The United States government routinely tells its subject citizenry and the world of America’s grand commitment to freedom and democracy. Putting aside the inconvenient problem of its own domestic oligarchy and plutocracy, let’s have a look at some of Washington’s “democracy”-loving key allies in the new coalition the Obama administration put together last September to provide Sunni Arab cover for its campaign to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). “Our partners” against ISIS—itself the latest “blowback” Frankenstein generated by decades of U.S. petro-imperial meddling, murder, and mayhem in the oil-rich Middle East—include:
- The brutal, mass-murderous military dictatorship in Egypt, recipient of $1.3 billion in U.S. military assistance each year.
- The Al Khalifi monarchy of Bahrain, which bloodily crushed its Arab spring with U.S. arms, tortures political prisoners with cattle prods, and hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.
- The United Arab Emirates, ruled by an absolute monarchy that jails and tortures critics of its royal family.
- Oman, where all authority is held by a hereditary sultan and political parties are banned.
- Qatar, an absolute monarchy and the second most conservative society in the Persian Gulf region, after Saudi Arabia. Government and society hold to a strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam.
- Saudi Arabia, ruled by an absolute monarchy that practices bloody and medieval punishments even against petty criminals and treats women with harsh repression.
Regarding the last state, home to the second largest oil reserves on the planet, renowned Left intellectual and Middle East expert Gilbert Achcar’s comments in the fall of 2006 hold true eight years later: “….by far the most fundamentalist Islamic state on earth is the Saudi kingdom. It is the most obscurantist, the most reactionary, and the most oppressive of women. The treatment of women there is absolutely appalling. When you compare the Saudi kingdom to the Islamic Republic of Iran, Iran looks like a beacon of women’s emancipation…. By the standard of women’s emancipation, democracy, or whatever social value of modernity you want to take into consideration, Iran would rank much higher than the Saudi kingdom. And yet, the country that the United States vilifies as fanatically religious is Iran, whereas the Saudi dynasty are ‘our friends.’ And courted friends, at that” (Gilbert Achcar, Noam Chomsky, and Stephen Shalom, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, Paradigm Publishers, 2008). Consistent with Achcar’s reflection, Iran was not invited to the Paris conference at which diplomats from the West and Gulf States sought a strategy to fight the Islamic State even though majority Shia Iran is a blood enemy of the Sunni-extremist ISIS.
“Heart of Darkness”
One wonders how U.S. citizens felt last September watching U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry posing for photos with tyrannical and oil- and blood-soaked, princes, kings, emirs and sultans on the evening news. Wasn’t the United States’ government and its political tradition formed in popular rebellion against the British monarchy, blood aristocracy, and the feudal traditions and absolutist states of Europe? The reality of the “American revolution” is more complicated than that, but that’s been the official story in U.S. Civics and History textbooks for as long as anyone can remember here. Surely some of the U.S. citizens who paid attention to their high school history cringe a little when they see U.S. officials embracing seemingly medieval monarchs and aristocrats halfway across the world. The White House called ISIS’s videotaped beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley (followed by ISIS’s also videotaped beheading of another U.S. journalist, Steven Sotloff) the group’s “first terrorist attack on the United States.” In an address to the United Nations last September 24, president Obama further explained that the only language Islamic State terrorists and their “network of death” understand is “the language of force.” The brutality of ISIS, Obama added, “forces us to look into the heart of darkness.” An interesting choice of phrases, taken from Joseph Conrad’s racially loaded turn-of-the-20th century novel about a “civilized” white ivory trader’s trek down the Congo River into “barbarian” Central Africa.
Surely the U.S. must do something to stop this hideous new incarnation of savage evil in the name of “civilization” and everything decent. Such is the conventional wisdom in the United States’ reigning media and politics culture, which has—thanks largely to the theatrical beheading videos—generated majority support for an U.S. air war on Iraq and Syria. Not so fast. Here are nine considerations to bear in mind as Americans contemplate Washington’s escalation in Iraq and Syria.
FIRST, not only are America’s Sunni Arab bombing “partners” openly despotic and arch fundamentalist states, they are also, and not just coincidentally, “the states most responsible for ISIS’ creation.” As the left U.S. activist Shamus Cooke explains, “Saudi Arabia and Qatar are especially guilty of sending money, weapons, and extremist fighters into Syria to topple the Syrian Government, which directly helped transform ISIS from a fledgling group of fanatics into a regional power.” The Obama administration has in recent years looked the other way while Saudi Arabia and Qatar armed and funded jihadism in Syria because Obama was happy to see an “army of foreign mercenaries” deployed to overthrow the Assad regime in Damascus, allied with U.S. enemies Iran (Shia) and Russia. “These extremists dominated the Syrian battlefield for nearly three years,” Cooke notes, “and only now is Obama using a couple of beheadings to flood the emotions of the American public” (ZNet, September 26, 2014).
