What if there is no Conspiracy?

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[republished at PFP with Agence Global permission] 
However nutty these conspiracy theories seem, they offer something that “the roadmap,” “democratization,” and “stand the Iraqis up so we can stand down” all lack: assurance that somehow, somewhere everything makes sense. That the rattles and grinding noises that sound like an imminent breakdown of the engine of politics are actually the normal vibrations of an invisible and omnipotent imperialist machine.

But trust in the all-controlling imperialist machine is fast running out. To the bewilderment of local pundits, suspicion is mounting that American actions in the region actually are as incompetent as they appear to be. Informants who once volunteered, with a wink and a nod, their deep “inside knowledge” of CIA activities and American strategic designs now anxiously ask: “What in the world is the Bush administration up to?” Maybe it's not a conspiracy. Maybe there is no master plan.

When a time-honored political vision, even one as strange and frequently irrational as that of Middle Eastern conspiracy mongers, becomes murky and unpredictable, both revolutionaries and authoritarian leaders sense the possibilities and dangers of the shifting terrain. Uneasiness grows. Old verities splinter.

Four years ago everyone and his brother “knew” that the United States lusted after Iraq’s oil and military bases. True? Maybe. Maybe not. At the moment, however, everything that might once have been part of an administration plan has dissolved in chaos. Not only does the Bush team have no credible design for achieving its ever more limited goals, but every turn of events in Baghdad, Baquba, or Basra, not to mention Tehran, Islamabad, and Beirut, takes it by surprise and leaves it all but speechless.

A Sunni asks how an American administration that demonizes the Islamic Republic of Iran and its Shi‘ite Lebanese client Hizbullah could possibly have gotten into bed with Shi‘ite political parties in Iraq that share as much DNA with these foes as a chimpanzee does with President Bush. What’s with that? It doesn’t make sense.

A Saudi is amazed when an administration spokesman expresses unswerving solidarity with old reliable “moderate” Sunni allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt, and at the same time asks Arab friends to pitch in and help build a Shi‘ite “democracy” in Iraq. Don’t they realize that this would bring about the most profound realignment of regional power since Selim the Grim, the Ottoman Sultan, swallowed the Arab world whole in 1516? Have the Americans totally lost their bearings?

A Yemeni wonders why his sister’s cousin languishes in Guantanamo and those who command the “War on Terror” investigate every hot lead in Morocco, Indonesia, and Guiana, but hold back from pursuing al-Qaeda into Pakistan where its leadership is actually holed up. Americans wring their hands over Osama bin Laden’s iconic popularity, but don’t actually try to nail him. Explain what that’s all about?

Bush administration spokesmen deliver plausible-sounding explanations for these policies and dozens of others. But they increasingly remind listeners of “Baghdad Bob,” aka Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Saddam Hussein’s Minister of Information, whose pronouncements were continually contradicted by reality. In fact, some of al-Sahaf’s absurdities of 2003 ring truer today than repeated American crowing about “turning a corner” in the Iraqi maze.

Said Baghdad Bob, just a few years too early: “Now even the American command is under siege. We are hitting it from the north, east, south and west. We chase them here and they chase us there. But at the end we are the people who are laying siege to them. And it is not them who are besieging us.”

As the credibility of Middle Eastern conspiracy theorizing wanes, the abyss of total chaos comes closer. Anxiety rises in presidential palaces. Eagerness to plunge into the darkness surges in jihadist conclaves in Waziristan.

Ultimately, the Bush adventure will be deemed the most disturbing force in modern Middle Eastern history. Not because of what it may achieve, or what it was intended to achieve (if that is ever determined), but because of its stunningly incompetent execution. By undermining deeply held assumptions about the nature and stability of the political order, America’s incoherent responses to 9/11 have made profound change both inevitable and unpredictable.

Richard Bulliet is Professor of History at Columbia University and author of Islam: A View from the Edge and The Case for Islamo-Christian Civilization.

Copyright © 2007 Richard Bulliet / Agence Global
Released: 20 July 2007
Word Count: 801 words
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