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There’s a joke about a man who tells a psychiatrist, “Everybody hates me,” to which the psychiatrist responds, “That’s ridiculous – everyone doesn’t know you, yet.” Which brings me to Barack Obama: one of the best-informed people in the American security establishment told me the other day that the president is a “Manchurian Candidate.”
That can’t be true – Manchuria isn’t in the business of brainwashing prospective presidential candidates any more. There’s no one left to betray America to. Obama is creating a strategic void in which no major power will dominate, and every minor power must fend for itself. The outcome is incalculably hard to analyze and terrifying to consider.
Obama doesn’t want to betray the United States; he only wants to empower America’s enemies. Forcing Israel to abandon its strategic buffer (the so-called settlements) was supposed to placate Iran, so that Iran would help America stabilize Iraq, where its influence looms large over the Shi’ite majority.
America also sought Iran’s help in suppressing the Taliban in Afghanistan. In Obama’s imagination, a Sunni Arab coalition – empowered by Washington’s turn against Israel – would encircle Iran and dissuade it from acquiring nuclear weapons, while an entirely separate Shi’ite coalition with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would suppress the radical Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. This was the worst-designed scheme concocted by a Western strategist since Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery attacked the bridges at Arnhem in 1944, and it has blown up in Obama’s face.
Iran already has made clear that casting America’s enemies in the leading role of an American operation has a defect, namely that America’s enemies rather would lose on their own terms than win on America’s terms. Iran’s verbal war with the American president over the violent suppression of election-fraud protests leaves Washington with no policy at all. The premise of Obama’s policy was that progress on the Palestinian issue would empower a Sunni coalition. As the president said May 18:
If there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, I personally believe it actually runs the other way. To the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians – between the Palestinians and the Israelis, then I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with the potential Iranian threat.
Israel’s supporters remonstrated in vain. Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, a prominent Obama supporter, wrote, “If there is to be any linkage – and I do not believe there should be – it goes the other way: it will be much easier for Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank if Iran does not have a nuclear umbrella under which it can continue to encourage Hamas and Hezbollah to fire rockets at Israeli civilians.”
No matter: America made clear that it had annulled the George W. Bush administration’s promise that a final settlement would allow most of Israel’s 500,000 “settlers” to keep their homes, in order to launch the fantasy ship of Iranian cooperation with America.
That policy now is in ruins, and Washington has no plan B. David Axelrod, Obama’s top political advisor, told television interviewers on January 28 that Iran’s President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who spent the last week denouncing the United States, “Did not have final say” over Iran’s foreign policy and that America still wanted to negotiate with Iran. This sounds idiotic, but the White House really has painted itself into a corner. The trouble is that Obama has promised to withdraw American forces from Iraq, and Iran has sufficient influence in Shi’ite-majority Iraq to cause continuous upheaval, perhaps even to eventually win control of the country.
By a fateful coincidence, American troops are scheduled to leave Iraq’s urban centers on June 30. Overthrowing Saddam Hussein left Iraq open to Iranian destabilization; that is why the elder George Bush left the Iraqi dictator in power in 1990.
Offering Iran a seat at the table in exchange for setting a limit to its foreign ambitions – in Lebanon and Gaza as well as Iraq – seemed to make sense on paper. But the entity that calls itself revolutionary Islam is not made of paper, but of flesh and blood. It is in danger of internal collapse and can only assert its authority by expanding its influence as aggressively as it can.
After the election disaster, Iran’s revolutionary leadership urgently needs to demonstrate its credibility. Israel now can say, “A country that murders its own citizens will have no compunction about massacring its enemies,” and attack Iran’s nuclear capacity with fewer consequences than would have been imaginable in May. And if an Israeli strike were to succeed, or appear successful to the world, the resulting humiliation might be fatal to the regime.
Israel may not be Tehran’s worst nightmare. Iraq’s Sunnis are testing the resolve of the weakened mullahs. The suicide bombing that killed 73 people at a Shi’ite mosque in Kirkuk on June 20 and a second bombing that killed another 72 Shi’ites in Baghdad’s Sadr City slum most likely reflect Sunni perceptions that a weakened Tehran will provide less support for Iraqi Shi’ites. Although Shi’ites comprise more than three-fifths of Iraq’s population, Sunnis provided the entire military leadership and are better organized on the ground. America’s hopes of enlisting Iran to provide cover for its withdrawal from the cities of Iraq seem delusional.
