Arcs of Crises

by The Editors
published in MER209

Between the confrontations with Iraq in February and November, and the Cruise missile salvos directed at Afghanistan and Sudan in August, 1998 has been rather busy for the gunboat section of the US diplomatic corps. Twice, the UN secretary-general averted US military action by securing promises that Baghdad would comply with UNSCOM weapons inspectors, but the August bombings of US embassies in East Africa showed how broadly the sparks of war had spread. Washington’s hegemony in the region was challenged both by the survivalist instincts of Iraq’s dictator and by an underground Islamist network dedicated to driving foreign troops out of the Arabian Peninsula. The US, by lobbing missiles into rural Afghanistan and Khartoum and by refusing to consider alternatives to sanctions and military threats in Iraq, exhibited a wide firing range but a narrow strategic vision.

Saddam Hussein’s defeated government has still not fully surrendered as a consequence of the Gulf war rout, but consider Washington’s agitation alongside its ambivalence about nuclear tests by Pakistan and India, or Israel’s brazen moves to sabotage the miserable memorandum born of so much huffing and puffing along the Wye River. Washington’s fixation with Baghdad’s bravado serves to justify the US military presence in Arabia -- but this presence motivates the cruel attacks attributed to Osama bin Laden and contributes nothing to the frayed legitimacy of friendly princes in the Peninsula. In terms of strategic vision, the US posture, rhetoric and arsenal add up to a policy that appears astoundingly ineffectual.

The Gulf war is over. UNSCOM paved new ground in coercive disarmament but cannot prevent Iraq from forever restoring its offensive capability. Only now, after seven years of “collateral damage,” is public opinion mounting against the sanctions. So only now have the policy mandarins begun to talk about other mechanisms that might be directed against the Iraqi dictator and his cohorts, such as war crimes tribunals. And even today the policy establishment displays zero interest in regional arms control mechanisms that might actually contribute to effective disarmament. The Clinton administration’s mindless perpetuation of an outmoded Gulf policy is a true failure of political imagination.

Further challenges to American interests in the Middle East may well come from Islamist movements that have emerged out of the failures of secularist regimes and opposition movements. Whereas a generation ago Arab nationalists and some progressive grassroots movements challenged Western hegemony, nowadays the radicals are religious conservatives who oppose regional regimes and have proven to be effective foes of Israeli conquests as well. During the Soviet Union’s heyday, Washington blamed Moscow for events in Mossadeq’s Iran, Lebanon of the late 1950s, Algeria during its war of independence, Egypt under Nasser, Iraq after the monarchy, the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen, Libya under Qaddafi, Soviet Central Asia, the Sudanese Communist movement and finally Afghanistan. Cold Warriors insistently viewed the Arab-Israeli conflict in bipolar terms, while pointing to the nationalization of oil industries as a sign of creeping socialism. US allies were the non-Arab countries of the region: Israel, Turkey, the Shah’s Iran and, until 1976, Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia. By the early 1980s, though, these arcs of alliance had become arcs of crisis.

Its symbolism and rhetoric notwithstanding, political Islam is not religious tradition but a twentieth-century popular movement that has gained wide currency in response to the military humiliations, political depredations and socio-economic discontents of recent history. Mosques offer alternative channels for local activism and address widespread dissatisfaction with corrupt regimes’ appropriation of Arab nationalist ideals and cooptation of labor and professional syndicates. “Born-again” Islam, so to speak, flourishes wherever secular policies or slogans have failed to provide welfare, security or dignity.

Radical political Islam scored its first military victories outside the Arab world, in Iran and Afghanistan. Elsewhere in the Third World, resistance to pro-Western regimes came from the left, but here, in the shadow of the Soviet Union, wariness of Russian hegemony undercut the appeal of progressive parties whose success could easily invite Soviet intervention. While opposition to the Shah and Afghan kings, both tainted by ties to Anglo-American imperialism, spanned the political spectrum, it was the clergy who dethroned the Shah in Iran. In contrast, the leftist officers who grabbed power in Afghanistan immediately begged for Soviet support.

