Barack’s foreign policy: change or continuity?

Two very learned men have recently written treatises analysing the Barack administration’s foreign policy. Tariq Ali is a socialist, a historian and an editor of the New Left Review. Zbigniew Brzezinski is a realist, a professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University and former National Security Advisor to Jimmy Carter. Though these men are not actually debating each other, I have chosen to put them in a post and let them duke it out. The question before them is, does Barack Obama’s foreign policy represent a break with that of his predecessors, or a continuation of it?

Tariq has no doubt: Barack has not broken the trajectory of US imperium. The end of the disastrous Bush administration being over, we all believed change was in the air. “Rarely has self-interested mythology—or well-meaning gullibility—been more quickly exposed.” The Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan (“AfPak”), is still “the central battlefield for the imposition of American power around the world.

Zbigniew, however, is less dismissive. Though he has not scored many major successes yet, Zbigniew notes, Barack has reordered American foreign policy with respect to all of its most important features, presenting “a strategically and historically coherent worldview.” But what, in effect, has changed? Let us delve deeper.

Whither the peace process?

Both men recognise Israel as central to American foreign policy. Tariq points out that Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli massacre in the Gaza Strip, carefully timed to fall between Barack’s election and his inauguration, elicited not a word from the new president about the plight of the Palestinians. In fact, he expressed sympathy for the Israelis, who vocally championed their war against “Hamas”. Barack picked the “ultra-Zionist” (Tariq’s words) Rahm Emanuel as his chief of staff. Like every US president, Barack has called for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, an end to settlement building and the renunciation of terrorism. But settlement building, which necessarily includes demolishing Arab houses in the Occupied Territories, is continuing, Palestinians are getting angrier, and peace seems as remote as ever. With no change in the “special relationship” between the US and Israel, we can expect more of the same.

Zbigniew reminds us that the reordering of Barack’s foreign policy includes the essential ideas that Islam is not the enemy and the War on Terror is not the focal point of American foreign policy anymore; and that the US will be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In fact, it has to be if the fighting is ever to end. Jews and Arabs will never achieve peace on their own. “[T]he Palestinians are too divided and too weak to make the critical decisions necessary to push the peace process forward, and the Israelis are too divided and too strong to do the same.” But Zbigniew agrees with Tariq that the push for peace, the necessary stimulus only the US government can provide, has not been forthcoming. He outlines the international consensus on the necessary conditions for Israeli-Palestinian peace: no right of return for Palestinian refugees; a shared Jerusalem; a two-state solution along the 1948 partition lines but that incorporate some of the larger West Bank settlements; and American or NATO troops stationed along the Jordan River to keep the peace. Barack has publicly urged these ideas, “[b]ut so far, the Obama team has shown neither the tactical skill nor the strategic firmness needed to move the peace process forward.

Questions on Iran

The structures of both articles are similar: both begin with Israel-Palestine, close with Afghanistan and Pakistan, and right in the centre is Iran. Zbigniew calls Barack’s declared intentions to pursue negotiations with Iran over its nuclear programme a step in the right direction. “[H]e has basically downgraded the U.S. military option, although it is still fashionable to say that ‘all options remain on the table.’” But two questions are central to this issue. First, are the Iranians willing to negotiate? They are not about to give up uranium, but they may be persuaded not to produce the bomb. Second, are the Americans? “It would not be conducive to serious negotiations if the United States were to persist in publicly labeling Iran as a terrorist state, as a state that is not to be trusted, as a state against which sanctions or even a military option should be prepared. Doing that would simply play into the hands of the most hard-line elements in Iran. It would facilitate their appeal to Iranian nationalism, and it would narrow the cleavage that has recently emerged in Iran between those who desire a more liberal regime and those who seek to perpetuate a fanatical dictatorship.” Barack will not get what he wants with Iran by holding out one hand to shake and the other to punch.

Zbigniew expresses skepticism with sanctions, but admits they may become necessary. As a statesman, he points out that the US government should think strategically about their long term relations with Iran. Do they want Iran to become an ally once again? Or are they intent on treating it with hostility and potentially further destabilising an already unstable region? Despite all these questions, Zbigniew maintains that Barack has, so far, shown leadership on Iran.

