Squaring the circle

"The war between George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden defeated both of its protagonists," says Gilles K

Beyond Terror and Martyrdom: the Future of the Middle East

Gilles Kepel
Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, 328pp, £18.95

American history is a saga of the frontier. As the young republic advanced across the Allegheny Mountains to the Ohio and the Mississippi rivers and forward to the Pacific Ocean, it met resistance as it breached each new boundary. The "other" with whom the settler shared the con tinent was the original enemy. Symbolised by different costumes and customs, this "other" allowed a growing population to define its mission and, thus, its identity.

The new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all could (and should) become Americans, displaced and annihilated all who denied its Manifest Destiny to conquer, to rule, to absorb or to remove. "Bad Indians" such as Geronimo were contrasted with the "good Indians", the scouts and trackers who helped the US Cavalry to bring him to justice. (Some Americans agreed with General Sheridan, who said: "The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.") Pagan religious fanaticism, latterly shown by "Ghost Dancers", explained the Indians' apparently inexplicable uprisings. That the indigenes preferred to rule themselves did not occur to the beneficent conqueror. If asked for justification of its native policy, or its practices the world over, Americans could do no better than repeat the axiom that carried the Crusaders into Jerusalem: Deus le veult (God wills it).

When the Census Bureau declared the internal frontier closed in 1890, the movement outward proceeded without interruption. The rep ublic went forth into the world with its original experience of conquest as a model for those that followed. Populations beyond the reach of the American mission were invariably evil: Filipino and Vietnamese supplanted the Apache and Sioux who had already faced the Gatling gun. There would always be "good" Filipinos, "good" Cubans and "good" Vietnamese to assist in the project to subdue their fellows. There is no better representation of the American self-view than the statue outside New York's Museum of Natural History of a mounted President Teddy Roosevelt, who worked hard to turn the self-declared republic into a world empire. Standing beside his right stirrup, guiding him through the dangers beyond the old frontiers, is a "good Indian".

The motifs of the American war on terror bear more than a family resemblance to those of the battles against what the Declaration of Independence called "the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages". It is specifically tailored for the Middle East and the further reaches of the world of Islam in order, as Gilles Keppel writes in his enlightening book, "to square the circle - to guarantee both Israel's security and the unimpeded flow of oil from the Persian Gulf". The book's thesis is that both the jihadists who attacked New York and Washington in 2001 and the neoconservatives who sent US soldiers into Afghanistan and Iraq have failed to achieve their goals. "The war between George W Bush and Osama Bin Laden defeated both of its protagonists," Kepel writes. The conflict, however, is unlikely to end while both sides see advantages in the posturing that comes with a perpetual battle with evil. The new US president, Barack Hussein Obama, has promised to step up the war in Afghanistan; and Osama Bin Laden, as well as those who would take his place, have sworn to kill more Americans and those, including "good" Muslims, allied to them. Failure is no bar to playing this millenarian game.

Kepel exposes the flaws and fantasies in the jihadist, as well as American, propaganda ars en als. The jihadists, as they portray themselves on al-Jazeera and the internet, seem as divorced from real life as the extreme leftist groups in Europe and Japan were in the Seventies. One jihadist, Abu Musab al-Suri, shows himself to be more rational than either Osama Bin Laden or his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. But this does not prevent him from merely Islamicising the idiotic dialectic of Baader-Meinhof and the Red Brigades. Kepel writes: "According to Suri's analysis, attacks on well-known intellectual figures are comparatively easy to execute and are particularly spectacular. They strike fear into the hearts of unbelievers, they incite other potential militants to 'resist', and they provoke anti- Islamic repression. This repression, in turn, leads to reflective solidarity among the Muslim masses, and in this way the ideology of jihad spreads throughout the Islamic population."

The only problem with Suri's prediction is that it hasn't worked. Assassinations in western countries, particularly of anti-jihadist Muslims, have had the opposite effect. Most Muslims in Europe and the United States are repelled by violence committed in their name. The real recruiter to the jihadist cause has not been jihadist actions and appeals. Nope, the Lord Kitchener of this jihad is America's invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan (with all the deaths, acts of torture, displacement of people and divisions of society they have caused); the exposure of US torture at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram and elsewhere; and Israel's attacks on Palestinians in the occupied territories, the latest of which is unfolding with huge loss of life in Gaza at this moment. Each side does more for the other than it could hope to accomplish for itself. (What good did the 11 September 2001 attacks do Muslims, compared to the boost they gave to Washington's neoconservative holy warriors?)

Kepel dismisses the pretence that the US would, through its invasion of Iraq, usher in a democratic era in other Arab states. He writes: "The authoritarian Sunni governments of the region - Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria, which Washington had accused of being too soft on terrorism - enjoyed an ironic reinstatement at the White House as President Bush, at his wit's end, cast aside any concern for democratic principles in a bid for urgent regional support." Apart from the caveat that Syria's leadership is not Sunni (it comes from the Alawite offshoot of Shiaism), Bush's neoconservatives could not have been serious about bringing democracy to the region. When the Palestinians elected a Hamas government hostile to Israel, Washington refused to recognise it and supported Israel's blockade (an act of war) against the 1.5 million Palestinians of the Gaza Strip as well as the deployment of Israeli hit squads to murder their leaders and civilians who happened to be nearby.

Nothing in the neoconservative canon would cause Washington to deviate from its response to the Palestinian elections if the Egyptians and Saudis voted the same way - as they would if they were allowed to. Is it likely that Bush really sought to "democratise" the region, when that meant permitting its populations to choose leaders opposed to US support for Israel, Israeli colonisation of the West Bank and Israeli attacks on the West Bank, Gaza and Lebanon? Did neoconservatism's high priests want Arab democracy, when that threatened to limit Israeli options? How would democracy "square the circle" of supporting Israel while keeping the guardians of Arab oil sweet? The only way to do that, which is how the US has done it since the Second World War, is to forestall democracy and impose "good" rulers on the Arab people in America's interest. As the new president has promised, and, as Kepel writes, what the world can expect from Washington is continuity - the same policies, the impossibly squared circles and possibly the same cant about democracy. Of course, in the real world of the Pax [sic] Americana of the Middle East, democracy will not be allowed. The jihadists will like that.