During the last fifty years, the U.S. has hunted four related but distinct devils in the Middle East. In an issue of Journal of Small Wars and Insurgencies from last year, Ghada Hashem Talhami, in Muslims Islamists and the Cold War, gives us a small, corrective counter-history to the usual American myth-making in this area. LI recommends reading the whole article. Talhami nowhere employs the language of demonology – but to LI, with our little faith in the ultimate rationality of American policymakers, the whole thing exudes a whiff of sulphur and brimstone.
Primo devil was communism. In the post war period, this devil was best fought by alliances with the regions various militaries. This was distinctive: while the U.S. had trained militaries in Central and Latin America before World War II, the spread of American influence through global militaries is still obscured by the by the historian’s preference for seeing the state as one unified entity, with military organizations identified with and subordinate to some governing organization. In LI’s opinion, America’s love affair with men in foreign uniforms had to do with the command and control mindset that dominated the postwar period. In places like Iraq and Iran, the military seemed to be the only command and control structure available. States were anything but; businesses played by puzzling local rules, and were, anyway, either too small or were being nationalized, which is what we were fighting against. The military seemed the best vector through which America could access these countries. An unexpected result of that was that the military often took over the state in these countries – but really, this wasn’t America’s problem. Thus, America could re-activate a cadre of pro-Nazi officers in Iran while at the same time quietly supporting Egypt’s nationalist officers, all in the same great cause: anti-communism.
Secundo devil sprang up from that same corps of Egyptian officers: Nasser. Nassaer was the cleverest of all the Middle Eastern Satans. At first, he seemed to promise to accomplish both he overt American goal [stopping communism] as well as our latent goal [diminishing the British influence in the Middle East]. But after 57, Nasser revealed the scaly tail. His nationalism became a threat to all we held near and dear, or at least to our allies – the King of Iraq, the House of Saud, Israel, etc. – in the region. Like all devils, he flew through the air – like all modern devils, he did this by way of the airwaves – and tunneled through that invisible territory, the hearts of the Arab masses. Suddenly, there was no King in Baghdad. Suddenly, there was OPEC. Suddenly, various oil rich countries started trying to extort the profits from pumping their oil. Suddenly, and most unforgiveably, Nassar started subverting the House of Saud.
As always, the devil is too clever by half. Nasser held out the promise of a secular nationalism, a brotherhood of Arabs. The counter-move was obvious. The Saudis had been suggesting it, to American indifference, all along: revive the religious sensibility of the Islamic world. Suddenly, that seemed like an awful good idea. And so it was that the Saudis started printing Qor’ans and building mosques and the Americans started aiding the Moslem brotherhood in Egypt. Nothing pleases Americans more than religion. In the aftermath of 9/11, the NYT’s favorite American Marxist, Paul Berman, published a little tract in which he traced the ‘intellectual history’ of “Islamofascism” without once mentioning that, from 1957 to 2001, America loved and nurtured Islamofascism. But then again, Berman is what Marxists used to call a lackey – he exists to be pointed to by reactionaries on any topic in which the U.S. is proposing some small ethnic cleansing, some subvention of a death squad despot, in order to add catholicity to the project.
Now, although Americans just loved the idea, in the sixties, of colorful imams and veiled women (portrayed, in the movies, as invariably sex starved creatures) ruling various Middle Eastern places, the project of reviving Islam wasn’t really ‘believed in” by the American advisors. They still believed, ultimately, in command and control structures – Islamism was a psy ops. Ultimately, when American foreign policy isn’t oppressive, in the Middle East, it is frivolous. So yes, Americans will sponsor one eyed Sheik Omar as he trips around the world preaching jihad, and yes, under George Bush I, we will even let him settle in New Jersey (where he can plot the first assault on the World Trade Center), but we can never take him seriously. The attitude is: let the wogs have their little magical ceremonies.
