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United States Defense Secretary Robert Gates is the Mephistopheles of the Barack Obama administration – not because of his gift for intrigue, which is slender, but because of his capacity to personify non-being. “Everything that arises goes rightly to its ruin,” said Goethe’s devil to Faust, “so it would be better for nothing to arise.”
In his November 20 keynote speech to the German Marshall Fund’s (GMF’s) International Security Forum on Friday in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Gates portrayed the man who wasn’t there. That is the secret of his longevity in public office.
Several hundred attendees, including defense ministers and other senior officials of two dozen countries, waited for a hint about the Obama administration’s intentions towards Afghanistan. But the previous week, Obama chose “none of the above” from a list of options assembled by the permanent bureaucracy, so Gates spoke about such pressing matters as a US$45 million grant for Caribbean security, Canada’s counter-terrorism training program in Jamaica, and Guatemala’s interception of a cocaine-laden submersible craft – in short, about nothing.
Nothing is what American and allied officials had to say about items to which the GMF event held public sessions – Iran’s nuclear program, piracy, and the future role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Cabinet officials, parliamentarians and senior military officers went through the motions of discussing policies to which they had no connection, like drones flying patrol after their beehive was burned. The US government lives in Obama’s BlackBerry. When it goes silent, the orphan drones of the foreign policy establishment fly in aimless patterns.
As a showcase for the foreign-policy thinking of Western governments, the GMF event looked like a Leonid Brezhnev-era butcher shop. There wasn’t much in the glass cases, and what there was, did not seem especially appetizing. That is not the fault of GMF, one of the premier venues for policy vetting, but of its suppliers, the NATO governments.
The GMF focuses on Atlantic issues (it is funded by the German government as a token of gratitude for America’s Marshall Plan economic aid after World War II), but it reaches out to every part of the world that touches on Atlantic interests. A rough gauge of the declining prestige of American policy is the absence of Chinese (as well as Indian and Russian) officials. The conference organizers tried for months, without success, to persuade the Chinese government to send an official.
The trouble is that “nothing” is not mere non-being. What stands against “this something, this cloddish world” is not emptiness, as Mephistopheles explained; it is chaos and corruption, rather, the will to pervert and destroy. When America removes itself from the world scene, chaos creeps back in, and it comes in the guise of corruption. For all its flaws, America is the only world power capable of real altruism. In the absence of American leadership, the rest of the world waits dispiritedly for disaster, making sure to look out for the main chance.
A case in point is the problem of piracy, the subject of an on-the-record session featuring the Defense Minister of the Netherlands, Eimert van Middelkoop. Piracy is a business and it is about money, Van Middelkoop allowed, not worth shooting about. Isn’t piracy a vehicle for funding international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda as well as a terrorist capability?, a questioner asked. “That is not how I present the problem,” the Dutch minister grunted.
Piracy has deep connections to terrorism, in the estimate of every intelligence agency in the NATO sphere, but it is inconvenient to speak of it. A shipping company executive explained why: security for a container ship requires a four-man team and costs $1 million a year per ship. With a thousand ships afloat, his firm would pay $1 billion a year to protect them. It doesn’t help that it is already losing more than $1 billion a year due to the global contraction of world trade, which shows no sign of recovery. Ransom costs about $2 million per hijacking, a tiny fraction of the cost of protection. Were the military to provide guards, it would need to deploy 40,000 soldiers for his company alone, at a time when personnel resources already are overstretched.
“Millions for defense, but not one cent for tribute,” went the American slogan during the 1805 campaign against the Barbary pirates. Tribute today seems the better part of valor: when Vladimir Lenin said that capitalists would sell him the rope with which to hang them, he could not have imagined quite so literal an example as Western governments encouraging shipowners to bribe prospective terrorists. At best, banana republic style blackmail, at worst, support for terrorism.
Corruption is the unstated obstacle in the Israel-Palestine problem. With American arms and training, an Arab official said on a background session, the Palestinian Authority “is in full control of the West Bank.” It only remains for Israel to return to the 1967 borders with minor land swaps to accommodate a portion of the 450,000 West Bank settlers, cede East Jerusalem as a Palestinian capital, and allow a token contingent of Palestinian refugees to resettle in Israel, in order to end the conflict. Hamas will be incorporated into a democratic Palestine, the official insisted.
The problem is that Hamas killed the Palestine Authority’s (PA’s) soldiers and seized their newly-issued American weapons in Gaza in June 2007, in Israel’s view: If Israel hands the West Bank over to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, before long they will face a Hamas regime with thousands of Iranian missiles, just as they do in Gaza. Why doesn’t the PA return the favor to Hamas, and liquidate some Hamas fighters?, the Arab official was asked. “You are inviting a Palestinian civil war!,” he shot back. The trouble is that there already is a Palestinian civil war, but only one side is fighting.
All the training and arms in the world will not persuade the leaders of the Palestine Authority to fight, because they are extremely wealthy men who live in luxury anywhere in the world. Ahmed al-Meghami, then the PA’s attorney general, estimated in 2006 that billions of dollars may have been stolen by Palestinian officials. Men with London townhouses and villas in the south of France don’t risk their lives. Their Hamas counterparts are quite willing to die and in any case have nowhere to go except safe houses in Damascus. That explains why only one side fights.
