USA and the World: At the crossroads or in the crosshairs?
Come Carpentier de Gourdon
8 October 2009
History is being written every day but there is little doubt that the years from 2008 to 2010 will be remembered in the future as the period during which the global system transitioned from almost unchallenged unipolar western dominance to a much more complex and uncharted chaotic state.
The after-effects of the financial meltdown in the USA brought about the rapid decline of the NATO-centered western security structure, already challenged by the tragic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while Israel, a pillar of the global US-led alliance, was put on the strategic defensive by its botched attack on Lebanon and on the moral defensive by its brutal assault on Gaza, which exposed the Jewish state to the charges of war crimes and even crimes against humanity, earlier levied against its American mentor in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Conversely, while the “metaphorical” West is being buffeted by economic and political storms, many of its own making, China, India, Brazil and other leading nations of Asia, Latin America and Africa are experiencing a new spring of hope as they see the centres of gravity of the old “order” shifting rapidly towards them. Indeed the problems that those developing countries are experiencing are often caused by their interactions with the poles of worldwide finance (New York, London) and by the contamination of America’s multiple woes to its neighbours and partners.
The perception of this situation has led to a number of rather predictable consequences. The socialist or nationalist anti-Wall Street (a fairer description than “anti-American” or “anti-globalization”) governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Iran and Belarus were reinforced and vindicated in their resolve to create an alternative order, while the “good students” of global liberalism such as Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria and even the United Arab Emirates were severely hurt and saw their socio-political stability challenged. Russia was provided with further reasons to review its commitment to capitalism and forced to increase Government intervention in the economy.
China likewise used its command and control structures to inject several hundred billion dollars worth of stimulus to support threatened companies and fight mounting unemployment. Japan elected to power, with an overwhelming majority, a party committed to reorganize the social dispensation, reshape its foreign policy, distance itself from the USA, and strike a closer collaboration with China and other Asian neighbours.
The Atlantic Alliance thus finds itself in a rapidly worsening predicament. Faced by formidable competition in all areas by the rising powers of Asia and South America, increasingly dependent upon Russia and other less-than-friendly countries for its energy, threatened with eviction from its traditional African backyard by China, India, Brazil and other new entrants on the continent, mined by social unrest as a result of the economic and unemployment crisis, weakened by ill-fated colonial wars in the Middle East, bled by the thousand pricks of Islam-inspired terrorism, demoralised by the fast spreading perception of a looming climatic and environmental Armageddon and deeply divided within, the “West” is less homogenous than ever perhaps since World War II, and is fighting to retain control over an international architecture it can no longer afford to support.
Hence the repeated appeals to Russia, China and India to become part of this system and take their share of responsibility in it. However those attempts to co-opt the three most significant “non western” states are inspired by the hope that they can be kept apart from each other and possibly on unfriendly terms, in order to avoid a coordination that would be ominous for the US-ruled alliance.
While sharp divisions emerged between the USA and Continental Western Europe with regard to the Iraq war and are widening on the Afghan theatre, even greater disagreements have been recorded on the subject of the economy and specifically on how to respond to the crisis.
Those divisions are also to be found within most countries in the Atlantic alliance, including the US, where President Barack Obama is torn between two bitterly opposed camps, i.e. those who elected him to carry out radical reforms in domestic and foreign policies on one side, and those who opposed or grudgingly supported him in order to prevent him from carrying out those very reforms on the other. That division is less obvious but much more real than the supposed cleavage between the Democratic and Republican parties which have long been rival but complementary interest groups in the service of the same system.
The division, in simple terms, manifests most visibly on four critical issues: the economy, the Israel-Palestine situation (which includes the policy towards Iran), the Russia-China conundrum and the Afghan situation. Iraq, at least temporarily ceased to be a major item of disagreement in the USA as a result of the relative but fragile status quo that has prevailed there since 2007. The only differences regard the pace of repatriation of US troops and the amount of forces that should be maintained there permanently or at least for the foreseeable future. However the four other issues have all appearances of being intractable.
The Obama administration has disappointed the reformers of various persuasions as he gave every sign of being both unable and unwilling to challenge the power of the entrenched Wall Street lobbies and business interests. The massive and rabid opposition he faced on the issue of healthcare reform, especially with regard to any notion of public healthcare that is seen as “communistic” by too many Americans under the influence of the propaganda broadcast by insurance companies and pharmaceutical consortia, is symptomatic of a deadlocked system, controlled by its beneficiaries who refuse to concede their privileges under any circumstances.
