As anybody that has allowed even a passing glance at the mainstream media outlets in the past couple of weeks knows, Iraq is back into its prominent position in twenty-four hour media cycles. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, we’re told is all the rage. With rapid — as well as suspicious and jawdropping — territorial gains in Northern Sunni Iraq, America’s recent “nation building” in the Middle East is looking as unstable as ever. Unfortunately, much of what’s actually happening is being obfuscated by the prominent American media outlets, largely through omission. We’re led to be confused about ISIS’ actual origins: terrorists just appear from nowhere, and if we’re not there all the time we’re vulnerable to these notorious events that seem to appear only out of the sands themselves. Perhaps, we’re told, it must be Islam — that’s something that coincides with the region. But, wait, it’s not the only place with Islam. And of course it is all about ISIS, right? Isn’t that what’s plastered everywhere to warrant this unceremonious return to thinking about our legacy in Iraq? No story is more confusing than one that is told from the end.
For instance, it appears as if the obscene military and financial aid that US allies such as Saudi Arabia have been sending to anti-Assad “terrorist” forces in Syria have finally bubbled over and have affected neighboring territories. In addition, ISIS owes much to those that have worked to destabilize and delay settlement in Syria. Obama’s reluctance to do anything about “ISIS advances” might indicate the delicacy of what is trying to be accomplished by the US in the Middle East right now. As famous foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky has pointed out, the US has some key goals that are mostly conflicting: Destabilizing unfriendly regimes like Syria while at the same time maintaining enough stability in the Middle East to prevent the ultimate failure the US foresees in the region — the breakup of current nation state boundaries and subsequent unification of Shia territory in the region that also happens to coincide with the most oil rich areas of the Middle East with Iran at its head (see the “Shia Crescent.”) Indeed, the movement towards Iran by the nascent Shiite leadership in Iraq is troubling for the US, and Obama has repeatedly implored the Maliki government to be more inclusive to Sunni elements. Tom Englehardt, an expert who for years has been illuminating to the public about the true nature of America’s foreign military activity, has surveyed the difficult situation best: “As a result, the U.S. finds itself in a tacit alliance with Iran in Iraq, while still in opposition to it in Syria. At the same time, it’s still allied with Saudi Arabia in Syria against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, while facing the disastrous fruits of Saudi funding of the brutal newborn jihadi state at least temporarily coming into existence in the Sunni borderlands of Iraq and Syria.” One might rethink purpose before tactics if these considerations were held to the light by the media.
Further, the media is being careful to portray an oversimplified version of events, implicitly suggesting that ISIS is acting alone, not merely one faction (though possibly the dominant actor) in a multitude that have one thing clearly in common: they believe that Maliki and his oppression have to go. The fact that we’re supposed to believe that several hundred or even more than a thousand ISIS members were able to single-handily dominate a heavily armed region of several million with on the order of tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers in a couple of days is plainly ridiculous. This is actually various tribes and factions loosely bound by the idea of liberation from Maliki. Indeed, ISIS seems more the straw that broke the camel’s back, but nevertheless, it’s the focus. There are also reports that ISIS is heavily armed with American made vehicles, weaponry, and gear. Presumably these articles were retrieved from Iraqi military personnel dereliction. One can assume little national identity in the region in light of these facts, perhaps something the West is unwilling to accept.
It’s sad to see the deeply discredited ISIS flag harnessing the discontent necessary for these advances. ISIS, filled with experienced members from the regional atrocities of the past decade and beyond, is a notoriously brutal group. If one wonders how groups like ISIS take center stage and co-opt these popular movements, one need only read Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia” to see how messy violent uprisings like these can be — as well as how easily co-opted they are by outside agents (Saudi Arabia, the US, Iran, etc). More than a common ideology, these nefarious groups unite the populace through empowerment; much like the communists in revolutionary Spain, they obtain power through their ability to procure the necessary resources of war: weapons, money, etc. Indeed, the success of ISIS should make one immediately suspect outside aid and go looking for it, though in the group’s recent history they appear to be a self-sustaining force of conquest and its spoils. We should reflect on the intervention, instigation, and aid that have added gas to the fire in Syria, and what it has done for the course of the entire region.
