US imperialism and the war for the Middle East

by Corey Oakley • Published 12 January 2015

Since the dramatic seizure of Mosul by Islamic State[1] forces in June 2014, the contradictions in US Middle East policy, the limitations of US power and the lack of any coherent strategy have all become glaringly apparent. On the one hand, Obama’s plan to draw down US engagement in the Middle East in order to focus on Asia is no longer viable. The US cannot disengage from the Middle East without suffering a severe blow to its status as the world’s dominant imperial power. On the other hand, the fallout from the failed occupation of Iraq and the radical realignment of forces in the years since the 2011 Arab uprising have combined to severely limit the ability of the US to intervene. Obama’s campaign to “degrade and destroy” the Islamic State is at best an exercise in wishful thinking. No credible argument has been put forward that a US air campaign without a substantial commitment of ground forces will do anything to push back the Islamic State or advance US strategic interests. But Obama has no stomach for a new invasion of Iraq. This reluctance is the result, not of some peacenik liberalism, but of the ever present memory, in both ruling class circles and the US population as a whole, of the painful consequences of the 2003 invasion and its aftermath.

Unable and unwilling to intervene directly in a decisive manner, the US has attempted to enlist the help of various regional forces. But the region’s major players – most importantly Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran – show little interest in being proxies for US power, and are instead focused on a bitter struggle among themselves to assert influence in a changing geopolitical landscape. Attempts by the US to broker a rapprochement with Iran, led by US Secretary of State John Kerry, have met with fierce opposition from Saudi Arabia. Israel, supposedly the closest ally of the US in the region, is likewise hostile to a deal between the US and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Turkey have both demanded that the US take real action to facilitate the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. But the US is hamstrung by its reliance on Iran – a key Assad backer – to prop up the anti-IS forces in Iraq.

These contradictions have led not only to a vacillating US policy but also to a major debate in the US establishment about the fundamentals of its Middle East policy. The White House has been pursuing talks with Iran and views favourably the prospect of a major reconciliation over the next few years, ending the hostilities that have existed, with various levels of intensity, since the 1979 revolution. Others reject any compromise with Iran and argue that the US should intervene to help topple the Assad regime in Syria.

This complex situation is a reflection of the marked decline in US imperial power over the last decade. The US remains the world’s only true global power. It is the only nation capable of projecting force anywhere on the planet. But it is no longer unchallengeable or unchallenged.

The Iraq war and the decline of US power

The US emerged from the collapse of the Soviet Union in a position of unprecedented strength. Militarily it was vastly superior, spending more on arms than the rest of the world combined. Economically the US had declined from its overwhelmingly dominant position at the end of World War II and during the postwar boom, but it still accounted for about 32 percent of the world economy in 2003, giving it a significant advantage over its rivals. But if the US did not face serious short term threats to its hegemony, the medium to long term position remained unpredictable.

The Iraq war was meant to be the opening play in a new strategy to ensure continued US global hegemony, underpinned by the ability of the US to dominate the world by virtue of its overwhelming military power. The key architects of this approach were grouped around the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a think tank established in 1997 in an effort to provide a long term strategy that would prevent the rise of what it termed a “peer competitor”. There was no guarantee, the PNAC argued, that the unipolar world that emerged out of the collapse of the USSR would endure. Unchallenged US domination would prove fleeting if it did not aggressively take advantage of its temporary dominance to set in place the conditions for long term hegemony.

The outlook of the PNAC was set out in a report that John Pilger described as “a blueprint of American aims in all but name”.[2] Rebuilding America’s Defences: strategy, forces and resources for a new century argued:

America should seek to preserve and extend its position of global leadership by maintaining the pre-eminence of US military forces. Today, the United States has an unprecedented strategic opportunity. It faces no immediate great-power challenge; it is blessed with wealthy, powerful and democratic allies in every part of the world; it is in the midst of the longest economic expansion in its history; and its political and economic principles are almost universally embraced. At no time in history has the international security order been as conducive to American interests and ideals. The challenge for the coming century is to preserve and enhance this “American peace”. Yet unless the United States maintains sufficient military strength, this opportunity will be lost.[3]

There was a messianic element to much of their thinking. Richard Perle, arguing for a strategy of “total war”, said:

No stages… We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there. All this talk about first we are going to do Afghanistan, then we will do Iraq…is entirely the wrong way to go about it. If we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war…our children will sing great songs about us years from now.[4]

The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001 were the opportunity the neocons had been waiting for. Investigative reporter for The New Yorker Nicholas Lemann described how Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s most senior adviser, told him that in the wake of 9/11:

[S]he had called together the senior staff people of the National Security Council and asked them to think seriously about “how do you capitalize on these opportunities” to fundamentally change American doctrine, and the shape of the world, in the wake of September 11th. “I really think this period is analogous to 1945 to 1947”, she said – that is, the period when the containment doctrine took shape – “in that the events so clearly demonstrated that there is a big global threat, and that it’s a big global threat to a lot of countries that you would not have normally thought of as being in the coalition. That has started shifting the tectonic plates in international politics. And it’s important to try to seize on that and position American interests and institutions and all of that before they harden again.”[5]

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are sometimes portrayed as the result of the neocons, a particular faction of the US ruling class (or more narrowly, a particular faction of the Republican Party), hijacking US foreign policy. But this ignores the fact that the Iraq war had overwhelming support among all the institutions of the US establishment. The events of 9/11 had enabled PNAC to win the argument about the possibility and the necessity of a new era of US military assertiveness.

In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad, the hawks in the Bush administration were triumphant. US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrogantly strutted the Middle East threatening war on Syria, talked of a blockade of North Korea and issued veiled threats against Iran. As part of Rumsfeld’s plans, the US moved troops from Germany to Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary to surround Russia. US defence analyst John Pike gloated about the global spread of US forces: “If you want to talk about suns never setting on Empires…the Brits had nothing compared to this.” But after just a few short months of occupation, the mood in Washington changed. Leading figures on the right of US politics began to fear a calamity. William Kristol and Robert Kagan, two of the most prominent neo-conservative ideologues, editorialised in The Weekly Standard on 1 September 2003:

The future course of American foreign policy, American world leadership and American security is at stake. Failure in Iraq would be a devastating blow to everything the United States hopes to accomplish and must accomplish in the decades ahead.[6]

These fears were realised in the years that followed, as the US became bogged down in a gruelling and bloody occupation, facing a determined Iraqi resistance movement. By August 2004 Robert Fisk was able to write:

Much of Iraq has fallen outside the control of America’s puppet government… Hundreds of attacks are made against US troops every month. I drive down to Najaf. Highway 8 is one of the worst in Iraq. It is littered with burnt-out police vehicles and American trucks. Every police post for 70 miles has been abandoned. The American-appointed “government” controls only parts of Baghdad – and even there its ministers and civil servants are car-bombed and assassinated. Baquaba, Samara, Kut, Mahmoudiya, Hilla, Fallujah, Ramadi, all are outside government authority. Iyad Allawi, the “Prime Minister”, is little more than mayor of Baghdad.[7]

