks we now draw red lines over.
Meanwhile, the United States was fighting a proxy war in Afghanistan. The Soviet Union, itself a corrupt and destructive imperial power, had foolishly committed itself to the military defense of the country’s unpopular government, which was besieged by irregular troops referred to as the Mujahideen. These Islamic resistance fighters were backed by a diverse and complex set of international groups, including both Iran and, crucially, the United States, which provided billions of dollars worth of arms as well as training. The war went very poorly for the Soviets, and was one of the primary causes of the collapse of the USSR. It also helped to destroy the infrastructure and civil government of the country, which along with its notoriously rough terrain and great ethnic and tribal diversity, made Afghanistan a natural incubator for extremist religious groups. Naturally, some of the groups we funded were among the most violent and terrible you can imagine.
In 1990, our old pal Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, aided in part by the weaponry we had paid for. The United States and a coalition of supporting countries rose to stop Hussein’s advance, in an effort to protect the norm of countries not invading other countries and to protect the world’s access to Kuwait’s oil reserves. Hussein’s army was swiftly defeated, the United States exposed thousands of Iraqis and of its own troops to depleted uranium, and we pulled out, leaving the Ba’athist government of Hussein intact. This decision was explained by realist foreign policy bigwig Dick Cheney, who argued that a post-Saddam Iraq would face a crisis of government that could result in massive violence or civil war, and that the coalition did not have the resources or strategic plan in place to secure the peace in such conditions. In the years that followed, the United States further punished the regime with economic sanctions. Even under conservative estimates, these sanctions resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children and further degraded Iraq’s economy and civil infrastructure, but did essentially nothing to loosen the regime’s hold on power.
One of the most important consequences of the Gulf War was the United States pouring troops into Saudi Arabia. Whether you are inclined to see this move as the consequence of a desire by the US to ensure stability in the post-Desert Storm Middle East, or as an effort to protect access to the world’s largest oil preserves, or you see the protection of access to oil as synonymous with establishing stability, we sent the troops. This move was considered a slap in the face to many conservative Muslims, as Saudi Arabia is home to Islam’s most holy sites. In some Islamic traditions, the presence of heretics in the country is seen as an inherent insult to god and the prophet. This is particularly true of the aforementioned Wahhabis, a small but influential sect of arch-conservative Muslims. Wahhabism is particularly prominent among the Saudi Arabian elite, which helps explain its outsize influence. Among the wealthy Saudis who were incensed at the presence of large numbers of US troops in the country was a man named Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden came from a very wealthy family, which controlled one of the most profitable construction firms in the world. He was known to be unusually devout, even as a child, and after college he joined many other conservative Muslim students in traveling to Afghanistan to take part in the aforementioned war against the Soviets and their puppet government. Though it’s unclear how much actual fighting bin Laden took part in, his time in Afghanistan raised his profile, making him a hero to many mujahadeen and helping him to build a network of fellow travelers. With his money, his experience and training in the Afghan war, his contacts, and his religious zeal, bin Laden was ideally suited to become the mastermind of a radical terrorist network, and eventually, he did. Enraged by the Saudi government’s cozy relationship with the US government and the American troops in the holy land, bin Laden emigrated to the Sudan, where he built the terrorist network known as al Qaeda, including the now-infamous training camps. Under pressure from both the American and Saudi Arabian governments, Sudan finally expelled bin Laden in 1996, and he traveled back to Afghanistan. Conveniently for him, the Taliban was ascendant, and bin Laden found the country an ideal place to launch a religious war. The United States and other countries, for their part, indicted him on a series of charges, and tried unsuccessfully to expel him from Afghanistan to arrest him.
After a series of terrorist attacks, which resulted in retaliatory missile strikes by the United States– including one which leveled a Sudanese aspirin factory– bin Laden’s network launched easily the largest and most destructive terrorist attack in history, on September 11th, 2001.
These attacks inspired the United States to invade Afghanistan and remove the Taliban, leading to a decade-plus of occupation, state-building, and army-training, none of which has particularly worked. The corrupt US-backed Karzai government certainly didn’t help matters much, but it’s entirely unclear whether a Western-installed government could succeed in that state given the years and years of destruction of civic infrastructure and factionalization wrought by warring imperial powers. In any event, the future of Afghanistan and its current government remains very much in doubt, with a resurgent Taliban threatening to win back more territory. Additional American reactions to the 9/11 attacks included building a Kafkaesque permanent lawless internment camp at Guantanamo Bay where prisoners were held for over a decade without charges or trial, the regular disappearance of Muslims targets to foreign countries to facilitate torture, establishment of a vast network of illegal surveillance on both Americans and foreign citizens, and, curiously, the invasion of Iraq.
