Where Chaos Is King (Iraq)
by Mark LeVine
www.tomdispatch.com, October 25,
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 to 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
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
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
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.
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