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Iran has blamed the United States for Sunday’s suicide bombing in Sistan-Balochistan province in which six Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders were killed, as well as 37 other people. In an indirect way, the charge is true. No one in Washington these days would dream of blowing up Iranian officials, to be sure. America’s abdication of its position as the world’s sole superpower, though, will make incidents of this sort routine.
No one in the region doubts that America eventually will leave Afghanistan the way it left Iraq – not the way it left Vietnam, because America had won the war on the ground in Vietnam, unlike Afghanistan, where it has won nothing. That will represent a triumph for the elements of Pakistan’s military who supported the Taliban from the beginning.
The hostage-taking at Pakistan’s military headquarters in Rawalpindi on October 10 and the bombing of police headquarters in Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province, comprise part of the pattern that includes Sunday’s bombings in the Iranian border town of Pisheen: the unifying element is a demonstration of Sunni power against an external enemy, namely Iran, as well as internal enemies.
The United States in the person of its AfPak majordomo, Richard Holbrooke, can send the Pakistani military on offensives against the Taliban as often as it wants. The Taliban will hide in the Waziristan hills, and wait for the Americans to leave Afghanistan. The US has no stomach for an extended fight.
The region is full of geopolitical mines. To be name some of them:
- India can’t let the fundamentalist side of the Pakistani military take power without responding.
- Iran can’t let Pakistan’s Sunnis crush the 20% Shi’ite minority.
- Israel can’t allow for the possibility of Iran developing nuclear weapons.
- Saudi Arabia can’t let Iran dominate Iraq.
- Turkey can’t let Iraq’s Kurds form an independent state.
- China can’t let Turkey agitate among the 100 million Muslim ethnic Turks within its borders.
Without America to mediate, scold and restrain, each of the small powers in the region has no choice but to test its strength against the others. That is why the major players in the region resemble a troupe of manic Morris dancers in a minefield.
The most dramatic response to Washington’s abdication of power may be Israel’s. The Jewish state’s window of opportunity to strike at what it claims is an Iranian nuclear weapons program will close before long, either because the Iranian program will grow past the point at which air strikes can stop it, or because Iran will acquire S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia sophisticated enough to prevent an Israeli attack.
A complex negotiation involving Russia and Israel is underway. Russia has the capacity to suspend or cancel its promised shipments of S-300 missiles to Iran, or to provide Israel with means to make the system ineffective. Russian nuclear scientists, meanwhile, reportedly are assisting Tehran’s weapons program, and the Russian government has the capacity to neutralize this threat as well. The question is: what does Russia want from Israel in return for refraining from arming Iran?
The answer may lie in the world’s response to the virtual cancelation of the American F-22 program. Fewer than two hundred of the fifth-generation American stealth fighter are likely to be built, and the US will export none of them. America’s efforts are concentrated rather on the F-35, a cheaper, more versatile and less advanced aircraft. For the first time since World War II, America’s rule of the skies may be challenged by its failure to invest adequately in the next generation of American aircraft. Russia and India already have agreed on joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft based on existing Russian airframes. Russian quality control is notoriously poor and Russian avionics are backward. If Israel joined the consortium, the product might challenge the F-35 in the world market for military aviation.
Russia has only a few cards to play, but these cards are important: the proliferation of its anti-aircraft technology enhances its bargaining power. Were Israel to strike Iran during the next few weeks, it might do so not as a proxy for the US, but as part of a broader agreement with Russia. America may have missed the point of Russian policy. The entire issue of sanctions on Iran may seem like diplomatic idiocy to the Russians; the question, in Moscow’s judgment, may come down to a digital decision: either attack Iran, or don’t. Russia wants to benefit in either case, but it probably prefers to prevent an historic enemy on its southern border from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The United States may cast away its technological edge in air power without a second thought, but Russia understands that superpower status today depends more on military technology than any other factor. No one can control the failed states and soon-to-be-failed states of the region; one can only contain them. The fact that America can sail an aircraft carrier up to the coast of any country in the world without fear of attack and without significant opposition gives America a decisive edge in containment. That, I believe, is what Russia wants to diminish. Think of it as a chess move: sacrifice a few pieces, eg Iran, in order to get at the king. None of these terrible things would be happening if only Vladimir Putin were president of the United States, as I proposed last year. (See Putin for US president – more than ever Asia Times Online, August 13, 2008.)
If Israel were to set back Iran’s nuclear weapons development, the position of the Tehran regime would deteriorate, particularly at the expense of Pakistan. I suspect that Sunday’s suicide bombing targeting leaders of the Revolutionary Guards was a feint by Pakistan to test Iran’s resolve. With Iran weakened, we should expect:
- More Sunni violence against Iraqi Shi’ites, and an uncertain outcome for the 2010 Iraqi national elections.
- More pressure on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
- A free hand for the Taliban in Afghanistan against the Shi’ite Hazara, who traditionally received Iranian support.
- A free hand for the Taliban’s supporters in the Pakistani military, who will use the opportunity to mop up the 20% Shi’ite minority in Pakistan.