Tariq writes from the premise that, regarding Iran policy in Washington, Israel is calling the shots. Because Iran continually (verbally) threatens Israel, and because the Israel Lobby ensures that a challenge to the Israeli monopoly on WMDs in the Middle East is intolerable, Barack has few friendly words for Persia. Barack initially considered “a forgive-and-forget dialogue with Tehran“. But when the protests began in Iran, “the opportunity for ideological posturing was too great to resist.” Barack sanctimoniously lamented the death of a protester in Tehran on the same day an American drone killed 80 civilians in Pakistan. Like George Bush, Barack is using his political capital to impose more sanctions and opprobrium on Iran. The air strikes, looming menacingly, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out, says Tariq, “if only because once the West at large—in this case not only Obama, but Sarkozy, Brown and Merkel—has pronounced any Iranian nuclear capability intolerable, little rhetorical room for retreat is left if this should materialize.” Along with Israel’s apologists, the Saudis want to cut off Iran’s influence in the Middle East and isolate it. Kowtowing to Israel and Saudi Arabia is not new and is a clear indication that Barack has not broken with the past.

Escalation in Central Asia

Afghanistan and Pakistan are the last, but not least important, of Barack’s priorities that our unwitting debaters touch on. Tariq has always been a critic of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, and sees Barack’s policies in the region as “widening the front of imperial aggression with a major escalation of violence, both technological and territorial.” In an article in 2008, Tariq takes apart the canard that Afghanistan is a “just war”, and he castigates Barack for keeping his promise to send more troops and firepower to crush the native resistance. He also takes the president to task for making no changes to the corrupt and undemocratic regime of Hamid Karzai. But the proof is in the pudding, right? Afghani guerrillas are not relenting and still control most of the country; drone attacks are up and killing more innocents; drug production is up, so global crime syndicates have an interest in continued instability in the region. In his scathing review, Tariq likens the AfPak war to Vietnam.

Zbigniew begins his section on Central Asia with “the United States must be very careful lest its engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which still has primarily and most visibly a military dimension, comes to be viewed by the Afghans and the Pakistanis as yet another case of Western colonialism and elicits from them an increasingly militant response.” (I wonder if they do not already feel this way.) He does not advocate withdrawal from Afghanistan but neither recommends attempting to obliterate the resistance. The Northern Alliance and the Afghani government should be reaching out to the Taliban with concessions, attracting the ones it can and then defeating the remainder. The reality in the region “demands a strategy that is more political than military.” Barack should also strengthen the transatlantic alliance on Afghanistan and draw China in as a partner with a stake in regional stability.

Conclusions

Despite their different ideological points of view, Tariq Ali and Zbigniew Brzezinski are in agreement about one thing: Barack has not brought any big changes to the world through his foreign policy. Tariq’s thesis is that Barack has not broken with his predecessor. His rather cynical tone indicates that only the rhetoric has changed, and even the rhetoric continues to portray the typical manichean impulses of US governments: America bears a “special burden” in carrying the world; “Our cause is just, our resolve unwavering“; “The Palestinians must renounce violence“, and “the Iraqi people are ultimately better off” for American occupation. In other words, lower your expectations. The emperor has only changed his clothes.

Zbigniew propounds that, while he has restructured American foreign policy, which may lead to long term gains down the line, Barack has yet to make the changes everyone anticipates. His job will be to manage the complicated web of relationships, (if possible) break away from the domestic lobbies that his foreign policy is beholden to, and pursue the audacious vision he has set out in speeches. “[H]e has not yet made the transition from inspiring orator to compelling statesman. Advocating that something happen is not the same as making it happen.

My opinion is that the long term vision of a democratic and prosperous world that the US government has always claimed to pursue is so ethereal, and is causing such short term damage, that it is not worth the pain. Tariq’s article is a reminder that we must always consider our vision in light of the costs of our policies, and not simply the other way round. In this way, I agree with him. However, Tariq is not a statesman, and he does not consider the strategic side of the foreign policy equation. Zbigniew reminds Barack that he needs to effectively cultivate the strategic relationships with China, Russia and the like if he wants the US to remain the undisputed hegemon. He believes that American power can be a force for good in the world, and while I agree that it could be, it is often far more destructive than constructive. In the end, I believe that, if Barack wants to help the world, he should play to his strength, bringing people closer together, and leave the troops at home.

Ali, Tariq. “President of Cant.” New Left Review 61. January-February 2010. http://www.newleftreview.org/?page=article&view=2821

Brzezinski, Zbigniew. “From hope to audacity: appraising Obama’s foreign policy.” Foreign Affairs 89.1 (2010): 16. CPI.Q (Canadian Periodicals). Web. 25 Feb. 2010. http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65720/zbigniew-brzezinski/from-hope-to-audacity

The demonisation of Iran

On Thursday, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a public address that he believed Iran was pursuing a nuclear weapon. Iran’s possessing the bomb would be “potentially a very, very destabilizing outcome. On the other hand,” he said, “when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilizing outcome…. I think it so important is that we continue internationally, diplomatically, politically — not just we, the United States, but the international community — continue to focus on this to prevent those two outcomes.”

