Middle East Cauldron

— David Finkel

Eastern Cauldron
Islam, Afghanistan, Palestine and Iraq in a Marxist Mirror.
by Gilbert Achcar
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2004. 287 pp., $18.95 paper.

THE PAST THREE decades of Middle East history present a process of what I sometimes call “permanent counterrevolution,” unfolding under the ever-present reality of imperial domination, rivalry and of course the politics of oil.

These years saw, first, the defeat of movements of the Arab left, already compromised by the influence of Stalinism, at the hands of nationalism. In turn came the violent defeat of left-nationalist currents by semi-fascist Baathism or pro-western autocracies, and then the ultimate decline of Arab nationalism as a whole, leaving a vacuum filled by rising Islamist fundamentalism.

These developments proceeded alongside the expanding power of the Israeli state and the ascendancy there of the Jewish national-religious right; and the crushing defeat of the secular revolutionary left in Iran and the hijacking of that popular revolution by a hideous mullahcracy.

This has been capped by the U.S. conquest and occupation of Iraq, the only conceivable way of creating worse misery for that ruined nation than existed under the butchery of Saddam Hussein.

All this and Afghanistan too!

Amidst this wreckage of progressive politics there have been, of course, hopeful moments. There was the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987-91, characterized by unprecedented independent grassroots mobilization. There was also the success (at great cost) of the long Lebanese resistance struggle led by the Hezbollah guerrilla army, from 1982 until the Israeli pullout in 2000, and others that have imposed some limitations on the exercise of U.S. and Israeli power.

Still, the historic defeats imposed on the working class and national liberation movements have vastly outweighed the limited and mostly short-term victories won during this period.

I’m not aware of any single synthetic account of this tragic era with signposts for a possible way out of the mess, but Gilbert Achcar’s Eastern Cauldron offers a valuable chronicle of some of the central events. Some of the threads that disappear in the tangle of daily headlines emerge into view — when, for example, you trace U.S. policy through its support of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden in the 1980s, through allowing Saddam to crush the Shia uprising of 1991, to the post-9/11 “global war on terror.”

The author, a Lebanese scholar and journalist who has lived and worked in France since 1983, places himself in the “undogmatic Marxist” tradition of the recently deceased Maxime Rodinson.

The core of the volume consists of contemporaneous essays beginning in the 1980s, originally appearing in the journal International Viewpoint among others, and eminently deserving of a wider audience. The collection is nicely framed by a major introductory essay, “U.S. Imperial Strategy in the Middle East,” and Achcar’s widely circulated “Letter to a Slightly Depressed Antiwar Activist,” written immediately after the 2003 conquest of Iraq.

The former is a survey of U.S. policy from t1920 on, organized on the principle that “In the beginning was the ‘open door’ to oil: this is how any history of the steadily tightening U.S. hold on the Middle East ought to begin.” (9) The latter closes in the wake of the Iraq war: “As Washington bogs down in a country that cannot be hidden from the world — unlike Afghanistan, more chaotic today than ever — the antiwar movement will be able to rise to new heights.” (264)

That hopeful hypothesis for the movement obviously remains to be proven in practice, following the downturn accompanying the U.S. election and its outcome, which has left much of the movement more than “slightly depressed” but struggling to come back.

It can’t be too strongly emphasized that U.S. intervention is ever-present in all the struggles and dynamics of this region, and in multifarious forms. It’s not only in U.S. troops entering Lebanon in 1958 and 1983, or the post-1967 development of the U.S.-Israeli military-technological partnership, or the current conquests of Iraq and Afghanistan.

More than all of this, from the supplanting of the declining French and British colonial power, through the American-Saudi partnership cemented in the 1940s, through the Cold War and the emergence of the U.S. “hyperpower,” Washington’s course in the Middle East has almost entirely been built on alliances with the most retrograde, anti-democratic forces — the most repressive regimes, the worst of the religious fundamentalists — all in the name of freedom, naturally.

Critical Lessons

Following the introduction, the essays are grouped in four sections covering Islamic fundamentalism, the Afghanistan quagmire, Palestine and Iraq. I think it is worth noting here a salient lesson of recent history: Among the thinkers associated with the world Trotskyist current, Achcar was one of the very few who recognized immediately and clearly that the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was an unqualified disaster for the left.

“There is no doubt that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan is being carried out in gross violation of the right of peoples to self-determination,” he wrote in December 1979, at a time when so many on the Marxist left deluded themselves that something positive for Afghan workers, women or “the revolution” could come out of this invasion.

“It is imperative that the Soviet troops withdraw from Afghanistan immediately and that the Kremlin recognize the right of self-determination of the people of the country...The possibility of the Muslim rebels taking power in Kabul — which is in no way inevitable — is, on the whole, much less harmful to world revolution than a prolonged war by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.” (76, 78)

In the event, of course, both of these evils did transpire — the prolonged Soviet war and the victory of the Muslim fundamentalists. So did other consequences that could hardly be imagined then, as the American support of Afghan and foreign Islamist insurgents (organized by Osama bin Laden) led both to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and to 9/11.

The insights in the document Achcar wrote then are well worth reviewing as lessons in the importance of democratic principles and the catastrophic consequences of abandoning them.

The longest section of the book, however, focuses on Palestine. These nine articles present a moving picture (in more than one sense) of the Palestinian people’s struggle and the chronic failure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to craft a viable strategic program. The title of one chapter, “Where is the PLO Going? The Long March...Backwards” (1989), is indicative of the general thrust.