Curiously, because not a single one of the attackers on 9/11 was an Iraqi, and despite a long series of feints and misdirections by the George W. Bush administration, no evidence had been or has been found to show any meaningful link between the Hussein government and the attacks. But that case was made, as was the equally-evidence free assertion that Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and was intent on deploying them against the United States. The United States invaded and swiftly dispatched of Hussein’s army and government. In a move demonstrating the prescience and good sense the American foreign policy establishment is known for, the provisional government proceeded to launch a policy of de-Baathification and disbanded the army, essentially firing the civil servants that might have kept Iraqi infrastructure afloat and sending hundreds of thousands of angry men into the streets without employment or structure to their lives. Within a few short months, an anti-American insurgency had begun, and sectarian fighting between Iraq’s Shiite majority and its previously-ruling Sunni minority began in earnest. Iraq became one of the world’s most profoundly failed states, home to a horrific civil war, a Vichy government seen as inherently illegitimate by much of Iraq’s population, and a vast refugee crisis. In time, the combination of blows left Iraq close to total civic collapse. The ultimate costs of this invasion included a dollar cost to the United States in the trillions of dollars, the lives of several thousand American troops, the flight of millions of Iraqis, and the cost of the lives of some 600,000 Iraqi people or more.
In time, the violence died down. The proximate causes of this slowdown included the fact that a significant percentage of the potential combatants had already been killed and that many of the sites of the greatest violence had already been effectively ethnically cleansed. But many within the United States government and media insisted that the violence had ceased because of “The Surge,” an increase in the number of American troops in the country and, crucially, a program of mass bribery of potential combatants, a program in which millions of dollars and thousands of guns were pumped into the coffers of unaccountable and unstable factions that felt no particular loyalty to the recently-invented Iraqi government. This had the essential effect of further undermining the ostensible democratic nature of the Iraqi state and shipping more arms into a country already filled with ordnance, much of it that had initially been earmarked for the Iraqi army but which found itself into other hands by mysterious means.
Simultaneously, Nouri Al-Maliki, the corrupt leader of the American-established Iraqi government, undertook a program of retribution and exclusion against the Sunnis, depriving them of access to the government, army, and much else of Iraqi civil society. This has frequently been represented as an example of Al-Maliki’s unique immorality, but it’s worth saying that this is an essentially inevitable aspect of “humanitarian intervention”; retribution against losing groups is a consequence of even the most well-intentioned intervention. Whatever the case, Al-Maliki’s actions further enraged thousands of Iraqi Sunnis who were already angered by their loss of control of the country. This anger helped push more Iraqis into what remained of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had come to be largely confined to the deserts of Iraq’s western border — a border that had recently become unsettled.
Things had been stable in Syria for some time, if we can understand the meaning of “stable” to include a brutal dictatorship and the violent proxy control of a neighboring country. The House of Assad had reigned in Syria for decades, benefitting from the close support of the Soviet and Russian governments. This support was necessary, as under colonialism France had intentionally stoked ethnic and religious divisions between the country’s many internal factions. The United States government had played the role of benefactor for some time, but after a few too many CIA-backed coup attempts, undertaken with the intention of more directly controlling Syria’s government, the country fell under the Soviet sphere of influence. The Assads were able to utilize these sectarian divisions to help keep control of the country; Syria’s sizable Alawite and Christian minorities have long feared reprisals from the Sunni majority should the Assad government fall. That event became far more likely in 2011, with the Arab Spring.
In the context of mass regional protests, many of them rallying against US-backed dictators, Syrian protests erupted throughout the country. The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, responded with a typically heavy hand, deploying his military against unarmed demonstrators and ramping up the use of torture and execution of his political enemies. In time, the protests bloomed into a full-out civil war. It is common now for American commentators to insist that there was a period in which this resistance was free of Islamic extremism, and that had we only been willing to intervene on their behalf then, we might now be looking at a democratic Syria. This strikes me as precisely the kind of Pollyanna outcome that exists only in the world of the hypothetical, a world where violence always leads unerringly to positive outcomes. Regardless, the civil war became an impossibly bloody conflict, sending millions of refugees fleeing the area. The number of factions and actors involved was and is impossibly complex. Among them was a number of vicious Islamist forces, intent on establishing a fundamentalist Wahhabi state in Syria. One of these was what we know refer to as ISIS.
