“This notion that the United States is getting ready to attack Iran is simply ridiculous … And having said that, all options are on the table.”
– President George W. Bush, Brussels, February 22

The Pentagon, acting under instructions from Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, has tasked the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with drawing up a contingency plan to be employed in response to another 9/11-type terrorist attack on the United States. The plan includes a large-scale air assault on Iran employing both conventional and tactical nuclear weapons … Many of the targets are hardened or are deep underground and could not be taken out by conventional weapons, hence the nuclear option. – American Conservative , July 22

BEIRUT – Just one day after the London July bombings, one remarkably named Aseem Jihad, a spokesman for the Iraqi Oil Ministry, told Iraqi media that 11 southern Iraqi oil fields, capable of producing at least 3 million barrels a day, were being put up for tender to international investors, to the tune of US$25 billion.

With oil prices possibly going to $100 a barrel in the not-too-distant future, there could hardly be better news for the oil industry. There is always the possibility that all those billions will never end up at Iraq’s Oil Ministry, to the benefit of the Iraqi people – but will fill the pockets of oil barons, militias operating at Iraq’s Interior Ministry and Bush administration-supported middlemen (“Western contractors,” “couriers,” “intelligence assets,” brokers, even tribal leaders) in Baghdad.

That’s exactly what happened to $8.8 billion of Iraqi money which simply “disappeared” between October 2003 and July 2004 under the watch of former US proconsul L. Paul Bremer.

Moreover, the powerful oil plutocracy also does not have to worry about any Iraqi legal matters, as President George W. Bush’s Executive Order 13303 – which guarantees that any “judicial process” against any American corporate interests involved in any way with Iraq’s oil “shall be deemed null and void” – was recently renewed. For global cynics, this is in fact the whole point of the “war on terror.”

Subsidizing Osama bin Laden

But that was before the destruction of New Orleans. An illegal war of aggression against Iraq, decimation en masse of Iraqi civilians, the Abu Ghraib torture chambers, the Pentagon incapable of occupying Baghdad or controlling even the road from the airport to the Green Zone, impotent against a few thousand guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs and improvised explosive devices – it is all graphically mixed with the scenario of a military hyperpower abandoning one of its own greatest cities to catastrophe.

It was not supposed to be this way. But even before Katrina bared it all, there was an uneasy feeling – not only in the Middle East – that the Bush administration was in fact subsidizing Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri to the tune of $300 billion, and counting, in American taxpayers’ money, by transforming Iraq into a preferred training ground for al-Qaeda. So what’s with this “war on terror?”

During the first part of 2005, the first Bush administration’s “war on terror” had been softly mutating into what it was supposed to mean in the first place: the conquest of Eurasia, and in the near term, Southwest Asia. The contours of the new religion were carefully spun by Washington.

Neo-conservative Robert Kagan, co-founder of the ultra-hawkish Project for the New American Century (PNAC), was one of the first to admit it was all a question of branding. Kagan was overjoyed that Bush had overtaken the very narrow limits of the “war on terror” to dive into the limitless conceptual ocean of a (paradoxical) “democracy by force.” Kagan argued that this new paradigm was more “realist” and stood a better chance of garnering global support.

Not really. Already six months ago, a poll in Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy revealed that almost seven out of 10 Western Europeans (80% in Germany, 84% in France) think Bush has no business whatsoever “spreading freedom and democracy” to other countries. A poll by Germany’s Die Welt revealed that even Russian President Vladimir Putin is more trusted than Bush, especially in eastern Germany. In Germany, France, Britain, Spain and Italy a clear majority, by historical experience, knows that democracy cannot be instituted as an ersatz of political religion.

Meanwhile, from Washington’s perspective, there was no point anymore in waging a “war on terror” in response to a perceived radical Islamist threat. The (original) point is – what else? – messianic: the world has to be bent and shaped so as to conform to America’s beliefs. But eventually even Americans – three in every four, according to the latest polls – repudiated the new branding, heavily promoted by PNAC, the American Enterprise Institute, the Hudson Institute, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and other rightwing think tanks. It was perceived that imposing democracy by force – which is nothing but social engineering – never applied to Washington allies, as distasteful as they might be, but only to Washington’s designated enemies.

Whatever the mood in public opinion, the National Defense Strategy of the United States – which explicitly endorses unilateral preemptive strikes – remains very much in place. The Bush administration self-declares that it retains a unique “right” to engage in a “preemptive/preventive” war against anyone, anywhere, any time, even at a mere suspicion of being subjectively threatened by the theoretical possibility that it might be “attacked” at some undefined place in an indefinite future.

