May 18 2009
Historical Revisionism and George Bush

Nicholas Kitchen, London School of Economics

Reprinted from NicholasKitchen.net

Reading today Mark Trachtenberg’s typically thorough piece on "Preventive War and US Foreign Policy" (Security Studies 16.1), I was struck by just how much scholarship there now is that revises the initial assessments of the Bush Doctrine - that it was a radical (and unwelcome) departure from the American Foreign Policy tradition.

Off the top of my head, as well as Trachtenberg’s demonstration of the prevalence of preventative war discussion within US elites during the Cold War (he could have gone back to the very founding of the American republic and found the same trends), there is also Adam Quinn’s excellent “The Deal” (International Studies Perspectives 9.1) and of course, Rob Singh and Tim Lynch’s After Bush.

There is a real case to be made that the Bush administration’s foreign policy has much in keeping with the general traditions of US diplomacy.  Indeed, I have argued myself that American foreign policy is continually balancing itself between two schools of thought - those who believe that American liberty at home (and so American identity) can be best protected by avoiding the foreign entanglements that may pervert it; and those who believe that for America not to internationalise its liberal principles is to betray them, and therefore to undermine the very notion of America itself.

However, the existence of such enduring ideological debate should not lead us down the road of a historical revisionism that would justify the Bush Administration by reference to similarities with previous presidents.  The Bush Doctrine as set out in the 2002 National Security Strategy actually amounted to little in terms of actual policy.  It can hardly be said that the Afghan War was preventative, it was punitive, designed to remove the Taliban and leave a stable government.  The 2003 Iraq invasion was not a preventative war either, no matter how much leeway we are prepared to allow for the beliefs that all Western governments held that Saddam was continuing to develop WMD.  It was a war to remake the Middle East into a region more ameliorable to America’s interests (not incidentally, an oil grab, but more to reduce US dependence on problematic relationships with Saudi Arabia and Israel for oil and democracy respectively).

The Bush administration’s actual foreign policy, at least until 2005, was one that simultaneously combined withdrawal from the world, and a determined undermining of the institutions of the American system, with imperial world-making.  The nearest one can come to a similar kind of policy is the progressive imperialism around the time of the Spanish-American War, but there are no correlates of this type of isolationist-imperialism since the United States became a great power.

President Obama is attempting to return the United States to an internationalist position that is coherent with American diplomatic traditions.  The fact that he has to move so far, and convince so many people that the United States is indeed prepared to return to the table, shows that the initial assessment of Bush Administration was correct - an outlier in the American diplomatic tradition.  The revisionists have it wrong.

April 23 2009
Parody is No Laughing Matter, or Poking at the (very un-)Funny Bones of Power

Charles Gannon, St. Bonaventure University

Part One of this essay, "Political Discourse and Making (Non)Sense" was published as an analysis on August 25, 2008.

For several decades, one of the energizing and ennobling battlecries of the academy has been to “speak truth to power”. This is a laudable mission, and one that clearly inspired the book which I considered my commentary in Part One of this essay: Hardt and Negri’s <em>Empire</em>. I fear I must pick up where I left off, since --- once again --- <em>Empire</em> provides a high-profile example of how earnest and idealistic objectives may go horribly awry if there is crucial slippage between the explicit and implicit definitions of key terms. In the case of Hardt and Negri’s magnus opus, this problem arises at the fundamental level of identifying the “power” to which they are addressing their weighty cargo (472 pages worth) of truth.

In Part One, I concluded by proposing that Al Qa'eda --- and the rest of humanity’s dubious “swarms” --- had thus far failed to achieve counter-Imperial successes which would validate either the macrosocial model upon which Hardt and Negri propose they operate or their supposedly decisive military efficacy. However, Al Qa'eda evinces a further insufficiency, an utter lack in one of the key enabling conditions that Hardt and Negri associate with the insurgent Multitude: that its members are able to prevail because they have an “adequate consciousness” of the forces of Empire.

The deficit of Al Qaeda (and other “swarms’”) should not surprise us, for there is a serious question as to how accurately or consistently Hardt and Negri themselves have achieved an adequate consciousness of their own ostensible “Empire”. Among their book’s many internal inconsistencies (and the occasionally contradictory and tangled paradigms that are spawned), there is a persistent and particularly disabling fluctuation in the rhetorical representation of the political ordinality of power centers in Empire. I will not extensively diagram these unfortunate vacillations, which are critiqued in detail in the collection <em>Debating Empire</em>, edited by Gopal Balakrishnan, where Hardt and Negri’s (mostly leftist) critics cite the regularity with which the book claims or implies that the actions of Empire are largely directed by the US. Yet Hardt and Negri just as frequently assert (and often only a few pages later) that the US is subordinate to the interests/trends/market-forces of transnational commercial matrices.

Overlaying these ping-ponging assertions of political primacy are overt statements that Empire is not inimical or contrary to US interests and vice versa. Furthermore, in almost every case, the argument for each of these proposed relationships remains apocryphal. At their most extreme, these claims veer perilously toward the logical fallacy known as “card stacking”, which in Empire is often effected by a highly selective, and thereby misleading, review of “evidentiary” events/conditions. No consideration is given to contradictory evidence or assertions, which, in retrospect, seem not only plentiful but predominant.

For instance, how does the language of the Project for a New American Century, which calls for an explicitly national “resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests” conform to the idea that Empire functions by subordinating and even subsuming nationalism, separatism, and exceptionalism? Then again, what are we to make of the US State Department’s earlier, apparently obverse exasperations over corporate initiatives/exploitations in the developing world and the blatant corporate disregard of the government’s humanitarian appeals? Not only do Hardt and Negri vacillate between establishing who indeed is <em>primus inter pares</em> in the nationstate-corporatestate dyad, they also ignore mounting evidence that this relationship is not a cooperative symbiosis but a hostile parasitism. In the latter paradigm, the host organism—-the nation-state—-is being consumed from both within and without by the meretricious rot of megacorporate commerce, which is unconcerned with the juridical, has no regard for social contract, does not bother to validate and found its existence on the a priori presumption of the good of the common weal, and considers issues of basic human rights merely an impediment to the optimization of profits (often achieved by pursuing the maximum exploitation of laborers).

As Hardt and Negri slide into an all-too-easy elision between the very different forces of Americanization and Globalization, so too do they fail to adequately discriminate between true globalism and the transnational market homogenization promoted by multinational corporations. Gayatri Spivak’s nuanced and productive treatment of both the difficulties and urgency of making adequate distinctions between these forces (in <em>A Critique of Postcolonial Reason</em>, published a year before <em>Empire</em>) demonstrated one way to avoid this elision: an immediate and persistent focus upon the points of disjunction, difference, and dichotomy between these two related, yet very distinct, phenomena.

Spivak also invokes a dynamic that Hardt and Negri studiously --- perhaps nervously --- avoid: our collective role (both as members of the Multitude and as scholars) in the creation of, and collusion with, these same forces. She courageously calls attention to both the great and small complicities intrinsic not only to our life within, but also our intellectual critiques of, the sprawling, many-headed creature that is the embodiment of both globalization and transnational profiteering via cultural homogenization. As she points out, for academics, the critique of "big business" has itself become a "big business".

To extend Spivak’s argument, it is indeed baffling how the critique of big business nonetheless seems to perpetually transmogrify into a critique of national, or at least conventionally political, entities. Certainly, nation-states and their ambitions are richly deserving of all the critical attention they attract; however, there is evidence that the other half of the “global commerce” equation is under-analyzed. This may be due, in large part, to the innate rhetorical and evidentiary difficulties of mounting corporate critiques of sufficient clarity and traction. But there may be another, more unsettling factor contributing to this phenomenon: that liberal-minded scholars and commentators may have become creatures of habit (and a bit lazy as well), finding no reason to aim beyond the easily hit targets of traditional nationalism, colonialism, and imperialism. In short, we must ask, when we next prepare to speak truth to power, which entity really is the “Power” to which we should be speaking.

Specifically, it has become a normative, even salutary and rewarded, reflex in academic subculture to take the struggle to government, to speak civic-minded truth to centrist-minded power. Perhaps this was an unalloyedly useful model when it rose to quick and almost universal prominence in the Sixties. It certainly felt good then, and still does now—-and perhaps that is why it endures: the academy and like-minded commentators became addicted to the ease of the assignation of guilt and the opiating feel of having bearded the lion in its den.

But in a world increasingly dominated by corporations, we are increasingly confronted by veils of plausible deniability and the non-disclosure prerogatives of privately-held firms, by obfuscation and decentralization of attributable responsibility, by pits of vipers rather than dens of lions. And this is where the innate difficulties of the megacorporate subject subtly abet an academic tendency to avoid tackling slippery organizations that have the power, but not the contractual identity (or responsibility), of polities. Comparatively speaking, nations are easy rhetorical and evidentiary targets: disclosure requirements imposed upon governmental office-holders or advisors create convenient paper trails and the consequences of non-compliance are onerous in both number and magnitude. This is as it should be: civic office-holders are answerable to, and derive their position and authority from, the body politic.

But what of corporate officers? Except for the intercession of governmental laws and watchdog agencies, even shareholders are at the mercy of the faceless and inaccessible CFOs, CIOs, CEOs, and accountants, who are all “recommended” to them by proxy vote forms whenever a change in leadership is deemed desirable. Disclosure protocols and benchmarks-—if they exist at all—-remain the sole prerogative of those whose activities would be disclosed thereby, which is slightly more ominous than putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.

The typical defense of an unwavering preference for government as the primary target of critical commentary is known to us all: we are in a neo-colonial era, and the nations of the Developed World manipulate those of the Developing World through the cats-paws of corporations. In short, the nation-state is still the primary culprit: the corporation is little more than its stalking horse. Perhaps-—but should we not wonder if the order of primary guilt has been ingenuously reversed in this post-colonial formulation? Is it the nations using the corporations, or is it the other way around? Are transnational profiteers merely stalking horses for national imperial interests? Or have megacorporations become the equals of ever-weakening political entities, symbiotically providing them with a non-military venue for exercising some political influence over the Developed World in exchange for non-interference as new markets are penetrated and homogenized. To the extent that this is true, it ultimately means that the old model has been reversed: national entities now serve as the scapegoats for transnational corporations.

It is tempting to wonder if the dogged and lop-sided pursuit of the misdeeds of nations is also, in part, a nostalgic reflex. After all, the single-minded directionality of nationalistic Imperialism made it comparatively easy to track, even relatively reliable to predict. Such nations were akin to an overloaded oil-tanker: they could always change course, but their inertia made the direction of their immediate progress pretty much a foregone conclusion. Not so with corporations: popular support for colonial action need not be courted, garnered, nor maintained. Ominous or unethical decisions, made in board rooms that never see the light of day, never get reported in news venues. And whereas national authorities must usually enforce secrecy with brutally wielded sticks-—such as dishonor, exile, 9 grams of lead into the occipital shelf—-corporations dangle carrots of wealth as the reward for loyal compliance. And thus, where silence is (and must remain) golden, there are always voluminous golden parachutes to be conferred.

And if the suasion of money helps keep the silence, so in the world of megacorporate mandarins, Gameboys and grain become more powerful than guns. Tariff manipulations outplace tactical missiles as the primary weapons in the transnational’s armamentarium of social control. No bullets fired, no bombs dropped-—but still there are casualties from the invisible collateral(ized) damage of currency fluctuations, decreased job availability, and price fixing. Indeed, a penny’s change in the price of a ton of tin generates more unseen martyrs-—in the guise of unfed infants, hospital shortages, utility closures and consequent mini-epidemics—-than would a napalm strike. The former is a loud and fiery visitation of hell erupting suddenly upon earth: the latter is invisible, plausibly deniable, a social death of a thousand cuts rather than a single cataclysmic blow.

Perhaps, therefore, scholars and commentators have not focused as much on the ecologies of corporate control and political tactics simply because they are (comparatively) difficult targets. Their power is diffuse, scattered across continents, held in trusts and mutual shareholding agreements that are not only labyrinthine, but written in the specialized cant of corporate lawyers. So not only is it more difficult to pursue the new megacorporate quarry, but the effort is less likely to deliver decisive victories (and commensurate professional acclaim), because the evidence is so obscured and indirect that concrete cause-and-effect relationships are all but impossible to demonstrate. However, this is, I would aver, all the more reason that we all—-regardless of partisan affiliation or sympathies--take on this job. It is doubly essential that we do so because it is the harder job, and also because it provocatively (perhaps uncomfortably) aligns scholars and nation-states in a common cause: to identify and delineate how corporations are progressively usurping the political life and power of polities and the people that comprise them. Conversely, if we succumb to the easy assuaging of our collective conscience by picking up the accustomed gauntlet, and leaving the second, weightier one behind, we are therefore entrusting this challenge to...

To whom? To newspapers and news agencies that are owned by the very corporations we hope they will investigate? To nations that are already infested and infected with the meretricious aims and appetites of the megacorporations that continue to amalgamate into entities that rival governments in terms of annual budgets and assets? The job may be hard, and the outcome uncertain-—far more so than the challenge of assessing and articulating the abuses of governments-—but this does not justify shirking it: indeed, the selectivity and difficulty of the task constitutes an overwhelming ethical compulsion upon those who can take it up to do so. This may sound like old-time activism dressed up in something other than bell-bottoms and love beads, but it is none the less real and urgent for all of that.

But if we march forward in response to such an exhortation, we will quickly find ourselves stranded in the midst of yet another practical dilemma: how can we re-aim our logocentric efforts to speak truth to power if the new target is so elusive, so well-hidden behind an intricate fan-dance of innumerable billboards, press releases, 1000-page legal briefs, and sealed settlement proceedings?

Perhaps our answer might reside in a rhetorical device most commonly encountered in op-ed pieces, but which might also offer scholars a more efficacious means of outflanking the obstructions and obfuscations of corporate entities. If only, that is, academic journals are bold enough to publish essays of the kind that I am about to propose, and if only tenure and promotion committees are willing to accord them the status of professionally significant publications. I am speaking of the rhetorical device known as parody, which may also prove particularly instructive as we reconsider the challenge of delineating the responsible limits of the figurative discursive forms discussed in Part One of this essay.

As we know, any good and fair parody makes itself part of the joke it constructs, nods towards its own excesses and strategic misrepresentations. Parody is not logical argument momentarily transmogrified behind the mask of comedy. It is instead a sport, a sustained quip that sheds a brief light on parallels between our reality and one or more of the tropes, narratives, icons in our cultural archive. It is, therefore, a flitting hermeneutic inspiration, not a determined empirical investigation --- and, as ever, we must be wary of rhetoric that elides or blurs the important line that separates the two.

However (and here I once again employ my favorite, even habitual, axiom), parody enjoys some particularly useful virtues in consequence of its obvious empirical defects. Parody certainly has the ability to identify ominous trends, harpoon persistent excusatory rhetoric, list the opposition’s tiresome recitations of ever-convenient plausible deniability. However, none of these contentious undertakings constitute critical rigorous proof: that inescapable lack is the defect of parody. However, parody’s converse virtue is that this highlighting of notable, even absurdly provocative, patterns of folly, malfeasance, or both, attracts and warrants notice. If, for a moment, we elect to be simple social mammals first and scholars second, we can all recall moments and episodes where we may have lacked conclusive evidence of a misdeed or a misrepresentation, but the total picture—-viewed hermeneutically (or “wholistically”, if you prefer)—-left no doubt as to the guilt of the transgressing party. These misdeeds and misprisions are the hardest of all to pin down: they are the products of unethical rhetoricians who have learned how to “game the system”, to confound the mechanisms of justice not by confrontation or defiance, but by evasion, double speak, and-–worst of all—-subverting the intent of laws while remaining true to the letter of them.

Fortunately, parody has its own laws as to what violates the principles of common sense, common occurrence, and common decency. True, it lacks the definitude and almost juridical decisiveness of an empirically mounted argument, but it is flexible enough to pursue topics—-and evasive quarry-—into discursive spaces where the stiff and orderly structures of logocentrism do not fit, and therefore, may not go.

This is the moment where I suppose I should employ a parody to speak truth to corporate power. However, I must choose instead a topic that embodies the mixed issues of both national and corporate abuses, and which will not much longer remain a current and pertinent object of investigation. So, in an attempt to explore whether parody is indeed serviceable as a routine rhetorical option for critical analysis, let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, while America was riding higher than it should have, in a post-war period when its people were counting dividends they had not really earned, there was a Black Day when one of the country’s major financial centers collapsed. But this collapse was not a fiscal fall in the value of the Stock Market; it was instead the physical fall of two world-recognized towers. The entry into this new national period of desperation, if not Depression, was underscored by other tragedies: a blow to one face of the Pentagon, and the martyrdom of a planeload of passengers in a Pennsylvania field. This collective maelstrom of loss propagated a nationwide mental storm-front--a low pressure system of decreasing tolerance that ran athwart a high-pressure wave of rage. The result: a tornado of sentiment for sweeping action that paved the way for punitive overseas intrusions.

And so the tornado snatched up our house of state. It twirled us around, left us childlike and clutching our old worldview much as if it were a loyal little lapdog (named Toto, perhaps). We soon succumbed to a fever of fears that burned away our normal consciousness, left us hovering in a state between dream and nightmare. And while that tornado did land us (like a ton of bricks and bombs) on the witches who were rumored to have conjured up this perfect mother of all storms, it also deposited us in a strange and unfamiliar land, and it was clear that any journey back home to a place and feeling of safety would be long and uncertain.

