Book Review: Perilous Power

By Jim Miles
Special to PalestineChronicle.com

Perilous Power – The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy.  Gilbert Achcar and Noam Chomsky.  Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO. 2007

This is a readily accessible book, formulated through an intriguing process of recording a dialogue between two internationally known educators who are actively involved in criticizing governments and people in power in general.  While there are some disagreements between the two in minor areas, the general trend is strong agreement between the two perspectives, one from America, one from Europe.  By using a moderator to question and guide the topics, the end result is not a ramble and ad lib mixing of topics, but has several well-developed themes.

“Perilous Power” begins with an establishment of a definition of terror of which there are two levels.   First is the dictionary definition of terrorism, or more correctly the U.S. Code found in army manuals, saying that terror is “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to attain goals that are political, religious, or ideological in nature…through intimidation, coercion, or instilling fear.”   That provides a wide range of actions that could readily incriminate many governments, including the one that wrote the definition.  The operative definition, the one that is determined by what is done and not what is said is much more cynical, but much more real: terrorism is “acts we don’t like” while “acts we do like, they are not terrorism.” 

From that definition, the discussion turns towards interpreting various shadings of meaning before examining what the real threat is and what an appropriate response should be.  The real threat is growing from a very small base under American “escalation” to an increasing danger.  The appropriate responses are based very much on common sense, “reduce the reasons for it,” which are described as the American presence in the Middle East – including support for Israel and the strategic control of oil – and also includes the disparities brought about by the neoliberal free-market globalization agenda. Following that Iraq is discussed briefly.  While the two had some disagreement over the relationship between the U.S. and Hussein’s Iraq, the reader will probably feel that the difference is not much more than ‘head’ and ‘tail’ of the same coin.

“Fundamentalism and Democracy” becomes the next topic of the conversation.  There is an identification of similarities between Christian, Jewish, and Islamic fundamentalists before the topic turns to the Saudi fundamentalists – the liaison between the Saudi and Wahhabi clans – and then progresses to ‘democracy’ in the Middle East.  There is recognition that there have been some strong democratic movements in the Middle East, although authoritarian rule has generally prevailed except for, currently, Lebanon and Turkey.  As for American support of democracy, the Americans support it “if and only if it conforms to U.S. economic strategic objectives,” which could explain why democracy is so well limited in the Middle East, and why Lebanon continues to suffer military assaults by the American-Israeli partnership, why the Soviets were enticed into Afghanistan, and further back, why Mossadegh was overthrown in Iran.   

Democracy in Iraq, in Achcar’s view from the Arab press, is that it is a rhetorical project…a public relations operation” that nevertheless required some “minimal cosmetic reforms” not for the Arab world, but for domestic consumption.  This is obvious in recognition of the contradiction of supporting the Saudi fundamentalists and denying the Iranian fundamentalists.  There was no discussion of Hamas and Hezbollah in this section on democracy, a rather singular mistake, but the author’s redeemed themselves later in the book when examining the position of Israel within the Middle East.

Before actually arriving at that topic, the “driving dynamics” of U.S. foreign policy can be summarized in two words, oil (along with oil rides the American dollar) and Israel.  These dynamics “don’t care about women’s rights…religion….credibility; what they care about is running the world.  You lose the major oil resources of the world, and it’s finished.”  This draws China into the picture because that is where the loss will go, a “rising competing power” that is hated because it “can’t be intimidated.”

These dynamics extend into the following chapter on the various wars in the Middle East.  Afghanistan was not so much about capturing bin Laden (of whom the Taliban were willing to negotiate his extradition) but securing a “military vice around the Caspian Basin, which is an important source of hydrocarbons, not only oil, but especially gas.”  That security relates not so much to U.S. domestic consumption as it does to Russian-Chinese cooperation as well as Russian influence in the European markets (and of course, as above, the strength of the dollar versus the euro.)

The war in Iraq is viewed in a similar light but with a very interesting note.  The idea of Iraqi democracy, while highly touted by the American government, was really a result of commitment in a nonaggressive, nonviolent manner by the actors within Iraq, mainly the Shiites and Sistani holding the U.S. to its rhetoric and preventing Bremer from establishing his own personalized constitution. Achcar notes that the ‘fear’ of chaos and civil war is “an attempt at justifying the occupation, but it holds no water….the case for immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops is compelling.”  The chapter covers briefly the situation concerning Iran, Syria, and the Kurdish population before turning to the largest segment of the book, the chapter on “The Israel-Palestine Conflict”.

The chapter starts with an interesting argument that while “states have certain rights[,] that has nothing to do with their legitimacy.”  Following that the “state system itself has no inherent legitimacy,” and does not “exist in international law.”  This of course leads into Israeli demands on Palestine and the world for the “right to exist” which if accepted really legitimizes Palestinian “dispossession and expulsion.”  Various commentaries are made that highlight some of the problems that are obvious but not critiqued in western media.

The most obvious is that of the U.S. position towards Israel.  Chomsky emphasizes that in 1991 the Palestinians had a leadership with their main negotiator being Haidar Abdel-Shafi, but the U.S. “made an end run around the Palestinians – and that’s the Oslo agreement….a sellout.”  The Camp David Accords of 2000 broke “the territory into three cantons, mostly divided from one another,” a concept accepted by both sides, with the Israelis under Barak simply calling off the negotiations under the pretext of an impending election.

As for Bush II, there is no equivocation: “The Bush administration is extreme.”  First it has recognized the “effective annexation of what are called the settlement blocks,” including the areas of East Jerusalem, even though that has been declared illegal by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council.  It has endorsed the ‘separation wall’, another illegal feature as decided by the International Court of Justice. 

The discussion on Israel continues, covering further topics on settlements, military infrastructure, Zionism, internal Israeli politics (including torture), Ariel Sharon (“Sharon being interested in peace and so on is just preposterous.”), and finally into Hamas.  Achcar views the American denied democratic process in a positive light, very rationally so as because once “they get into the political process, they will have to think politically and not only in terms of violent confrontation.”  Of course Hamas has been thinking politically or they would not have put forward candidates for the elections in the first place, and their origins lie in their social assistance and support to a people subject to the atrocities of occupation and subjugation. 

When arriving at solutions to the problem, Chomsky indicates, “educating the American public is the main thing to be done” as “the main problem is in the United States.”  Achcar identifies the main leverage point as military money, as “Israel can only exist as a kind of Sparta, a militarized society, because of U.S. funding.”  Israel also receives “all sorts of economic and other advantages from European states, but…there is no justification for them,” as they support a state “carrying out criminal polices and shamelessly violating international law.”

In the epilogue, written after Hamas’ rise to power, and the war with Hezbollah, Chomsky summarizes the situation and sees the only solution as “total and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. troops.”  Achcar says “the prospects for peace in the region are at their bleakest…and only further descent into barbarism looms on the horizon.” with its “spiral of violence and death that affect the region and spill over into the rest of the world.”

“Perilous Power” provides a highly pessimistic but also very realistic view of the situation in the Middle East.  This is Chomsky at his informal best, and introduces, probably to most people, the associated views of Gilbert Achcar and his more European perspective.  It is a very broad ranging work, but the final analysis focuses the problem on America and its treatment of the peoples of the Middle East and Palestine in particular.  The answer, in spite of the rhetoric in America about how the Middle East cannot care for itself (it would be able to if everyone else quit meddling in their affairs) and how it would turn into civil war and chaos (it already has and the cause is obvious) is the very realistic but highly improbable immediate U.S. withdrawal.   

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. 

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