Where Chaos is King

Who Benefits from Disorder in the Middle East?

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Within twenty-four hours, on October 16-17, the New York Times ran three stories about the threat increasing chaos posed to emerging, still fragile political orders in Iraq, Palestine, and the Sudan. In all three cases, the chaos afflicting these societies was described as an unintentional and negative consequence of ill-conceived policies put in place by the various governments involved: the U.S. in Iraq, Israel as it withdrew from Gaza, and the Sudanese Government as it finally tried to restrain marauding Janjaweed militias in Darfur. In no case was the chaos viewed as intentional or beneficial to one or more of the forces competing for control of these countries.

The U.S. occupation of Iraq in particular has been judged a failure by its critics almost from the start because of the chaos it has generated. Even with the approval of the constitution, “experts” are arguing that, as long as American and other foreign troops remain in Iraq, the situation “will become more chaotic,” or in the words of Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, will continue to “destabilize the Middle East.”

Of course, only angry, irrational Arabs — in this case, Sunnis — could desire such a state of affairs. As the Project for a New American Century’s Gary Schmitt wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, they “could well believe that the resulting chaos and even occasional death of a neighbor or a member of his extended family is a price worth paying for a return to Sunni ascendancy.” Similarly, last week Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that “the enemy’s strategy is to infect, terrorize and pull down.”

The tolerance for disorder, it seems, is a clear sign of an archaic Muslim mentality at work. As a Marine spokesperson explained recently, after a deadly attack on American forces, “The insurgents are against progress and only desire a return to the ways of the seventh century.” No less a personage than Tony Blair was in agreement. Al-Qa’eda, he claimed, is engaged in a “premedieval religious war utterly alien to the future of humankind,” whose goal, according to his friend George Bush, is to “establish a radical Islamic empire that spans from Spain to Indonesia.” Our goal is order. The urge to create chaos is not only pre-modern, it’s inherently theirs.

The problem with this narrative is that the neoconservatives, who were primarily responsible for launching the war on terror as well as the invasion and occupation of Iraq, have by and large not viewed chaos in this manner. For them, chaos has been not just an inevitable consequence of globalization, but a phenomenon that might be well used to further their long-term agenda of remaking the Middle East in America’s image. Indeed, as they saw it, it was only natural for the world’s first true hyperpower to adopt a historically well-tested policy of “creative destruction.” Their goal, as explained in the now famous comment of an anonymous administration official, was to “create our own reality” wherever we tread. (“We’re history’s actors,” he continued, “and all of you will be left to just study what we do.”)

Such a comment might seem the height of Bush administration hubris alone, if it hadn’t also reflected the avant-garde of American business thinking of the previous decade or more. In his 1988 book Thriving on Chaos, for instance, business guru Tom Peters argued that Americans must “take the chaos as given and learn to thrive on it. The winners of tomorrow will deal proactively with chaos? Chaos and uncertainty are? market opportunities for the wise.”

The advice of Peters and of the Pentagon was taken to heart by scholars and policymakers like Paul Wolfowitz, Samuel Huntington, and Robert Kaplan, who in the mid-1990s began writing of a “new cold war” or “clash of civilizations” between Islamism and neoliberalism across an “arc of instability” stretching from sub-Saharan Africa to Central Asia. Specifically, post-Cold War experiences in Bosnia, Haiti, Rwanda, and elsewhere in Africa called for an organized effort to figure out how the United States could best “manage the chaos” that the coming global “anarchy” was certain bring.

Similarly, the World Bank argued in a 1995 report that modernizing the Middle East might well necessitate a “shake-down period” before the region could even begin adapting to the new global economic order. Some neocon intellectuals believed that the best way to manage such a moment was to bring it on, to provoke a level of chaos that would be but the prologue to a new, American-style world order. (In keeping with that spirit, “Shock and Awe” made its debut in Iraq in March 2003, a level of force whose very intention was to create chaos, however short-lived it may have been expected to be.)

In this same vein, Exxon-Mobil, Halliburton, and Lockheed Martin leaped to take advantage of the market opportunities presented by post-September 11 chaos. In doing so, they helped turn the “breadth economy” of the 1990s, in which many sectors grew at a sustained rate, into the “depth economy” of the new millennium, in which core “old” industries like oil, defense, and heavy engineering regained a disproportionate share of corporate profits — a position they are unlikely to relinquish as long as chaos remains king in the global political economy.

