The Uses, and Abuses, of History in the Middle East Conflict

By William Pfaff, Truthdig, February 17, 2015

Egypt has just joined the war against the Islamic State in the Levant (also known as ISIL or, in Arabic, Daesh). Its air force has attacked the jihadist army in retribution for the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christian Copts held in Libya, whom they described as “Crusaders.”

As usual, jihad polemics were ignorant. Coptic Christianity goes back to the earliest Christian conversions in Egypt, centuries before the Crusades, and its adherents are mostly members of the original population of Egypt. They were Christians long before Egypt’s incorporation into the Islamic Arab caliphates in the seventh century and after.

This is one more instance of the sheer ignorance influential in driving events in the Middle East in modern times. The United States’ invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush was conceived as a crusade by many evangelical American Protestant churches, and so seen by many others in the U.S. (At the time, President George W. Bush even called it a crusade). It has so been seen in the Islamic countries.

Among the results of America’s modern crusades has been the retaliatory murderous attacks by jihadists against the ancient Christian churches founded in Mesopotamia, Syria and Palestine in Apostolic times following the death of Christ—all of them taken as agents of the modern Americans. How many American churchmen know?

This war launched by Americans and Europeans into Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, and now penetrating northern and sub-Saharan Africa, was supposed to die out this year as Western military forces withdrew, as promised by President Barack Obama in his presidential campaign of 2008.

However, the new Crusade goes on, due to the influence of other varieties of Western credulity, those of officials, generals and intellectuals devoted to naive doctrines of “spreading democracy” and promoting the “Arab spring.” Among them are prominent in the Obama administration, who remain committed to the idea of the West’s “duty to rescue” the masses of victims of these wars by opening still newer battlegrounds, attacking Arab dictators and the new jihadists of the ISIL as they multiply and extend their influence—including inside the Western countries themselves.

There is in the United States an incorrigible conviction that only the “indispensible” nation can bring peace to nations, and that can be done by means of more intervention and war, splitting nations in civil, tribal and sectarian battles in which the United States chooses sides, nominates leaders and bestows alien institutions.

Thus President Obama has in recent days asked Congress for authorization to wage war against the Islamic State for three years. Washington already is carrying out air strikes and arming and training troops in the Middle East, claiming as justification “an inherent right of individual and collective self-defense.” What is the threat ISIL poses to the United States? It threatens American forces in the region, but that is easily solved by taking those forces out of the region.

That would leave the Arabs to defend themselves against whatever or whomever it is that threatens them. Is it not better that way? The principal reason that continuous warfare has dragged on in the Middle East for nearly 40 years is that American troops have been deployed there continuously in one form or another, with one or another justification, since “Operation Desert Shield” in 1990. (Previously the Reagan administration placed U.S. forces in Lebanon for three months, with disastrous consequences for the U.S. Marines, causing their withdrawal.)

Washington has been obsessed with the Middle East since 1990, because of oil, Israel and the recognition that the region constitutes the center and dynamism of Islamic religion—even though the majority of the world’s Muslims are in Indonesia, Pakistan, elsewhere in Asia and in Africa.

Washington since the fall of the Soviet Union has been driven by a compulsion to dominate, and not only in the Middle East. This is what most recently inspired the coup in Ukraine: to complete a NATO wall around Russia, and intimidate the government of Vladimir Putin, so as eventually to see to his replacement. It inspired the intervention of Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande last weekend to block the American program to ship NATO arms to that country in a dangerous effort to intimidate Putin. The major countries of Western Europe no longer trust the American government. This may—perhaps must—be taken as a reassuring development, although most Americans don’t yet understand why.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy”