World War IV

by , January 17, 2006

The neocons have insisted for years that the first shots of what they call “World War IV” have already been fired, and we are in for a new cold war (the previous one was WWIII) that is bound to turn hot. Now Niall Ferguson, the British exponent of a new American Empire, has come up with a scenario in which he envisions how the heavy fire might begin – one that reveals, in its fictionalization of entirely plausible events, all the assumptions and arrogance of a superpower infected with a fatal hubris.

Ferguson’s future history begins as the clouds of war gather on the horizon, and premonitory flashes of lightning illuminate the troubled landscape of the Middle East:

“With every passing year after the turn of the century, the instability of the Gulf region grew. By the beginning of 2006, nearly all the combustible ingredients for a conflict – far bigger in its scale and scope than the wars of 1991 or 2003 – were in place.”

So what caused this eruption? The word “Iraq” is not mentioned until we are well into the middle of Ferguson’s fantasy, and then only to explain why Americans have gone wobbly:

“The invasion of Iraq in 2003 had been discredited by the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction Saddam Hussein had supposedly possessed and by the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to quell a bloody insurgency. Americans did not want to increase their military commitments overseas; they wanted to reduce them.”

Yes, those weak-willed, loose-upper-lip Yankees, who lack the skills – the calculated cruelty, the toffy nosed hypocrisy, the ability to “go native” [.pdf] – to build and maintain an imperial infrastructure: they’re just lazy, and cheapskates to boot. For Ferguson, the roots of this future conflagration have nothing to do with the implosion of the Iraqi state and the outbreak of civil war based on sectarian divisions: it’s only that we “failed to quell” the insurgency, presumably due to a lack of resolve and the requisite bloodthirstiness. Aside from that, the insurgency is a mere detail in Ferguson’s grand mosaic of the Great War’s genesis, which has to do with such macro-economic and geopolitical mega-concepts as the growing importance of petroleum, the inevitable ebb and flow of demographics, and the ideological fervor of “Islamism.”

The effect of all this is to impart an air of inevitability to this coming Great War: after all, the rise in oil prices is due, for the most part, to its growing scarcity. In trying to prevent this war’s outbreak, therefore, one may as well attempt to cap a volcano. So, too, the demography of the Arab world – which imparts to it, according to Ferguson, a potentially deadly and threateningly youthful “vitality,” as opposed to the “senescent” West. The belligerence of those combative Middle Eastern folk – Israel, of course, excepted – is due to a primitive animal vitality, rather like that of the savages depicted in Kipling‘s panegyrics to the British imperium, on whose behalf “the white man’s burden” must be taken up.

Even the “Islamist” angle is depicted as if it were a force of nature, some inherent energy that emanates out of the very soil of the Middle East and insinuates itself into the minds of the people, like a poisonous mist. Absent from this analysis is any concept of cause and effect, of Islamic radicalism as a reaction to Western colonialism and interventionism. Certainly the British, in Ferguson’s view, are completely blameless, although they ruled the region (excepting Syria) since the fall of the Ottomans up until their own inevitable decline into post-imperial “senescence.” One would never know from this little essay how ruthlessly the British army suppressed the Iraqi revolt of 1920, although Ferguson, in an earlier piece – urging us to buck up, old chap, and get tough – clearly realizes what following the British example would have to mean:

“Putting this rebellion down will require severity. In 1920, the British eventually ended the rebellion through a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village-burning expeditions. It was not pretty. Even Winston Churchill, then the minister responsible for the air force, was shocked by the actions of some trigger-happy pilots and vengeful ground troops. And despite their overwhelming technological superiority, British forces still suffered more than 2,000 dead and wounded.”

Oh, but we needn’t worry ourselves about the moral implications of any of this: to preening sophisticates like Ferguson, to even raise the issue is to demonstrate the utter childishness at the core of the American character. Sir Ferguson pouts that Washington “seems intent on reining in the Marines” and preventing them from their village-burning duties.

From Ferguson’s premises flows his analysis of how World War IV will flare up into a nuclear maelstrom, like a river of fire inundating the Middle East. The explosive “ideological cocktail that produced Islamism” – a concoction, apparently, in no way derived from any Western liqueur – lands on the volatile oil-soaked terrain of the region, igniting a deadly detonation. And the man who lights the fuse, in the Fergusonian scenario, is Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:

“A seminal moment was the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s intemperate attack on Israel in December 2005, when he called the Holocaust a ‘myth.’ The state of Israel was a ‘disgraceful blot,’ he had previously declared, to be wiped ‘off the map.'”

To claim that Ahmadinejad’s outburst was somehow “seminal” is to ignore the record of Arab and Muslim public opinion throughout the world for the past half century and more. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that infamous forgery, must have been serialized in the state-run media of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and the rest of the Muslim world dozens if not hundreds of times: these governments have promulgated the entire compendium of somewhat abstruse and – to most people, anyway – extremely batty canards that make up the anti-Semitic canon, from the Jews-drink-the-blood-of-Gentile-children meme to the one about how every Jew within a ten-mile radius of the World Trade Center was warned – presumably via the cabalistic power of Jewish telepathy – to stay away from the area hours before the 9/11 hijackers struck. The battier, the better, as far as the Middle Eastern “street” is concerned – so what’s so “seminal” about Ahmadinejad’s tirade? It is this:

“Prior to 2007, the Islamists had seen no alternative but to wage war against their enemies by means of terrorism. From the Gaza to Manhattan, the hero of 2001 was the suicide bomber. Yet Ahmadinejad, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, craved a more serious weapon than strapped-on explosives. His decision to accelerate Iran’s nuclear weapons programme was intended to give Iran the kind of power North Korea already wielded in East Asia: the power to defy the United States; the power to obliterate America’s closest regional ally.”

A major element of war propaganda is the conjuration of the enemy as a fearsome, fanatical, and fantastical demon imbued with enormous power – and this image of the nuclear-crazed mullahs, led by a man with all the public relations panache of Pat Robertson, is the new bogeyman being touted by the War Party. Ahmadinejad is the New Saddam, a much easier target than the mild-mannered, American-educated ophthalmologist who rules Syria, and a potent symbol of everything the neocons want us to hate – and, subsequently, destroy.

The significance of this is not its novelty: it is, after all, a traditional trope of war propaganda that it demonizes the enemy, makes him seem less – or more – than human, in order to make it acceptable to kill large numbers of them. The problem for the War Party this time around is that they did the most to create this enemy – and the trail of their assistance to this supposed mad dog of a country is not hard to trace.

The regime that we installed, by force of arms, in the name of exporting “democracy” to Iraq, was for years subsidized and trained by the Iranian military, and operated from Tehran. The two main parties of the victorious United Iraqi Alliance coalition slate – who swept to victory in the recent elections – are both Iranian-inspired. The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, was equipped and succored by the Iranians during the years of Ba’athist rule, and they are getting ready to name their candidate for prime minister: few doubt that, as the UIA’s largest vote-getter, they will secure the most powerful post in the government. The Da’wa Party, too – which is the second-biggest factor in the UIA – was aided, albeit not birthed, by Tehran, and is similarly committed to the spread of an Iranian-style Shi’ite “revolution” to Iraq. As I pointed out many times in the run-up to war, the invasion of Iraq would necessarily drive the Iraqis into the arms of the Iranians, and lead to the creation of a Shia superstate.

Please don’t tell me we somehow failed to predict this – that the U.S. government, with all its fancy-pants analysts, “intelligence”-gatherers, and mavens of international intrigue did not know about Iraq’s restive Shi’ite majority, or somehow failed to detect the presence of SCIRI, Da’wa, and their Iranian-armed militias poised and waiting to fill the power vacuum left by the toppling of Saddam. If I, sitting here in my pajamas, with a yearly organizational budget that barely makes it into six figures, saw it coming, then surely they did, too, albeit with much more clarity and from a radically different perspective [.pdf].

If the “Great War” is coming, then it’s because we have been set up for it. Wouldn’t this account for the air of inevitability that Ferguson imparts to the unfolding crisis over Iran’s nuclear power program? In response to the machinations of the Roosevelt administration, as it seized more and more power on the home front and schemed to plunge us into war abroad, the conservatives of the 1930s used to cite FDR’s own words back at him:

In politics, nothing happens by accident. If it happens, you can bet it was planned that way.”

Instead of being the product of natural and inevitable “forces” – the accidents of geology and the laws of demography – the “Great War,” if and when it comes, will be the consequence of human intervention and will: it will be the result of an effort undertaken by certain individuals – acting in tandem, if not in concert – to gin up another war. We are seeing the first phase of that effort unfold in the headlines of recent weeks, and the cacophonous voices calling for war will get louder, as time goes on, and the “evidence” that Iran is close to manufacturing a usable nuclear weapon is produced. Here, too, the laws of supply and demand are fully operative: as the demand for “proof” of Iranian WMD increases, an entire industry will grow up around making the case that Tehran is about to nuke Tel Aviv – or New York. Not that, as far as American policymakers are concerned, there is much difference between those two targets – which is something (perhaps the only thing) that Tehran and Washington can agree on.

