“People don’t realise,” a wise friend of mine said during the rush of the George W. Bush administration to invade Iraq in 2003, “if you push too hard at the universe, the universe will push right back”.
Now, the universe has started to push back at 12 years of reckless US policies, invasions and sweeping efforts to remake nations across the Middle East.
This is not a new story: In fact it is a very old one.
In 1919, US president Woodrow Wilson crossed the Atlantic Ocean with a brain trust of eager young policy-makers, including future Washington Post pundit Walter Lippmann, to remake the ancient borders of Europe in the name of national self-determination — and he did.
“National self-determination” was Wilson’s version of what the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy called “the green stick” — the one simple, magic secret that will transform the world and bring instant happiness to everyone.
Eighty-four years later, Bush, vice-president Dick Cheney and defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld had a new magical green stick called “democracy and human rights”. This time they were determined to remake the Middle East.
First they conquered Iraq, using fraudulent intelligence about its alleged weapons of mass destruction as their justification. Then they abolished the Iraqi Army and imposed US-style democracy on the country.
Of course, what they really created was a hellish chaos, an anarchy in which Sunnis and Shias were pitted against each other and the previously dominant Sunni communities were smashed and isolated. Many of their members in despair turned to Islamic extremists.
The succeeding administration of President Barack Obama should have learned the lesson but it didn’t. Neo-conservative arrogance and recklessness was replaced by more of the same from neo-liberals. But it was the same green stick and the same old story.
During the heady days of the “Arab spring” in 2011, Obama allowed the CIA and the Pentagon to funnel funds and aid to topple the autocratic, beleaguered government of President Bashar Assad in Syria. Syria was going to get the full green stick treatment.
Except, as the world now knows, it didn’t work. Assad proved a tougher nut to crack than Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. And the American people’s taste for fully occupying countries when Washington armchair strategists told them to had been drained dry by the ever-rising casualty figures from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now the wheel has turned full circle. Four years of US efforts to produce an idyllic “secular, democratic, pluralistic, tolerant” green stick society in Syria have instead unleashed a ferocious medieval-style jihad, uprooted 11 million people from their homes and driven millions of refugees into Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia and even across the European Union.
Now it is Russia that is intervening in Syria to fight the jihadists. But where the United States disbanded the Ba’athist army in Iraq and smashed the old state structure there, Russian President Vladimir Putin, with no delusions about creating any utopia or shining example to the world, is supporting the Ba’athist army of Damascus. No green stick for him.
The initial success of Russian air strikes against Islamist forces, including some supported by the United States, has clearly impressed the leaders of Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. All three countries, close to the United States for generations, are rapidly boosting diplomatic and security ties with Moscow.
America’s green stick policy of the past 12 years is spreading chaos and fear through Europe as well as the Middle East. Everything is turning out the opposite of what it was supposed to be.
The 18th-century English poet William Blake coined a phrase to describe this kind of ironic blowback: “fearful symmetry”.