A few weeks ago a wonderful photo went viral on Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks that challenged the return of intensely violent sectarian conflict in Iraq. It shows a young couple with their daughter. The mother, wearing a veil and long dress, holds up a sign in English that reads "I'm Sunni".The father, in jeans and a t-shirt, holds a similar sign saying "I'm Shia". The punch line is provided by their young daughter, standing between them. Her sign reads "I'm Sushi".
Let's leave aside that photo is not new, as it first circulated late last year. Or the fact that the family is, according to reports, a Lebanese version of "su-shi"; the photo was apparently taken in response to the bombing of the Iranian Embassy in November. Or that the photo seems to have been retouched, as the girl's sign originally read "I'm Muslim"
Its power lies in its conveyance of a powerful yet simple truth: The countries of the Levant and Fertile Crescent have long been been a veritable smorgasbord of ethnicities, religions, sects and tribes. And for the majority of this time, they lived in relative harmony and without the level of interethnic and sectarian violence that has claimed untold hundreds of thousands of lives across the region in the last decade.
Modernity and chaos
One of the most powerful and dangerous characteristics of modernity is that the very discourses that have from the start defined it, also encouraged the development of the ethnic, religious, national and other chauvinisms that have enabled murder, war and genocide on an unprecedented scale.
Part of the reason for the inherent violence of the modern capitalist world system is the way anarchy and order have functioned within it. The modern, world system was from the start inherently anarchic; commentators from Schumpeter have well-described its power to melt even the most solid social, political and economic structures into air through violent processes of creative destruction.
The response to this tendency towards political and economic entropy was the imposition of as strict an order as possible, first through European-dominated imperial and colonial capitalism, and ultimately through a hierarchy of nation states and a broader global economic system in which they could be contained, disparities in wealth and power maintained and even intensified, while preventing the system from cannibalistically feeding on itself, as happened with the two world wars.
It's worth noting here that the Levant and Mesopotamia in the late Ottoman Empire constituted a fairly unique space historically. Europe could not impose direct imperial supervision or colonial control. Yet a weakened Ottoman state, one that had long governed through a cosmopolitan and relatively indirect ideology of rule, enabled the coexistence of the multifarious communities, sects and ethnicities that are remembered today as an almost mythical golden age of coexistence.
New world order?
Once Europe took formal control of the region after World War I, and ruthlessly imposed an artificially delimited, exclusivist set of borders, identities and governments, the path to the present day was in many respects tragically set in stone.
The emergence of a new global political economy could have offered a new beginning, but of course that couldn't be allowed to happen, not withthe region the linchpin of a global system of militarised carbon-based capitalism that has generated such wealth and power during the last 70 years for those who've controlled it.
And thus the New Middle East, as Shimon Peres described it at the start of the Oslo process, would in fact have to remain very much like the old one it was replacing. The problem was that the natural dynamics of this new order tended to favour countries such as China and other emerging powers, who were not tied to the existing system and in fact stood to benefit from its demise.
At the same time, it was clear that the intensification of global disparities in wealth and access to resources would lead to greater conflict and chaos. And thus emerged the idea, discussed already in the Clinton Administration, of creating a set of policies that would thrive on chaos, and where necessary, and, or, possible instrumentalise, sponsor and manage it to a degree that would ensure that the global balance of power remained to the US and its allies' advantage for as long as possible.
Of course, managing and even sponsoring this level of chaos would require an unprecedented level of "full- spectrum dominance" over global military, security, intelligence and natural resources, which leads us back to Iraq in 2003, as well as to the NSA revelations a decade later.
For most journalists and researchers who travelled through Iraq unembedded in the first years of the US occupation, one of its most exasperating characteristics was the sheer level of incompetence that seemed to pervade the US administration of Iraq. But the more I talked with Iraqis who attempted to work with the US, the more I heard a very different story. For them, the incompetence was just too conveniently widespread.
To my Iraqi interlocutors, it began to seem like the chaos the US had unleashed across Iraq was in fact "at least partially deliberate", as one Iraqi psychiatrist who worked closely with the US military, explained. As I tried to understand how this could be, the literature surrounding "sponsored", "managed", and "instrumentalised" chaos began to appear from scholars researching Africa and Central Asia, which together with the Middle East, make up what US policy planners term the "arc of instability" to which so many trillions of dollars have supposedly been spent to order.
Mission accomplished indeed
And so when Bush declared "Mission accomplished!" on that fateful May Day of 2003, he wasn't talking about securing Iraq for democracy.
He was talking about securing Iraq for massive expenditures of tax payer dollars paid to the most powerful military, petroleum and -related corporations on earth; about a level of regional instability that would ensure that the "generational war" on terrorism about which the neo-cons have never stopped dreaming, would continue right to the present. Which is why, as the Islamic State group rampages across Sunni Iraq, the architects of the original invasion are again dominating the airwaves advocating for more violence and war.
It's about ensuring, as was so expertly accomplished in Egypt, any genuine grass roots movement for local autonomy and democracy, would be defeated by state-sponsored violence justified by chauvinism and terror-talk. It is why, even the threat of Palestinian unity again unleashed Israel's hounds of hell with the full support of the US.
During the era of unfettered western global dominance during the 19th and 20th centuries, even the most brutal violence had as its goal, the establishment of an efficiently functioning system, precisely because that system was set up to benefit the great powers. The natural order of the era of contemporary globalisation, being inherently supranational and broadly benefitting countries that can harness both lowest-wage labour and the highest technologies with little democratic accountability, does not.
The only way US elites who were the chief architects and beneficiaries of the now-old world economy, can maintain their position is to generate enough chaos to prevent upstarts like China from cementing a new order.
None of the parties to this struggle have much use for the kind of "sushistic" sentiments expressed by Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and even Israeli and Palestinian families, who are looking to build a world in which diversity is celebrated and democracy is pursued. If such a vision is to have a chance, the movements of "globalisation from below" and "alter-globalisation" that were briefly considered a second superpower until the war on terror successfully marginalised them, will need to find a way back onto the centre stage.
Mark LeVine is a professor of Middle Eastern History at University of California, Irvine, and a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Lund University. His new book is One Land, Two States: Israel and Palestine as Parallel States, co-edited with Ambassador Mathias Mossberg.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.