Chronicle of Failure

Without entering here into the rich tangle of detail, the essence of Achcar’s indictment is the PLO’s long record of subordinating the popular struggle to the dictates of imperialism, the United Nations and Arab regimes on the one hand, and its own external bureaucracy on the other.

Achcar traces the continuity of the imperialist project from 1967 on, through various U.S. administrations and UN resolutions, to ultimately impose some variant of the “Allon plan.”

This plan emerged shortly after the 1967 war, envisioning some kind of weak Palestinian polity to be established in the Occupied Territories after Israel’s requirement of a “security buffer” in the Jordan Valley was satisfied. This general idea has been a consistent policy thread, particularly in Democratic U.S. administrations, from Jimmy Carter’s Camp David accords to Clinton’s sponsorship of Oslo, Madrid and the failed 2000-01 Camp David and Taba negotiations.

Meanwhile, from the beginning of the Occupation, under the “security” pretext Israeli Labor governments authorized the first West Bank settlements, the cancer that has metastasized into a lethal barrier to peace on any terms. Achcar chronicles the ways in which the PLO’s accommodations to the pressures of imperialism made it impossible to formulate or implement a program for effective mass resistance to Zionist expansion.

In his chapter “The Washington Accords: A Retreat Under Pressure” (1993), Achcar outlines what such an approach might have been, had the mass movement been seen as the strategic center rather than a diplomatic bargaining asset:

"In the framework of the relationship of forces existing since 1967 between the state of Israel and the fragmented Palestinian people, in the absence of any Arab and international support capable of changing this relationship, it was clearly not possible to obtain a complete and unconditional withdrawal of the Zionist army from the territories occupied in 1967...to realize the legitimate transitional objective, however illusory, of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state — in the true sense of these words, not in the caricatured, democratic interpretation that Arafat has given them today.

"The only realistic immediate objective was that of unconditional withdrawal by the Israeli army from the Palestinian population centers: the demand formulated by the leadership of the intifada during its first months. The pressure of the Palestinian struggle in its different forms could have reasonably culminated in this result, on the condition that the struggle was not sabotaged by sowing illusions about winning Palestinian objectives through diplomacy, thanks to Washington.

"If the intifada has been in decline, this is not only for objective reasons but also, above all, for reasons of leadership. The Tunis [external PLO] leadership had done everything to reestablish its hegemony over a movement that had freed itself from it in its first months." (201-2)

This strategic default is certainly one critical side of the equation. The other, on which these essays barely touch, is that the Palestinian leadership’s accommodation toward imperialism has coexisted with a general “rejectionism” toward Israeli society. This is not a question fundamentally of formal programs, whether for recognition of Israel’s existence as a nation or a “democratic secular Palestine,” though those are significant.

More important is that the external PLO leadership neglected almost completely any attempt to understand, let alone find dialogue with, the Israeli Jewish population aside from thin layers of sympathetic intellectuals. Few if any top PLO leaders could speak Hebrew, although internally based militants like Marwan Barghouthi understood this necessity and became fluent in the language while imprisoned.

During the period when the PLO spoke of a “democratic secular state,” whatever this may have meant, any possibility of finding support for such a vision among ordinary Israeli Jews depended on having it presented in their own language, with explicit answers to a variety of questions: Did this envision an Arab state with a Jewish religious minority? A recognized Jewish nationality? A hybrid Middle Eastern state neither “Arab” nor “Jewish” but belonging fully to every individual and community living in it?

The PLO never really resolved these questions even formally; but without speaking in Hebrew to the proposed partners of the Palestinian people, the whole idea never even had a chance.

The two sides of failure are linked: The Palestinian bureaucracy expected that somehow, accommodation with imperialism would “deliver” a deal with Israel — just as Zionism for decades presumed that the Palestinian people could be bypassed and “peace” negotiated with Arab regimes only. (“There were no Palestinians,” said Golda Meir.)

The consequences are lethal all around, as Achcar explained to a radical Israeli journal Between the Lines. Today, “Sharon’s onslaught against the Palestinians has created such a sharp and bitter resentment against Israel and the United States in the whole Arab world that it became in itself a serious impediment facing any resumption of the ‘peace process.’ That this is Sharon’s goal is beyond doubt.” (232)

Barbarism and Counter-Barbarism

The consequences of these multiple failures will be with us for a long time. Since 9/11, of course, the displacement of secular, nationalist or left politics by forces of religious-totalitarian fanaticism has transformed not only Middle East but world politics.

Gilbert Achcar, in his earlier work The Clash of Barbarisms (Monthly Review Press, 2002), concisely and trenchantly summed up the new era:

"What a huge mistake it is to mistake something for a 'clash of civilizations' that is quite evidently a clash of barbarisms!...Each civilization has its own barbarism. Some people cut throats, a traditional Afghan murder method imported into Algeria by veterans of the anti-Soviet war, and symbolized by the September 11 box-cutter knives. Others 'cut daisies:' they kill massively at a distance using 'daisy cutters,' the most deadly 'conventional' (15,000- pound) bombs in existence. Some people hijack airliners so as to use them as missiles to murder civilians. Others launch cruise missiles in 'surgical strikes' that are to surgery what chain saws are to scalpels. (The Clash of Barbarisms, 62, 64)

The barbarism and counter-barbarism of the Bush Doctrine and al-Qaeda feed on each other and on the blood of the world’s peoples. In both books, Achcar looks to the international antiwar and global justice (“anti-globalization”) movement as the hope for a different vision. These works help put the urgency of the moment into even sharper focus.

ATC 115, March-April 2005