by Adam Curtis (BBC) 2015
By now, people will have noticed I’m a bit of an Adam Curtis fanatic (Curtis also produced The Century of the Self). Like all his documentaries, Bitter Lake focuses on propaganda and ideological manipulation by the political elite. This film traces how fanatical Muslim sects like the Taliban and ISIS are the direct result of western colonization of the Middle East – and how US and British leaders deliberately deceive their citizens by reducing foreign policy to a simple metric of good and evil.
In Afghanistan, this oversimplification created an extraordinary dilemma for US and British troops and confronting the spontaneous Afghan insurgency that opposed the occupation. They naively believed they were bringing democracy to Afghanistan. In reality, they were substantially increasing the power and brutality of corrupt, heroin-trafficking war lords. The documentary artfully intersperses great footage of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan with video from the more recent US occupation. The parallels between the two are uncanny.
Roosevelt’s Meeting with the Saudi King
The film takes its title from a 1945 meeting Roosevelt had with Ibn Saud, the king of Saudi Arabia, at Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal. The purpose of the meeting was to draw up a mutual security agreement that would keep Saudi oil fields under US control.
Curtis goes on to trace the rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia, starting with the Wahhabist Bedouins who first brought the House of Saud to power in 1932. There was constant tension between the Saudi princes, who sought to modernize Saudi Arabia, and the Whahhabists, who opposed all imperialist development and sought to transform the country into a seventh century caliphate.
In 1964, King Faisal sought to alleviate this tension by sending the Wahhabists abroad to fight the growing influence of communism in the Muslim world. With US support, he used them to set up up madrassa throughout the Muslim world to train low income boys in Wahhabism.
The Economic Impact of Higher Oil Prices
In 1973 the US-Saudi relationship experienced a major breakdown when the US sided with Israel in its war against its Arab neighbors. By quintupling the price of oil, King Faisal forced the US and Israel to agree to a ceasefire.
The higher oil prices led to a total transformation of the global economic system. It caused mucho petrol dollars to flood into the Middle East, which the Saudis and other Mid East governments turned over to US and British banks to invest for them. This would provide the impetus for the “financialization” of the global economy, in which western capitalism would abandon manufacturing to focus on creating and selling financial products.
Higher prices for all commodities would also result in massive economic instability in the western world over the next seven years. A steep reduction in manufacturing jobs and wages would led to widespread popular unrest, which would bring right wing governments to power in most western democracies.
The Soviet Invasion
Curtis carefully outlines the historical events in Afghanistan that would lead to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973, the Marxist revolution in 1978, the Soviet invasion in 1979 and the US/Saudi collaboration to recruit Saudi Wahhabists to defeat the Soviet occupation. The most prominent of these freedom fighters, known as the Mujahideen, was a Saudi highway engineer and CIA asset known as Osama bin Ladin.
Reducing Foreign Policy to Good vs Evil
Like Ronald Reagan, George W Bush attempted to reduce the US role in Afghanistan to a simple battle of good vs evil. The political reality was far more complex. US and Saudi intervention during the Soviet occupation brought corrupt warlords to power who supported their fiefdoms through Afghanistan’s heroin trade.
The Taliban, consisting mainly of Afghan orphans raised in Pakistani Madrassa, were primarily driven by a desire to end the heroin trade and this endemic corruption, which they (rightly) blamed on the interference of western imperialists in their country’s domestic affairs.