Hegemon in decline
In his speech to the May 30, Hands Off the People of Iran day school, Mike Macnair looked at the inconsistencies of US strategy in the Middle East
There is a pretty clear conflict between the rhetoric of the United States and its actions in relation in particular to Islamic State (aka Daesh) and more generally in relation to its policy towards the Middle East.
Take the May 14 statement issued by the recent meeting at Camp David between the US and the Gulf Cooperation Council, which the Saudi king perhaps boycotted - the king himself did not show up, although other senior officials did.1 The Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram tried to decode this very cryptic statement, but Marwan Bishara of Al Jazeera commented that paranoia is inappropriate - what is going on is just normal geopolitics.2
I thought it might be helpful to look superficially at recent commentary about US policy in the Middle East from ‘beltway’ Washington establishment NGOs, commentators, etc. For example, the Cato Institute is a rightwing libertarian group that generally advocates a ‘pull back’ policy - its stance is out of line with the general view, but it is a source of some useful information about what is being done.3 Then there is Kenneth Pollack’s March 24 testimony to the Senate armed services committee, published by the Brookings Institute, for which he works, and which is much closer to that of the US foreign policy establishment.4 Meanwhile, Samuel R Berger and others, writing for the Washington Institute for Near-East Policy (Winep), offer a markedly pro-Israeli orientation.5
An opposing line is offered by Chas W Freeman Jr, a former state department insider, who was ejected basically because he came to the (wrong-headed) conclusion that the pro-Israel lobby had motivated the invasion of Iraq and wrecked US policy in the Middle East. The lobby did succeed in persuading Congress in 2009 that Freeman was an unacceptable person to be appointed as chair of the National Intelligence Council.6
Then there is Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s comment that Iran is much more dangerous than Daesh.7 This view is not just coming from Israel: it is fairly widely held in the US foreign policy establishment and the reason why is pretty clear - Daesh is a non-state actor, despite the fact it pretends to be a state. It is taking territory, but it cannot consistently hold onto that territory or take taxes from it. It is still essentially a guerrilla hit-and-run operation. Yes, it can seize oil and sell it, but that is not very different from the activities of a bandit raider who is able to hold ground for long enough to extract value from it. Daesh remains in fact logistically dependent on Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the Gulf states and the Gulf financial structures.
So it is not senseless or a symptom of an obsession about a uniquely evil Iran to say that a functioning state, which is able to have policy debates, extract taxes, organise an army, and so on, is a more dangerous political actor than a guerrilla operation - even a very successful one - pretending to be a state.
In relation to US policy there is the big debate over the Iran nuclear deal. It is still clear that there is a significant element among US policy actors who are currently advocating ‘no deal and a military strike against Iran’ - or at least ‘no deal and further intensification of sanctions’. The real option is to oppose the deal and carry out a military, perhaps even nuclear, strike against Iran. Israeli defence minister Moshe Ya’alon recently threatened the use of nuclear weapons against Iran.8 That is the real option, firstly, because it is reasonably clear that sanctions, if they have severely damaged the Iranian economy as a whole, have not significantly impeded the progress of Iranian enrichment projects. Secondly, if there is no deal, the incentives for Iran to pursue the acquisition of nuclear weaponry and delivery mechanism (even if this means simply buying them from Ukraine or Russia) become very intense.
The question is whether currently for the US a strike against Iran is a real policy choice. It is not entirely clear whether this is the case, or whether it is something being said by senior Republicans to prevent president Barack Obama making a deal, with a view to getting a Republican president elected, who then makes a deal with Iran himself and takes the credit. This is what happened with Carter, Reagan and the Iranian hostage situation in 1979-80.
Something worth thinking about here - and it appears in all the commentaries on Middle East policy - is the dysfunctionality of the US policy process. There is dysfunction in the US political system in the extent of the partisanship and corruption that prevails - the US political parties have a slave, not a ruler, mentality; or perhaps a child mentality, in the sense that they are not prepared to set limits on themselves: their actions suppose that someone else will take responsibility for the necessary decisions and compromises. They thus act as though they were in the process of descending towards civil war, like political actors in the late Roman republic, or like the US itself in the 1850s. Of course, they are not descending towards civil war, but they recognise no limits to what they can do to their political opponents (or US interests) for the sake of a small, short-term political advantage.
A good starting point for the question of US strategic objectives is Freeman’s list of long-term US objectives in relation to the Middle East. In his March 2015 speech he stated:
Our objectives in the Middle East have not changed much over the course of the past half century or more. We have sought to:
1. Gain acceptance and security for a Jewish homeland from the other states and peoples of the region.
2. Ensure the uninterrupted availability of the region’s energy supplies to sustain global and US security and prosperity.