Fortunately, we soon discovered that we did not have to make our way alone in this new world. From the very start, we were taken in by three fellow travelers. They invited us to join them in following a brick road, glazed yellow by the glare of the pitiless Babylonian sun that loomed large in our near future, beckoning. And all three of our new companions promised us--if only we would follow, follow, follow--that they could ultimately return us to the pleasant land of our origin. If only we would stay the course, our once-happy house of state could be restored to its pre-9/11 landscape of blissful complacency through a simple act of surpassing will. For we would only need to click our ruby (or is that blood-soaked?) slippers three times and chant the mantra which would bring us the isolationistic return that we (supposedly) craved: “there’s NO place like home…”

But once the journey was underway, we learned that one of these fellow travellers seemed --- in all his Defense Department press conferences, at least -- to be a tin-man who lacked a heart. Another, who was supposed to be a creature of strong character and deep convictions (but who always seemed to go into hiding during national crises and in the wake of personal gaffes) was reportedly in desperate want of true courage. And the third member of the trio was --- in every sense of the word --- a straw man. Propped up by others, often a pawn of their agendas, blank-eyed and filled with the inert stuffing of outdated ideas rather than original thought, it was whispered by some that he was in search of a brain suitable to the challenges he faced.

But this is, alas, where the parallels end. The road back home, and the promise of victory, seemed to extend like a mirage into the ever-receding desert horizon. The adversaries turned out to be far more formidable than flying monkeys, and the casualties on both sides were --- all too often --- the precious munchkins that parents are wont to wheel around in both high-tech malls and humble village markets. And, although one wicked, xenocidal, and theologically radical witch was certainly strewing its evils from caves further to the East, a business-suited cabal of reflexive destructiveness, fanatically myopic worldview, and utter egoism was spreading death from its neoconservative citadels in the West.

This appropriation of <em>The Wizard of Oz </em>is certainly a grim(m) fairy tale, but it is expressly not an “argument:” its broadly drawn parodies advertise, and call particular attention to, its inherent nature as a view glimpsed in a fun-house mirror. Yet, as is the case with all parodies and reflections, it may nonetheless offer a useful perspective from which to examine a larger matrix of actual problems—-in this case, America’s recent crises in both foreign affairs and domestic leadership. Specifically, the parallels between the fictional characters of Oz and the figures from the prior US administration can only be comical--or disturbing--to the degree that they are apt. Or, to put it another way, behaviors and psychologies that typify the incredible beings of a child’s fantasy should be a source of considerable alarm if observed among heads of state. For instance, we all know that the three Oz characters were fundamentally on a self-delusional quest, committed to an empty ritual of seeking objects that were expected to magically change their personal realities: a heart will confer feeling; a medal, courage; a brain, intelligence. These objectives reflect a child’s understanding of how human change occurs: not through personal experience and reflection, but by attaining arbitrary physical benchmarks.

Were there not disturbing parallels observable in America’s neoconservative leadership? The Bush administration’s dominant belief was that, if its global quest to secure a preset list of concrete military objectives was successful, then security and peace would naturally follow, follow, follow. And that success would both signal and confirm America’s strength, courage, and moral rectitude: the material accomplishments were to be the ex post facto ciphers for, and self-satisfying litmus test of, the character and abilities of those who were carrying them out.

In closing, let us not overlook one final and possibly dire parallel: Dorothy’s entire Technicolor world and improbable quest not only defy reality, but confound even the world of dreams—-for the entire scenario takes place in the mind of a sick child, trapped in a fevered, post- traumatic delusion. In the real world, America may have been temporarily trapped in just such a hallucinatory state, waiting to awaken from the collective coma inflicted by the cyclonic events of 9/11.

We can only hope that the political change that has been unfolding since November 2008 is a positive diagnostic indicator: that the nation is finally awakening from this feverish nightmare, and into a new, more accurate paradigm of greater self- and international- perception.

February 18 2009
Interpreting Tehran: Professor Gary Sick on the Future of US-Iran Relations

Chris Emery, University of Birmingham

Last Thursday, In front of an audience at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London that included members of Parliaments, diplomats, senior academics, journalists and representatives from more than a dozen embassies Professor Gary Sick delivered a fascinating survey of the last 30 years of US-Iranian relations. The presentation was made “on the record”, and Chris Emery, our colleague at the University of Birmingham, was there to summarise the remarks.

Professor Sick has served in three US administrations and was the National Security Council’s Iran expert at the time of the Iranian Revolution and US Embassy Crisis. He is now Professor of International Affairs at Columbia University and Director of Gulf2000.

The problem is not a foreign policy problem; it is a domestic policy problem. The baggage of the past is more relevant than any strategic rivalry or threat. Most importantly, the US has never given Iran the opportunity to have an internal debate on the possibilities and consequences of rapprochement with America. The Iranians have therefore not had to think through the important political effects, for example, of ending the chants of “Death to America” at Friday prayers. This statement has become an important expression of the Iranian Revolution; rapprochement, which would surely be incompatible with its encouragement byt the State, may accompany some modifications to Iran’s revolutionary identity.

The Iranian threat to US interests, contrary to the “perceived wisdom” of the Bush Administration and Israeli government, has been wildly blown out of proportion. The newfound strategic confidence of Iran was largely the legacy of recent US foreign policy and the elimination of Iran’s two gravest enemies, the Taliban to the east and Saddam Hussein to the west. The growth of Iran’s influence in the region could not have been achieved, solely by its own actions, as Iran lacks either inclination or capability to project its powers beyond its borders.

Iran is not the most dangerous threat facing the US and Europe. The Afghan-Pakistan nexus, with Pakistan’s nuclear weapons capability, was far graver. Even America’s exit from Iraq posed a greater threat.

Iran and Israel are the new polar rivals in the Middle East. The Sunni Arabs are not as important now and ultimately fear any emerging strategic relationship between the US and Iran. (N.B.: Sick later qualified this statement, asserting that the Arabs were not threatened strategically but, instead, feared marginalisation. This sentiment must be factored into US diplomacy: US-Iranian rapprochement, if and when it occurs, should be matched with the complimentary reassurance of America’s Arab allies.)

Israel has viewed US-Iranian rapprochement with a degree of anxiety, and,the recent conflict in Gaza partly demonstrated Israel’s fear of political alienation. Israel has for some time been engaging in signalling actions, and recent Israel manoeuvres, such as the rehearsal of long-distance bombing operations in the Mediterranean, are particularly aimed at Europe. The message is that the pressure on Iran must be maintained or Israel may respond unilaterally to what it maintains is an existential threat to its existence. This signa was also seen in Israel’s recent request to America to use Iraqi airspace.

Israel, however, will not bomb Iran because it is logistically and politically impossible. Having been unable to eliminate Hezbollah or Hamas’s operational capability, despite several weeks of intensive bombing, Israel would be unable to perform any surgical strike. Instead, Tel Aviv would have to commit to sustained bombing missions, with a hitherto unknown degree of accuracy, on a range of targets. An Israeli strike would also effectively take America to war with Iran, who would reasonably assume permission had been given, and Iranian reprisals in Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and to Persian Gulf shipping would be disastrous for US interests. Any military strike would thus never be sanctioned by the US.

Iran’s motivation for developing nuclear weapons had been connected to its correct perception that Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear armaments at a time when Iran and Iraq were engaged in a brutal war in which Saddam had shown a ready willingness to use weapons of mass destruction. It is no coincidence that Iran apparently halted all of its weapons designs in the fall of 2003, following Saddam’s removal by US forces.

A reasonably strong case can be made that Saddam “saved” the Islamic Revolution. His attack on Iran created an outpouring of Iranian nationalism which mobilised support for the state at a time when the Revolution looked to be floundering. It also forced the Iranians to organise more efficiently both their financial and political arms of the government and, more importantly, their armed forces which were in chaos in the Revolutionary period. The Islamic Republic of Iran remained a much more nationalist than Islamist state.

Iran is incredibly inefficient in its pursuit of nuclear technology or the West is very wrong about the urgency of preventing it from doing so. Iran has had a nuclear programme, in at least one form or another, for 25 years and yet its only nuclear facility is still not working, despite persistent claims by the Iranian authorities that it would. Considering it took India, Israel and others just 10 years from making the decision to produce a bomb to successful testing, this could be clear evidence of a lack of determination in Tehran. Iran’s enrichment program is also subject to close monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency..

With respect to nuclear technology, there is much continuity between the current and former regimes in Iran. The Shah himself talked, probably unrealistically, of an 18-month “surge” period in which a bomb could be produced after an effective enrichment cycle had been achieved. The Islamic Republic, similarly, probably wants a nuclear program which is capable of delivering a bomb if they decided some time in the future that they needed one. The recognition that a civilian nuclear program gives a certain degree of flexibility, if major geo-political or strategic changes pose a grave future threat to Iranian security, is of course a very different proposition than that currently made by Western and Israeli hawks. At the same time, claims that Iran’s protestations that Islamic law prohibits WMD should be taken with a large dose of salt. As Ayatollah Khomeini said, the “survival of the state takes precedence over Islam”.

How then should the international community respond to the ‘”uclear issue”? US intelligence has regularly claimed, since the early 1990s, that Iran was 3-6 years away from acquiring a bomb This reliable information, which contradicts the assumption that Iran is determined to produce nuclear weapons, can be used more effectively. Certainly, it argues very strongly against any military response. Even if a civilian nuclear program including enrichment allows Iran greater flexibility to produce a weapon sometime in the future, about 40 countries currently have this same potential. The world lives with this prospect every day and doesn’t take countries like Brazil to the UN Security Council.

What is needed, however, is consistent transparency, which Iran is willing to accept. This would allow the world to accurately guage the extent of Iran’s nuclear programme and, with an early warning based on credible non-politicised information, react accordingly and without hysteria.

The Obama Administration’s policy approach has to be seen in the context of previous US and Iranian administrations and the prospect of a new administration in Tehran this summer. There should be no substantial US overtures until after the Iranian elections. America has little to gain by being seen as interfering in this process.

(N.B.: Perhaps disappointingly, Professor Sick did not make any major predictions as to who would be influential in formulating and executing US-Iran policy. Nothing was said, for instance, on the controversial selection of Dennis Ross as Obama’s Middle East envoy. Nor did he examine any potential emerging bureaucratic tensions within the conception of US policy in Iran- of the kind that had blighted the administrations that he himself had served.)

The US has not yet began to decide where Iran policy is going and what its end goal should be. The preceding George H.W. Bush and Clinton Administrations, and their predecessors before them, had no meaningful policy beyond rhetoric. The Obama Administration would thus have to be prepared to make hard decisions, in a way that previous administrations had failed to contemplate. It would need time to do so.

(N.B.: Professor Sick reserved stinging criticism for the efforts of the previous administration and particularly its contradictory and counter-productive attempts to engage with Iran’s civil society. Whilst Professor Sick praised the work of NGO’s and human rights activists in exposing some of the abuses committed by the Iranian government, he condemned the mixed messages Bush has sent to the Iranian public in its support for outside groups. The Bush administration, he claimed, had fleeted between supporting unpopular external Iranian groups, pursuing (and then denying to be pursuing) regime change and promoting a ‘velvet revolution’. The damage of this approach can not be underestimated and has contributed to the substantial mistrust and paranoia in which Tehran frames US engagement.)

There are some very practical problems that need to be overcome. Optimally, the US should try and forge direct links with the Supreme Leader. America’s isolation from this ultimate source of political authority in Iran places limits on rapprochement. In his final analysis, however, this avenue had been sought, especially during the hostage crisis, and consistently refused. Put simply, Ayatollah Khamenei had shown no interest of talking to America.

There is another practical problem for US diplomacy. A whole generation of career diplomats have never set foot on Iranian soil and thus lack any exposure to its political or popular culture. This makes it critically important for diplomatic relations to be restored. A potential starting point is for the US to open a US “Interests” office in Tehran. As a matter of protocol, it was the Americans who broke relations in 1980, so it is the US that has to formally restore them.

(N.B. Professor Sick also recounted some of his own personal experiences of meeting with president Ahmadinejad, in whose company he had spent roughly eight hours since his election in 2005. Professor Sick noted a partial softening of his attitudes since then and observed that the president genuinely, though it is often dismissed in the western media, believed he was a peacemaker.

Sick recounted one meeting in which US-based specialists had participated, with Ahmadinejad, in a seminar in Washington. Professor Sick asked the Iranian president to imagine he was simply an Iranian academic participating in a discussion with American academics in America. Would he not be arrested by Iranian authorities on his return to Iran? The president laughed off the assumption as inaccurate, but Sick proceeded to supply evidence of Iranian academics who had suffered this very fate. Professor Sick chose not to elaborate further on this discussion. Nor did he comment on the much wider issue of the role academics can play in increasing constructive dialogue, and the limits placed upon them doing so in both countries.

Despite this perhaps provocative anecdote, and a sweeping though not uncommonly made statement that Arabs and Persians generally dislike each other, Sick’s analysis was mostly pragmatic. Yes, some aspects of Iran’s behaviour were cause for some concern in the west. In fact no country, according to Sick, had done a better job of diplomatically shooting itself in the foot. In this latter regard, Ahmadinejad’s unnecessary rhetoric had significantly damaged Iranian diplomacy. However, the threat Iran poses has been widely blown out of proportion.

Professor Sick also acknowledged many of the long term grievances held in Iran towards America as legitimate. More importantly, he observed that US policy had been proved counter-productive. Rather than continue the mistakes made by all US administrations since the Revolution, the US had to be prepared to make hard decisions and recognise the basic failure of all its previous assumptions to achieve tangible benefits to US diplomacy or US interests. A large part of this process involved the abandonment of historical baggage on both sides.)



February 5 2009
My (Dutch) Kingdom for Iraq

Giles Scott-Smith, University of Leiden

Iraq 2003 is becoming ancient history within the Anglo-Saxon political world, as all the commissions have reported, the questions have been answered (as far as we know), and attention shifts big time to Afghanistan.  

In contrast the Iraq war continues to cause shock waves across European politics. Revelations over the previous two years over the support given to the invasion forces by agents of Germany’s intelligence service Bundesnachrichtendienst, delivered as the SPD government of Gerhard Schroder gathered much of its popular support based on opposition to the war,have caused upheavals. 

This week the Dutch turned a corner of perhaps greater significance. For five years Premier Jan-Peter Balkenende has refused to allow any kind of investigation into the decisions and deals surrounding the Dutch ‘political, not military’ support for the 2003 invasion. Simmering discontent over this stubbornness, coupled with persistent suspicions that there was plenty to hide, kept the issue bubbling away within the worlds of investigative journalism and the political Left, who smelled a large, US-style rat. 

Gradually, over the years, evidence has seeped out, a leak here, a secret statement there, which indicated that the Dutch involvement in the invasion had indeed stretched to military activity despite the denials of the premier. What is more, there were rumours of Washington delivering a ‘shopping list’ to The Hague in late 2002 of the kinds of military and logistical support that they requiredm with the strong implication being that the reward was the appointment of Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO Secretary General at the end of 2003.  

De Hoop Scheffer certainly had fans in Washington due to his insistence that a second UN resolution was not necessary to justify an Iraq invasion. Recent documents suggest that de Hoop Scheffer went against the advice of his ministry’s own legal department on this point, or at the very least, the dissenting opinions within his own Ministry were quashed by his highest civil servant, with or without the knowledge of his superior.  

It is hardly surprising that the Americans would back an ideological kindred spirit to lead NATO. This usually means that if you can’t get a Brit (and George Robertson was the outgoing Secretary, ruling that option out), get a Dutchman. Some people still make a fuss of de Hoop Scheffer’s appointment, but for this reason I don’t quite see why, it speaks for itself. The real issue, surely, is this: Did Balkenende make national security deals with the US and then give them such importance that he hid them from both parliament and people? Did he decide alone that transatlantic relations stood above all other considerations of the national interest? Did he decide to go the obscure ‘political, not military’ route as a cover, to avoid having to do a Blair and face down parliamentary and public opposition to the war? Did the Dutch participate in Iraq 2003 after all, despite all the denials?  

What makes this all the more poignant is that Balkenende, the man who took the decisions in 2003, who was provided with the famous ‘dodgy dossier’ from London, who went against the doubts of his own military intelligence service on Iraqi WMD capabilities, is still premier. With the exit of Bush all the other leaders closely involved with the 2003 debacle (both in the UN and in the Coalition) have left the stage. For this reason it has become a very personal issue.  

On Wednesday a day-long debate took place in the lower chamber of the Dutch parliament concerning the need for a parliamentary inquiry into these questions. Since 2003 there had been 16 debates over Iraq in the Dutch parliament, all of which produced only stone-walling from the premier and his Christian Democrat cohorts. But during 2008 the higher chamber took up the baton and started bombarding the government with questions on Iraq, in doing so building momentum and allowing the opposition parties to once again demand a full inquiry. 

This time they bit. Balkenende is under pressure because his coalition sub-premier, Labour party leader and Finance Minister Wouter Bos, has been garnering popular and professional respect for his handling of the ongoing financial crisis, and the Christian Democrats had to act. Against all expectations, Balkenende duly agreed to the formation of an independent commission, for which “there will be no straw placed in the way”.  

The demand from the parliamentary floor had been for a full-on parliamentary inquiry, under oath, conducted in public. and on television, and under oath, so this was a second-best alternative. Also, the unanswered questions from the higher chamber can now be set aside and ignored. What is more, the commission doesn’t have to report its findings for nine months – after which, if deemed necessary, the parliament can still demand their own investigation.  

There is still a sense, therefore, that Balkenende and the Christian Democrats are playing for time – time to shred perhaps? Stay tuned.


February 2 2009
Obama on the Balance Beam: Or, Picking One's Battles 

Charles Gannon, St. Bonaventure University

Idealistically, an immense segment of the American population (as well as a considerable slice of the globe's) understandably--even predictably--want Obama to change all the nation's outrages, all at once, on all fronts--particularly where lives are immediately at stake.  Realistically, however, there is (logically) a tip-over point in practice: the point at which even the center of the American support-base bell-curve is surpassed. If that teeter-totter tips, look for all the nation's cherished hope and almost desperate optimism to not merely dissipate, but become its own despondent, outraged, ferociously accusatory opposite. 

