Stephen Gowans Correspondent
A POINT I made in a recent article has stirred a fierce reaction, particularly from Michel Chossudovsky, but on earlier occasions from others as well, who seem particularly agitated by my observation that Al Qaeda is “implacably opposed to the US presence in the Muslim world”.
As far as I can tell, Chossudovsky is offended by the following.
The war [of the United States in Yemen] is consistent with the immediate aim of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds — to eliminate any organised, militant opposition to US domination of the Middle East. It is an aim that accounts for Washington’s opposition to entities as diverse as the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, and Al-Qaeda. While these states and organisations have differing agendas, their agendas overlap in one respect: all of them oppose US domination of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
There are two organisations in Yemen that militantly oppose US domination of Yemen specifically and the Muslim world broadly: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and the Houthis. Both are Islamist organisations. Both are implacably opposed to US and Israeli interference in the Muslim world.
Apparently, my contention that (a) Al-Qaeda is opposed to the US presence in the Muslim world, readily verifiable in the statements of Osama bin Laden and the organisation’s subsequent leadership, has been construed as (b) a denial of Al-Qaeda’s collaboration with the United States, both in the war on Syria, and in the wars on the Gaddafi government in Libya and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.
As a matter of logic b (what Chossudovsky thinks I’ve said or implied) does not follow from a (my observation about Al-Qaeda.) Perhaps a few examples will illustrate how Chossudovsky’s thinking — and that of others — has gone wrong.
Opposition to the US presence in the Middle East does not preclude collaboration with the United States to achieve a shared negative goal. The ad rem case in this particular discussion is the elimination of secular, leftist governments. Hostile states and organisations that have otherwise mutually antagonistic aims have, on occasion, if not frequently, formed temporary alliances to achieve common negative objectives.
For example, the resolutely anti-communist Winston Churchill formed an alliance with the resolutely communist Joseph Stalin against Hitler’s Germany, a shared enemy. Once their common negative goal was achieved with Hitler’s destruction, the alliance was dissolved, and the hostility that had previously existed between the two states, based on their pursuit of mutually antagonistic goals, resumed. Stalin was implacably opposed to British imperialism, but we wouldn’t say that his alliance with London refuted this. Nor would we say that the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact refuted the claim that the Soviet Union was implacably opposed to Nazism (though if we followed Chossudovsky’s logic we would.)
Bashar al-Assad is implacably opposed to the US presence in the Arab world, readily verifiable in his statements and in the programme of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party. All the same, Assad, like Muammar Gaddafi (also an anti-imperialist) collaborated with Washington in the US rendition programme. That programme was aimed at Al-Qaeda and other jihadists, enemies common to Libya, Syria and the United States. Assad’s collaboration with Washington in this matter didn’t mean he wanted a US presence in the Arab world. Nor does it refute the statement that Assad is an anti-imperialist.
At the time, it made sense for Gad-dafi and Assad to cooperate with the United States in neutralising jihadists who threatened their secular governments. Equally, it made sense for Washington to enlist Gaddafi’s and Assad’s assistance. Jihadists threatened US domination of the Arab world. But it also made sense for Washington to enlist the aid of the jihadists to eliminate Gad-dafi and Assad, who also threatened US domination of the Arab world. If you’re smart, you play your enemies off against each other.
Some people have argued that Assad’s anti-imperialism is a front, citing his collaboration with Washington in the rendition programme and on other matters. They make the same argument about Gaddafi and Milosevic and Saddam. These leaders, the argument goes, are (or were) objectively pro-imperialist, because at some point they cooperated with the United States, in implementing structural adjustment programmes (Milosevic), seeking a rapprochement with the West (Gaddafi), or collaborating with Washington against Iran (Saddam.) The argument, of course, parallels Chossudovsky’s that Al-Qaeda can’t possibly be against a US presence in the Muslim world because it collaborates with Washington.
Many people have asked me how I can say Bashar al-Assad is anti-imperialist, since Assad’s government tortured the Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar and many others on behalf of Washington. Assad, they say, is “objectively” imperialist for collaborating with Washington, just as Chossudovsky believes that Al-Qaeda is “objectively” imperialist for cooperating with the United States.