I think this is code for something else, and I will return to it shortly. Nonetheless there is a truth about the relevance of the oil supply. He continues:
3. Preserve our ability to transit the region, so as to be able to project power around the world.
This is the corollary of the old British interest in the Suez Canal and the coaling station at Aden. This point comes from Freeman’s insider background: the US military have to overfly the Middle East very extensively, not just in connection with the region itself, but when doing anything in east, south and central Asia. Their fleet deployments in the Indian Ocean, in the South China Sea, etc, depend on their ability to transit the Middle East. This issue is a global military-strategic interest of the US.
Freeman goes on:
4. Prevent the rise of a regional hegemon or the deployment of weapons of mass destruction that might threaten any or all of these first three objectives.
This is again code, the first part - “Prevent the rise of a regional hegemon” - being the fundamental point. The Israelis have weapons of mass destruction already deployed.
5. Maximise profitable commerce.
6. Promote stability, while enhancing respect for human rights and progress toward constitutional democracy.9
The last of these points is obviously rhetorical, and Freeman admits this later on in his speech:
In practice, we have insisted on democratisation only in countries we have invaded or that were otherwise falling apart ... When elections have yielded governments whose policies we oppose, we have not hesitated to conspire with their opponents to overthrow them.
This comment is a token gesture on his part, but at least he is recognising in the fifth point that there is a genuine interest for US capital as such in selling things (mostly arms, it has to be said) in the Middle East.
Freeman and all the other commentators recognise that in the present situation there is a striking failure to meet these objectives. The Brookings Institute, Winep and other commentators (not Cato) see a distinct independent objective, which is to re-establish a stable state system in the region. They are strongly Weberian in their training - and equally you can see that US undergraduates are made to read Thucydides, Machiavelli, Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and others. You can recognise such sources again and again in these commentaries.
Obama is reported to have said that the US does not yet have a strategy in relation to Islamic State. That was a few months ago - maybe it does now.
As well as those advocating military action against Iran, however, there are now advocates of a turn to Turkey and Iran. They include Stephen Kinzer, who wrote the book Reset: Iran, Turkey and America’s future in 2010. Kinzer argues that the US should completely reorient its policy, dump Israel, ditch the Saudis and treat Turkey and Iran as the developing hegemon powers and guarantors of peace in the region. It is not quite clear how these two are meant to fit together, given that Turkey and Iran have conflicting interests like everybody else. Then again, Israeli and Saudi Arabia have conflicting interests, but in practice have been allies for decades now.
The underlying issue in is the apparent failure of US ostensible long-term policy objectives in relation to the region. What is certainly the case is that the US is not delivering order. But what it continues to deliver - and this perhaps explains the recent turns in policy - is control of the oil taps in relation to other powers, which has geostrategic significance (I will come back to this).
There is a striking failure of all the current analysts to pay any attention to Hillary Clinton’s point about the US creating al Qa’eda (to fight the USSR). There is also a very striking silence from both Pollack and Freeman. Both Pollack and Freeman talk about “moral hazard” - a term often used in banking to describe the situation where banks can take risks, knowing they will be bailed out. Freeman argues that there is “moral hazard” in relation to the US policy towards Israel, where the latter’s awareness of the degree of US support it enjoys encourages it to take an ever more risky line.
However, there is no recognition by these analysts that the US and International Monetary Fund create “moral hazard” in relation to private creditor interests. The loan funds of such interests are not allowed to go bust, but instead are nationalised and turned into IMF money, making it harder for the debtor state to default. We can see this particularly clearly in Greece, where the IMF and the EU have bailed out the German bankers who lent money to Greece to buy German arms and infrastructure materials in tied, corrupt loans. The same is true all across the Middle East.
There is a consequence of this particular form of moral hazard of the financiers. The consequence is that it inherently destroys the legitimacy of the states and of any sort of projects of secularism and liberalism. This is the case so long as these projects remain tied to the idea that the creditor interests cannot have the value of their money cut.
Hegel makes the point that bürgerliche Gesellschaft - civil society - is not something for which anybody would be willing to die.10 That is not strictly true, as bourgeois economy can be turned into an image of liberty, for which people can be willing to die,11 but this cannot happen if the liberal state which appeals to nationalism or secularism transparently turns into a tool of creditor interests. That destroys the possibility of building secular armies and we can see the result in Iraq: the secular army is not able to resist Daesh, but the Shia militias are. The fact is that - even in the depths of the consequences of its policy of IMF restructuring, of having destroyed through this policy the legitimacy of the various Arab states, of having destroyed the possibility of anything other than tribalism, religious fundamentalism, etc - high-level US analysts are not willing to recognise that creditors have to lose. In reality and in the long run, they will have to lose: if not by being made to take ‘haircuts’ through the destruction of assets, then through rising nationalism or religious reaction, leading to the spread of war.