I do not see this as anywhere near so great a problem for him in foreign eyes as in those at home--and this prediction was in place in my "day after nomination" piece (see the November 6 edition of Libertas): that he would be more easily appreciated abroad than at home.  The economic maelstrom has only amplified this potential.  And let's not be deluded: in large part, *if* Obama can steer us out of these roiling fiscal waters, it's going to be as much because "we, the people" WILL it to be so.  His policies may be sound, but without the confidence and desire of an inspired nation that is willing to sacrifice and change its relationship with resources, money, and credit, his plan--ANY plan--will fail. 

Here enters the gruesome spectre of long-range lifeboat ethics, which presents him with this conundrum: to terminate all the egregious paths he inherited immediately, all at once--or take the measured steps we've seen in him from the outset, carefully and cannily balancing the pros and cons, pushes and pulls, inherent in each move.  If he does the former, he purchases immediate moral rectitude--but before the nation has become, more securely and in greater proportion, true fellow-travelers on his pathway to evolving a better America (and I mean that in the internationalist sense).  For if he goes too far too fast, that key and sweeping change may be scuttled, a forlorn "might-have-been" hope that was lost because of overly-idealistic presumptions about the capability of the American public to not merely adapt to, but positively internalize and embrace, a radical change of course (in regard to the preceding 8 years)

If he is (as I suspect) following the latter course (of pacing the change), he preserves that greater hope--but, as Scott's post so eloquently pointed out, at the cost of immediately ascending to the moral highground as fast as the powers of his office enable.  Please do not misunderstand: I am not touting the "beauties" of gradualism.  I have 5 children (4 living) and I can easily imagine them at the impact point of those Pakistan-bound rockets.  And so I can leap the national line and immediately associate with the parents of those who have been killed.  And still I can offer no answer: there never is one.  Stop the rockets?  Absolutely.  But if we stop every moral outrage now, does Obama keep the support required to not just politically, but CULTURALLY change the heading of the American ship of state?  If we must choose one objective over another, is it to stop the rockets as soon as we can--or to work to build an America which will FOREVER be less likely to use those rockets?  And listening to the sadly revivified fortunes of Rush Limbaugh and his ilk, I can only observe that the game to change America could yet be lost.  The nation rejected the Dubya years with a forceful 180-degree turn toward Obama; I am sadly convinced that, if he misplays his very mixed hand early on, we could swing right back again.

And that is worth avoiding at all costs. 

The question of why Obama has elected to maintain Afghanistan as a site of continued military action is, properly, the domain of pundits and persons who believe themselves possessed of a much greater projective perspicacity than I do when considering the inner workings of the new President's mind.  However, inasmuch as the editors asked me to (specifically) offer my "best guess" on this topic,  I will do so--but with the proviso that I consider it so uncertain a proposition that my first instinct is/was to avoid offering it.  I feared that doing so would, by dint of association, weaken the comparative solidity (so I feel) of the preceding, more restrained, macroanalysis of the current policy-making ecology in which Obama is operating. 

From the start, Afghanistan was perceived as a comparatively "just" war.  And the setting could not have been more cut from the cloth of Hollywood sensibilities: in a land of shocking sexual repression and rather medieval methods of governance and punishment, the arch-villain in the metanarrative of the saga of 9-11 goes to ground, a renegade who has fled to the wastelands to elude justice and the wrath of the avengers of hundreds upon hundreds of martyred Americans.  Note that I am not "forgetting" the other nationals who died in the Twin Towers and elsewhere: I am keeping purposefully and closely in alignment with the dominant American focus upon the events of 9-11.

The consequent, and much-anticipated, “Enduring Freedom” revenge narrative introduced eager viewers to the sprawling tale of a true range war waged with cavalry (airmobile) and gatling guns (electric) against tribes, terrorists and Talibans, all set in a scrub-covered frontier so far to the West of the Pecos that it was actually to the East.  Somewhere, out in those Khyber badlands, lurked the shadowy and saturnine figure of the mad-dog killer Osama Bin Laden, who-—midway through this almost serialized narrative-—became akin to a hateful Pancho Villa character.  Wanted dead or alive, and despite the camo-suited posse’s successes at bringing most of his rag-tag desperadoes to justice, swarthy Pancho bin Laden always managed to elude the forces of law and order.  So went the early years of the war.

This new metanarrative consequently achieved a firm secondary identity as the epic of the “Good War”—an ostensibly just conflict--when contrasted with the metanarrative of the “Bad War” waged in Iraq, about which I could say much--but then again, so can (and have) we all.  And it is in this basic contrast that we may find a clue to at least one of the reasons for Obama electing to continue on with Afghanistan: confronted with the reality that he cannot bring both conflicts to a screeching halt simultaneously (in part because of the inevitable political fallout among well over half of the Beltway establishment, but more so because America may not be ready to absorb so much change so fast), he must choose between them.  And Afghanistan is--all other things being equal--the "first" war and suspected site of the figurehead of the miseries and martyrdoms of 9-11.  Iraq can be jettisoned as the disastrous policy and military decision that the great majority of America now hold it to be.  Afghanistan, however, is a more complicated matter, containing threads of unresolved tasks and involvements that, at least at their inception, had far more validation and international support.  To terminate the war in Afghanistan is to signal an abandonment of the pursuit of Bin-Laden.  Whether or not this would be a wise decision is not at issue here: I simply wish to underscore the amount of political capital and domestic confidence it would cost Obama to frankly and swiftly suspend operations in that theater of action.

Obama has been compared to Kennedy, to FDR--and why?  It goes well beyond his being a Democrat, even beyond his possession of a palpably felt worldview: these former presidents, as our new one, were true statesmen.  Their understanding of world, and domestic, conditions transcended the basic, bloodless calculations of real-politik; they implicitly understood that human dynamics are too powerful to ignore and too quicksilver to simply enter in as another factor in the ponderous equations of The Best Possible Solution.  The crucial truth is that all policy-making is more sui generis than it is cut from a common cloth.  To believe otherwise is to be willing to amputate  today's inconvenient truths--and delicate but powerful cultural details--with the same Procrustean saws that were humming at their bloody labors during the Vietnam years, and which Rumsfeld and Company proudly brandished once again when they bragged about "decapitation strikes" and "shock and awe."  Indeed, the highly intelligent but unsuccessful Presidents (such as Nixon) who presided over these debacles all seem to be politicians who share this blindness, and give renewed vitality to the old joke:

Q: What's the difference between a statesman and a politician?

A: A statesman shears the sheep; a politician skins them.

Obama is a statesman, and is applying the shears very carefully when he is working in the proximity of the unresolved wounds--the memories of 9-11--that are associated with Afghanistan.  Whether this association is right or wrong, valid or not, is again, not the point.  The tradition of statesmanship in which Obama is operating realizes--implicitly--that for the body politic, perception is reality.  And you don't change perception by simply declaring it flawed and moving on.  You work with it, change it if you can, constantly assessing the amount of political cachet it costs to move against the prevailing currents of public opinion.  For a president who from the start was peppered with accusatory premonitions of how he would be "soft on terrorism" and "lose Iraq at the very cusp of victory," Obama must have wisely wondered if he could afford to stop all of America's military involvements at once.  And if he did contemplate this, it seems inevitable that Afghanistan would, from a political standpoint, cost the least to continue, and the most to abandon.  Seen from this perspective, one can hardly imagine him taking another course of action.

This is not an apologia for Obama, nor an accusation.  It is neither a rightist nor a leftist position: it is a matter of trying to stand in his shoes.  The view from that vantage point confronts us with a world wobbly with wounds and a nation hopeful but perhaps limited in its receptivity to radical change.  A zealot--from the right or the left--might well ignore the nuances and forge ahead without a glance--again, to either the right or the left: indeed, the neoconservative cabal has done so for the past eight years, and see where it got them.  Is the answer to simply invert their process?  The flaw was not just their policy, but their method: a tunnel-vision of actualizing their world-view that had them moving forward so fast, that they moved too far from the will and understanding of the people that they represented.  Arguably, it was this flaw more than any other that ultimately paved the way, and empowered the mandate for change, that brought Osama to the White House.

So what has Obama learned from recent history that he is applying now?  Perhaps one of the simplest lessons of all.  If the first cook adds too much salt to the soup, the fix is not to add an equal (and no less offending) measure of pepper.  Whatever the answer is, this kind of "simple fix" is no fix at all, in the long run. 

So, it seems to me that Obama may be doing more than just trying to reverse the ills and injuries inflicted over the past eight years: he's trying to change the recipe for how best to blend a milder, more palatable America into the global stock pot of a still-simmering world.

Like all of us, I sure hope he's a good cook.


January 29 2009
The Turkish-Israeli Relationship: Still Flourishing
Ali Kemal Yenidunya, University of Birmingham

The relations between the two democracies of Turkey and Israel of have always been a critical center of attraction for millions of inhabitants living in the Middle East. Since 1948, there have been many diplomatic moves between the representatives of these two “strategic” countries. Some allege that these close ties brought many military, economic and political advantages to both countries in the Middle East whereas some, especially from the Islamic countries, argue that Turkey’s cooperation with Israel is not acceptable while thousands of Muslims have been suffering under the Israeli occupation.

These diverse speculations have not to come to an end with Israel’s most recent operations in Gaza. While many Islamic countries have not gone beyond declaring concerns over the deteriorating situation in Gaza, Turkish Prime Minister Reccep Tayip Erdogan’s “harsh statements” criticising Israel made headlines of newspapers across the world. He called Israel’s operations “a crime against humanity” and “savagery” and added that his statements were no harsher than the phosphorus bombs used by Israel.  This was not the first time that Erdogan had  used that language; he called the Israeli targeted assassinations of Sheikh Yassin and Rantisi part of “Israeli state terrorism”.

With Israel dropping tons of bombs on innocent Palestinian citizens including women and children, some scholars such as Juan Cole are arguing that Israel’s “apartheid” policies risk her relations with Turkey. I do not agree. The relations between Turkey and Israel have not been been damaged in an irrecoverable way as a result of Israel’s ongoing operations and of Turkey’s criticisms. There are systemic, regional, and other reasons concerning why both countries still need each other in the region. These include regional developments after the “compunction” in Iraq; common problems for both states such as terrorism, water problems, the Iranian threat, and Russia’s multi-containment policies; secular and democratic state policies backed up by long-standing institutions amidst globalization; and other peculiar interests of each state. Indeed, Erdogan’s criticisms might bring closer Turkey-Israel relations, as Israel becomes more isolated and Turkey becomes relatively more autonomous in the region.

Turkey’s foreign policy has been based on status quo in the region ever since it turned its face to the West in 1923. Turkish maneuvers in the Middle East have tried to balance Israelis and Arabs since the beginning of the Cold War, since neither group is dispensable for Turkey. Up to 1994, Arabs were slightly more important in Turkish foreign policy; Israeli relations became more important when it was understood that Turkey was no longer going to gain support for Its Cyprus case and for claims regarding Turkish minorities in Bulgaria from Arabs. Relations with Arab states were further complicated by the water problem with Syria and Iraq and the Kurdish group PKK’s close relations with Syria, Iran, and Iraq. 

During the Cold War, both Turkey and Israel were under the US-made chain of order system. They signed secret treaties on cooperation in diplomatic and military affairs in 1958, in harmony with the 1957 Eisenhower Doctrine pledging to safeguard the Middle East from Communist intervention. Turkey and Israel were dressed in “national security state uniforms” by the US during the Cold War. Israel’s development and aid from the US were much greater than that of Turkey, but both states were strictly under US command during the Cold War and, in that system, were fulfilling the necessities of cooperation.

After the demise of the Soviet Union and the US re-assertion of its hegemony in the First Gulf War in 1991, both Turkey and Israel worried whether US aid came to an end and  whether their strategic importance had ended. This had the effect of bringing Israel and Turkey closer.  

Economics also played an important role. By the 1980s, only 20 percent of Turkey’s trade was with Iran and other Islamic countries. In contrast, Israel’s defense technology and breakthroughs in agriculture, the possibility of reaching to the US market through Israel, Turkey’s geographically significant position to enter into the Central Asia market, and the Turkish market’s importance in the sale of technology furthered Turkish-Israeli ties. Turkey is now the 8th-largest trading partner of Israel.

Regionally, the gap created after the First Gulf War provided a geographic depth for the PKK to attack Turkey, and Iran and Syria gave support to the organization. Meanwhile, Turkey also had long-standing water problems with Syria and Iraq for years. Turkey did not find any serious support for the Cyprus case from Arabs,  and Russia’s multi-containment policy toward Syria, Greece, Armenia and Cyprus created further trouble, to the point where Turkey felt as if it was surrounded with enemies. For this reason, the cooperation with Israel in intelligence field was essential for Turkey.

In Turkey, the military still had a significant role in decision-making process in 1990s. Thanks to the Israelis, 10 Super Cobra helicopters and 3 Perry class frigates were submitted to Turkey by the US officials, and Turkey used these helicopters in defeating the PKK organization. In 1994, Prime Minister Ciller declared that Israel was Turkey’s “strategic partner.”  Even the religion-oriented party, the Welfare Party, could not divert this path. Ciller’s successor Erbakan, the head of Welfare Party, signed an agreement for the modernization of 54 Phantom fighters and the Assembly ratified the Free Trade Agreement which had been signed before them.

After the 2002 election victory of the Justice and Development Party, “strategic” relations finally came under the shadow of the new conjuncture since 9/11. First of all, Israel was the biggest benificiary from the US-led “war on terrorism campaign” as it did not join the coalition and applied harsh policies towards Palestinians.  On the other hand, while the US was struggling against countless “terrorists” in the Iraq disaster, Turkey had a relatively more autonomous conjuncture and even considered signing a treaty for gas with Iran despite the US’s warnings.

In this atmosphere, Turkey put its new foreign policy of strategic depth into practice since 2003. This new foreign policy does not aim at revising borders or intervening to internal affairs of other regional states but aims at strengthening the role of Turkey as a prestige-gaining mediator in the region including the problems of Russia-Georgia, Azerbaijan-Armenia, Georgia-Armenia, Iran-Azerbaijan, Iran-Israel, Syria-Israel, and Palestine-IsraelTurkey wanted to be an important actor through gaining prestige in the region in the course of time and to cover the failures in domestic affairs with this identity.

So if Prime Minster Erdogan called Israeli actions as “terrorism” and “crime against war” since he came to power but we should not ignore the first fact that these go hand in hand with the international conjuncture. Both Israeli and Turkish officials know that these “harsh statements” are designed to gain prestige while all international public opinion has already been against the Israeli operations in Gaza.  Erdogan is continuing the traditional state policy of balancing both Palestinians and Israelis, using the apartheid wall, buffer zones, assassinations, and wars as justifications.

Nor did these statements contain any regional policy change, as a previous episode demonstrates. In March 2004, Erdogan called Israel  a “terrorist state” in March, but he sent a diplomatic committee to Israel six months later. diplomatic representative level

Consider  the regional reasons that necessitate cooperation between Turkey and Israel:

Although Turkey has good relations with Iran now, Turkey will be the first state to oppose its nuclear weapon after Israel and the US. Turkey, as a country against revisionist policies in the region, would never accept this situation.

The Jewish lobby can not be dispensable for Turkey given the “Armenian genocide” issue, particularly with the entry of Barack Obama into office.

Russia’s attempts to pursue a multi-containment policy are still valid today. Russia is having negotiations with Syria over using its Tartus port as a base as it used during the Cold War, recognizing the South Ossetia and Abkhazia, preparing a financial deal for Kyrgyzstan where the Manah US base can be closed in a week, and strengthening its monopoly over gas which is vital for both the EU and Turkey.

Terrorism is still on the top of agendas of both states. While the Turkish public is complaining about the ongoing terrorist activities of PKK, Israelis have been waging war on many fronts against Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc.

As Turkey is located on the top of the flow routes of two important rivers, Firat and Dicle, and as Israel is seriously interested in bringing water from Manavgat stream in Turkey, cooperation on the water issue will be increasingly important.

Lastly, Israel has many problems even before peace negotiations with Arabs. These include the status of Jerusalem, the Jewish settlers in the occupied lands, the sharing of water, the situation of 4 million Palestinian refugees, and the Golan Heights problem with Syria. Given the underlying problems with its neighbors, Israel absolutely needs Turkey in the long-term.

Neither Turkey nor Israel wants to give damage to the relationship. Of course, there are many demonstrations against Israeli operation, even more than the ones in Arab states, on streets in Turkey and there are individually organized campaigns to boycott Israeli goods but none of them have gained government support. Yes, there was a minute of silence in Turkish schools last week. However we also should not forget the second fact that most of the voters of JDP are Islam-oriented people and want Erdogan to do more against Israel. Indeed, local elections are approaching and there is no place to a “fatal mistake” right now for PM Erdogan.

Let’s come to the other facts that why Israeli-Turkish relations are so important for Turkey:

Turkish military is still powerful in politics in Turkey. As a consequence of the constructed identity through ages that ‘there should be a state policy over governments’ is still on top of the agenda of Turkish public. Especially while soldiers and citizens are still suffering from PKK, the voice of the military in defense policy (if not in decision making, absolutely in technical issues such as modernization of tanks) is respected and tolerated by the Turkish public. We also should not forget that Turkish military is still the most trusted institution according to the polls in Turkey. That is why modernization of the army requires the Israeli cooperation. Turkey can get cheaper and faster service from Israelis rather than from Europeans and Americans. Indeed, in today’s complex global economical structure, trading with the EU or especially the US can not exclude Israel as well.