This obduracy is indeed the major factor for the increasingly likely collapse of the United States, in spite of its being still an immensely wealthy country. On a smaller scale, California, the richest state of the Union is also rapidly declining under the weight of its own political-fiscal deadlock which has condemned it to bankruptcy. Though American military might cannot be matched by any other nation in the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that this power can remain effective when the underlying socio-political structures crumble and when the defence machinery itself cannot be properly oiled with the vast financial outlays it requires. At present the USA is gradually keeling over under the burden created by the 8 trillion Dollar real estate bubble when it burst.
All American policies in the Near and Middle East are influenced, when not determined by, its equation with Israel. The Zionist lobby (both Jewish and Christian) propounds as an article of faith that Israel is a divinely ordained state which the US is duty-bound, according to its founding religious creed, to support and protect in all circumstances. Obama seems to have dual loyalties on this issue. He is a member of the African-American community, has Muslim origins in his father’s family, was like his wife Michelle long involved with black social action networks, and must respond in some way to the growing irritation felt in many domestic quarters against Israel’s foreign policies and the very high diplomatic, financial, human and image costs they entail for the United States.
Obama must also try to assuage a majority of public opinion abroad that sees the American government as a virtual hostage of Zionist interests, but he cannot afford to antagonize too much the Jewish elite in the country which has already shown its ability to jeopardize his presidency. For instance, the vociferous campaign of the so-called “Birthers” who claim that the first African-American President was not born in the territory of the USA and is in fact a Kenyan, hence not eligible to hold the highest office, gives every indication of having being inspired by Israeli agents, including the leader of the “Birthers”, Orly Taitz, who was reported to have both American and Israeli citizenships and rumoured to be close to Prime Minister Netanyahu.
In the same vein, the Israeli administration deliberately evinced its disdain for its counterpart in Washington, when the latter attempted to restart stalled negotiations with the Palestinian authority in August 2009, by announcing the construction of new settlements in occupied territories in spite of Obama’s requests.
On the larger theatre, Israel has been relentlessly pushing the US and its NATO allies to bomb Iran’s nuclear research facilities because of the suspicion that they may be used to develop a nuclear weapon. It is edifying that both Israel and the USA, which never seriously objected when Pakistan became a nuclear weapons state, with the not-so-covert help of the USA, are fixated on Iran’s alleged military nuclear capabilities. Why the dread of a “Shiite Islamic bomb” when the “Sunni bomb” was taken in stride?
For one, Pakistan is a client state of the United States and Britain, which is not expected to turn against them or their protégés, but Iran’s nuclear programme is also used as a bogey by Tel Aviv, just as when the Jewish state promoted the now discarded belief that Iraq was amassing weapons of mass destruction to call for the invasion of the country and Saddam Hussein’s overthrow.
It is in Israel’s interest to bring as much of the region as possible under US military and political control, or at least under the superpower’s attacks, so as to leave no potential enemy or challenger to its East or South. The calculus in Israel is that disarming Iran would ipso facto weaken Syria and the Hezbollah which could be subsequently defanged. In pursuit of this objective, Israel refuses now to seriously pursue negotiations with the Palestinians as long as the US does not “take care” of Tehran.
The implications of the Israeli government’s brinkmanship can of course be tragic for the Middle East and for the world. If Tel Aviv and Washington do not stop at covert destabilizing operations inside Iran and launch air attacks against the Islamic Republic, retaliations can be expected in all areas where Iran has the ability to strike at US and Jewish interests and a new wave of anti-western anger is sure to arise in many parts of the world.
Muslims populations may not be the only ones to express their outrage through violence. Too many disenfranchised and angry victims of the ongoing economic crisis are likely to find in this new “war for Zionism and oil” a channel to manifest their hostility to their rulers and their resolve to overthrow the global oligarchy. For Israel to press for a “final (military) solution” in the Middle East, though it will certainly not be final unless nuclear holocaust occurs, shows a state of desperation among some right-wing Zionists, or at least a worrisome recklessness of the type evinced by the Wall Street gamblers who brought about the multi-trillion dollar losses of 2008.
