A Trap of Their Own Making

Anatol Lieven

Nineteenth-century empires were often led on from one war to another as a result of developments which imperial governments did not plan and domestic populations did not desire. In part this was the result of plotting by individual ‘prancing proconsuls’, convinced they could gain a reputation at small risk, given the superiority of their armies to any conceivable opposition; but it was also the result of factors inherent in the imperial process.

The difference today is that overwhelming military advantage is possessed not by a set of competing Western states, but by one state alone. Other countries may possess elements of the technology, and many states are more warlike than America; but none possesses anything like the ability of the US to integrate these elements (including Intelligence) into an effective whole, and to combine them with weight of firepower, capacity to transport forces over long distances and national bellicosity. The most important question now facing the world is the use the Bush Administration will make of its military dominance, especially in the Middle East. The next question is when and in what form resistance to US domination over the Middle East will arise. That there will be resistance is certain. It would be contrary to every historical precedent to believe that such a quasi-imperial hegemony will not stir up resentment, which sooner or later is bound to find an effective means of expression.

US domination over the Middle East will, for the most part, be exercised indirectly, and will provoke less grievance than direct administration would, but one likely cause of trouble is the ‘proletarian colonisation’ of Israel – the Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories. Given past experience and the indications now coming from Israel, there is little reason to hope for any fundamental change in Israeli policies. Sharon may eventually withdraw a few settlements – allowing the US Administration and the Israeli lobby to present this as a major concession and sacrifice – but unless there is a tremendous upheaval in both Israeli and US domestic politics, he and his successors are unlikely to offer the Palestinians anything more than tightly controlled bantustans. Palestinian terrorism, Israeli repression and wider Arab and Muslim resentment seem likely to continue for the foreseeable future.

How long it will be before serious resistance grows is hard to tell. In some 19th-century cases, notably Afghanistan, imperial rule never consolidated itself and was overthrown almost immediately by new revolts. In others, it lasted for decades without involving too much direct repression, and ended only after tremendous social, economic, political and cultural changes had taken place not only in the colonies and dependencies but in the Western imperial countries themselves. Any attempt to predict the future of the Middle East must recognise that the new era which began on 11 September 2001 has not only brought into the open certain latent pathologies in American and British society, culture and politics; it has also fully revealed the complete absence of democratic modernisation, or indeed any modernisation, in all too much of the Muslim world.

The fascination and the horror of the present time is that so many different and potentially disastrous possibilities suggest themselves. The immediate issue is whether the US will attack any other state. Or, to put the question another way: will the US move from hegemony to empire in the Middle East? And if it does, will it continue to march from victory to victory, or will it suffer defeats which will sour American public support for the entire enterprise?

For Britain, the most important question is whether Tony Blair, in his capacity as a senior adviser to President Bush, can help to stop US moves in this direction and, if he fails, whether Britain is prepared to play the only role it is likely to be offered in a US empire: that fulfilled by Nepal in the British Empire – a loyal provider of brave soldiers with special military skills. Will the British accept a situation in which their chief international function is to provide auxiliary cohorts to accompany the Roman legions of the US, with the added disadvantage that British cities, so far from being protected in return by the empire, will be exposed to destruction by ‘barbarian’ counter-attacks?

As is clear from their public comments, let alone their private conversations, the Neo-Conservatives in America and their allies in Israel would indeed like to see a long-term imperial war against any part of the Muslim world which defies the US and Israel, with ideological justification provided by the American mission civilisatrice – ‘democratisation’. In the words of the Israeli Major-General Ya’akov Amidror, writing in April under the auspices of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs, ‘Iraq is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is the Middle East, the Arab world and the Muslim world. Iraq will be the first step in this direction; winning the war against terrorism means structurally changing the entire area.’ The Neo-Con model is the struggle against ‘Communism’, which they are convinced was won by the Reaganite conflation of military toughness and ideological crusading. The ultimate goal here would be world hegemony by means of absolute military superiority.

The Neo-Cons may be deluding themselves, however. It may well be that, as many US officials say in private, Bush’s new national security strategy is ‘a doctrine for one case only’ – namely Iraq. Those who take this position can point to the unwillingness of most Americans to see themselves in imperial terms, coupled with their powerful aversion to foreign entanglements, commitments and sacrifices. The Bush Administration may have made menacing statements about Syria, but it has also assured the American people that the US military occupation of Iraq will last 18 months at the very most. Furthermore, if the economy continues to falter, it is still possible that Bush will be ejected from office in next year’s elections. Should this happen, some of the US’s imperial tendencies will no doubt remain in place – scholars as different as Andrew Bacevich and Walter Russell Mead have stressed the continuity in this regard from Bush through Clinton to Bush, and indeed throughout US history. However, without the specific configuration of hardline elements empowered by the Bush Administration, American ambitions would probably take on a less megalomaniac and frightening aspect.