Though “the moderate Islam” identity has been applied to Turkey from top to bottom, we should not ignore that the secularist identity has also been in the same process since 1923. What I mean is that it will not be that easy to topple secularist reflexes in Turkish institutions. That is why Israel as a democratic and secular state is always going to be in the first place in the address book of secularists too. By virtue of the institutional reflexes of the secularist & democratic state policies over governmental ones since 1923, countervailing attempts have been exposed to taming procedures, especially by bureaucratic structures. One of the recent instances has actualized after PM Erdogan’s   “harsh statements” and he said: “They ask why we don’t cut ties with Israel… We are running the Turkish Republic; not a grocery store.”

There is only one way for the collapse of Turkish-Israeli relations unless Turkey gives up pursuing its interests in the West: If Turkey enters the EU and if an independent Kurdish state can be established in Northern Iraq. Israel is not happy with Turkey’s EU process, with the civilian bureaucracy gaining autonomy over the secularist military, and Turkey is not happy with the idea of a Kurdish state located on the other side of its border. If these events happen, Israel can have a new “strategic” ally in Kurdistan and the Turkish need for Israeli modernization and intelligence will diminish.

International, regional and other reasons are still strong enough to prevent any breaking of relations between Israel-Turkey. As  long as Turkey has the relative autonomy in the region, as long as it has no intention of revisionist policies, as long as it is still not a member of EU, and as long as Israel is feeling isolated, Turkish-Israeli relations are bound to improve.


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January 21 2009
Gaza and the Israeli Elections
Chris Emery, University of Birmingham

Chris Emery, a Ph.D. student at the University of Birmingham, offers a detailed reading of the effect — if any — that Israel’s invasion of Gaza has had upon the contest to become the next Israeli Prime Minister.

The recent news that Benjamin Netanyahu remains firmly on course to become Israel’s next prime minister, draws into sharp relief the complex domestic political dynamics around the crisis in Gaza.

Though consistently cited as part of a more cynical motivation for the recent conflict in Gaza, the direct significance of the looming election on February 10 is not immediately apparent. Not least, that is because the man most responsible for launching and prolonging the war, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, is not even standing. As Aluf Benn notes, Olmert has his eyes on his legacy rather than any electoral prize. Not so, of course, his ambitious foreign minister and more seasoned defence minister.

The surface reading is that Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak, albeit incorporating different agendas, viewed a popular war as an electoral panacea to their increasingly perilous opinion polls. It was, after all, on the issue of security that Livni was perceived as most vulnerable to attacks from the Likud leader, Netanyahu. Partly on this basis, but more significantly on the issue of Olmert’s corruption and lingering criticism of his handling of the war in Lebanon, Likud had built up a sizable lead in the polls. By mid-December, Likud’s lead peaked at 14 seats. At the same time, Barak’s Labor Party looked to be heading towards electoral annihilation.

This is not the first time Israeli politicians have been accused of seeking political gain from military successes. In March 2006, Olmert’s Kadima Party had recently dropped in opinion polls to 38 seats, still far ahead of its closest rivals, raising speculation that a coalition headed by Olmert would not be strong enough to push through his agenda. Olmert subsequently ordered a raid, in which Israeli troops seized the leader of a radical PLO faction, which had wide backing amongst hardliners in Israel. The next polls put Kadima up to 42-43 seats.

Recent polls suggested that the conflict had similarly boosted Labor and Kadima. Up to a few days ago, some polls indicated Kadima had cut Likud’s lead to between 2 and 3 seats. Labor, once the subject of media ridicule, now look to win 15 of the 120 parliamentary seats- an increase of at least 6 since mid December. With hostilities ceasing and campaigning about to begin in earnest it is, however, still Netayahu who remains clear favourite to be the next prime minister. How now then to explain the latest polls that put Likud ahead of Kadima by between 5 and 7?

There was of course always a limit on the extent Kadima’s malaise could be overcome. Many of the issues that placed Likud so far ahead of Kadima, up to late December, have not fundamentally changed since. Not least the underlining reason why there will be an election- a corruption scandal that forced Olmert to resign. Livni’s failure to forge a coalition that could have prevented an election was seen as further evidence of her inexperience in a critical area of Israeli politics.

The current conflict may have displayed Livni’s determination to confront Hamas and her refusal to contemplate the Sarkosy’s cease-fire or acknowledge a humanitarian crisis in Gaza increased her hawkish credentials. But it seems unlikely that she is now substantially better placed to beat the hard-line Netayahu on the grounds of national security. Reports that Livni had wished to end hostilities several days before the ceasefire was announced made her appear less hawkish than Olmert, and also excluded from the major decisions. It is doubtful that the vocal supporters of the war will see Livni as more likely than Netanyahu of protecting the gains they perceive Israel has made in Gaza.

It seems also that any drop Netanyahu did experience in the polls cannot be simply attributed to a surge in right wing support for Kadima following the present conflict. A possible explanation can be found in the controversy surrounding hardliner Likudnik Moshe Feiglin’s election to the relatively high 20th spot during the party’s primary election last week. Feiglin’s ousting from a Knesset seat backfired, causing rightist voters to abandon Likud for sectarian and hardliner parties.

Commentary of the Israeli election had actually been hard to find in either the Israeli or international media. This is in part due to the fact that political campaigning was suspended by all candidates in Israel. Definitive political analysis appears to remain suspended at the Jerusalem Post, which today predicted that the result could be anything “from a Likud blowout to a surprising Kadima come-from-behind victory.”

The conflict is very unlikely to have prevented Netanyahu from becoming the next prime minister. The real political impact of the war in Gaza may be in preventing a Likud landslide. In the context of Israel’s complex political system of alliance building, this could itself make the conflict significant. Broadly speaking, Barak has faired fairly well, avoiding potential electoral disaster and almost certainly securing a top spot in the next administration. Livni has to some extent bolstered her security credentials but has been hampered by an exceptionally poor working relationship with both Barak and Olmert. Netanyahu has probably played his hand as well as he could, the suspension of campaigning has not allowed him to make any mistakes, and he knows he faces little threat from Livni on the grounds of national security.


December 17 2008
Rethinking the Role of Military Power in US Global Policy
Carl Conetta, Project on Defense Alternatives


A key objective of the new administration will be to “rebalance” America’s foreign and security policy “tool kit”, giving greater prominence to diplomacy and other elements of “soft power”. And it is easy to see why. The surge in US defense spending and military activity that began ten years ago, and then sharply accelerated after the 11 September 2001 attacks, has had disconcerting results—to say the least. But setting an effective alternative course for US policy will not be as easy to accomplish as some assume.

Since 1998, defense spending has risen by 90 percent in real terms, bringing the national defense budget close to $700 billion annually, which represents about 46 percent of global defense expenditure (in purchasing power terms). All told, there are approximately 440,000 US military personnel presently overseas, which is close to the number that was overseas during the last decade of the Cold War. About 200,000 are currently engaged in combat operations and more than 38,000 have been wounded in action or killed since 2001. Despite this prodigious and costly effort, the world today seems, on balance, to be less secure, stable, and friendly than eight years ago. Terrorist activity and anti-Americanism have increased. The nation’s military activity has unsettled its alliances and prompted balancing behavior on the part of potential big power competitors: China and Russia. And there remains no real end in sight for America’s consumptive commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. Indeed, the scope of US military intervention is expanding.

What the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown the world is that the United States, unimpeded by a peer competitor, cannot by its current methods reliably stabilize two impoverished nations comprising only one percent of the world’s population—despite the investment of nearly 5,000 American lives and more than $850 billion. What General David Petreaus once asked of the Iraq war—“Tell me how this ends”—might be asked of the “war on terror” as a whole. The effort waxes and wanes, meandering into every corner of the earth, but shows no sure progress toward an end that might be called “victory.”

No great wisdom is needed to suspect that a sea-change in method is due.

Giving greater play to diplomacy and “soft power” is advisable, but not sufficient. More fundamental is the need to roll back America’s over-reliance on military instruments, which has proved both improvident and counter-productive. That the United States faces serious security challenges is not at question. Nor at question is the need for energetic global engagement. The problem is that the United States is using its armed forces and military power well beyond the limit of their utility. It is now experiencing not just diminishing returns, but negative ones. Thus, America finds itself paying more and more for less and less security.

Military moderation is also essential to the revival of America’s world reputation and leadership position. This, because what most divides the United States from those it proposes to lead is the issue of when, how, and how much to use force and the armed forces. This divide helped drive the Bush administration deeper into unilateralism. It was apparent during the 1990s as well, when the rise in anti- American sentiments first made headlines. Indeed, most post-Cold War US military interventions have involved considerable contention with key allies. Even when they join the United States on the battlefield, differences over the use of force re-emerge at the tactical level and with regard to “rules of engagement”.

Refiguring the role of force and the armed forces in US policy will not come easily. The current balance is well-rooted ideologically, institutionally, and politically. Some US leaders see it as reflecting America’s unique competitive advantage in the post-Cold War world and as pivotal to America’s strategy for shaping the process of globalization. But the costly wreck that is recent policy constitutes a strong argument for a change.

And the advent of a new administration in Washington provides an opportunity to go “back to the drawing board”. Unlike the first post-Cold War administrations, the next one will have the benefit of hindsight—having seen clearly both the nature of today’s security challenges and the downside of adopting an overly-militarized approach to addressing them.

Mapping a path out of the current policy cull-de-sac begins with the question, How did we get here?

Read the full report...


December 11 2008
The Folly of British Soft Power?
Drew Orum

Timothy Garton Ash has returned from China and the US with the assurance, "What Britain still has in spades is cultural power." His trip suggests to him that David Beckham is worth 50 Trident missiles, as he finds in China, ‘What commands their attention, and often their admiration, is our culture and as a result he argues against leaving the teaching of English to the free market.’

Garton Ash concludes, "Culture is the fourth dimension of British power. In the long run, it may be the most important of them all." This comes hot on the heels of Tristram Hunt’s article arguing, "Fuddy-duddy institutions with influential global remits, such as the BBC, the British Council, the Football Association and the Commonwealth, can serve an increasingly effective role in the coming era of greater international equality and the struggle for soft power." As Garton Ash argues that, compared to the budgets for defence, overseas development and the Foreign Office, funds for the British Council can only be described as piddling, Hunt sees the British Council as a means to project soft power.

This creates an intriguing question for the British Council, everyone likes being talked about positively – but is this really what the British Council does?

Joseph Nye has argued, "Soft power is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals. It differs from hard power, the ability to use the carrots and sticks of economic and military might to make others follow your will." Yet the British Council’s purpose statement, "We build engagement and trust for the UK through the exchange of knowledge and ideas between people worldwide," sounds rather different from merely attracting others to adopt your goals.

This division between power and exchange was made clear by the British Council’s Chief Executive during a lecture in Cairo. He argued, "Creating a genuine dialogue of equals is at the heart of how we do inter-cultural dialogue. Real engagement is based on a partnership of equals, one in which each side values the other The power of what we do comes from bringing people together and allowing them to explore what they have in common as well as their differences."

This partnership and equality, does not sit easily with Nye’s pursuit of power and predetermined goals through the "soft power" which Hunt and Garton Ash seem to support. There is nothing particularly underhand about adopting a soft power approach. However, it is stretching the bounds of plausibility to do this and to pursue exchange and engagement. If that is the case, the question arises: if you are about exchange and people suggest increasing your budget for soft power, what should you do? Should you clarify what you are actually about, even if the individuals who support you might do so on the basis of misunderstanding what the organisation says it does?

There may be a precedent here in the closing of many of the British Council's offices in Russia. The subsequent outcry focused in part on the libraries which had created opportunity for people to study around the world. What the British Council didn’t mention (there isn’t a press release on this subject in their archives) is that, while they were glad of the support and praise for  the libraries, many of them were already closed. Libraries had also recently closed in Israel, Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, and Bulgaria among other countries. These closures by British officials had caused complaints, such as Fay Weldon's accusation in the Observer that the Council was squeezing library funding.

With a little digging, a few reasons can be found for closing the libraries, such as in Georgia where "higher impact could be obtained by investing the money in other activities" as "libraries cannot reach substantially large numbers". Okay, that may be a sensible rationale, but does that mean the Council should accept praise and support for things it either doesn’t do or doesn’t think are cost effective?

Martin Davidson, who recently argued the British Council seeks to increase understanding and build trust, might start by putting Tristram Hunt and Timothy Garton Ash straight. The Council's purpose is not to extend soft power; it is to build trust, engagement, and the genuine exchange of ideas. The alternative course of action would be to drop the emphasis on genuine engagement, a partnership of equals, and mutual benefit in favour of programmes "to make others follow your will". Personally, considering the valuable work the British Council has done including supporting the anti-apartheid movement and running programmes such as Peace Keeping English, I hope they do the former rather than the latter.   


December 1 2008
The European Alternative to America?
Giles Scott-Smith

Karel van Wolferen is quite a rarity in the small world of Dutch public intellectuals. Since 2002 he has been waging almost singlehandedly a campaign for a radical shift in Dutch foreign policy away from the standard knee-jerk Atlanticism that typifies the body politic in The Hague. Together with journalist Jan Sampiemon, van Wolferen published the remarkable Keerpunt in de Vaderlandse Geschiedenis (Turning Point in National History) in 2005, around a hundred pages of vitriol aimed at the Bush Doctrine and the invasion of Iraq.

This would be standard fare for any decent leftist critique. Yet both van Wolferen and Sampiemon belong to the solid pro-Atlantic consensus that dominated thinking in the Netherlands during the Cold War. Neither could be called anti-American. In the 1980s Sampiemon was one of the key journalists writing in favour of the deployment of Cruise missiles to the Netherlands. Van Wolferen also started out as a journalist with a right-wing reputation, covering East Asia during the 1970s, and for several years has been a professor in Amsterdam. The cause of their current criticism is that, since Bush, the US is no longer the guiding hegemonic power that it was in the post-WW II era.

So how would they react to the arrival of Obama? The answer was not long in coming. On 22 November an article appeared in the centre-left NRC Handelsblad, ‘After the triumph of Obama, Europe must abolish NATO.’ The argument here is that Obama or no Obama, the US is stuck for both structural and ideological reasons in a path that no longer coincides with European interests. An inescapable need for an enemy to justify the US belief in good v. evil, the determination to be a superior power above all others, and the domestic drive of the military-industrial complex make the authors pessimistic that the Obama presidency will be that much different. The GWOT (Global War on Terror) rhetoric may disappear, but its intent will continue in more localized fashion in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it could still turn out differently:

If Obama sees a chance to end the fantasy of the war against terror and make his country feel relatively comfortable about being the largest industrial power in the world without credible enemies, then he will make a giant step back to the relatively stable and peaceful world order that functioned at the end of the 20th century principally thanks to America.

What can Europe do to take the initiative instead of simply waiting to see which way the wind blows from Washington? In 2005 WolfSamp called for the EU to stand up for international legitimacy and get behind a revived UN, in doing so taking over the role that the US had played in upholding order and stability. In 2008 the message is slightly different. The UN features again, but this time in the form of support for the Declaration of Human Rights (it being the 60th anniversary this year) as a device to stimulate the idealist side to Obama’s thinking.

This time the authors are going much farther. Europe is divided as much due to the continuing ‘outsourcing’ of its defence and security policy to the US as it is due to any internal disagreements. As a result, ‘an initiative to abolish NATO would be a welcome sign of courage, peaceful intent and strategic understanding for the world.’ The ‘heavily-leaking’ US security umbrella can be ‘closed’ and replaced by a ‘Euro-Asiatic security organization in a new style.’ This would in a single move re-arrange the post-Cold War order by removing Europe from its continuing ‘vassal’ status  and short-circuit any further consequences from following in the train of US-created ‘enemy-fantasies’.

This dramatic proposal comes in the penultimate paragraph of WolfSamp’s article, a convenience that prevents any working out of how this might be applied in practice. But that is not really the point. Van Wolferen complained bitterly following the publication of Keerpunt in 2005 that he could no longer understand the depths to which Dutch Atlanticism would go. Support the invasion of Iraq? No problem. Make deals on Afghanistan? No problem. Meanwhile continue as the centre of international law? No problem. How about a reconsideration of Dutch and European foreign policy based on a promotion of the moral and ethical values at the centre of Western civilization? No way.

The mainstream could easily push aside criticism in public debate as the rantings of (generally) the idiotic anti-American left. Yet here we have two figures on the moderate right who go further in their critique than the Maoist-inspired Socialist party, which has given up its rejection of NATO over the past few years. WolfSamp’s value comes from posing the persistent question: What are the alternatives for a post-US world order from a European perspective?



November 6 2008
48 Hours 

Charles Gannon, St. Bonaventure University

There are events that change the way we see the world, and many of us have been alive to see a number of them: Neil Armstrong's first small step on the moon; the fall of the Wall in Berlin, the toppling of two Towers in Manhattan.  They are the social equivalent of what Thomas Kuhn calls "paradigm shifts": that moment when our context and viewpoint alter and nothing looks the same as it did just one historical moment ago.

It is already trite to declare that Election Day, 2008, was just such a day.  It is already equally tiresome to recite the long list of reasons why this is true.  I know because I spent too much of the day looking at blogs and websites, taking the temperature of both America and the world.  But while on this atypical sampling spree, I noted something that struck me: that a significant number of individuals denied that this election would produce any measurable change.  Most of these persons supported McCain (or perhaps more accurately, were doggedly resisting the surging pro-Obama tide), but there were many who were simply card-carrying cynics of the most determined type.  And theirs is an understandable reflex: after almost a solid decade of war, declining fortunes, international suspicion and bricolage and upset, there are many persons who have put on the cold but safe armor of absolute skepticism.  Why hope when, having been so frequently and so bitterly disappointed, optimism itself has come to seem like the pass-time of fools and pollyannas?

