US and the Middle East: Conspiracy and collusion

It’s in the management of conflicts and contradictions – not their resolutions.

The US relationship with Saudi Arabia remains strong, writes Bishara [AP]
The US relationship with Saudi Arabia remains strong, writes Bishara [AP]

The other day, a wide-eyed colleague confronted me with an elaborate reconstruction of US strategies towards Iran, Iraq and Syria and lamented with an exasperated shrug: it’s a conspiracy.

Conspiracy or no conspiracy, I said, it’s certainly an interesting and deliberate take on what appears on the surface to be a confused, accidental or reactive policy.

No, it’s a conspiracy, he insisted with frustration. Time to call a spade a spade.

I am fine with spades, secrets and scoops, and I totally understand why an increasing number of keen observers can sense a certain conspiracy.

It’s just that what is often seen as conspiracy, I see as policy.

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In that way, our exchange reminded of the American reaction to the alarmed Arab reaction to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the way in which it strengthened Iran.

Captive minds

Only a few days before the Arab Uprising began to take shape in December 2010, Roger Cohen of the New York Times went out of his way to ridicule what he called the “Captive Arab Mind” that sees conspiracies everywhere, including why and how Tehran benefited from the invasion of Iraq.

“What we are dealing with here is the paltry harvest of captive minds. Such minds resort to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless. If you cannot change your own life, it must be that some greater force controls the world,” he wrote. 

Cohen concluded that there was “little evidence that the Middle East is ready to exchange conspiratorial victimhood for self-empowerment”. It was the same week the Arab uprisings started in Tunisia.

I usually don’t care to respond to such nonsense, but out of respect for Roger and because of the importance of the New York Times, I decided to respond to his “superficial and misleading” comments:

No, the US has not suddenly become an ally of Iran. But yes, Washington is most probably coordinating with Iran its efforts in Iraq (albeit uncannily) and perhaps in Yemen and Syria.

“Yes, an increasing number of people lean on conspiracy theories to explain certain complex events, but they’re not exclusively Arabs, nor are their theories always wrong or completely unfounded.”

I will spare the fantastical conspiracy theories awash since US President Barack Obama’s elections. The latest of which, warn of a US invasion of Texas (yes, you read that right) and coordination with ISIL and Iran to attack the US – I will leave this fun subject for another day.

Benevolence or betrayal

A sober look at Washington’s policy towards the Middle East and beyond, one can conclude, as so many do, that the US is in retreat and retrenchment. 

How the Obama administration responds rather tardily and timidly to major crises in Syria and Ukraine, while its nemesis in Moscow and Tehran act boldly and benefit enormously.

How US relations with its key regional allies, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are in tatters, and how the White House has lost all clout on both rather embarrassingly.

How Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charges into Washington without invitation, while Saudi King Salman snubs Obama and declines his invitation to the White House.

But a penetrating look can lead to very different observations and conclusions.

How the US reaction is tempered by moral restraint, multilateralism and legal accountability.

How is it that in each region, worsening bilateral relations are seen to benefit mainly Washington, whether it’s between Turkey and Israel, Russia and Germany, Colombia and Venezuela, etc.?

How is it that despite differences and disagreements, regional and international players continue to seek Washington’s attention – or its involvement – when all too often they reject each other’s role?

How despite pronounced distaste of some of its policies, they’re either dependent on its goodwill or hurting from its sanctions.   

How is it, for example, that Israel, Iran and Saudi continue to coordinate and cooperate with Washington when they incite and demonise each other?


Despite the alarmed reactions, it seems to me there’s nothing categorical or final about US policy towards the new and complex situation in the Middle East. The genie of empire, benevolent or otherwise, is in its management of conflicts and contradictions not their resolutions.

No, the US has not suddenly become an ally of Iran. But yes, Washington is most probably coordinating with Iran its efforts in Iraq (albeit uncannily) and perhaps in Yemen and Syria.

And yes, its relationship with Saudi Arabia remains strong. But it’s disingenuous to deny the tensions within the relationship, just as it’s naive to exaggerate it.

Having said that, it’s sobering to recall Stephen Kinzer 2010 book, “Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future”, through which he argues for a reevaluation of US strategic alliances in the Middle East.

The main thrust of the book focuses on Turkey and Iran as long term strategic allies of the United States, which would naturally come at the expense of Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Judging from recent developments on the nuclear talks and other fronts, one could imagine such a grandiose approach is in play on the long run. Part of it could involve the so called “grand bargain” between the US and Iran that foresees a certain allocation of influence for Tehran in the Middle East and Gulf region.

And it’s precisely that sort of possibility/eventuality that’s driving so many Arabs mad.

But again this is not conspiracy, merely geopolitics. It’s complex and dangerous, but it’s also fluid and changeable.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


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