Unusual times require unusual interpretation. At a time when Western disdain of the Arab and Islamic worlds, often poorly understood and misinterpreted, is presented as civilized discourse, it is refreshing to read a counter argument based on scholarly historical analysis and balanced judgments without the usual tirades against the West that seem to characterize the recent works of many Arab writers and thinkers.
Aware of the vastness of the subject he attempts to tackle within the relatively limited space of some 300 pages, Adel S. Bishtawi skips the mandatory introduction in his new book, Manifest Destiny of Imperial Decline – A History of American Injustice, and swiftly sets about raising the historical curtain on the scene in present-day war-torn Iraq, before embarking on a detailed chronology of US military and political interventions in the Middle East since the 1950s. In the opening pages of his new book, Bishtawi makes it clear that his historical and geopolitical analysis is based to a certain extent on American and other Western sources. The book, nevertheless, casts bright light on shadowy US policies that have contributed greatly to the political, cultural and economic malaise afflicting the Arab World:
“The aim of this book is not to detail the main elements of the American strategy that was initiated by the invasion of Iraq. That strategy is no secret and any researcher can examine it using the abundant documents and studies on the subject available to the public. The aim is to project the repercussions of the failure of the US to achieve the first element of this strategy (control over Iraq), which has inevitably resulted in the complete failure of its greater strategy to reign supreme over the world.” (Page 10)
The Iraq war will surely keep historians busy for the next several decades, and most probably even longer. The historian’s judgment of this war is necessarily subjective as it is an ongoing conflict, and its unparalleled importance is not in doubt. Bishtawi goes further than any other historian in claiming that the Iraq war, because of its repercussions, is not only one of the two most important wars in the Middle East thus far (the other being the July 2006 Israel-Hizbollah war), but the most important war since World War II and probably one of the most decisive events in modern history:
“As the Iraq war entered its fourth year, a massive amount of information was available to researchers, yet it remains one of the most complex and divisive wars in modern history. This complexity can be partially mitigated by identifying the numerous aims of the war. Only then does it become clear that the Iraq war is not a single war but a multiplicity of wars being fought at the same time to achieve totally different goals.” (Page 20)
One notable conclusion drawn early in the book is the incredible irony of this abnormal conflict. Bishtawi believes that the first step to liberating a country under occupation is for the occupied to liberate themselves from fear of their occupiers. One of the quickest ways to rid oneself of fear is to see it on the face of his tormentor. The fear instilled in the hearts and minds of Iraqis following the ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign that preceded the invasion began to dissipate as the resistance to their American and British occupiers intensified. By June 2003, the Iraqis had begun to notice fear on the faces of superior foreign troops under constant, unrelenting, lethal attack. Suddenly, the supposed military invincibility of the US became no more than a myth in the eyes of many Iraqis and the resistance against foreign troops became widespread and increasingly effective, as did violence against US-aligned Iraqis. Soon afterwards, other Arabs were liberated by the Iraqis of their fear of the US and subsequently of their fear of Arab dictators who have been oppressing them for the past 60 years with considerable aid and support from some Western powers, particularly the US. As the war ground on, a decisive American victory became even more illusionary, and millions more Iraqis and other Arabs began to shed their previous perceptions of the US. The discrepancy between the principles of the US they were brought up to know were starkly contrasted with the behavior of their troops who seemed to belong to the old era of colonization and imperialism.
The child and the emperor
Sometime in mid-2003 the Iraqi child shouted out that the emperor had no clothes. Suddenly, everybody noticed and concurred. Other nations outside the Arab and Muslim world were liberated of their fear of the US, from Russia and China to numerous Latin American countries, Africa and even European nations that opposed the war such as France and Germany. Could China have threatened the US in 2007 with the US dollar ‘nuclear option’ had the US achieved total victory in Iraq? Could Russian President Vladimir Putin dare confront the US with enhanced nuclear deterrence and assertive military policies had he not been encouraged, amongst other factors, by the miring of the US in Iraq? Even Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is challenging his superpower neighbour, in addition to frequently hurling explicit abuse at his American counterpart. This, serious as it is, could be the beginning of a cataclysmic chain-reaction in international affairs. Bishtawi explains:
“Notwithstanding the military outcome in Iraq, the failure of the US strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is likely to lead to a speedy and prolonged economic decline coupled with the re-structuring of global politics towards a multipolar international system. The US is likely to lose the self-nominated unipolar status it attained following the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, and suffer a dramatic downsizing in its supreme global standing, as a more integrated Europe will rise alongside China and Russia.”
