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The idiot twins of American idealism

Former president George W Bush thought that the United States could turn Kabul into Peoria, the archetypal American city in the state of Illinois. President Barack Obama thinks that Kabul is just as good as Peoria. America has shed idealist delusion - that imposing the outward form of democracy in Iraq or Afghanistan would implant its content - in favor of an even stranger delusion, which refuses "to elevate one nation or group of people over another", as Obama told the United Nations on September 23.

It was mad to believe that America could remake the world in its own image. Given that more than half the world's languages will go extinct for lack of interest during the present century, it is even madder to turn foreign policy into an affirmative action program for disadvantaged cultures.

But those are the idiot twins of American idealism: either one size fits all, or size doesn't matter. I do not propose to draw a moral equivalence between presidents Bush and Obama: Bush wanted to elevate American power and Obama wants to diminish it. Bush had better motives, but he was no less destructive of American influence.

Where are the realists? Self-styled realists, to be sure, idle at every corner on K Street. Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the enemies of the so-called Israel lobby, claim to be realists. Why, they ask, should America ally with Israel, a land of seven million people, and offend a billion and a third Muslims, some of whom are sitting on a great deal of the world's oil? Why not force Israel to accept a peace on Arab terms, namely a return to the 1967 borders and the division of Jerusalem? Why can't we be rational and sensible and sophisticated like our European allies? A widely shared fantasy, though, doesn't qualify as reality. Mearsheimer, Walt and their kind are not realists at all, just majority-rule fantasists.

It is easy to confuse "realism" with a widely shared delusion. In the parlance of American foreign policy, "realism" means accepting a howling lie if it is accepted by a large enough number of people. The "realists" during the Ronald Reagan administration insisted that the Soviet Union was a successful, stable and permanent fixture in the world power equation. Reagan and his advisors saw in Soviet aggression a symptom of imminent internal breakdown. The head of plans at Reagan's National Security Council, Norman A Bailey, told me in early 1981 that American rearmament would overstrain the Soviet economy and bring about the collapse of communism by 2007. I thought him a dangerous lunatic and, like Tertullian, signed up forthwith.

Why pursue detente with a Soviet Union that inevitably would collapse of its own incompetence and corruption? And why ally with Muslim countries sinking into irreversible decline, in some cases civil war? Iran, Turkey and Algeria will age as rapidly as Western European countries, but without the wealth buffer to deal with a burgeoning cohort of dependent elderly.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan seem ungovernable. Among the largest Muslim countries only Bangladesh and Indonesia seem stable, but they have little relevance to American policy in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia's influence in the region is expressed mainly by financing fundamentalist madrassas (seminaries) in neighboring countries and writing checks to compliant former American presidents as well as "realist" academics. The Saudis will sell us the oil; we do not need to wash their feet in return.

Reality presented itself to the White House in the course of the current give-and-take over Israel and Palestine in the person of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, perhaps the last functioning realist in the Obama administration. The Pentagon, as I noted two weeks ago, views with realistic horror the possibility that Israel might exchange military technology with Russia and India. An immediate concern is the Russian-Indian joint venture to produce a fifth-generation fighter, but drone, anti-missile, and other technology are also a concern. That, there is reason to believe, explains why the US administration abruptly dropped its demand for a complete Israeli freeze on settlement construction and accepted the Israeli offer of a freeze on acquiring new land, once 3,000 homes at present under construction are complete.

That, contrary to Mearsheimer and Walt, is realism: in a world of weapons of mass destruction, very large numbers of poorly educated people make no contribution to military power. Even in the age of edged weapons, Persia's advantage in numbers at Gaugamela posed little threat to Alexander the Great. Despite its declining population, Russia is determined to exercise military power on a world scale through its edge in key military technologies.

Israel's contribution might be decisive in a number of fields, for example avionics and especially drone technology. Among the million Russians who emigrated to Israel during the breakdown of the Soviet Empire are more than 10,000 scientists, including some who designed Russia's best weapons systems. Moscow's impulse to reunite the old team is understandable. Throw Israel into the briar patch, and America might not like the result.

It seems a long and drafty walk down the corridors of time since Richard Perle, the chairman of Bush's Defense Policy Board, and David Frum, the speechwriter who coined the term "axis of evil", joined to write a book with the grandiose title, An End to Evil. That was only five years ago. Never were policy wonks more full of themselves, or more challenged theologically, or more likely to be forgotten. And it seems like an eternity since Obama set out to dismantle American strategic superiority.

Unlikely as it sounds, there is no "realist" school of foreign policy at work in Washington, just the idiot twins of idealism and the majority-rule fantasists. Gates seems capable of realism, at least when the intelligence reports smack him in the face like a dead mackerel. No one in Washington seems to ask the obvious questions:
  • Which countries are inherently friendly, which are inherently hostile, and which are neither friendly nor hostile, but merely self-interested?
  • Which countries are viable partners over a given time horizon, and which are beyond viability?
  • Where can we solve problems, and where must we resign ourselves to contain them at best?
  • Where can we make agreements in mutual self-interest, and where is it impossible to make agreements of any kind?
  • What issues affect American national security in so urgent a fashion that we should employ force if required?

A few suggestions:
China is the fulcrum of American strategy. The world's two largest economies have a natural self-interest in strengthening each other. Francesco Sisci and I proposed an economic alliance between America and China in this space a year ago (see US's road to recovery runs through Beijing Asia Times Online, November 15, 2008).