However, for those who insist that an Obama presidency will “not change anything,” I can only observe the following:

Material, measurable change always depends upon, and therefore trails, that utterly fundamental and powerful prerequisite for such change: belief and hope. It may be that November 5 2008 will not be a notably brighter day for the stock market, or the military situation in Iraq , or the countless other insurgencies and strifes that dot the globe, or for the state of race relations in the US (or anywhere else). Indeed, in the wake of the heady rush of the election, November 5 may seem a little greyer than it is-–simply in comparison to the bright hope we felt the day before.


Once people have decided upon change–have committed to it in their hearts, have affixed it to a cause or a movement–it begins to live and breathe and waken from the deep slumbers of cynicism. The power of a nation-–and judging from the blogs, of a globe--of persons who truly believe that change is here, and that they have both made it possible and will pass it on to the next generation, is well nigh unstoppable. It would be going too far to say that such a force for change can “accomplish anything,” but we have seen that it has damned few limits. Too quickly we forget how often we have stood surveying a scene of devastation and said or thought: “we cannot come back from this.” Two World Wars, Depression, Recession, holocaust, apartheid, and killing fields across the world have left behind barren vistas that seem too drenched with blood and tears to ever send forth new growth and flowers–and yet they do, and humans raise up crops of hope and new children from the green fields that were, within the memory of those alive, wastelands of despair.  This is the species of change that Obama seems to embody.  What he does or says (while critically important) is ultimately secondary to what he has awakened in so many of us-–the will and belief that we can once again make a difference.

I believe Obama will become a controversial, even embattled, figure soon enough. For instance, he will have higher approval abroad than at home, and that is unfortunate, because I have felt the world (at best) turn its back on an America that has seemingly gone viciously senile and insensitive. And if you, as an American, think that is a terrible misperception, I will simply say: research and/or reconsider the current Administration’s dismal, disinterested response to Katrina. Americans have been the victims, too-–but some of us have been too close to our own dense forest to see the trees.

I suspect Obama will incur more debt than he thinks he will, largely because I believe that he will discover that he cannot make the changes he wants unless he challenges the profound inequities of the current trade protectionism exerted by China and other import-focused industrial powerhouses of the Pac Rim. 

There will be nations and leaders that will take duplicitous advantage of his desire to deal in good faith. I only hope we will remember that such integrity is the foundation of moral clarity, and that moral clarity is the necessary precursor to just and *MULTILATERAL* military action–-when, alas, it must be taken.

He will make mistakes; he will stumble; he will misspeak (and, far more frequently, be quoted out of context). But he has given us all hope again, and we can go on to finish the work that he will have only set in motion, whether he is to enjoy one term or two in the White House. He is not the most intelligent man, or the most moral man, or the wisest man: but he *is* the man who, being the right person at the right time, has midwifed a new hope into the world–-and for that alone, he is worth all the risks, all the uncertainties, and all the challenges that might lie before us. Lest adherents of real politick think this is anti-logocentric nonsense, I assure you otherwise: I simply observe that the quantifiable rules of economics and politics do hold sway 95 % of the time–but the other 5% see them swept aside and trumped by that most powerful of all forces: human hope and will.



September 11 2008
I am (Still) An American: Video Portraits of Post-9/11 American Citizens

Cynthia Weber, University of Lancaster

On the seventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, US Americans find themselves not only reflecting upon the tragic events of that day but also pondering who they will put in the White House to replace  George W. Bush, the President who responded to 9/11 by announcing a US-led ‘war on terror’. 

Officially, the war on terror has embroiled the US in foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Unofficially, the war on terror has become the context for a rehashing of an age-old debate in the United States about who is and is not ‘American’ and about how this US national identity called ‘American’ has been, is being, and should be mobilized.  The US Presidential campaign reminds us of this US domestic ‘culture war’,  pitting the ‘American’ credentials of Barak Obama against those of John McCann and Sarah Palin. Doing so, the campaign raises the question of whether or not ‘American’ is a distinction broad enough to encompass individual US citizens of diverse races and backgrounds.

This is the same question that concerned US Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Responding to fears of a backlash against mainly Muslim and Arab US Americans, the American Advertising Council broadcast a public service announcement (PSA) designed to remind US Americans of the inclusiveness of ‘American’ identity.  This PSA features a montage of individual US citizens of diverse ages, races, and religions who look directly into the camera and declare ‘I am an American’.  The PSA concludes with the US motto E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many (differences), One (nation), underscoring the idea that these living portraits of individual citizens combine to create a single US public with a shared vision of the US nation.  According the Ad Council, the PSA ‘sought to celebrate the ideals that keep this country (USA) strong by highlighting the nation’s extraordinary diversity’ and ‘helped the country unite in the wake of the terrorist attacks’.

While this famous PSA did clearly move many US Americans with its sentimental portrayal of patriotism after 9/11, it did not create domestic unity.  For it neither prevented a backlash against Muslim and Arab US Americans nor quelled the extension of suspicions about ‘multicultural’ US Americans to additional racial and ethnic groups.  We see this not only in the terms the current US presidential election is being fought but also in the treatment of some US Americans in the aftermath of 9/11.

‘I am an American’:  Video Portraits of Post-9/11 US Americans records the experiences of citizenship and patriotism of US citizens caught up in the security and immigration crossfire of the war on terror.  In a series of interviews, famous US citizens (like US Army Muslim Chaplin James Yee,  human rights activist Shanti Sellz, or undocumented immigrant Elvira Arellano and her US citizen son Saul) are invited to reflect upon their experiences of citizenship and patriotism after 9/11, to create a pose (often with the US flag) that epitomizes their experiences, and to encapsulate their experiences into a sentence that includes the words, ‘I am an American’.

The result is a series of moving and still video portraits that announce US publics whose experiences of citizenship fragment, de-idealize, and refigure US national myths about identity, citizenship, tolerance, and patriotism.  These video portraits also remind us of the troubling ways the ‘culture war’ over US American identity has been waged since 9/11 and is being waged today.

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Politics at Lancaster University and the author of Imagining America at War (Routledge, 2006).  Her ‘I am an American’ exhibition can be viewed at the Critical Geopolitics Conference at Durham University, UK,  September 23-24, 2008, the Ice House Gallery, Phoenix, Arizona, USA, September 29-October 17, 2008, the CEINLADI conference at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 15-17, 2008, the International Studies Association Conference in New York, USA, February 15-18, 2008, and the Aberystwyth University Arts Centre, UK, March 3-10, 2009. 

If you would like to arrange an exhibition or a screening, please contact C.Weber [at] Lancaster.ac.uk.


August 25 2008
Political Discourse and Making (Non)Sense 

Chuck Gannon, St Bonaventure University

"There has always been, and always will be, dangerous potentials for imprecision in figurative rhetoric. Whichever semiotic or linguistic models we might use as our critical bases, all share the same theoretical touchstone: that words—-and the metaphors, analogies, and paradigms that arise from them--are as innately and profoundly imperfect as they are indispensable."

Read the analysis...


August 19 2008
Poses and Realities in the Georgia Crisis 

Atticus Finch, University of Birmingham

Amidst the reaction to the Russian-Georgian conflict, including the commentary in “Watching America”, there has been little consideration of the important factor of the Baku -Tbilisi- Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline. The pipeline is Georgia 's entry card to the business of exporting Caspian oil and thus Tbilisi ’s main strategic value to the wider world, but it has always represented less of a triumph for Pan-Caucasian relations than for the expansion of American and European political and economic interests. In 1997, when former Secretary of State James Baker was calling for closer ties between Washington and Tbilisi , he stated the pipeline would “transform” the dynamic of the Eurasian landmass “from the north-south character of the former Soviet union into the east-west orientation of the new independent nations”.  Ideally, the creation of this “new Silk Road” would, split Russia from its possessions and provide Western investment with a metaphorical highway running from the Black Sea to the Gobi desert, a thoroughfare that happens to run through the Caspian oil and gas fields.

The political-military offshoot of the business venture between Turkey , Azerbaijan , and Georgia has been the connection between the Caspian and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a marker of strategic movements beyond the traditional regional balance of power. However, if any of these aspirations were closer to achievement, they must now been firmly re-examined. Significantly,  the BTC pipeline was closed by British Petroleum last week. Equally significantly, given Georgia's President Saakashvili specious claim that the Russians had bombed the pipeline (quickly denied by BP), the Russian military headed for the Georgian town of Gori, not to honour Stalin's birthplace but to make a point about the vulnerability of the pipeline section running from Baku in Azerbaijan.

In retrospect, it seems fanciful to imagine a scenario where Russia would not conduct an operation to put an upstart challenger like Georgia in its place. Russian strategic concerns regarding its “periphery” are far from new; complemented by ten years of concerted Russian efforts to maintain ownership of former Soviet energy sectors (for instance, Gazprom maintains near total control of Turkmenistan’s gas production and export), the recent Caucasian conflict is unsurprising. Russia ’s leadership understandably sees the inclusion of Georgia and Ukraine in NATO as ‘encirclement’, with a US-led “West” countering the Russian desire for a regional sphere of influence in Georgia with one of its own. When the Western media presented the move of US bases from "Old Europe" to the former Eastern Bloc countries as the punishment of France and Germany for their failure to provide support for the Iraq War, Russia simply saw US tanks and bayonets moving closer towards it. Washington ’s desire for a counter-missile base in Poland , officially to intercept missiles of Iranian origin, would appear to Moscow to be far more effective against the Russian arsenal.

The mirror image of this Russian perspective was the view from Georgia . Georgia 's relationship to NATO was pressed at the Bucharest meeting by the US in part because of the oil factor, but it was also the product of anti-Russian feelings, including those of US commentators who naively thought that NATO could be expanded to include countries on the Russian periphery without a response from Moscow .

In fact, the US at Bucharest was not trying to finalize NATO membership for Georgia (and Ukraine ) but rather to secure an interim step, the so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP). Amidst the reluctance of European members to take definitive, the Bucharest summit only produced a general aspiration that the two countries "will become NATO members". This kept Bush from losing face, but --- ironically and ultimately dangerously --- this statement was more of a symbolic commitment  than MAP would have been. Unfortunately for Georgia , this pseudo-commitment seemed to have struck a chord with Mr. Sakashvili. Having aligned its interests with those of the United States and the West, Tbilisi awaited its windfall, and President Saakashvili appeared to think, erroneously, that he had the space and support to move against South Ossetia

It is surprising that any sort of warning intelligence seems to have been lacking.  Journalists have reported that Tbilisi was crowded with American and Israeli soldiers assigned to train the Georgia forces.  Surely they would have been aware of preparations for the assault and movements of artillery and tanks westward.  Moreover, the Americans must have realized that Moscow could call their bluff:  Putin would have known that NATO had crossed a threshold and wouldn’t be dropping any bombs on Russian tanks (no matter what that would do for NATO’s reliability), while the Russians have no such qualms of dropping their own bombs on Georgian tanks. 

The US can now mutter darkly about Russia ’s eviction from G8, but the West's current need for Russia in terms of energy supply and Moscow ’s place on the UN Security Council is almost as great as Russia 's need for the West in terms of piped gas market, technology and foreign direct investment. Indeed, Washington ’s lack of leverage has been highlighted by rumours that the United States “sold out Georgia ” to ensure Russian complicity with the US continuing campaign of pressure against Iran .  If Tehran is to be coerced into giving up its nuclear ambitions, Putin's consent or at least non-interference must be a critical factor. 

This is not cynicism; this is reality. Washington can strike its pose that Russia ’s “international aspirations” will suffer because of its “invasion” of Georgia . In the end, however, poses may give way to political, economic, and diplomatic assets. Far from presaging a new Cold War, those assets may well produce a new Grand Bargain with Russia in which Moscow ’s presence in and around Georgia is merely a starting point for negotiation.


August 19 2008
Back to the Future in Georgia: Russia, Germany, and America 

Colette Mazzucelli, Molloy College

Putin’s Risky Gambit

The military invasion of Georgia on 8 August reveals much about changes inside Russia since the last decade of the 20th century. In a military action reminiscent of Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1978, Russia violated the territorial integrity of a sovereign neighbor. The Georgia campaign suggests that the dynamic between the Russian prime minister and his chosen successor as president, Dmitry Medvedev, gives Mr. Putin the decisive voice in national security decisions, but more importantly, Putin’s actions of late defy the Yeltsin rejection of the path to a Greater Russia. At stake in the Putin era is, as Strobe Talbott explains, “whether Russian policy has changed with regard to the permanence of borders in Europe”.  

Although the timing of the Russian military action caught the Georgian leadership off guard, the warning signs were there to read in recent months. The situation of the ethnic Russians in the zone of conflict could have been addressed through diplomacy, but the presence of Russian troops near Tbilisi now lays down Putin’s markers in a power play. In his eyes, the proposed expansion of NATO to Georgia and the Ukraine makes a confrontation with the West inevitable. What was needed was a pretext, one which was provided earlier this year. The support Western countries lent to Kosovo’s independence prompted Moscow to warn, in a questionable analogy, of “precedent-setting consequences”. Those consequences applied in particular to South Ossetia, an ethnic enclave on Georgian territory with a history as a Russian protectorate.

Georgia has linked its future to the West in its aspiration to develop stable institutions in the tradition of constitutional liberalism. This does not alter the fact that Georgian president Mikhail Saakashvili is a nationalist determined to bolster his domestic credentials by proceeding to act militarily against separatist enclaves. Yet, Russia’s military campaign was a calculated invasion not a proportionate response. Its significance reaches beyond the ethnic rivalries in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Georgia is a fault line area of geo-strategic importance, which offers landlocked countries access to the Black Sea. Two major pipelines take supplies from the oil and gas fields in the Azeri region of the Caspian Sea through the Georgian capital of Tbilisi. The pipelines head south, away from the South Ossetia region, into Turkey, en route to the European Union.

The Media’s Responsibility

It is tempting for the American media to raise the question of a return to the Cold War, but times have changed. The Americans no longer face down the Soviets in a conflict stalemated by the balance of terror. It is the West’s prudent response to Russia’s use of overwhelming force that defines security in our time.

This prudence is in part dictated because, in contrast to the immediate post Cold War period, the West’s leverage is limited. Just as Russia attempts to capitalize on the fundamental change in the US approach to the rest of the world after 9/11, the Western response must be crafted in the post-2005 environment. The context is one where Iraq monopolizes the use of America’s resources, Iran is on the ascent, and NATO’s engagement is vital on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

With Mr. Putin marking a return to intimidation politics, the consequences for European and transatlantic unity are potentially far-reaching. Germany intends to retain “open lines of communication” with Russia while the newer EU members, Great Britain and Scandinavia call for a harder line. At this critical point, the United States must remain faithful to its postwar history with Europe while the West avoids falling into the trap of a self-fulfilling prophecy, where Russia’s actions in the “near abroad” lead to a scenario in which the world relives the Cold War.

From Berlin to Tbilisi: A Western Response to Define the Era

Russia’s actions after the Cold War are a sobering reminder that geography is destiny. The arbitrary redrawing of borders leaves a legacy of conflict, and ethnic fragmentation is a fundamental agent of change. In the context of Russia and Georgia, the danger of renewed violence remains as long as Mr. Saakashvili believes he may count on Western support for actions to retake the enclaves. Given Russia’s top national security concern, the Islamic radical insurgency ravaging its southern republics, the threat to undermine regional governments --- including that of North Ossetia --- may well continue to provoke desperate acts that identify a way to reconsolidate Russian alliances among southern leaders.

The members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) face considerable obstacles to act constructively with Russia in this context. Russia’s military action in Georgia demonstrated the anger over a NATO enlarged to Russia’s borders, the Western confrontation with Serbia, and plans for missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic. Moreover, the pressures now to offer Tbilisi the prospect of full accession to NATO raise concerns far beyond Moscow’s response. As Philip Gordon explains, Georgia has “a long way to go – both in meeting NATO’s democratic standards and in terms of resolving its internal conflicts” before membership is feasible. In addition, there are substantial financial costs, the challenges inherent in consensus decision-making as NATO expands, and the tensions which enlargement to the Caucasus create in German-American relations to consider.

So what should be done in the short term? Russia’s military action has resulted in a tragic humanitarian crisis. The US must act decisively in ways that speak to its values as a nation and demonstrate its enduring interests in “a Europe whole and free”. The extent of the destruction in infrastructure, the brutality of the ethnic cleansing and the scale of the internally displaced persons each call for American humanitarian engagement. This must be as significant a demonstration of US resolve to stand up to the Russian threat without being forced into a direct conflict as the Berlin Airlift in 1948-49. Such an action underscores, in Michael Walzer’s words, that “humanitarian intervention is justified when it is a response (with reasonable expectations of success) to acts ‘that shock the moral conscience of mankind.’”      


July 28 2008
Pragmatism in a Perfect Storm: Transatlantic Leadership in a time of Transition

Colette Mazzucelli, Molloy College

In this essay, Colette Mazzucelli discusses the latest events in the Middle East. "The prospect of further nuclear discussions in Geneva that include a US presence along with unexpected increases in oil inventories may produce another drop in oil prices. This is an indication that a return to pragmatism in US foreign policy is in order. Multilateral nuclear diplomacy with direct American engagement is a port in the financial storm." Read the full essay... 



July 18 2008
Stunning America: The Unipolar During (and Beyond) the Bushian Era
Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

[I presented this paper on Monday to the International Summer School at the Clinton Institute, University College of Dublin. As it's a work in progress, the footnotes are not attached, but I would be glad to provide sources. Indeed, I would be pleased to get your feedbacks and comments. --- SL]

Two weeks ago, a colleague sent me an e-mail with the teasing headline “The perfect line to begin an essay….” The attached article, from the New York Times, harked back to May 2003 when the US military was attempting to persuade the Iraqi state-owned oil company to hire private contractors to guard installations and oilfields. The commanding officer of the American unit “reminded his men that they were there as advisers and should treat the Iraqi executive with deference. But within minutes the Americans were haranguing the company chief for moving too slowly.” Later, as the soldiers and engineers were commenting how much easier the Iraqi situation would be if they “were simply running the show”, one of them offered the ideal framing, “I like to think of ourselves as really nice conquerors.”