Those closely watching the unfolding crisis in Iraq may be excused if they get the impression that the American administration is preparing for a speedy exit and a permanent presence at the same time. Military ‘surges’ are planned alongside withdrawal strategies, and the staunch determination to safeguard the geographical integrity of occupied Iraq has been coupled with Congressional recommendations to dismember the country into three parts. Bishtawi is obviously aware of these contradictions and he offers an explanation in Chapter 4: Suez and Iraq. He draws on a number of striking similarities between the Suez Crisis of 1956 that involved the UK, France and Israel attacking Egypt, and the present crisis in Iraq.
The author cites a number of reasons for the beginning of the end of the British Empire in the 1950s but accords the failure to re-subjugate Egypt a vital role. As with the Americans in Iraq, the Egyptians and other Arabs were pleasantly surprised at the failure of their previous colonial rulers to conquer Egypt during the Suez War. They too realized at the time that the British emperor had no clothes. After the disaster of 1956, the British were driven out of Iraq (1958) and later from Aden (1967), then from the Gulf Sheikhdoms in the 1970s. Like the Iraq war, the Suez war was unjust. Injustice has always been the ultimate killer of empires. It still is. President Bush keeps speaking of an ‘imminent’ victory in Iraq and Afghanistan but such are the pronouncements of faith, not reality. It is not just the emperor who has no clothes. Lies are naked too, as are strategies, grand designs and ambitions. Is it possible that Bush fears something he doesn’t want to share with his countrymen or with the world?
“There is an ongoing war in Iraq, so we will avoid astrology and follow the advice of Machiavelli by consulting the past in order to foresee the future. Fifty years ago, Anthony Eden concluded that Great Britain couldn’t leave Egypt and remain elsewhere in the Middle East. Bush has also resolved that the US must not be expelled from Iraq in order to protect its ‘interests’ throughout the region. But Bush knows of a far more serious consequence, similar to the one projected by Harold Macmillan, Eden’s successor, who kept it to himself lest he scared other Britons: Great Britain could not leave the Middle East and remain a super power.” (Page 290)
The Utterance of Nations
Jawaharlal Nehru once said: “A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new; when an age ends; and when the soul of a nation long suppressed finds utterance.” Alongside the cold, hard facts presented in this book there is a great deal of positive faith in the future. The bleakness of the present is mitigated by a strong belief that oppression’s days are numbered. The Arabs, according to Bishtawi, are bound to find utterance sooner or later after a long period of suppression at the hands of the US and a few Western supporters of its policies. The catalyst could emerge in Algeria, Iraq, Palestine, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia or any other Arab country that finds utterance at last and passes the test of liberation under the glare of the world. The current corrupt clique of Arab leaders are serving the interests of their masters in Washington, London or Paris and those of their own, but it is not true that the best Arab leaders are already dead and have been for many centuries. It’s a question of situation makes the man, as the song goes.
This is the message of hope that Bishtawi tries to convey even as he chronicles the killing and suffering in the Middle East since the mid-1950s. The future always arrives too soon and the masses will one day be inspired. This, in many ways, is the same message Bishtawi conveyed to the readers of his previous book. During the launch of History of Injustice in the Arab World almost two years ago, he predicted that out of the ashes of the American-lit fires in the Middle East a more determined breed of enlightened Arabs will begin their quest to wrestle control of their destiny from the suffocating grip of the three main powers attempting to dominate the Arab and Islamic Worlds: Bush’s America with the support of certain Western elites, Arab and Muslim dictatorial regimes and the militants.
