Reading the middle east: part 1

27 Jun

A trail of destruction, chaos and terror left by US wars on the middle east (with Britain, the EU, Canada and Antipodes fully onboard) has seen some of us in the predator nations waking up to a core feature of modern imperialism.1 Like the direct colonial rule preceding and not entirely displaced by it,2 imperialism has always been underwritten by the promise of violence.

(If we weren’t so befuddled by ideological fog; by the sophistries, apologetics and flat out lies – such as that “we” spend trillions on weapons for fear of being attacked – attendant on living in a successful imperialism, this truth would be blindingly obvious.)

But while this slow awakening is to be welcomed, it leaves key questions either unanswered or answered in so broad brush a fashion as to ensure that more critical inquirers stay dissatisfied.

Take Syria. Unlike Iraq it doesn’t have much oil. (And what it does have is in the ‘safe’ hands of an illegally occupied Golan.) There’s a pipeline aspect to be sure, since Syria is on a straight line from the world’s largest energy deposits to its largest energy market. But does that fact suffice to explain “our” determination to impose regime change – a policy goal predating the Daraa protests of 2011 – on its people?

(Or why a 2016 US presidential candidate, and more importantly her billionaire backers, were signed up for a course – “no fly zones” – that had laid Libya to waste, and whose logical end point in Syria was nuclear showdown with Russia?)

Oil production and oil supply are in the picture of course. How could they not be? But not only do they form just a part of that picture: the ways in which they do so are not straightforward. To see why, we must consider three things. One, oil is more than a resource for an energy sufficient USA. It is also a commodity. Two, as commodity, oil = profits. Three, as resource, control of oil confers leverage; over rival imperialisms, and over China rising.

Cue to hand over to the first of two authorities on the Middle East, Canada’s Stephen Gowans. (The second, Australia’s Professor Tim Anderson, will feature in part 2.)

Writing yesterday on his What’s Left? site, the overall thrust of Stephen’s post is an updated summary of his invaluable book, Israel: a Beachhead in the Middle East, reviewed by me two years ago.  But as with that book, yesterday’s shorter offering makes useful generalisations on the nature of the Middle East and imperial designs on it.

Why Washington rejects a liberal democratic solution to the problem of Palestine

The United States dominates the Arab and Muslim worlds. This is a fairly uncontroversial statement. What’s less uncontroversial is the reason why.

US domination of West Asia is often understood to be related to Washington’s need to secure its energy supplies, but the United States has always been one of the world’s top producers of oil and natural gas, and often the top producer, which has allowed the country to be either energy self-sufficient, or close to it, and when it hasn’t been self-sufficient, it has relied on energy imports from Canada and Mexico to top up its energy supply more than it has relied on West Asia. The idea, then, that the United States needs access to Arab oil to satisfy its energy requirements is a myth.

The US domination of the Arab world has always been an outcome, not of a quest for energy security, but for oil profits, and for the geostrategic advantage that comes with control of a source of oil on which many other countries depend.

China, Germany, and Japan, the United States’ top economic competitors, depend on oil from the Arab and Muslim worlds. By controlling this region and the maritime shipping and pipeline routes through which the region’s oil  travels to its markets in Europe and East Asia, Washington gains enormous leverage over its economic rivals. If any of these countries steps too far out of line, Washington can close the spigot. The dictum of Henry Kissinger, a former US secretary of state and national security advisor, was: Control oil and you control nations.

Expansionary Compulsion

It is the nature of profit-making enterprises that they incessantly look for new business opportunities, to enter new markets and sell more goods and services—in short, to generate more profit. They look to their governments for aid in securing and protecting these opportunities, both at home and abroad. Because business people as a class have enormous sway over governments, the aid is routinely given.

Capitalist expansion often leads to conflict among governments acting on behalf of their profit-driven, perpetually expansion-seeking, business class.

The first is the conflict between competing states to secure profit-making opportunities for their own business people and, if they can, to deny the same opportunities to the business people of other nations.