An indication of the acute tension reached in the Iran-Israel conflict could be found in a mysterious incident involving the Russian cargo ship Arctic Sea, which was bizarrely hijacked twice on its journey to Algeria in July 2009, by “pirates” on a speedboat posing as Swedish policemen, who took it to the Cape Verde islands, before the Russian navy was able to trace the vessel and take control of it on August 17, after deploying considerable resources in coordination with various other European states and the USA. The pirates, according to some intelligence sources hailed from Russia and the Baltic countries, but were rumoured to have acted on behalf of the Israeli Mossad. Russian Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov called them “CIA terrorists”, suggesting that they might have been rogue agents.
Not long after they were arrested and taken back to Russia to be tried, Prime Minister Netanyahu flew secretly to the Kubinka Air Force base on September 7, “in breach of all protocol,” to meet President Medvedev. He was accompanied by Meir Kalifi, his military adviser and Uzi Arad, his national security adviser. Though not much was learnt about the discussions, it was reported that apart from angrily demanding the release of his agents “Bibi the American” as he is nicknamed in Israel, tried to secure Russian non-intervention in the event of Israelis staging bombing raids over Iran.
The meeting appears to have been stormy. Medvedev later said in an interview with Fareed Zakaria on CNN, after news had leaked about the clandestine visit, that he had only agreed to the secrecy in response to Netanyahu’s request, though he did not see the need for it and would have preferred that the visit be official. The reason for the hijacking of MV Arctic Sea remains a mystery, but it appears that major strategic interests were at stake if one looks at the massive resources Russia deployed to recover the ship and defeat what was almost certainly a covert operation conducted for undisclosed reasons on a vessel whose real cargo was not ascertained.
Shortly afterwards, Russia sought assurances from Israeli President Shimon Peres that there would be no attack on Iran; Prime Minister Putin pointedly highlighted the Russian warning on the anniversary of September 11, 2001. It appears that the Russian Government sought to prevent a unilateral military move from the Netanyahu government by getting not only the Israeli head of state to commit that there would be no attack on Iran, but also the American administration.
Indeed, President Obama himself issued a veiled but stern warning to the bellicose Jewish premier through his informal but very influential adviser, Zbignew Brzezinski, who in an interview to the Daily Beast on 22nd, openly invoked the prospect of the US Air Force shooting down any Israeli planes heading to Iran. Brzezinski even recalled, –horribile dictu– the 1967 Israeli deadly bombing of the electronic spying ship USS Liberty to suggest that Americans might not be averse to getting even with Tsahal, thus breaking a taboo enforced from the White House since the day of that incident. This series of events reflect the fact that the wind is turning. An insolvent and deeply divided America is constrained to rethink its policies in the Middle East as they have become unsustainable and detrimental.
A number of strange and disturbing events, apparently caused by terrorism, took place in the territory of the Russian Federation during the month of September. On August 17, the very day when Russian special forces took control of the Arctic Sea from the hijackers, a massive explosion destroyed the Sayano Shusenskaya hydro-electrical power plant in Siberia, causing a large number of casualties, and on September 13 the Directorate of Military Intelligence situated on an Air Base at Tambov was the target of a commando who managed to penetrate it, killing various security personnel and setting fire to an archive reported to contain a number of sensitive government files.
Were those attacks related to the Arctic Sea incident and the stormy meeting between the Russian President and the Israeli Prime Minister? The verdict of various experts is that somebody was trying to apply intense pressure on the Kremlin, possibly to dissuade it from obstructing western designs against Iran.
On September 16, a trilateral meeting took place in Washington between President Obama, Prime Minister Putin and Prime Minister Harper of Canada, during which the US and Russia agreed on a number of surprisingly conciliatory moves. It has been reported that one of the points of agreement was the need to contain Israeli bellicosity and prevent the situation in the Middle East from getting out of hand, in line with the warnings recently issued by some eminent analysts, including Professor Immanuel Wallerstein, predicting a “firestorm” for US interests and forces in the region, if the worsening situation involving Israel, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan was not quickly brought under control.
Though the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation have very different situations vis-à-vis the United States, the fact that since the beginning of the twenty-first century they coordinate their foreign policies to some extent and especially their responses to the US, has forced Washington to take them into account in tandem on a number of sensitive issues, in the Middle East, Europe and Latin America, as in North Korea.
The economic power of the Middle Kingdom and the strategic-nuclear might of Russia combined with the latter’s energy and mineral resources make the world’s two largest nations, by population and land area respectively, indispensable or inevitable as the case may be. There is no assurance that the alliance of convenience struck between Beijing and Moscow will survive the likely divergence of some of their respective interests, but in the present context they need each other to defend themselves effectively against western hegemonic designs.
