Even as the 2000’s saw the return of traditional forms of imperial intervention—with the US deployment of military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq in pursuit of a quixotic and unwinnable War on Terror—there are increasingly new forms of intervention that must be understood, assessed and mapped. Intervention is a diverse but interlinked phenomenon driving social, political and economic change across the region.
Despite talk of an empire in decline, the relative US withdrawal from the Middle East is just that—relative. In the context of President Obama’s pivot to Asia and a belated effort to remove the United States from costly ground wars, current policy is more of a reterritorialization of US power than its disappearance. The US military still entwines the region with bases, rapid reaction forces, interrogation facilities and enormous weapons caches. But President Trump’s America First proclivities and his characteristically abrupt announcement in late 2018 of an immediate withdrawal from Syria is furthering this trend. The overall arc may be diminishing levels of direct US military intervention in the Middle East—more of a course correction that will engender the rise of other forms of intervention.
US withdrawal is most clear in cases where a regional client state is eager to assume the role of hegemonic power and shake off even the minimal restraint exerted by its imperial patron. Yet, as Lisa Bhungalia, Jeannette Greven and Tahani Mustafa show in this issue, giving Israel completely free reign to violently dispossess Palestinians while simultaneously withdrawing aid for food, schools and hospitals has had the unintended consequence of weakening key levers of influence the United States holds over Palestinians. As unbalanced as American policy has always been, the United States has at times restrained the realization of Israel’s maximalist settler-colonial ambitions while its aid served to constrain Palestinian opposition.
One way of understanding the new landscape of intervention, then, is through the lens of a relatively declining US empire. Students of history draw many parallels to the violent and chaotic breakdowns of previous empires, where foreign policy vacillated between nativist isolationism and launching new invasions and where allies and adversaries increasingly extend their own agents to fill the emerging void.
The growing diversity of interventionist actors is making many regional conflicts more rather than less intractable, as multiple sides find themselves unbound from their previous US fetters. Jacob Mundy shows how the ongoing Libyan civil war is only the latest iteration of an increasingly globalized process of state unmaking that has become familiar across the greater Middle East since 2001 in places like Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and most recently in Yemen. Since the NATO-led intervention that toppled Libya’s long-standing dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, various forms of overt and covert influence—military, financial, ideological and otherwise—by multiple and competing actors have exacerbated divisions within Libya’s transitional post-revolutionary polity and prevented UN-sponsored mediation from taking hold.
Relatedly, as Catherine Besteman points out, a new form of global intervention is taking shape in the rise of militarized borders, interdictions at sea, detention centers, indefinite custody and generalized criminalization of mobility around the world. The Global North—the United States, Canada, the European Union (EU), Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, the Gulf states and East Asia—is investing in militarized border regimes that reach far beyond particular territories to manage the movement of people from the Global South.
As forms and modes of intervention have multiplied, new directionalities of intervention are also being made clear. The Middle East is not only a destination for intervention, but also its point of origin. In the Horn of Africa, the Gulf states are using their financial power to exert increased control over regional economic flows, as well as forming patron-client relationships with regional security forces and engaging in influence campaigns aimed at local elections. In an eerie replay of post-uprising Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have pledged financial and political support to the military junta—a titular transitional council—that has ruled Sudan since a popular revolt drove President Bashir from power.
The war on Yemen demonstrates clearly how wars make particular geographies into zones of overlapping and concurrent interventions along a wide spectrum of scale and intensity. Rafeef Ziadah, for example, investigates the rise of humanitarian logistics hubs such as Dubai International Humanitarian City, where private firms and international organizations coordinate on the movement of data and material to conflict and disaster zones. Although ostensibly humanitarian, these hubs are a key mechanism of intervention and increasingly a central element in the projection of power for the Gulf regimes.
As always, the tentacles of global empire eventually spread so far they double back to entwine the metropole. The United States is also now a major target of influence campaigns funded by foreign states, including the Gulf states. No longer content with strategic gifts to established research centers, the three most powerful states—Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Qatar—have all established their own think tanks just blocks from the White House. Long a source of lucrative contracts for lobbyists, the Gulf states have ramped up and diversified the list of government relations, social media, and communications firms on their payroll.
In a different register, Sarah Parkinson describes the growing popularity of extreme research—scholarly research conducted in crises zones amongst conflict-affected populations in the Middle East and North Africa. Yet such field-based research is also a mode of intervention that can impose serious harm on individuals, communities, local partner universities and even humanitarian program staff.
An equally subtle vector of intervention taking place in the region’s urban fabric is examined by Hiba Bou Akar, who describes how domestic religious-political organizations in Lebanon use land classifications, zoning regulations, building policies and real estate transactions to create militarized sectarian enclaves that presage a war yet to come. The process, which is also driven by global networks of finance, fundraising and religious allegiances, often displaces existing communities, erases history and reinforces segregation. Similarly, Sami Tayeb examines how a multitude of privately financed urban development projects in the West Bank are creating a form of colonization that parallels that of Israel. Unlike Israel’s settler-colonial urbanism, however, this form of urban colonization is driven by global, and particularly neoliberal, capitalism, as it consumes Palestine’s remaining agrarian land at an unprecedented rate.
This issue also complicates our traditional understanding of intervention by exploring forms of intervention such as those undertaken through denial or deprivation. Omar Dewachi traces the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria in war-related wounds—which US military doctors labelled Iraqibacter—to the biological legacy of decades of sanctions, war and intervention in Iraq, which is increasingly found in other conflict zones in the region. The devastating human and health consequences of intervention by deprivation are also noted by Ron Smith’s account of Israel’s decade-long siege of Gaza, whose dynamics are similar to the catastrophic sanctions regime imposed by the United States on Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War and the siege warfare utilized by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen today. Siege itself is an ancient tactic of waging war against civilians, yet while siege regimes typically seek a defined outcome (such as a change in policy or alliances) Israel’s siege of Gaza, aided and abetted by the international community, is unique in its permanence: The siege is the outcome it seeks.
This issue is not the first call to rethink the definition and understanding of intervention, but it coincides with a global shift in the dominant patterns and players that have been central to major forms of intervention in the past half century. Periodically revisiting such complex concepts helps us reshape our theoretical and empirical tools to better understand our contemporary moment. This enhanced—and we hope more encompassing—understanding of intervention also allows us to identify its points of origin and weakness, and thus clarify where to target our initiatives of resistance and confrontation. ■