Never underestimate the power of a question
We’re all ignorant; few recognize it.
Aubrey’s deployment order came a week later. A conflict had waxed and waned in Syria and Iraq for the better part of three years. It was the typical Middle Eastern fracas: hapless governments and their armies; not-so-hapless sectarian brigades with colorful names waging guerrilla war, detonating bombs, promoting mayhem; shifting alliances; endless intrigue; diabolical duplicity; rampant disinformation; appearances masking antipodal realities; and machinations by outside string pullers, money honeys, and intelligence agencies who never seemed to realize—or if they did, never acknowledged—that they were the puppets, not the puppeteers. Despite the seeming complexity, the war boiled down to the usual two issues: oil and the centuries-old question of Muhammad’s rightful heir.
Governments couldn’t resist throwing matches on the gasoline. Sunni nations—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the rich little monarchies scattered around the Persian Gulf—as well as a variety of sectarian brigades with colorful names, launched massive and coordinated maneuvers to “restore order” (Middle Eastern–speak for replacing a government with one more to your liking) to Shiite Syria and Iraq. The Shiite governments were not without friends. Russia, Iran, and various sectarian brigades with colorful names would not let them go down without a fight. So in a very short time, the corner of the world with the highest per capita concentrations of troops, terrorism, weapons, and warfare saw exponential increases in all four.
The US government urged all parties to come to the negotiating table. No parties came to the negotiating table. The US government consulted with its European allies. A resolution was submitted at the United Nations. The war intensified. The war lobby screamed: this was World War III, and the United States was not there! It was like missing your senior prom! The Europeans screamed. Refugees were streaming to Europe. Despite welcoming gestures, the only assimilating they seemed to be doing was slurping up government benefits. It was getting expensive. Some Europeans didn’t like their new guests. Some of their new guests didn’t like the Europeans, but they did like blowing people up. Voters were getting mad. Something had to be done!
The US government ultimately did what the US government does best: came up with a catchy name (Operation Restoration of Peace, Freedom, Hope, Democracy, and Dignity in the Middle East), parked aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean and Persian Gulf, dropped bombs, and deployed thousands of troops to “advise and assist” without a clear idea of whom they would be advising and assisting. It implored the Europeans to join its efforts, to staunch the refugee flow by making war, blowing things up, and creating more refugees. Back in the States, the groups that reflexively cheered every war distributed more bumper stickers.
This is satire, although not obviously so. is dedicated To all those grown bone weary of the bulls**t. The novel’s main shortcoming is that it isn’t satirical enough. Only brutally savage satire is within field goal range of capturing the reality of the Middle East. Almost all of the mountain of journalism and propaganda focused on or emanating from that part of the world is pure twaddle, bulls**t that bone wearied most of us long ago. You can instantly recognize those who don’t have the first clue about the Middle East by their claims to understand it, especially if they claim they’re experts.
Since the death of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, the theories as to what he was doing in Iraq, why he and his companions were murdered, what the Iranians and Iraqis will do in response, and the future implications for the Middle East, the US, and the world are well into double digits if they haven’t already hit triple digits. (The above seems to be the most prevalent spelling of Qassem Soleimani’s name. It’s emblematic of the Middle East that there’s always more than one spelling for proper names of individuals and organizations.)
It’s ludicrous that American and European media figures, mainstream and alternative, presume to offer authoritative opinions within a few days after such an event. It is even more ludicrous that millions of people, most of whom can’t find Iran, Iraq, or any other country in the Middle East on an unmarked map, will believe one or the other purported explanations based solely on their firmly held misconceptions, prejudices, and pure ignorance.
SLL does not claim to know what’s going on, what went on, or what will go on in the Middle East beyond four incontrovertible truths. One: it’s always been impossible for anyone, even the inhabitants of the region, to know exactly what goes on there. Two: the Middle East is at the forefront of the global trends towards decentralization, devolution, and chaos because it’s always been decentralized, devolved, and chaotic. Three: that being the case, outsiders who venture into the Middle East for religious crusades, geopolitical advantage, or economic gain invariably rue it. Four: the Middle East sits on the world’s largest aggregate pool of oil, but its economies have relatively little use for it, which means oil must be exported for its petroleum to have any value for its governments and inhabitants.
US military invasions have demonstrated countless times the perils of ignorance. The foray into Vietnam was doomed from the start by the military and intelligence agencies’ ignorance of the language, terrain, and people they were trying to subjugate.
The problem is compounded in the Middle East, which has a multiplicity of countries, languages, terrains, and peoples. Many of those peoples don’t like each other and they like outsiders even less. They’ve been waging war on both for centuries. Further compounding the problem is Islam, which has two main sects—Shia and Sunni—and myriad sub-sects that are often at crosshairs with each other. Iran is the major Shia nation, Saudi Arabia the major Sunni nation. To make this potpourri even murkier, Iranians are Persians, an ethnic group distinct from most of the rest of the Middle East, which is Arabic.
In the sweep of history, the very concept of nations has been alien to inhabitants of the Middle East. Their allegiances have been and still are to family, tribes, and religion, not national governments. Most of the current lines on the map were drawn by diplomats Mark Sykes of Great Britain and François Georges-Picot of France during World War I. Assuming their side would win, they cartographically carved up the Ottoman Empire and Russia and Italy went along with it.