Evidently the colossal US debt to China and Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas give the two Eastern states decisive leverage over the Atlantic Alliance, and as of 2009 there are increasing signs that the US is caught in an economic vice by China, which is able to exercise informal vetting rights over American financial and foreign policies, while Russia wields its refurbished conventional and nuclear arsenal to restore and extend its influence in many regions, from the Mediterranean to the South Atlantic and from Venezuela to the Arctic Ocean, while its nuclear submarines and its long-range strategic bombers surround mainland America. Those may be theatrical moves but they convey a message clearer than words.
The situation of the USA vis-à-vis China may offer some grounds for comparison with the state of the United Kingdom and its empire in the years leading up to and during the Second World War when London became dependent on the United States, then the world’s largest factory and credit provider. That dependence was increased and made manifest by the lend lease programme which effectively gave the White House a right of veto over all of White Hall’s decisions.
Today, the USA must practically get China’s agreement before it can carry out any major domestic or foreign initiative. Many have said that the dependence is mutual and that a full-fledged collapse of the US would be disastrous for China’s economy, but this is cold comfort to clear-sighted American policy-makers, who see Beijing taking a number of measures to rapidly reduce its excessive reliance on the US export market.
Indeed, after the aforesaid 16 September meeting, the White House announced its intention to abandon the missile shield project in Eastern Europe and is so far resisting the obsessive Israeli calls for launching a war against Iran. More American concession are likely to follow, involving the tacit recognition of Russia’s preponderance in its traditional sphere of influence by shelving plans to induct Ukraine and Georgia into NATO and stopping the US moves to build a military presence in Central Asia.
In return, it appears that President Putin renounced the legal action pursued by the Russian state against the Bank of New York, seeking 22 billion Dollars in damages in exchange for a token 14 million Dollars in legal costs. More importantly, apart from confirming its willingness to allow American supplies passage through Russia on the way to Afghanistan, Russia toned down its call for replacing the US greenback with a new global reserve currency, endorsing instead the Chinese proposal for a basket of currencies including the Dollar.
The so-called graveyard of empires is living up to its reputation by conjuring a nightmare of defeat and humiliation for NATO strategists. Both during his presidential campaign and after his election, Barack Obama had, like many other politicians, presented the Afghan war as a righteous and necessary conflict, as opposed to the invasion of Iraq which was illegal and staged under false pretenses. He thereby sought to reassure a majority of Americans who prefer to be seen as strong even if wrong, as opposed to being morally right but appearing weak.
Its perpetual insecurity, perhaps rooted in a lingering inferiority complex vis-à-vis older imperial nations, leads the world’s “sole superpower” to assume that it must prove itself by using overwhelming force whenever the occasion arises. Hence Afghanistan was to provide proof to doubters and naysayers that “America was not running away” and that the rather inglorious outcome in Iraq could be balanced by a successful pacification of the lands abutting the Hindu Kush, that in turn would facilitate the annexation of sprawling and energy-rich Central Asia into the Western fold. Perhaps unknowingly, modern day American strategists are echoing the views of British Prime Minister Disraeli, who claimed that the safety of the Empire hinged on those very Afghan mountains.
In September 2009 Obama, well aware that the USA had already spent 38 billion Dollars in economic assistance alone with little to show for it in the war-torn country, had second thoughts on the strategy to expand the war and increase the number of troops in Afghanistan until final victory. He could not fail to notice that many of his advisers were not sure of what victory meant in the local context and how durable or real it could be. The paradox is that both Russia and China, not to mention several other nations not directly involved, are vicariously satisfied to see the US bleed slowly, while exhausting itself in a seemingly endless campaign against resourceful and adamant guerillas.
They don’t want it to leave, abandoning the terrain to victorious Taliban, but neither do they want it to achieve full control of Afghanistan and use it as a base to interfere in adjacent countries in furtherance of its interests. Brzezinski pointed out in the above cited interview that the Kremlin might not be too sorry either if the USA opened another Pandora’s box by attacking Iran and having to live with the consequences which, though always uncertain, were likely to be dreadful not only for the Middle East but also for Washington and for Western Europe.