A less Pollyanna-ish view of the coming chaos was expressed in Vision for 2020, the mission statement of the U.S. Strategic Space Command (published in 2000). Globalization, that document suggested, was producing a global zero-sum game of winners and losers. In such a context, Americans must prepare to do whatever it might take to “win,” including, of course, dominating space in order to “protect US interests and investment.” What the Space Command didn’t mention, though it has since become a predominant concern of the Bush Administration (as the secret files of the Cheney Energy Task Force reveal) is how the expected arrival of the era of “peak oil” and the levels of global energy chaos sure to accompany it have exponentially increased the stakes involved in controlling Iraq’s immense oil reserves. Growing competition with an energy-thirsty China and, to a lesser extent, the European Union has only amplified this concern, and helped produce a situation where the blowback potential from the invasion and long-term occupation of Iraq seemed, at least on paper, well worth the risk.

Playing the Chaos Card in Iraq

Given the chaos and violence currently afflicting much of Arab Iraq, particularly its Sunni regions, it is hard to imagine that the Bush Administration intended such an outcome to its long-awaited invasion and occupation. Of course, everyone would undoubtedly have cheered if the immediate post-invasion chaos had quickly given way to a free-market democratic paradise along the Tigris. But while significant parts of the chaos in Iraq have resulted from rank incompetence (or perhaps a total lack of concern with the consequences of the policies set in place), some of it can still be viewed as serving the interests of Bush administration policy desires, albeit at great cost. Even with the blowback from the chaos Bush has unleashed now creeping towards Karl Rove’s office in the White House and beginning to encircle Vice President Cheney, we need to consider what other means this administration might have used to achieve three of its most important goals in Iraq:

Its first goal has long been to retain a (much reduced) military presence in that country for the foreseeable future. The administration is on record as saying that it will leave if asked to do so; but the continuing chaos and conflict, largely sparked by the continued presence of U.S. troops, ensure that the desperately weak government in Baghdad’s Green Zone, which is unlikely to survive without American protection, won’t make such a request. Its second goal is to ensure a predominant role for U.S. companies in the development, production, and sale of the country’s vast reservoirs of oil. Indeed, the few documents made public from the Cheney Energy Task Force revealed that concern over losing Iraq to European oil companies, combined with China’s insatiable thirst for petroleum and fears that it would increasingly encroach on America’s sphere of economic dominance, were important reasons for the war. If the world really has entered an era of zero-sum competition over its remaining oil supplies, Iraq is a prize worth shedding a lot of blood to secure — and chaos, whatever the ensuing pain, a strategy potentially worth pursuing.

The administration’s final goal has been to continue the wholesale, disastrous privatization of Iraq’s economy ? something that, as the World Bank warned, was unlikely to be accepted by the people of any Middle Eastern country who possessed the wherewithal to resist. It is obviously harder for people to resist when their lives have been thrown into chaos. In fact, most of the Middle East has avoided succumbing to American pressures to adopt the kind of large-scale, structural-adjustment reforms that have spread increased poverty and inequality across the global south. As key members of the Bush administration saw the matter, Iraq could do for neoliberalism in the Middle East what Chile did for it in Latin America.

The vast majority of Iraqis are, of course, opposed to each of these goals. Yet the constitution on which they just voted — being essentially an American-brokered document — carefully avoided addressing any of these concerns. It is hard to imagine that such an end would have been possible in a more peaceful environment where Iraqis had the public space and time to debate these important issues, particularly when polling shows that upwards of 80% of them are opposed to the presence of U.S. troops and to the policies they are enforcing.

Perhaps Juan Cole has best summarized how and why chaos has become a defining dynamic in Iraq: “Iraq was,” he said recently, “like a treasure in a strongbox? The obvious thing to do was to take a crowbar and strike off the strongbox lock.”