In this analysis, both the grotesque public optimism of the Neo-Con rhetoric about democratisation and its exaggeration of threats to the US stem from the fact that it takes a lot to stir ordinary Americans out of their customary apathy with regard to international affairs. While it is true that an element of democratic messianism is built into what Samuel Huntington and others have called ‘the American Creed’, it is also the case that many Americans have a deep scepticism – healthy or chauvinist according to taste – about the ability of other countries to develop their own forms of democracy.

In the case of Iraq, this scepticism has been increased by the scenes of looting and disorder. In addition, there have been well-publicised harbingers both of incipient ethnic conflict and of strong mass opposition to a long-term US military presence and a US-chosen Iraqi Government. Even the Washington Post, which was one of the cheerleaders for this war in the ‘serious’ American press, and which has not been too anxious to publicise Iraqi civilian casualties, has reported frankly on the opposition to US plans for Iraq among the country’s Shia population in particular.

Even if most Americans and a majority of the Administration want to move to indirect control over Iraq, the US may well find that it has no choice but to exercise direct rule. Indeed, even those who hated the war may find themselves morally trapped into supporting direct rule if the alternative appears to be a collapse into anarchy, immiseration and ethnic conflict. There is a tremendous difference in this regard between Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, the mass of the population has been accustomed to fend for itself with very little help from the state, very little modern infrastructure and for that matter very little formal employment. In these circumstances, it was possible for the US to install a ramshackle pretence of a coalition government in Kabul, with a tenuous truce between its elements held in place by an international peacekeeping force backed by US firepower. The rest of the country could be left in the hands of warlords, clans and ethnic militias, as long as they made their territories open hunting ranges for US troops in their search for al-Qaida. The US forces launch these raids from airbases and heavily fortified, isolated camps in which most soldiers are kept rigidly separated from Afghans.

Doubtless many US planners would be delighted to dominate Iraq in the same semi-detached way, but Iraq is a far more modern society than Afghanistan, and much more heavily urbanised: without elements of modern infrastructure and services and a state to guarantee them, living standards there will not recover. Iraq needs a state; but for a whole set of reasons, it will find the creation of a workable democratic state extremely difficult. The destruction of the Baath regime has involved the destruction of the Sunni Arab military dominance on which the Iraqi state has depended since its creation by the British. Neither the US nor anyone else has any clear idea of what to put in its place (if one ignores the fatuous plan of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to install Ahmad Chalabi as an American puppet and Iraqi strongman). Equally important, the US will not allow the creation of a truly independent state. Ultimately, it may well see itself as having no choice but to create the state itself and remain deeply involved not just in supporting it but in running it, as the British did in Egypt for some sixty years.

Very often – perhaps most of the time – the old imperial powers preferred to exercise control indirectly, through client states. This was far cheaper, far easier to justify domestically and ran far less chance of provoking native revolt. The problem was that the very act of turning a country into a client tended to cripple the domestic prestige of the client regime, and to place such economic, political and moral pressures on it that it was liable to collapse. The imperial power then had the choice of either pulling out (and allowing the area to fall into the hands of enemies) or stepping in and imposing direct control. This phenomenon can be seen from Awadh and Punjab in the 1840s to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1989.

Of course, the threat to imperial client states did not come only from within their own borders. In a world where ethnic, clan, religious and personal loyalties spilled across national boundaries, a power that seized one territory was likely to find itself inexorably drawn to conquering its neighbours. There were always military, commercial or missionary interests to agitate for this expansion, often backed by exiled opposition groups ready to stress that the mass of the population would rejoice in an imperial invasion to bring them to power.

Whatever the Neo-Cons and the Israeli Government may wish, there is I believe no fixed intention on the part of the US Administration to attack either Syria or Iran, let alone Saudi Arabia. What it had in mind was that an easy and crushing US victory over Iraq would so terrify other Muslim states that they would give up any support for terrorist groups, collaborate fully in cracking down on terrorists and Islamist radicals, and abandon their own plans to develop weapons of mass destruction, thereby making it unnecessary for the US to attack them. This applied not only to perceived enemies such as Syria, Iran and Libya, but to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen and other states seen as unreliable allies in the ‘war against terrorism’. If the US restricts itself to this strategy and this goal, it may enjoy success – for a while at least. Several states in the region are clearly running very scared. Moreover, every single state in the region – including Iran – feels under threat from the forces of Sunni Islamist revolution as represented by al-Qaida and its ideological allies; so there is a genuine common interest in combating them.