But even more crucial: any diplomatic or legal disagreement with the US under international law is regarded as such an “attack,” or as a form of “asymmetric warfare.” So to diplomatically attack the US may also be regarded as an act of terrorism. Then there’s the new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)”license to kill” any time, anywhere, all over the world, without any supervision – with missile-armed drones having already conducted selected assassinations in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen.

Franchising revolution

The rebranding of the “war on terror” meant that Bush would fashion his own Greater Middle East, with the attribution of good grades to all identified good pupils: these include Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain and most of all Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Palestine should be appeased by a fistfull of dollars. Saudi Arabia will be kept in quarantine. The “bad” students are targets: Syria, Lebanon (to its Hezbollah extent), and Iran. These will have to be integrated into the Greater Middle East by hard, not soft power.

The United Nations Development Program (UNDP) employed leading, independent Arab scholars to draft its widely praised 2004 report on Arab human development. The scholars stressed the absence of freedom in privileged American allies like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as Washington’s hypocrisy in defining allies Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia as “democratic.” The Arabs interviewed by the UNDP scholars all stressed they want “liberation from foreign occupation and the freedoms of opinion, expression and movement.”

Arabs have all the reasons in the world to suspect Western pledges of democracy. Both Britain and France are former colonizers. The Iraqi revolt against British occupation in the early 1920s was repressed with poison gas. France suppressed Syrian resistance against occupation twice, in 1925-27 and again in 1945. The US fully approves the 38-year-old Israeli occupation of Palestine. For the majority of Arab public opinion, the second Bush administration’s rhetoric of “democratization” just masks a neo-colonial design.

The problem for Washington was always how to implement its vision. The working assumption in many chancelleries around the world is that the Pentagon would not hesitate to attack both Syria and Iran. Diplomats scoff at the CIA’s assessment that regime change in both cases is possible without a military operation. Both Iran and Syria cannot compare to an Iraq already destroyed by two wars and 12 years of sanctions and embargo. Syria has no means to defend itself against awesome American firepower; but it could attack Israel. Iran holds strategic Russian missiles; it could blow up supertankers in the Persian Gulf, block the Hormuz Strait and wreak havoc on the world economy.

Then there’s the Lebanese case. Neo-cons widely praised the so-called “Cedar” revolution, dubbed by cynics the Gucci Revolution. Before the latest elections, a poll conducted by social science students from the Lebanese University in Greater Beirut revealed that only 26% supported UN Resolution 1559 ? which called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops – while a whopping 68% were against it. And only 18% were in favor of disarming Hezbollah, while 72 % were against it.

This raises the question, why should the Syrians leave Lebanon when nobody says the US must leave Iraq? This is even more nonsensical when one considers that the majority of Iraqis want the US to leave, while only a relative minority of Lebanese – according to the polls – wanted the Syrians to leave.

The results of the poll were not particularly striking when one considers that the majority of Lebanese, from 55% to 60%, are Shi’ites. The two major Shi’ite movements – Amal and Hezbollah – are still aligned with Syria, for many complex reasons. Moreover, there is also a loose coalition of independents, Arab nationalists, communists, socialists and Nasserists. Behind the Bush administration’s slogans – “freedom,” “democracy” – Lebanese factionalism and sectarianism remains extremely powerful.

There was one Syrian soldier in Lebanon for every 270 Lebanese. There is one US occupation soldier in Iraq for every 170 Iraqis. The second Bush administration insisted Syria must leave Lebanon, but it puts no pressure on Israel to leave the Syrian Golan Heights, illegally occupied since 1967 and illegally settled with 18,000 Israelis. This area of the Golan Heights is three times bigger than Gaza.

The “franchised revolutions” engineered by organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and an acronym tsunami of “democratic” organizations staffed by neo-cons and proponents of neo-liberalism work, like the “Orange” Ukrainian model, by taking over countries using a massive, camera-friendly PR campaign manipulating calls for “democracy” and “freedom,” which always create the illusion that the whole population is united. The whole population was not united in Ukraine, as it was not united behind the Gucci revolution in Lebanon.

The ultimate aim of “franchised revolutions” and “democracy promotion” is to replace the traditional elites in old American or Russian satrapies, as well as former hostile regimes, with a new breed of genetically-programmed neo-liberal politicians trained and educated in the US. But this may be just a facade. The real important matters converge on running the American military bases that are now planted in 138 countries all over the globe.