Learning from the Israelis (as Usual)

If such planned chaos was limited to Iraq, we could perhaps see it as an aberration rather than part of the larger dynamics of contemporary globalization. But research on countries from Africa to the former Soviet Union has demonstrated that chaos — whether the “instrumentalized disorder” in sub-Saharan Africa or the “bardok” of Central Asia — defines political life across an increasingly large “arc of instability” stretching across three continents. Palestine is a particularly good example of how chaos, or “fawda” as Palestinians term it, can serve the political interests of an occupying power.

It has long been an open secret that the U.S. conducted extensive training with the help of the Israeli Defense and Security forces to prepare for the urban warfare and interrogation practices of Iraq. While discussing the best way to ram through walls and “interrogate” suspected insurgents, it’s not unlikely that the Israelis shared their experiences fomenting chaos to wear down Palestinian society, particularly since the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada and the demise of the Oslo negotiations.

As argues Israeli social scientist Gershon Baskin, Ariel Sharon’s policy of unilateralism in response to the failure of negotiations has made sense to the majority of Israelis largely because they see the “total chaos” across the West Bank and the “rule of the gun” in newly “liberated” Gaza as demonstrating that “the PA is too weak to rule” an independent Palestine, or even to negotiate its establishment. What few Israelis sharing this position consider, however, is how Israeli policies have systematically created the very chaos that is now used as the excuse for engaging in unilateral steps such as withdrawing from Gaza while cementing — literally — Israeli control over much of the West Bank.

Yet the roots of Israel’s strategy of chaos do not lie in the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada in September 2000, or in the autocratic and corrupt policies of Yasser Arafat. Rather they go back to 1994 — the same year that Paul Wolfowitz, then a dean at the Johns Hopkins University, held a conference on the “coming anarchy.” It was then that the Paris protocols to the Oslo Agreements were signed. These agreements, rarely mentioned in discussions of why Oslo failed, locked Palestinians into a catastrophic neoliberalized relationship with Israel for the remainder of the Oslo process. This happened just at the moment when Israel more or less permanently closed the Occupied Territories. Aside from a few industries run by Palestinians with ties to Israel, this nearly destroyed what was then a modest but growing Palestinian economy, led to a creeping but disastrous emigration of the country’s middle class, and ultimately helped create a “severely depressed? devastated” economy that, in the words of the 2004 Palestine Human Development Report, was “ripe for corruption.”

It is in the context of the ensuing decade-plus of chaos engulfing Gaza and the West Bank that we must read the recent flood of editorials by American and Israel pundits offering advice in advance of the coming Palestinian elections on how the United States and Israel can help bolster the “authority” of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. As with Iraq’s insurgents, a combination of religious fanatics (that is, Hamas) and “clans” and “tribes” are described as increasingly ruling a situation in which “there is no law.” And because they are depicted as the fountainhead of the chaos afflicting Palestine, Israeli “liberals” such as former Israeli General Ephraim Sneh can safely argue that Hamas is a “greater threat” to Palestinians even than to Israel.

What makes this discourse so interesting is how well it has served its purpose: With the chaos and violence of the intifada having plunged the Palestinian economy “into deep crisis,” with poverty rates in the population above 50%, the most recent poll of Palestinian attitudes reveals that the idea of ending the Israeli occupation of the West Bank has become a distant dream, a fate the Bush administration hopes will be replicated when it comes to the idea of an America-free Iraq.

In one of his periodic attempts to bolster public support for the occupation, President Bush offered the following ad-style summary of American policy in Iraq: “As Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” This may be easy to say but it will remain exceedingly difficult for Iraqis to stand up as long as America looms over them in a whirl of chaos. Chaos-as-policymaking is a perilous undertaking, even for the globe’s lone superpower. In the end, the chaos unleashed across Iraq by Washington might just topple America’s latest imperial incarnation. For now, however, neither the Bush administration, nor chaos is likely to be a stranger to Iraq.

Mark LeVine, professor of modern Middle Eastern history, culture, and Islamic studies at the University of California at Irvine, is the author of a new book, Why They Don’t Hate Us: Lifting the Veil on the Axis of Evil (Oneworld Publications, 2005). His website is www.culturejamming.org

Copyright 2005 Mark LeVine

This piece first appeared, with an introduction by Tom Engelhardt, at Tomdispatch.com.


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