As the war dragged on and the US death toll rose, opposition at home became more entrenched. By 2005 retired Army Lt. Gen. William Odom was describing the Iraq war as “the greatest strategic disaster in US history”.[8] The neocons’ grand plans lay in ruins, and all that was left was to manage a US withdrawal in such a way as to minimise the strategic damage to US power. Ironically, the biggest winner of the Iraq occupation was the Iranian regime. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein not only removed a regional competitor with whom Iran had fought a long and bloody war but also left Iraq weak, divided and open to significant Iranian influence. Furthermore, it destroyed the neocon dream of expanding US regime change operations to Tehran. And with the US bogged down in Iraq, rivals like China and Russia were able to project their own power with limited US opposition: into Eastern Europe in Russia’s case, and South-East Asia, Africa and Latin America in the case of China. The global economic crisis that began in 2008 further underlined the shifting plates of global power. Between 2007 and 2012, the advanced economies grew by 3 percent, the emerging and developing countries by 31 percent, and China by 51 percent.[9] The extraordinary rise of China is reflected in both its rate of growth – as Ashley Smith has pointed out, 30 years ago its economy was smaller than the Netherlands’,[10] and it is now the second biggest economy in the world and projected to overtake the US within 20 years – and also its growing strategic weight in the global economic system, a point underlined by China’s now acknowledged role as banker to the US government.

The significant ruling class backing for Barack Obama in the 2008 election was recognition of the failure of the “Bush doctrine” of American unilateralism. Obama’s plan to “pivot to Asia” was an attempt to cut US losses in the Middle East and rebuild after the Iraq debacle. But ongoing instability in Iraq and the momentous uprising across the Arab world in 2011 made such a reorientation impossible.

The great rupture

The seeming omnipotence of US imperialism in 2003 was not simply a product of the overwhelming military power it brought to bear in Iraq. The second crucial factor was the absence of any force in the Arab world that could provide an alternative to the US version of “the new Middle East”. Iraqis showed little interest in fighting to defend the corrupt and brutal regime of Saddam Hussein. Of the other Arab countries, no regime offered any meaningful opposition to the US invasion, and popular protests, while reflective of great anger, were ineffectual. In the following years, forces that stood in opposition to imperialist domination of the region did emerge. The Iraqi resistance, in both its Sunni and Shiite elements, was the most important of these, combining elements of a civil protest movement with a mass-based armed insurgency. Outside Iraq, Hezbollah’s war to drive back the Israeli assault on Lebanon in July 2006 electrified Arab opinion. It was the biggest defeat ever inflicted on Israel by an Arab army. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah was – justifiably – hailed as a hero across the Arab world.

These struggles against invasion and occupation were entirely legitimate. The Iraqi resistance in particular is owed a great debt by the people of the world for the fact that it halted the US military in its tracks, and in doing so stopped countless further wars that would have been the inevitable result of a decisive US victory in Iraq. But there nonetheless remained major limitations. One, the struggles in both Iraq and Lebanon were, by necessity, militarised movements in which popular mobilisation and organisation played a secondary role. This followed the pattern that emerged with the second Palestinian Intifada that broke out in 2000, which (in response to savage Israeli repression) quickly became militarised and had little of the mass character and popular organisation of the first Intifada that had begun in 1987. The second limitation was that these struggles, focused by necessity on the “external” enemy of Western imperialism, did not directly challenge the other key and in many ways more intractable pillar of reaction across the region – the corrupt Arab ruling classes and the despotic regimes with which they are intertwined.

All this changed with the Arab revolution of 2011. From one end of the Arab world to the other, millions of people rose up in revolt. It was a movement without precedent in the Middle East for its scale and spread, a genuine mass uprising that in a few short weeks overturned dictators, threw the Arab ruling classes and their imperialist patrons into complete disarray and opened a new epoch in Arab politics and society, the final outcome of which will still not be known for many years. Leon Trotsky famously defined revolution as “the entry of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny”. In January, February and March of 2011, the world got a glimpse of what this means as heroic young people took to the streets in defiance of tear gas, batons and bullets, determined to chart a new future for themselves and their countries.

The Arab uprising reframed the entire political discourse in the Middle East. There had always been a link between the struggle against imperialism and opposition to the Arab dictatorships. Even those rulers who mouthed opposition to US imperialism and support for the Palestinians were quick to put down any actual agitation against imperialism or in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, as they knew the potential for anti-imperialist movements to morph into resistance to the regimes that were intimately tied to the system of imperialist domination and capitalism across the region. But the Arab uprising was unique in that its great slogan in almost every country, “the people want the overthrow of the regime”, directly challenged the system of political and economic power in every Arab country. More than that, in a region where oppositional struggle had for so long been the preserve of armed groups, or of political organisations tied to one or another of the Arab regimes, this was a mass popular uprising, a rebellion that united people in struggle across sectarian, political, religious and national lines against the authoritarian regimes and the super-rich elite in whose interests they ruled. The revolt did, of course, as is the case with all genuinely mass democratic uprisings, draw in significant sections of the middle class. But it was driven by young people, workers, students and the poor, and was centred not only on democracy but also on demands for social justice and the redistribution of wealth.

Among the millions on the streets, there was no shortage of hostility to US imperialism or support for the Palestinian cause. In Cairo after the fall of Mubarak, thousands of Palestinian flags flew at demonstrations in Tahrir Square in solidarity with young Palestinians in the Golan Heights and the West Bank battling Israeli troops on the anniversary of the nakba. But as people rose up with the same slogans and demands against both the openly pro-Western regimes in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia, and against the leaders of the so-called “anti-imperialist front” like Bashar al-Assad in Syria, the real fault lines of Arab politics became clear. No longer was the divide between the warring band of brothers at the top of Arab society, each aligned in their own way to the conflicting blocs of regional and global politics. The uprising posed a new division: the mass of the Arab people on the one side, and the ruling Arab elites, the rich and the imperialists of all stripes on the other.

This new dynamic posed a challenge not only to the ruling regimes, but also to the resistance movements of the region – most importantly Hezbollah and Hamas, but also the other Islamist, nationalist and leftist political forces whose identity was closely wrapped up with opposition to imperialism, but were also connected to one or another regional regime. As long as they were fighting Israel, the contradictions inherent in both resisting elements of the regional capitalist system and also being intertwined with other elements of it, could remain in the background. A new region-wide popular movement against all of the established ruling elites brought those contradictions to the fore.

