I speak about the Middle East to people of various political persuasions around the US, from leftist college students to conservatives on AM radio talk shows. Most Americans are wary of further US military intervention in the region and ask intelligent questions about this very complicated topic. But I inevitably run into people advocating conspiracy theories—from both the left and right.
Conspiracy theories, although seemingly quite radical and anti-government, actually divert attention from the very real evils that exist in the region.
Here are six of the most common myths:
1. The US created the Islamic State
Some leftists argue that the US created al-Qaeda in order to fight the USSR in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Now it's done the same with the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) in order to sow dissention in Iraq and Syria.
The theory got even wider credence when Donald Trump declared that President Barak Obama was the "founder" of IS and "the co-founder was crooked Hilary Clinton."
Ah, where to start? The US didn't create either al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. Yes, the US backed the most right-wing mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But those reactionaries, some of whom later formed al-Qaeda, always had their own agenda. They took money and arms from the US while planning to attack the US and its allies at a later time.
The Islamic State, then known as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), formed in Iraq as one of the many groups fighting the 2003 US occupation. The US and Iraqi Sunnis defeated AQI militarily in the 2007 Anbar surge. AQI regrouped, moved to Syria, and emerged as IS in 2014.
The US has been bombing IS since 2014 and is organizing ground assaults on IS-controlled cities in Iraq and Syria—hardly the sign of an alliance. The US occupation of Iraq laid the political basis for the formation of IS but did not create it.
2. The US was the secret instigator of all the Arab Spring uprisings.
A few journalists and book authors on the left point to the failures of the Arab Spring and that most regimes in the region remain pro-US. They argue that the US instigated the Arab Spring demonstrations in order to emerge a stronger power at the end of the day. One commentator even claims the US had planned the Arab Spring five years in advance.
Funny, that's not what almost everyone said at the beginning of 2011. When the people of Tunisia rose up and young people occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, leftists and progressives correctly argued that these were immensely popular movements against local dictators and US domination. Even Iran's clerical rulers tried to take credit for the uprisings, calling Egypt an "Islamic Liberation Movement."
The two main actors who opposed the Arab Spring were al-Qaeda, which had no visible support at the time, and the US government. Vice President Biden expressed strong US support for Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak just a few days before he fell from power.
It's often forgotten now, but Arab Spring demonstrations continued for months throughout the region, and for years in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Are these demonstrators bravely protesting against US-allied regimes somehow instigated by the US?
3. The Syria uprising was not a popular movement but instead was instigated by the US in order to remove the anti-imperialist Assad.
Not surprisingly, the Assad government makes this argument. It is surprising, however, that a small number of American leftists fall for it.
Just a few weeks after the uprising began in Syria in March 2011, Assad called the demonstrators terrorists backed by Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the US. In reality, the protestors were a mixture of civil society activists and conservative political Islamists, the same combination of folks who rose up throughout the region. The Assad regime cracked down hard, beating, arresting, torturing and killing protestors.
Although there had been scattered armed attacks from the beginning, armed conflict only became dominant towards the end of 2011 and early 2012. By 2014 extremists such as the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State came to dominate the armed opposition.
Assad cheerleaders argue that he is an anti-imperialist and a key player in the "Resistance Front," consisting of countries that support the Palestinians and oppose Israel. There's only one problem with that claim. Palestinians living in Gaza and the West Bank don't support Assad. Hamas, the party controlling Gaza, broke with Assad and backed the popular uprising starting in 2011.
Fatah and the PLO, the dominant forces in the West Bank, are officially neutral but have a long history of conflict with the Assad family. Hafez al-Assad, the current president's father, jailed PLO activists and tried to replace Yasser Arafat with a pro-Syrian leader. Bashar al-Assad never allowed the PLO to organize within Syria.
Of course, the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey have all armed rebel groups, including extremists such as the IS. They each seek to install a government in Syria favorable to their views. But being attacked by imperialists and their allies doesn't make you an anti-imperialist.
4. Iran is the number one state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
This falsehood is promoted by many leading politicians in the US as well as by the rulers of Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships. They argue that Iran supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthi movement in Yemen, along with Shia insurgents in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. James "Mad Dog" Mattis, Trump's nominee for Secretary of State, even claims that Iran cooperates with the Islamic State in a common terrorist campaign against the US.
