Sunday, January 08, 2006

Truth and Illusion in the Middle East

I did not anticipate when I began this blog that Iraq would feature so prominently in it, but as the crisis there continues, it behooves us all to do what we can to learn more both about Iraq and the whole region which we are now committed, in theory at least, to transform. Over the holidays I read two interesting books on the subject--See No Evil by the retired CIA Agent Robert Baer, and Richard Clarke's new novel, The Scorpion's Gate (not to be confused with George Packer's nonfiction work of the same name which I reviewed here some time ago.) They are different kinds of books, but they left me some very important insights into the region that is now our main focus, and into the gulf between the realities of that region and the image of it upon which our policies are based.

Baer joined the CIA in the 1970s and left in the 1990s, and the movie Syriana identifies it as its source. The movie, however--although a respectable attempt to make sense of what is happening in the Middle East--has very little to do with the book. Baer was stationed in the Middle East in the 1980s, and he became obsessed with unraveling the mystery of who had bombed the American Embassy in Lebanon in 1983, which killed a number of prominent CIA agents. (This was some months before the more famous suicide bombing that killed several hundred Marines.) In particular, he became interested in the Islamic Jihad Organization, or IJO, which had claimed responsibility for the bombing.

To make a very long and very complicated story very short, Baer gradually came convinced that IJO never really existed--that it was a front for the Iranian intelligence service Pasdaran, which had essentially opened a campaign against American and western influence against western influence in the Middle East within a few years of the 1979 Iranian revolution. Their more obvious instrument for the last twenty years as been the organization Hizbollah, which has built up a significant following in various parts of the world by combining Shi'ite indoctrination with the provision of education and social services. But the Iranians have also made alliances across religious lines, most notably, Baer argues, with Yasser Arafat, who, according to Baer, met the Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 and subsequently put his whole terrorist network at his disposal. The Iranians, of course, were behind the kidnappings of various Americans in Lebanon in the mid-1980s, and benefited directly from them thanks to the generosity of the Reagan White House and its attempts to ransom them. And although he cannot prove it, Baer also believes the Iranians were behind the bombing of Pan Am 103 in Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988--partly because a CIA agent named Chuck McKee, who had supervised Baer's work in Beirut, was on the plane.

The American public has remained somewhat uncomfortable over intelligence operations for the last half century or so because of the lying they involve. From the founding of the Republic we have wanted to believe that we could carry out government, diplomacy and war honestly, without deception, since we stand for democracy and the rights of others. Despite the hypocrisy which these views inevitably involve, since we are, after all, human beings, these are still national strengths which we should try to maintain. What concerned me as I read Baer's book, however, was that these views leave us totally unprepared to deal with a region where no one trusts anyone, where deception is away of life, and where every alliance is temporary. To cite merely one of our many problems, we do not seem to understand that both a terrorist act and a bogus attribution of the responsibility for it are used by terrorist to further their objections. Our default procedure for dealing with any area of the world is to identify the good and bad guys, and adopt the former. But as Ben Stiller said to Bill Pullman in the wonderful film The Zero Effect, here there are no good guys and bad guys. There are just a bunch of guys, bound together by little or nothing except an intense dislike for the United States, its ally Israel, and virtually everything that Washington stands for. (The Israeli government, by the way, understands all this very well, but I am not sure of how much effort it has made to educate its ally the United States.) The Administration's basic principles for the war on terror--that any regime that has supported terrorists must go, that he who is not with us is against us, and that the cure for the ills of the Middle East is its transformation into a series of modern western societies--appeal instinctively to the American people, but they seem to have virtually no relationship to the realities of the region.

And thus, as both Baer and Clarke document at length, successive American Administrations have failed again and again to distinguish between greater and lesser threats and to understand the real consequences of their actions. The Reagan Administration, while attempting to overthrow Muammar Qadaffi, apparently didn't realize that the most prominent Libyan dissidents had close ties to the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, which had assassinated Anwar Sadat, and would probably impose some form of Islamic Republic in Libya should they come to power. The late Hafiz Al-Asad of Syria, whose son neoconservatives now dream of overthrowing, had struggled for years against the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood--a struggle which involved the almost entire destruction of the Syrian town of Hama in 1982. It was the Syrian regime, with our blessing, that finally intervened in Lebanon, brought the civil war there to an end, and enabled the Lebanese people to begin living relatively normal lives beginning in the late 1980s. Now we have triumphantly forced the Syrians out of Lebanon, but it is far from clear that what comes next will be better either for the Lebanese or for us.

Both Baer's and Clarke's books lead inescapably to the conclusion that our two biggest failings--never more apparent than in the last five years--have been, first, not to recognize secular Arab regimes as our most important allies against fundamentalist terrorism, and secondly, not to recognize that Iran remains the most serious long-term threat to our interests in the region. To be sure, governments like the Ba'ath regimes in Syria and Iraq--not to mention the Saudis--have aided various groups in a number of different ways at various times, because in their environment, just as among Mario Puzo's five Mafia families of New York, such temporary alliances are a way of life. Yet such governments would not tolerate fundamentalist terrorism within their own states, and their removal, as we have now seen in Iraq, is very likely to increase it. And meanwhile, such Sunni governments have all faced a long-term threat from the growing Shi'ite population in the area. Many warned that in Iraq, the alternative to Saddam or to a neo-Ba'athist regime under more respectable leadership might be an Iranian-allied Shi'ite state run by militias and fundamentalists. That is now coming to pass.

