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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.

Guy Rundle — Correspondent-at-large

Guy Rundle

Correspondent-at-large

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…

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26 comments

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

  1. Simon Mansfield

    Mostly agree. Though I suspect there will be a significant airpower based intervention in next few days. There is no other option at this point. Iran could well be a partner in any intervention at this point as well. Would be ironic if Obama cancels his Abbott meeting due to real world issues. A surf board in the oval office is not the kinda look they need to be projecting at this time.

  2. Humphrey Bower

    I had similar thoughts when I read the news today (oh boy!) Deterritorialization is the (dis)order of the day. The frontline is now between the past and the future, tradition and modernity, identity politics and global capital. We of goodwill must paddle as we can to negotiate the rapids betwixt and between, practically, politically and morally. Welcome to the inter-zone.

  3. klewso

    The Coalition of the Shilling dug the hole the country is falling into.

  4. Brian Williams

    Guy – while the US invasion of Iraq certainly unleashed another chapter in the Sunni/Shia 1500 years war, it was surely just another in a long line of conflicts between peoples who all seem to believe that firing an RPG while shouting Allahu Akhbar on every occasion, will eventually provide some basis for a system of government.

    As you correctly insinuated, the attempt to create functioning countries out of peoples whose first loyalties were always going to be towards their own tribes, and therefore their own version of Islam, was doomed to fail from the beginning. At the base level, these people are killing each other because they can’t agree whether Mohammeds father-in-law, or his cousin should have succeeded him 1500 years ago.

    Give me atheism eany day. Religion – the cause of more misery than any other humam invention.

  5. Mayan

    “… promised the Zionists a homeland, partly to keep bank credit flowing for the war effort”

    I thought it was ‘Crikey’ not ‘Der Sturmer’. Perhaps it’s time to give the base stereotypes and baseless conspiracy theories a rest.

  6. Mendoza

    ever get the feeling the world is moving at a glacial speed towards something very dangerous?

  7. AR

    This latest example of the US disease of blowback ought to be salutatory to even the dimmest Drill dills – for the last 3 years the US has allowed Saudi & Qatar to fund & arm Sunni jihadists in Syria. This export of fundi nutters is essential to keep the lid of the garbage can that is the Saudi gerontocracy.
    Now that they’ve had their arses kicked, they are taking on the softer target of Iraq – just another shia abomination – and suddenly everyone acts surprised.

  8. StefanL

    A great pity that the European powers didn’t create a strong and viable Kurdistan at the end of World War I.

  9. Venise Alstergren

    Good one GUY: BRIAN WILLIAMS: I tend to agree with you.

    There is something in the religion of Islam which seems to prevent its followers from being part of the 21st century. We in the west probably got rid of the worst of religious zealotry in the late middle ages. Islam, or the people who follow it, has remained stuck in the one spot. And, as Brian said, it is a curiously ‘tribal’ form of religion and living. The concept of complete loyalty to one’s tribe/family, extended or otherwise, far exceeds any loyalty to one’s country.

  10. Bill Hilliger

    The events in Iraq just once again emphasise prove as did Vietnam and soon Afghanistan that American style hamburger and Coca-Cola democracy is not accepted.