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Jun 12, 2014

Rundle: Advance of militants in Iraq means the end of the West as we know it

The recent arrival in Iraq of the ultra-Islamist group ISIS marks the end of the hegemonic West.

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What fun it is stitching nations together, wrote Gertrude Bell in the 1920s, as she wove together the fabric of what would become the modern nation of Iraq (named for the city of Uruk, the oldest of the ancient city-states excavated in Mesopotamia).

Bell, born as a decent English lass and disappointed in love, had studied Arabic and then Persian in England. By the time she added Turkish to her accomplishments, she was one of the most significant linguists in Edwardian England. That wasn’t enough for her, and she added archaeology to her skills, and then set off on expeditions to explore the empty quarter of the Arabian peninsula. The first westerner to do so, Sheikhs treated her with courtesy for the simple reason that she was so far out of their experience and understanding that they could not summon hostility against her. More pertinently, she was less full of western supremacist bullshit than the men they encountered, listened to what they said and established real relationships with them.

Like everyone in the Middle East at the end of World War I, she was pressed into service in trying to carve out a system for the region after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. The Brits and the French  had promised the Arabs nationhood in return  for rising up against the Turks (as our brave boys died at Gallipoli to keep Turkey out of the South Pacific) and promised the Zionists a homeland, partly to keep bank credit flowing for the war effort. Behind that they had drafted the Sykes-Picot agreement,  detailing how the French and British would carve up Arabia along the current Syria-Iraq border. But in 1919, after the British had spent 18 months trying to destroy the Russian Bolshevik government, the British embassy in Moscow was invaded and a draft document of Sykes-Picot was found and published to the world. The modern pan-Arabist movement began from there, and that would yield Baathism, Nasser, Suez, the Palestinian resistance — and its opposition, embodied in Sayyad Qutb and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and Hezbollah.

History records that Bell — who also founded the National Museum of Iraq, the repository of the West’s heritage, which the Bush administration allowed to be destroyed — created Iraq by combining the Ottoman provinces of Basra (Shia), Baghdad (Sunni) and Mosul (Kurd), with the late thought that it might be easier if Mosul was just given to the new Turkish Republic. But it was more than that — through years of meetings, she signed up  hundreds of sheikhs and clans to the new project, promised them an evolving independence and created a nation-state out of clan affiliations. She was eventually seen as too pro-Arab and was bumped off by a cabal of friends and enemies, not least among them St John Philby, father of Kim. Bumped off literally. She was “erratic” — read, manic depressive — and Britain’s post World War I Arab role was shaped by her wild over-enthusiasm and optimism. Squeezed out, she took an overdose.

The recent arrival in Mosul of the ultra-Islamist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), marks the final collapse of that dream. It is impossible to overstate its significance — it marks not merely the end of the Iraq War, but of World War I. It is as much a death-knell for the pious hopes of Marxist pan-Arabism, as it is for the naïve triumphalism of the neocons.

At the heart of a region, with Turkey, Iran and Russia in easy ambit, there has been the triumph of a group whose beliefs are as incommensurable and uncompromising as the movements of the 20th century, Bolshevism, Fascism, Maoism and Western neoconservatism. They have hollowed out Iraq, which now does not functionally exist. They could march on to the boutique statelet of northern Iraq, run by the Kurds for the US. That puts them in direct contact with Turkish troops, representatives of a state run by a party that wants to restore Ottoman era regional dominance.

Russia cannot now be indifferent to their progress; nor can Shia Iran, since ISIS detach from Al-Qaeda — the moderates! — by their determination to bring violence to the Shia, whom they see as the ultimate apostates. Syria no longer exists, really; Afghanistan is the hinterland of Kabul and little more. Pakistan is bankrupt, corrupt, and its state apparatuses both fight and aid the Taliban. The whole region has been de-stated, and the US has decidedly renounced any intention of playing its usual role of re-stating it. That’s over, the projection of British power is over, and the Right of both states is so riven by pro- and anti- “intervention” factions that they are unable to mount a coherent line. Western publics are with the Obama line, no matter how dithery it seems: under no circumstances contribute troops to the debacle.

Small beer, but this is the final and utter discrediting of the neocon project. From Wolfowitz to  Dubya to John Howard to Greg Sheridan and lower orders of tame flunkies (and no I do not include assistance to the Libyan revolution in this ambit), it is clear now that their role was to speed up western loss of unipolar power by a decade or more, and kill half a million or so into the bargain. That’s what they did with their lives.

