Saturday, November 30, 2013

Peace, Peace, War, War

It is a truism among Republicans that President Obama is incompetent.

And so he is. Obamacare--an incompetent program incompetently delivered--is proof enough. And also on foreign policy, with red lines here and thundering ultimatums there, none of which amount to anything. Speak loudly and leave your stick at home seems to be the motto.

And yet it's easy to overdo this. Listening to Charles Krauthammer, for example, you'd think that both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom have taken leave of their senses just because we have a nincompoop in the White House. My Trotskyist friends will have no truck for such analysis, what with everything having a Deep Historical Dependence on the Dialectical Relationship of Forces. In their view, individuals have little or no impact on history.

For once, I'm going to side with the Trotskyists. Mr. Obama is a very poor spokesman for American foreign policy, and his bumbling pronouncements have caused considerable difficulties. Occasionally, such as his precipitous withdrawal from Iraq, he has done serious damage. But he's not running the show, partly because he's neither interested nor knowledgeable, and mostly because institutional inertia is the real driver.

Instead, our rapprochement with Iran represents neither appeasement nor cowardice. It is, instead, the result of a new geopolitical situation. I am informed on this by two articles by George Friedman, of Stratfor, here and here.

A nuclear weapon is not in Iran's best interest. It will make it impossible for them to pursue their policy objectives, specifically rescuing their economy, and preserving their gains in Iraq and Syria. The mullahs have realized this, and are thus using the nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip. While the Iranians have perfected the art of enriching uranium, it is a long way from there to a tested, usable weapon ready to launch. These they could not produce in secret, and hence the US has a way of verifying any agreement. There is, accordingly, no immediate, existential threat to Israel. According to Friedman, the Israeli military understands that.

The Arab states are no longer reliable allies. Egypt will be fighting a low-level civil war for a long time, and will not soon become a regional power. Iraq, Jordan, Syria, and Saudi Arabia are all unstable in varying degrees. These countries no longer have anything to offer the US in terms of security. Further, they present no threat to Israel (beyond turning into failed states).

Thanks to fracking, the US is increasingly self-sufficient in fossil fuels. The Arab Middle East is no longer essential to our national security. It is now something that Europe and China can worry about.

Iran, meanwhile, is a stable polity, the insanity of the present government notwithstanding. And the government is becoming less insane--it has little to gain with an endless propaganda war against the US. Between instability in neighboring Arab states (a threat as much as an opportunity), along with a failing, nuclear-armed Pakistan on its Eastern flank, Iran has much to gain from a strategic alliance with the United States. Further, with investment in its oil industry, it can partially replace Saudi Arabia if that country should ever go off-line.

So who are the losers in this new arrangement? Certainly the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia, come off poorly. While the US is not abandoning them, clearly we are diversifying our investment. We're not going to bail out the Saudis from their own internal political turmoil. We will protect them from external threats, e.g., from Iran.

Turkey is a loser. That country has been the linchpin of American security since the beginning of the Cold War. But the demise of Russia as even a regional power, the fading significance of Turkey to the EU, and Turkey's own political instability make it a less reliable partner for the US.

Israel is a loser, but not a very big one. The country remains a strong cultural and economic ally, but it loses its strategic importance. None of its neighbors possess any military capabilities that threaten Israel. The Palestinians have proven themselves completely incompetent. Israel becomes a stable backwater, sort of like Luxembourg. The US will continue to protect the country from existential threats, but none are on the horizon. Accordingly, relations between Israel and the US will fray.

The biggest losers are the Syrian rebels. The US is now tacitly on Assad's side, who represents relative stability. The rebels (at least some of them) may occupy the moral high ground, but they're too weak to be allies. Iran's influence will grow, with US approval, but the quid pro quo is that they keep Hezbollah on a short leash.

A US-Iran alliance is good for both sides. Iran wins new economic opportunities, enhanced security vis a vis Russia, China, and Pakistan, and a free pass to expand its influence across the Middle East. The US gets a stabilizing strategic partner whom it can (hopefully) count on to respect limits (e.g., don't invade Saudi Arabia; restrict Hezbollah, etc.).

It's all pretty mind-bending. I confess, I never imagined any of this.

Neither did President Obama.

Further Reading:

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