How Bush-Cheneyism Made Mideast in Its Image: Wars, the War on Terror, With Us or Against Us
This post originally ran on Truthdig contributor Juan Cole’s website.
Thirteen years after the illegal US invasion of Iraq, it is worth considering its full impact on this country and on the region. Bush-Cheneyism had a number of key pillars, among which these were prominent:
1. Aggressive unilateral warfare, with the domestic advantage of making the public rally around the flag.
2. Conspiracy-theory amalgamation of various threats into one (‘Saddam supports al-Qaeda’)
3. A vague, endless war on terrorism used as a means of scaring the electorate and creating a market for the securitization of politics (replete with color-coded terrorism alerts)
4. An insistence on a black and white “you are with us or against us”
5. Smearing regime critics as terrorist sympathizers
6. Broadly hinting around that one ethnic or religious group is the enemy
7. Explicit policy of using torture in counter-terrorism
8. Making a sort of coup on behalf of key principals in the executive branch, and ignoring or lying to other branches of government and even less-favored units within the executive.
9. Steep tax cuts and provision of government resources like no-bid contracts to wealthy regime supporters but offloading of expenses and costs of government services and higher education onto working and middle classes
10. Deregulation and removal of oversight from powerful financial and other backers of the regime.
While some of these techniques of governance have a long genealogy in the annals of American criminality– oops, I mean politics– to gather them all together and practice them all at high intensity was probably unprecedented in any presidential regime in US history.
For all their differences, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in large part campaigning on the full restoration of Bush-Cheneyism (and on moving to its right in many instances).
I warned at the time that quite aside from the disasters these policies brought upon the United States– the Iraq War, the 2008 financial collapse, the increase in US inequality, the illegal surveillance and targeting of regime critics– one central harm of Bush-Cheneyism is that it would inevitably legitimate these behaviors abroad. For better or worse, in the post-WW II era, the US has been an opinion leader and model for many other countries. For the US essentially to abrogate elements of the first, fourth and eighth amendments, when so many reforms and policies around the world have been modeled on our Bill of Rights, was extremely dangerous. Bush-Cheneyism also gave the US much less leverage abroad. Imagine having to go from the US embassy in Tashkent to meet with the Uzbekistan government in 2006 and complain about its use of torture. Wouldn’t that government just throw Guantanamo back in your face?
In today’s Middle East, Bush-Cheneyism has been embraced by the major countries of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. (Though, to be fair, Egypt has so far avoided plank number 1, aggressive war beyond the country’s borders).
Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan lost the parliamentary elections last June, in part because of the rise of a leftist pro-Kurdish party, the HDP, which stole away votes from rural Kurds who had tended to favor Erdogan’s center-right, Islam-friendly Justice and Development Party (AKP). In response, Erdogan declined to let the AKP go into coalition and provoked new snap elections on November 1. But at the same time, from last summer, he annulled the peace process with the PKK terrorist organization consisting of a minority of separatist Kurds who had taken up arms. The PKK was guilty of provocations, but Erdogan’s response seems to have been calculated and vastly disproportionate. He cleverly finally acquiesced in US pressure to bomb Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) in al-Raqqa in Syria, which he had declined to get involved with earlier. But once the US gave him the identify friend or foe codes that would allow Turkish planes to fly over Syria and Iraq in US-controlled skies, he instead subjected the PKK to massive bombing runs, which largely ignoring Daesh.
Having polarized Turkish society on the Kurdish issue and having predictably increased the tensions and violence in the Kurdish-majority parts of Turkey in the east and southeast, Erdogan made substantial inroads in the November 1 election into HDP strength and got 50% of the seats. It is enough to form a government without a partner, but not quite enough to amend the constitution unilaterally, which Erdogan would like to do so as to switch to a French-style presidential system and make himself powerful president for life.
“Erdogan slammed those who criticize Turkey over values like “democracy, freedom and rule of law,” in a speech in Ankara to local district leaders.
