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Tomgram: Rebecca Gordon, How the U.S. Created Middle East Mayhem

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.

To this day, it remains difficult to take in the degree to which the American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq destabilized the Greater Middle East from the Chinese border to Libya. Certainly, as the recent Republican and Democratic presidential debates suggest, Americans have some sense of what a disaster it was for the Bush administration to use the 9/11 attacks as an excuse to take out Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein. The gravity of the decision to occupy and garrison his country, while dismantling his party, his institutions of state, and much of the economy, not to speak of his military, can hardly be overemphasized. In the process, it's clear that the U.S. punched a giant hole through the oil heartlands of the planet. The disintegrative effects of those moves have only compounded over the years. Despite the many other factors, demographic and economic, that lay behind the Arab Spring of 2011-2012, for instance, it's hard to believe that it would have happened in the way it did, had the invasion of Iraq not occurred.

Though you'll seldom find it mentioned in one place, in the ensuing years five countries in the region -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen -- all disintegrated as nation states. Three of them were the focus of direct American interventions, the fourth (Yemen) was turned into a hunting ground for American drones, and the fifth (Syria) suffered indirectly from the chaos and mayhem in neighboring Iraq. All of them are now embroiled in seemingly unceasing internecine struggles, wars, and upheavals. Meanwhile, the phenomenon that the Americans were ostensibly focused on crushing, terrorism, has exploded across the same lands, resulting among other things in the first modern terrorist state (though its adherents prefer to call it a "caliphate").

Those two invasions also loosed another deeply destabilizing phenomenon: 24/7 counterinsurgency from the air and the "manhunting" drone that was so essential to it. At first, this was an American phenomenon as U.S. Air Force planes with their "smart" weaponry and CIA and Air Force drones, all hyped for their "surgical precision," began cruising the skies of the Greater Middle East, terrorizing parts of the backlands of the region. In effect, they acted as agents of disintegration as well as recruitment posters for expanding terror outfits. The "collateral damage" they caused was considerable, even if it has, until recently, been largely ignored in our world. Hundreds, for instance, died in three of those disintegrating countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen) when at least eight wedding parties were obliterated by American air power, and yet few noticed. This may recently have changed when an American AC-130 gunship eviscerated a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Doctors, staff, and patients were killed, some burned in their beds, because American special operations analysts believed, according to the Associated Press, that a single Pakistani intelligence agent might be on the premises. (He evidently wasn't.) Soon after, the Intercept published a cache of secret U.S. documents from a "new Edward Snowden" on the American drone program in Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen that offered a strong sense of the "apparently incalculable civilian toll" taken in the constant search for terror targets.

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But here's the truly grim reality of the Greater Middle East today: what the Americans started didn't end with them. The skies of the region are now being cruised by French, British, Jordanian, United Arab Emirates, Kuwaiti, Qatari, Bahraini, Moroccan, Egyptian, Saudi, and Russian planes and drones, all emulating the Americans, all conducting "counterinsurgency," all undoubtedly blasting away civilians. In Yemen, the Saudi air force, backed and supplied by Washington, recently took up the twenty-first-century American way of war in the most explicit fashion possible -- by knocking off two wedding parties and killing more than 150 celebrants.

And can the Iranians, the Chinese, and others, all now building or purchasing drones, be far behind? We are, it seems, already on a Terminator Planet. In that light, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon points out today, this year's Nobel Prize to a Tunisian foursome of civil organizations that struggled to bring peace, not war, to their land has special meaning. It offers a tiny window on what the world of the Greater Middle East might have looked like if Washington had never intervened as it did. Tom

The Secret to Winning the Nobel Peace Prize
Keep the U.S. Military Out
By Rebecca Gordon

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This year's Nobel Peace Prize went to Tunisia's National Dialogue Quartet "for its decisive contribution to the building of a pluralistic democracy... in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution of 2011." The Quartet is a group of four organizations -- two national labor unions, a business group, and a lawyers' association -- whose work helped prevent Tunisia from sliding into civil war in the years following that "revolution."

Seeing the peace prize go to an organization that actually seems to have kept the peace is cheering news in a month that witnessed the military of one former Nobel laureate destroying a hospital run by another winner. Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontières) certainly earned its 1999 Peace Prize by providing medical services to people in more than 80 countries, often working in some of the most dangerous places on earth. On the other hand, as far as anyone can tell, a weary Nobel committee gave Barack Obama his prize in 2009 mostly for not being George W. Bush.

Tunisia, home of this year's winners, is the country where the Arab Spring began when a vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, burned himself to death after the police confiscated the cart from which he made his living. His lingering death catalyzed a variety of social forces demanding an end to the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. These included young people, students, and workers -- all with deep economic grievances -- as well as human rights supporters and some Islamists who hoped to see the country adopt a version of Sharia law. On January 14, 2011, 10 days after Bouazizi's death and under popular pressure, Ben Ali gave up power and accepted asylum in Saudi Arabia.

In October 2011, Tunisia held parliamentary elections. A right-wing religious party, al-Nahda ("Renaissance"), took 37% of the vote and formed a coalition government with two other parties, one on the left and the other composed of secular liberals. Hamadi Jebali, a solar energy scientist and member of al-Nahda, became the first prime minister. He later stepped down when fellow party members pressured him to abandon his efforts to build a coalition government of national unity in favor of a more explicitly Islamist approach.

In the following years, while the al-Nahda party continued to rule, several prominent left-wing politicians were assassinated, for which the far right-wing Islamist militia Ansar al-Shariah claimed responsibility. Unhappy with the Islamist turn of their revolution and furious at what they saw as the government's inaction after the assassination of leftwing Popular Front politician Mohamed Brahmi, Tunisians once again took to the streets. There, as Juan Cole wrote shortly afterwards, they staged "enormous demonstrations." Unions, women's organizations, and student groups all demanded that al-Nahda step down in favor of a more neutral, technocratic government.

At this point, the profound political conflict in Tunisia could easily have turned into an armed confrontation. But it didn't. Instead the country's organized political forces, aided by the National Dialogue Quartet, achieved something remarkable, especially in the context of the present Greater Middle East. Al-Nahda withdrew from governing and was replaced with a "technocratic" caretaker government. Under it, a new, secular constitution was written and, in October 2014, parliamentary elections were held, followed by presidential elections that November.

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Today, Tunisia continues to face economic and political problems, including two separate terrorist attacks on foreigners this year, but for now it has something unique among the Arab Spring countries: an apparently stable, democratic government.

What Made Tunisia Different?

Of all the countries touched by Arab Spring uprisings, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and Syria, Tunisia is the only one that has neither devolved into vicious internal warfare nor reverted to authoritarian rule. What makes Tunisia different?

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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