In that sentence, I believe, is a lifetime’s potential of academic analysis, although I’ll have to defer to better-skilled colleagues in American Studies for much of that. For my purposes, the comment illustrated the complexity of political, economic, military, and cultural interests bound up with the American occupation of “liberated” Iraq . It offers an example of the discourse and ideological projections that “we” present to ourselves to rationalize those interests, eliding the tensions in their pursuit. And perhaps most significant, given that I do not believe it is considered as often, it offers an example of the discourse and ideological projections that are offered to and then negotiated by “others”.

We are at a moment when I think essential to consider this relationship between American interests and ideology. There is a temporal need, given that we are on the eve of the departure of the Bush Administration, which may or may not be the most important in its  impact upon US political culture and American foreign policy. There is a polemical need, given that there is a vigorous attempt to frame that Administration as merely part of a continuum --- usually a well-intentioned continuum --- in US policymaking and global activity. And there is a transcendent need --- transcendent in taking our analysis beyond the George W. Bush Administration, beyond its immediate activity, and beyond its discursive framing of that activity --- to consider the American exceptional regarding “power”. This is not just the exceptional of power, the exceptional of the economic, military, and cultural capabilities of the United States , but the exceptional for power, the attempt to establish a perpetual superiority --- a “full spectrum dominance”, to use the US Government’s phrase --- over the economic, military, and cultural influence of others.

I am concerned, in other words, with the prosecution both of and for the unipolar: as it was defined by Charles Krauthammer, “the unchallenged superpower, the United States , attended by its Western allies”. I believe that the distinction of this Bush Administration lies in its quest to convert preponderance of capabilities into the long-term objective of a global position where the United States cannot be challenged “by any rival or group of rivals”. This position is not separate from specific interests, such as the control of resources, a system of  “free trade” in support of economic advantage, or the “spread of democracy”; rather, all those interests are supportive of the wider aim of perpetual superiority. In this respect, the current Executive is markedly different from predecessors which, as in the case of Truman and Eisenhower, pursued a defined objective of superiority over a specific opponent (the Soviet Union) or, as in the case of Clinton, pursued a defined objective of collective power albeit under American leadership (“engagement and enlargement”).

Yet, now that we are seven years after 9-11, six months before the end of the 43rd President’s stay in office, I do not think our recognition and observation of the “unipolar” is sufficient. For this quest has, except in the eyes of a few indefatigable cheerleaders, collapsed. The United States has failed to establish its superiority in theatres from Afghanistan to Iraq to the wider Middle East, in old Cold War arenas such as East Asia and the rim of the former Soviet Union, and even in traditional backyards such as Latin America . Even as it has persisted with the symbolic placement of its superior capability (Missile Defense) around the globe, the Bush Administration has struggled to maintain the precedence of its national objectives --- shrouded under the umbrella of the “War on Terror” --- over collective objectives on issues such as climate change.

Thus we face the challenge of “what happens next”. In the often polarized spheres of American political discourse, there is an obvious if simplistic tension between the supportive framings of the Bush Administration as just an instance, albeit a distinctive and even exalted instance, of a post-1945 American exemplar and the oppositional framings of that Administration as a destructive force without precedent. This simplistic tension obscures, and even threatens to obliterate, the recognition that a successor will not operate ab initio with respect to policy and the rhetorical portrayal of that policy. In other words, even if the fantastical notion of the “unipolar” in the Bush Administration’s mission is exposed, the mission does not disappear. To adapt the language of the Administration’s National Security Strategies, we still fight terrorists, square up to tyrants. A Presidential Obama or President McCain will still operate from the basis of an assumed or desired US pre-eminence in many, if not all, areas of international affairs. In the words of the 2006 Princeton Project on National Security, a possible blueprint for future US foreign policy, the United States must “avoid the emergence of hostile great powers or balancing coalitions”.

I do not think this is an especially novel observation, even if it is a necessary one. However, I think it takes on added significance if we set it alongside the missing dimension in both implementations and analyses of US foreign policy. This is --- and forgive me for flagrantly stealing the term from colleagues who have considered it in far more depth and nuance --- the absence of the “other”.

It seems to be axiomatic that the pursuit of the “unipolar” can only be upheld if the capabilities of the “other” are erased or caricatured as an opposition to be quelled. A “preponderance of power”, in the end, cannot accept any negotiation or engagement that denies or challenges that preponderance. Yet, even the post-Bushian invocations make reductions that draw from and even repeat President Bush’s two-dimensional representation of “with us or against us”. The “Coalition/Concert of Democracies” is our new grail, setting aside obsolete conceptions such as the United Nations. The placing of nation-states into our new categories, rendering them acceptable or unacceptable --- “our” Democracies, the “other” non-Democracies --- precedes any consideration of their political, economic, and social perspectives, desires, aspirations.

As Michael Ignatieff framed both our niceness and our hesitancy to conquer at the start of 2003:

We are living through the collapse of many…former colonial states. Into the resulting vacuum of chaos and massace a new imperialism has reluctantly stepped --- reluctantly because these places are dangerous and because they seemed, at least until September 11, to be marginal to the interests of the powers concerned. But gradually this reluctance has been replaced by an understanding of why order needs to be brought to these places.


Assessing the failed “grand strategy” of the Bush Administration, a “grand strategy” which I would argue was distinctive --- possibly unique --- not because of its promotion of means such as pre-emptive warfare, the supposed influence of neo-conservatives, or its conjunction of the ideological mantra of “freedom” with the security imperative of a War on Terror but because of its quest for the unipolar, I offer two historical observations.

First the post-1945 conduct of US foreign policy, and indeed the histories of the conduct of that policy, should be exposed for their “illusions of coherence”. In particular, we have been distracted and even deluded by the representation of US actions within --- to use the seminal framing of the historian John Gaddis --- “strategies of containment”.

Simply represented, “containment” was the collection of diplomatic, political, economic, military, and cultural measures to ensure that “Communism” --- specifically Soviet (and, in its post-1949 augmented form, Sino-Soviet) Communism --- did not expand beyond its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe and Asia . It was embodied in the public declarations of the Truman Doctrine of 1947 and the “Mr X” article (written by George Kennan, usually portrayed as the key American strategist in this formative period) later that year and private documents such as NSC 68, adopted in 1950 as the global blueprint for the fight against Moscow.

The problem is that “containment”, from its inception, was an incomplete caricature of US aims and operations. As Kennan later reflected, containment was a catch-all term which could encompass any specific objective or operation. While American foreign policy was well-detailed in its attempt to secure Kennan’s “strongpoints” --- ID --- it was vague, indecisive, and inconsistent in its approach to other areas. For example, neither the Truman nor Eisenhower Administrations could resolve whether they sought a “containment” which, by its supposed nature, would accept Soviet control over Eastern Europe or a “liberation” which would free the captive peoples from Moscow ’s grip. While South Vietnam was not vital to US geopolitical or economic interests --- as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles admitted --- the Eisenhower Administration increasingly committed US resources and personnel to the maintenance of its regime.

Anders Stephanson has argued that, as early as 1950, the US Government was using the Cold War as an abstract “for the contradictory unity of non-war and non-recognition vis-à-vis the Soviet Union ”. While I am reluctant to go that far --- I think that the pieces of the conflict, from the arms race to intervention in Korea to the expansion of American covert action to overthrow unacceptable Governments to the political warfare of outlets like Radio Free Europe, were “real” --- I do not think that those pieces fit together. The outcome was thus a Cold War beyond the Cold War. While the US reached a general accommodation with the Soviet Union over each other’s respective spheres of influence, in my opinion as early as 1956, the image of the global conflict was invoked to rationalize interventions well outside any US-Soviet (or US-Chinese) confrontation. American foreign policy was now doubly incoherent. Already unable to resolve its aims vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc, it was now placing specific political, economic, and ideological motives --- from Guatemala to Iran to Egypt to Cuba to the Dominican Republic to Vietnam --- within a largely tangential (and arguably irrelevant) context of relations with Moscow or Beijing.

The tensions would mark US foreign policy all the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Consider, for example, the supposed triumph of “realism” with the diplomacy of the Nixon Administration in the 1970s. At the same time that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were pursuing a détente with the Soviet Union and China , they were invoking the Communist spectre to justify coups and even assassinations of opponents from Chile to Angola as well as support of invasions such as Indonesia ’s occupation of East Timor . Ronald Reagan (as well as a number of activists now represented as the founding fathers and mothers of neo-conservatism) criticised that realism and then, in the early years of his Presidency, called for a renewed showdown with the “evil empire” of Soviet Coummunism. By 1985, however, the Reagan Administration had adopted the Nixon-Kissinger pattern to embrace negotiations with Mikhail Gorbachev while waging campaigns to topple unacceptable governments in countries such as Nicaragua and Afghanistan .

Thus, if the collapse of the Soviet Union allowed the US to deal with the abstracted Cold War through the claim of “victory”, at the same time it exposed the conflicts that had developed beyond the bipolar framework of containment. (Indeed, that exposure was dramatic even before 1991. In December 1988, the Lockerbie disaster followed US interventions in Iran or Lebanon or Israel/Palestine or Libya . A year later, the US military incursion into Panama came weeks after the fall of the Wall and weeks before the downfall and execution of Ceascescu in Romania . And, seven months before Boris Yeltsin boarded a tank to challenge an attempted Communist coup, US troops led a coalition in the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s forces.)

So the second historical context became the question, “What do you do with so-called containment when the enemy to be contained no longer exists?” The Clinton Administration’s response was to proclaim the primacy of international economic relations and the US-led “engagement and enlargement” to broaden the participation of (hopefully democratic) countries in that international system. In striking contrast to the previous half-century, it provided extensive assistance to ensure the viability of the post-Soviet economy, and it sought the free trade arrangements of “globalisation” from North America to Europe to Asia . Madeleine Albright, Ambassador to the United Nations and then Secretary of State, would put forth an “assertive multilateralism” to deal with conflicts around the globe.

The difficulty, as Clinton heatedly complained to his advisors, lay in the presentation of this approach to the American public. It was “weak, pathetic….I just didn’t get, it just didn’t grab.”    US foreign policy without the Cold War map was a “big yawn, telling a generation that’s already bored that their mission is boring.” At the same time, the Administration was beset with post-Cold War crises (which, in fact, had been part of the post-1945 fabric overlaid by the American confrontation with the Soviet Union) from Somalia to Rwanda to Haiti to Bosnia . So, partly in response to the quandary of “weakness”, partly to deal with the ongoing regional complications of earlier years and decades, Clinton returned to “containment”. This time, it would be the enemy of Iran that would be contained through economic sanctions. And it would be the enemy of Iraq , not only through sanctions but also through military action as in the airstrikes of December 1998.

This containment, however, could not overcome the dilemma for US strategy. US capabilities could be demonstrated but, unless they sought and succeeded in vanquishing rather than limiting enemies, the “other” still retained some power.

Officials in the Bush Administration not only recognized this dilemma; they were committed to resolving it. Indeed, several of them had approached the problem nine years earlier while serving the first President Bush. In 1992, a year after American “victory” in the first Gulf War co-existed with Saddam Hussein’s retention of power, an Assistant Secretary of Defense named Paul Wolfowitz presented a document, written by his aide, Zalmay Khalilzad) to his boss, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The innocuously titled Defense Planning Guidance was no less than a call for never-ending dominance:

Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia .

Any implementation of this strategy was suspended, of course, during the Clinton years, but “in opposition” activists for an aggressive US foreign policy maintained a public profile. Donald Rumsfeld and associates emphasized military capabilities, lambasting the CIA for inadequate estimates on the threat from rogue states to the point where they were brought inside the Administration to head the National Commission on Ballistic Missile Defense. Others put the case for a display of US power. The raison d’etre for the Project for the New American Century, the pressure group formed in 1997 that could list more than a dozen future members of the George W. Bush Administration among its membership, was the demand --- expressed in statements of principles, reports, and an open letter to President Clinton calling for regime change in Iraq --- “to make the case and rally support for American global leadership”. Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser --- all of whom would take up positions inside or close to the George W. Bush Administration, put the Middle East at the centre of American preponderance. In a 1996 memorandum for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they advocated the remaking of the Middle East through the suspension of the Oslo peace process between Israel and Palestine, the engagement of “Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon” through political and military action, and the removal of Saddam Hussein from power.

Such manoeuvres meant that, within days of Bush’s inauguration in January 2001, the activists for the unipolar were ready to press their strategy. The first item on the agenda of the first National Security Council was “Regime Change in Iraq ”. Discussing the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld outlined the wider purpose of the demonstration case:

Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a regime that’s aligned with US interests. It would change everything in the region and beyond it. It would demonstrate what US policy is all about.

Forgive me for returning to what I believe may be the seminal quote for the Bushian foreign policy, but I find Rumsfeld’s quote doubly significant. It is significant not only because it sets out, relatively simply, a grand strategy not just of power but for power. It is significant because that grand strategy came not from a lengthy inter-agency deliberation (as one might have expressed from the Truman and Eisenhower Adminstrations) or from an inner circle of the President and his highest-level advisors (the Kennedy Administration) or even the President and a key associate (the Nixon Administration). Rather, it came from a small clique of well-placed mid-level officials.

For Rumsfeld was not speaking for himself when he put forward the vision of an American perpetual power through a transformed Middle East and beyond. The Secretary of Defense was focused upon capabilities, through specific initiatives such as Missile Defense and broader concepts such as the transformation of the US military. The words he uttered at that National Security Council meeting came from others.

Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s Number Two, and Feith, the third-ranking official at the Department of Defense, were joined by Harold Rohde, Abraham Shulsky, and William Luti. Perle was a key consultant as head of the advisory Defence Policy Board. In Vice President Cheney’s office were Wurmser, Scooter Libby, and John Hannah, and there was a presence inside the State Department in John Bolton. Having led the democratic mob that charged into Florida ’s electoral offices to stop the recount in the 2000 Presidential election, Bolton would now be the watchdog inside the State Department, checking the emphasis on diplomacy and multilateralism led by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Given my earlier broadest sweep of the brush over the history of American foreign policy, my concern --- some might say obsession --- with those who could appear as little more than supporting actors for the Presidents, Secretaries, and generals at the top table may seem curious. Yet, if we must loosely talk of “Empire” or another “American Century”, this is from where the quest for power emanates. These specific officials take on important, not because they fulfil an evolutionary stage in a coherent projection and implementation of the US exceptional but because they step in to provide a coherence that had never existed.

And, it is when we recognise the attempt to impose that coherence, that the key problem emerges. These activists were not acting as part of the established system; they were acting despite and arguably in defiance of that system. To put it bluntly, to succeed in their quest a Wolfowitz, a Perle, a Feith, a Wurmser not only anticipated and negated the opposition of those in the State Department, the CIA, the National Security Council, and the military who might not share their vision; they tried to take over the duties and resources of their departments. The collection of intelligence, the analysis of that supposed intelligence, the policy incorporating their purportedly sound analysis, the operations emanating from that “rational” policy --- all this would be in the hands of a relatively small collection of “true believers”, concentrated in Department of Defense, the Vice President’s office, and the National Security Council.

Although it may be difficult to recall this seven years later, up to 11 September 2001, the system “won”. The National Security Council did not endorse Rumsfeld’s call for regime change; as one observer noted, when President Bush was caught between differing points of views, he would make no firm decisions. Instead, discussion was carried out through panels considering three different options: regime change, aggressive patrolling of the “no-fly zones” in northern and southern Iraq including bombing of Iraqi positions, and “smart sanctions” focusing on the Iraqi political and military elite rather than the population at large. The activists, in the name of “liberation”, maintained and indeed expanded links with Iraqi opposition groups but through the spring and summer of 2001, Iraq was overshadowed by other crises such as a possible showdown with China over the downing of a US spy plane and renewal of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration concentrated on capabilities --- pressing its case for Missile Defence and withdrawing from multilateral commitments such as the Kyoto Treaty and the International Criminal Court --- rather the pursuit of outcomes.

To be blunt, 9-11 was the necessary catalyst to move from the markers of power to the global quest for power. On the day of the tragedy, Secretary of State Rice was scheduled to deliver a speech promoting missile defence through its projection of “the threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday” (there was no mention of Al Qa’eda, while Iraq took up its standard role as “rogue state”). A day later, she had set aside that text to ask her staff, “How do we capitalize on these opportunities?” Undersecretary of Defense Wolfowitz was calling for strikes against Baghdad . His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, had moved from spokesman to advocate of the approach: he commanded his staff to get “Best info fast. Judge whether good enough hit S.H." – meaning Saddam Hussein – "at same time. Not only UBL [Osama bin Laden]". President Bush also demanded all information that could connect Baghdad to the attacks. While he later decided that the downfall of the Taliban had to be the immediate priority, he later told the reporter Bob Woodward that this was to pave the way for a showdown with Iraq .

(As an important aside, I would add that there was a parallel quest --- in the name of “homeland security” --- for a long-term preponderance of power in domestic matters. The attempted (and I think successful) seizure of authority for unlimited surveillance, for the detention, rendition, and torture of suspects, for the retention of information --- in short, the dominance of the Executive over any possible challenge from the legislative and judicial branches --- was a priority for the Vice President and associates from September 2001.)

In other words, because of the political, cultural, and emotional platform of 11 September 2001, never before had so few done so much to re-define the conduct and general aims of US foreign policy. However, in that unprecedented victory also lay unprecedented defeat. For in that space between conduct and aims aly the more problematic areas of planning and implementation.