Earlier I referred to Marwan Bishara of Al Jazeera saying that this is all just ordinary geopolitics, which is true. However, understanding such geopolitics requires that you grasp the fact that they are earthquake-like: there is a gradual shifting of the plates underlying it and then eventually the earthquake happens: a sudden shift in the real world. What are the underlying plate tectonics here?
Russia, China, Europe
The US is in relative decline, but remains the world hegemon. This relative decline is in a stage comparable to that of the United Kingdom in the 1850s (not the immediate run-up to World War I or the 1930s). Precisely because the US is the world hegemon, its policy towards the Middle East cannot be governed, as several of the US commentators I have referred to imagine it can be, by local concerns. It has to be governed by the concerns of the US in holding its global power.
That is what drives US policy. It is not just about the Middle East: it is about Europe, it is about Russia and it is about China. Compare the history of the British empire, as described in Chris Clark’s book The sleepwalkers on the origins of World War I. British geopolitical interests - particularly the desire to keep Russia out of India - led to Britain entering into a deal with France and Russia in 1905-06 that produced the encircling of Germany. The British were not particularly interested in encircling Germany and thereby driving German policymakers towards an attempt to break out via pre-emptive war in 1914. They were interested in making a deal with Russia that would avert a perceived threat of an invasion of India. Similarly John Darwin’s book The empire project talks about the delicate balancing exercises which the UK had to carry out through the late 19th and early 20th century in order to keep its interests afloat with thin forces on the ground. Eventually the balancing act collapsed in 1940-41, when the Axis powers destroyed the military-strategic position of the UK, forcing it to make the deal handing global leadership to the US.
Now consider global balancing today. Why are we talking about Bashar al-Assad and the crimes of his regime in Syria, when what exists in opposition to him has turned out to be Daesh and Jabhat Al-Nusra, while the secular opponents of the regime are unable to fight at all effectively? The answer is, it remains the case that as far as the US is concerned overthrowing the Assad regime is about the encirclement of Russia. US state actors read and take seriously Halford Mackinder’s geopolitics: “Who rules east Europe commands the heartland; who rules the heartland commands the world-island.”12 It is essential according to this view to prevent the creation of a Eurasian axis of any sort, and so the encirclement of Russia is a perceived geostrategic interest of the United States, in particular in preventing Russia having naval access to the world ocean. Ideally they would get rid of St Petersburg; at least they have won the Baltic states to Nato.
Their intention through the Maidan operation - and it was an operation rather than a mass, revolutionary working class movement - was to suppress Russian bases in Crimea. Through Georgia in 2008 they sought to suppress Russian naval bases in the eastern Black Sea. The object is to cut Russia off from the sea. It is this goal which has animated the decision to go with any sort of military resistance to the Assad regime, even if it is Daesh, in order to close down the Russian naval base in Syria.
Pollack from the Brookings Institute suggests the US should make a deal with India and China in order get them to commit resources for maintaining stability in the Middle East. What is going on here? The explanation is straightforward: India and China are rapidly industrialising and they need access to oil - more than the US does. I think it is highly unlikely that the US would make any such deal, but control of the oil taps is being thought of by policy actors here as being a tool to limit the development of Chinese imperialism (which is rapidly developing).
China is a bizarre example of a proto-imperialist power with a large Stalinist component to its economy, as well as a capitalist component, which is exporting capital on a large scale and creating relations of dependency between itself and certain countries in Latin America. China is also building naval bases in Sri Lanka and Pakistan, and conducting anti-piracy operations off Somalia. The question is, why is Pollack talking about a deal with India and China (which would essentially be a deal to lay off the costs of intervention in the Middle East onto those two countries)? The answer, of course, is that the US cannot return to full-scale military intervention without a deal with China.
There is an ongoing dispute over the South China Sea, in which the US is supporting regional resistance to Chinese claims over the waters. At the same time the US objects to Chinese dredgers creating islands that China is using to press its claims to the South China Sea.
The converse issue is the sea between China and Japan. Since 1946 it has been the doctrine of US naval strategy that it is a fundamental interest of US defence that it should have unrestricted access to the Chinese coast. The Chinese state is regarded as a threat to the US because Chinese naval and shore development threatens the access of the US navy to the Chinese coast. The US has an interest in holding China in subordination and US Middle East policy relates to that.