“Good v. Bad Beheaders”
SECOND, given the central importance of the Foley and Sotloff beheadings to Washington’s success in generating U.S. public support for escalation, it is worth noting that the United States grand partner, Saudi Arabia, is the greatest decapitator on the planet. A report from the Washington Post merits lengthy quotation:
“Though long an incubator of the Salafist ideology that now inflames the Islamic State and militant groups of its ilk…[Saudi Arabia] is notorious for its draconian laws, which are derived from a strict Wahabbist interpretation of Islamic doctrine. In the space of two weeks last month, according to the rights group Amnesty International, Saudi Arabia executed as many as 22 people. At least eight of those executed were beheaded, U.S. observers say.
“It appears that the majority of those executed in August were guilty of nonlethal crimes, including drug trafficking, adultery, apostasy and ‘sorcery.’ Four members of one family, Amnesty reports, were beheaded for ‘receiving drugs.’
“Saudi Arabia is conspicuous in being the sole country to regularly carry out beheadings; last year, a reported shortage of trained swordsmen led to some hope that the practice could wane, but recent evidence suggests otherwise.
“It’s an uncomfortable irony given that the United States’ current military mobilization was triggered after the Islamic State beheaded two American journalists.
“‘Beheading as a form of execution is cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and prohibited under international law under all circumstances,’ said Juan Méndez, a U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, at a news conference in Geneva on Tuesday.… Beyond the grisliness of the method of punishment, observers also point to the unjust ways in which those who face death penalties are found guilty.
“The execution of people accused of petty crimes and on the basis of “confessions” extracted through torture has become shamefully common in Saudi Arabia. It is absolutely shocking to witness the Kingdom’s authorities’ callous disregard to fundamental human rights,’ Amnesty’s Said Boumedouha said in a statement circulated last week” (Washington Post, September 11, 2014).
A final comment from Post reporter Ishaan Thoroor is instructive: “U.S. politicians…routinely hector over the state of human rights in Iran—Saudi Arabia’s main geopolitical rival in the Middle East and a country with a far more democratic political system than that of the Saudis. But they are more quiet about the many abuses carried out in the kingdom.” Indeed.
“Strutting Around Another Man’s Country”
THIRD, ISIS’s beheadings of U.S. journalists took place in the Middle East, something that makes it problematic for the White House to claim that the killing of Foley constituted a “terrorist attack against our country.” Beheadings and amputations and other terrible crimes committed by ISIS and, for that matter, (on a grander scale) by Saudi Arabia are atrocious but Americans who wish to avoid such horrors would be well advised to stay the Hell out of Middle Eastern battle- grounds where Islamic fundamentalists are in the field—battlegrounds that have been created, to no small extent, by U.S. foreign policy. I am reminded (with qualifications) of something that comic George Carlin said during his 2005 “Life is Worth Losing” Tour:
“Human beings will do anything, anything. I am convinced. That’s why when all those beheadings started in Iraq, it didn’t bother me. A lot of people here were horrified, ‘Whaaaa, beheadings! Beheadings!’ What, are you fucking surprised? Just one more form of extreme human behavior. Besides, who cares about some mercenary civilian contractor from Oklahoma who gets his head cut off? Fuck ‘em. Hey Jack, you don’t want to get your head cut off? Stay the fuck in Oklahoma. They ain’t cuttin’ off heads in Oklahoma, far as I know. But I do know this: you strap on a gun and go struttin’ around some other man’s country, you’d better be ready for some action, Jack. People are touchy about that sort of thing.”
We should care about the lives of those ISIS kills. The actually antiwar journalist James Foley was no Blackwater contractor. Still, Carlin’s point about struttin’ around some other man’s county” applies, tragically enough in some cases, to journalists with cameras as well as to mercenaries with guns: “you’d better be ready for some action” in a war zone—one where jihadists know that most Western journalists are press agents for Empire. It takes real imperial hubris to call the killing of Foley a terrorist attack on the U.S. The jetliner attacks of September 9/11 were terrorist assaults on the U.S. The murders of overseas U.S. journalists in the Middle East are not.
