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Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The aims behind the U.S.'s new war in the Middle East

President George W. Bush took the 11 September 2001 attack on the World Trade Center as an opportunity to prove his country's military invincibility. On the eve of the invasion of Iraq in 2003, he eagerly welcomed the prospect of war, crying, "Bring it on!", unable to foresee that after nine years of occupation the U.S. would still have failed to achieve its aims, a consolidation of its hold on the Middle East.

The mood was different on 11 September this year when Barack Obama announced a new U.S.-led war in Iraq. This time it was the Islamists effectively crying "bring it on" through the beheadings that signal the determination of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) to raise its black flag in direct opposition to the U.S. Stars and Stripes and its main junior partner, the UK Union Jack.

This time there was no question of the kind of "shock and awe" blitzkrieg that Bush promised would lead to quick and easy victory. Instead, the Obama administration itself seems in shock, forced to display and deploy its military might in what is recognized as a leap into the unknown where it has no good options.

Yet even understanding, to some extent, the risks involved this time, and initially admitting that the U.S. had no real strategy, Obama launched this new war anyway. There was little choice: Compared to al-Qaeda's attacks on what Obama, like Bush, calls "the homeland", today the IS army is a far greater challenge to the present configuration of the Middle East and the kind of reconfiguration of that region that would suit the interests of the American empire.

Judging by Obama's speech, the plan is to first start bombing and shooting and then see what can be done. His new, hastily-concocted four-part "strategy" is more a wish than a plan.

He said that the U.S.'s goal is to "degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL". His chief of staff put it slightly differently: "Success looks like an ISIL that no longer threatens our friends in the region, no longer threatens the United States, an ISIL that can't accumulate followers or threaten Muslims in Syria, Iraq or otherwise."

Other observers have pointed out that weakening or even destroying an enemy army is not usually considered a definition of a war's political goals, which comprise not only what is to be defeated but what this defeat is supposed to accomplish. In this case, the emphasis seems more on "degrading" – containing and weakening – the IS than on eliminating Islamic fundamentalism, let alone defining how the U.S. and its allies hope to deal with the economic, social and political conditions that account for the spectacular rise of the IS and jihadi Islam in general.

Obama announced "a steady, relentless effort to take out [the IS] wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground", adding, "This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully followed in Yemen and Somalia for years."

"For years" might be a realistic prediction of the duration of Obama's new war, but all that this "strategy" has been able to do in Yemen and Somalia is to keep the Islamists from triumphing, so far, and not even decisively "degrading" their forces. Far from any "containment", Islamic fundamentalism has grown and spread exponentially.

The U.S. seems forced to accept the risks because the IS has become the most concentrated and aggressive threat to its domination of the Middle East and beyond. But it is the perpetuation of that domination, and not the IS itself or the disaster it represents for the region's peoples, that defines Washington's basic war aims. Issues like how the U.S. intends to carry that off, or whether or not it is even possible, should not distract from the more basic question: what the U.S. needs to accomplish as it attempts to work through the contradictions and complexities that made it reluctant to enter into a frontal conflict with the IS in the first place. After all, if Islamic fundamentalism in and of itself were the U.S.'s main concern, and not regional domination, it would not have toppled Saddam Hussein and targeted Bashar al-Assad.

Whatever convergence of interests there may now be between the U.S. and the Syrian and Iranian regimes, the factors that brought the U.S. to conspire against and threaten them have not disappeared. Washington will probably continue seeking to achieve its goals, such as bringing about splits and favourable realignments in the ruling classes in those countries, under changing conditions and in view of its overall interests in the region.

The "elephant in the room" is Israel, an American asset that is more indispensable than ever and yet represents a contradiction for the U.S. as it seeks Middle Eastern allies for the Gaza-fication of Iraq and the replacement of Assad's barrel bombs against Sunni communities by U.S. drones and bombers. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry ordered the Egyptian regime to get Al Azar, the Sunni world's highest religious institution, to bless the coalition with Israel's protector, but there is no guarantee that this won't just discredit those old-order authorities and the regimes that need those religious credentials, and help the jihadi drive for a new religious and political order. The U.S. may feel it has to accept the risk of greater instability and try to pull Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Algeria and the Gulf monarchies into this coalition anyway, not only because of Washington's dire short-term need to hit back at the IS but also because the jihadi Islamism that
the IS represents is already a great danger to all these U.S.-dependent states.

Obama's new war amounts to a confession that the status quo is not an option. In this sense, his government is not so far from the Bush administration's conception of the need to "drain the swamp that produces mosquitoes" (jihadis), a project for the reconfiguration of the Middle East that Bush tried to launch with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with disastrous consequences, including the rise of the IS.

The publicly announced plans and goals of the U.S. and its allies (the former and still would-be colonial powers, the UK and France) surely don't represent the whole of their thinking and objectives. But they are enough to give a glimpse of the horrors they have in store for the people of Iraq, Syria and maybe more widely.

They intend to begin with a stepped-up air campaign – the U.S. has already launched more than 150 drone and other strikes, and France has its Rafale combat planes in Iraqi skies seeking targets. Since the IS has become entrenched in medium and large cities such as Raqqa in Syria, and Tikrit, Haditha, Fallujah and Mosul (population almost two million) in Iraq, this makes it all the more likely that many civilians will be killed.

To be continued…..

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