Friday, January 2, 2009

Knowing Better

When it comes to the U.S. role in the world, I believe Obama knows better than he’s let on from the beginning of his campaign, and that he knows better than the Clintonites (and Clinton) he’s (re)empowered. They’ve been so opportunistic for so long that if any of them ever knew better, they long ago forgot. I concede, though, that I have no evidence for my belief about Obama; if there is any, he’s kept it close to his chest.

I also believe that Obama’s foreign policy will be essentially like the foreign policy of his dreadful (but “competent”) appointees, and therefore not very different from Cheney’s and Bush’s. Our corporate and military elites and our powerful interest groups -- not just the “Israel Right or Wrong Lobby” but, also the one that upholds the insanity of U.S. policy towards Cuba -- will see to it. [Is it not odd how archaic the expression “military industrial complex” seems now that American “industry” has all but, literally and figuratively, gone south!] Just as there are limits to how much competence counts, there are limits, severe ones, to how much it matters that Obama knows better, if indeed he does.

Were there not an economic catastrophe unfolding around us, Obama’s economic and domestic policies would probably be utterly conventional too, even if, as I also believe, he knows better in that department as well. Inasmuch as the environmental catastrophes unfolding around us are less salient (and of less immediate political concern) than the economic catastrophes Bush and Company have wrought, expect Obama not to stray far from policies friendly to elite interests in that domain either, though, again, he probably knows better. Needless to say, the future is unpredictable. On the one hand, Obama and his Wall Street crew could fail to rise to the occasion. Their efforts to save capitalism from itself might turn out to be too constrained by the wishes of their corporate cronies and paymasters to do much good, notwithstanding the fact that, for now, there is a political opening to do much more. On the other hand, environmental catastrophes could become harder to ignore, forcing (or at least facilitating) far-reaching changes in policy. Or events – for example, Israel’s current and on-going assault on Palestinians in the Gaza theater of its permanent war against Palestine – could spin out of control (if, for example, it destabilizes “friendly” governments in Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia). Then perhaps Obama would be able to do better, not just to know better. He might even force Israel to resign itself to its internationally recognized borders; and to dismantle the Apartheid regime it has concocted in occupied Palestine. He wouldn’t have to know very much to realize that only that will bring peace to the region. But don’t count on it.

Obama’s acquiescence in the face of the current spate of Israeli atrocities is evidence in support of my hypothesis about what the Obama presidency will be like in foreign affairs. It is also evidence for the more general claim about how little knowing better matters. The Israeli war on Gaza provides additional support.

In 2006, Israel perpetrated ghastly horrors of comparable (or perhaps even greater) dimensions in Lebanon, ostensibly to win the release of a captured soldier but also, it was clear to all from the beginning, to inflict a blow on Hezbollah; to punish it for its role years earlier in forcing Israel to vacate southern Lebanon. Everyone knows the outcome – for all the murder and mayhem, for all the blatant criminality, Israel got none of what it was after. Even the U.S., which supported Israel fully – in part because it saw the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict as a proxy war against Iran -- got none of what it wanted. Israel’s 2006 war strengthened Iranian influence in the Middle East.

One would think therefore that the Israelis would know better than to repeat 2006. They probably do. They probably understand that if they truly want “tranquility” in southern Israel, and in the rest of the country, there is one and only one way to get it, and that it is readily at hand – all they need do is end the occupation that has been on-going since 1967. But there are too many constraints on Israeli politicians to do anything of the sort, and too many constraints on American politicians, including Obama, to force them to do it, even if only to save Israel from its own counter-productive folly. So on it goes. Soon, having done all the destruction they can from the air, there will be only two alternatives for Israel: they can call a truce, restoring the status quo ante, conceding, in effect, that all the killing and maiming was in vain;, or they could escalate the killing and maiming by occupying Gaza with ground troops. After Lebanon, they must realize that would likely be spectacularly counter-productive. They must know as well that it’s what Hamas wants them to do. Hamas believes, no doubt rightly, that they are now in a position to do what Hezbollah did in 2006: they believe they can humiliate the Israeli military.

Hamas, is willing to bear the cost of an Israeli invasion for reasons having mainly to do with intra-Palestinian politics; they want to supplant the increasingly servile PLO as the political vehicle for Palestinian national aspirations. Gazans, it seems, are sufficiently desperate to go along; Israel’s blockade and continual harassment since they elected Hamas into office in an indisputably fair election saw to that. Israel will take Hamas’s bait for reasons having mainly to do with Israeli politics; because, with elections coming, the center-right Kadimah Party feels it has to best the Likud, the party of the far right, in anti-Palestinian militance. The U.S. will go along for reasons having mainly to do with the influence of the Israel lobby, no matter whether the President is Bush or Obama. And the “moderate” Arab states will continue to provide Israel with tacit support for reasons having to do with the perceived interests of their corrupt, ruling elites.