The US response to the Arab uprising

The “Arab Spring”, to use the name most favoured in the West, posed a severe challenge to US strategic interests. Already severely weakened by its failure in Iraq, the US was thrown into chaos by the stunning speed of the revolt, which in a few short weeks tore apart a regional order that had taken many decades to construct. As Gilbert Achcar wrote:

The Arab uprising exploded in [a] context marked by the advanced decomposition of American hegemony over the region. What is more, it began by deeply destabilising a pair of states that are US allies, one of which is also its principal Arab military partner. Two of the oldest Arab friends of Western governments fell. With movements springing up in virtually all the countries in the region, three more US allies had to face uprisings in their turn: Yemen, Bahrain and Libya. The US found itself in the position of a captain who has lost control of his ship in a raging sea. In such circumstances, it does no good to toil against wind and waves; one is better advised to go with the flow than to resist at the risk of sinking the ship.[11]

After initial hesitation, Obama and his administration publicly positioned themselves in support of the revolution. But they were in a bind. It was one thing to recognise that Ben Ali and Mubarak were lost causes, and that it was necessary to grant reforms to avoid a much greater conflagration. But on a fundamental level, the US could not tolerate real Arab democracy, which is completely counterposed to US interests in the Middle East. One indication of the problem was revealed in a survey that found that in Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, as well as in Turkey, over three quarters of respondents held an unfavourable view of the United States at the time of the Arab Spring. And even that understates the real problem. Many Arabs express admiration for aspects of US society or its people, but when it comes to issues affecting the Middle East, almost every US policy – the war in Iraq, support for the Saudi monarchy, the imposition of neoliberal economic policies and, most of all, the unwavering US support for Israel – is bitterly resented. A genuinely democratic government in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Syria or Lebanon would be deeply hostile to US policy in general and Israel in particular.

So while the US voiced support for the democratic demands of the protesters and accepted the necessity for at least some of the old rulers to be removed, officials and political leaders constantly emphasised the need for an “orderly transition” that would ensure “stability”. The general approach was to back the existing order as long as it seemed viable, and, once it didn’t, to look for the smoothest transition that would keep as much of the existing state as possible in place and ensure a new regime that Washington could work with.

It is notable that the US approach was markedly different from that of its closest regional ally, Israel, which was much more overtly hostile to the democratic revolt and reluctant to accede to a policy that accepted change. The former Israeli ambassador in Cairo described the potential fall of the Mubarak regime as “a horrible scenario” and “a disaster for Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Europe and the US”.[12] Israeli hostility was not reserved for the movements against the explicitly pro-Western regimes. With regard to Syria, Efraim Halevy, who served as chief of Mossad from 1998 to 2002, wrote:

Israel knows one important thing about the Assads: for the past 40 years, they have managed to preserve some form of calm along the border. Technically, the two countries have always been at war – Syria has yet to officially recognize Israel – but Israel has been able to count on the governments of Hafez and Bashar Assad to enforce the Separation of Forces Agreement from 1974, in which both sides agreed to a cease-fire in the Golan Heights, the disputed vantage point along their shared border. Indeed, even when Israeli and Syrian forces were briefly locked in fierce fighting in 1982 during Lebanon’s civil war, the border remained quiet.[13]

If there is any clearer indictment of the Assad regime’s supposed “anti-imperialist” credentials, I would like to hear it.

The US role in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya looks, on the face of it, to be an example of a more interventionist US approach than that adopted in Egypt, Syria and Yemen. The US and NATO were involved in extensive bombing, and the result was not just the fall of Gaddafi but also the collapse of the Libyan state. But the eventual outcome in Libya was, in fact, precisely the situation the US was trying to avoid. Libya had been a Western ally since 2003. Western oil companies such as the Italian ENI, the British BP, the French Total and GDF Suez and the US companies ConocoPhillips, Hess and Occidental all had substantial investments in the country. The US sold and facilitated the sale of weapons to the regime, and had been complicit in handing over Libyan opponents of the regime to Gaddafi’s torturers. The US approach to the revolt was, as elsewhere, based on an ability to read the writing on the wall and an attempt to facilitate a transition of power that would be the least disruptive to Western interests. Although, unlike in Syria, this involved military action, the US policy of refusing to arm the Syrian rebels mirrored its approach in Libya. The failure of the bombing campaign to achieve its objective of removing Gaddafi from power while leaving the core of the Libyan state intact has since been used as one of the key arguments against providing military support – even air support – to Syrian rebel groups.

The major exception to the US policy of “orderly transition” was in Bahrain. When protests broke out on 14 February 2011, they were immediately met with harsh repression. As in Egypt and elsewhere, this sparked further resistance: the occupation of public squares, and in March a general strike that was joined by 60 percent of the workforce. But the Bahrain uprising had a great disadvantage when compared with Egypt and Tunisia – the proximity of the foundational pillar of Arab reaction, Saudi Arabia. The Saudi monarchy was prepared to do whatever it took to prevent the Gulf states succumbing to the regional upheaval, and dispatched troops to Bahrain who were key to eventually putting down the revolt.

Not a word of protest about freedom and democracy came from the White House. As far as Obama was concerned, rhetoric about the righteousness of democratic uprisings was advisable only when the US could do nothing to stop them from happening. When the US’s closest Arab ally was on hand to bloodily suppress a revolt, silent consent – the decades-long US attitude to Arab authoritarianism – continued to carry the day.

The Bahrain example, aside from exposing US hypocrisy, also highlights US weakness in the face of the Arab uprising. The US military, for all its firepower, could not intervene to defend its friends in Egypt or Tunisia. The world’s greatest superpower was relegated to the role of adviser to the powers behind Mubarak and Ben Ali on how best to accept the inevitable. The Saudis proved in Bahrain that they were much more capable of intervening outside their borders to defend the old order, something that they were to demonstrate again in the coming years.

Contours of the Arab counter-revolution

Four years after the Arab uprising began, the exhilaration of those early days is a distant memory. The old order struck back hard, leaving the region bloodied beyond all recognition. In Egypt, the symbolic centre of the rebellion, military rule has been restored. The regime in Syria has more than made good on its terrible promise, “Assad, or the country burns”. The Saudi monarchy remains intact and has used its vast resources to help stymie rebellion in the Gulf countries and beyond. The US played a role in the counter-revolution from the start. But it was far from the only, or even the most important, reactionary force. The three centres of the regional counter-revolution were the Egyptian military, the Saudi monarchy and, in a slightly different way, the Syrian regime. All pursued a strategy that, while at times intersecting with the strategic orientation of the US, was fundamentally independent of it. Contrary to the view often put forward on the left, it was not US imperialism but the Arab regimes that played the leading role in destroying the democratic and social aspirations manifest in the Arab revolution.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia

The Egyptian military is the backbone of political and economic power in Egypt. Since Nasser it has been the key state institution, and it controls around a third of the economy – including investment in non-military sectors like tourism, food production, pharmaceuticals and light industry. For the most part, the military has exercised control indirectly, which has been an important factor in maintaining its image as “protector of the nation”. The ousting of Mubarak on 11 February 2011 was a coldly calculated move by the military leadership to maintain the Egyptian power structure. Proclaiming itself the agent of the popular revolutionary will, it suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature and took power in the name of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). That this move could meet with widespread approval indicated the depth of illusions in the military throughout Egyptian society, including in most of the vanguard sections of the revolutionary movement. But from the moment it took power, SCAF began to reveal its true agenda, stoking sectarian tensions against Christian Copts, denouncing workers demanding pay rises and the removal of feloul elements of management and attacking – first with words, then with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition – anyone who dared to take to the streets and squares of Egyptian cities to insist that the demands of the revolution be met.