Some people might say that the obvious course is to strike now while the iron is hot. They are wrong. The US should not be pushing for regime change in Iran, which at any rate is unlikely at this time. The answer is to engage with Iran and, over time, make it an ally.

The Islamic Republic has not always been anti-American. Those with good memories will remember that, before Ahmadinejad, Iran had two moderate, “reformist” presidents in power: Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Seyed Mohammad Khatami. They urged cooperation with the West, reconciliation with the US and domestic freedoms. Rafsanjani spoke last July in support of the pro-democracy activists, and Khatami won the 2009 Global Dialogue Prize, and officially repudiated the fatwa on Salman Rushdie.

During the 1990s, Iran’s governments were interested in improving relations with the US, but the Clinton administration pushed Iran away. Iran offered the American oil firm Conoco a contract, chosen over other foreign oil companies in order to improve ties with the US, and the Clinton administration imposed sanctions on Iran in 1995.

Oil producers do not control the US government in the way most people imagine. War and sanctions are not in many oilmen’s interest. Sanctions prevent the development of oil fields by American companies and award them to rival companies from rival countries that do not participate in the sanctions regime. While security and stability are necessary to pump and transport oil, war produces instability. Whenever the US imposes sanctions on countries such as Iran, Iraq and Libya, or goes to war with countries like Iraq, it does so counter to US oil interests, not in line with them. As could have been expected, Conoco’s parent company, DuPont, lobbied against hurting its business.

But the sanctions came along anyway. In fact, the sanctions on Iran came at the behest of the Israel Lobby, the collection of hardline, right wing, Zionist pressure groups in the US whose actions have led to numerous strategic blunders for the US, including the subject at hand. In 1994, the US’s second most powerful lobby group, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), circulated a paper called “Comprehensive US sanctions against Iran: a plan for action”. It sought to close all of the loopholes American companies squeezed through to do business with Iran. Bill Clinton, under pressure from the Israel Lobby, scuttled the Conoco deal, and banned all American oil companies from helping Iran develop its oil fields.

In Autumn 2001, Iran helped facilitate the toppling of the Taliban regime and its replacement with the friendly government of Hamid Karzai. Iranians even held candlelight vigils to commemorate those who died on 9/11. President Khatami took these moves to mean relations with the US would improve. Instead, in 2002, George Bush placed Iran in the Axis of Evil, indicating he was keen on regime change there as well.

In 2003, after the US invaded Iraq, Bush publicly pressured Syria and Iran. Neocons and the Israel Lobby, apparently under the delusion that they could rearrange the entire Middle East, began pushing for a zero tolerance policy against Iran. Neocons accused Tehran of harbouring al-Qaeda operatives, though the CIA and the State Department thought it unlikely. Norman Podhoretz, part of the Israel Lobby, wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal in 2007 entitled “The Case for Bombing Iran: I hope and pray that President Bush will do it.” John Hagee of Christians United for Israel told AIPAC “it is 1938; Iran is Germany and Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler.”Retired general Wesley Clark, when asked why he was worried the US would go to war with Iran, said “[y]ou just have to read what’s in the Israeli press. The Jewish community is divided but there is so much pressure being channeled from the New York money people to the office seekers.” He was, predictably, lambasted as an anti-Semite. But as Matthew Yglesias wrote at the time, “everyone knows [what Clark said was] true.”

George Bush said his administration was willing to go to war with Iran to protect Israel. (The Israel Lobby’s leaders were quick to distance themselves from Bush’s statements, as they did not want to seem like the cause of the US’s unilateral belligerence.) All the 2008 presidential candidates echoed Bush’s remarks. While campaigning, Barack Obama said

“There is no greater threat to Israel, or to the peace and stability of the region, than Iran…. Let there be no doubt: I will always keep the threat of military action on the table to defend our security and our ally Israel…. I will do everything in my power to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon… everything.”

Now, perhaps having seen the folly of this position, or perhaps because he had been speaking to AIPAC when he said it, Barack has since softened his position and extended a hand to Iran.

I believe it is unlikely that the Iranian government will be easily induced to give up its development of nuclear weapons (assuming, which we should, it is indeed attempting to produce them). Nukes are good for regimes who face an existential threat. It is understandable to prepare for war with a country like the US, which has started two wars with Iran’s immediate neighbours, and Israel, which publishes daily headlines that scream of the colossal threat posed by Tehran’s nuclear bomb and the necessity of preventing them from acquiring one. President Barack wants to eliminate them but doing so would require extremely costly incentives (eg. lots of money and security guarantees for countries like North Korea) or disincentives (eg. war). And if possessing the bomb is the best way to win a prize, what is to stop everyone from having them?

