21st Century Wire
How quickly the Middle East agenda changed, almost overnight.
Two years of preparing the western public with endless talk of chemical weapons and regime change in Syria suddenly came to an end. Now it’s all about peace accords with Iran. A true transformation in geopolitical terms – for now.
Where does this leave old US friends and allies – and the future of the region for that matter?
US OBSESSION WITH THE MIDDLE EAST
In a December 6th think-piece for The Washington Post, Andrew J. Bracevich argues that the drift of history and the progression of things signal that now is the time for “ringing down the curtain on (the USA’s) 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations”.
In dramatic fashion Bracevich claims, as most mainstream scribes would, that this job befell to US President Barrack Obama, and its high time the curtain falls. If the US and European military obsession does curtail in the Middle East, then naturally this will bring “a sense of loss”. Bacevich notes that the politics of war in former ages – he quotes Wellington – deals a melancholy sort to the victors of great wars, comparable with what the vanquished resent. They often plot and scheme to make revenge war when they can – not necessarily on their previous enemies. In other words, on a collateral country – who become victims of a previous defeat.
Despite what publishing house PR’s and media dinosaurs can’t resist proclaiming every four years, history is much bigger than any one President. For a least 150 years, both the Middle East and North Africa have been riddled with colonial-corporate conquests and endless ‘tit-for-tat’ revenge wars, more often exploiting running ethnic, religious, and community tensions – than economic and national interests in the modern sense. Only after the 1917 collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire did the region add another conflict-layer to the war cake, with hastily cobbled-together “new nations” glued inside unsure borders and defined by already-departed and squabbling powers – including the US. What exactly the US wanted in a region (aside from securing its oily dollar strongholds) “from Egypt to Pakistan” at the start of its 30-year-long neo-pacification attempt, which Bacevich dates from the last 2 years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, is bathed in confusion. Saying the US wanted “conformity with American national security interests expectations”, is at best a tautology. More like a smokescreen for illusion, a political wayang shadow play jerkily projected at the back of the cave. All kinds of theories and theses have been, and will be published on this conundrum. One part of it is however all too simple – the alpha dog urge to war.
Bracevich cites the gung-ho slogan of Washington neoconservatives in the period we can precisely date at 1991-2003. They said anybody can go to Baghdad, or at least hit it with cruise missiles, but “real men” hanker to go to Tehran. What exactly they would do there, except possibly re-install a Shah, or a Shah-surrogate, has never been explained in detail. To be sure oil would provide a big black smokescreen, but as Bracevich says times have really changed for the USA’s previous Petro Quest, obsession, or excuse.
NO LONGER DEFER TO SAUDI PETRO POWER
As Bracevich puts it: Americans are taking time to to digest the news and adjust their minds but the US no longer has to kowtow to the Saudis. Due to the shale gas and shale oil revolutions, the US is approaching oil-and-gas independence, already sealed for gas. The previous US-Saudi doctrine, that for both evident and hidden reasons was always secret, could be called “Pump and Protect”. Even if the US was always far less dependent on Middle Eastern oil imports than most of its European allies, and its Asian allies including Japan and Korea, Saudi’s royal hands on the oil spigot had to be protected and coddled.
Next we have the Israeli conundrum. A tiny country of which its Jewish population is about a third of New York City, and without oil or anything else of special resource economic interest, within its present borders anyway. Israel has its own internal peace issues regarding what they should do with all the Palestinian natives who happened to be in the area before European Jews arrived in droves in the late 1940’s, to carve out a new state. Israel is easily the strongest power in the Middle Eastern schoolyard – measured only by its ‘undeclared’ nuclear clout – and the Jewish state has a rabid fixation on national security. For Bracevich, this is no surprise, and he says, “It has every right to do so”. But as he also says there is no logical follow-on as to why Washington DC has to underwrite, bankroll, arm and turn a blind eye to Israeli political action that runs counter to U.S. interests. One he identifies is the intentionally provocative colonization of the occupied territories. Israel has been throwing tantrum-fits over the new US-Iranian nuclear détente, but there’s not really much they can do if the US decides to pull the Iranians out from the international community’s diplomatic basement. Israel and Iran are not neighbors – in any sense of the term – and in the same way Israel disregards U.S. objections to its growing settlements in the West Bank, the United States can or should refuse to allow Israeli objections to determine its Iran policy.