“For us, these phrases have absolutely no value any longer,” he said in the televised address. “Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friend. Those on the opposite side, are our enemy.”
His government has acted on these threats, arresting numerous journalists and academics who dare raise a peep against his authoritarianism at home and his dangerous policies in the Middle East, which have allegedly involved support for radical Muslim groups in Syria and attacks on PKK and YPD units in Iraq and Syria. He has also pursued counter-insurgency policies in Anatolia that have allegedly involved heavy abuse of civilian civil rights among Turkish Kurds.
The crushing of the press and the universities, the ‘with us or against us’ stridency, the militarism, all of this also coincides with substantial allegations of corruption in high places. It is Bush-Cheneyism.
Likewise, consider Saudi Arabia under King Salman. The kingdom never provided many human rights domestically and has relentlessly punished dissidents, including with the death penalty. Little has changed in that regard, though the new king from 2014 has taken Saudi Arabia in an unprecedented direction with regard to foreign adventurism.
Saudi Arabia used to act behind the scenes, greasing palms with money and influencing its neighbors with foreign aid. King Salman and his crew, however, have adopted a stance of aggressive military adventurism, on the grounds that they want to block Iranian influence. Iran is to Riyadh what Saddam’s Iraq had been to Bush, authorizing everything — lies, war, torture, surveillance and repression to protect the lies.
Saudi Arabia launched a brutal air war on Yemen last year this time, which has continued ever since. On Wednesday, a Saudi bombing of a market that left over a hundred innocents dead was termed a possible war crime by a United Nations official. King Salman maintains that in fall of 2014 the Houthi rebels took over Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, in conjunction with forces loyal to deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh, as part of an Iranian plot. Their only evidence for this allegation is that the Houthis derive from the Zaydi branch of Shiite Islam, and Iranians are also Shiites (but are Twelvers). Iran maybe sent over $3 mn. and some minor equipment to the Houthis, but Tehran’s role in Yemen doesn’t seem very important and the struggles are mostly domestic.
Saudi Arabia also justifies sending troops into Bahrain, and funding hard line Salafi jihadi groups in Syria, on the grounds of a struggle against Iran, terming Iran’s allies “terrorists.” So it is a war on terror. Bush-Cheneyism.
Saudi Arabia even persuaded the Arab League to designate Lebanon’s Shiite party-militia, Hizbullah, a terrorist organization recently. This organization had been lionized by Arab League members for standing up to the aggressive Israeli invasion of south Lebanon in 2006, but now it is all of a sudden just terrorists (the same diction as used by the Israeli media). Why? Because Hizbullah is allied with Iran and it interfered with Saudi plans to turn Syria into a Taliban-like state with its Salafi proxies.
Egypt’s government has also pursued Bush-Cheneyism. General-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made a coup more openly than did Cheney-Bush, deposed and menaced President Muhammad Morsi, and then declared the former elected ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood, a terrorist organization. This absurd political move then of course pushed some elements on the Muslim religious right into violence, providing al-Sisi with the terrorist he had said he was fighting. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy, just like Erdogan’s. And, al-Sisi has jailed dozens of journalists, along with youth activists such as Ahmad Maher, Alaa Abdel Fattah, and Mahinour al-Masri among many others, and is now attempting to shut down NGOs across the board. His secret police appear to have detained and tortured to death a Cambridge Ph.D. researcher working on labor activism, in a brazen act of repression targeting a European national that is unprecedented to my knowledge in modern Egyptian history.
As with Bush-Cheneyism, none of these regimes has invented a threat out of whole cloth, but they have hyped or connived at polarization. And all have taken their governments in dark semi-fascist directions.
One of the most momentous consequences of the Obama administration’s refusal to prosecute the crimes committed in the course of the Bush-Cheney regime was to allow it to retain legitimacy, both among sections of the US electorate and among crony regimes abroad.
That Trump and Cruz are actually campaigning on a return to Bush-Cheneyism should alarm everyone and not only Americans.