From New Left Project on US influence in Middle East in an interview with Gilbert Achcar, Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS, University of London) and the author, among other books, of The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising:
So 2004 was the point when US influence began to decline?
Yes, the turning point was the Fallujah massacre perpetrated by US troops, which enabled Al-Qaeda and other elements in the Sunni insurgency to recruit a lot of people. It signalled a clear shift in Iraq’s Arab Sunni areas against the United States, which built up to a disastrous situation for Washington in 2006. That’s when the Bush administration was forced to change its strategy under pressure from the US foreign policy establishment backed by Congress. The Baker-Hamilton Commission, a bipartisan congressional commission, devised a new strategy – the so called ‘surge’. In light of this new strategy, the US occupiers bought off Sunni Arab tribes, removing most of the constituency on which Al-Qaeda and similar groups were drawing. And they managed indeed to almost eradicate Al-Qaeda from Iraq in 2008, preparing the ground for US withdrawal from that country, as its occupation had become deeply unpopular at home.
Obama was elected with a promise of withdrawal from Iraq, which was completed by end 2011, even though none of the key goals of the 2003 invasion had been achieved. The main objective was not the removal of Saddam Hussein – that was the easy part; it was long term US control over Iraq and its oil. And that was not achieved. Nouri al-Maliki’s government, put in place in 2006 under Bush, turned out to be as much, if not more, subordinate to Tehran than to Washington. And with the departure of US troops in 2011 the balance tipped decisively in favour of Tehran. In sum, the US left Iraq under the control of its main enemy in the region. That was a miserable failure indeed: it discredited US power in the whole region and emboldened opponents of US hegemony everywhere. In 2011, therefore, US influence in the region reached its lowest point, as the withdrawal from Iraq was carried on while the Arab uprising was unfolding, bringing down key allies of the United States, notably Mubarak in Egypt. The United States has not yet recovered from this low point. Its brief ‘leading-from-behind’ adventure in Libya ended up in another blatant fiasco that only aggravated this weakening.
Which brings us to the question of whether this decline in US influence has led to greater violence in the region, as many commentators claim.
Violence in the region is not new, alas. If anything, the peak of violence coincided with the peak of US hegemony. Think of the violence of the US onslaught on Iraq in 1991, which turned that country back to the Stone Age in the words of the UN special reporter. Think of the devastating embargo imposed on Iraq thereafter, which caused the death of 90,000 people, by UN estimates, every year for twelve years, while the country was under almost continual bombing. And then think of the shift after 9/11 and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. Think of the level of violence reached in Iraq soon afterwards, especially the brutality of US occupation. The idea that it is the decline of US influence that led to increased violence will then appear what it truly is: a completely absurd proposition.
The fact is that the United States is mainly responsible for the levels of violence reached in the Middle East. This is not to say that the US has sole responsibility, nor to exonerate the Arab regimes, nor even to overlook the failing by the progressive movements in the region in providing an alternative. But the main responsibility is definitely that of the United States.
First of all, the United States has been cultivating despotic regimes in the region for several decades, thereby sowing the seeds of violence; and it has been cultivating the most extreme type of fundamentalism through its alliance with the Saudi kingdom, by far the most repressive, reactionary, antidemocratic and anti-women state on Earth. The United States played a major role in defeating the progressive, secular ,Arab nationalist regional radicalisation that was led by Nasser’s Egypt, fostering Islamic fundamentalism as a major weapon against it. Washington is also responsible for very high levels of violence through its unconditional support for the State of Israel. In fact, a decisive turning point in the levels of violence in the region was the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. We could go on. In so many ways therefore, the US has been sowing the seeds of violence in the region – a violence it directly contributed to with the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, the torture at Abu Ghraib and the attempts to use sectarian cleavages to control the country, thus creating the conditions for everything we are witnessing today.
All this provided the most direct background to the rise of ISIS. The spread of the most reactionary brand of Islamic fundamentalism, and the degree of violence in Iraq under US-British occupation: these are the two main factors at the roots of ISIS. But you also have the fact that the United States refused to arm the mainstream Syrian opposition as it emerged after the first few months of the uprising, when the uprising started turning into a civil war in response to the regime’s murderous onslaught, fully backed by Iran and Russia. The United States refused to provide the initial Syrian mainstream opposition with the defensive weapons it was requesting, above all anti-aircraft weapons, and even forbade its regional allies from providing such weapons. This led to what we have been seeing: an extremely ruthless regime with a total free hand to use air power in the most devastating and cruel way against the population, along with a full range of deadly weapons, including chemical weapons. Obama’s so-called ‘red line’ when it came to chemical weapons was only meant to reassure Israel. But Washington just contemplated Syria being destroyed, creating a sharp feeling there that the United States and Israel are both very happy to see Syria torn apart. The Iran-assisted Syrian regime’s violence was the major reason for the growth of ISIS in Syria, and was complemented by the anti-Sunni sectarian policy of the Iran-sponsored Maliki government in Iraq. Shocking violence breeds shocking violence through a rise to the extremes that leads into what I called some years ago ‘the clash of barbarisms’, a clash in which the United States is the main culprit and protagonist.