Battle-hardened Sunni Iraqis, many of them formerly part of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, became the Iraqi wing of this movement. In time, the border between Syria and Iraq became meaningless, under the control of ISIS. The group started to advance in northern Iraq, taking vast swaths of territory with minimal resistance from the Iraqi army. This is not surprising; that force was never likely to stand up to significant opposition, given that the country they were defending was and is seen in many parts of Iraq as illegitimate. In time, ISIS took over sufficient territory, and claimed to have established a new caliphate. They also undertook a series of very public and brutal acts of terrorism, such as the repeated beheading of Westerners and suicide bombings. These acts have been broadcast widely on social media, a favored tool of the organization. The Syrian quagmire has only deepened, with the United States and other NATO powers now in the uncomfortable position of being committed to both the end of the Assad regime and to attacking the most significant threat to his rule.
At present, ISIS is under a series of air assaults from not just the United States but France and Russian and Turkey. Increasingly, however, a growing chorus in the United States calls for ground troops, under the theory that any action which previously broke a place must surely be capable of fixing it as well. Wealthy Saudis, many of them likely connected to the government there, continue to pour money into the Islamic State, yet another in a litany of bad behaviors we excuse from one of the most casually destructive regimes in the world, a regime that we support like few others. ISIS’s terrorist attacks have grown in violence and audacity, including, of course, this week’s terrible attack on Paris. Some will no doubt represent my position as absolving ISIS of responsibility for its crimes. That is not how causality works and it’s not how morality works. There is no excuse for ISIS’s actions, and in total the group is a force for almost cartoonish evil in the world, like a fever dream of the most awful corruption of Islam imaginable. I am simply insisting on pointing out that our horrific behavior has a hand in the horrific behavior we decry now.
I have not, obviously, mentioned many aspects of American foreign policy in the greater Muslim world — in Lebanon, in Israel and Palestine, in Libya, in Yemen, in Pakistan, in Bahrain, and elsewhere. These involve support for all kinds of brutal regimes, intentional destabilization of governments, funding and arming of extremist groups, killing of civilians, and all manner of other bad behavior.
It seems increasingly likely to me that bin Laden will get what he wanted: a regional war in the Middle East. Attacks like those in Paris have the intention of pulling NATO powers deeper and deeper into conflict. This is a bad idea for the actual ISIS organization; but it’s a fine way to pursue the larger aims of men like bin Laden. Essential to this plan is the understanding that the United States and its allies don’t have to actually lose a war in order to be crippled by such an action. The fighting would likely be longer and harder than Americans realize, but I don’t doubt that eventually, NATO forces would win. But foreign soldiers in the area would present an inviting target for every extremist for thousands of miles, and the war would serve as a recruiting tool for many more. And if the immediate war ended, next would come the peacekeeping. This is a task that we have demonstrated again and again to be incapable of undertaking effectively, and to attempt to police the Iraqi-Syrian borderlands would be a monumental task. That continuing question of what would happen with the Syrian civil war would only complicate this already fraught scenario. The loss of life, the vast expense, the inability to define victory, the poor likelihood of building a stable government, all of it strikes me as a quagmire of the worst kind. Yet I don’t doubt that we may be heading in that direction.
I don’t doubt it because we are addicted to intervening. The central faith appears to be this: the next intervention is always the one that will fix things. The history of the United States in the Muslim world is the history of bad decisions that lead inexorably to more bad decisions. And yet this history, as I’ve presented it to you, will no doubt be considered by some to be a paranoiac conspiracy theory, despite how little of the factual information is disputed by any serious source. The alternative to our typical behavior — to stop imagining that the next intervention will be the last intervention, to simply refuse to intervene, based on the endless history of destructive and inhumane interventions in the past — is always represented as the opinion of a fringe. Even now, many in the American political conversation insist that we should have been more aggressive in the last days of our occupation in Iraq, that this would have forestalled current problems, despite our country’s natural exhaustion with war and the refusal of the Iraqi government to comply. Always: there was some bloodshed that we should have taken part in the past, and there is some new bloodshed that we have no choice but to take part in now. And maybe that next entanglement will be the one that finally fatally sickens the American empire.
So, you know, all in all, Mr. Younk, I think we’ve done quite a bit more than fan some flames. And I think as we ponder what to do about another spate of unimaginable violence, the kind to make you give it all up to despair, I think it’s useful to remember our history, the history that makes us easily the greatest source of destruction and instability of the past 70 years.