However, Middle Eastern lines are more a source of irritation than unity, especially the ones that were drawn for Israel after World War II and have been redrawn to Israel’s benefit since. They are a bad European and American joke, and so too are the region’s puppets. When the US government refused to pull its military from Iraq after the Iraqi government asked it to do so, it demonstrated just how seriously the US takes the sovereign governments of the Middle East—about as seriously as most of its people do.
Richard Maybury puts the Middle East at the center of a geographic swath extending from Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula to the southern tip of Africa that he labels Chaostan, a term he copyrighted in 1992. (You could pay for a lifetime subscription to his newsletter, , with just one of his many winning investment recommendations.) The Middle East is a recipe for perpetual chaos. It would be incomprehensible even if appearances never deceived. However, it’s been a maze of funhouse mirrors—“endless intrigue,” “diabolical duplicity,” “rampant disinformation,” and “appearances masking antipodal realities”—for centuries.
So the US blunders into the Middle East and quickly finds itself tied in knots it can’t unravel. Things might have been different if those who decide such things had either studied history or listened to their European counterparts, but US potentates don’t study history or listen. To do either would be tacit admission that they don’t know everything.
They expect the Middle East to be like their television sets. They don’t know how a television set—vastly less complicated than the Middle East—actually works, but they know that if they press the right buttons on their remote, it will do what they want it to do. Whatever their goals in the Middle East—oil, regime changes, reordering the entire region, geopolitical advantage, hastening the Rapture—it’s only a matter of pressing the right buttons on a remote they control.
Yet control is never more of an illusion than it is in the Middle East. Nobody has ever exercised control that was anything but ephemeral. Empires and kingdoms have come and gone, their Ozmandiases boasting, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” but leaving nothing more than crumbled monuments to themselves. It would be comical except that imperial pretensions have been responsible for endless misery, casting a permanent pall of distrust, bitterness, envy, and murderous fury.
If there’s anything that unites these diverse and antagonistic peoples, it’s loathing of outsiders. Alliances of advantage are struck, but no one should mistake expediency for affection. The outsiders are “the puppets, not the puppeteers,” and alliances are abandoned when they no longer benefit the locals. Notice may or may not be given to their putative allies.
The US joins the long list of meddlers who have lost blood, treasure, credibility, prestige, and power in the Middle East. It has been unable to impose its version of order on the heart of Chaostan. Iran itself offers the perfect example. The US government has tried to dominate it since at least 1953, when it teamed up with Britain’s government to depose the lawfully elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossaddegh. Iranians have chanted “Death to the USA” ever since they overthrew the US’s puppet, the Shah, in 1979. US influence has reached its nadir with Soleimani’s assassination.
US failures will only mount during the age of decentralization. Individuals and small groups in the Middle East have amply demonstrated their proficiency in the autonomous and powerful communication, computing, and weapons technologies that have ushered in the age. The grand conceit in the fading age of government is that omniscent, omnipotent states can direct and control from above. That conceit is about to be shattered by decentralization and the impending global debt crisis.
Even if that crisis leaves Russia and heavily indebted China with sufficient wherewithal to continue pursuing their One Belt, One Road initiative, much of which involves Middle Eastern countries, there are daunting odds against such “unifying” programs. Although they bear gifts, the Russians and Chinese are still outsiders. Between them they don’t have the military and intelligence capabilities to protect the infrastructure they’re funding and helping build. They’re dealing with authoritarian and dictatorial regimes that can be and often are deposed in lands where contract and property rights are not recognized or protected. Their grants, loans, bribes, construction assistance, and know-how win more friends than US bullets and bombs, but friendships are, as noted, fleeting in that part of the world.
Even Iran finds its efforts to build a Shia Crescent from Iran to Lebanon problematic. See “,” (LINK) by Elijah J. Magnier. The Shia axis is about as unified and powerful as the Sunni axis—Saudi Arabia, the “rich little monarchies scattered around the Persian Gulf,” and Turkey—aligned against it. They’ve been trying to wipe each other out for centuries. The odds that either side will succeed in the next few centuries are zero. The odds that both sides will quarrel endlessly amongst themselves in perpetuity are 100 percent.
The economies of the Middle East need only a small fraction of their petroleum. They have limited industrial and commercial demand and they can’t eat it. In other words, they have to export. The greatest oil “security” in the Middle East is not bullets, bombs, bribes, or alliances, it’s the greed of whomever controls the oil fields. Only by selling oil can the ruling potentates maintain their always-tenuous grip on power. Why it should matter to the US who controls them is an question.
US military and political involvement in the Middle East behind the fig leaf of “oil security” has been completely unnecessary. Had we stayed out, there always would have been someone to sell us oil (with fracking we don’t even need it now). We never had to lay waste to the region, spend trillions, kill millions, or incite the rabid and rampant hatred we’ve incited. We never had to create the terrorism and refugee flows we’ve created. We never had to be Israel and Saudi Arabia’s cat’s paw.
To know you don’t know, to not seek to control the uncontrollable, puts one on the path to wisdom. The US has instead chosen folly, venturing where angels would never tread. The indispensable nation, the Middle East, and the rest of the world will forever pay the price.
Does the assassination of Qassem Soleimani constitute a win or a loss for the United States? There is only one way to “win” in the Middle East. Buy its oil and otherwise stay the hell out.