But the outcome is clear for everyone who knows better (and there must be many such people in all the contending camps). As in the Bush war against Iraq, the main beneficiary will be Iran. I don’t particularly bemoan that result; as well them as any of the others. And I rather like the fact that the perturbations in world order that the Bush government’s adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan have unleashed are so thoroughly, and ironically, counter-productive.

The problem, though, is that with militarily dominant powers, like the United States and Israel, defeat is seldom salutary – because, as in Lebanon in 2006 and as in Iraq now, it is seldom obvious enough to change domestic perceptions in a way that would force policy changes. Most Americans today actually believe that the “surge” has worked and therefore that the U.S. has won or is winning the Iraq War. Not only is this obviously false; it is plain that, in reality, if not in its media-driven representation, the U.S. has conceded defeat; indeed, that it has de facto surrendered. Rather than argue this point myself, I will conclude by quoting from the opening paragraphs of Patrick Cockburn’s excellent account in the December 18 London Review of Books. It reveals the gap between appearance and reality as vividly and concisely as can be.

It also shows that while knowing better is seldom a force for good, being clueless can be even worse. The perpetrators of the Iraq War are moral monsters -- guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against the peace. They deserve to be brought to justice; something Obama shows no sign of doing. But there is a certain justice in the fact that their machinations produced precisely the opposite of the outcome they envisioned:

Thus Coburn: “On 27 November the Iraqi parliament voted by a large majority in favour of a security agreement with the US under which its 150,000 troops will withdraw from Iraqi cities, towns and villages by 30 June next year and from all of Iraq by 31 December 2011. The Iraqi government will take over military responsibility for the Green Zone in Baghdad, the heart of American power in Iraq….Private security companies will lose legal immunity, US military operations will only be carried out with Iraqi consent. No US military bases will remain after the last American troops leave in 2011 and in the interim the US military is banned from carrying out attacks on other countries from within Iraq.”

If those are not surrender terms, then what is! Cockburn continues: “The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), signed after eight months of rancorous negotiations, is categorical and unconditional. America’s bid to act as the world’s only super-power and to establish quasi-colonial control of Iraq, an attempt that began with the invation of 2003, has ended in failure.” And he then points out that “…Even Iran, which had denounced the first drafts of the SOFA, fearing that any agreement would enshrine a permanent US presence in Iraq, now says that it will officially back the new security pact….a sure sign that American’s main rival in the Middle East sees the accord as marking the end of the occupation and the end f any notion of Iraq being used as a launching-pad for military assaults on its neighbors.”

Morally and strategically, would it have been any better had Bush and Cheney and their band of neo-cons known better? Perhaps. But, with peace candidate Obama on board for Israel’s predations in Gaza and eager to escalate Bush’s Afghanistan War, it isn’t all that clear.

1 comment:

Leopold Galicki said...

Dear Andrew Levine,

You are a political scientist. Writing, 2nd January 2009 about your expectations towards president Barak Obama’s foreign policy you mention Israel 26 times while Iraq and Afghanistan are mentioned respectively 15 times and 2 times. Since 2003 4274 American soldiers were killed in Iraq. Since 2001 678 American soldiers were killed in Afghanistan.
Never ever since the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, a single American soldier was killed in either Israel or at its borders with the Arabic countries.

Do you mention Sudan in your analysis? No, not even one single time. However, according to the sober sources about 450 000 people were killed in Darfur, Sudan, since 2003. I can mention other conflict situations which cause casualties and human misery, which you totally ignore and avoid in your analysis, which I think is simply due to the following fact:

I think you must love the song “Georgia on my mind”. However, one night you had a nightmare; Israel occurred as a huge ubiquitous devilish dimension. Since then you have got Israel on your political scientific mind. You talk and write about Israel as if this country constitutes a nightmare problem for USA’s foreign policy; you have got, you see, Israel on your mind and have replaced the nice and peaceful vision of Georgia with the evil image of Israel.

Why not see a shrink for psychoanalysis? Because, isn’t it a little bit dangerous when a political scientist from a well-reputed American University utilizes his nightmares as the bedrock of his political analysis? Isn’t it a little weird that political scientist pretend to know better just because he has on his mind a paraphrazed and deteriorated melody?

Kind regards
Leopold Galicki