The Self-Fulfilling Prophets

It was a grand afternoon in the early fall of 1991, the air crispening with incoming autumn, the sun sharply bright on Pennsylvania Ave., when Col, Condy, Dick, Don and Paul all sat down for tea in one of the innumerable wooden-paneled offices with the thick leather club chairs and old-worldly feel with which we are so familiar from the West Wing and Houses of Cards delivered to our own living rooms. This particular office boasts ottomans, befitting the occasion. As invited for the afternoon chinwag were Bernie and Sam, helicoptered in for the occasion from Boston and Princeton respectively. It fell to Condy as the spring chick among the poker-faced men of steel to play mother and pour out the best first flush from the Turkish Black Sea into the wafer-tin cups of china with their golden handles and rims. Dick grabbed the silver tongs, added three sugar cubes, took a ginger biscuit in his Texan paw and dunked it in the syrupy brew, before opening proceedings. In so doing, he simply set the agenda for the next two decades: “Colin may be my senior, but since I sent out the invites, let me be so presumptuous and say why we’re gathered here today. Hardly a surprise, but in my opinion it’s a matter of our national security, of how we defend our real interests in the world. And of course it’s a matter of how we don’t get ourselves in the same position as the peanut-shucker did in Iran. We’ve paid out billions since 1980 on stabilizing Saddam and whittling away at the muftis’ power; we’re now spared further spending on busting any more Russian balls in Europe, so it’s high time to think what we need to next. And I’ve invited you two distinguished professors here because I’m fed up of opening the paper and reading the crap that RAND’s little fake-Jap gushes on the end of history. Just because we won the one war we shouldn’t be overlooking the next one. That’s greenhorn academics for you. Not like you guys. So…”

A devilish huddle

What happened next is less a matter of the imagination and more of historical fact, but perhaps because there were so many facts, the overall picture has been largely left uncharted. The roles played by the National Security Advisers (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice) the Secretaries of Defense (Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld), the Secretaries of State (Colin Powell, Condoleeza Rice), by Paul Wolfowitz as their main underling, and by Dick Cheney as Vice President all depended on a view of the world first promoted by Bernard Lewis in a September 1990 article in The Atlantic on “The Roots of Muslim Rage” and then lent official status by Samuel Huntington.

Lewis opined that:
“In the classical Islamic view, to which many Muslims are beginning to return, the world and all mankind are divided into two: the House of Islam, where the Muslim law and faith prevail, and the rest, known as the House of Unbelief or the House of War, which it is the duty of Muslims ultimately to bring to Islam. But the greater part of the world is still outside Islam, and even inside the Islamic lands, according to the view of the Muslim radicals, the faith of Islam has been undermined and the law of Islam has been abrogated. The obligation of holy war therefore begins at home and continues abroad, against the same infidel enemy.” It need not concern us here whether this black-and-white view attributed to Islam was actually an example of a myopic analysis by Lewis and its dualism would not have withstood empirical assessment. What must concern us is that having created such a monolith, he then also described its opposite. He assumed two things. Firstly, he suggested, “suddenly, or so it seemed, America had become the archenemy, the incarnation of evil, the diabolic opponent of all that is good, and specifically, for Muslims, of Islam.” Secondly, he re-establishes the dualism in geopolitics: “More than ever before it is Western capitalism and democracy that provide an authentic and attractive alternative to traditional ways of thought and life. Fundamentalist leaders are not mistaken in seeing in Western civilization the greatest challenge to the way of life that they wish to retain or restore for their people.” What reach the fundamentalist leaders had, and whether they did indeed think in such a manner is not of any relevance. Because even if they did not, Lewis in an influential journal said they did and was believed. And he told his fellow Westerners that they were going to have to sharpen their swords and prepare to do battle, not just any battle, but The Battle as foreseen in the Revelation of St. John, of Good with a capital g against Evil with an equally capital e: the battle of Armageddon. It is in fact a battle to be in found in Christian, Islamic and Jewish eschatology. For Lewis concludes by saying: “It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations.” Now in a unipolar world that spells trouble.

Civilizations can’t clash

Harvard’s Huntington, whom Kissinger describes as “one of the West’s most eminent political scientists” takes up the image of the clash and uses it as the linchpin for proposing a new post-Cold War world order that is structured around such clashes and certainly has nothing in common with Fukuyama’s notion that history had been ended by vanquishing Communism. Huntington first voiced the idea in an article for the august journal Foreign Affairs in 1993, and then elaborated on it in a full-fledged book published in 1996. Crucially, between Lewis and Huntington came Gulf War 1, came Western audience participation in a war thanks to journalists who were in bed with the soldiers and new multimedia opportunities. And those audiences were shown an image of Iraqis as Muslims that was as alien to them as the footage of Afghani Talibans was to be.