“Arab dictators represent the Berlin Wall of the Arab World”, he said in a press briefing at the Sharjah International Book Fair. “Like the German wall in 1989, they will come crashing down because the pillars of US foreign policy that have provided them with support for the past 50 years came crashing down in Iraq. US President George W. Bush and his followers may escape paying the moral price that should be exacted upon them for the devastation of Iraq but the greatest price of their failures will be paid by the Arab and Muslim dictators who fought with their protector’s sword and opened the borders of their countries to the invading armies of the US and Great Britain to wreak havoc in another Arab and Muslim country.”
Far too much Arab and Muslim blood has been spilled to safeguard the energy and geopolitical interests of the US in the Arab and Islamic World. Far too much Palestinian blood has been spilt to extract the land Israeli and other Jewish settlers claim to have been bestowed in ancient myths. Far too much misery has been endured by Arabs and Muslims during half a century of Western meddling and interference. Far too many people have been tortured to death, disappeared or killed so Arab and Muslim dictators can remain in power often with both the direct approval and covert support of the US.
The cumulative consequences of US policy in the Arab World are there for all to see. Fifty years of failed US policies in the region have now produced a disaster of apocalyptic proportions. Deception and spin to the very end, we are asked again and again to look at the ‘bright’ side of things. We are told there is free and fair democracy in Iraq; that there is a sovereign constitution; that there is a capable government and that there is a future. But all these ‘achievements’ are mere illusions. Since the invasion in April 2003, Iraq has been plagued by one incompetent administration after another. No wonder that Iraqis who reflect on the chaos and instability around them remember fondly the days under their former dictator Saddam Hussein.
There is too much killing, hunger and misery in America’s Iraq. Like Afghanistan, the country has been torn apart and deeply scarred. Bush’s crusade to eliminate terrorism in the Middle East and beyond has turned into an unprecedented wave of recruitment for those terrorists. The budding democratic movements that thrived in the region five years ago have withered on their vines, and the continual slaughter and hopelessness in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Somalia and beyond seems to have no end in sight. Peace in 2007 is as elusive as ever, and the brave new world we were promised is still the accursed old one of hegemony, chaos and violence.
It was natural for some Arabs and Muslims brutalized by American violence to become brutal themselves, not just towards Americans but also against fellow Arabs and Muslims. People can differentiate between an act of terrorism and an act of resistance. The US itself was born out of a successful resistance movement and the Iraqis are left with no other choice but to resist. But while condemnation is heaped upon the Americans for what they have done in the Middle East, Arabs are not blameless for the tragedies that have befallen them. In a number of ways, they too share the responsibility for the situation they find themselves in:
”No single factor that helped in crowning the US on the world’s economic and monetary throne is more important than Arab oil, and no single factor is more capable in dethroning it than Arab oil. The aim is not to cripple the US but to help it to exorcise itself from its belligerence and teach it to respect other nations, cultures, religions and the rights of other human beings who do not happen to be Americans. This is now necessary if the world wants the US to serve the cause of justice and democracy, not injustice and dictatorship, and to be involved in peace-making rather than terrorism-making Their vast oil wealth has presented the Arabs with a historical opportunity to lead all Muslims toward a new age and pioneer the renewal of Islamic civilization, but this opportunity has not yet been realized. The Islamic world remains backwardRather than enriching the Arab and Islamic civilizations with a new Ibn Sina, Ibn Khaldoun and Averroes, the Arabs have contributed Osama Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, Al-Zarqawi, suicide bombers and experts in explosives, torture and beheading. We are all responsible for this tragic situation – the general public, regimes and intellectuals alike. The hope of the nation does not lie in an organization like Al Qaeda because it does not lie in terrorism. The emphasis by some on such organizations for salvation is nothing but a deliberate invitation for others to occupy the birthplace of the Arab nation, ensure its enslavement, and perpetuate injustice, oppression and tyranny.” (Pages 282-283)
Translated by Samir Rabah