By Nadav Eyal
One morning in 2004, the Iranians discovered America on their border. They loved getting rid of Saddam, and were scared to death of the Empire reaching their boundary. Much to the joy of Tehran, after the Americans were done eliminating their biggest enemies, from the east and west, they are now announcing their exodus... At this time, the Russians are giving a sense (to tell the truth, an illusion) of power to the Middle East, and mainly – imparting an impression of American weakness. This impression, more than reality itself, is very dangerous.
Translated by Viktoria Lymar
Edited by Steven Stenzler
31 May 2013
Barack Obama chooses a Western man's classic choice: to not decide – and by doing so, he is going to cause his country to pay no less a heavy price than the one his predecessor Bush did.
In The March of Folly, the great Barbara Tuchman speaks of the U.S. policy in Vietnam – a clear-cut example, by her theory, of collective conscious dementia. Among other things, she’s dealing with the attempt of the United States to reach an agreement with the Soviets and North Vietnamese after Washington had already declared its intention to withdraw. A component in the great folly, Tuchman explains, is the attempt to negotiate during retreat; to strike an agreement when the other side already knows very well that you're obligated to exit the war, and therefore, the victory is in its pocket.
In a certain sense, this is America’s situation in the Middle East in 2013. The American empire has suffered in the last decade from an autoimmune disease of empires: over-expansion in order to address the security issues, which further leads to soaring military maintenance expenses, followed by the need to shrink, to shorten lines, to withdraw to defensible borders – and most importantly, to reduce spending to avoid internal collapse.
The disastrous policies of George Bush Jr. cost America blood and fortune. His declaration of ongoing, eternal and universal war, such one that doesn’t have and will never have an end, inflated the U.S. defense budget. It became monstrous. It grew by more than a hundred percent after 2001, and has remained inflated and ever-growing almost ten years later.
The empire had to defend its borders, to move the battle to the enemy territory in Iraq and Afghanistan, so it pulled out the wallet to fund a major military campaign. As Rome was pulling the bags of gold to finance its legions and their security (or revenge) forays far beyond the distant [Roman] province. It’s just that the American wallet, like the Roman one in certain stages, was empty. So the U.S. typed money and mostly borrowed it and paid approximately, give or take, a billion dollars a day.
I know there are those who will look at the last figure and think it’s exaggerated. So here is the data according to a recent study done at Harvard: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will cost the United States of America, in the end, after all, between four and six trillion dollars. These projects are, in other words, terminators of empires.
In face of this absolute profligacy, coupled with the economic crisis, Obama was compelled to make the only necessary step: to come back home. Forget the questionable justification for the Iraq war – Washington had to end the warfare, if only for financial reasons. Another option was a complete economic collapse, historical and irrecoverable.
So America started backing away. It departed from Iraq. It focused on energy production within its borders – both on renewable green energy, and chiefly on new means of production of oil and gas from the ground. Soon, the United States won’t need foreign energy sources, and will be able to again finance itself. This year, the defense budget will be cut, and then cut again. And again.
Blood in the Water
But only in parallel to this departure – which is not necessarily fatal, and certainly does not indicate the end of the era of American hegemony – the world keeps going on. Wars are breaking out. Dangerous forces are rising. The Middle East, which is still critical to the stability of the global economy (because of the oil reserves), is changing and undergoing fast and challenging processes.
The Iranians discovered one morning in 2004 America on their border. They loved the removal of Saddam, and were frightened to death of the Empire reaching their boundary. Much to the joy of Tehran, after the Americans finished eliminating their biggest enemies, from the east and the west, they are now announcing their exodus.
And what about the Americans? They, while continuing the retreat, are forced to extinguish fires. To prove that they are leaving, but basically, staying. To carry on maintaining a credible military threat against Iran, so that it would abandon its nuclear program – but to also vacate bases that may be used for such an attack.
The Obama administration has been engulfed into these huge misgivings. Its attempt to restore the "soft power" of the United States of America gained a tremendous success. America today is esteemed internationally and capable of creating powerful coalitions. Obama's problem is that the hard power of the United States has eroded. Everyone knows it's eroded. The blood is in the water, and the sharks smell it.
Here we're getting to Syria. For indeed, this is the time that Russia could pull its head from the deep burrow it dug for itself, and declare neo-imperialist intentions. The Russians speak old Soviet jargon. This week, they had no problem saying that the purpose of supplying the S-300 missiles to Assad is to calm down "some hotheads."1 They mean the Europeans and Americans, who might want to arm the rebels or impose a no-fly zone over Syria. They mean Netanyahu as well.
Living in Doubts
What is Washington doing? It’s stuttering. It’s thinking out loud. One minute it asks the Pentagon "to draw up a plan"2 for a no-fly zone (meaning, just so we’re clear, a war), and a minute later – disavows. For a year it’s been undecided regarding arming the rebels. The indecision is indeed tough. For supporting the Sunni insurgency could finally prove as espousing of the rise of al-Qaedist rule, worse than that of Assad. But faced with the difficult decisions to be taken, Obama makes the classic choice of a Western man: to not decide meanwhile.
The Obama administration is sitting on the porch, and condemns the Russians for the sale of the S-300 missiles, but says it will continue to "work with the Russians"3 to end the violence and bring about a "political settlement." What political settlement? Do the Americans really opine that Assad, who feels in the recent period like he has the upper hand, with eloquent and growing Russian support, intends to announce at the upcoming Geneva conference that he’ll give up his reign?
At first it seemed that the Russians only wanted to agree with the Americans on the boundaries, and what's to be in Syria after replacing Assad’s rule; that Moscow is just interested to make sure its interests are preserved; that maybe it would keep on being a sort of landlord in Syria. Putin was burned by his bad experience in Libya, where he consented to the West’s requests to implement a no-fly zone, and woke up in the morning to find out that the new government is in the small pocket of Europe and the United States.
He swore it wouldn't happen again (this is not an estimate, it's a quote said to a senior Israeli at the meeting with the Russian President). But as Russia's support became more apparent and expanded, the more total the fight in Syria has become. The Sunni forces, it is already obvious, won’t let the Russians touch anything in the country, if and when they take it over; this understanding has led to Russian escalation. Just like Assad, they have nothing to lose in Syria.
The belligerent policy has become bullying, superpower-ish one. Using all the elements of the Soviet language – from supplying weapons to making John Kerry wait three hours for a meeting with Putin, suppose. And again, what is America doing against this? It’s moving slowly, it’s vacillating a lot. It is living inside doubts.
America doesn’t need a law student, – a Washington Post columnist commented this week (in another context), it doesn’t need the agonizer in chief, but a commander [in chief] of the armed forces4 (in the United States, the President is the Supreme Commander of the Army, - N.E.). At this time, the Russians are giving a sense (for the sake of truth, an illusion) of power to the Middle East, and especially – imparting an impression of American weakness. This impression, more than the reality itself, is very dangerous.
America needs to act – so think its friends, from London through Paris to Jerusalem. Eventually, Washington will act. The question is whether it would not be too late, after the ultimate escalation is already here.
Original Hebrew article:
Photo credit: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace