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

By Rebecca Gordon | ( | – –

Introduction, by Tom Engelhardt

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.

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

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 (Médecins 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.

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?

In Tunisia, as Juan Cole has suggested and the Nobel committee recognized, a uniquely strong, organized, and varied civil society, especially trade and student unions, was key to the country’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. There were other differences as well. Unlike the Egyptian army, which had long supported the Mubarak regime, Tunisia’s relatively small military was never tightly allied with the Ben Ali government. And, as Cole says, almost uniquely in the region, its commanders chose to stay out of the ensuing turmoil.

Egypt’s military, however, thanks in part to U.S. aid, is among the 20 most powerful in the world, and has long played a central role in that country’s politics and economy. After the Arab Spring protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square brought autocrat Hosni Mubarak down, the first elections put a religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, in power. However when (as in Tunisia) Egyptians started to grow restive under the Brotherhood’s rule and returned to the streets in protest, instead of allowing a transition to secular democracy, the military chose to reinsert itself in political life, elevating the head of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who now serves as president and supreme military commander.

Among other differences with the rest of the Arab Spring states, Tunisia is a country, rare in the region, with a certain religious homogeneity: more than 99% of its population is at least nominally Sunni Muslim, so it has not experienced the sort of sectarian violence that has roiled countries like Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. And as Cole also points out, when Tunisia’s secularists came to power, unlike the Sisi government in Egypt, they did not outlaw and repress the country’s religious parties.

The Biggest Difference

There is one more key difference to mention: since the revolution the United States has largely stayed out of Tunisian affairs. Admittedly, U.S. military aid did rise from $17 million before the revolution to $29.5 million in 2012 before dropping again to almost pre-revolutionary levels for the next few years. Perhaps in response to the growth of Islamic State adherents, however, the U.S. recently announced that military aid to Tunisia would triple in 2016. We know that British special forces have been sent to Tunisia and it’s certainly possible that U.S. special forces have been there as well.

For now, however, it appears that the U.S. has not intervened in the governance of the country. In contrast, Washington has played a significant role in the affairs of all the other Arab Spring countries. Let’s consider these situations, one by one:

Egypt: Egypt has long been one of the world’s biggest recipients of U.S. military aid, second only to Israel. When el-Sisi came to power, the Obama administration briefly withheld aid, but in March 2015 restored the full $1.3 billion a year it had slated for the Egyptian military. In fact, in 2013 when that army overthrew elected President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, President Obama took care never to describe this action as a “coup d’état,” because U.S. law would then have prohibited any military aid to Egypt. In other words, after Tahrir Square and the Arab Spring rising, Egyptians essentially traded one U.S.- and military-backed regime for another.

Yemen: Ali Abdullah Saleh had been president of Yemen for 33 years when Arab Spring demonstrators took to the streets of the capital, Sana’a, at the end of January 2011. Between 200 and 2,000 died in the crackdown that followed, but by November Saleh was out, replaced by one of his deputies, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who has since been ousted by the Houthi rebellion.

In Yemen, the United States and Saudi Arabia have taken the side of the now-deposed Hadi government in an internal struggle with Houthi rebels. The Houthi movement — like everything in Yemen — is complicated. It’s made up of rural tribespeople from the northern part of the country and is supported by the Iranians. Houthis are adherents of the Zaidi branch of Shia Islam, so Sunni-Shia tensions have played a part in Yemen’s collapse, as have north-south conflicts. (Yemen only became a single country in 1990.) In February 2015, a British academic expert writing for the BBC described Yemen’s condition this way:

“[A]nti-systemic movements — the ragtag Houthi militia astonished by the lack of resistance to their advance against the flailing ‘transitional’ regime; the separatist Southern Movement… marginalized from the National Dialogue but now taking up arms; fringe Yemeni and foreign Salafist fighters for al-Qaeda; and divisions of what used to be Mr Saleh’s security apparatus — are jockeying for power in the new order.”

What could possibly make this situation worse?

How about U.S.-supplied missiles and cluster bombs delivered by the Saudi air force? Washington, of course, long ago made Yemen part of its battlefield in the “global war on terror,” using “kill lists” to send drones to pick off al-Qaeda terrorists (who might well turn out to be Yemeni civilians shopping for supplies to celebrate the end of Ramadan or getting married). Now, the United States has rushed to support Saudi Arabia’s intervention against the Houthis in the country’s hydra-headed civil war, providing munitions, intelligence assistance, and even mid-air refueling for Saudi bombers, while a naval blockade of the port of Aden has helped shut off supplies to the country. Seven months of sustained Saudi bombing, violence, and food and fuel shortages have helped displace more than a million and a half Yemenis. In August, the U.N.’s World Food Program warned that the country faces famine.

The United States has been involved in Yemen for a while. In fact, when announcing the restoration of Egyptian military aid, the Obama administration stressed the importance of el-Sisi’s cooperation in the fight against al-Qaeda-style Islamic terrorism, particularly in Yemen (and also Libya). Now the U.S. finds itself in tactical agreement with these same Sunni fundamentalists. In a case of intervention making strange bedfellows, by supporting the Saudis against the Houthis, Washington has ended up on the same side of this fight as the Islamic State, which has been using its usual terror tactics in an attempt to drive the Houthis out of Yemen’s capital.

Read the rest, on Libya, Syria, etc. at Tomdispatch. com

Rebecca Gordon is a TomDispatch regular. She teaches at the University of San Francisco and is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and the forthcoming American Nuremberg: The Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post 9/11 War Crimes (Hot Books, 2016).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Nick Turse’s Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, and Tom Engelhardt’s latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Rebecca Gordon


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Aljazeera English: “0:05 / 25:00
Will Tunisia’s Nobel Prize be an inspiration?”

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