The United States Heading for a Crash

President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.

The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.

A lot of attention is focused on what Obama has and hasn’t done. Even his closest defenders seem to doubt him. An Australian commentator, writing in the Financial Times, summed it up in one sentence: “In 2014 the world has grown suddenly weary of Barack Obama.” I wonder if Obama has not grown weary of Obama. But it’s a mistake to pin the blame just on him. Virtually no one among U.S. leaders has been making alternative proposals that are more sensible. Quite the contrary. There are the warmongers who want him to bomb everybody and right away. There are the politicians who really think it will make a lot of difference who will win the next elections in the United States.

A rare voice of sanity came in an interview in the New York Times with Daniel Benjamin, who had been the U.S. State Department’s top antiterrorism advisor during Obama’s first term. He called the so-called ISIS threat a “farce” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.” He says that what they have been saying is without any “corroborated evidence” and just demonstrates how easy it is for officials and the media to “spin the public into a panic.” But who is listening to Mr. Benjamin?

At the moment, and with the help of gruesome photos showing the beheading of two American journalists by the caliphate, the polls show enormous support in the United States for military action. But how long will this last? The support is there as long as it seems there are concrete results. Even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in advocating military action says it will take at least three years. Multiply three by five and one might come nearer to how long this will go on. And the U.S. public is sure to become quickly disenchanted.

For the moment, what Obama is proposing is some bombing in  Syria, no U.S. troops “on the ground” but increased special troops (up to about 2000 now) as trainers in Iraq (and probably elsewhere). When Obama was running for president in 2008, he made many promises, as is normal for a politician. But his signature promise was to get out of Iraq, and of Afghanistan. He is not going to keep it. Indeed, he is getting the United States into more countries.

Obama’s coalition is going to offer “training” to those they define as “good guys.” And it seems this training is to take place in Saudi Arabia. Good for Saudi Arabia. They can vet all the trainees, and judge which they can trust and which they can’t. This may make it possible for the Saudi regime (at least as confused as the U.S. regime) to appear to be doing something, and help them survive a little longer.

There are ways of tamping down this catastrophic scenario. They involve however a decision to shift from warfare to political deals between all sorts of groups who don’t like each other and don’t trust each other. Such political deals are not unknown, but they are very difficult to arrange, and fragile when first made, until they solidify. One major element in such deals coming to fruition in the Middle East is less involvement of the United States, not more. Nobody trusts the United States, even when they momentarily call for U.S. assistance in doing this or that. The New York Times notes that, at the meeting Obama convened to pursue his new coalition, support from the Middle East countries present was “tepid” and “reluctant” because there is “increased mistrust of the United States on all sides.” So even if they go along in some limited fashion, nobody is going to show gratitude for any U.S. assistance. The bottom line is that the people of the Middle East want to run their own show, not fulfill a U.S. vision of what’s said to be good for them.


Merkel and Putin: Ukrainian Diplomacy

Commentary No. 384, September 1, 2014

There is an immense amount of diplomacy going on these days concerning the quasi-civil war in Ukraine. But the only actors who really matter are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. They are also the only two actors who are really trying to tamp down the conflict and come to some political settlement.

They are both very powerful, both very clearly focused on the real issues, and both working very hard at this difficult task. They are powerful, but not all-powerful. Each has to deal with other actors in Germany, Russia, Ukraine, and elsewhere who do not want a political settlement but rather are seeking to intensify and expand the conflict, and are therefore trying to sabotage any negotiations between Merkel and Putin.

The first thing to note is that each of them has a bottom line. Chancellor Merkel wants guarantees that the territorial integrity of Ukraine will be fully and permanently honored (with the exception of Crimea). President Putin wants guarantees that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO.

When one analyzes the rhetoric of a public dispute, it is important to notice not only what is said but what is not said. Let us review the public statements of Merkel, Putin, and others in the last ten days of August 2014. On August 23, Chancellor Merkel made her first trip to Kiev to meet with Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and others. She noted that there were to be peace talks in Minsk between Poroshenko and Putin on August 26. This was positive, she said, but she reminded Poroshenko and the world that talks won’t produce “one big breakthrough.” In an interview with German television’s ARD, she observed: “But you have to talk with each other if you want to find solutions.” Then she added: “I’m firmly convinced there’s only a political conclusion, in which the European Union and Germany want to and should help.” Note the “only a political solution” phrase.

She gave a news conference with Poroshenko in which she underlined this further: “Our focus cannot lie with military conflict.” Then she added these words that Poroshenko hoped not to hear: “There has to be a bilateral cease-fire.” Poroshenko had been calling for a unilateral cease-fire, one solely by the breakaway forces in Donetsk and Luhansk. Poroshenko replied: “Unfortunately, there will always be a military threat to Ukraine.”

There were further word games. When, after considerable delay, Russian trucks successfully delivered its humanitarian aid package to Luhansk and then left, Poroshenko called it an “invasion.” Merkel joined U.S. President Obama in asserting that the Russian aid delivery was a violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, carefully avoiding the term “invasion.”

When Andriy Lysenko, a hawkish spokesperson for Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council accused the Russians of taking out military equipment to avoid exposure, Oleg Tsarev, speaker of the parliament of New Russia that unites the Donetsk and Luhansk republics, called Lysenko’s charges “stupid” since, he argued, had we wanted to do that, we control less visible sections of the border and wouldn’t do it in a “humanitarian aid convoy under the eyes of the world.”

Finally note this: When Putin replied to charges by Obama that Russia has sent troops into Ukraine and was fueling an escalation in the conflict, he replied by saying that Russians and Ukrainians “are practically one people.” The giveaway is the adverb “practically.” It allows Putin to come to a negotiated settlement, which its absence would have barred.