In their heyday, Washington’s gung-ho neoconservatives trumpeted that – being real men with the right stuff – they not only could, but should “go to Tehran”. What happened in Baghdad, Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and a string of other regional Arab cities wracked by political street revolutions – and not just your standard rebellion seething with anti-Americanism – only slightly blunted their rhetoric, but the film did not stop there. Baghdad was a complete bust long before Arab Spring. When the strongman fell, the country fell apart, the Kurds separated, rump Iraq descended into a Sunni vs. Shia civil war fought with car bombs and pedestrian kamikazes, and few or no persons thanked the USA for the chaos they created. By the force of events, Obama’s goal posts were already moved for him. Everyone knew by now that in Tehran, there was a way out of perpetual war and the fateful results of that war which are guaranteed melancholy.
Avoiding great power angst and melancholy, coupled with the huge size and strength of Iran compared to easily whipped smaller regional players, made it urgent for Obama to grasp almost any deal. After his complete failure to green light a war with Syria, Obama’s legacy was in danger. As Bracevich says, the choice for Obama was stark and clear. Accept the Islamic republic, and the Iranians will stay at home and accept the regional status quo. They will pump more oil, sell it in dollars, and be grateful to do it. It’s win-win deal: Iran gets survival – and the US avoids more self-inflicted wounds and can set about repairing the large ones it already has. Obama’s quest for second-mandate grandeur could also receive a caress instead of another slap in the face. Bracevich compares Obama’s Iran policy with the bargain that Nixon offered Mao Zedong. Keep your revolution at home, and we will make peace with you. In that light, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were only the medium for achieving this larger end.
A PARADIGM SHIFT IN US DOMINANCE
Another simple historical translation of what befell to Obama (whether he wanted it or not), is that time ran out for the post-World War 1 (let alone post WW II and post-Soviet) version of the Middle East and the Arab world. The US had played a leading role in this shadow play, sometimes at the front of the scene, sometimes backstage. In the limelight, taking the rising catcalls as well as the declining accolades. Its European allies admitted reality long before the US, and bowed out of the region decades ago – their atavistic colonial urge is now limited to action like France’s low-budget wars, and patriotic exercises in tiny-population Mali and similarly underpopulated Central African Republic.
The overused term for the Middle East – as a “tinderbox” – ignores the fact that the real “tinder” these days… is nuclear. Whether it’s dirty bombs, or clean ones, the potential for lightning fast escalation from frontier skirmishes and raiding, from proxy war jousting with kamikaze terrorists or other operatives – all the way to nuclear-type war now exists, and even the teflon Obama would be unable to escape it.
It was time to bow out and stop throwing oil at a smoldering fire. The Iran nuclear sideshow, and its shadow theater negotiations were a handy way to declare the perpetual US colonial war over and finished. A new threater is opening up in Africa, where the US is busy locking horns with Chinese interests. Aside from managing the grand chessboard, the US also has to worry about what to do when the US dollar is no longer the world’s reserve currency – and that day may be approaching sooner than some think.
Westerners – along with the Saudis and Israelis – are obliged to see that the turning point in a 30-year series of mostly small, quick and dirty wars with no clear winners as the US resets itself in “pacification policy” mode for the region, has now arrived. Luckily for Obama, the 30-year backlog of animosity and desire for revenge that has been stacked high in the region – won’t stick to his teflon suit.
As I note in another recent piece “The Magic Security Trip”, the US War on Terror was a logical part of the illogical and illusory attempt to “pacify” the Middle East. This war – the exact and total opposite of a great war – has to be declared over and wound down, at least as fast as the Iran standoff, but saying so will be very difficult, considering all the terrorists the US has created, as well as a new generations of double agents embedded throughout the region.
READ MORE MIDDLE EAST ANALYSIS AT: 21st Century Wire Middle East Files