To understand what is going on with the $60 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and a number of small Gulf potentates Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the UAE we have to go back to Seymour Hersh’s last piece in the New Yorker, “The Redirection,” which revealed, among other things, that the U.S. is funding Sunni radical groups possibly linked to al-Qaeda in Lebanon and in the Eastern reaches of Iran. It’s all part of a new turn in American foreign policy in the Middle East, toward the Sunni “mainstream” and away from our former Shi’ite allies-of-convenience in Iraq. Having smashed the Ba’athist regime and handed Mesopotamia over to the Iranians, the Americans are taking a U-turn and aligning with their former enemies in readiness for the next war of “liberation” on the neocon agenda: the battle for Iran.
If you want to know the meaning of a new policy initiative, especially one involving such substantial sums, ask yourself, cui bono? The first answer, in this case, is the American armaments industry: those U.S. “aid” dollars are poured into the coffers of major U.S. military contractors and a host of minor ones, and the money stream flows, in turn, in the direction of certain political candidates. Palms are greased, politicians are bought, and the military-industrial-neocon complex marches on. The War Party is always feeding itself: that’s why we have the most bloated military establishment in the world, with “defense” expenditures exceeding the combined military budgets of the next 30 spenders.
With billions of dollars in sophisticated satellite-guided weaponry, the Saudis obviously benefit, but there is a downside to their latest acquisitions rooted in the traditional reluctance of Saudi monarchs to maintain much of a military. The fear of a coup, or at least a rival center of power, has kept the Saudi armed forces pretty much a perfunctory affair. What the Saudis are going to do with all their new equipment is a bit of a mystery: indeed, all those new toys are a liability in another important sense. The Saudi monarchy, after all, is under attack from al-Qaeda and other fundamentalist forces and is as brittle as it ever was: if those weapons should ever fall into the hands of bin Laden or his allies, we would face the first terrorist superpower in the Middle East.
The danger of blowback is even greater in the Gulf, where the legitimacy of the ruling sheiks and emirs is shakier and fundamentalist activity (Sunni variety) is on the rise. In the case of Egypt, which is already the second biggest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, we are rewarding President Hosni Mubarak‘s recent crackdown on dissent, including the jailing of opposition candidate Ayman Nour (for “election fraud”) and blogger Abdel Karim Suleiman (for blasphemy!). So much for “exporting democracy” as the leitmotif of American foreign policy: the “global democratic revolution” has been betrayed.
Not that there was anything to betray to begin with it was all a lot of malarkey, anyway. Our real goals in the region have little to do with “democracy” which, if installed in the Middle East, would give us the victory of Hamas-like groups from the Nile to the Euphrates and everything to do with exploiting the divisions in the Arab-Muslim world.
In the “long war” we are presently engaged in, the face of the enemy is constantly shifting: it started out with the long saturnine features of Osama bin Laden staring out at us haughtily, knowingly. Lurking somewhere in the wilds of Pakistan, or perhaps Central Asia, the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Muslim world mocked us with his continued elusiveness. Yet his face soon faded from the front pages, to be replaced [.pdf] by the visage of Saddam Hussein, the secular dictator of a Middle Eastern country that had long been in the War Party’s sights. With the invasion and the subsequent demise of the Ba’athist regime, the face of the enemy changed yet again, to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Holocaust-denying bigmouth who doesn’t actually control Iranian military and foreign policy and is increasingly unpopular in his own country.
Our current strategy in the Middle East is to forge the Sunni despots into a mighty defensive wall, a Maginot Line, against the rising Shi’ite tide a tide, you’ll recall, unleashed by the destruction of the Ba’athist regime and the creation of a power vacuum in Iraq that was quickly filled by the majority Shi’ite parties, which had been financed and succored by Tehran for many years. I wouldn’t say this is an unintended consequence of the invasion, because it was so clearly foreseeable that it couldn’t have been accidental: indeed, the principal exponent of “regime change” in Iraq, Ahmed Chalabi, was an Iranian agent, betraying U.S. secrets to Tehran and presumably keeping the mullahs apprised of his progress in gulling the Americans into going along with the war plan. After all, it served Iranian interests, as well as the War Party’s: for a moment, the objectives of Tehran’s mullahs and Washington’s neocons met and merged.