It goes without saying that the political implications of such an economic alliance would be profound. Forget about the Uyghurs of Xinjiang or the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama: China is an empire in constant risk of provincial rebellion and cannot show mercy to any regional separatist without risking internal dissolution. That is the last thing the West should want; were China to descend into internal instability, America's economic prospects would turn sour for a generation.

If America wants to promote human rights in China, it should promote open capital markets, immigration of Chinese entrepreneurs, and other benign ways of opening Chinese society to more individual power. China also wants America to remain a power in Asia: China and its neighbors distrust each other more than ever they distrusted the United States.

Russia is a spoiler, but a bargainer. America has no interest in color revolutions in the Russian "near abroad" (just what is the strategic significance of the "Tulip Revolution" in Kyrzgyzstan?). Georgia and the Ukraine are respectively last and second-to-last in the world fertility tables and will cease to exist as national entities by mid-century. Why should America make commitments there?

The notion that the United States can contribute substantially to energy independence by running pipelines around the edge of Russian borders seems fanciful. These are all bargaining chips. America should trade away what it does not require (democracy in the "stans") for what it does require, for instance Russian strategic cooperation in non-proliferation, especially where Iran is concerned. This may be the one thing that the Obama administration has done right, although it remains to be seen whether it has done anything at all.

India is a prospective friend. The precedent of nuclear cooperation with India as well as India's common interest in suppressing Muslim terrorists brought the world's largest democracy close to the American camp during the Bush administration. India's economic boom, moreover, increases its links to the American economy.

Iran is past bargaining with; it must be ruined. In 2004, Gates and former Jimmy Carter security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski chaired a Council on Foreign Relations study of Iran that should be held up to undergraduates as a horrible example of self-deception posing as realism.

"Given its history and its turbulent neighborhood, Iran's nuclear ambitions do not reflect a wholly irrational set of strategic calculations," wrote Brzezinski and Gates. In fact, they argued, it is the American threat that prompted Iran at one point to seek to acquire nuclear weapons: "By contributing to heightened tensions between the Bush administration and Iran, the elimination of Saddam [Hussein's] rule has not yet generated substantial strategic dividends for Tehran. In fact, together with US statements on regime change, rogue states, and preemptive action, recent changes in the regional balance of power have only enhanced the potential deterrent value of a 'strategic weapon'."

After the Obama administration's unsuccessful attempt to appease Tehran, no one believes this rot, but Washington still cannot make sense of Iran. I have maintained that Iran faces internal implosion, not only because of the disaffection of its educated youth, but because it will run out of young people and run out of oil at roughly the same time, that is, about 20 years from now (see Why Iran will fight, not compromise Asia Times Online, May 30, 2007). Iran is in a position similar to that of the Soviet Union in 1980: it must break out, or break down.

Russia sought to alleviate its own economic misery by harnessing the economy of Western Europe. The Reagan administration prevented that by installing medium-range missiles in Western Europe, and Russia nearly went to war to prevent it - but ultimately decided to give up without a shot fired.

Iran must act on what it believes to be the Shi'ite moment in world history or be reduced to an aging rump empire. Nuclear weapons would provide it with an umbrella under which to employ terrorism and subversion. Preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons - if this is the case - probably is the one instance in the world where American interest requires the use of force.

America's strategic priorities are:
  • Speeding economic recovery;
  • Maintaining the integrity of the reserve role of the dollar;
  • Preventing rogue states from acquiring nuclear weapons or prospectively rogue states from using them - I refer to Pakistan;
  • Fostering the stability of key countries, especially China and India, and, above all,
  • Maintaining a technological edge of American weaponry so great as to give America strategic flexibility in all theaters.

It has no strategic interest in tilting at such windmills as:
  • Iraqi or Afghani democracy;
  • Palestinian nationhood;
  • Georgian independence;
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization membership for Ukraine.

To act on these priorities, America requires the cooperation of other countries, and in different ways. China is crucial to economic and monetary success; Russia is crucial to containing nuclear weapons; and India has a key role to play in deterring potential terrorists, including (as my Asia Times Online colleague M K Bhadrakumar has suggested) training and arming Afghanistan's northern tribes against the Taliban.

In lean times, even hyper-powers cannot indulge themselves in the sort of luxuries that feed their sense of moral superiority, or coddle their squeamishness: for example hosting the Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer or the Dalai Lama, or helping brave little Georgia stand up to nasty big Russia, or promoting color revolutions in odd fragments of the former Soviet Union.

We have to focus on core interests and concentrate on those countries that have the competence and will to assist us in pursuing our core interests. Most of the world will ruin itself quickly enough without our help. Our attention should abide with those countries that demonstrate long-term viability.

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Wow! Now this is a realistic evaluation of the irk our government should be about.

Posted on 2009-11-03 15:38:47 GMT

For once, I disagree with Spengler. It is fair comment that the USA should concentrate on friendly viable nations. It is wrong, however, to advocate the abandonment of the failing foes or potential ones. Abandoning those nations creates a pool hostiles and accusers of hypocrisy who would use terror to destroy enlightened, democratic secular societies. It is as though the USA (or Australia) can ignore our responsibilities to our fellow human beings. The West cannot ignore Islamist regimes or leave them to become proxy combatants in power plays by competing centres of influence.

Posted by paul2 on 2009-11-03 12:49:07 GMT