Fighting Arab nationalism

Imad Fawzi al-Shuaibi, head of the Strategic Studies Center in Damascus, told al-Jazeera that former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, “did have disagreements with Syria, but he did not call for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, or stir up hostility towards Syria or demand an end to Syria’s role in Lebanon.” Lebanese lawyer Bushra al-Khalil went one step ahead: he told al-Jazeera that “Hariri’s death is part of the plan to divide the region into tiny helpless sectarian states. This plan has started in Iraq and it will continue to hit all other Arab countries.”

It’s clearly understood in vast swathes of the Middle East that the crucial trait of Bush’s Greater Middle East implies a coup de grace against Arab nationalism – wherever it is manifested. It’s always important to remember that most borders in the Arab world are totally artificial, imposed above all by British colonialism.

For Washington, the real enemy is not Islamic fundamentalism: it’s Arab nationalism. For decades the ultimate target of Israeli foreign policy has been to sow disunion among Arabs. Secular Arab nationalism is the ultimate threat to Israel, thus to the US, in neo-con thinking. The crux is not religious: it’s political.

Historically, over the past 20 years, radical Islam has been the key channel for expressing rage against Western exploitation – because every progressive channel of expression failed, or was thwarted, by corrupt, American-supported regimes. Radical Islam spent a long time fighting the rise of progressive nationalist movements in the Arab world: it became anti-Western only after the end of the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan and the first Gulf War.

Progressive, secular Arab intellectuals stress that Washington-Jerusalem will never tolerate united Arab lands. They stress that the Greater Middle East package is pure “strategic intimidation” designed to “eliminate any form of Arab or Muslim unity considered as a threat to the US strategy, and that of its strategic ally, Israel,” as Mahua Daoudi, a Syrian intellectual and scholar at the CNRS think tank in Geneva, put it.

As for the US, only the interfering methods diverge, not the objectives. The neo-cons writing in the Weekly Standard keep assuring the faithful that the only solution is total war in the Middle East, with more troops in Iraq and the bombing of Syrian villages suspected of supporting the Iraqi resistance. Francis “end of history” Fukuyama – a NED administrator – and former secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, president of the Democrat branch of NED, for their part promote more docile methods.

There may be a debate raging within the American elites between the gung-go, armchair warrior neo-cons and the “exporting democracy” gang, but meanwhile the Greater Middle East concept keeps accumulating facts on the ground. The divisive project for the new Iraqi constitution, to be voted in the end of next week, is a mechanism to soften the partition of Iraq.

But in the Arab world, as Asia Times Online has learned, the fear is that the death of Iraq will mean in fact the death of Arab nationalism. That’s the view, among others, of Abdullah al-Ashaal, a former planner at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs: he sustains that de-Ba’athification is being instrumentalized to blow up the foundation of the Iraqi state; Iraq’s Arab identity is being threatened so three statelets based on ethnic-religious differences may be created.

The same analysis is shared by Paris-based Lebanese Antoine Basbous, director of the Observatory of the Arab Countries. He confirms that pan-Arabism is a key target of Bush’s Greater Middle East and is convinced Iraq’s break up is inevitable, not so much because it was an initial American objective, but because now, with extremism being unleashed on all fronts, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds are ready to go to battle to preserve their interests. More worringly, Basbous predicts that this pattern will be repeated all over the Middle East.

The neo-con allegation that democracy is incompatible with Islam is rubbish: Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Turkey, all Muslim countries, are democracies. The specific – and crucial – problem of Arab lands is that the US cannot possibly promote democracy beyond mere rhetoric; otherwise its satraps and client states are in danger of being taken over by Islamist-leaning and certainly anti-US regimes. That would certainly be the case in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

What is terror?

When the “war on terror” mantra was coined, it all boiled down to what are you going to sell to American and world public opinion. It was much easier to market a war against al-Qaeda – pictured as a cartoonish bunch of demented Arab, Wahhabi freaks with no agenda except evil destruction of the American way of life – than to tell the world about the real deal: as Arabs see it, this is a war against Arab nationalists bearing a very long list of widely-documented grievances and exploitation and a very clear, concrete set of demands: self-determination in all its forms all over the Arab world and the end of foreign occupation, domination and interference.

The key data in all this drama is what the people who live in the Middle East themselves think. A very helpful guide is a study on Middle Eastern public opinion – conducted in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine – and released by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. The results are devastating. One of the most important findings is that the Arab street does not identify a “clash of civilizations”; they identify their woes as direct consequences of British colonialism and US foreign policy.