Baer and Clarke repeatedly show tremendous frustration with the inability of successive Administrations to grasp these facts. Baer experienced first hand the extraordinary power of Oliver North, who actually believed that he could outwit the various Middle Eastern players and who convinced his superiors that he could do so. (The Iran-Contra affair also suggested that the CIA, at that time at least, had not given up the fantasy that Iran was somehow destined to become an American ally once again.) It becomes more and more apparent every month that the Administration only sold the war on Iraq by ignoring almost everything that professionals at the CIA and State Departments had to say, not only about the issue of WMD in Iraq, but, more critically, about the consequences such an invasion was likely to have. Professional opinion had to be ignored, because it would inevitably contradict neoconservative fantasies--fed with respect to Iraq by Ahmed Chalabi, who is himself suspected by many of connections to Iranian intelligence. (It is not inconceivable that we shall eventually discover that Iran played an important role in convincing the United States to remove Saddam Hussein.) Clarke's book is a novel set a couple of years in the future, at which time the United States has been invited out of Iraq by the new Shi'ite government--a prospect which I regard as very likely myself--and a fundamentalist revolution has overthrown the House of Saud, renaming the Kingdom Ismaliyah. In his book, Secretary of Defense Conrad--a very recognizable Donald Rumsfeld--and his ethnically transformed Undersecretary, Lawrence Kashigian, are plotting to return the Saudis to power in an alliance with Iran, which plans to gobble up the rest of the Gulf states in the process. Fortunately, a conspiracy of heroic British and American intelligence officers and sensible Saudi revolutionaries saves the day. Baer's and Clarke's focus on Iran should give many Americans pause, and indeed, Clarke's first book Against All Enemies, seemed to indicate that Clarke, although violently critical of the decision to invade Iraq, would not have opposed a war with Iran at the proper time. Such a war, however, would have required a truly enormous coalition of allies and the support of the EU, Russia, and China. That would not be forthcoming now.

Although Clarke ritually denies any factual basis for his characters, no one is going to be fooled, especially regarding the two whom I have already identified. Clarke goes even further, suggesting, in essence, that leading American figures have been so deeply identified and actively interested in the fortunes of the House of Saud for so long that they cannot imagine a world without it in power. And this leads me, as it did to Clarke, to the heart of the matter. Our dependence on Middle Eastern oil has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into a region which simply does not share our values, and which has become increasingly alienated from us both as a result of the impact of petrodollars and because of our polices during the last forty years. Only one solution remains--a real national effort to cut petroleum consumption, develop alternative energy sources, and reduce the importance of the Middle East both in our region and in the world. The hero of Clarke's book, ironically, is a western-educated Saudi doctor who persuades his militant brother to found an institute for alternative energy in Saudi Arabia, because he realizes his country cannot survive the consequences of having the world's greatest petroleum reserves. But as Vice President Cheney has made clear from the very first months of the Bush Administration, our current leadership is far too closely associated with the oil industry ever to begin thinking seriously along these lines.

In this regard, however, the Administration is not alone. I am not aware of any elected official of either party who has bluntly suggested that our whole involvement in the Middle East is simply encouraging trends hostile to us and that disengagement and alternative energy sources are the only solutions. We have not shaken the idea that the end of the Cold War must mean the worldwide spread of American values. But those values, even at their best, represent only certain aspects of human nature--and ironically, they seem more likely to thrive more here at home in a world where the alternatives survive to remind us of our best role.


Shelterdog said...

Fascinating, but troubling discussion. It left me with one additional question you might address: whether your analysis was echoed in the Reagan Adminisration's clandestine support for Iraq in the early '80's as a counterbalance to Iran and, if so, whether the public's criticism of their actions should be tempered in light of these concerns.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, the equation was simple- Americans paid fifteen cents a gallon for gas, various 'A-rabs' got filthy rich, bought American actresses to be their wives, and the circle was completed. No distortion of the global economy there.

Well, things changed. And as Braudel observed, the person who buys the product is controlling the efforts of the person who supplies it.

So, the suction pulling U.S. money into the mideast is acting with similar force as it spews money into the region. The cloak-and-dagger stuff makes a good read, but what we may be seeing is the increasing anger of regional 'have-nots' as they increasingly are confronted by the affluence of regional 'haves'. In both regions.

Conservation, and renewable energy, would actually pay a dividend equal to the number of soldiers we would not need, if our "security" concerns didn't involve consuming a quarter of the world's energy. That's gotta be at least $100 billion a year. And you know what they say- A hundred billion here, a hundred billion there, and before you know it, you're talking about real money.

ye olde serial catowner

Anonymous said...

Robert Baer's book SLEEPING WITH THE DEVIL had teeth. Syriana and his subsequent TV appearances on FOX NEWS with Oliver North, has pulled them.

It's as if Baer now believes that the impending world-wide doom and gloom is so critical that we must ride into the future with the leadership that brought us this far. None of us have to be here and the present leaderhship is NOT capable of regaining the credibility they've lost. See...