INa traditional cowboy movie, we know what to do: we look for the guy wearing the white hat to be sure who to cheer, and for the one wearing the black hat to know who deserves to die, preferably gruesomely, before the credits roll.
If Hollywood learnt early to play on these most tribal of emotions, do we doubt that Washington’s political script-writers are any less sophisticated?
Since 9/11, the United States and its allies in Europe have persuaded us that they are waging a series of “white hat” wars against “black hat” regimes in the Middle East. Each has been sold to us misleadingly as a “humanitarian intervention”. The cycle of such wars is still far from complete.
But over the course of the past decade, the presentation of these wars has necessarily changed. As Hollywood well understands, audiences quickly tire of the same contrived plot. Invention, creativity and ever greater complexity are needed to sustain our emotional engagement.
Declarations by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu aside, there are only so many times we can be convinced that there is a new Hitler in the Middle East, and that the moment is rapidly approaching when this evil mastermind will succeed in developing a doomsday weapon designed to wipe out Israel, the US, or maybe the planet.
In 1950s Hollywood, the solution for audience ennui was simple: High Noon put the noble sheriff, Gary Cooper, in a black hat, and the evil gunslinger in a white one. It offered a veneer of complexity, but in reality the same good guy-bad guy formula played out along familiar lines.
If Washington required a new storyline after the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, it did not have to work hard to write one. It was assisted by the rapid changes taking place in the political environment of the Middle East: the so-called Arab Spring. Washington could hardly have overlooked the emotionally satisfying twists and turns presented by the awakening of popular forces against the deadening hand of "autocratic regimes", many of them installed decades ago by the West.
The reality, of course, is that the US and its allies are pursuing the same agenda as before the Arab Spring: that is, they are looking to preserve their own geo-political interests. In that regard, they are trying to contain and reverse dangerous manifestations of the awakening, especially in Egypt, the most populous and influential of the Arab states, and in the Gulf, our pipeline to the world’s most abundant oil reserves.
But for Washington, the Arab Spring presented opportunities as well as threats, and these are being keenly exploited.
Both Afghanistan and Iraq followed a model of “intervention” that is now widely discredited and probably no longer viable for a West struggling with economic decline. It is not an easy sell to Western publics that our armies should single-handedly invade, occupy and “fix” Middle Eastern states, especially given how ungrateful the recipients of our largesse have proven to be.
Humanitarian wars might have run into the sand at this point had the Arab Spring not opened up new possibilities for “intervening”.
The Arab awakening created a fresh set of dynamics in the Middle East that countered the dominance of the traditional military and political elites: democratic and Islamist forces were buoyed with new confidence;
business elites spied domestic economic opportunities through collaboration with the West;
and oppressed ethnic, religious and tribal groups saw a chance to settle old scores.
Not surprisingly, Washington has shown more interest in cultivating the latter two groups than the first.
In Libya, the US and its allies in Nato took off the white hat and handed it to the so-called rebels, comprising mostly tribes out of favour with Gadaffi. The West took a visible role, especially in its bombing sorties, but one that made sure the local actors were presented as in the driving seat. The West was only too happy to appear as if relegated to a minor role: enabling the good guys.
After Libya’s outlaw, Muammar Gadaffi, was beaten to death by the rebels last year, the credits rolled. The movie was over for Western audiences.
But for Libyans a new film began, in a language foreign to our ears and with no subtitles. What little information has seeped out since suggests that Libya is now mired in lawlessness, no better than the political waste lands we ourselves created in Iraq and Afghanistan. Hundreds of regional [armed gangs] militias run the country, extorting, torturing and slaughtering those who oppose them.
Few can doubt that Syria is next on the West’s hit list. And this time, the script-writers in Washington seem to believe that the task of turning a functioning, if highly repressive, state into a basket case can be achieved without the West’s hand being visible at all. This time the white hat has been assigned to our allies, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, who, according to the latest reports, are stoking an incipient civil war not only by arming some among the rebels but also by preparing to pay them salaries too, in petro-dollars.
The importance to Western governments of developing more “complex” narratives about intervention has been driven by the need to weaken domestic opposition to continuing Middle East wars. The impression that these wars are being inspired and directed exclusively from “inside”, even if by a heterogeneous opposition whose composition remains murky to outsiders, adds a degree of extra legitimacy; and additionally, it suggests to Western publics that that the cost in treasure and casualties will not be born by us.
This move effectively eroded popular opposition to the next humanitarian war, in Libya, and looks like it is already achieving the same end in Syria.
If this were simply a cowboy movie, none of this would be of more than incidental interest. Gadaffi was, and Assad is, an outlaw. But international politics is far more complex than a Hollywood script, as should be obvious if we paused for a moment to reflect on what kind of sheriffs we have elected and re-elected in the West. George Bush, Tony Blair and Barack Obama probably have more blood on their hands than any Arab autocrat.
Even in the case of Libya, where Gadaffi’s threat to the West was far from clear to many observers, Western geo-political interests were, in fact, dominant. Dan Glazebrook, a journalist specialising in Western foreign policy, has noted that shortly before the West turned its sights on Libya Gadaffi had begun galvanising African opposition to Africom, the Africa command established by the US military in 2008.
Africom’s role is to organise and direct African troops to fight to ensure, in the words of a US Vice-Admiral, “the free flow of natural resources from Africa to the global market”. In overthrowing Gadaffi, Africom both removed the main challenger to its plan and put into effect its mission statement: not a single US or European soldier died in the operation to unseat Gadaffi.
Is the average Libyan safer because we pulverised his or her country with bombs, because we crushed its institutions, good and bad alike, because we left it politically and socially adrift, and because we then handed arms and power to tribal groups so that they could wreak revenge on their predecessors? It is doubtful. But even if the answer is unclear, in the absence of certainty we are obliged to follow the medical maxim: “First, do no harm”.
It is the height of arrogance – no, more a God complex
Popular support for humanitarian wars could not be maintained without the spread of propaganda masquerading as news by our corporate-owned media. Over the past decade they have faithfully marketed the Middle East agendas of our war-making governments. As the fanciful pretext for each war is exposed, the armchair generals assure us that the lessons have been learnt for next time. But when the script is given a makeover – and the white hat passed to a new lawman – the same discredited media pundits justify war yet again from the safety of their studios.
It is a warning that none of these humanitarian wars is a solution to a problem; they are only a prelude to yet more war. And it is a reminder that we have no right to play God.
Jonathan Cook won the 2011 Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). His website is www.jkcook.net.