The key ally of the military in containing and winding back the revolution was the Saudi monarchy, headed by King Abdullah. As the Marxist writer Adam Hanieh outlines in Lineages of Revolt, Saudi capital has played an increasingly important role in the Egyptian economy over the past decade. The share of Gulf capital in Egypt’s foreign direct investment rose from just 4.5 percent in 2005 to over 25 percent in 2007. From 2000 to 2008, Gulf investment accounted for around 37 percent of the value of all of the privatisation deals done as part of Mubarak’s neoliberal reforms. Just one area – the selling off of state-owned land to private investors – gives a sense of the scale of Gulf investment. One of the largest land auctions in Egyptian history, in May 2007, sold 90 percent of the 18.5 million square metres of Cairo land that was up for sale to Saudi, Qatari and UAE companies.[14] Hanieh writes:

In all of Egypt’s key economic sectors, privatisation acted to facilitate the replacement or merging of Egyptian capital with that of the Gulf – giving the latter a central position in the reproduction of capitalism at the national scale.[15]

This huge injection of Saudi capital played a crucial role in providing backbone to the Egyptian counter-revolution. As Egyptian Marxist Sameh Naguib writes:

[T]he absolute support given to the counterrevolution and its field marshal by the kings and princes of Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait does not simply express their instinctive fear of the revolution in general, but it is also the outcome of Mubarak’s neoliberal policies as well as the direct intervention of the ruling class of the Gulf monarchies into the Egyptian ruling class with its corrupt businessmen and its even more corrupt generals.

When the Saudi-Emirati axis finances the field marshal’s bloody project to kill the Egyptian revolution to the tune of more than $20 billion, this reflects an interest in not only burying the revolution, but also continuing the policies of the Mubarak regime, which has opened a fertile ground for vast profits for Gulf capital in search of profitable investment opportunities for its accumulated oil revenues. Thus, military rule in Egypt today does not only represent the Egyptian ruling class, but a regional ruling class, in which the larger component is Gulf capital.[16]

The Saudi role in the Arab counter-revolution should come as no surprise. Since the deal struck between King Saud and the US after World War II that cemented the growing power of the US in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has used its petrodollars to intervene in the politics of the region – resisting the nationalist movements of the 1950s and ’60s, containing the Palestinians, and opposing any attempt at a radical transformation of the region.

In the early stages of the US-Saudi alliance, the Saudis were very much the minor player, although the huge strategic advantage the partnership gave the US meant the Saudis were never simply a client state, as the OPEC oil crisis of 1973 attests. But the enormous development of Saudi capital over the last quarter century, and the diversification that has both reduced its reliance on oil and deepened its economic penetration into the broader Arab economy, mean that even though the alliance with the US is still of crucial importance, the Saudi regime is able to act as an independent power more than ever before.

In the wake of the Arab uprising, the Saudis aggressively pursued their own strategy, which was sharply at odds with that of the US, to wind back the revolt and restabilise the region. The key divergence was illustrated by the question of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The US saw the Brotherhood as having a crucial role – perhaps the decisive role – in using its credentials as an oppositional force to contain and coopt the revolution without fundamentally altering the pre-revolutionary social and economic order. The Saudis, on the other hand, have adopted an increasingly hostile attitude to the Brotherhood over the last four years, culminating in King Abdullah’s enthusiastic support for the ousting of Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi from the prime ministership in 2013 and the subsequent massacres and imprisonment of tens of thousands of Brotherhood members.

The divergence in the US and Saudi attitudes to the Brotherhood goes back some time. For many decades, the Saudi monarchy was the Brotherhood’s key patron, in spite of differences over the 1979 Iranian revolution. As a result, the US also had a longstanding connection to the Brotherhood. But when Saudi Arabia backed the US war on Saddam Hussein in 1991, and stationed thousands of US troops on Saudi soil, the relationship with the Brotherhood broke apart. As Stéphane Lacroix explained:

Several Brotherhood branches openly criticized the US military presence in Saudi Arabia called for by King Fahd, while the [Brotherhood-linked] Sahwa launched its own domestic campaign to demand radical political reforms including several unusually direct open letters to the king. By 1994 to 1995, the regime had crushed this campaign, but continued to harbor a deep resentment toward the Brotherhood, which it held responsible for this unprecedented episode of dissent… In 2002, in a rare display of anger against the organization, Prince Nayef bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, then minister of interior, openly accused the Muslim Brotherhood of being the “source of all evils in the Kingdom”.[17]

Over the next few years, Qatar replaced Saudi Arabia as the key patron of the Brotherhood. Of all the Gulf states, Qatar is the most adept at playing two sides at once. (Qatar also serves as the forward headquarters for the US Central Command and is the only Gulf state to have official trading relations with Israel.) Through the connection with Qatar, relations between the Brotherhood and the US thawed considerably by the early 2000s, and when the US invaded Iraq (again) in 2003, the Brotherhood’s Iraqi organisation, the Iraqi Islamic Party, was the main Sunni organisation to collaborate with the occupiers, sitting on the occupation-controlled Iraqi Governing Council.

This history goes some way to explaining why, in the wake of the Arab revolution, the US saw the Muslim Brotherhood as capable of playing a key stabilising role. As a result, the relationship between the Obama administration and the Egyptian military, which never shifted from its hostile attitude to the Brotherhood, was decidedly rocky in the period of SCAF rule. White House officials made numerous statements imploring SCAF leader Mohamed Hussein Tantawi to move toward civilian rule. In November 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned:

If, over time, the most powerful political force in Egypt remains a roomful of unelected officials, they will have planted the seeds for future unrest, and Egyptians will have missed a historic opportunity… When unelected authorities say they want to be out of the business of governing, [the United States expects them] to lay out a clear road map and abide by it.[18]

When Mohamed Morsi finally took office in June 2012, the US welcomed the move. White House officials reported that, in a phone call with Morsi, President Obama

underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfil the promise of their revolution. He emphasized his interest in working together with President-elect Morsi, on the basis of mutual respect, to advance the many shared interests between Egypt and the United States.[19]

The US orientation to the Brotherhood was not confined to Egypt. When the Ennahda movement, unofficially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Tunisian organisation, took power after elections in October 2011, this was welcomed by the US. This followed a meeting earlier in the year in Washington, where Ennahda leaders met with State Department officials and congressional leaders, including John McCain. According to an article in The Wall Street Journal:

US officials described the visit as an opportunity to build bridges with a moderate Islamist party that could serve as a model for groups in other countries in the region.[20]

The Saudi monarchy took a very different approach. From the beginning, it had no time for the US talk of “reform” or “managed transitions”, denouncing Egyptian and Tunisian protesters as “infiltrators” who “in the name of freedom of expression…spew out their hatred in destruction…inciting a malicious sedition”.[21]

When Mohamed Morsi came to power in 2012, the Saudi monarchy was not openly hostile – indeed, Morsi’s first state visit was to the Saudi kingdom. But, behind the scenes, there was increasing anger. Agitation for reform in Saudi Arabia by the Sahwa movement raised fears that the example of Islamist governments could spread to Saudi Arabia – whose monarchical structure and Wahhabist version of Islam were starkly at odds with the Brotherhood model. Added to this was the fact that, while Mubarak had been a close Saudi ally, Morsi followed his visit to Riyadh with an official trip to Tehran, Saudi Arabia’s most important regional rival.