A Transparent Fabrication
FOURTH, international law prohibits military attacks on other nations and territories except in cases where actors in those places can be shown to pose an “imminent danger” to the attacking state. ISIS poses no such threat to the U.S. It is interested primarily in toppling the existing corrupt and U.S.-sponsored political regimes in the Muslim world and not in attacking the U.S. “homeland” itself.
In order to provide a façade of legal legitimacy for his technically criminal air war, Obama suspiciously introduced the world to a new “terror cell” few had ever heard of just two days before his UN Address. Said to be planning terrorist actions in the U.S., the Syria-based “Khorason Group” was a convenient, last-minute creation, transparently advanced to make Washington’s attacks on Syrian territory appear consistent with international law.
George Carlin’s Moral Question
FIFTH, there is the problem of moral hypocrisy on a monumental scale regarding direct and mass-murderous U.S. and Israeli criminality in the Middle East and Muslim world. U.S.-of-Americans need to ask themselves why they are ready to support war against ISIS in retaliation for the murder of two U.S. journalists but not against Israel for engaging in the openly criminal state-terrorist mass-murder of 504 children in Gaza this summer—an atrocity committed in full public view.
“Let me ask you this,” George Carlin queried his audience in 2005, “this is a moral question, not rhetorical, I’m looking for the answer: what is the moral difference between cuttin’ off one guy’s head, or two, or three, or five, or ten—and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids? Has anybody in authority given you an explanation of the difference?”
Good question. It applies to the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces this past summer—and in past episodes of what Israel calls “mowing the grass” (wiping out Palestinians) in Gaza and elsewhere. How’s that for “look[ing] into the heart of darkness?”
Carlin’s question is relevant also to the United States’ assaults on the Iraqi city of Fallujah in the spring and fall of 2004—massive attacks that among other things targeted hospitals and used radioactive ordnance that left a toxic legacy…worse than Hiroshima” (UK journalist Patrick Cockburn) and plagued the city with an epidemic of child leukemia and birth defects.
We might broaden Carlin’s question: What’s the moral difference between decapitating a few military contractors and/or journalists and imposing “economic sanctions” that killed at least half a million Iraqi children in the 1990s? That’s the number of dead Iraqi minors that CBS’s Leslie Stahl famously asked U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright about in 1996, adding that the child mortality count from the U.S.-led sanctions was “more children than died in Hiroshima.”
The Madame Secretary did not bother to dispute the appalling number. She said “we think the price [the giant juvenile death toll in Iraq that is] is worth it”—for the advance of inherently noble U.S. foreign policy goals. As Albright explained three years later, “The United States is good. We try to do our best everywhere.” Talk about the savage “heart of darkness.”
“Then Thirty-Five People Are Going To Die”
What is the moral difference between cutting off some contractors’ and/or journalists heads and killing everyone in a house in the hope of killing just one officially, that is presidentially, targeted “terrorists”? A military source told journalist and author Jeremy Scahill about a standard Special Forces kill operation in the Age of Obama: “If there’s one person they’re going after and there’s thirty-four [other] people in the building, then 35 people are going to die.” There’s the “language of force” at high decibel.
And what is the moral difference between chopping the heads of some contractors and an illustrative incident in the U.S. war on/of terror that occurred in the first week of May 2009. That’s when U.S. air-strikes killed more than 140 civilians in Bola Boluk, a village in western Afghanistan’s Farah Province. Ninety-three of the dead villagers torn apart by U.S. explosives were children. The dark- hearted Obama administration refused to issue an apology or to acknowledge U.S. responsibility.
Reaching back further into the long chronology of U.S. imperial arrogance and criminality, what’s the moral difference between the ISIS decapitations that have so riled Washington and U.S. major media and public opinion this late summer and early fall and the aerial massacre of thousands of retreating and surrendered troops in Iraq during the one-sided imperial slaughter that U.S. history books call “the First Persian Gulf War?” I am referring to the infamous “Highway of Death,” when the U.S. military slaughtered surrendered Iraqi conscripts withdrawing from Kuwait on February 26 and 27, 1991. The Lebanese-American journalist Joyce Chediac, testified that, “U.S. planes trapped the long convoys by disabling vehicles in the front, and at the rear, and then pounded the resulting traffic jams for hours. ‘It was like shooting fish in a barrel,’ said one U.S. pilot. On the sixty miles of coastal highway, Iraqi military units sit in gruesome repose, scorched skeletons of vehicles and men alike, black and awful under the sun…it was simply a one-sided massacre of tens of thousands of people who had no ability to fight back or defend. ”
This great testament to “Western civilization” and U.S. benevolence—the “heart of darkness” on mass-homicidal steroids—was the orgiastic culmination of “Operation Desert Storm,” on which the Obama administration has sought to model its anti-ISIS coalition and airwar.
