Chains of Vengeance: The United States and Anti-Imperialism in the Middle East, 1967-2001

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This dissertation asks how a dynamic of vengeance involving the United States and anti-imperialist political organizations in the Middle East emerged and persisted between the 1967 Middle East war and the battle of Tora Bora in Afghanistan in December 2001. It tracks the construction of channels—ideological, institutional, emotional, and personal—through which all sides pursued transnational vengeance, focusing on key figures connected with three predominantly Arab anti-imperialist movements (the Palestinian commandos, Lebanese Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda) and architects of U.S. national security policy over eight presidential administrations (from Lyndon B. Johnson to George W. Bush). Drawing on multi-lingual and multi-archival research in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Great Britain, and the United States, the dissertation shows the parallel development of concepts like “international terrorism” and “external operations,” institutions like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine’s Special Operations and the CIA Counterterrorism Center, and warrior classes of politicians, strategists, and practitioners of irregular warfare that came more and more to converge on one another by the end of the twentieth century. All of this made it possible for limited acts of violence (including the pursuit of personal vendetta) to become caught up in the structures of the growing U.S. presence in the Middle East. Radical anti-imperialists in the Arab world and guardians of U.S. national security came to see each other as locked in a causal chain. And in seeing things that way, they helped make it so. The dissertation shows that al-Qaeda’s 2001 “planes operation” was in fact not as unique, peculiar, and unexpected as we tend to think, while the language and conception of the Bush administration’s “global war on terror” was available long before 9/11. The dissertation’s main scholarly contributions are to the fields of U.S. and the world, international history, Middle East studies, and modern U.S. history. Building on the work of scholars of U.S. empire in the Middle East, the project sheds new light on what led the United States to follow in the footsteps of earlier European colonialism in region. It shows that this development must be understood dialectically, as the product of interplay between the makers of U.S. national security policy and regional actors who actively opposed U.S. influence in the Middle East. Taking a longer view, the project locates the most consequential resistance to U.S. imperialism in the Middle East in that of small non-state political organizations of differing ideological character that developed anti-imperial violence into performance. The project shows that vengeance itself had a history and that the channeling of vengeance in this relationship was far from natural. Over time, the pursuit of what I call performative vengeance on all sides led to the institutionalization of a dynamic of transnational violence in U.S.- Middle East relations, a development unique in the history of U.S. imperium. Among other interventions, the project challenges narratives of post-1967 Middle East history that emphasize the rise of radical Islamism by illuminating the assertive politics of a new Arab left that linked itself to other anti-imperialist movements across the globe. It thereby reexamines the prevalent notion that confrontation between the United States and small anti-imperialist groups in the Arab world was rooted in “radical Islam” and religious conflict generally.

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  • 01/30/2019
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