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The Imperial Gamble

Rayan El-Amine
Date Published: 
April 01, 2007

At every juncture in its Middle East policy, the US has opted to escalate and use military might to regain control of a quagmire of its own making. This has not only been the direction that the US has chosen in Iraq, but also with Iran. Despite the continuing disaster in Iraq—where over 1,000 Iraqis died in just one week in February and the highest 3-month death toll of US troops was recently surpassed—Bush has decided to increase the troops in Iraq by 20,000 and continue a pattern of confrontation, provocation, and militarism as its sole policy in the Middle East. The administration’s proposed annual military budget (including the current wars) is over $770 billion—more than $2 billion a day—reflecting a commitment to use military interventions to overcome any challenge to its interests.

The likelihood of a US military confrontation with Iran is becoming more real every day. The saber rattling against Iran has been accompanied by alarmist declarations about Iran’s nuclear intentions and fabrications about its direct military involvement in Iraq against US troops. But the US has also used the classic colonial strategy of divide-and-conquer to weaken its foes regionally, including Iran. The US has done this by pitting Sunnis against Shias in countries like Lebanon and Iraq and by dividing Palestinian factions against each other. These tactics are being employed by the US in order to isolate its current nemesis in the region, Iran, and at the same time to assure a fractured region that can never unite and thus will remain vulnerable to US manipulation.

The latest twin strategies of escalation and divide-and-conquer carry tremendous risks and assure instability for the people of the region. The US policies have fostered an environment of internal strife and the potential for regional war. In Lebanon and Palestine there have been previews of how bloody and destructive civil war will be in those countries—as if the example of Iraq is not enough.

But the military escalation and the divide-and-conquer strategies are also precarious for the US. First, there is always the potential for things to spin out of their control, as they have in Iraq. The other risk is that the US will bet on the wrong horse as they did in the Lebanon-Israel war this past summer. In order to improve the odds, the US has backed up their bets with money and weapons for puppet leaders who back the US agenda. In Palestine, $86 million was requested by Bush to back up US-compliant President Abbas and his security militia. In Lebanon, most of the over $700 million that the US promised at a donor conference in Paris will go to the military and internal security services controlled by pro-US forces in the Lebanese government.

Rami Khouri, who writes for the Daily Star in Lebanon, said that the US is gambling again with its policies in the region: “They have transformed the Middle East from an arena of traditional big-power confrontations to an ideological casino where a single superpower rolls the dice every few years—testing out half-baked new theories based on wild assumptions, a largely failed track record, and highly unpredictable odds.”

The chips for this gambling by the US have been predominately the lives of Iraqis, Palestinians, Lebanese, and occasionally US soldiers. In Lebanon this past summer, the US wagered that Israel could deal an indirect blow to Iran by taking out Iranian-supported Hezbollah. The US encouraged the Israeli war against Lebanon, assuming that Israel could achieve victory in a few days. The US provided political cover and weapons during the 34-day war, which ended up being a military failure for Israel and a political disaster for the already-hated US government in the region. Hezbollah and its leader became heroes in the Arab world and the US got another black eye.

But the war with Israel also came at a high cost to the Lebanese, as an unrestrained Israel killed over 1200 civilians (a third of them children), devastated the Lebanese infrastructure, bombed tens of thousands of homes, and dropped US-made cluster bombs all over the south of the country. Lebanon’s political leadership unfortunately also fell into the trap of sectarian division that the US and Israel had laid for them.

The war in Lebanon this summer was a US proxy war against Iran which is seen as a major threat to US hegemony in the region. In addition to drumming up fear about an imminent Iranian nuclear bomb, the US has sounded alarms about Iran’s increased influence in the region. The administration and the usual propagandists have painted a picture of a rising anti-Western pro-Iranian Shia Crescent that cuts clear across the Middle East. When in reality, the Shia awakening has much more to do with an overdue correction in the balance of power by disenfranchised Shias in their respective counties. The Shias in Iraq represent 60 percent of the population and in Lebanon Shias are the largest sect in the country, yet in both countries, Shias have historically been politically and economically marginalized. No doubt Iran will try to benefit from their increased power; however these Shia uprisings are localized phenomena and not an Iranian conspiracy.

