A fighter of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) holds an ISIL flag and a weapon on a street in the city of Mosul, June 23, 2014.
by Dr. Roslyn Fuller – As ISIS/ISIL cuts a swathe through the Middle East, retroactively transforming Osama Bin Laden into the highbrow arm of modern Islamic terrorism, we’ve quite naturally begun the game of deciding who to blame for its existence.
In fact, Tony Blair showed admirable consistency in sticking to the doctrine of preemptive self-defense by firing off a statement that the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant had nothing to do with his policies in Iraq – the moment they made their big break into mainstream television.
This back and forth over responsibility is really at the heart of the matter, but in a far deeper way than we usually get around to discussing.
After all, a good deal of Western foreign policy post-Cold War has revolved around NATO states voluntarily assuming responsibility for issues that were, strictly-speaking, not their responsibility. Someone needs to ‘police the world’, ‘bring the bad guys to book’, exercise their ‘R2P’ (‘responsibility to protect’ – yes, we have descended into text-speak) and ‘nation-build’.
It looks good on paper.
But if you really look at how this policy has played out on the ground, you will notice that far from nation-building, this voluntary ‘assumption of responsibility’ has instead sown a level of chaos and dissension that cannot plausibly be blamed purely on ‘mistakes’ or ‘unforeseeable circumstances’.
Instead, it seems to be the old divide and conquer strategy at work and we probably have keen minds like Richard Perle and Bill Kristol of the neo-conservative think tank Project for a New American Century (PNAC) to thank for this modern take on an old classic. We will return to the thoughtful documents penned and disseminated by PNAC shortly. But first, let’s try to figure out what is really going on beyond the rhetoric when it comes to our ‘responsibilities’ around the world.
I think we can discern a few key trends.
The first trend is that Western countries do engage in what could be termed nation-building activities in a few select, small countries, provided those countries have for one reason or another really made headlines. Think of Timor L’Este (now independent after a mere 30 years of occupation); Rwanda (yes, 800,000 people were killed, but we did give them a tribunal once activists remembered to play the racism card), and Kosovo (presents a somewhat more contested narrative, but it was too close to the EU’s future borders for comfort).
Other troubled nations like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire (another contested narrative) have certainly seen their fortunes improve in recent years, thanks in part to international peacekeeping missions and efforts to facilitate community reconciliation and post-conflict justice.
But those are, in a certain sense, ‘the lucky few’. In most other places, we have chosen to ‘take responsibility’ along more Blair-ish lines, which means that our sense of responsibility tends to come and go with astonishing rapidity. Consider the following:
The failed state par excellence. Americans were apparently willing to ‘take responsibility’ for restoring law and order in Somalia until 19 of them were killed. That was too much ‘responsibility’ and Somalia was left minus a government and awash with weapons next to one of the greatest shipping lanes in the world. All things considered, it took Somalis a surprisingly long time to master modern piracy.
A Somali Al-Shebab fighter
Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo
All rocking around on the cusp of failed statehood for decades now; in the case of the DRC ever since Western countries decided to rid the world of Patrice Lumumba back in the ’60s.
Currently a respectable No. 38 on the Fund for Peace’s Failed State Index, but Taureg rebels control an impressive hunk of territory.
Ukraine and Pakistan
Both pretty nearly failed states, run along semi-feudal lines by leaders who are openly oligarchs, whether that be the ‘new money’ of Ukrainian industrialists or the ‘old money’ of tribal leadership in Pakistan.
Currently rated an uneasy No. 54 on the Failed State Index, down from a comfortable No. 111 in 2010 (on par with South Africa) before we decided to get rid of Gaddafi, only to be instantly stricken with amnesia about the country he ran for 42 years.
Despite having the latest technology in drone strikes lavished upon it, Yemen maintains a virtually unbroken record in the top 10 failed states, currently at No. 6.
Locked in a civil war, which has seen a once secular-oriented nation become the home of armed jihadists, who were permitted to obtain their weapons and cash with remarkable ease. Apparently ‘getting rid of Assad’ was the sum total of our planning abilities on what should happen in Syria.
Round and round she goes, and where she stops nobody knows. Spiraling somewhere.
Iraq and Afghanistan
I’m not even sure what the correct term for Iraq and Afghanistan, rated No. 11 and No.7 respectively on the Failed State Index, would be these days. Suffice it to see that after more than a decade of nation-building, we are having difficulty discerning progress on these construction sites, which I’m pretty sure haven’t even gone one day without a work-related accident. Of course, the already abysmal ratings were handed out before ISIS went big last week. (Interesting fact: current ISIS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who, unlike many detainees, truly did have a history of terrorist involvement, was captured by Americans in Iraq in 2004 but released in 2009. You had one job…)
Then there are places like Western Sahara, Transdniester and Palestine, which cannot fail because they do not even count as states. To add to our woes, the UN recently announced that there are more displaced persons today than at any time since the end of WWII.