Western donors to the PA know this perfectly well; they also know that the putative refugee population is inflated by as many as 1.3 million non-existent souls in order to inflate foreign aid requirements, as I reported on August 18 (Palestine problem hopeless, but not serious). But it is easier to keep the charade going than to admit failure. Cupidity and inertia have produced a criminal enterprise in the guise of a proto-state, vulnerable to liquidation by hard men who are willing to die for what they believe. That is why the Palestinian civil war is a one-sided affair; the other side has no reason to fight.
Turkey, meanwhile, has drifted out of the NATO orbit. Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited Iran on October 27 and denounced as “hearsay” claims that Iran intended to develop nuclear weapons and pronounced its nuclear program “peaceful.” The chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Turkish parliament, asked whether he shared that assessment, told the GMF event, “I am neutral on the subject.”
Obama chose Turkey last April to announce that “America is not at war with the Muslim world,” and his administration portrays Turkey as a model of a modern Muslim polity. Turkey’s gesture of Islamist solidarity with the Iranian regime humiliates Washington.
What makes Obama’s reliance on moderate Turkish Islam all the less credible is the attempts of the Erdogan government to eradicate the country’s secular politicians through extra-legal means. The Turkish government is staging one of the most outrageous show trials of political opponents since the Joseph Stalin frame-ups of the 1930s, charging several hundred members of the secular elite with a vast and improbable plot to overthrow the government. Barry Rubin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think-tank, Gareth Jenkins of Johns Hopkins University and this writer among many others have been warning about an Islamist coup for months (Turkey in the throes of Islamist revolution? Asia Times Online, July 22, 2008.)
The case broke into the mainstream American media on November 21, when the New York Times wrote, “Since 2007, 300 people have been detained during the investigation of an underground group known as Ergenekon, including a writer of erotic novels, four-star generals and other military officers, professors, editors and underworld figures – some of whom appear to have committed no offense greater than speaking in favor of Turkey as a secular state.” The belated Times account quotes Professor Jenkins of Johns Hopkins as saying that Ergenekon “represents a major step, not, as its proponents maintain, towards the consolidation of pluralistic democracy in Turkey, but towards an authoritarian one-party state.” Not once during the numerous panel discussions on human rights and the rule of law did the Ergenekon putsch come up.
Turkey, in short, is becoming a pro-Iranian Islamist dictatorship – just as this writer among others warned many months ago – yet the foreign policy establishment is required to continue pretending that Turkey remains the eastern pillar of NATO. Like the case of Palestine, absurdity seems more palatable than the admission of defeat.
With Turkey’s bid for membership in the European Union stalled, a Turkish academic offered, the balance of business has shifted to the Persian Gulf, and with it the balance of political power has tilted towards the Islamists. Turkey’s Islamists, in particular the influential Fetallah Guelen organization, are proselytizing among Turks throughout Central Asia and even in Russia – although Russia banned the Muslim organization in 2006. “The Russians shut down the Guelen organization in St Petersburg but not in Moscow,” a Turkish attendee explained. “Almost anything in Russia can be bought.”
Money from the Gulf is not the only factor in Turkey’s swing away from the West, to be sure. The old secular leadership strata, which styled itself after its European counterparts, is just as exhausted and infertile as the secular Europeans. A great migration of peasants to Turkish cities out of the backward Anatolian hinterland, meanwhile, has swelled the constituency of the Islamist parties. Money helps a great deal, though, and the Erdogan government has used its edge to place government monopolies in Islamist hands. Iran uses oil and trade to infiltrate Turkey, and Turkey uses the coffers of Islamist organizations to buy into Russia.
With the cat in semi-retirement, the mice are not only playing, but growing to cat-like stature. Obama’s fecklessness has allowed the unimaginable to occur: Russia’s influence in the Middle East rivals that of the United States.
David Samuels wrote on November 13 in Slate magazine  about “the elegant and brutal way that the Russians have leveraged their position as the arms supplier of last resort to Iran and Syria.” Russia feints towards Iran by offering to sell Tehran a top-of-the-line air-defense system, the S-300. It then extorts concessions from the West (or Israel) in return for delaying shipment of the system. One result of Russia’s rocket diplomacy, Samuels observes, is a three-way alliance between Russia, India and Israel to develop high-tech weapons, including a so-called fifth-generation fighter that may be able to challenge America’s F-35.
If Israel does attempt an air strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it will do so in response to the visible failure of American diplomacy, and with the tacit permission of Russia – which has the capacity to veto such a strike by giving Iran anti-aircraft missiles of sufficient capability (or by not giving Israel the key to the counter-measures, for Russia never sells a weapons system to another country that it cannot neutralize).
Obama’s foreign policy in every manifestation – Iran, Turkey, Palestine, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia – has come to grief, and the White House so far has shown no reaction except lockjaw. The great decisions of the world are being taken outside Washington. Too many things have gone wrong to secure the outcome. The game now is in the hands of the spoilers, the players who draw strength from chaos, and first among them is Russia. That creates positive feedback, for the powers who thrive on uncertainty will do their best to generate more of it.
1. See Follow the Rockets