What move on the chessboard might Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei venture to pre-empt an Israeli air raid against the nuclear facilities? Iran has the rocket launchers of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and terrorist sleeper cells throughout the world. Iran might seek to pre-empt what it anticipates to be the next move from Israel by demonstrating its capacity to inflict injury on Israel or on Jewish targets elsewhere. That would require careful judgment, for a heavy handed action could provide a pretext for even more serious action by the Israelis and others. The same sort of consideration applies to Iranian support for Pakistan Shi’ites, for Hezbollah, and other vehicles of Iran’s program of imperial expansion.
The Obama administration has put itself in a peculiar bind. It has demanded that the Pakistani army suppress the Taliban, after Islamabad attempted a power-sharing agreement that left the Taliban in control of the Swat Valley. To root out the largely Pashtun Taliban, Pakistan’s largely Punjabi army has driven a million people into refugee camps and leveled entire towns in the Swat Valley. Tens of thousands of refugees are now fleeing the Pakistani army in the South Waziristan tribal area. Punjabis killing Pashtuns is nothing new in the region, but the ferocity of the present effort does not augur well for an early end to the conflict.
While the Pakistan army holds nothing back in attacking the Taliban, American troops in Afghanistan have been told that they no longer can call in air strikes if civilians are likely to suffer. That will put American forces in the unfortunate position of the Pirates of Penzance, who exempted orphans. Once this became generally known, everyone they attempted to rob turned out to be an orphan.
The Taliban need only take a page from Hamas’ book, and ensure that civilians are present wherever they operate. The US has made clear that it will not deal in civilian blood, the currency of warfare in that region since before the dawn of history. It will not be taken seriously in consequence.
What will the administration do now? As all its initiatives splatter against the hard realities of the region, it will probably do less and less, turning the less appetizing aspects of the fighting over to local allies and auxiliaries who do not share its squeamishness about shedding civilian blood. That is the most dangerous outcome of all, for America is the main stabilizing force in the region.
The prospect of civil wars raging simultaneously in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq is no longer improbable. The Israel-Palestine issue is linked to all of these through Iran, whose credibility depends on its ability to sustain such puppies of war as Hezbollah and Hamas. Whether or not the Israelis take the opportunity to strike Iran, the prospect of an Israeli strike will weigh on Iran’s proxies in the region, and keep Israel’s borders in condition of potential violence for the interim.
America’s great good fortune is that no hostile superpower stands ready to benefit from its paralysis and confusion. When Soviet troops landed in Afghanistan in December 1979, America was in the grip of an economic crisis comparable to the present depression. American diplomats at the Tehran Embassy were still hostages to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. The price of gold doubled from around $400 to $800 after the Russian invasion because most of the world thought that Russia would win the Cold War. If America lost its dominant superpower status in the West, the dollar no longer could serve as a global reserve currency. To the superpower goes the seigniorage, the state’s premium for providing a currency.
By contrast, the gold price barely fluttered all through the present crisis. America remains the undisputed global superpower for the time being. America’s creditors express consternation about its $1.8 trillion budget deficit and many trillions more of guarantees for the banking system, but there is nothing they can do about it for the time being but talk. That is how one should interpret a June 25 Reuters report that a “senior researcher with the ruling Communist Party” had urged China to shift some of its $2 trillion in reserves out of dollars and into gold.
Li Lianzhong, who heads the economic department of the Party’s policy research office, said China should use more of its $1.95 trillion in foreign exchange reserves to buy energy and natural resource assets. Speaking at a foreign exchange and gold forum, Li also said that buying land in the United States was a better option for China than buying US Treasury securities.
“Should we buy gold or US Treasuries?” Li asked. “The US is printing dollars on a massive scale, and in view of that trend, according to the laws of economics, there is no doubt that the dollar will fall. So gold should be a better choice.”
There is no suggestion that Li, even though he is a senior researcher, was enunciating an agreed party line.
The last thing China wants at the moment is to undercut the US dollar, for three reasons. First, as America’s largest creditor, China has the most to lose from a dollar collapse. Second, Americans would buy fewer Chinese imports. And third, the collapse of the dollar would further erode America’s will to fulfill its superpower function, and that is what China wants least of all.
America remains the indispensable outsider in Asia. No one likes the United States, but everyone dislikes the United States less than they dislike their neighbors. India need not worry about China’s role in Pakistan, for example, because America mediates Indian-Pakistani relations, and America has no interest in a radical change to the status quo. Neither does China, for that matter, but India is less sure of that. China does not trust Japan for historical reasons that will not quickly fade, but need not worry about it because America is the guarantor of Japan’s security. The Seventh Fleet is the most disliked – and nonetheless the most welcome – entity in Asia.