Saudi Arabia tried to isolate Morsi economically and hasten his departure. In May 2013, just two months before the military overthrow of Morsi, the Egyptian finance minister complained to the Saudis that Egypt had received only US$1 billion of the US$3.5 billion in aid promised after Mubarak’s downfall. When Morsi fell, Saudi Arabia quickly promised Egypt a new aid package of US$5 billion, together with one from the UAE for US$3 billion and from Kuwait for US$4 billion.[22] The Saudis publicly opposed the US call for Sisi to reinstate the deposed prime minister. Two hours after Sisi took power, he received a congratulatory message from the Saudi king in which Abdullah noted: “[I]t is time to uproot this kind of strange chaos, otherwise any state or nation who is unable to rein in outlaws would eventually lose its dignity and honour.” Several weeks later he explicitly attacked Qatar (and by implication the US), accusing it of “fanning the fire of sedition and promoting terrorism, which they claim to be fighting”.[23] All of this caused unrest within Saudi Arabia itself:

Fifty-six sheikhs, some of them known to be close to the Saudi Muslim Brotherhood, condemned the “removal of a legitimately elected president” and a violation of “the will of the people”. They added: “We express our opposition and surprise at the path taken by some countries who have given recognition to the coup…thereby taking part in committing a sin and an aggression forbidden by the laws of Islam – and there will be negative consequences for everyone if Egypt enters a state of chaos and civil war.” On Twitter, in the wake of the Aug. 14, 2013 massacre in Cairo, thousands of Saudis replaced their pictures with the Rabaa sign in solidarity with the Brothers.[24]

This dissent only solidified the Saudi regime’s opposition to the Brotherhood. It immediately pledged several million dollars more in support of the Sisi regime. In March 2014, Saudi Arabia officially declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. The move came just two days after the kingdom, together with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, withdrew its ambassador from Qatar because of Qatar’s alleged support of Brotherhood interference in internal politics.

The split with Qatar came to a head several months later with the Israeli war on Gaza. Sisi and Abdullah strongly backed the Israeli assault, as they consider Hamas to be nothing but an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood. They aligned themselves with the extreme right wing in Israel, which called for an all-out war in Gaza – up to and including a full scale Israeli re-occupation. The cynical Egyptian “ceasefire” proposal was a demand for absolute surrender, and went beyond even the most cravenly pro-Israel Egyptian proposals in wars past. Instead of being a ceasefire proposal, the Egyptian “plan” amounted to a well-orchestrated move to give Israel political cover for its ground invasion of Gaza, which proceeded on schedule as soon as Hamas inevitably rejected it. Sisi was backed to the hilt by the pliant Egyptian media. Azza Sami, a writer for government daily Al-Ahram, said on Twitter: “Thank you Netanyahu, and God give us more men like you to destroy Hamas!” Tawfik Okasha, a presenter on the Al-Faraeen TV channel, said: “Gazans are not men. If they were men they would revolt against Hamas.” The Saudis went to extraordinary lengths to isolate the Brotherhood from potential sources of Arab aid. Qatar was put under incredible pressure to end its support for the Brotherhood. It has been threatened with punitive action, not just from the Saudis, but also from other neighbours like the United Arab Emirates, which is so hostile to Hamas it allegedly offered to help fund the Israeli assault on Gaza. The November 2014 announcement that diplomatic relations between Qatar and the other Gulf states have been restored indicates that Qatar has now substantially capitulated to this pressure.

The Syrian regime

The Egyptian military recognised that if Mubarak refused to relinquish power, the country would be torn apart. It had the capacity to make this judgment and act on it without a complete rupture of the state apparatus. The Syrian regime had no such choice. In Egypt the institution of the military, which effectively ruled the country, was stronger than any one individual or clique. In Syria the ruling class was intimately intertwined with the Assad family itself, and beyond it the Allawite elite, who controlled the country through an elaborate patronage system that could not be disentangled from loyalty to the central figures of the Assad clan. Because of this, the Egyptian option – a palace coup – did not exist. The state apparatus would stand or fall with its figurehead – the once considered unassuming Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian experience is a sharp lesson in the lengths the Arab state powers will go to to hold on to their core power. In Egypt and Tunisia, all kinds of concessions were initially made (most have since been withdrawn). Only in Syria have we seen the true extent of the lengths the old regimes will go to in a final defence of their rule. The results are horrifying. More than 200,000 are dead. Almost every city outside Damascus has been reduced to ruins. Millions of refugees have been forced to flee to Jordan or Lebanon, or are internally displaced. It is a terrible thing to have to confront, but the regime in Syria is not uniquely evil. It is simply an illustration of what the ruling classes of the region are prepared to do if they think they have no other way to protect the core of their power from mass revolt.

The desperation of the Syrian regime, though, also illuminates the approach taken more slowly and with more nuance by the other sections of the regional counter-revolution. The most important aspect of this is the relentless drive by the Assad forces to transform the fundamental nature of the struggle from a fight between a dictatorship on the one hand and a popular rebellion on the other, into a war between stability and Islamist terrorism. From the first day of the rebellion, Assad waged a battle to change the narrative along these lines – a propaganda war. But he also went to great lengths to transform reality to fit his narrative. This has been carried out in numerous different ways, from releasing al-Qaeda supporters from prison at the start of the uprising, to deliberately focusing attacks on secular rebels associated with the Free Syrian Army and leaving the Islamic State unmolested to take control of large parts of the country.

The regime’s strategy has not been wholly successful in the sense that the rebellion continues, and tens of thousands of Free Syrian Army fighters continue to struggle against sectarianism and for the overthrow of the regime. But it is undeniable that their fighting forces have been weakened over the years of conflict, both by the accommodating attitude of the regime to the Islamist elements of the rebellion, and also by the fact that, in contrast to the paltry aid offered to the secular fighters by the West, the various Islamist groups can rely on a constant flow of money and arms from both state and non-state actors in the region that are hostile to the Assad regime but are equally opposed to a genuinely democratic Syrian revolution.