Furthermore, the US strategy of having a Sunni Arab alliance that includes Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan against Iran is somewhat misguided. Despite all of the fear mongering and propaganda being perpetrated against Iran by the US, most Arabs consider the US and Israel as the biggest threats to the region. In a recent extensive survey of Arabs in six countries by Zogby International, only 6 percent saw Iran as the biggest threat to the region while approximately 80 percent considered the US and Israel as the two biggest external threats to their security. The poll also showed that Bush has replaced Sharon as the most disliked world leader and that Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is now the most admired. Even in Lebanon, which recently endured a brutal war waged by Israel, Bush got more than twice as many votes for most disliked world leader as Israel’s Prime Minister Olmert.

Fear of the US is also felt by Iranians, where the US threat is justifiably seen as more immediate and more real. The US military is surrounding Iran—literally. There are US occupation troops on Iran’s border to the east in Afghanistan; on its border to the west in Iraq; and on its shores to the south in the Persian Gulf where there are two US aircraft carriers. Also, further to the north, US air bases in Turkey and Uzbekistan and US bases in Qatar and Bahrain to the south all situated in easy range for military operations against Iran. It is clear that the US is trying to provoke a confrontation with Iran because it has little political support at home to initiate an attack. There is also a possibility that the US will justify an attack on Iran as an extension to the war in Iraq by connecting the Iranian government to the resistance in Iraq.

Within Iran, US policies and the current threat to the country have made religious conservatives stronger not weaker. Conservatives in Iran have used the nuclear program to bolster popular appeal and as posturing against the US; yet, much of this military bravado by its leader Ahmadinejad is not based in reality. According to the majority of experts, Iran is years away from having the capacity to produce a nuclear weapon, if it will ever be able to do so at all. Its current conventional weapons are no match to the US or even Israel which has hinted that it might strike Iran first. Kaveh Ehasani, an Iran expert, wrote in a recent MERIP article, “Iran’s conventional military capabilities are those of a third or even fourth rate power, unable to threaten its much smaller neighbors let alone the US military.”

The political turmoil today in the Middle East is being driven by US neocolonial policies, but is also a continuation of a traumatic colonial past. The legacy of the previous imperial powers in the region has created some very dysfunctional and illegitimate governments which rely on world powers like the US for survival and are vulnerable to sectarian infighting—Iraq is the perfect example. When the British took the area which is now Iraq after World War I, they decided to draw Iraq’s borders to include oil wells in the north with oil wells in the south. It mattered little to the British that the Kurdish north would therefore have to somehow create an artificial state with the Arab south. Winston Churchill, who participated in the remapping of the region in the 1920s, once boasted that he drew the borders of Jordan one fine afternoon and still had time to paint the views in Jerusalem.

Not much has changed in terms of strategies from the old European to new US colonial powers. Divide and conquer, war and occupation, puppets and dictators, racism and propaganda, exploitation and oppression—all are being used today to push the interests of the US at the cost of the interests and lives of the people of the Middle East. It seems that the birth of the “New Middle East” will be no less traumatic than that of the colonial Middle East after World War I.

The US is at the center of all of the current conflicts in the region—a military behemoth sitting on top of Middle East today causing death and destruction every time it moves. The US government seems committed to keeping the Middle East a mess until its tenuous position improves. The legacy of US policies will have negative consequences for generations in places like Iraq. We have history to show us how traumatic British and French imperialism was for people in the region. Furthermore, the propaganda of war and fear mongering about Iran is very familiar to those who followed the lead up to the current war on Iraq. No one should forget that very recent history or underestimate the arrogance, ignorance, or belligerence of this administration—no one in the Middle East does, neither should we in this country.