Which is why we were so surprised by the third devil: Khomenei. As Reagan’s cake and bible bearing envoys might have put it: aren’t we on the same page? Well, it turned out we weren’t. Americans loved Iran’s shah – so colorful, such a relic from the past! But the ayatollah – a new word – it made us belatedly discover the virtues of the separation of church and state.
As so often, when the Lord closes the door, he opens a little window.Just as we had a new devil to contend with, the old devil made his move – into Afghanistan. And then occurred one of those Reagan era miracles, where everything just seems magically to coalesce. In other words, there was an absolute synergy between exorcists. The Saudis can refine their Islamism into an anti-Shi’ism; the Americans can indirectly fight the Russians; the Pakistanis can leverage several needed billions of dollars, build a nuclear bomb (with Reagan lobbying Congress not to punish them for it); and there’s no down side. Well, not unless one is extraordinarily sensitive to the million or so dead that are added up at the end of the Afghan conflict; not unless one is a crybaby about the destruction of Sufi culture, which in Afghanistan, as later in Chechnya, is singled out by Salafid heretic hunters. Devil three is as much on the mind of the exorcists as Devil one – so the ISI and the Saudi al-Istikhbarat al Ammah, their internal security police, can get together on promoting a Sunni Islamism that nourishes itself on anti-Shi’ite pogroms. In Reagan’s golden day, the Americans weren’t so grossed out about beheadings – after all, we watched the Saudis put down a revolt in 1979 with the massive use of beheadings of the rebels without a qualm or quiver.
So between the ISI, the Cia, and the Saudis, a terrible beauty is born.
The devil’s tricks, however, are infinite. When Devil no. 1 surrenders, the cartel of Exorcists International implodes.
But this is mere background noise in 91, when the last devil pops up: Saddam Hussein. Hunted down in his spider hole by forces under the command of the same guy who intermediated his mustard gas-n-charge war against Devil no. 3 almost twenty years before, the war against Devil 4 proves nothing so much as that demonology is a murky world. You don’t always know who you are fighting, or why. Americans have one infallible resource that has made them the world’s premier fighter of devils, however – purity of heart. They must have it – they proclaim it so often. Purity of heart means knowing that you are Right and Good. Knowing you are Right and Good means that you will prevail. That you will prevail means that only the picky, or the devil’s agents, will examine the means by which you prevail. To be a member of the Right and the Good means recognizing that, in the order of creation, the pure heart precedes any possible action that could define or confute it.
This is not a time for questioning or irony, but a time to free Iraqis. Freeing them, it turns out, has been the secret desire of ordinary Americans for decades. They only want to free them. Freedom and more freedom must be heaped upont them.
However, joyful as is the task of liberating our Iraqi brothers, Americans are too old in the devil hunting business not to smell something suspicious in the air. Is there a devil no. 5 emerging? Consider: we know that Osama bin Laden is only a mask for Saddam Hussein. Yet somehow, after the man under the mask was arrested, the mask still survives, and even makes mocking videos! How can this be? Unless… isn’t there something supernatural here? Cue the eery music.
Perhaps the new devil turns out to be the Sunnis. Perhaps our happy cooperation in the killing of Shiites back in the eighties – the way we watched the Saudis hunt their own Shi’ite population, and just found it adorable how they’d use those old fashioned simitar like things to behead radical leaders of same – perhaps that was a trick of this new devil. But our contemporary devil hunter confronts a daunting task – on the one hand, shoring up a President, in Pakistan, who sprang from the same milieu that materially supported Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 hijackers, on the other hand, razing to the ground Sunni strongholds in Iraq and dispersing their inhabitants, without a tent or a bottle of water, to the four winds. The last is not a war crime – by definition, Americans can’t commit war crimes. And then there is our most reliable ally in the Middle East, the Saudis. They must be startled by the new American policy of killing Sunnis. It is going to be harder and harder to explain that one.
Nobody ever said devil hunting was easy. We have to rely, once again, on our good intentions. God will provide the rest.