The success Assad had in changing the narrative of the revolt was emulated with great effect by Sisi after he took power in Egypt in 2013. For months, the Egyptian press was full of wild accusations claiming that anyone who opposed military rule, or even attempted to demonstrate on the streets, was an Islamist terrorist. What was in fact a war on the revolution was framed as a war on Islamist extremism and in defence of stability and national unity. In that sense, Assad’s contribution to the counter-revolution has gone well beyond the borders of Syria.

Critics of the Syrian revolution on the left claim that the US has a fundamentally different attitude to the Syrian revolt than it had to the uprising against the Egyptian and Tunisian regimes – both US allies – in 2011. There is a grain of truth in this. The fact that it was close partners of the US under the gun at the start of the Arab revolt coloured the tactical approach the US took. But on a fundamental level, the approach is the same. The US relationship with the Assad regime was not as close as the alliance with Mubarak, but the Syrian regime was a stable element in the region with which the US could deal – and did on numerous occasions. The Assad dynasty – both father and son – kept the peace on the Israeli border for over 40 years, and put down attempts by Palestinians and the left to take on Israel or install radical or genuinely pro-Palestinian governments on its border. The more important unique feature about Syria that dictated the US approach was the impossibility of disentangling the Syrian state from the hated dictator at its top. This meant that the US, if it was going to make a real choice, had either to back Assad as in Bahrain, but without a Saudi-style reserve army to come in and save the day, or to come out and help the rebellion to bring down the whole regime. The US did not consider either option to be palatable; the former because it would discredit the US and entrench Russian influence in the Middle East, the latter because it would require either a major US military operation, or the handing over of substantial numbers of arms to rebels who it knew were in no way pro-US or pro-Israeli. Unwilling to make a pro-active choice, the US vacillated, offering verbal support to the rebels, but nothing in the way of real weaponry or logistical support. In doing so it sent a message to the regime that while the US might make statements against it, there was little or no chance it would ever act decisively to oppose the status quo. Contrast this vacillating US approach with that of Russia, which has been unwavering in its backing of the Assad regime.

A new geopolitical map

The US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 had none of the drama of the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, but it nonetheless represented a historic defeat. The original geopolitical goals of the invasion were a distant memory, a dream that died in the streets of cities like Fallujah many years before. But even the most negative assessment of the US position after the 2011 withdrawal did not predict the firestorm that was to erupt over the next three years, as the sectarian war waged by the Maliki government led to a Sunni rebellion, the rise of the Islamic State and the fracturing of Iraq as it became absorbed into the battleground of a wider regional war.

The seizure of Mosul was significant not just because it signalled the rise of the Islamic State as a transnational military organisation that had effectively obliterated the Iraq-Syria border and now controlled a vast territory in the heart of the Middle East. It also demonstrated as farce the idea that the Iraqi military was capable of holding together a fractured country. The collapse of military units supposedly over 20,000 strong told the world what most Iraqis already knew – that the military was more a racket for enriching the corrupt officer class than a fighting force. The rout in Mosul announced what had in effect already taken place – the break-up of Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines, with a Shiite government in Baghdad and the south, an essentially autonomous Kurdish region in the north and a vast and contested Sunni belt in the centre and west of the country and across the border into Syria.

When Obama announced that the US would engage in military action against the Islamic State, he was not, as many supposed, signalling the beginning of a major new US war on Iraq. His insistence that there would be no deployment of ground troops – the only possible way to assert a serious measure of control over the situation – indicated that the bombing campaign was more about the need to be seen to do something than actually to do anything. But instead of indicating the continued ability of the US to project power into the region, the limited bombing campaign only revealed US weakness. Most US military strategists are of the view that a campaign to defeat IS and reunite Iraq would require the deployment of several hundred thousand troops, probably for a number of years. But as soon as the question is posed in those terms, the reality of the situation becomes obvious. The US is in no position to launch such a venture. No US president will be able to muster the political support required for a large scale return to Iraq. It may be that the US will eventually be dragged into a ground war that requires the deployment of significant numbers of troops, but if it does so it will be reluctantly and gradually, and as a result ineffectively.

Deprived of the option of decisive independent action, the US has been forced to act as air support for the forces actually fighting the Islamic State on the ground – the Kurds in the north and, more problematically for the US, the Iranian-backed Shiite militias and Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops who are defending Baghdad and the south and attempting to push the Islamic State back in the cities to the west of Baghdad and up the Tigris river. This new US-Iranian alliance, a necessity if the US is not to abandon Iraq altogether, has created strong hostility among US regional allies – particularly Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Saudi Arabia has long been of the view that Iran is the only regional power with the ability to rival its leading role in the Middle East. Saudi foreign policy is animated by the fear of an unbroken “Shia crescent” stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean, controlling the Arab heartlands of Mesopotamia and the Levant. For this reason, it has viewed the rise of Iranian influence in Iraq, previously a buffer against Iran, with grave concern over the past few years. Saudi Arabia is also paranoid about the potential influence of Iran over discontented Shia populations in Bahrain and Yemen, as well as among the substantial Shia minority in Saudi Arabia itself, which is concentrated in the oil-producing areas.

This does not mean, as some have presumed, that the Saudi regime supports the Islamic State. The Islamic State views the Saudi monarchy as an illegitimate, apostate regime, and has openly declared itself committed to its overthrow. This is unlikely, but a Wahhabi jihadist uprising in the kingdom is not beyond the bounds of possibility, particularly if the Islamic State were to continue its expansion and make serious inroads in Lebanon or, more seriously, Jordan. But although it does not support the Islamic State, the Saudi regime is hostile to the expansion of Shiite power in Iraq, which puts it at odds with the US campaign in defence of the Baghdad government.

The centre of Saudi Arabia’s Iran containment policy, though, is in Syria. While a bitter enemy of the Arab uprising in general, the Saudi regime saw the armed conflict between Bashar al-Assad and the assorted revolutionary groupings as an opportunity to unseat the Iranians’ key Arab ally, which would in turn substantially hinder Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Of course the Saudis were not the slightest bit interested in a truly democratic Syria, and indeed would consider that a much worse and more destabilising outcome than Assad remaining in power. For this reason, Saudi funding of rebel groups has been targeted at the most sectarian (other than IS) of the resistance groups, and with the aim of establishing a patronage system that maximises Saudi influence in a post-Assad Syria.

Since 2012, the Saudis have expressed growing frustration over the refusal of the US to give meaningful support to the anti-Assad forces in Syria. This has accelerated considerably since the US bombing campaign in Iraq and the more open rapprochement with Iran, which is manifest in both military cooperation in Iraq, and progress in the ongoing talks about resolving the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program. The extension of these talks into 2015 was accompanied by clear signals from US officials, and from Secretary of State John Kerry, that the US was serious about reaching a resolution. The reality appears to be that the real stumbling block to an agreement is Iran’s belief that the bargaining position of the US is deteriorating, and it is in its interests to hold out for an even better deal down the track.

Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, is hostile to the Assad regime, having committed itself to supporting the rebels from very early in the conflict. Turkey has refused to offer meaningful support to the US campaign against Islamic State unless the US commits to taking on Assad. Its refusal to offer any support to the Kurdish fighters resisting Islamic State fighters who besieged the town of Kobane, near the Turkish border, was a result not only of Turkey’s bitter opposition to the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its border, but also flowed from Turkey’s broader concern that the campaign against the Islamic State was only strengthening the hand of the Assad regime and weakening the moderate Islamist groups backed by Turkey. While Turkey is at one with Saudi Arabia in its opposition to Assad, it is a deeply uneasy alliance. Just as the Saudi regime aims to lay the basis for a post-Assad Syria in its sphere of influence, so Turkey wants to project itself into Syria, which it sees as a crucial launching pad for the reassertion of Turkish influence in the Arab world.

The US is in a bind. Its original Syria policy was to push for a negotiated settlement that removed Assad and introduced some level of democratisation, but left the state intact – essentially the same policy it pursued in Egypt and Yemen. But because of the different structure of the Syrian ruling class, and the resultant decision of the regime to fight to the death – with Bashar at the helm – this policy was utopian and unrealisable. As a result, US policy has increasingly become dictated not by what the US wants in Syria, but by what the other regional players want. Saudi Arabia and Iran, and also Turkey and to a lesser extent Israel, do have Syria policies – feasible and actionable ones. The problem for the US – which seeks alliances with all of them in varied degree – is that the policies of the regional powers are not only at odds with each other, but are in fact directed at gaining geopolitical advantage at the expense of each other.

The divisions and debates in the US establishment over its Middle East policy are a result of these objective difficulties and limited options. There are still those – like Senator John McCain and PNAC founder Robert Kagan – who dream of a new era of US assertiveness that can be brought about by sheer willpower and determination. Kagan writes:

If a breakdown in the world order that America made is occurring, it is not because America’s power is declining – America’s wealth, power, and potential influence remain adequate to meet the present challenges. It is not because the world has become more complex and intractable – the world has always been complex and intractable. And it is not simply war-weariness. Strangely enough, it is an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.[25]

Figures like Kagan and McCain are apoplectic about the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and critical of what they see as Obama’s insufficiently assertive policy in Ukraine. They favour a policy in Syria of arming non-jihadist rebel forces and are highly critical of the administration’s policy paralysis with regard to the Assad regime. It may be that after the next presidential election the neocons – who in any case Obama never banished from his administration – will be back in the ascendency. Hillary Clinton, likely the next president, has a reputation as a foreign policy hawk and enjoys the confidence of many in the neocon camp. But there are major problems faced by those who want to assert a new era of US militarism. Geopolitical strategy has to be based on a realistic assessment of the balance of forces. The decline of US power – economically, militarily and geostrategically – cannot be wished away. And even if the objective position of the US was stronger, the disastrous legacy of the Iraq war looms over every policy debate as a devastating example of the dangers of US overreach. In any case, it is much easier to construct grand utopian schemes when you are not the one responsible for implementing them. It is unlikely to be a coincidence that, while Obama has been willing to place hawkish intellectuals and politicians into senior posts in his administration, the overall direction of US policy – guided by cautious use of US power and an attempt to reconstruct a new alliance that, in the Middle East, includes Iran – has been based on a recognition of the limits of US power.

Reconceptualising politics and class in a new era

In the build-up to and early days of the US war on Afghanistan in 2001, there was a heated debate on the US and international left about what attitude progressive activists should take to the war. In the wake of 9/11, there was intense pressure to bow to the prevailing consensus that military action to stop terrorism was legitimate. The few on the left who opposed the war were denounced as “knee-jerk anti-imperialists” – dogmatists whose ideological rigidity prevented them from responding concretely to a radically changed world. Those who argued the US military was, as Martin Luther King put it in an earlier era, the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world today”, and that it was incumbent on the left to resist the orgy of militarism that followed 9/11, were voices in the wilderness. But isolated as they were in the dark days of 2001, those who stood their ground and insisted that the left hold on to a clear anti-imperialist position were vindicated many times over in the next few years. By the time of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, tens of millions were prepared to take to the streets across the world in what were the biggest anti-war protests – indeed probably the biggest protests of any kind – in history.

This great global movement was unable to stop the war, but it gave voice to a vital truth: US militarism was then the key reactionary factor in global politics. As with every anti-war or anti-colonial movement that came before it, recognition of this fact, while necessary, contained within it all kinds of problems. It led people to downplay the reactionary nature of other imperialist powers – both the major non-Western states, most importantly China and Russia, but also European powers like France and Germany that refused to back the US invasion for their own narrow reasons. A focus on US imperialism as the main enemy also tended to obscure another and more fundamental division across the world: the class divide between ordinary people and the ruling elite of each country, and the fact that the antagonisms between the different sections of the latter would always, in the final analysis, be subordinated to their common hostility to the social classes that each section of the global elite ruled over.

But with all those caveats, it was still absolutely right and necessary for the international left to throw what weight it had behind the anti-war movement, and to champion and try to strengthen its most intransigent anti-imperialist wing. The left is not, tragically, strong enough to influence greatly the outcome of the big political battles; it has even less hope of determining what the terrain and the antagonisms of those struggles will be. We can only fight on the ground on which we find ourselves.

But the two connected developments that have been outlined above – the decline of US power in the wake of the Iraq war, and the reshaping of the terrain of politics in the Middle East brought about by the Arab revolution – have transformed the nature of the tasks facing the left. It is still of crucial importance – particularly for socialists in the West – to oppose and expose the nefarious agenda of US imperialism, which remains the world’s only global imperial power and the centre of capitalist reaction. But it is also necessary for the left to integrate into our strategy, tactics and arguments an understanding of the dramatic changes in the political landscape that have taken place since 2003. “Knee-jerk anti-imperialism”, which always meant in the first instance opposition to US imperialism in particular, was an admirable and heroic starting point when the US was at the height of its power – invading Afghanistan in the name of liberal democracy or unleashing its “shock and awe” onslaught on Iraq. Today though, the old formulas do not apply.

The US might be the only global power, but it is not the only imperialist force asserting itself in the world. Even Russia – whose economic output is dwarfed not only by the US and China, but also by lesser powers like Germany and Japan – has been aggressively advancing its interests in Ukraine, and, in the context of the discussion about the Middle East, in Syria. China, whose rise to global prominence has followed the same pattern of every great power before it – the consolidation of economic strength followed by increasing diplomatic and military assertiveness – is now posing a serious challenge to the global hegemony of US capital. In the Middle East, regional powers Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey have proven their ability to construct a foreign policy independent of any great power, and they are pursuing their own interests with as much determination and a deal more strategic clarity than the world’s only remaining superpower. The strategic decisions that each makes over the coming period will be at least as important as any decisions made in Washington in determining the future of the Middle East. And, as has been argued, it was not the US but the Arab regimes – most importantly Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Syria – that played the leading role in countering and containing the Arab revolution. US imperialism, for all its continued strength, was for the most part relegated to the role of onlooker.