By 1979 Americans were hostages in Tehran and Soviet troops were pouring into Kabul. The US joined with Saudi Arabia to back a jihad operating out of Pakistan. The CIA not-so-covertly armed guerrillas, while Saudis tailored religious indoctrination to fit strategic purposes. In addition to reciting salacious tales of sexual promiscuity under communism (“women and children are public property”) in order to ward off Iranian influence, this propaganda explicitly defiled Shi’a doctrine as “not Islamic.” Instead, official Saudi Wahhabism, a form of Sunni puritanism quite alien to Afghan society, constituted the theological basis of the mujahideen curriculum. The Afghan jihad attracted alienated Arab youth, who volunteered for the cause as Europeans once joined the fighting in Spain. Osama bin Laden, one among scores of Afghan Arab commanders, was also one among dozens of private financiers.

This ragtag army defeated the much more powerful -- by any conventional measure -- Soviet Union. The battle won, seasoned Afghan Arabs returned home looking rugged yet pious. Skilled in the crude weapons of the weak, they constituted the core of a violent Islamist fringe in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Sudan, Yemen, Chechnya, Bosnia and many other countries. Other factors contributed to the Islamization of politics. More than a few Middle Eastern regimes deliberately nurtured the religious right. Israeli governments encouraged religiosity as the opiate of the Palestinian nationalist movement, Cairo combated organized labor and student radicals, Algerian indigenization policies bolstered Islamism, Tunisia deliberately pitted religious conservatives against progressives, and Sudan’s Numeiri crushed the Sudanese left. Almost everywhere, suppression of oppositional politics and autonomous organizing channeled activism into religious associations. Right-wing parties, some of them banned and others campaigning for parliamentary seats, have replaced progressives as the major challengers to virtually every Middle Eastern government.

As among Israeli and American religious conservatives, a minority of militants should not be confused with millions of believers whose religion is the basis of social and political conscience. Muslim charities, parochial schools and free clinics provide an increasingly crucial “safety net” in a period of global retrenchment, recession and privatization. Whereas in the past welfare states provided free universal medical care and education and generous social security benefits, now the privatization of welfare and services, implemented by external creditors with IMF oversight, leaves vulnerable families increasingly dependent on private charity for food, medicine, insurance and other benefits. Political Islam responds to two sets of widening disparities: the gap between those with and without wealth and power, and the discrepancy between promises of peace and prosperity and grim political and economic realities.

For all these reasons, political Islam has been on the rise. Islamists seized power on the backs of like-minded officers in Sudan, fought the Soviet-backed government inch by inch in Afghanistan, slaughtered Algerian intellectuals and then villagers, murdered tourists in Egypt and resisted Israeli military occupation in Lebanon. Legal and illegal Islamist parties are now the main challengers to almost all the governments of the region, few of whom enjoy popular mandates. Several might win at the ballot box if given the chance. As noted in this issue, this is why the West supports democracy reluctantly in the Gulf states, Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. In Iraq, ruthless elimination of regime critics ensures that there is no internal national secular alternative to the ruling Baath party except possibly through mosques or communal associations.

The New Counter-Terrorism

The Gulf war of 1990-1991 was about realpolitik, not ideology. By maintaining its military stance in the Peninsula and offshore indefinitely, however, the US risks provoking an Islamist underground movement against Arabian royal families. Arab political columnists speculated that the embassy bombings on August 7 commemorated the anniversary of the arrival of American troops in Saudi Arabia in 1990. Using a tactic of the old days of the Palestinian resistance, the Saudi dissident bin Laden attacked US civilians abroad in order to drive American forces from his homeland. Employing Israeli-style prerogative, the United States counter-attacked within third countries. While Washington claims that ships, planes and troops are needed in the Gulf to protect the world from Saddam Hussein, others see an aggressive imperial force protecting a client royal gerontocracy.

President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright hinted darkly that the August 20 missile attacks were but the opening salvos in a long military campaign against an international terrorist network. This war will be hard to win. American firepower easily overcame Iraq’s large standing army, but high-tech weapons and well-trained troops have made a poor showing against guerrilla movements in Vietnam, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Somalia.

The events of 1998 could well intensify anti-US and anti-Western sentiments from the Horn of Africa to Central Asia. Before, American foreign policy makers worried separately about the “rogue” states, the health of Saudi King Fahd, tensions between Saudi Arabia and Yemen, the future of Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, war in southern Sudan, chaos in the Congo, Ethiopian-Eritrean hostility, Indian and Pakistani nuclear competition, Afghan-Iranian antagonisms, Islamist movements in Asia and UN support for sanctions against Iraq. By the fall of 1998, however, these minor brushfires seemed to emblazon a new arc of crisis from East Africa through the Persian Gulf to Central Asia.

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