But for this strategy to work across such a wide range of states and societies as those of the Muslim world, US policymakers would have to display considerable sensitivity and discrimination. These are virtues not usually associated with the Bush Administration, least of all in its present triumphalist mood. The policy is in any case not without its dangers. What happens if the various pressures put on the client regimes cause them to collapse? And what happens if an enemy calls America’s bluff, and challenges it to invade? It is all too easy to see how a new US offensive could result. Another major terrorist attack on the US could upset all equations and incite another wave of mass hysteria that would make anything possible. If, for example, it were once again perceived to have been financed and staffed by Saudis, the pressure for an attack on Saudi Arabia could become overwhelming. The Iranian case is even trickier. According to informed European sources, the Iranians may be within two years of developing a nuclear deterrent (it’s even possible that successful pressure on Russia to cut off nuclear trade would not make any crucial difference). Israel in particular is determined to forestall Iranian nuclear capability, and Israeli commentators have made it clear that Israel will take unilateral military action if necessary. If the US and Israeli Governments are indeed determined to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons, they may not have much time.

The second factor is the behaviour of the Shias of Iraq, and especially of Iranian-backed factions. Leading Shia groups have boycotted the initial discussions on forming a government. If they maintain this position, and if the US fails to create even the appearance of a viable Iraqi government, with disorder spreading in consequence, Iran will be blamed, rightly or not, by powerful elements in Washington. They will use it as an additional reason to strike against Iranian nuclear sites. In response, Tehran might well promote not only a further destabilisation of Iraq but a terrorist campaign against the US, which would in turn provoke more US retaliations until a full-scale war became a real possibility.

Although the idea of an American invasion of Iran is viewed with horror by most military analysts (and, as far as I can gather, by the uniformed military), the latest polls suggest that around 50 per cent of Americans are already prepared to support a war to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. Moreover, the voices of moderation among the military tend to be the same ones which warned – as I did – of the possibility of stiff Iraqi resistance to a US invasion and the dangers of urban warfare in Baghdad, opposed Rumsfeld’s plans to invade with limited numbers of relatively lightly armed troops and felt vindicated in their concern by the initial setbacks around Nasiriya and elsewhere. The aftermath has shown Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld to have been correct in their purely military calculations about Iraq, and this will undoubtedly strengthen them in future clashes with the uniformed military. Rumsfeld’s whole strategy of relying on lighter, more easily transportable forces is, of course, precisely designed to make such imperial expeditions easier.

As for the majority of Americans, well, they have already been duped once, by a propaganda programme which for systematic mendacity has few parallels in peacetime democracies: by the end of it, between 42 and 56 per cent of Americans (the polls vary) were convinced that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the attacks of 11 September. This gave the run-up to the war a peculiarly nightmarish quality in the US. It was as if the full truth about Tonkin Gulf, instead of emerging in dribs and drabs over a decade, had been fully available and in the open the whole time – and the US intervention in Vietnam had happened anyway.

While the special place of Saddam Hussein in American demonology means that this wouldn’t be an easy trick to repeat, the American public’s ignorance of international affairs in general and the Muslim world in particular make it by no means impossible. It isn’t just Fox TV: numerous even more rabid media outlets, the Christian Coalition and parts of the Israeli lobby are all dedicated to whipping up hatred of Arabs and Muslims. More important is the fact that most Americans accept Bush’s equation of terrorism and ‘evil’, which makes it extremely difficult to conduct any serious public discussion of threats from the Muslim world in terms which would be acceptable or even comprehensible to a mass American audience. Add to this the severe constraints on the discussion of the role of Israel, and you have a state of public debate close to that described by Marcuse. If America suffered another massive terrorist attack in the coming years, the dangers would be incomparably greater.