Thirdly there is Europe. If one was to talk about a real inter-imperialist rivalry - something equivalent to the rise of the US and Germany in the early 20th century - it would have to be the US in relation to a Germany and France who had got their act together. In reality India and China have such large peasant economies holding them back that they are incapable of being potential replacement world hegemons. A European Union led by an effective alliance between Germany and France is capable of being an effective alternative world hegemon. But to achieve this would require an equivalent to the American civil war of 1861-65, which broke US dependence on the UK, or the German wars of 1864-70, which created the German Second Empire as a unified nation-state.
What is going on in relation to US policy on this front is now extremely obscure, although it concerns Britain in regards to the Middle East: the UK is on the verge of an in/out referendum on the EU and, perhaps more fundamentally, the British army failed in Basra and failed in Helmand; in response to which David Cameron, while clinging to Trident, is cutting military expenditure on a large scale.
Hence, the historical relation that has existed since 1940 - whereby Britain is simultaneously the ‘unsinkable aircraft carrier’ in Europe (and since 1972 a US agent in the EU to push forward EU expansion and block deepened integration) and the United States’ secondary power, conducting overseas operations on behalf of US interests - could come to an end. The decline in British military capability, and at the same time the willingness of the Tories to take this enormous risk with British EU membership, suggests the US may be in danger of returning to a situation where France and Germany are free to push for a more centralised Europe that would be more capable of acting as a rival to the US. Hence again the control of the oil taps becomes of even more geopolitical significance.
The underlying point of US policy in the Middle East is control of the oil taps - but not in order to secure cheap oil for the US. It is the ability to move oil prices, to prevent others having access to this oil that is important to the US. The considerations that drive it are directly military rather than purely economic. We have electric cars, not electric tanks, and certainly not electric military aircraft.
The control of the oil taps is about control of military capabilities in the sort of war that was fought in the 20th century. Maybe we will move away from those kinds of war. Perhaps ‘improvised explosive devices’ (IEDs), showing the vulnerability of military ground vehicles, and Stinger missiles or whatever the Russian equivalent of the Stinger is, showing the vulnerability of aircraft (and the inordinate expense of the US’s ‘stealth’ aircraft), mean that we are going to return to the kind of war fought in 1914, because military vehicles are going to be too vulnerable. However, it would actually require a great power war to get out of the existing dynamics.
To return to my argument, if it is negative control of the oil taps that is important to the US, it does make sense for the moment to keep Daesh in play. The US is concerned with preventing the emergence of a regional hegemon in the Middle East that could be counterposed to US interests. Contrary to those who are saying the Israeli tail is wagging the US dog, the US alliance with Israel does make sense, because there is no way Israel could ever dominate the Middle East simply because of its population - it is too small. It could not operate independently of and in rivalry with the US - apart from the fact that it receives, according to the Cato Institute, roughly $336 per head per year in direct US subventions. Israel received $2.38 billion of US foreign aid in 2008 - Ethiopia by contrast (which one might expect to receive aid to alleviate extreme poverty) received $456 million that year.
Israel, then, is completely dependent on the US and it is in the interests of the US to be allied with Israel, because Israel cannot be independent of it. It is in the interests of the US to be concerned about the Islamic Republic of Iran precisely because it is a state and it could function as a regional hegemon. It is not impossible that Iran could be a local counter-hegemon which interferes with US interests.
In conclusion, we are dealing with a failure of US foreign policy towards the Middle East in terms of its ostensible objectives - and disastrous results for the inhabitants of the region. We are not, however, dealing with failure in terms of the US’s underlying objective, which is geo-strategic control.
2. I Narwar, ‘Understanding US policy in the Middle East’ Al-Ahram Weekly May 21 2015; M Bishara, ‘US policy and the Middle East: conspiracy and collusion’ Al-Jazeera May 13 2015.
3. Cato handbook for policymakers chapter 52: ‘US policy in the Middle East’.
6. Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_W._Freeman,_Jr; March 10 speech, http://chasfreeman.net/responding-to-failure-reorganizing-u-s-policies-in-the-middle-east.
8. Y Mather, ‘Least of all Khamenei’s problems’ Weekly Worker May 28 2015.
10. Philosophy of right pp324-29, especially p325 and Remark to that section.
11. M Macnair, ‘Doing war differently’ Weekly Worker May 28 2015.
12. H Mackinder Democratic ideals and reality London1919.