Friday, November 7, 2008

The Real Danger: 21st Century Foreign Policy

My thanks to Media with Conscience for publishing the initial version of this essay.

The neo-cons believe that the transcendental challenge of the times is to defeat Islamic radicalism (or, not to put too fine a point on it, to ensure Israeli military domination over the Mideast). Preferably, this should be done very publicly on the open battlefield with maximum shock and awe as a lesson to anyone else (Latin American populists, Russian neo-cons looking for a bit of their own old-style imperialism [minus the heavy-handed scientific socialism], and—obviously—any uppity Islamic reformers who think they too should have the right to live in a democracy, i.e., a society in which the people have a right to follow their own path, rather than the one Washington assigns them).

This American-Israeli neo-con myth is perhaps the most tragic falsehood of this ever so hypocritical and self-serving era. Certain extremist and very much minority elements within the 20% of humanity that calls itself Moslem are indeed very hostile and very dangerous. Myths are powerful precisely because they have a way of taking root in a bit of reality. And all is a moving target. Neither Islamic radicalism nor the American elite is the same as it was before 9/11. If the U.S. makes enough mistakes, pours enough gasoline on the fire, aggravates tensions enough, angers enough of the rest of the world, it may yet transform Islamic radicalism into an enemy worthy of the world’s last remaining superpower.


How will the incoming Obama Administration handle the issue of American imperialism? Will it truly attempt change? Will it be able to foresee the key decision-points?

What to Watch For

  1. The First Crisis. Obama ran a calm electoral campaign. The global situation appears set for any number of crises. When the first one happens, will Obama be able to respond cautiously and thoughtfully without waving the bloody flag of fear?
  2. Foreign Policy Without Principles. The American neo-con imperial thrust has not been rejected; Obama’s words have hinted at a lessening of American pressure on Iran and Iraq even as they hinted at an intensifying of pressure on Pakistan. Will he continue evading the fundamental issue of the propriety of the underlying imperial thrust or will he confront it and put his own stamp on foreign policy?
  3. Imbalance in American Power. America’s enormous power has become dangerously one-sided: not coincidentally, its moral and economic power have been undermined just as its reliance on military force has increased. The effectiveness of that military power to destroy steadily grows; in contrast, its effectiveness in achieving goals seems to be declining significantly. When this imbalance puts a critical obstacle in the path of the Obama administration’s foreign policy goals, how will Obama respond?
  4. War Before Inauguration. Obama will be surrounded by actors on the global stage who might see a new outbreak of violence as profitable to themselves. Will some such group succeed in provoking a new conflict before Inauguration Day?


It remains in late 2008 the case that it would be closer to the truth to say that the transcendental challenge of the times is to defeat American imperialism. Just to make the previous sentence perfectly clear to those American politicians who babble about “pro-American” and “anti-American” portions of America, I did not say “to defeat the U.S.” I said, “to defeat American imperialism.” The best way to do this would be for the American people to elect a set of officials committed to what might be called “restoring America,” namely:

  • Renouncing the policy of force as the method of choice for achieving foreign policy goals, which would include wars of choice;
  • Canceling the 2009 “defense” budget, which is roughly equivalent to all defense budgets of every other country on earth, and therefore obviously in fact an offense budget; appointing a commission to spend the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day conducting a zero-based analysis of U.S. requirements for a reasonable defense; and making that the new 2009 defense budget;
  • Taking the $300-400 billion dollars thus saved and investing in small-town and urban renewal.

Perhaps unfortunately for a lot of us, however, there are many other ways to defeat American imperialism:

  • Five years ago the U.S. walked into a trap in Iraq that remains snapped tight on America’s ankle; the Pakistani trap that certain Islamic radicals are trying to snap onto America’s other ankle would hurt a lot more. The disastrous situation in far away Bajaur, where some 400,000 refugees have fled the carnage of the August Pakistani “bomb ‘em into the Stone Age” offensive against the Taliban, is just a small taste of what bringing “the American (or should I say Israeli?) way of war” to Pakistan will entail.
  • Then there are those who continue to lust after a U.S. war of choice on Iran, the last country in the Mideast with the guts to insist that it has a right to its own policy, a policy that could indeed turn out to be very nasty (anything “could” happen, with any country) but which so far seems to amount to striding the world stage on the cheap (which is the price of talk).

A war against Iran or Pakistan would not at all be on the scale of war against miniscule Lebanon, tiny Somalia, 19th century and flat-on-its back Afghanistan, or an already long-since (i.e., since 1991) defeated Iraq. And post-War-on-Terror, post-financial crisis America is not the America that fought (Iraq, Afghanistan) or sponsored (Lebanon, 2006; Somalia, 2007-8) those other wars.

Nevertheless, the world will not easily move beyond the military contest between al Qua’ida and the neo-cons because these two groups are in orbit around each other, the one trapped in the gravitational pull of the other. Each wants power but can have it only by persuading its constituency (the Moslem public and American public, respectively) to accept grievous sacrifices. Each requires the existence of its “opponent” to justify those sacrifices and requires that the opponent appear overwhelmingly threatening. Hence, the curious Bush policy of pushing all potential Islamic opponents into each other’s arms, pretending that Sunni al Qua’ida fundamentalists trying to restore the caliphate destroyed in the 13th century by the Mongols, and secular Saddam, and Shi’ite Iranian nationalists, the effectively disenfranchised poor of Lebanon, the starving people of Somalia whose only real government in 15 years was a coalition of Islamic courts, and the marginalized tribal people of Pakistan are all six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Yes, we have a problem. Yes, the situation is dangerous. But eliminating Islamic radicalism is not the solution. Those elements in the U.S. determined to make the 21st century the century of American imperialism would just have to find another enemy.

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