Signally, our Harvard intellectual quotes the above passage from Lewis, whom he describes as a “leading Western scholar of Islam”, only as a means for extending the argument’s applicability and giving it blanket coverage: He opines that “similar observations came from the Islamic community.” (213). (The evidence he gives is rather meager: two statements from TIME magazine in 1992 and one from New Perspectives Quarterly, which is published by Jerry-Brown-sponsored Institute for National Strategy and has keen pol-sci experts Oliver Stone and Michael Douglas as two of the members of its Board of Directors.) In fact, since he views the matter as the very fabric of the new world order, Huntington broadens the hypothesis even further: “These images of the West as arrogant, materialistic, repressive, brutal, and decadent are held not only by fundamental imams but also by those whom many in the West would consider their natural allies and supporters. (214).

US: We know what’s best

In other words, by 1996, 17 years after the failure of US policy in Iran, the fall of the Shah, and various attempts by Bush Sr. to bankroll Iraq into bludgeoning Iran, and a brief interventionist escapade under “Storming Norman” with Colin Powell as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the American establishment had decided that the Middle East was qua Muslim one thing and one thing alone: a clear and unequivocal enemy that challenged its hegemony. And since the geopolitical construct offered to shore up this position was crypto-religious, under Condoleeza Rice the geographical designation (which refused to follow religious fault lines) had to be expanded. Instead of the Middle or Near East, American policymakers started focusing on the “Greater Middle East”, which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, and various of the Central Asian ‘stans’. And Rice declared that the appropriate policy to pacify this hydra was not to chop off seven heads in Crusader fashion, but to introduce “transformational democracy” in all the relevant countries. After all, if the existing feudal structures were open to possible abuse by Islam, as had been seen in Yemen, then they needed to be replaced by modernized structures.

The idea has a flaw so simple as to be shocking. If Western democracy evolves from a free market economy in an industrialized society, then you need the economic basis for it, and that did not fit the non-diversified, oil-or-gas-producing, rent-seeking societies in question. And it has a second flaw, one that is even more stunning: If, according to the Huntington school of world history all Muslims are anti-Western, then introducing such democracies would be tantamount to shooting oneself in the foot, as it would invariably open the door to popular Muslim governments. And oops that was surely not Rice’s intention? After all, she was acting under Dick Cheney, and we can assume that what he had in mind was to keep control of the oil – a goal he certainly achieved with Gulf War 2.

Fighting a devil you made

However, what Col, Condy, Dick, Don and Paul did achieve was to fashion the world of the Middle East in their image, an image that was at the time a complete real con by neo-cons, as neither Lewis nor Huntington actually offered evidence for their claims. And the Big Five under George W. were ironically assisted in the undertaking by the very person who became their nemesis for so long and who thought just as dualistically: Osama bin Laden, the man who so despised the feudal totalitarianism of the House of Saud that he wished to do a Saddam and topple it. It was the attacks of Sept. 11 which gave the younger Bush administration populated by the older Bush confidants the justification for their world view, almost a decade after they had first embraced it.

Indeed, it is fair to day that in the 21 years since Huntington published his essay, the Middle East has disintegrated into a tribal free for all, irrespective of the hopes attached to a jasmine spring or Tahir Square. (The young Islamic social-media generation may call for democracy online, but it does not influence the flows of money or weapons.) For the arsenals and the troops are commanded by the old scheming men who plot away behind the scenes and control the oil. Toppling an autocrat such as Gaddafi or attempting to do so (Assad) does not create a clean state of affairs, does not turn a failed state into a successful one, it just makes things worse and moves societies further into the mold Lewis suggested already applied. After all, as mentioned in passing, you need economic development if you want democracies to take root, not unilateral commodity extraction. You need masses of jobs (Huntington at least said Islam was such a powder keg because of the high birth rate in the Middle East.) We now have a Middle East that is in the throes of inner Islamic conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, between young unemployed men and old rich men, and significantly the major emerging block calls itself “Islamic State”, known as ISIS for short.

The old American men should have remembered what Bob Dylan had to say on the subject back in 1976: “I married Isis on the fifth day of May. But I could not hold on to her very long. So I cut off my hair and I rode straight away. For the wild unknown country where I could not go wrong.” It is simply a pity Dick, Colin and co. did not cut off their hair and ride in penance for a place where they could not screw up about 20 years ago and instead forged a Middle East in their own gravely mistaken image.

Leave a Reply