In addition to the complete muddling of the current crisis, reaction in the media has been given over to the same “expert” figures that were so horribly wrong about what to do in Iraq for the last several decades. No surprise, war hawks like Paul Wolfowitz, Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, John McCain, and even Dick Cheney have had prominent voices and ubiquitous spreads pervading the mainstream media. Unfortunately, the climate for war was also ceremoniously primed last month with Robert Kagan’s recent article in The New Republic, “Superpowers Don’t Get To Retire.” The article is an absolutely nauseating manifesto of war and world subjugation the likes of which only an armchair warrior as narrowly trained, materially privileged, and hermetically sealed as Robert Kagan could produce. That being said, the article is an absolute must read, and will likely be quoted many decades from now; nothing else truly galvanizes the political climate quite the way Kagan has put it, though maybe not so succinctly. The combination is not good, indeed, Obama has even invited Kagan to have lunch at the White House, and with problems in Iraq these discussions will likely be all but abstract. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to get away from waves of discredited war hawks, and as Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting put it after an article on this very topic: “One wouldn’t keep trusting a meteorologist who got the weather forecast horribly wrong. Why do news shows treat matters of war any differently?” Indeed, past “defenses” of this practice by media insiders have been comparably disturbing. During criticisms of this very sort of reliance on supposed “experts” during coverage of the Iraq War in 2006, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz responded, “If you banned pundits or politicians who were wrong about something from further TV appearances, the news casts and talk shows would have a near impossible task finding guests.” Such transparently self-serving logic could only come from the completely hermetically sealed ideologue, or the purposeful deceiver.
This round of US calculations in the Middle East is going to lead us to the same conclusions arrived at under previous administrations. The events in the Middle East throughout the post-war period may have changed, but a common thread binds them all together. It started early in 1953 with the US-backed overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. Mosaddegh’s crime was the nationalization of the profitable Iranian oil sector once dominated by British corporate oil giants. Saddam Hussein, the once celebrated US backed dictator, supported even throughout his most vicious atrocities (gassing the Kurds and brutal wartime zeal against Iran), made the mistake of consolidating power in the region in the early 1990s when he saw fit to invade Kuwait. This, Saddam quickly found, was a mistake, as like other Persian Gulf states, this one was especially rich in oil, and nobody undercuts the master. The US responded instantly and brutally, destroying not only what was necessary to liberate Kuwait from Iraq, but much of Iraq’s civilian infrastructure as well which, along with unprecedented subsequent sanctions that decimated the civilian population, led to deep-seated American resentment in the region. Indeed, a former US ally hostile to Saddam Hussein’s thuggish behavior took notice — his name was Osama Bin Laden.
It would take somebody truly dedicated to the official party line to miss the common thread, and it shouldn’t take oil impact expert Antonia Juhasz to spell it out to outlets like CNN: It’s the oil, stupid. Some leading American officials even publicly muse about it. As former Federal Reserve Chairman of fame Alan Greenspan put it, “I am saddened that it is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows: the Iraq war is largely about oil.” And in Houston we recognize oil as the same substance that has the power to animate our very surrounding realities. Indeed, those East Houston residents in the shadows of the largest petrochemical complex in the Western Hemisphere suffer at its behest. In so far as money talks, oil talks, and with a voice louder than the Mayor. Our cheap oil economy, oil culture, and lifestyle come at a cost barely hidden beneath the sheen; it’s liquid violence, and it courses through our veins.
Make no mistake, the violence and the ongoing struggle to prevent devastating climate change are related. In a world where we can expect little change in the workings of Washington’s foreign policy ambition, perhaps we should double our efforts in the relatively conservative change of less reliance on fossil fuels and an alternative energy future. Ironically, former Vice President Dick Cheney missed this point when in his recent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed he commented derogatorily, “Iraq is at risk of falling to a radical Islamic terror group and Mr. Obama is talking climate change.” That’s right, it just so happens that these same war hawks also deny the seriousness of climate change. A military eagerness combined with a singular stance on a scientific issue? What could possibly tie these things together? No political ideology could do it.
What’s not being called for is tomorrow’s mass dereliction of American jobs in the oil sector or the demonization of those of us that find this their livelihood. What is being called for is the American way – democracy — the ability of the people to make the decisions that affect the people. Let’s make these decisions without all the bullshit — tough choices without all the propaganda. Nobody is or should think of themselves a saint, but it’s a pursuit that should be singularly cherished by civilized society. A society that spends so much time verbally proclaiming sainthood should be regarded with much suspicion, and it robs itself of the ability to bring about its own humanitarian change. And those in the media are in on it. Former Vice President Dick Cheney may have to suffer checks on power built into our constitutional system, but there are no term limits for the media.