By Jim Miller
There has been much to be dismayed about in the wake of the horrible Paris (and Beirut) attacks, from the carnage itself to the ugly xenophobia it aroused in American politics to the sheer stupidity of the eternal return of the same that is the bipartisan hegemony on foreign policy. The answer for everything is always an eye for an eye until the whole world is blind with little to no intelligent reflection on the blunders that got us here—that might mean a fundamental rethinking of our role in the world rather than yet another knee-jerk response.
Perhaps the best piece I’ve seen on the phenomenon of ISIS came out months before the Paris attacks in The Guardian. In “Iraq Blowback: ISIS Rise Manufactured by Insatiable Oil Addiction,” Nafeez Ahmed gives a nice pocket history of how ISIS, the “Islamist Frankenstein,” is the product of the West’s “co-optation of Gulf states’ jihadists.”
More specifically, Ahmed starts by going back to the Bush administration where senior officials decided, “to pursue hair-brained ambitions to re-engineer the region through the de facto ethnosectarian” conflict. Thus began years of ill-conceived covert operations amidst the chaos of post-war Iraq, none of them working particularly well.
Still, the notion persevered, and as Ahmed notes, a 2008 U.S. Army-funded Rand report concluded that one way to “win the long war” in the Middle East was to up the ante:
One strategy to protect US access to Gulf oil explored by the report was “Divide and Rule”, which would involve “exploiting fault lines between the various Salafi-jihadist groups to turn them against each other and dissipate their energy on internal conflicts.” The US could also concentrate “on shoring up the traditional Sunni regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan as a way of containing Iranian power and influence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.”
Out of this genius, ISIS was born–the pure product of imperial hubris playing with the toxic petri dish of the disaster that was and is post-war Iraq. But this time, it really blew up in the faces of those who thought that empowering one group of Islamicist terrorists to fight another could end up being a good thing because it “may actually reduce the al-Qaida threat to US interests in the short term.”
Over the long term, however, it got us our present nightmare. Hence, Ahmed concludes:
The rise of Isis – a movement so ruthless even their parent network al-Qaeda disowned them – is blowback from the same brand of oil addicted US-UK covert operations we have run for decades.
If we really wanted to shut down Isis and its ilk for good, we could start by dismantling and disentangling ourselves from the geopolitical and financial infrastructure of oil hegemony that incubates terror. In the current context, bombs promise nothing more than the road to escalation.
In Einstein’s words: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
So it goes, but it doesn’t have to. I can still vividly remember in the last tidal wave of fear and loathing that came after 9/11 during the beginning of our endless war in Afghanistan and in the lead up to the war in Iraq, how angrily and dismissively those in the thrall of martial solutions dealt with the protesters’ pleas of “No Blood For Oil” and their warnings of a long and ugly future of endless war if we followed the course favored by both the neocons and then-Senator Hillary Clinton.
Now, after so much blood and chaos with so little to show for it, perhaps we can answer Paris with a bolder response—one that stops incubating terror.
Maybe the answer lies not in following the same old script but in writing a new one. Along those lines, perhaps Bernie Sanders suggesting that climate change is our number one national security threat is the wisest response we have seen despite the disparaging reactions from his critics.
Hence as Jason Box and Naomi Klein suggested recently in a provocative New Yorker piece, rather than letting the Paris attacks divert our attention away from the climate crisis as we saw happen after both 9/11 and the financial meltdown, this time we should look to solving that problem as the best path to peace:
When our safety feels threatened, it’s difficult to think of anything else. Major shocks like the Paris attacks are awfully good at changing the subject. But what if we decided to not let it happen? What if, instead of changing the subject, we deepened the discussion of climate change and expanded the range of solutions, which are fundamental for real human security? What if, instead of being pushed aside in the name of war, climate action took center stage as the planet’s best hope for peace?
They note, as others have, that climate change is a key factor in the Syrian civil war and warn that it, along with our addiction to oil, will only continue to threaten our security if we stay on the same path:
[M]any factors contributed to Syria’s instability. The severe drought was one, but so were the repressive practices of a brutal dictator and the rise of a particular strain of religious extremism. Another big factor was the invasion of Iraq, a decade ago. And since that war—like so many before it—was inextricable from the West’s thirst for Iraqi oil (warming be damned), that fateful decision in turn became difficult to separate from climate change. ISIS, which has taken responsibility for the attacks in Paris, found fertile ground in this volatile context of too much oil and too little water.
If we acknowledge that the instability emanating from the Middle East has these roots, it makes little sense to allow the Paris attacks to minimize our already inadequate climate commitments. Rather, this tragedy should inspire the opposite reaction: an urgent push to lower emissions as rapidly and deeply as possible, including strong support for developing countries to leapfrog to renewable energy, creating much-needed jobs and economic opportunities in the process. That kind of bold climate transition is our only hope of preventing a future in which, as a recent paper in the journal Nature Climate Change put it, large areas of the Middle East will, by the end of the century, “experience temperature levels that are intolerable to humans.”
So we have a choice: to continue to bomb and support proxy armies in the name of a geopolitical order that maintains our access to oil or to commit the world fully to dramatically transitioning away from fossil fuels and the terror-fueling politics that are funded by it. Rather than pouring billions into military strategies and bombs that only help create more blowback and ensure another generation of nihilistic jihadists, we can pull the plug on the war machine and stop the eternal return of the same.
Imagine funding a sustainable future rather than the dogs of war:
A climate summit taking place against the backdrop of climate-fuelled violence and migration can only be relevant if its central goal is the creation of conditions for lasting peace. That would mean making legally enforceable commitments to leave the vast majority of known fossil-fuel reserves in the ground. It would also mean delivering real financing to developing countries to cope with the impacts of climate change, and recognizing the full rights of climate migrants to move to safer ground. A strong climate-peace agreement would also include a program to plant vast numbers of native-species trees in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, to draw down atmospheric CO2, reduce desertification, and promote cooler and moister climates. Tree planting alone is not enough to lower CO2 to safe levels, but it could help people stay on their land and protect sustainable livelihoods.
Let’s hope the world’s leaders can take the opportunity this crisis offers and change the game at last. The alternative is a dark and descending path full of endless war, armies of desperate migrants, and an ecosystem rapidly sliding toward the point of no return.