Some say that Assad can’t possibly be “implacably opposed” to the US presence in the Arab world because he collaborated with Washington, just as others say with equal illogic that Al-Qaeda can’t possibly be “implacably opposed” to the US presence in the Arab world because it collaborates with Washington.
What’s missed here is that Assad participated in the rendition programme, not because he wanted to help the United States, but because he wanted to advance Syrian goals. Likewise, Al-Qaeda worked with Washington in Libya and Syria, not because it wanted to help the United States, but because it wanted to advance its own anti-secularist goals, and collaborating with the United States, at that particular time and place, was believed by Al-Qaeda’s leadership to be the best way to achieve those goals (just as Churchill believed at the time and place of Europe in 1941 that the best way to achieve Britain’s wartime goals was to collaborate with a hated enemy.)
Collaborating with an imperialist power to eliminate a common enemy, no more makes Assad an imperialist, than collaborating with Britain to eliminate Nazi Germany made Stalin an imperialist (or Churchill a communist), or the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact made Stalin a Nazi, or Lenin’s accepting Germany’s assistance to return to Russia in 1917 made Lenin pro-German, or collaborating with the United States to eliminate secular Ba’athists makes Al-Qaeda imperialist (or Washington Islamist.)
Islamists have often cooperated with Western powers to topple secular, leftist governments — not because they desired a US presence in the Muslim world, but because they didn’t want secular government. Lenin accepted assistance from Germany not because he desired German-rule but because he didn’t want a Tsarist government and wanted a Bolshevik government in its place.
Accepting Washington’s help to rid the Muslim world of secularists like Assad makes sense to jihadists — but it doesn’t mean they want Washington or its puppets running their affairs, anymore than Assad’s and Gaddafi’s accepting Washington’s help (through the rendition programme) to rid secular Syria and secular Libya of jihadists meant they wanted Washington to run Syria’s and Libya’s affairs.
To sketch this out:
Assad wants the US out of the Arab world and a secular government
Al-Qaeda wants the US out of the Arab world and an Islamist government
Washington wants both Assad and Al-Qaeda out of the way
At points the goals overlap; at other points, they’re in conflict. At times Washington works with Syria against Al-Qaeda (as in the rendition program); at other times, Washington works with Al-Qaeda against Syria. And both Assad and Al-Qaeda are quite happy to have US assistance if it means the elimination of the other.
If Washington governed Syria through a local puppet, it would not be improbable to see Ba’athists and Islamists form a temporary alliance against US power in Syria. On other occasions, secular leftists and Islamists have collaborated in the pursuit of common goals. In the 1970s Iran, communists, secular nationalists and Islamists formed alliances to oust the Shah. But communist collaboration with political Islam didn’t make the communists tools of the Islamists or “objectively” Islamist. Nor did it mean that they weren’t implacably opposed to Islamist government.
Communists have often worked with social democrats, with whom they’re implacably opposed, against the right, but their cooperation hasn’t made them “objectively” social democrats or tools of social democracy. Nor would anyone who has a passing acquaintance with logic accept communist participation in a popular front as proof that communists aren’t against social democracy. What a popular front is, is anti-right, not pro-social democracy, in the same way that Al-Qaeda’s collaboration with Washington in Syria is anti-Ba’ath, not pro-imperialist.
Groups cooperate with each other where their agendas have points of intersection, and work against each other where their agendas are in conflict. Shifting alliances, temporary collaborations of convenience, playing one side off against the other — these are all common features of human interaction and commerce, as ubiquitous in the political affairs of the Middle East and the wider world as in your own personal life. Collaborating with one enemy against another, temporarily, until one enemy is gone, doesn’t mean you don’t have two enemies.
The choices people face are rarely of the sort: A (ally with) or B (fight against), but are most often of the sort: A (ally with) or B (fight against) or C (do both, shifting between one mode or the other depending on circumstance, opportunity, and the balance of forces.) Unless this is recognised, the complex interaction of competing forces in the Middle East, and elsewhere, will be understood as a Manichean world of over-simplified dualisms suitable only for comic book analysis and the world of half-wit conspiracy theory rather than what Lenin once called “concrete analysis of concrete situations.” – www.gowanswordpress.com