These are a lot of open problems to have for a world hegemony so bent on nation-building and stability, especially when you consider that its citizens spend something like a trillion dollars annually on ‘defense’.
Members of a newly formed brigade of Iraqi Shiite fighters parade in military fatigues with their weapons on June 24, 2014 in the southern city of Basra as thousands of Shiite volunteers join Iraqi security forces in the fight against Sunni Jihadist militants who have taken over several northern Iraqi cities.
When you are forking over that kind of money, you like to see results, and not hear excuses about the world’s instability being ‘also’ rooted in local problems. I can see very well that organizations like ISIS are ‘also’ rooted in local problems. However, I am also fairly certain that if some alien power used its superior resources to bomb us back to the Stone Age and then failed to provide any meaningful replacement infrastructure, that our ‘local’ problems would begin to get uglier too. And the reason is that they would have destroyed the social fabric and rule of law that keeps any place running as well as it does. Create that kind of power vacuum and anything can happen. To expect ‘the locals’ to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and jolly well carry on because we have suddenly lost interest in our overwhelming ‘responsibility’ to them is little short of delusional.
The second trend that I think emerges is closely linked to the first.
It is the deliberate ripping of the social fabric within states that are still relatively stable and prosperous. That this could in any way be connected to the first trend occurred to me while reading ‘A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm’, which was written by Richard Perle for Benjamin Netanyahu back in the 1990s. Now – and I do not say this lightly – not only does this document have a title that sounds like its composer was experiencing LARP-withdrawal at the time he wrote it, the text itself resembles the creation of an eight-year-old who was subjected to a crash course on international relations followed by a heavy dose of LSD. There are sudden switches in topic, where the free associative connection is at first less-than-obvious to the sober reader.
One of these switches was an abrupt change from harping on Israel’s alleged need to pursue a no-compromises peace strategy to urging a comprehensive privatization plan on the state. According to this paper, efforts to salvage Israel’s socialist institutions were undermining the legitimacy of the State of Israel and “Israel can become self-reliant only by, in a bold stroke rather than in increments, liberalizing its economy, cutting taxes, re-legislating a free-processing zone, and selling-off public lands and enterprises — moves which will electrify and find support from a broad bipartisan spectrum of key pro-Israeli Congressional leaders, including [then-]Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.”
Why Newt Gingrich’s support was synonymous with self-reliance was left unexplained.
However, like many things that happen on acid, ‘Securing the Realm’ has a weird strain of truth to it, because it combined, albeit clumsily, two separate ways to erode the social fabric. The first was to become much more aggressive externally and seek to crush foreign entities as oppose to negotiate with them, even when those negotiations had yielded results, most notably under the leadership of Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated just one year before ‘Securing the Realm’ was written. The second was to actually work on eroding Israel’s alleged socialism from within by selling off the same public goods, which they under no circumstances would give to Palestinians, to private bidders.
I would argue that we can see both of these strains at work around the world, in that we push aggressive, no compromises foreign policy to its limits (witness Ukraine and Syria) without much thought for the destabilization that this engenders, not to mention its quite extreme effect on our own bank balance.
We are also hard at work undermining our own prosperity. Western countries are the most prosperous on earth. We unequivocally enjoy the highest standard of living. China, India and Brazil are still a long way off the kind of lifestyle most of us are accustomed to. And enjoy that lifestyle partly because we were pretty successful at ripping other people’s wealth off them in the past and partly because we invented a brilliant economic system after WWII which centered on what Richard Perle – aka the Prince of Darkness – would probably designate ‘socialist institutions’.
Western nations may not have fully gotten the knack for doing good in the world, but there was certainly what I would term growing interest and truly altruistic concern for people in other parts of the world among ordinary Western citizens pre-9/11.
Thanks to policies like those the Prince of Darkness so thoughtfully outlined for Netanyahu all those years ago, we have privatized, liberalized and cut taxes to the point that most people in Western nations are now experiencing a deterioration in their own living standards and society is increasingly divided between the haves and have-nots. We are, in other words, tearing up our own social fabric.
What that means is that the place that would have been most able to use its resources to truly stabilize and improve those parts of the globe most in need now not only refuses to do so (which was bad enough), in the future it might be unable to so do. We may, in short, be destabilizing the rest of the world, while simultaneously reducing our own capabilities to ever put it back together.
The natural consequence of being responsible in short, sharp bursts.