For these reasons alone, the international left cannot take as its starting point an “anti-imperialism” that simply means opposition to the US. The unipolar world that the ideologues of the PNAC wanted to maintain has vanished – the global capitalist system once again consists of competing powers, each of whose motives are as dubious as the next. But there is another factor that has transformed the global political narrative – and nowhere more so than in the Middle East. That is the rise of new mass movements that base themselves on the class antagonisms that define each country. The Arab revolution destroyed the old framework of imperialist versus anti-imperialist by basing itself on the aspirations and grievances of the mass of the population in every Arab country. It turned out that it did not matter if you lived under the pro-Western regime of Hosni Mubarak or the so-called anti-imperialist regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The grievances were the same, the motivation to revolt was the same, and, to different degrees, the response of the privileged ruling class was the same. The Arab revolt simultaneously brought the primacy of the class divisions of the region to the fore, putting anti-imperialism in its proper place, and also indicated the force that could bring down the existing order – mass popular revolt. In 2003 the left looked in vain for an anti-imperialist force that could resist the onslaught of US bombs and troops. In 2011 a force presented itself – the mass of the Arab working class and poor in revolt – that could not only shove aside the remaining power of imperialism, but challenge the local and in the final analysis more dangerous enemy that is the Arab ruling class.

The defining question of today, then, in spite of the huge retreat we have seen in the popular movements since 2011, is not whether you support or reject US imperialism (although the left should continue to reject it), but where you stand on the Arab revolution and counter-revolution. This is a question that is as relevant to the traditional forces of the anti-imperialist resistance in the Middle East as it is to the Western left. In the wake of the Arab uprising, Hamas was beset by a protracted debate over what attitude it should take to the uprising in Syria, given that its external headquarters was in Damascus and it relied on military aid from both Syria and Iran, a key backer of the Assad regime. In the end, Hamas abandoned its Damascus headquarters and took a stand (if somewhat half-heartedly) in support of the Syrian revolt. But Hamas was nonetheless no enthusiast for the Arab uprising. Attempts by Egyptian activists to build on the revolutionary energy of 2011 by spreading the uprising to Gaza were met with bitter hostility. Hamas actively collaborated with SCAF in its attempts to prevent the revolt in Egypt spreading across the Rafah crossing into Gaza. Hamas had, in the wake of the overthrow of Mubarak, a historic opportunity to fuse the Palestinian struggle with the broader Arab revolt. That it rejected this opportunity out of hand is an indication of the fact that, whatever Hamas’s pretentions, it is more concerned to consolidate its own power than to put itself at the head of a broader insurrectionary Arab movement. But if the attitude of Hamas to the Arab revolution was disappointing, the stance taken by Hezbollah was a disgrace. From day one, Hezbollah sided with the Assad regime, putting its strategic alliance with Damascus and Tehran above any sympathy it might have felt for the millions of people rising up in resistance to dictatorship. Since then, Hezbollah has committed thousands of fighters to back Assad in Syria – hurting in equal measure the credibility and fighting capacity of its own organisation and the capacity of the Lebanese resistance to fight off Israel.

The Arab revolution, and the concurrent decline of US power, pose important questions for the international left. Is the left simply an opponent of US power, or do we stand with those fighting for a fundamentally different world order? Are we for the maintenance of the system of patronage that ties each resistance movement to one or another of the corrupt Arab states, or are we for a new movement – a continuation of the Arab revolution that establishes the material basis to realise the demands that pushed millions to revolt? Are we against the particular form of imperialism represented by US capitalism, or are we against the whole system of imperialist competition, whether practised by the aristocrats of the old imperial order or by the new reactionary forces of an ever evolving system? The answers we give to these questions will help determine the future of the left, and its right to claim the status it covets as the champion of revolt against oppression.

Achcar, Gilbert 2013, The people want: a radical exploration of the Arab uprising, Saqi.

Donnelly, Thomas 2000, Rebuilding America’s defences: strategy, forces and resources for a new century, Project for the New American Century.

Hanieh, Adam 2013, Lineages of revolt: issues of contemporary capitalism in the Middle East, Haymarket.

Smith, Ashley 2013, “US imperialism’s pivot to Asia”, International Socialist Review, 88.

Wolf, Martin 2014, The shifts and the shocks: What we’ve learned and have still to learn from the financial crisis, Penguin.

[1] The name to give the group variously known as ISIL, ISIS, Islamic State or Daesh is the subject of much debate. I use the term Islamic State on the basis that organisations have the right to name themselves, however offensive some might find it. For the sake of simplicity, Islamic State is also the name used when referring to actions the group took before it changed its name after the capture of Mosul in June 2014.

[2] John Pilger, “Pilger reveals the American Plan”, New Statesman, 16 December 2002.

[3] Donnelly 2000, piv.

[4] Pilger, “Pilger reveals the American Plan”.

[5] Nicholas Lemann, “The next world order”, The New Yorker, 1 April 2002.

[6] Robert Kagan, “Do what it takes in Iraq”, The Weekly Standard, 8 September 2003.

[7] Robert Fisk, “Can’t Blair See That This Country Is About To Explode? Can’t Bush?”, The Independent, 1 August 2004.

[8] Evan Lehmann, “Retired general: Iraq invasion was ‘strategic disaster’”, The Lowell Sun, 10 March 2005.

[9] Wolf 2014, p12.

[10] Ashley Smith, “US imperialism’s pivot to Asia”, International Socialist Review, 88, March 2013.

[11] Achcar 2013, p235.

[12] Hanieh 2013, p165.

[13] Efraim Halevy, “Israel’s man in Damascus”, Foreign Affairs, 10 May 2013.

[14] Figures from Hanieh 2013, pp137-143.

[15] Hanieh 2013, p137.

[16] Sameh Naguib, “The king and the field marshall”, Socialist Worker (US), 10 March 2014.

[17] Stéphane Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament”, The Washington Post, 14 March 2014.

[18] David Kirkpatrick, “US hones warnings to Egypt as military transition stalls”, The New York Times, 16 November 2011.

[19] Dave Boyer, “Obama congratulates Morsi on winning Egyptian presidency”, The Washington Post, 24 June 2012.

[20] Matt Bradley, “US reaches out to Islamist parties”, The Wall Street Journal, 1 July 2011.

[21] Hanieh 2013, p165.

[22] William McCants, “Islamist Outlaws”, Foreign Affairs, 17 March 2014.

[23] David Hearst, “Why Saudi Arabia is taking a risk by backing the Egyptian coup”, The Guardian, 21 August 2013.

[24] Lacroix, “Saudi Arabia’s Muslim Brotherhood predicament”.

[25] Robert Kagan, “Superpowers don’t get to retire”, New Republic, 26 May 2014.

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