At this point, other voices began to be heard. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish outgoing Secretary-General of NATO, and a known hawk, said NATO would decide to deploy its forces in eastern Europe for the first time. Is it so sure that NATO will decide this? The western European members have been strongly opposed to this idea up to now, regarding it as a direct provocation of Russia. This reluctance particularly upsets the Baltic states and Poland. In an op-ed in the New York Times, Slawomir Sierakowski, a well-known Polish analyst, charged this policy with making eastern European states in NATO “second-class members” and is a “weak-kneed stance of older NATO members, in particular Germany.”

The military thrust of Ukraine’s government into the rebellious regions has faltered badly, exposing its weak military competence. While the further Russian moves in the area have been termed a major new offensive, it is likely that they will incur only some further sanctions. Not only the United States but Great Britain, France, and Germany have made it clear they are not contemplating sending troops to Ukraine for any foreseeable reason. Sanctions, yes, up to a point; troops, no. But it is troops that the Ukrainian government is requesting, as well as an urgent entry into NATO.

The big question today is which side is being more hurt by the sanctions and counter-sanctions. The United States and western Europe hope that they can reduce significantly Russia’s real income by curtailing radically its ability to export oil and gas. Russia has in response cut off the sale of agricultural and other products from western Europe to Russia. This not only affects negatively European farmers but risks depriving western European countries, in the longer run, of their investment projects in Russia. Russia has also alluded to a withdrawal of its cooperation in the struggle for oil claims in the Arctic.

Probably, both sides will be increasingly hurt economically by these sanctions and counter-sanctions. In the meantime, Obama will have to decide how badly he needs Russia’s cooperation in his newest priority of creating a grand coalition to destroy the forces of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Will the Ukraine conflict escalate into an actual military conflict based on old Cold War themes? There are predictions that this will happen coming from the left, the right, and the center of the world political spectrum. I do not believe it – precisely because of the efforts of Merkel and Putin, which will persist, even as the rhetoric grows more strident.

Can Merkel and Putin make a deal? In theory this is quite possible. As Henry Kissinger has loudly pointed out in his op-ed in the Washington Post, the key element is Finlandization. “[Finland] leaves no doubt about its fierce independence and cooperates with the West in most fields, but carefully avoids institutional hostility toward Russia.” Finland is a member of the European Union and the Eurozone, but has never asked to join NATO.

The Caliphate vs. Everyone Else

Commentary No. 383, Aug. 15, 2014

In the endless geopolitical realignments of the Middle East, the Caliphate of the Islamic State (formerly ISIS or ISIL) seems to have frightened just about everyone else involved in Middle Eastern politics into a de facto geopolitical alliance. All of a sudden, we find Iran and the United States, the Kurds (both in Syria and Iraq) and Israel, Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government, western Europe (Great Britain, France, and Germany) and Russia all pursuing in different ways the same objective: stop the Caliphate from expanding and consolidating itself.

This hasn’t yet altered significantly other loci of geopolitical conflicts such as Israel/Palestine and Ukraine, but it is sure to have an impact on them. Of course, all these actors are pursuing middle-term objectives that are quite different. Nonetheless, look at what has happened in just the first half of August.

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Hamas vs. Israel: Winning the Diplomatic Game

Commentary No. 382, August 1, 2014

There has been a great deal of violence for about a century in the geographic zone we may today call Israel/Palestine. This zone has seen a more or less continuous struggle between Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlers concerning the rights to occupy land. Both groups have sought juridical affirmation of their rights. Both groups have sought legitimation in competing historical narratives. Both groups have sought to solidify levels of support from their “peoples” throughout the world community. And both groups have sought to get world public opinion on their side.

The way the game has been played has evolved because of shifting geopolitical realities. In 1917, British military occupied this area, ousting the Ottoman Empire, a shift that was thereafter consecrated by obtaining a Mandate from the League of Nations for a country called Palestine. Also in 1917, the British occupying government issued what is known as the Balfour Declaration, which asserted the objective of establishing a Jewish National Home in Palestine. The term “home” is unclear and its meaning has been a subject of controversy ever since. A series of decisions in the 1920s separated the Mandate into two parts. One was Transjordan (what is now Jordan) defined as an Arab state to become eventually independent. The other was Palestine west of the Jordan, to be governed differently.

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Germany and the United States: Unprecedented Breach

Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014

On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?

It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.

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The Two Competing Middle-Run Scenarios for Iraq

Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014

The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.

The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.

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Jihadistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran

Commentary No. 379, June 15, 2014

A jihadist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has just scored a stunning and sweeping victory by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s third city located in the north of the country. Their forces are proceeding southward towards Baghdad and have seized Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army seems to have fallen apart, having also ceded Kirkuk to the Kurds. ISIS has also taken prisoner Turkish diplomats and truckers. It now controls effectively a large chunk of the north and west of Iraq as well as a contiguous zone in the northeast corner of Syria. Commentators have labeled this trans-border zone Jihadistan. ISIS seeks to reestablish a caliphate in as large an area as possible, one based on a particularly strict version of sharia law.

The shock and fear that the successes of this movement have inspired may lead to major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East. Geopolitics is an arena of frequent surprises, in which known antagonists suddenly reconcile themselves and transform their relation into one of what the French call frères ennemis (friendly enemies). The most famous instance in the last half-century was the trip of Richard Nixon to China to meet with Mao Zedong, a trip that fundamentally revised the alignments within the modern world-system and has underlain the China-United States relationship ever since.

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The Russian-Chinese Geopolitical Game

Commentary No. 378, June 1, 2014

Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.

On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.

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