Stories upon stories pile up about what appears to be senseless violence at an Istanbul (Turkey) nightclub or a market in eastern Baghdad (Iraq), on the streets of Tripoli (Libya) or in a mosque in Kabul (Afghanistan). Some in the West turn away from this news, eager to shut it off or to blame it somehow on the failings of Eastern societies. Have they not always been like that?
Will they not always kill each other? Others in the West look, but all they feel is great sorrow and then, gratefulness for their own security. It is always the leaden eyes of children in war that move people. Accumulations of such stories are never enough.
The voices of the grieving make no sense. It is one thing to feel sympathy for someone in war, but hard, very hard to feel empathy – their suffering is so alien to the comforts of those in the West, too alien to expect a person to enter the shattered lives of others.
The reactions are easier when the West can walk away from its deep complicity in this suffering, particularly when it can blame petty autocrats and the Russians for everything. Someone else, surely, is at fault.
How can the West take political and emotional responsibility for the actions of others who have their own will? It is a fair question. Autocrats and tyrants do have their own will, and they do often exercise it with great brutality against those who deign to challenge them. But do the autocrats control the destiny of their countries, or do other – malevolent – forces surround them, driving people to desperation and into the jaws of death?
News comes from the United Nations that 6,878 civilians were killed in Iraq during 2016. These are official numbers. The unofficial numbers are likely much higher. Since the illegal American war on Iraq in 2003, hundreds of thousands if not a million people have been killed before their natural lives ended.
It is one of the great criminal acts of contemporary history, and yet no one has been called to account for it (although The People’s Tribunal on the Iraq War hopes to make noise in the silence). The immensity of the tragedy of Iraq – the cause of great destabilization in West Asia and North Africa – has been utterly forgotten.
It is easy to see the Associated Press article on these numbers, to even read about the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq’s hard work to establish these figures, and yet to forget that the prime mover here is not Eastern culture or human nature, but a war driven by Washington, DC based entirely on lies.
President George W. Bush’s adventure in Iraq was not an aberration in the War on Terror, as President Barack Obama suggested; it was its highest point, its defining action. Reason went out of the window and in its place came a jumble of anxieties mixed in with older currents of racism – hatred of Arabs who were seen to be inherently duplicitous and only able to learn their lessons through violence.
Unforgivable bombardment of Baghdad and Fallujah fixed the outlines, which were then colored in by lesser actions up and down the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Iraq now lingers despite every effort over the past decade to erase it from the map.
There is little reported news from southern Libya, where a battle is raging in the crossroads city of Sabha between two rivals – and unofficial – armies, the forces of the city of Misrata and the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. Earnest protests by residents of the city for the war to go elsewhere have been ignored.
Moth-eaten military bases and lucrative checkpoints are the targets of this war. Sabha sits at a strategic point in the Sahara Desert, linking the trafficking from Agadez (Niger), Darfur (Sudan), Zouar (Chad), Kidal, Gao and Menaka (Mali) and Ghat (Algeria). It is through Sabha had human traffickers cart people to the Libyan coastline to become refugees to Europe or extremists for the wars in Libya and Syria as well as back to Boko Haram in Nigeria.
Africa’s central region has been wracked by war, driven not merely by terrorism but by IMF-induced economic collapse, Western-backed kleptocracy, and the wars of Africa’s Great Lakes for resources – including those that run our cell-phones – that have spilled out of the Congo region.
NATO’s regime change war in Libya, the French military intervention in Libya and the presence of US Special Forces in 33 of the 54 African states did little to settle an already disturbed situation. There is little to chose between the wars in Libya and in the eastern Congo – both catastrophic for the future of Africa, both fueled by the capillaries of economic polices driven by the West and by an arms industry buoyed by Western arms sales.
Why does the United States have this vast footprint across Africa and – indeed – the entire world? Why does the United States – which already has five military bases in Colombia and a considerable base in Paraguay – plan to build another large base in Peru?
What is the point of the drive to push NATO eastwards from Germany’s eastern border to Russia’s western border? Why do US warships patrol close to the Chinese coastline and in the waters off Iran? Why is the United States’ arms industry the largest in the world, and why does the US government eagerly lobby for arms sales to countries that its own State Department chastises for human rights violations?
No Great Power claims to exercise authority for its own interests or for the interests of those businesses that dominate its institutions. They like to speak about humanitarian obligations – whether to protect civilians from other humans or from natural disasters. They put on the cloak of protection to suggest that they are above crass monetary interests, whether theft of resources or control of markets.
The United States – currently the most powerful state on the planet – is no different. It too suggests that it goes to war to protect humanity – using weapons of mass destruction to destroy weapons of mass destruction. In our liberal age, it is hard to define wars in terms of self-interest.
That is what makes the wars and economic policies of our time so mystifying. We are told that they the bitter medicine for the good of the planet, when in fact they are the use of force – by gun or by pen – for the betterment of very small numbers of people against the collective interest of the working-people of the planet. Our bewilderment comes from the thick cloak of ideology that covers over the real motivations of the powerful.
‘Globalization’ meant that firms no longer produce their goods and services near their markets. The planet was their factory, with bits and pieces of goods made here and there and assembled in yet another place.
Power of workers deteriorated as business owners made decisions to set up their plants where they could squeeze the best deals from desperate states. Businesses found that they needed to ensure the safety of their communications networks, their transportation systems and their intellectual property.
The Global Commodity Chain – which is what this novel form of production is called – had to be protected from hackers and pirates. It is to this end that the United States and its allies revived old Cold War bases and built new bases to defend the commodity chain and supply lines, to ensure that Big Business was not vulnerable to any attack.
Meanwhile, ordinary people saw their wages decline as they competed on a global scale for low-tech production and as robots displaced them in strategically situated high-tech factories. Donald Trump’s economic nationalism is ignorant of these realities.
Those US ships that sail in the South-China Sea are not there to protect Taiwan or South Korea. They are there to protect the Global Commodity Chain. With the emergence of Russia and China – in particular – as regional powers, the US has tried to hem them in.
The tensions between the United States and Russia-China is not because the former is benevolent and the latter are malevolent, but because they are in the midst of a geo-strategic battle over whether the United States and its allies should be the only ones to control the supply lines and the commodity chain, as well as how money is moved around (the SWIFT network) and how money is valued (whether the Dollar remains the main currency).
This is a dangerous battle that could well go out of control. The victims of that war will once more be in the proxy battlefields of the Global South, where the blood already, ‘mysteriously,’ flows.
Vijay Prashad is professor of international studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. He is the author of 18 books, including Arab Spring, Libyan Winter (AK Press, 2012), The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South (Verso, 2013) and The Death of a Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution (University of California Press, 2016). His columns appear at AlterNet every Wednesday.