The Afghan question, like all others, brings into the open the divisions between the opposite sides within the USA and its main Atlantic allies. On one side are the “conservatives” who remain aligned with the Zionist Right Wing lobby and who believe that the West cannot afford to show weakness and must pursue the war effort at any cost while carrying on a policy of encirclement and intimidation towards Russia and even China; a policy inherited from the Bush administration. On the other are the centrist and leftist reformers who enjoy some support within the Euro-American Jewish liberal lobby in their attempt to bring about a radical change by mending fences with Russia and China and building a new global system that can take care of some of the major threats facing mankind.
There is little doubt that Obama personally belongs to the second faction, though he needs must appease the opposite camp. The moves made by his administration to enforce tighter sanctions on Iran may be part of that strategy, but are unlikely to satisfy the hawks who know that sanctions have rarely if ever brought a state to surrender or even negotiate, and that they are not expected to have all the desired effects on Iran because too many countries have an interest in bypassing them in order to do business with the energy-rich and strategically located Islamic republic. China and Russia in particular may be coaxed into paying lip service to the demands of the US, but are much less likely to gravely harm their own long term investments and interests in Iran by surrendering to “Atlantic” pressures, thereby losing credibility among all the states eager to shake the Western yoke.
What is being played in Iran, as is almost always the case in international politics, is “high stakes poker” as defined by Mehbod Seraji in a Truthout article of September 29, 2009. As George Friedman puts it in an article dated October 1, entitled “The BMD decision and the Global System” : “Ultimately the question of Iran is secondary. The question of US-Russian relations is paramount”, at least to the Americans and Russians, not to mention the world at large. The obsession with Iran, induced largely by Israeli interests in US foreign policy, may eventually take second place in the priorities of the White House and the State Department, signalling a major shift in the American position towards the Jewish state.
The two factions struggling to have their respective ways in both the USA and Europe are also found within NATO, where they have been called the “Europe Firsters” (who want to reduce the Alliance to a security pact mainly dedicated to protecting the continent from external threats) and the “globalists” (who would like to carry on the dream of using it as a world policeman to expand Western hegemony).
The courses advocated by those opposite groups would lead to very different outcomes. The former may bring about a form of effective international governance by facilitating coordination between the USA, the European Union, Russia, China and emerging power centres such as India and Brazil-centric Latin America. The conservatives would like to pursue the imperial outreach project that remained almost a constant of Anglo-Saxon powers since Britain achieved far-flung preponderance in the eighteenth century.
As Parag Khanna described it at the 2009 TED conference in London, the reformers effectively want to build “silk roads,” while the imperialists wish to play the Great Game. While the first course seems vastly more appealing to all peace loving people, it is difficult to ignore the fact that, as Khanna has convincingly shown, Beijing has created and is expanding day by day a Chinese co-prosperity sphere in East and Central Asia with which it will be increasingly difficult for any other power to compete in economic terms. He noted that modern nations are not effectively conquered by force, they are bought. China effectively leased out eastern Siberia from Russia and is rapidly drowning out the scant Slavic and indigenous population of that sprawling area under a torrent of Han immigrants.
By making most countries from Australia to North Korea, and from Japan to Kazakhstan increasingly dependent, the PRC has formed a commercial empire of unsurpassed size endowed with immense resources. Against that new Athens of trade, wielding soft power with growing skill, the over-armed but insolvent and internally conflicted USA looks a bit like the Sparta of the Peloponnesian wars: a militaristic, declining oligarchic state, constantly harking back to the halcyon days of its supremacy, while becoming steadily poorer and less socially stable.
If indeed the USA follows the trumpet calls of its hawks and heeds Israeli persuasion to wage a “decisive” battle in Iran, then its decline will become precipitous, while most other states in the world will keep distance with the crumbling giant in their search for new economic and strategic agreements. Russia and China will be among the greatest beneficiaries of that suicidal move, provided anyone benefits in the end.
Alternatively, Washington rebuffs the war-mongering party and gradually abandons its colonial military ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq in order to form a new global governance compact with other great powers. The USA will still lose its predominance as the ‘sole superpower,’ but it can at least hope to remain a member of the elite group of leading nations, especially if it knows how to exploit the inevitable divergences between Russia and China, in view of the fact that Russia seriously fears losing its oriental provinces and its Central Asian sphere of influence to its Eastern neighbour. The Kremlin is therefore understandably keen to join as an equal the potential partnership between the worlds’ leading powers.
Will the USA and the other great nations follow Montesquieu’s wise advice to “ride the waves of events,” or will the American ruling elite dig in its heels and try to resist them? Historical precedents are not encouraging, but hope should never be forsaken.
The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal