Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Bush-Obama-Trump Retrocolonial Complex

Donald Trump returns from his first overseas excursion as President to meet predictable choruses of praise and criticism from opposing precincts of the political spectrum. I would (predictably) join his critics in noting that much if not most of what he said and did during this trip was for the consumption of his base supporters here at home rather than in pursuit of genuine foreign policy. That being said, it is important to note that many of the problems revealed by Trump's tour began long before he took office, and show no sign of abating in either the near or long term.

Trump's speech to Arab and Muslim leaders in Riyadh is the most salient case in point. His repeated rhetorical exhortation to "Drive them out" (referring to violent jihadists such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, and Boko Haram) no doubt played very well to his voters back home ("You tell 'em, Donald!"), but it almost certainly was met with inward groans of exasperation by his audience. As Trump himself noted, the governments represented by the leaders that he was addressing are the most focused targets and cataclysmic victims of jihadi terror, and have been engaged in brutal efforts to "drive out" extremist groups since long before September 11, 2001. They allowed themselves to be lectured by Trump about the need to "drive out" terrorists in the hope that providing him with such favorable optics would win them concessions on issues like Israel, Syria, and Iran.

Trump's speech was trumpeted as an historic realignment of US-Arab relations by many conservative pundits, but it was basically a familiar turn in the neocolonial dance in which the US and the Gulf States have been engaged since the end of World War II. The leaders that Trump was addressing were compradorial elites employed in servicing the oil markets on which the US economy depends. Trump's deference to them on matters of human rights and trade gave them political capital to spend at home, at the same time that their polite reception of his superfluous call to "drive them out" provided him with a prestige moment for US television.

This neocolonial codependence is more than half a century old and will not be remedied until the US and other industrialized economies break their addiction to fossil fuels. But a more acute problem was also manifest in Trump's ironic injunction to "drive them out". Even as he spoke (and as he himself acknowledged), Iraqi soldiers were engaged in desperate house-to-house fighting to dislodge ISIS from the city of Mosul, while other Kurdish and Arab fighters are similarly occupied in Syria and Libya. These struggles drag on interminably, not because of a lack of determination to "drive them out," but because of US reluctance to allow its allies in the Middle East and North Africa to possess and employ the material means necessary to that end. This is a new wrinkle that has emerged in the conduct of US foreign policy in the wake of 9/11: in our determination to retain old-style colonial control over forces in Iraq, Syria, and Libya (what I have called "retrocolonialism"), we have helped foster perpetual instability and turmoil in large parts of the Arab world and beyond.

This problem is most acutely manifest in Iraq. The military commanded by the government of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi has about 300,000 active duty personnel. In terms of heavy weapons, it has about 300 battle tanks and 42 combat aircraft. Compare that to the time of Saddam Hussein, when the Iraqi military could deploy more than 1,000,000 personnel armed with 950 combat aircraft and six thousand battle tanks. Even if one allows that Hussein's military was the product of excessive militarization, present-day metrics expose the Iraqi military as totally inadequate to Iraq's defense needs. Iran, Iraq's more populous neighbor and erstwhile enemy, has a military of 500,000 personnel armed with about 3,000 battle tanks and 350 combat aircraft. If hostilities opened up again on that front, absent US protection Iraq would cease to exist. The decisions that keep Iraq in this state of dependency were not made by Prime Minister al-Abadi or his cabinet, but by US functionaries in the Green Zone and Washington DC.

This retrocolonial complex has consequences. Whenever complaints arise about the slow pace of the struggle against ISIS in Iraq, the same shibboleths about the need of the Iraqi military for "more training" are intoned by US officials. But this is ridiculous. After more than a decade of training the Iraqi army has shown poor cohesion and discipline in the face of ISIS aggression because it lacks the capacities of a sovereign military, and its soldiers know this fact. At the time that ISIS first took Mosul and Ramadi the entire Iraqi combat air force consisted of two Cessna prop planes modified to launch hellfire missiles. ISIS terrorists, with their captured Syrian humvees, heavy machine guns, and mortars, had equivalent armament to their Iraqi military counterparts and superior motivation. Members of ISIS believed they were fighting for a caliphate in the process of being born, while Iraqi soldiers knew they were fighting for a nation whose sovereignty had yet to be restored- one that remained (and remains) a colonial client of the United States.