Iran certainly asserts its political and military presence in the region, seeking to lead an anti-US/anti-Israeli alliance stretching from Lebanon through Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen. The Iran-backed groups are conservative political Islamists (mostly Shia) who engage in armed struggle, but they have genuine popular support. Hezbollah, for example, is both part of the ruling coalition in the Lebanese Parliament and an armed militia. Some of the groups have used terrorist tactics, such as intentionally blowing up civilians, but they are not the same as terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
As for Mad Dog's assertions, he's simply creating a conspiracy myth. The Islamic State has attempted to launch terrorist attacks inside Iran, and Iran is fighting the IS in both Iraq and Syria. Mad Dog's misinformation campaign seeks to lump together everyone opposed to US policy into one block and gin up popular support for an eventual military attack on Iran.
Saudi Arabia is a far bigger supporter of terrorist groups than Iran. It supports the Al Qaeda affiliated Syrian Conquest Front (formerly al Nusra) and backs terrorist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
But since Saudi Arabia is key to US oil interests and a military ally, by definition, it can't be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
5. The US intentionally creates failed states like Libya in order to keep the region in turmoil.
Advocates of this view look at conditions in Libya today, the result of US and European intervention, and say that the US always intended to create a failed state. That view doesn't square with reality.
The US, France, Britain, and other Western powers became involved in Libya, in large part, because of its oil. Those countries wanted to overthrow dictator Muammar Gaddafi in order to keep Libyan oil flowing over the long run on terms favorable to Western oil companies.
Yet today Libya has almost completely stopped exporting oil, leading to an estimated 8.3% drop in GDP, according to a World Bank report. Since when do imperialist countries conspire to cut off their own oil supplies?
In reality, the US and its allies implemented a series of plans aimed at reestablishing Western domination of Libya—but they keep failing.
Plan A: Use Western air superiority to help pro-Western rebels quickly overthrow Gaddafi. Failure #1: the quick overthrow lasted almost eight months.
Plan B: Find a former government official friendly to Washington to install as strongman and hold elections that US-backed parties would surely win. Failure #2: US-backed Mahmoud Jibril became interim prime minister, but he lasted only seven months. The parliament has little popular support.
Plan C: Using the CIA, find militia groups willing to ally with the US. Failure #3: the CIA attempted to make alliances with various militias, but those efforts blew up during the infamous attack on the Benghazi CIA annex in 2012, resulting in the death of the US ambassador.
The US certainly carried out policies that resulted in a failed state, but that was not the goal.
6. The Bush administration planned the 9/11 attacks in order to further repression and start wars in the Middle East.
This one is the granddaddy of all modern conspiracy theories, promulgated by both the left and right. Even right-wing populist and former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, gave credence to the view. The theory attracts support because the US has engaged in false flag operations in the past, for example, trying to blame communists for the 1953 CIA coup in Iran.
I won't spend time debunking the phony assertions that the World Trade Center was wired with explosives in advance. The editors of Popular Mechanics have done an excellent job criticizing that and many other falsehoods.
Please consider a major flaw that is rarely discussed, the attack on the Pentagon. 9/11 Truthers claim the US fired a missile into the Pentagon, as seen by the cylindrical shaped destruction of the building. This is consistent with the assertion that government operatives, not al-Qaeda hijackers, caused the devastation in New York.
Well, in fact, thousands of commuters on Washington DC freeways saw the airplane descending towards the Pentagon. An AP news photo showed part of the airplane fuselage sitting on the front lawn of the Pentagon that day.
And, if a missile had hit the Pentagon, what happened to American Airlines #77 that left Dulles Airport that morning? Well, answer some 9/11 Truthers, it was forced to land at a secret location and all the passengers were gassed to death. Think of the omniscient power of the conspirators!
The Bush administration did not plan 9/11, but it did take full advantage of America's anger and fear. It used 9/11 to invade and occupy Afghanistan and Iraq, pass the repressive Patriot Act, and engage in widespread torture and abuse in Guantanamo and secret CIA sites scattered around the world. That's reason enough to oppose the US government. Conspiracy theories simply divert attention from the government's real crimes.
All of the conspiracy advocates share a common methodology. They look at the situation as it exists after the fact and then create a fictional narrative showing that today's crisis was planned all along.
They overestimate the power of the US empire while underestimating the power of ordinary people to make change. If the Bush Administration murdered almost 3,000 people on 9/11 and successfully covered it up, how can we possibility fight back? If the US-created Arab Spring caused chaos, why should anyone rise up against their oppressors?
Pardon me for my optimism. But I don't believe in conspiracy theories and still believe in the power of ordinary people to make fundamental change.