All of this may change drastically, quickly, and for the worse. Obama’s policy reduces to empowering America’s enemies in the hope that they will conform to American interests out of gratitude. Just the opposite result is likely to ensure: Iran, Pakistan and other regional powers are likely to take radical measures. Iran is threatened with a collapse of its Shi’ite program from Lebanon to Afghanistan, and Pakistan is threatened with a breakup into three or more states.
Obama has not betrayed the interests of the United States to any foreign power, but he has done the next worst thing, namely to create a void in the region by withdrawing American power. The result is likely to be a species of pandemonium that will prompt the leading players in the region to learn to live without the United States.
In his heart of hearts, Obama sees America as a force for evil in the world, apologizing for past American actions that did more good than harm. An example is America’s sponsorship of the 1953 coup in Iran that overthrew the left-leaning government of Mohammed Mossadegh.
“In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government,” the president offered in his Cairo address to Muslims on June 5. Although Iran’s theocracy despises Mossadegh – official Iranian textbooks call him the “son of a feudal family of exploiters who worked for the cursed Shah, and betrayed Islam” – Iran’s government continues to reproach America for its role in the coup. “With a coup they toppled the national government of Iran and replaced it with a harsh, unpopular and despotic regime,” Ahmadinejad complained in a January 28 speech.
It is s a bit late to offer advice to Obama, but the worst thing America can do is to apologize. Instead, it should ask for the gratitude of the developing world. Weak countries become punching-bags in the proxy wars of empires. This was from the dawn of history until the fall of the last empire – the “evil” empire of Soviet communism.
The Soviets exploited anti-colonial movements from the 1917 Bolshevik coup until the collapse of the Afghanistan adventure in the late 1980s. Nationalists who tried to ride the Russian tiger ended up in its belly more often than on its back. Iran, Chile, Nicaragua, Angola and numerous other weak countries became the hapless battleground for the contest of covert operations between the Soviet Union and America – not to mention Vietnam and Korea.
The use of developing countries as proxy battlefields and their people as cannon fodder came to an end with the Cold War. As a result, the past 20 years have seen the fastest improvement in living standards ever in the global south, and a vast shift in wealth towards so-called developing countries.
By defeating Russia in the Cold War, America made it possible for governments in the global south to pursue their own interests free from the specter of Soviet subversion. And by countering Soviet subversion, America often averted much worse consequences.
Many deficiencies can be ascribed to the Shah of Iran, but a communist regime in the wake of a Mossadegh administration would have been indescribably worse. The septuagenarian Mossadegh had his own agenda, but he relied on the support of the communist Tudeh party. The US feared a Soviet invasion of Iran, and “the [Harry S] Truman administration was willing to consider a Soviet invasion of Iran as a casus belli, or the start of a global war,” according to Francis J Gavin’s 1999 article in The Journal of Cold War Studies.
The US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with help from British intelligence helped the shah overthrow the left-leaning regime. But this was no minor colonial adventure, but a flashpoint with the potential to start a world war.
It is painful and humiliating for Iranians to recall the overthrow of a democratically elected government with American help. It would have been infinitely more humiliating to live under Soviet rule, like the soon-to-be-extinct victims of Soviet barbarism in Eastern Europe.
The same is true of Chile, where the brutal regime of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in 1973, with help from the CIA. Allende was surrounded by Cuban intelligence operations. As Wikipedia reports:
Shortly after the election of Salvador Allende in November 1970, the [Cuban Directorate of Intelligence – DI] worked extremely closely to strengthen Allende’s increasingly precarious position. The Cuban DI station chief Luis Fernandez Ona even married Salvador Allende’s daughter Beatrice, who later committed suicide in Cuba. The DI organized an international brigade that would organize and coordinate the actions of the thousands of the foreign leftists that had moved into Chile shortly after Allende’s election. These individuals ranged from Cuban DI agents, Soviet, Czech and North Korean military instructors and arms suppliers, to hardline Spanish and Portuguese Communist Party members.
My Latin American friends who still mourn the victims of Pinochet’s “night and fog” state terror will not like to hear this, but the several thousand people killed or tortured by the military government were collateral damage in the Cold War. Like Iran, Chile became the battleground of a Soviet-American proxy war. The same is true in Nicaragua. (Full disclosure: I advised Nicaragua’s president Violeta Chamorro after she defeated the Cuban-backed Sandinistas in the 1990 elections; I did so with no tie to any government agency.)
Obama’s continuing obsession with America’s supposed misdeeds – deplorable but necessary actions in time of war – is consistent with his determination to erode America’s influence in the most troubled parts of the world. By removing America as a referee, he will provoke more violence than the United States ever did. We are entering a very, very dangerous period as a result.