In wrenching themselves away from the hindrances of alternative bureaucratic views and approaches, the activists also wrenched themselves away from expertise and judgement. Consider the case of Iraq . Wolfowitz, Feith, and their cabal (and, yes, the word is deliberately put forward) jettisoned comprehensive studies of Iraqi politics, society, religion, and culture --- the State Department’s year-long exercise involving hundreds of participants, the Future of Iraq Project, and the Army War College’s survey of the country. They threw out CIA intelligence and analysis, forming their own unit, the Office of Special Plans. They relied upon the Iraqi National Congress, the organisation of Iraqi exiles, many of whom had not been in Baghdad and key areas of the country for more than 25 years (and, in the case of the leader of the INC, Ahmad Chalabi, more than 40). They fed the INC’s tales, many of them exaggerated or “wholly inaccurate”, to the media as the inside truth on Iraq .

And, as the activists built the case and political will for invasion, their revision of “reality” carried a crucial effect: they obliterated the “other”. Iraq was emptied of distinctive political, economic, and social meaning to fit into the putative War on Terror and, far from incidentally, to provide the space where the “right” government and leaders could fulfil Rumsfeld’s injunction for an example for the region and beyond. The obliteration was overlaid with public and private discourse that set out the crude dichotomy of “Saddam and his henchmen/thugs” v. “the Iraqi people” (or, in a more specific instantiation, “Saddam and his henchmen/thugs” v “the Kurdish people”.

You probably know some of the more egregious examples of this obliteration: President Bush admitting to the Iraqi exile Kanan Makiya (ironically, a vital proponent of “liberation”) that he did not know the difference between a Sunni and Shi’a Muslim, the US airlifting in the “right” Iraqis, namely members of the Iraqi National Congress, to demonstrate in Firdaus Square as Saddam Hussein’s statue was pulled down, Rumsfeld reducing the post-“liberation” disorder to the sentiment, “Freedom’s untidy.” But the most significant episode for me remains the story from early 2001 when Vice President Cheney and executives from energy companies pored over a map of Iraq spread across a conference table. Only this map had no demarcations --- no topographical features, no landmarks, no signs of inhabitation --- except the boundaries of oilfields.

Iraq was “lost”, if we can reduce the complexities of a country, its people, its communities, its economies, its cultural practices to winning or losing, even before President Bush declared Mission Accomplished, through failures of recognition. I still recall the footage of Iraqis greeting incoming American and British soldiers with the international thumbs-up signal --- the complication being that international doesn’t mean universal. The Iraqi thumbs-up actually translates “in American” to this (middle finger) and “in British” to this (two fingers). Iraq was “lost” through reductions of perspectives, desires, and fears to the undifferentiated threat of the mob ---  Fallujah, where thousands died in 2004 as US forces tried to re-take the town from “insurgents”, was already lost in April 2003: local people, incensed at the takeover of a school for the installation of the US military command centre, demonstrated; American troops fired into the gathering and killed 15 protestors (and several more in ensuing demonstrations days later). Iraq was lost, before Abu Ghraib, in the disappearances of detainees, the deaths at checkpoints, the literal and/or symbolic demolition of homes and, indeed, “private” space.

In 2008, it is no longer a difficult polemical task, or even an exercise in “academicising”, to highlight the collapse of the quest for the unipolar, be this in Iraq, in the Middle East --- Palestine, Syria, the Lebanon, Saudi Arabia --- Central Asia, East Asia, Latin America, (dare we say it?) Europe . Yet, if we leave it at that, we risk false satisfaction as we hermetically seal away the Bush years. It is illusory to detach that Administration from what came before, but it is downright misleading and indeed dangerous to separate it from what might come after. One has to, I think, play Jacob Marley not only to show the confusions of the past and the tragedies of the present but also the pitfalls of the future.

For the Bush Administration did not simply offer a corrective through the coherence of the unipolar, it sanctioned its efforts through another historical foundation: the rationalisation of its methods as “liberal intervention”. In a speech in Chicago in 1999, British Prime Minister Tony Blair set out five tests for military operations responding to “humanitarian” crises. That speech came weeks after the decision to use aerial warfare in Kosovo, forcing the withdrawal of Serb forces and hopefully undermining the regime of Slobodan Milosevic. This was motivated in large part by the need to save an enlarged “Europe” --- and the military dimension of NATO --- when the Soviet Union was no longer around. But that decision could also be justified by the humanitarian objective; indeed, given that many inside and outside the United States were sceptical of military action for other goals, it was essential to uphold that humanitarian cause.

And thus, as its initial premises for war in Iraq came under strain, Bush Administration would invoke its own humanitarian motives: “The first to benefit from a free Iraq would be the Iraqi people, themselves….Their lives and their freedom matter little to Saddam Hussein -- but Iraqi lives and freedom matter greatly to us.” Doing so, it assured itself of the support of a number of intellectuals and activists who had been opposed to previous American military operations.

And doing so, it may have snatched a victory from the throes of the defeat in Iraq and beyond. For its delineation of intervention laid out a policymaking path that is not easily erased --- even if the US does not seek to dominate, it is “bound to lead”. Consider the seminal report of 2006 from the Princeton Project for National Security. The product of two years of discussions from more than 400 participants --- some of them former officials in or supporters of the Bush Administration but also many of them critics of the Administration --- the project emphasized “fusing” the hard power of Bushian military action, “the power to coerce”, with “soft power --- the power to attract”. It pointedly set out the “multipolar”: “Power cannot be wielded unilaterally, and in the pursuit of a narrowly drawn definition of the national interest, because such actions breed growing resentment, fear, and resistance. We need to reassure other nations about our global role and win their support to tackle common problems.” It rejected the premise of the demonstration case, and it called for restoration of proper channels and procedures for policymaking and decisions.

Yet the question remains in 2008, after this fusion of hard and soft power has been re-packaged by Joseph Nye and others likely to be in the next Presidential Administration as “smart power”: “For what?” The Princeton report starts with the recognition, in contrast to the Bushian vision, that “ours is a world lacking a single organizing principle for foreign policy like anti-fascism or anti-communism”. While it sets out general aims such as a “Secure Homeland”, “Healthy Global Economy”, and a “Benign International Environment”, this differs little from the Holy Trinity in the 2002 National Security Strategy of freedom, freedom, and free trade. So, in lieu of defined objectives, it falls back upon the endpoint of “our” organizations and structures premised on an American exceptional written as universal: 

The United States should work with its friends and allies to develop a global ‘Concert of Democracies’ --- a new institution designed to strengthen security cooperation among the world’s liberal democracies….If the United Nations cannot be reformed, the Concert would provide an alternative forum for liberal democracies to authorize collective action, including the use of force, by a supermajority vote.

The great shift in US foreign policy has been to move all the way from Bushian “preponderance of power”, as an end in itself, to a “preponderance of democratic power”, as an end in itself:

Instead of insisting on a doctrine of primacy, the United States should aim to sustain the military predominance of liberal democracies and encourage the development of military capabilities by like-minded democracies in a way that is consistent with their security interests. The predominance of liberal democracies is necessary to prevent a return to destabilizing and dangerous great power security competition; it would also augment our capacity to meet the various threats and challenges that confront us.

So what’s the big problem with a Grand Concert of Democracies? Well, in part, it’s an issue of what you do if others hear a different tune. The “soft power”, or even “smart power”, does not get to the heart of the issue of intervention or engagement. While there are some indications of the latter, e.g., “the United States should make every effort to work with Islamic governments and Islamic/Islamist movements, including fundamentalists, as long as they disavow terrorism and other forms of civic violence” and “we must…be prepared to offer Iran assurances that assuage its legitimate fears”, there is no indication of what ensues if an engaged country or community proves unsatisfactory in its policies, institutions, or values. Do you then pursue --- via that Concert of Democracies with its military predominance --- “liberal intervention”? Nor is there any consideration of the tension within: what if your political/military/economic allies proves to be far from democratic?

The tensions are still present because, in its supposed reconstruction of Bushian foreign policy, the Princeton alternative continues to reduce/empty/negate political space. “Democracy” as an over-arching, US-defining concept sets the term of the encounter, overriding and indeed overlooking concepts such as “Islamic democracy” or “Latin American democracy”. Specifically, the soft power alternative, rather than dealing with the “other”, avoids it. There is no mention in the document of Hamas in Palestine , Hezbollah in Lebanon , political groups in Iran , political groups in Iraq . Whlie there is attention to general international issues such as climate change, there is no attention to the underlying conflict, identified in 1948 by George Kennan, the iconic strategist of US power:

We have about 50 percent of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3 percent of its population. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain that disparity.

Just as the “others” who did not fit the abstracted bipolar of the Cold War rendered that framework incomplete and incoherent, just as they, in their resistances, undermined the unipolar, so they --- even in their continuing omission --- expose the vagaries, tensions, and even contradictions in US foreign policy after the Bushian era. Joseph Nye’s definition of soft power pretty much gives the game away: “The ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals”. Not what they want, but what we want. So the quest --- however nicely it is presented --- continues.

Having started with Iraq , I’ll conclude with that symbolic location. In one of those episodes that encompasses the American venture but sits, in public discourse at least, apart from it, the US Government has for months sought a ratification of its long-time presence in Iraq , a “Status of Forces Agreement” with the Iraqi Government. The Agreement, which echoes the British “extra-terroritoriality” agreements with countries it possessed or occupied in the 19th and 20th centuries, is nothing less than a clear removal of US forces --- even as American bases are entrenched in the country --- from the Iraqi political and legal system. They cannot be subjected to Iraqi sovereignty. They cannot be prosecuted under Iraqi law. They cannot be restricted in their movements or answer to any Iraqi authority. Iraq exists primarily, if not only, as a location for them.

And, having followed this episode (and those in other locations) for months, I was reminded recently of Patrick Cockburn’s reportage for The Independent of London in April 2003. Just after the purported liberation of Iraq , he noted a line of graffiti left by one of those “liberated”: “All Done Here. Go Home.” In light of the grand failure of the unipolar, but also of the imprint that it has left on American constructions of its power (and the elisions of the power of others): Do We Ever Go Home? Or do we merely “academicise” about being the nicest of attempted conquerors?

You know what? Maybe the answer is not finally ours to control. To return to Michael Ignatieff who even, as he stereotyped the "other", worried that America ’s benevolent Empire might not be the outcome:

September 11 pitched the Islamic world into the beginning of a long and bloody struggle to determine how it will be ruled and by whom: the authoritarians, the Islamists or perhaps the democrats. America can help repress and contain the struggle, but even though its own security depends on the outcome, it cannot ultimately control it. Only a very deluded imperialist would believe otherwise.




July 9 2008
Addressing the Dangers of Extremism (Part 2):
The (Practical) Benefits of Making American Exceptionalism Unexceptional

Chuck Gannon, St. Bonaventure University

[The first part of Chuck Gannon's proposal for a productive engagement with "Reasonable Conservatives" critiqued "radicalism". In this second part, Gannon searches for the common ground rather the battleground in political discussion.]

Based upon the perspectives adduced in Part One of this essay, it seems logical to presume that radicalism is counter-productive to building a discursive bridge between reasonable conservatives and (again, let us hope, “reasonable”) liberals.  Therefore, I start from the premise of a tentative agreement that it would indeed be in our collective best interests to eliminate radical rhetorical influences from our discussions.  At first, such a resolve might seem to be a straw-man challenge: it is largely held (and largely true) that “reasonable” persons—-such as those we have (hopefully) gathered here--tend to be moderates, regardless of the particular political affinities they might profess.  However, there are some discursive objects which spring from a form of radicalism so rooted in tradition, so routinely celebrated and lauded, that it may take a moment (and three giant steps back) to clearly discern their extremist, even absolutist, pedigrees.  Indeed, one of the oldest and proudest chestnuts of American nationalism seems, in fact, to have sprung from just such an inherently radical premise.

I would nominate the “high orthodox” version of American Exceptionalism as just such a construct: it is at once a shibboleth revered even in many centrist precincts, and yet has clearly sprung from a radically absolutist (and even metaphysical) set of assertions and beliefs.  Indeed, it is the frankly “mystical” (or, more narrowly, “deistic”) premise of Orthodox Exceptionalism that arguably predetermined its evolution into a set of beliefs and assumptions that are not merely nationalistic, but radical.  If it sounds like I am launching a cynical assault on all the qualities (and even the concept) of Exceptionalism, I must aver that this is not my purpose (and I shall take pains to demonstrate this in just a moment).  However, I must point out the following: if a nation (or a significant portion of it) believes that it has been given a special mission (and concomitant imprimatur) by an all-powerful deity, it may also “reasonably” believe that it has de facto been absolved of, and raised above, the same standards of rationalism, logical assessment, and objectivity that still apply to all other (sadly benighted) nations.  Strict and unexceptioned logocentrism--and, therefore, real politik--are only necessary for those states (or cultures) which do not enjoy the status of being the preordained agents of divine will.  Or, more colloquially, a nation populated by “chosen people” will surely aver that “we know we’re right, ‘cause God said so.”  Seen from an exogenous perspective, a nation that professes such a belief is at best behaving like a delusionally self-centered adolescent; at worst, it is emblematic of a shockingly arrogant form of unilateralism based upon presumptions of an intrinsic preeminence in both moral vision and right to action.  If this resonates with much of the rhetoric of America’s (hopefully diminishing) dalliance with neoconservatism, we should hardly be surprised: for those who have not read the text of the Project for a New American Century (and I commend its perusal to all “reasonable” persons of both liberal and conservative leanings), the dicta and agenda of PNAC (arguably the cornerstone and public declaration of the desiderata of neoconservatism) presume nothing less than this species of innate (even “magical”) national supremacy.  And while I am not suggesting any direct parallels, the same alarming conviction in an ideological and destiny-driven rectitude were claimed by the Nazis and Bolsheviks (and many of the other autocrats who populate the rogues’ gallery of the 20th century).

Lest this portrayal of neoconservatism strike Reasonable Conservatives as unfairly (anti-)partisan, let me introduce a query that approaches the matter from a different analytical perspective: how is the assumption of a deity-ordained national Exceptionalism any different than the assertions of the divine right of kings, except that the former projects its authority into an explicitly international (rather than domestic) arena?  Neither of these autocratic presumptions can be debated logically, because their root authority—-“God”--is as inherently mystical as the theological presumptions which underlie It/Her/Him.  And because those claiming to be the beneficiaries of this lofty power are also “true believers,” they may handily dismiss those who refuse to recognize their possession of that authority to be sadly (or dangerously) unenlightened—-which only proves why dissenters cannot be numbered among the elect of God.  This sounds dangerously akin to other religious fundamentalism that has, in recent years, validated acts of horrific terrorism in God’s name, and has claimed its agents to be the mundane instruments by which divine wrath is registered upon the bodies and nations of unbelievers.  If these latter practices seem to push well beyond the boundaries of mere radicalism, I certainly concur-—and it is why I began this essay (i.e.; at the outset of Part One) with the assertion that radicalism both paves the way for, and predicts the ultimate ascendancy of, fanaticism. 

Is the High Orthodoxy of American Exceptionalism fanaticism?  Probably not-—or at least, it appears not to be so, given how much time and effort it expends in the attempt to validate itself through logocentric discourse.  (On the other hand, this may be diagnostic of the kind of schizophrenia that results when even a mild form of deistic fanaticism attempts to carve out a niche for itself in a culture which is primarily rooted in pluralist paradigms of logical positivism and empiricism.)  But those who have been on the receiving end of the aggressive unilateralism practiced by the recent, Executive-supported neoconservative foreign agenda might have very good reason to opine differently.  From their standpoint, the unwillingness of the current administration to concede points, compromise on policy, or even solicit counsel from long-standing international allies and partners might well look like a species of business-suited fanaticism.  What else can you call it, when a group of people not only claim that they know they are right, but base their claim in a deity-ordained manifest destiny that also designates them as the globe’s moral arbiters?

However, despite these many failings, I am not calling for an end to American Exceptionalism.  Rather, I propose that if one removes the presumptive claim of deism from the conceptual underpinnings of what we call “Exceptionalism,” then the entire concept could undergo a rather positive and spontaneous revision.  In the face of such a contextual modification, the principle of Exceptionalism becomes, paradoxically, a common property.  Without any nation able to claim itself as “The Chosen People,” Exceptionalism would tend to promote the general assertion that we are all “equally exceptional.”  Logically, then, in celebrating its own exceptional nature, America (or any nation) would have to be ready and eager to genuinely and fundamentally recognize, appreciate, and celebrate the exceptional in every other nation or culture, and accord them the honor, respect, and importance that they are due because of that.  Most importantly, any notion of a special “manifest destiny”—-unassailable because of its presumed origins in deistic intent-—is effectively expunged, leaving Exceptionalism converted into an inherently “moderate” and relativist concept.

Consequently, it is only the contemporary conception and implicit context of the term "American Exceptionalism," not the words themselves, that need to be altered.  Indeed, "English Exceptionalism," "Turkish Exceptionalism," “Tamil Exceptionalism”, “Czech Exceptionalism” etc., can be embraced with the same enthusiasm and eagerness, each culture being acknowledged as the product of a unique, and equally worthy, set of circumstances.  Approached from this perspective, claims for "American Exceptionalism" need not be construed as acts of competitive labeling, but as simple reminders that fundamental differences are not only unavoidable, but a rich source of cultural insight and understanding. 

Despite this, let us concede (as Reasonable Conservatives might hasten to point out) that it would nonetheless be a gross oversimplification to contend that all cultures present us with fundamentally interchangeable challenges.  It is important, if ticklish, to acknowledge and assert that, just because we might categorize every culture as "unique," it does not necessarily follow that the social equations which give rise to their distinctive characteristics will also be similar.  A structural (or simple quantitative) analysis will show that more variables are at work in some cultures than others.  American culture in particular is fraught with a dizzying array of variables, which makes the nation's "uniqueness" extraordinarily complicated and difficult to examine and delineate.  How then to adequately and inclusively examine the immensely challenging sociocultural matrix that is America?