This is a day as significant as 9/11 in its way. We are faced with a force inimical to all modern values, but whose legitimacy has been created by the chaos we brought to their region. Now the threads have been pulled apart, and it is all to do again, but not in the same way. Today, you lived through the end of World War I, the Iraq War and the hegemonic west. It will be something to tell your grandkids, whatever country they find themselves citizens of. Ask not for whom the Bell tolls…

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle


Guy Rundle is Crikey's correspondent-at-large. He was co-editor of Arena Magazine for 15 years, and has written four hit stage shows for Max Gillies, two musicals, numerous books and produced TV shows including Comedy Inc and Backberner.

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26 thoughts on “Rundle: Advance of militants in Iraq means the end of the West as we know it

  1. Ken Lambert

    Brian Williams

    There is no excuse on the part of the Powells and Blairs and Howards (with even Australia’s limited intelligence resources) for not seeing Saddam for what he was – a warlord dictator of the broadly secular kind who though paying lip service to Sunni Islam, was as threatened by Islamic crazies as much as the West.

    Did they forget the brutal Iran-Iraq war where Saddam fought a devasting war of attrition against Iran’s Shia mad mullahs. He was the enemy of both Sunni and Shia crazies.

    His containment after first Gulf War was a running sore, but not as diabolical as what we are facing now.

    We face the prospect of allying with Shia Iran and propping up Assad.

    The Iranians are already claiming victory for Assad….quote “Terrorism perpetrated by al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups and individuals armed and funded by Sunni Muslim Arab countries was now the main threat facing the Syrian people, Borujerdi said. Many foreign fighters who had travelled to Syria from Britain and other European countries” endquote….that includes Australia where a Roman Catholic schoolboy has morphed into a 29 year old longbeard jihad leader – a darling of Facebooked crazies worldwide looking for a lethal fight to heaven.

    The West’s choices are all bad – propping up Assad in Syria in alliance with Iran to save Iraq’s weak Shia dominated Government from Sunni Islamic crazies worse than al Qaeda.

    And throw in the Kurds to complicate the case.

    And Dubya has taken up painting.

  2. Dogs breakfast

    Some wonderful comments to an insightful analysis from GR.

    But this from Sprague Brett????

    “Was Australia still compelled to join the US alliance for National interests? Yes.”

    Only if one accepts Kubrick’s thesis that all powerful nations are gangsters, and all small nations whores. Isn’t there the faintest chance that advising USA that they were barking mad and we wouldn’t land troops with them ‘in our national interest’. The assumption here is that if it is in USA’s interest it must therefore be in ours, a whores argument if ever I heard one.

    “Are Australian forces in far better shape because of Iraq and Afghanistan? – unquestionably.” On what basis, is it because we now have battle hardened (and broken) troops? Hardly beyond argument in my mind.

    “Has Australia sacrificed considerable treasure, but more importantly have Australian soldiers made significant personal sacrifice for Western ideals? Yes.” Can you enlighten as to what western ideals are, because all I saw was a corrupt war on the back of a personal vendetta. Surely that is bizarrely naive – ‘western ideals’ harrupmh.

    “Vigilance doesn’t come free, Australian forces are better prepared than they have been since WWII, and therefore Australia is incredibly well placed in an uncertain world”

    I’m not sure if holding a paddle is of much use in a barbed wire canoe.

    Where are we going, and why are we in a handbasket? Incredibly well placed? For what exactly!

    Could I disagree more? Unlikely.

  3. Ken Lambert

    Trouble with Guy is that half the time he is half right.

    Echos of Vietnam when Nixon Vietnamized the war effort and secretly promised to send in the B52’s if the North turned up in force.

    Well the North turned up in large numbers with lots of Russian gear and Nixon was gone. It was all over in a few weeks in 1975, after 10 years of a horrible war.

    There were some on the Right with a modicum of intelligence recognizing Dubya’s Iraq adventure as the folly of a F**kwitted fratboy in charge of the biggest military toy shop in history. The Powells and Blairs bear also heavy responsibility for the flaky intelligence and flimsy pretext for the Iraq attack and 10 years of chaos ensuing.

    The American people must bear the responsibility for electing Dubya; the man never held a passport until Governor of Texas, despite his father being President!!

    While FDR was cycling down the Rhine in his youth, Dubya was getting drunk and getting Jesus.

    Anyway brutal bastards like Saddam and Assad are not looking too bad when compared with the dark age crazies now marching on Baghdad.

    10 years of blood and treasure spent in Iraq and the Iraqi Army is melting away before a bunch of terrorists who are worse than mainstream Al-Qaeda?

    Wasn’t that Dubya’s line about Saddam Hussein and his terrorist links – Iraq as a hotbed of WMA terrorists?

    Will Obama do a Gerald Ford – that is the big question.

    If Obama fiddles, perhaps Dubya could roust out some Texas National guard riflemen with all those guns available in the US and lead the charge of good ol boys against those terrists….up Tikrit hill…

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