In the poll the qualifications most associated with the US and the UK were “racist,” “aggressive,” “morally decadent” and “imperialistic.” People were always very careful to note that they admired Western societies for their open atmosphere, individual liberties and technical progress, but they certainly don’t envy the West’s social problems. People in the Middle East are proud of their family and traditions. Their anger is fundamentally directed towards Anglo-American foreign policy. A majority considers that the US is run by a “Zionist lobby.” Over 70% complain that the US and the UK try to dominate countries through the offer of foreign aid. And crucially, less than 20% of Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians see the US as supporting democracy in the region.

American and British policy in Iraq and US bias in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are almost universally rejected. Distrust of America is even higher among Middle Eastern youth. Only 15% to 20% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 have anything good to say about the US. The majority supports Sharia law as a source for legislation. But only a tiny minority said they wanted a Taliban-like interpretation of Islamic law.

How is “terrorism” defined in the Middle East? For over 85% of the population in four of the five countries polled (64% in Lebanon), the US war on Iraq was an act of terrorism. Ninety percent in all countries polled say that Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians is terrorism. Hamas and Hezbollah are not terrorist groups: they are regarded as legitimate resistance organizations. For a majority of Jordanians and Palestinians, even al-Qaeda’s fight is legitimate. And to top it all, the US is also seen as a major violator of human rights. The majority of people polled had just a simple wish: if only the Americans would leave us alone.

It won’t happen, especially because the neo-con narrative remains the same: it’s all about the conquest of Southwest Asia. But the former incarnation of the “war on terror” can always be exhumed – especially after the London bombings, or to compound the hysteria preceding attacks against Syria or Iran. The techniques are always the same: manipulation of public opinion; a widespread disinformation campaign; selected paid agents infiltrated in the media; paranoia campaign through color-coded terror alerts; alarmist announcements of another “inevitable” September 11. As Vice President Dick Cheney himself has announced, just like the war against communism the “war on terror” will go on for decades.

It works. Only a few months ago, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll – before the Iraq quagmire led Bush’s number to collapse – 56% of Americans still believed Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the start of the war, while 60% believed Iraq was connected to al-Qaeda.

The road to Damascus

An iron link is being slowly and carefully constructed by Washington hawks, by the use of the same techniques, between Syria, Iran (under its new “hardline” president), the Sunni Iraqi resistance and Palestinian nationalism, all depicted as “terrorist.” In the case of Iran, there is the inevitable link with weapons of mass destruction, as it was constructed in the case of Iraq.

Things that really matter remain in the shade. Like the crucial, recent visit by Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld to both Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan. There was no leak about the agenda. But immediately afterwards the commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization forces in Europe, General James Jones, announced that the US planned to build military bases in the Azerbaijani portion of the Caspian Sea. Any geostrategist knows that Azerbaijan is the most convenient base in case of an American attack on Iran. Russian websites widely speculated on the probability of a lethal US-Russian confrontation, as Russia is allied with Iran and considers the Caspian its own “lake.”

Syria, the weak link, is the next Washington target for destabilization in the next few months. The reason is simple: Syria is still committed to non-sectarian Arab nationalism, apart from being the only country in the region which has not yet succumbed to US-Israel pressure. At the same time, Washington will dramatically step up the pressure on Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) before the end of 2005; the process might lead to a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of Bush’s term. “Non-compliance” is the magic excuse – which Washington wants the IAEA to tell the UN Security Council – capable of justifying a preemptive attack.

It’s still a case of “falling dominoes”: first Iraq, then Syria and Iran, finally the Palestinians; the end result would be American domination of the whole Middle East, as far as neo-con doctrine goes. There are no doubts in this case on the axis which stands to profit: the fundamentalist Christian right, the powerful Jewish-American lobby and most of all the industrial-military complex. This “new,” Greater Middle East would represent, in their worldview, the supreme victory of Judeo-Christianity over Islam. More than ever the “clash of civilizations” fallacy seems to be alive and kicking.

The scenario has been immensely complicated by the election of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei-blessed Mahmud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran – which means, among other things, that Iran’s nuclear program won’t be shelved – and a simultaneous Iranian victory in Iraq in terms of strategic influence.

Both of these developments, in different levels, are repercussions of America’s Iraq adventure. In real life, they also suggest that an invasion of Iran is totally impossible. An attack on Iran would bring immediate retaliation inside Iraq. Among the vast Iranian diaspora there is a certainty: Iran will inevitably become a nuclear power, no matter what the Americans do. And diplomats concur that its strategic influence over a Shi’ite-dominated Iraq won’t go away. Saudi Arabia has made it clear that in the event of Iran going nuclear, it will do the same. Al-Qaeda and the jihadi nebula could do worse than bide their time and try to take over a nuclear-armed Saudi Arabia.