Therefore, relevant questions include the following: Will Iran use nuclear weapons against Israel or the US? I doubt it. If an Iranian missile landed on the US or Israel, those two countries together would walk all over Iran. Let them have a nuclear weapon. They will not use it.

Will it give them to terrorists who will use them on everyone? This is an unrealistic prospect. First, Iran wants to keep its foes on their toes, but does not want to destroy the world. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric is just posturing. Men love to strut and posture and look tough. Men build big guns and missiles and hold military parades to feel good about themselves. Some men will always talk tough, even if, behind the scenes, they are actually hoping they will not have to carry through.

Second, most terrorists have no ability to detonate a nuclear weapon. As John Mueller explains, a nuclear bomb is not a toy. It is very hard to assemble and use, and will not simply blow up the world if tapped with a hammer. Moreover, if Iran supplied terrorists with weapons, intelligence agencies would find out and governments would fiercely punish Iran.

It is time for the US to engage with Iran. Doing so would lead Iran’s government to assist in stabilising Afghanistan and Iraq, two unstable zones that could produce anti-Western terrorism and contribute to radicalising the Middle East and Central Asia. Indian foreign secretary Shiv Shankar Menon said in 2008, “Frankly, from our point of view, the more engagement there is, the more Iran becomes a factor of stability in the region, the better is is for us all.” The fact is, we need all the help we can get, and we do not need another intractable conflict. The State Department, the CIA and the US military all favour direct discussion with Iran’s leaders, as does a majority of Americans. In 2006, the Iraq Study Group urged talks with Iran and Syria, which was initially rejected by the Bush administration who thought it was doing just fine in Iraq without them.

So they continued to refer to Iran as the most dangerous country in the world. Gallup polls indicate that the percentage of Americans who believe Iran is their greatest enemy has increased every year since 2001. The reason might be that rhetoric on Iran has gone up concurrently. US and Israeli warmongerers want us to believe it to buoy support for military action. They believe that, by eliminating all enemies, they can be secure. But when we attempt to destroy all enemies, we imperil our own security most, because everyone will mistrust us, and most will defend themselves.

Talk of war tends to push the potential victims of that war into the hands of tough-talking governments. To both decry Ahmadinejad’s election and threaten Iran is to defeat one’s purpose. There are wiser solutions.

Another Gallup poll of Americans taken in 2007 showed a clear majority in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts to induce Iran to give up its nuclear program. The survey then asked those who were in favour of economic and diplomatic efforts, if such efforts failed, would you support a military strike? 55% said no. Even despite the rhetoric, even though most of them believe Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear weapon, Americans are largely not in favour of further military action against the US’s latest “enemy”.

They have probably not yet forgotten how we were all duped into supporting the war against Saddam. All the same transparent words are being used: evil, irrational, radical, WMDs and so on. Yet, aside from interfering with American wars on its borders, a rational act given that tying down the US in Iraq and Afghanistan makes it less able to attack Iran, Iran has never attacked the US or Israel. Why would it do so now?

Are we afraid because Iran’s government is a pack of religious fanatics with an apocalyptic worldview that puts them on a collision course with civilisation? People who take this view tend also to see everyone an American newspaper might call “jihadists” in the same light: ready to kill themselves and everyone else to bring on the end of the world. The differences among these groups are significant and often ignored. Iran’s Islamic revolution was a nationalist one, and though it supports other Shia groups in the Middle East against Western interests, this has been largely in reaction to isolation and demonisation by America and Israel, not to spread holy war. It does not support groups like al-Qaeda, though I am sure that if they get desperate, the Israel Lobby and Neocons will fabricate evidence that they do.

Being religious does not mean being stupid. Everyone responds to carrots and sticks. Iran’s leaders have shown they can be reasonable and even friendly to foreign interests, including those of the Great Satan, and may be again. Besides, if religious fanatics could not be negotiated with, no one would ever have approached the Bush White House.

Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett recommend Barack give up his “half-hearted” approach to diplomacy with Iran and look to Richard Nixon’s example. Nixon flew to China during the Cultural Revolution and the Vietnam War. Since then, the US has been committed to engagement with the Chinese government. Barack could be the president that flies to Tehran.

Power no longer comes from wars of words or wars of bullets. It comes from close, lasting relationships with other people and governments. The benefits to engaging Iran are a new ally, a more stable Middle East and Central Asia, and a more trustworthy nuclear partner. The benefits to castigating Iran serve only the warmongering elite. It is time to reconcile American and Iranian interests and end the demonisation of the US’s chosen enemy.