This is not to make a reductionist argument about the nefariousness of American motives in the Middle East. If the US set out to materially profit from the exploitation of Iraq, that gambit has proved laughably self-defeating. But the initial invasion of Iraq, the current hobbling of Iraqi security forces, and the basic strategic posture of the US in Syria and Libya are all expressions of the same dysfunctional paternalism that has informed US policy since 9/11, and that has been consistent no matter what administration has been in power. Despite the fact that violent jihadis are a fringe group generally loathed and feared throughout the Arab and Islamic world, US leaders refuse to fully trust our Arabic and Islamic allies in the fight against jihadi terror. Most particularly, we refuse to entrust the people of nations like Iraq, Libya, and Syria with the full means to "drive out" the jihadis that are destroying their countries.

The US does not keep the Iraqi military hobbled totally out of blank bigotry. If and when Iraq has a truly sovereign military force the current homeostasis prevailing among contending forces in Iraq might break down, and the country could slide into an expanding civil war between regional and sectarian rivals, a contingency that the US does not trust Iraqi leaders to avoid. But the motives of the US in this regard are not humanitarian. The US fears a widening civil war in Iraq because of its consequences for the American economy and US security. Moreover, even if a fully armed Iraq did avoid civil war, it would be empowered to embark on a truly independent foreign policy, and might decide to ally itself with Iran, Russia, China, or any number of powers whose interests do not perfectly align with those of the US. The political embarrassment of such a contingency alone is enough to give US leaders night terrors.

In the same way that the Bush administration operated on the principle that only US power could be trusted to "cure" Iraq of Saddam Hussein, the Obama and Trump administrations have assumed that only US power can be trusted to keep the peace in the wake of Saddam's fall. Thus rather than do the hard work required to enlist the Iraqis as a genuine ally, we attempt to manipulate them as a colonial proxy. This is a strategy of sorts, but its tactical and moral shortcomings are displayed in the protracted and destructive struggle to dislodge ISIS from the Levant, and it makes all exhortations to "drive them out" such as Donald Trump delivered in Riyadh purely theatrical.

Similar forms of paternalism have animated American policy in Syria. Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the movement to depose Bashar al-Assad was a genuinely homegrown expression of Syrian popular dissent. Though Barack Obama gave lip service to the legitimacy of the Syrian rebellion, his administration never offered robust support to its efforts. In the same way Washington has never trusted post-Saddam leaders to keep the peace in Iraq, the Obama White House did not trust the Syrian opposition to replace the Assad regime with a better alternative, thus they refused to commit US military power to any degree that might give the Syrian rebellion a chance at success.  In like fashion, though Donald Trump made token missile strikes to chastise the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, his White House is otherwise in lock step with the strategy of the previous administration, ignoring the depredations of the Assad regime while working to wear down ISIS through the use of weakly supported US proxies in concert with American air power. As in post-Saddam Iraq, in Syria there is little to show from US "caution" except for smouldering ruins, massive casualties, and hordes of refugees.

The ethnocentric paternalism expressed by this strategy is deeply endemic to the political culture of the United States. Even well-informed American observers of the Arab world are prone to applying a soft bigotry of low expectations to the situation in the Middle East. Coverage of the Syrian Civil War in the wake of the fall of Aleppo, for example, has focused on the excesses of the rebel coalition, portraying them as equivalently venal and corrupt by comparison to the Assad regime. Such commentary indulges in a "static state" fallacy, however. It posits that anything that may be observed in the Syrian opposition now must be assumed to have been true all along, and to have been inevitable from the beginning. But history shows us that unsuccessful rebel movements, from Europe to Latin America to Africa to Asia, degenerate over time into increasingly apolitical and predatory gangs.  If the Syrian opposition had enjoyed robust international support early on it might have evolved into a much more integral and disciplined force as success bred success. Such a possibility is persuasively evinced by the fact that even in its current depleted form the rebel coalition enjoys enough support to hold out against the combined might of Russia and the Assad regime, and shows little sign of being totally defeated in the near future.

The current US strategy in Syria and Iraq of "war by colonial client proxy" may ultimately dislodge ISIS from Raqqa, but it is unlikely to effect a long term solution to the problem of violent jihadism in the Levant. The government in Damascus has been crippled by civil war, the government in Baghdad by invasion and colonial paternalism. In the power vacuum opened between these two capitals jihadism is likely to fester and re-emerge, whatever tactical victories might be scored by the US and its proxies in the near term.

The tragic irony of US "retrocolonial" paternalism in the Middle East is its self-defeating nature. America has kept both the Iraqi government and the Syrian opposition hobbled in an attempt to exert control, but in doing so, it has only fostered chaos and destruction, swelling the ranks of ISIS and Al Qaeda and setting millions of refugees to flight, thus disrupting the politics of the entire world. For the situation to improve, more than the Trump presidency must end. US citizens and leaders must cease to treat the people of the Arabic and Islamic world with total (if, at times, unspoken) condescension and suspicion, and must accept the realities of a world in which US power can exert influence, but not maintain control.

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