If the plans of the Neo-Cons depended on mass support for imperialism within the US, they would be doomed to failure. The attacks of 11 September, however, have given American imperialists the added force of wounded nationalism – a much deeper, more popular and more dangerous phenomenon, strengthened by the Israeli nationalism of much of the American Jewish community. Another attack on the American mainland would further inflame that nationalism, and strengthen support for even more aggressive and ambitious ‘retaliations’. The terrorists may hope that they will exhaust Americans’ will to fight, as the Vietcong did; if so, they may have underestimated both the tenacity and the ferocity of Americans when they feel themselves to have been directly attacked. The capacity for ruthlessness of the nationalist or Jacksonian element in the American democratic tradition – as in the firebombing of Japan and North Korea, neither of which had targeted American civilians – has been noted by Walter Russell Mead, and was recently expressed by MacGregor Knox, an American ex-soldier, now a professor at the LSE: Europeans ‘may believe that the natural order of things as they perceive it – the restraint of American power through European wisdom – will sooner or later triumph. But such expectations are delusional. Those who find militant Islam terrifying have clearly never seen a militant democracy.’

America could certainly be worn out by a protracted guerrilla struggle on the scale of Vietnam. It seems unlikely, however, that a similar struggle could be mounted in the Middle East – unless the US were to invade Iran, at which point all bets and predictions would be off. Another terrorist attack on the US mainland, using some form of weapons of mass destruction, far from demoralising the US population would probably whip it into chauvinist fury.

To understand why successful guerrilla warfare against the US is unlikely (quite apart from the fact that there are no jungles in the Middle East), it is necessary to remember that the imperial domination made possible by 19th-century Western military superiority was eventually destroyed by three factors: first, the development of military technology (notably such weapons as the automatic rifle, the grenade and modern explosives) which considerably narrowed the odds between Western armies and ‘native’ insurgents. Second, the development of modern ideologies of resistance – Communist, nationalist or a combination of the two – which in turn produced the cadres and structures to organise resistance. Third, weariness on the part of ‘metropolitan’ populations and elites, stemming partly from social and cultural change, and partly from a growing awareness that direct empire did not pay economically.

Guerrilla warfare against the US is now a good deal more difficult because of two undramatic but immensely important innovations: superbly effective and light bullet-proof vests and helmets which make the US and British soldier almost as well protected as the medieval knight; and night-vision equipment which denies the guerrilla the aid of his oldest friend and ally, darkness. Both of these advantages can be countered, but it will be a long time before the odds are narrowed again. Of course, local allies of the US can be targeted, but their deaths are hardly noticed by US public opinion. More and more, therefore, ‘asymmetric warfare’ will encourage a move to terrorism.

The absence or failure of revolutionary parties led by cadres working for mass mobilisation confirms this. The Islamists may alter this situation, despite the disillusioning fate of the Iranian Revolution. But as far as the nationalists are concerned, it has been tried in the past, and while it succeeded in expelling the colonialists and their local clients, it failed miserably to produce modernised states. Algeria is a clear example: a hideously savage but also heroic rebellion against a particularly revolting form of colonialism – which eventually led to such an utterly rotten and unsuccessful independent state that much of the population eventually turned to Islamic revolution.

And now this, too, is discredited, above all in the one major country where it succeeded, Iran. Arab states have failed to develop economically, politically and socially, and they have also failed properly to unite. When they have united for the purposes of war, they have been defeated. Rebellion against the US may take place in Iraq. Elsewhere, the mass response to the latest Arab defeat seems more likely to be a further wave of despair, disillusionment and retreat into private life – an ‘internal emigration’. In some fortunate cases, this may lead to a new Islamist politics focused on genuine reform and democratic development – along the lines of the changes in Turkey. But a cynicism which only feeds corruption and oppression is just as likely a result.

Even if despair and apathy turn out to be the responses of the Arab majority, there will also be a minority which is too proud, too radical, too fanatical or too embittered – take your pick – for such a course. They are the natural recruits for terrorism, and it seems likely that their numbers will only have been increased by the latest American victory. We must fear both the strengthening of Islamist terrorism and the reappearance of secular nationalist terrorism, not only among Palestinians but among Arabs in general. The danger is not so much that the Bush Administration will consciously adopt the whole Neo-Con imperialist programme as that the Neo-Cons and their allies will contribute to tendencies stemming inexorably from the US occupation of Iraq and that the result will be a vicious circle of terrorism and war. If this proves to be the case, then the damage inflicted over time by the US on the Muslim world and by Muslims on the US and its allies is likely to be horrendous. We have already shown that we can destroy Muslim states. Even the most ferocious terrorist attacks will not do that to Western states; but if continued over decades, they stand a good chance of destroying democracy in America and any state associated with it.