The world’s attention will shift from the shadow-play of interests between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, to the Pakistan-Indian theater. Pakistan is the natural center of militant Islam. Unlike Iran, whose fertility has declined from six children per female during the 1960s to only 1.5 today, Pakistan has a large population of 173 million, and unlike most of its neighbors, it is young and growing. It is also under-educated, with a literacy rate of barely 50%, and poor, with most of the population living on less than a dollar a day.
The center of gravity of regional power is likely to shift away from Iran to Pakistan. The mass assassination of Iranian officers most likely represented a gesture from Pakistan as to what the future will bring. America’s use of the Pakistani army to chase the Taliban around Waziristan has about the same effect as shaking a warm bottle of cola before opening it.
What is most astonishing is that official Washington seems entirely oblivious to the crack-up of American influence occurring in front of its eyes. None of the wonkish foreign policy blogs, let alone the mainstream press, seems able to focus. That is not surprising, for official Washington and unofficial Washington have a wheel-and-spoke relationship. As the staff at US State Department and National Security Council work up policy papers, they send out feelers to the think-tank community and get feedback. This is what feeds the Washington rumor mill.
The difference between this administration and every other administration I have observed is that there appears to be no staff work, no departmental effort, no National Security Council – nothing but President Barack Obama. Obama’s penchant for policy czars has become the source of continuing controversy, with his opponents at Fox News and elsewhere complaining he has bypassed cabinet departments (whose senior staff require senate confirmation) in favor of 29 “policy czars” who report directly to him.
Like Poo-bah in the Mikado, the president seems to be Lord High Everything Else, Secretary of Everything and a non-stop presence before the television cameras. Some of his supporters are chagrined. The New Republic’s publisher Marty Peretz, who evinces buyer’s remorse over Obama’s Middle East policy, diagnosed the president with “Narcissistic Personality Disorder” in his blog on October 4.
The reason for Obama’s peculiar mode of governance, though, may have less to do with his apparent narcissism than with his objectives. It is a credible hypothesis that this president holds views that he cannot easily share, even with his own staff. As he told the United Nations General Assembly on September 23, he truly wants a world without superpowers: “In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game. No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”
What does Obama mean by this? How strongly does he feel that America should not be elevated above any other nation? There is some basis for the conjecture that his innermost sentiment is hard-core, left-wing Third World antipathy to the United States. It now seems well established that his autobiography Dreams of My Father was ghost-written by the former Weatherman Bill Ayers, now a professor of education in Chicago. Long rumored, this allegation is confirmed by celebrity journalist Christopher Anderson in his new book, Barack and Michelle: Portrait of an American Marriage. Jack Cashill at the American Thinker has been on this trail for a year, comparing Ayers’ attributed writing to Dreams, and in my view made a strong case even before Anderson’s book appeared. Ayers never repudiated the bombs he planted in public buildings during the 1960s.
Obama’s upbringing was leftist (which in itself proves nothing – so was mine). He was abandoned by three parents – his biological father Barack Obama Sr, his Indonesian stepfather Lolo Soetero, and his mother Ann Dunham, who left him with her parents to pursue doctoral research in anthropology in Indonesia. Dunham’s communist sympathies from adolescence onward are widely reported; the African-American poet Frank Marshall Davis, a Communist Party member, was a friend of his maternal grandfather Stanley Dunham and, according to Dreams, something of a mentor to young Obama.
“Peasant blacksmithing in Indonesia: surviving against all odds,” was the title of Dunham’s doctoral dissertation. Dunham’s sympathy for the traditional life of Indonesians fighting against the encroachment of the global economy evidently left a huge impression on young Obama, for he thought their lives better than those of poor people in the United States. As he (or Bill Ayers) wrote in Dreams of My Father:
And yet for all that poverty [in the Indonesian marketplace], there remained in their lives a discernible order, a tapestry of trading routes and middlemen, bribes to pay and customs to observe, the habits of a generation played out every day beneath the bargaining and the noise and the swirling dust. It was the absence of such coherence that made a place like [the Chicago housing projects] so desperate.
That paragraph is a precis of his mother’s doctoral dissertation, and may be the most the most important point of self-revelation in Obama’s collective utterances. The words may have come from Bill Ayers, but the sentiment is doubtless Obama’s. In mature adulthood, Obama continued to identify with the leftist sentiments of his mother.
Obama appears to believe that America’s influence in the world is malignant. But even a president who wants to drastically reduce America’s influence in the world must negotiate a formidable military and national security establishment which has a strong moral commitment to – as well as vested interests in – that influence.
The president, in this view, consciously sees himself as an outsider who has become the leader of an alien tribe, rather like Eugene O’Neill’s Brutus Jones or Kipling’s Peachy Carnahan – except that Obama leads the world’s only superpower rather than a primitive tribe. He demands personal control over the reins of power, for as an outsider he can trust no one – surely not David Axelrod or Rahm Emanuel. That may be why he has no real cabinet, but rather a set of “policy czars” who reported to him directly, including the special ambassadors George Mitchell, Dennis Ross and Richard Holbrooke.
Perhaps the cat isn’t away, but locked up in the cellar. As a result the mice will slaughter each other. Those who wish to reduce American power may get what they wish for, but they might not like it.