WHAT COMES NEXT: THE FAILURE OF AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY
LOUIS J. CANTORI
UMIVERSITY OF MARYLAND, BALTIMORE COUNTY
In early 2004, a Washington meeting of U.S. Government employees supporting American operations in Iraq gathered to hear the first hand reports of two Coalition Provisional Administration employees just returning from Iraq. These reports at this early point in the American commitment were novel in nature and had a quality of being “fresh from the front”. The two speakers did not disappoint the audience. There was a certain “Indiana Jones” adventurous quality about what they had to say. As they went on to recount their professional experiences, both of them made unselfconscious passing references to the pride they felt in fulfilling American “imperial” responsibilities in Iraq. Their references to things “imperial” was casual and matter of fact and no one in the audience of about forty persons then or later challenged the appropriateness of the word “imperial”.
This anecdote cuts through what otherwise might be the controversial association of the label “imperialism “with American policy. In fact, the label can be accepted not only as an abstraction, but also as an operational concept. By consensus of neoconservative policy makers and those implementing policy, America has been “doing” some form of imperialism in Iraq. The label “imperial” is not introduced here in order to score some ideological points in the ongoing domestic debate about American policy in Iraq. The term is important because it accurately communicates the sense of imperial hubris that has infected this policy from its origins in the pre-9/11 , 1990’s as documented in the archive of the neoconservative newspaper, The Weekly Standard found in The Project for the New American Century(http://www.newamericancentury.org/ ) ( The “Project” itself signified the intention to combine American preeminent military capabilities with American global leadership to create what was called grandiloquently “The New American Century”. Kristol, Cheney, Rumsfeldt, Wolfovitz, Perle etc were among the two dozen persons who signed onto the ambitious mission statement of this new project . One of these missions was to bring about regime change in Iraq. This plan by later Bush administration officials appears in the documents of the project as early as 1998, well before 9/11/01 and the Republican electoral victory of 2000 . ). In terms of the theme being developed here, “imperialism” was used to describe these ambitions and the concept summarizes where we have been in American policy in Iraq and the Middle East and also where we are presently. It is also a useful marker to inform us as to “What Comes Next”, the most important of our considerations.
Robert D. Kaplan’s Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground (see the review by John Grey, “The Mirage of Empire” in New York Review of Books, January 12, 2006, pp. 4-8, where the subject of “empire” is also discussed more broadly.) is important for its concrete and sympathetic discussion of imperialism and the American military. For example, Kaplan has a chapter entitled “Injun Country”. “Injun country” is the term used by soldiers on the ground to describe their relationship to the culture of their adversaries. It turns out that metaphorically, the “injuns” in North America in the nineteenth century and those in Iraq or wherever else that American troops fight is a foe whose language and culture is not only not known but need not be crucially known. One reason is the imperative of combat but another more telling one in reference to policy is the importance of what is called American “exceptionalism”(originating with Alexis De Tocqueville), meaning that the American political experience is so unique and so superior in terms of individualism , freedom, equality ,secularism etc. that the point of view of others pales by comparison. America is after all, especially in foreign policy, always on a mission. It follows, therefore, that the American policy of democratization is neither benign nor technical. Instead, such “democratization “ is really “democracism” i.e. the use of the appeal of the ideology of democracy as a means to achieve American control and influence. The perception of others who see this as hypocritical generates the near world wide unanimity of hatred for the United States which in turn fuels the fire of “terrorism”. The consequence is that the “signaling” of American policy such as the policy of democratization and the attitude of troops in this instance and that of Secretary Rice at a higher level, is unilateral or one way in terms of communication (for example, as in paraphrasing actual statements by Rice, “We are not in need of diplomatic representation in Syria nor direct communication with Iran, because these parties already know what needs to be done and, also, the massive aerial bombing of Lebanon represented the birth pangs of democracy.”) .
If “imperialism” is to have ideological and analytical significance, it must also explain where we are now. A basic meaning of the term imperialism is the ability of an imperial power to impose its will ideally as a matter of policy and if necessary as a last resort through the exercise of military power . For a brief moment in the aftermath of the Cold War from 1990 until 2003 America had emerged as the single remaining superpower/imperial power in the world . It not only objectively possessed the correlates of preeminent national power but its willingness to engage in military unilateralism was evident in its willingness to exercise this power in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. At first it succeeded in von Clausewitz’s meaning of the term to impose its will upon the former country but then from November 2002 and the failure at Toro Bora, it is now failing there as it as has from April 9, 2003 onwards in Iraq.
This brings us to the present day and the significance of the recent war in Lebanon. There Israel was diplomatically shielded at the UN by the US in order to give Israel as the sixth most powerful army in the world thirty days to accomplish its war aims . Israel, however, failed in near militarily humiliating terms to subjugate Hezbollah, an at most 6000 man guerilla force. Israel’s failure as an American proxy was also America’s failure. In Iraq, the coming to power of a Shiite coalition by democratic means, subtlety confirmed Iran’s ability to dominate Iraq. It has occurred with little notice except for close observers noting the presence of Iranian intelligence “station chiefs” around the country. Iran has thus peacefully imposed itself politically upon Iraq and the proxy victory of Hezbollah in Lebanon means that Iran is the big winner in the Middle East, including the achievement as a Shiite nation in garnering both Shiite and Sunni Islamic support.
As a result, the international relations of the Middle East are now being transformed from the recent one power, United States dominant system backwards to the preexisting one of a regional bipolar system of pre-1990. The regional system is now one where Iran and Syria are joined by Hezbollah and Hamas and possibly Lebanon, Yemen and Sudan plus the great powers of Russia and China arrayed against Israel and the US, plus in a more tenuous fashion, the GCC countries ,Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey. The US is thus now not only relatively diplomatically isolated in the Middle East, but it is now perhaps momentarily in policy terms immobilized between the inability to exercise an overstretched military power that is strained to its outmost limits and the Bush administration’s functional incapacity for diplomacy. America can neither fight nor does it have the predisposition to negotiate.
It seems that American policy is now already beginning to show evidence of internal political divisions that will evidence themselves increasingly from now through the outcome of the 2006 Congressional elections and up to and including the presidential election of 2008. During this period, America will be indeed following the path of international policy futility labeled “stay the course.” In addition and more speculatively, one might also note that the global system may also be seeing a similar turn from global American unilateralism and unidirectional globalization to a balanced system of a more self-confident Europe plus America and India on the one hand and Russia and China on the other in a rivalry for markets and energy in central and south Asia and, most importantly, in the Middle East.. What may appear in the next foreseeable time period is an American policy that will be disoriented and weakened in capacity in both the Middle East and internationally. This suggests that in the next phase in especially the strategically important Middle East and in the protection against terrorism, American policy will become defensive with an emphasis upon domestic as opposed to international means. America will in effect circle the wagons as it falls back upon that which it can manage and not the international environment over which it is losing control. In short, the past until now may not necessarily be the worse, that may be yet to come.”