The strategic objective of uniting with Sunni “moderates” serves two ostensible objectives: it staves off the alleged Shi’ite menace and gives us Sunni allies in the fight against bin Laden’s extremists. However, the corrupt Arab monarchs of the Kingdom, the Gulf states, Jordan, and Egypt (which is, for all intents and purposes, a monarchy) are the wrong sorts of allies. The effectiveness of bin Laden’s propaganda is heavily dependent on our continued support for one of the last bastions of absolutism on earth. In a region of the world where the irresponsibility and outright decadence of the Sunni “moderate” elites is so ostentatious, it is suicidal to align ourselves with regimes that have little popular support.
Yet that is precisely what we are doing, and all in the name of fighting the latest enemy, the newest “Hitler,” who in reality is not a credible military threat to us or anyone else in the region. Sure, the Iranians could take out Bahrain, or even Dubai, but the economic costs of such a move would far outweigh any possible benefits: the Iranians would much rather do business with Dubai than bomb it.
There is much talk of a new “cold war” with Iran. That’s nonsensical, of course: to equate Shi’ism with international Communism is more than a stretch it is utterly absurd. While Communism was a universalist creed, Shi’ism is a sectarian faith of limited appeal. While it’s true that, say, a college student in the U.S. might take up Shi’ism, it is an unlikely preoccupation for a Westerner to embrace. Communism, on the other hand, presented us with a real ideological challenge, one capable of undermining us on the home front as well as abroad.
President Bush talks about winning the “ideological struggle,” in Churchillian intonations, but the reality is that our actions make it all too easy for our real enemies al-Qaeda and its allies to garner support. This is one of al-Qaeda’s chief selling points: that the U.S. is the power behind the depredations of native elites, propping up the notoriously corrupt and cruel Saudi kleptocracy and its mini-clones clustered around the Gulf and stealing the Ummah’s oil wealth by selling at artificially low prices. The latest arms deal not only confirms what bin Laden has been saying it also dramatizes Michael Scheuer‘s key point about our self-defeating foreign policy:
“As I complete this book, U.S., British, and other coalition forces are trying to govern apparently ungovernable postwar states in Afghanistan and Iraq, while simultaneously fighting growing Islamist insurgencies in each a state of affairs our leaders call victory. In conducting these activities, and the conventional military campaigns preceding them, U.S. forces and policies are completing the radicalization of the Islamic world, something Osama bin Laden has been trying to do with substantial but incomplete success since the early 1990s. As a result, I think it fair to conclude that the United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.”
Cui bono? Who benefits from this new turn? The answer: everyone but the American taxpayers and the nation as a whole. Yes, even the Israelis, who in spite of an effort to stop the sale by the Lobby’s more radical partisans in Congress fully support the arms package. That’s not just because they’re getting a 25-percent hike in the outrageous amount of aid they already suck out of the U.S. Treasury the Israelis also have a strategic interest in splitting the Muslim world along sectarian lines.
The consequences of this new turn in American policy are not too hard to predict. The Bush administration is setting off a regional arms race that is practically forcing the Iranians to go the nuclear route. After all, the U.S. is not about to invade North Korea, and everyone knows the reason why. If a nuclear arsenal is what it takes to stave off the American wolf and its Sunni allies, then that is the course the Iranians will take. They tried to negotiate, remember, and were rebuffed and the latest negotiations are likely to be sabotaged by Vice President Dick Cheney, just like last time.
The antiwar movement is focused exclusively on Iraq, but that Rubicon was crossed fours years ago: now we approach the River Styx, the demarcation line between the world of the living and Hades, the land of the dead. As we make the approach, ghosts and demons weep and wail, warning us away yet we keep on going, walking blindly ahead, until we’re standing at the edge of oblivion.
It won’t take much to push us over and it’s a long way down.