Conflict among countries for profit-making opportunities led to the First and Second World Wars, but since the end of WWII, and the rise of the United States as an informal world empire, conflict of this sort has been contained.  Washington has absorbed its rivals into an economic order that regulates conflict among rival capitalisms according to rules the United States has established. The rules ultimately serve US interests. The Pentagon acts as the ultima ratio regnum of the “rules-based” system.

However, the conflict is regulated only so far as rivals remain within the system …

Full piece here 

I have just one chilling caveat. Stephen goes on to make this assertion:

If the United States did not need Israel as a tool of its empire, Israel would soon meet its demise. It is a very small country, its Jewish population comprises only seven million, and it is surrounded by hundreds of millions of Arabs who disapprove of the existence of a racist Jewish settler state implanted on stolen Arab land. Without Washington providing Israel with the means to defend itself, the Zionist state would be toppled by the internal revolt of the Arabs and the invasion of Arab and Muslim nationalist armies …

It’s a great summary, earmarked as a future steel city masthead quote. Just one small problem. Since it suited Washington to turn a blind eye to its client’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, a better analogy than craftsman and tool is Dr Frankenstein and his monster.


  1. My shorthand definition of modern imperialism is the export from global north to south of monopoly capital, and repatriation from south to north of profits. For more, see John Smith’s Imperialism in the twenty-first century, reviewed on this site.
  2. Old colonial powers like Britain quietly held onto strategically located territories: including, in Britain’s case, Diego Garcia, Gibraltar and the Virgin Islands.

4 Replies to “Reading the middle east: part 1

  1. Many thanks for the article.

    Aside from the fact that the US sells Russian oil to Europe and UK at profit, I really want to understand why the US would do so. It seems to me, in much that I have read, that the US is not so oil secure within it’s own territory and in fact much of the US oil supply is drying up at a faster rate than it can be “discovered” and too expensive to fetch it out of the ground.

    This is one of the reasons why I believe the US is continually waging wars, usually proxy,(heaven forbid American personnel should put themselves in harms way when others like the foreign civilian population can pay the heavy death toll)precisely because it is no longer energy sufficient and certainly not efficient and cannot meet the demands of it’s ever increasing energy requirements.

    Understandably, it lives in dread of Russia and China, supplanting them as the worlds strongest economies and so destroys whole countries like Iraq, Libya and Syria who have no Russophobia and would happily trade with the other two great world powers and join the OBOR rail route alternative/initiative.

    It may be that I am entirely wrong in my understanding of the US oil crisis and I certainly wouldn’t question Stephen Gowan’s interpretation of the situation, but I do find it strange. Control of the oil, wherever it is, is very understandable as leverage, both as carrot and stick and control is what the militarised Washington dictatorship has always aimed for.

    I think I’m going to have to broaden my reading on certain logistical analysis of the world’s energy production, last time I checked it did not bode well for the failing and flailing US of A.

    Stay safe

    • Hi Susan. I see the rise of Eurasia, for all the dangers it poses in terms of the US response, as the only cause for hope. I have friends I respect in all three strands of resistance in the West – left social democracy, vanguard revolutionary sects, and grass roots responses of the kind that threw up XR and Occupy. All have strengths but all have fatal weaknesses: it is to Eurasia and such as OBOR that I look for a sliver of a ghost of a possibility of salvation; not for me personally but for humanity at large.

      On the oil question – and leaving aside the environmental issues posed – you’re not alone in questioning Gowans’ claim of US energy sufficiency. See this Bloomberg assessment. But the wider point stands: for the US Empire, oil can never be simply a resource to be secured for domestic consumption. To give just one instance, besides the capacity to attack New Silk Road from Afghanistan, aided by terrorist units in Xinjiang, large oil fields in the latter make it a target for disruptive rather than acquisitive purposes. More generally, Trump – as he so often did – gave the game away with his “we’ve secured the [Syria] oil” tweet.

      Stay safe yourself Susan. You’re needed.

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