Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Iraq War -- the "Snakes on a Plane" of Interventions

This is the first of my reports on the conference "Troop Withdrawal: Looking Beyond Iraq" sponsored by The Independent Institute and featuring Leon T. Hadar, Ivan Eland, and David R. Henderson. First off, Leon Hadar on finding a new paradigm for dealing with the Middle East.

Leon Hadar has given us one of the aptest metaphors of the year: The Iraq war is to foreign policy what "Snakes on the Plane" is to cinema – a really bad idea that "bombed"… so to speak.

Unfortunately for us, Hollywood is much better than the U.S. government at handling disasters. With a real stinker on their hands, execs first cut their loses – i.e. release it quickly on DVD. Then, they go back to the studio and change the script. Even if Hollywood is often too eager to repeat lucrative formulas – how many indistinguishable teen horror flicks and cuddly romances with Jennifer Aniston can mankind really endure? – few would deny that the studios are highly skillful at not repeating obvious mistakes – "Snakes on a Plane," "Waterworld," and "Ishtar" have thankfully remained sui generis.

Not so with the U.S. government. Uncle Sam seems bent on reviving and remaking the most unsuccessful scripts – or at least one that simply cannot work in the contemporary world. For Hadar, this script is the British imperial project of the last two and half centuries. As with that grand institution on which the sun never set, the production costs of "America’s empire" far exceed the box-office returns.

While The Brits and the French set their empire to an Händelian tune of a "civilizing mission," Pax Americana has a "Wilsonian" soundtrack. The melody sings out that America will "make the world safe for democracy," or perhaps even install democracy by force. Underneath, there are less forthright, harmonizing lines that promise that global democracy will equal American hegemony, or at least will be "good for America."

Hadar retorts that the post-9/11 Pax Americana has not made the world safe for democracy but safe for the revival and intensification of tribal, religious, and ethno-nationalist identities. Furthermore, America’s imperial interventions have created little "Pax" and mostly succeeded in inspiring terrorism and violent resentment.

(One could certainly quibble here that in his hard-nosed "realist" framework, Hadar loses sight of the power of ideology and underestimates radical Islam – particularly as it has been defined by writers like Robert Spencer – as something more than a mere reaction to America’s meddling in Arab lands.)

While it’s now a clichéd to call America an empire – usually accompanied with much head-shaking and finger-waging – Hadar takes this comparison very seriously and integrates it into that most Hadarian of concepts, the "global paradigm."

Since 1945, the U.S. incrementally replaced Britain and France as the main imperial power – just as the U.S. subsidized and then succeeded France in South East Asia, it moved into the former Ottoman territory that had been carved up by the British.

For Hadar, whatever rationale Pax Americana had during the Cold War, it has little today, and will continue to unravel as the world transitions from a bipolar to a multi-polar global paradigm – the unipolar world dreamed up by Charles Krauthammer is a mirage, or at most, a "moment" that has past.

Even if Pax Americana is costly and unsustainable, this does not stop the U.S. from pursuing what amounts to imperial projects. Of these, Hadar focused on the U.S.’s designs for controlling the oil in the Middle East by having a large military presence throughout the region. This is not done so much to line the pockets of the oil companies (although this motive should not be dismissed out of hand) but to control the source of energy for America’s future competitive rivals.

When many talk of "energy independence," they seem to assume that the U.S. is supinely reliant on a collection of shifty-eyed Saudi Princes and/or Ba’athist dictators for those SUVs to keep running. The fact is, the U.S., for intents and purposes, already has energy independence from the Middle East. Only 12 percent of the U.S. energy comes from the Middle East and of this, only three percent from Iraq and Kuwait. Contra Greenspan, "controlling the oil" in the Middle East is entirely unnecessary.

It’s a different story for the established European powers, Japan – and, most importantly, the rising powers of China and India. From Hadar’s Realpolitik perspective, he speculates that the U.S. seeks to control the rising powers’ source of oil – being that China’s energy needs are mushrooming, the very prospect of perfidious Uncle Sam doing such a thing will not exactly please Bejing.

Putting aside any moral questions of occupying the Middle East to get at China, Hadar argues that the U.S. drive for oil hegemony is misguided. Given that the various dynamics and conflicts in the Middle East will make the region highly unstable for the foreseeable future, America’s empire amounts to the U.S. military being forced to deal with problems that have little to do with America’s national interest. Given that China, India, Europe, and Japan all have much more at stake in the region, America’s empire amounts to Washington’s sending American soldiers to die for causes that have much more to do with the energy needs of foreign powers than American security.

After the conference, Hadar mentioned to me that he thought that France’s Sarkozy and Kouchner are eager to talk of "confronting Iran" not because they’re closet neocons – as yours truly has speculated – but because they want to keep Uncle Sam’s eyes on Iran, to keep the notion that Iran is a threat to the world swirling within Americans’ heads, so that Wahsington – and not Paris – will be the one to do something if a problem arises. France can thus continue to outsource its foreign policy – and spend the dividend on guaranteed six-week vacations and public laser-light shows. I personally think Hadar goes too far here, but this speculation is helpful in crystallizing his fundamental point.

How can Washington change course? Firstly, it must form concrete political objectives. Hadar’s focus in this regard was the prospect of opening up talks with Syria, in building a "diplomatic road to Damascus." If Washington can cease worrying about the fact that Syria is not exactly democratic and drop the whole "Islamofascism" nonsense, Washington can wake up to the fact Syria desires a stable, viable Lebanon – which was the very reason for its thirty-year occupation of the country – that it could work as a Sunni counterweight to Iran, and that it would be willing to help stabilize Iraq.

Interestingly, Hadar does not see the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group as offering much of a real alternative – even if he agrees with many of its recommendations. For Hadar, ISG amounts to a fantasy of returning to the cost-free Pax Americana of the 90s: "if we just leave Iraq, then everyone will love us again and we can rule the region." But those Dances with Wolves-The English Patient days are over, and it would be impossible to film a sequel whether we exit Iraq now or not. The global paradigm has changed, and this means that we need to work hard at writing a new script.

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