Massive Muslim “Bug-splat”
One difference between the mass U.S. and Israeli killings just recounted and the ISIS killings of two U.S. journalists is a matter of scale. The recent theatrical ISIS beheadings are tiny drops of murder compared to the giant river of blood generated by Israel (with U.S. planes and helicopters) and above all the U.S. in the Middle East. As Obama claims to care that ISIS kills Muslims as well as Christians and others in the Middle East, nobody has killed and maimed more Muslims and ordinary people in the region than the United States. The number of unnatural deaths caused by U.S. attacks and sanctions in Iraq since 1990 certainly exceeds two million and may go as high as 3.3 million (including 750,000 children). The deadly havoc wreaked by “good” Uncle Sam is difficult to fathom, in all honesty. Fallujah was just one especially graphic episode in a broader arch-criminal invasion that left Iraq “a disaster zone on a catastrophic scale hard to match in recent memory” (Tom Engelhardt, Tom Dispatch.com, January 17, 2008). According to the respected journalist Nir Rosen, in December 2007, “Iraq has been killed…the American occupation has been more disastrous than that of the Mongols who sacked Baghdad in the thirteenth century” (Current History, December 2007).
Another distinction has to do with target selection. ISIS picked out two U.S. journalists for a very specific propagandistic purpose. The U.S. and Israel kill Muslims and others in the Middle East indiscriminately, treating thousands of “collaterally” killed and maimed Arab and Muslim victims as nothing more than “bug-splat” (a candid and elite U.S. military terms for Muslim civilians who die in U.S. military operations) and “grass” (murderously “mowed” by the IDF on a recurrent basis).
Some interesting context for something Obama liked to say on the campaign trail the year of his first election to the U.S. presidency: “it’s time to stop spending billions of dollars a week trying to put Iraq back together and start spending the money putting [the U.S. of] America back together.” Heart of darkness, indeed.
No Private Ransom Allowed
SIXTH, hard as it might seem to swallow, the White House wanted ISIS to behead James Foley. The Administration threatened Foley’s parents with prosecution if they tried to raise money to purchase their son’s life. Now, of course, and let’s be candid here, the world’s biggest Mafia don, the U.S. Empire, might have paid $2.3 million in blood money to free the accused CIA killer Raymond Davis from Pakistan in March 2011, but it can’t be seen paying ransom to some new upstart thugs on the regional block like ISIS. But why block the Foley family and private funders from trying to save Foley’s life? “Cynical” observers can be forgiven for guessing that the White House desired some gruesome prime-time dramatics to justify its pre-existing decision to attack ISIS, whose recent stunning military and territorial gains threaten, as Glen Ford notes, “to consume the kings, Emirs, and Sultans the U.S. depends on to keep the Empire’s oil safe” (Black Agenda Report, August 26, 2014).
SEVENTH, the escalation that Obama has ordered in the wake of Foley’s beheading promises to feed Middle Eastern jihadism—and (key point) that is precisely why ISIS released its murderous video, daring Obama to respond with force. As Engelhardt observes, ISIS militants share Osama bin-Laden’s sophisticated understanding of how U.S. escalation fuels jihadism: “Don’t consider [ISIS’] taunting video of James Foley’s execution the irrational act of madmen blindly calling down the destructive force of the planet’s last superpower on themselves… Behind it lay rational calculation. ISIS’s leaders surely understood that American air power would hurt them, but they knew as well that… Washington’s full-scale involvement would also infuse their movement with greater power. (This was Osama bin Laden’s most original insight.)…ISIS was undoubtedly trying to bait the Obama administration into a significant intervention” (TomDispatch, September 2, 2014).
What We Do
EIGHTH, as they watch the one-time Winter Soldier turned agent of imperial war, John Kerry, hold hands with Arab princes and sultans, U.S. citizens should reflect on how “our” alliance with Middle Eastern despots feeds jihadist sentiments. Along with its blank-check backing of Israel, the placement of imperial military forces near Muslim holy sites, the mass murder of Muslims and the constant U.S. extraction and (even more significant) control of Middle Eastern oil wealth, Washington’s longstanding and transparently petro-imperial arming, funding, and protection of crooked and tyrannical Muslim states has long contributed to widespread hatred of the U.S. across the region. The jihadists are not advocates of popular democracy or anything close to that, of course, but they have long sought (for their own religious and political reasons) to overthrow the despotic regimes the U.S. sponsors in the Arab world along with the hated “Zionist enemy” Israel. This is something that the top CIA analyst and al Qaeda expert Michael Scheuer tried to tell U.S.-of-Americans in his 2004 book Imperial Hubris. Scheurer’s volume was dedicated to the elementary observation that al Qaeda (of which ISIS is a spin-off) hated the U.S. not because of who it is (purportedly a land of freedom, democracy, religious toleration, and women’s rights) but because of what it does in the Middle East. By Scheurer’s’ account:
“Blustering political rhetoric ‘informs’ the public that the Islamists are offended by the Western world’s democratic freedoms, civil liberties, inter-mingling of genders, and separation of church and state. However, although aspects of the modern world may offend conservative Muslims, no Islamist leader has fomented jihad to destroy participatory democracy, for example, the national association of credit unions, or coed universities…. Instead, a growing segment of the Islamic world strenuously disapproves of specific U.S. policies and their attendant military, political, and economic implications…. Osama bin Laden’s genius lies not simply in calling for jihad, but in articulating a consistent and convincing case that Islam is under attack by America. Al-Qaeda’s public statements condemn America’s protection of corrupt Muslim regimes, unqualified support for Israel, the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan, and a further litany of real-world grievances. Bin Laden’s supporters…will go to any length, not to destroy our secular, democratic way of life, but to deter what they view as specific attacks on their lands, their communities, and their religion.”
Ten years later, Scheurer’s warning goes unheeded. Osama bin-Laden may have been taken out in a much U.S.-celebrated, though quite reckless and criminal, Special Forces raid, but “anti-American” Islamic jihad lives on, tied now to an actual territorial caliphate, and fueled by a U.S. imperial jihad—a veritable effort to construct something like a U.S. caliphate—in the region after 9/11. Once again, the U.S. public is told that the vicious Islamist enemy is driven to “hate us” because of “who we are” (supposedly free, democratic, and tolerant) when in reality the main factor is what “we” (U.S. policymakers) do to the Middle East.
NINTH, there is real danger that the U.S. escalation against ISIS (and other jihadist forces) will unleash a deadly logic of expansion. As Cooke explains, “‘mission creep’ is easily predictable because Obama’s main strategy to fight ISIS is to arm the [‘moderate’] rebels who are fighting the Syrian government. The rebels are more interested in fighting Assad than fighting their ideological cousins…investing in the Syrian rebels is likely an investment in a longer-term war against the Syrian government. Now that the U.S. Congress approved $500 million in funding for the Syrian rebels, the U.S. is more likely to ‘come to their defense’ if they engage in a large battle with the Syrian government.” Expansion into a war against Syria and perhaps Iran and even Russia is not a disastrous consequence to be taken lightly.
Americans who want to advance freedom, democracy, justice and security in the world should start in “the homeland.” The U.S. is an ever more openly oligarchic state where the top 100 percent owns more wealth than the bottom 90 percent and a probably comparable share of the nation’s “democratically elected” officials.
The intimately interrelated problems of domestic plutocracy, inequality, mass poverty, and ecocide are only and always deepened by war and militarism. The Pentagon System (the world’s leading polluter) and its campaigns abroad serve to further concentrate wealth and power iwhile burning and wasting vast quantities of planet-heating fossil fuel, feeding authoritarian nationalism, stealing resources required for social welfare, and diverting the public’s focus from poverty and inequality at home to enemies abroad—enemies largely of “our” own imperial creation.
U.S.-of-Americans serious about confronting threats to security would do well to focus on the plutocratic power of the giant fossil fuel corporations and their lobbyists. As the national media obsesses over Islamist be-headers and mythical Russian “expansionists,” it is apparent that humanity is headed for an epic disaster, resulting from its seemingly unstoppable addiction to fossil fuels.
Big Carbon and the broader capitalist system—of which it is a key component—are pushing the species (and countless other sentient beings) over an environmental cliff as Washington undertakes another military escalation in a region where its imperial footprint has always been and remains primarily about the control of oil and gas—the very substances whose grotesque, profit-driven over-extraction and burning promise to close off prospects for a decent future.
Paul Street is an author and activist in Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1 percent v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).