The stage having been set, Ferguson’s scenario of a future war proceeds with machine-like predictability: an “anti-Semitic demagogue” wielding a nuclear hammer shatters the peace of the world and, due to Western hesitation rooted in cowardice, is appeased until he strikes out with his fiery sword. If only we had listened to “neoconservative commentators throughout 2006″ and nailed the Iranians while the nailing was good. But that Neville Chamberlain in a skirt, Condi Rice, persuaded the president “to opt for diplomacy.” And those bothersome Americans were wobblier than ever, insisting that they wanted to reduce, not increase, their troop presence in the region. “Even if Ahmadinejad had broadcast a nuclear test live on CNN,” sneers Ferguson, “liberals would have said it was a CIA con-trick.”

An Iranian nuclear test is all too plausible, given that the lesson the rest of the world has drawn from the conquest of Iraq is this: any nation without nuclear arms is fair game as far as the U.S. is concerned. And I wouldn’t ascribe any attempt to fake a televised broadcast of an Iranian nuke test to the CIA – that sounds more like a job for the Office of Special Plans.

How clever these neocons are – they actually use their complete lack of credibility to argue that we ought to believe them, this time. The neocons who cried “Wolf!” are now crying for a second chance. Given the propaganda apparatus at the War Party’s disposal, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the American people give it to them.

Crippled by a paralysis of the will, the craven West lets Tehran off the hook, and the result, by Ferguson’s lights, is all too predictable:

“This gave the Iranians all the time they needed to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium at Natanz. The dream of nuclear non-proliferation, already interrupted by Israel, Pakistan and India, was definitively shattered. Now Teheran had a nuclear missile pointed at Tel-Aviv. And the new Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu had a missile pointed right back at Teheran.”

Here, for the first time, a hint of reality breaks through the imaginary narrative: the admission that Israel already possesses nuclear weapons, and they are aimed straight at Tehran. Strangely – or not so strangely, come to think of it – there is no suggestion by Ferguson that Israel must disarm, that Israel’s defiance of international norms and conventions is being appeased, or that the Iranians have anything to fear from an Israeli nuclear first strike. And the very idea that Iran has a right to deter such an attack by acquiring equivalent weapons of its own – why, the very idea is one that only an “anti-Semitic demagogue” would dare raise!

“The optimists argued that the Cuban Missile Crisis would replay itself in the Middle East,” avers Ferguson:

“Both sides would threaten war – and then both sides would blink. That was Secretary Rice’s hope – indeed, her prayer – as she shuttled between the capitals. But it was not to be.”

But why did deterrence – and containment – fail in the Middle East, when it worked in regulating the tensions that often reached the boiling point in the 50-year standoff between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R.? Ferguson doesn’t say. Presumably because President Ahmadinejad is crazy, whereas Stalin and his successors were relatively sane, a dubious proposition on several counts. Without really explaining any of this, Ferguson forges on:

“The devastating nuclear exchange of August 2007 represented not only the failure of diplomacy, it marked the end of the oil age. Some even said it marked the twilight of the West. Certainly, that was one way of interpreting the subsequent spread of the conflict as Iraq’s Shi’ite population overran the remaining American bases in their country and the Chinese threatened to intervene on the side of Teheran.”

Ah yes, that other looming threat – the Chinese. When we get through with the Iranians, sometime around 2016, we’ll have them to contend with, and the neocons will have yet another convenient bogeyman with which to scare us with visions of nuclear annihilation. It won’t be Tel Aviv that will supposedly be threatened with imminent extinction, but Los Angeles – although one can easily imagine how the War Party will somehow construe this as an act of blatant “anti-Semitism.”

If Ferguson wants to talk about “the twilight of the West,” perhaps he will consider the $2 trillion price tag Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz has put on the Iraq war – which will seem like a big bargain compared to the cost of the coming war with Iran. But then again, Ferguson doesn’t care about the costs of empire, not in treasure or in human lives: that would be giving in to American-style immaturity, which refuses to take up the burden of doing good throughout the world out of the conceit that Americans are somehow different from the British, the Russians, the Romans, and the builders of every tinpot imperium since the dawn of man.

I hope that we aren’t “mature” enough to believe such nonsense, or act as if we do, but I very much fear that we will.

Read more by Justin Raimondo