Here Reasonable Liberals have long been advocating a functional option: include exogenous observers in the process of exploring the uniquely vexed and multivariant national fabric of the United States.  Do not merely allow, but urgently invite, multiple outside perspectives into that process.  In so doing, we might all come to understand our own--and each others’—-cultural and national predispositions, hopes, anxieties a bit better.  As Americanist Heinz Ickstadt (and others) explained as early as 1997:

In looking from a European vantage point toward America, we also look from an American distance back to recognize ourselves as European (and not parochially as German, French, or English).  It is this double-mirroring through which American and European Americanists, by understanding and reflecting their different interests, may also understand themselves.

Such a liberating approach to, and redefinition of, Exceptionalism will not answer all, or necessarily any, of the challenges of the 21st century.  It will not reconcile all radicals into a shared colloquium of thought and understanding.  And beyond the radicals, there are also too many actual fanatics (of every stripe and allegiance) who have invested too much in their own extremes, and who have long ago ceased to be able to see an alternative to their own view.  It is unrealistic to hope that the forces of sweet reason and toleration will win a complete victory, that swords will present themselves to be beaten into ploughshares.  Violence, misunderstanding, hatred, xenophobia, jihad, crusade: all will continue, either in large or small measure. 

But we can be sure of two things.  Firstly, without a forum in which all may talk with (rather than talk “at”) each other, disputes will remain polarized, aggravated, fueled by the underlying ignorance that exists even among the moderates in each camp, among those who still hope to understand their antagonists by resisting the blinding effects of reflexive fear and hatred, and thereby restoring some clear sight to both sides.  This may be the primary value of reconceptualizing exceptionalism: while it may emphasize the many undeniable differences in our identities, it does so by insisting upon (and deriving its validation from) our basic and inalienable equality as peoples and cultures.

Secondly, it encourages the creation of a forum in which we might rediscover, and make use of, this most basic fact of social dynamics: in any group of people, there are always far more moderates than there are radicals—-and among radicals, comparatively few become afflicted with the (usually militant) tunnel vision of the true zealot.  To change the world, we need not pursue the impossible dream of reclaiming such fanatics to the cause of common sense: we need only reassure the moderates (and perhaps, one day, convince the radicals) in the possibility, and efficacy, of exploring the other side with an open mind, and that different cultures are most accurately understood when the investigation of them is undertaken as an all-inclusive collaborative act.   Where fanatics opt for a battleground, moderates—-reasonable persons of the right, the left, and the center--strive to establish a common ground.  The choice between the two-—and their very different outcomes—-is ours to make.



June 18 2008
The Praxis of Radicalism, or: Screw the Scalpel, Hand me that Saw!
Chuck Gannon, St. Bonaventure University

In his second piece for Libertas, Chuck Gannon continues his quest to, as he himself puts it, "create a discursive node where the habitués of Libertas (and similar venues) might productively engage with Reasonable Conservatives." This essay considers the issue of 'radicalism', and the impact that it might have on his efforts. Read the essay.




June 16 2008
Smart Power and US Leadership
Paul Cammack, Manchester Metropolitan University

Following Joseph Nye's recent appearance at a Conference in Manchester, Paul Cammack was moved to write the following piece on the issue of "Soft Power" and US leadership. Offering a broad-ranging and thought provoking critique, Cammack's essay offers an intriguing view of Nye's approach. Read the full essay.


June 12 2008
The US and Iran: Does Containment Have a Future?
Colette Mazzucelli, Molloy College

In this century, the ideological context is different from the Cold War. The challenge to the spread of liberal democracy worldwide is still the threat of totalitarian governments, which use Islamic fundamentalism and proxy non-state actors to perpetrate destructive actions abroad and oppress societies at home. An historical understanding of American experiences with containment informs us about: 1) the goals the country has achieved through a commitment to the limited uses of military power; 2) a focus on the professionalism of the nation’s career diplomats; and 3) an emphasis on the enlightened self-interest Truman’s leadership displayed after World War II. The creation of a postwar multilateral order is critical to United States (US) policymaking today given the likely transition from America’s unipolar moment to a new bipolar system with China. A prudent containment strategy for this century is one that resists the tendency to elaborate US policy strictly through the prism of the country’s evolving relations with Beijing.

In the continuing debate, Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh argue containment is not a tenable strategy in the present environment. In their Foreign Affairs article, these analysts contrast a containment policy with one of regional integration (Nasr and Takeyh, 2008, 92.) Far from feeling isolated and searching for compromise, the Iranian government feels the wind at its sails. Although the Islamic Republic expresses its opposition to peace negotiations with Israel and the neighbors, Iran is also the enemy of al-Qaeda and shares an interest with the US in defeating the Taliban elements that once harbored al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Given all these realities, and the multiple and competing power centers vying for influence inside Tehran’s regime, containment must not be a strategy dependent primarily on: 1) US military deployments in the region; or 2) antagonistic alliances that rely excessively on broad Arab and Israeli support. A prudent strategy must have as its point of departure a US diplomatic presence on the ground in Tehran as the way to develop the professional skills to distinguish among those actors inside Iran that have been described as the “inner and outer circles of influence and power” (Daragahi, 2007.)

In the United Nations (UN) context, the US presently supports the efforts of the EU High Representative, Javier Solana, who negotiates on behalf of the E3 + 3, Britain, France, Germany, the US, Russia and China. Solana’s diplomatic objective is to persuade Iran’s nuclear negotiators to accept the previously agreed Security Council Resolutions. The 22 February 2008 report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is not likely to push Iran to comply. Spurred by the active support for exploring some accommodation with Tehran from not only Britain, France, and Germany, but also Russia and China, the Iranian issue acted as a catalyst for a potentially significant, if reluctant, US strategic readjustment (Brzezinski, 2007, 166-167.)

Philip Gordon believes a containment policy should offer a “gradual bargain,” as opposed to a grand one, whereby agreements in initial areas would reduce mutual suspicion and demonstrate that areas of common interest do exist. In time, Iran is likely to be confronted with a choice: it can become an impoverished, isolated pariah state with nuclear weapons like the Soviet Union in its day or it can begin to reintegrate with the international community, meet the needs of its people, and preserve its security (Gordon, 2007, 128-29.) The US cannot make this choice for Iran, and may have to rely on a policy of containment for years to come. A number of Iran’s leaders are ideological, defensive and hostile toward the United States. Its people though are frustrated with a failing economy, constraints on personal freedom, and the country’s isolation.

Iran fears encirclement by powers led by the US whose goal is regime change. The country’s oil wealth undermines military containment as an option. Impoverished countries on Iran's border are eager to trade and receive its assistance to build their infrastructures. The US requires a Marshall Plan for the Middle East. The assistance of the American military in region can make this a realistic policy option. A combination of economic and educational investments to offer youth hopeful prospects in failing states and sustained diplomatic initiatives to drive American’s engagement can limit the influence non-state alien movements with totalitarian aims can exert.

The regional context must consider Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose border area is presently a safe haven to breed future terrorists. Afghanistan is threatened from within by the opium trade and the fragile dependence on revenue from a one resource economy. Clearly losing Afghanistan constitutes as great a danger for the West as the demise of Iraq. Afghanistan is a test for the West, particularly for the ability of the Western allies to cooperate to prevent its fall to terrorists and warlords. In Pakistan, the challenge for the US is not to fixate on Musharraf after recent elections. This tendency would lend greater credence to the belief that America is meddling in the internal affairs of the country. A strategy of containment speaks to the observations made recently by Senators Biden, Hagel, and Kerry after their recent trip to the region: namely, that the necessity to rebuild Afghanistan economically is not a military problem. The requirement is to use the military presence intelligently to open up the space for a political dialogue in that country.

Of particular importance is the US domestic context. Preserving the virtues of American society, the strength of its national economy, and respect for civil rights, are crucial to outlast an opposing ideology. George F. Kennan was skeptical that diverse nations and cultures could long be subsumed by an alien political movement. Fundamentalist extremists are intent to subject millions in different states across the Middle East and South Asia to a perversion of Islam, which denies the pluralism inherent in the Koran’s writings (Bhutto, 2008, 17-80.) Governments that accept extremist thinking may be contained more readily than transnational actors.

The complicated political scene presently dates back to the resentments from the earlier Bush presidency. Shia-Sunni resentments furthered the Arab image of America toying with Arab aspirations to maintain its hold over the region’s oil assets (Brzezinski, 2007, 78.) Eliminating the US dependency on foreign oil is a key strategic objective in support of a containment strategy.

In this century, global leadership requires an instinctive grasp of the spirit of the times. We live in a world that is stirring, interactive, and motivated by a vague but pervasive sense of prevailing injustice in the human condition. Tragically, it was the conflicted desires of the masses that were vulnerable to manipulation by political entrepreneurs (Ibid, 81-82.) Future American statecraft calls for an acknowledgement that a viable containment strategy will avoid either driving an antagonistic Russia closer to China, whose influence is expanding in the Near East and Africa, or leaving a fundamentalist Iran to tip the geo-strategic balance in the Middle East and beyond.


Vali Nasr and Ray Takeyh. “Why Containing Iran Won’t Work,” Foreign Affairs (January/February 2008): 85-94.

Borzou Daragahi. “Iran’s inner and outer circles of influence and power,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2007.

Zbigniew Brzezinski. Second Chance. Basic, 2007.

Philip H. Gordon. Winning the Right War. Times Books, 2007.

Benazir Bhutto. Reconciliation. Harper, 2008.



May 30 2008
Greece 1965: On the Way to Dictatorship
Georgia Eglezou

In Greece, in 1965, the democratically elected government of Georgios Papandreou collapsed. Two years later, as a direct result of the events, a coup would install a military junta. In this essay, Georgia Eglezou examines these events and looks at the role played by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Lyndon Johnson administration in overthrowing the Greek democracy.

Read the Essay....



May 19 2008
Building a Rhetorical Bridge: To (and For) Reasonable Conservatives
Chuck Gannon, St. Bonaventure University 

In an effort to move out from beyond the traditional pattern of writing a political blog - either preaching to the already converted, or antagonising the inconvertible - Chuck Gannon, a new contributor to Libertas, examines the potential for opening up a new discourse with "Reasonable Conservatives". The first in a series of regular pieces, this essay examines the need (and, indeed, the hope) for a new approach that seeks to engage with an audience outside of our immediate comfort zones. As Gannon himself notes: "I am fully aware that such an enterprise may turn out to be an embarrassing exercise in futility that only serves to aggravate persons on both sides of the political spectrum.  Even now, I can almost hear the accusations of oversimplification, generalization, and appropriation (and construction) of false and/or flawed social identities.  To which I can only respond: discourse is not physics, so failure (or success) can only be conclusively assessed in retrospect.  That makes it worth trying. "

Read the Essay....



May 12 2008
Domesticating Katrina
Anna Hartnell, University of Birmingham

The immediate aftermath of the recent, tragic events in Burma have pushed the issue of disaster relief to the forefront of the international news cycle again.  In America, the First Lady's attempts to put pressure on the ruling military junta in Burma have led to some commentators linking the recent cyclone in Asia to the Bush administration's actions in reacting to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In this essay, Anna Hartnell analyses the impact of Katrina on New Orleans and places it in both its international and domestic contexts.

Read the Essay.... 



April 2008
Azeri Language Broadcasting: 
The Latest Public Diplomacy Strategy in Iran
Chris Emery, University of Birmingham

Despite the problems in getting out of Iraq, speculation that the Bush administration is still looking to move against the Ahmadinejad regime in Iran have refused to go away. And, while the administration's first-term interventionism has been curbed somewhat since 2004, there remains a great deal of antipathy toward Tehran among leading officials (and lobby groups) in the US. In this essay, Chris Emery examines one of Washington's latest manoeuvres against Iran: a broad public diplomacy operation to be broadcast over Iranian airwaves.

Read the Essay....




March 2008
A Libertas Special: Iraq Five Years Later

"Mugged by Reality" All Over Again?
Iraq, Five Years On
Maria Ryan, University of Nottingham

The idea was to deal with Saddam Hussein, who we believed posed a threat…. [T]he idea that we went into Iraq to impose democracy on the Iraqis or on the region is just nonsense.

Richard Perle, 12 November 2006[1]

Five years after the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq under the auspices of the ‘war on terror’ and the disastrous occupation that has followed, efforts by liberals who supported the war to reclaim and revitalise the concept of liberal interventionism—to wrest it away from the good intentions gone awry in Iraq—are well underway. On 16th March, The Observer newspaper noted that Iraq was “a blow to the idea of liberal intervention” but asked, “does that blow have to be fatal?” In the early 1970s, Irving Kristol famously commented that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality”. For today’s liberal interventionists, however, the opposite is the case as they continue to labour under the illusion that to support the Iraq War was to stand with the oppressed and to oppose it was to side with a dictator.

This assumes, of course, that the invasion was in fact motivated by humanitarian considerations; that the architects of the war were themselves liberal interventionists, thus creating a convergence between the neoconservative coalition and the so-called liberal hawks. But in the case of Iraq, liberal interventionism is and always has been simply a red herring: a useful distraction at best, futile and irrelevant at worst. For the architects of this war were not motivated by moral considerations, but by strategic ones; by the imperatives of power. From the beginning, their motives were divergent from the hopes of the liberal hawks. As Richard Perle comments, the idea that the war was fought to impose democracy on Iraq—as the liberal interventionists hoped—was “just nonsense.” The neoconservative coalition that fought for the war—both inside and outside the White House, before and after 9/11—saw it as a way to perpetuate America’s regional and global dominance. Trying to append a narrative of liberal interventionism to a war that was conceived as a demonstration of American power in the Middle East and beyond is counter-factual and counter-productive. It results in liberal interventionists assuming that those who opposed the war did so because they prefer to side with tyrants; they ‘hate America’ more than they hate Saddam and others of his ilk. In actuality, many opposed the war because of their opposition to the objective of American regional dominance; objectives never fully recognised or acknowledged by liberal interventionists.

Let us recall a few specifics. The architects of the Bush foreign policy laid out their vision of unassailable American power in the now infamous 1992 strategy document, the Defense Planning Guidance (DPG), a document ordered (and later signed) by then Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney and put together as a collective effort by Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby and Zalmay Khalilzad. Nowhere did the DPG discuss promoting democracy or humanitarian intervention. Instead it called for America to take advantage of the demise of the only other competing superpower (the Soviet Union) and “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival” be it in the Middle East, Europe, Eurasia, the former Soviet Union, East Asia or South West Asia.[2] The United States should “dete[r] potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” In other words its position should be so unassailable that potential rivals would be convinced that even attempting to challenge it was futile. In the Middle East, especially, the US should ensure that it remained “the predominant outside power” in order to “preserve US and western access to the region’s oil.”

This vision of an apparently invulnerable America, now freed from the constraints of bipolarity, was encapsulated by neoconservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, in 1991, in his seminal thesis on “the unipolar moment.” Now that America had prevailed in the Cold War, Krauthammer argued, the world was no longer bipolar, or even multipolar; it was “unipolar.” America was now “the single pole of power”, able to be the “decisive player in any conflict in whatever part of the world it chooses.” Along with the DPG, Krauthammer’s influential ‘unipolar moment’ thesis became the strategic blueprint for the incipient network of second generation, post-Cold War neoconservatives.

The absence of democracy as a rationale for intervention in Iraq was also evident in the lobbying campaigns of the neoconservative-led network during the Clinton years. The well-known public letter sent to President Clinton by the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) in January 1998 did not even mention democracy in Iraq, never mind a regional democratic transformation, a strange elision if that was the very purpose of it. (The same was true of the letter sent by PNAC to George W. Bush on 20 September 2001. Billed as “the minimum necessary if this war [on terrorism] is to be fought effectively and brought to a successful conclusion”, the letter did not mention democratization but did call for regime change in Iraq on strategic grounds as well as measures against Iran, Syria and the Palestinian Authority). Similarly, the 1996 ‘Clean Break’ document authored by Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and others, which called for regime change in Baghdad, focused solely on strategic considerations. The regional transformation it envisaged was not a democratic ‘domino effect’ but a pro-American and Israeli realignment induced by the shock and awe of American power. Like every American administration seeking to justify a foreign entanglement to the American public, the neoconservatives have frequently invoked the rhetoric of freedom but in practice—when it comes to the realities of military intervention—this is mere posturing as their own documents and speeches demonstrate.

The same is true of the Bush administration. Even Francis Fukuyama, in his valediction to neoconservatism, acknowledges that Bush’s ‘democracy promotion’ agenda was conferred retrospectively as a rationale for war: it was not until two years after the invasion, in his 2005 State of the Union address, that Bush cited democracy promotion in the Greater Middle East as a justification for the war. Thus the intellectual architects of the war and those who carried it out were in agreement at the time of the invasion that it was not a Wilsonian endeavour or a case of humanitarian intervention. It was a war designed to—in Krauthammer’s words—“preserve and extend the unipolar moment.”

To use Iraq to resuscitate the doctrine of humanitarian interventionism is to fundamentally misunderstand the aims of those who conceived and carried out the war. It is to confuse and conflate the anodyne rhetoric about freedom with the reality that strategic interests prevailed in practice. True, Saddam’s regime was odious; but concern for the plight of the Iraqi people was not what motivated those who conceived the war. For them, humanitarian issues were merely incidental. The case for liberal interventionism cannot be built around the coincidental occurrence of humanitarian considerations in a war conceived and fought for American power. Nor should opponents of such a war be tarred as appeasers.

All of this does not fully explain the mess in Iraq today, however. The shocking reality of sectarian killings, rival militias, political stalemates and less oil production, less clean water and less electricity than in Saddam’s time—all of this a full five years after the invasion—is not just the result of a failure to make plans to nation build. It is symptomatic of broader assumptions about the nature of power in the post-Cold War world, on the part of the Bush administration and the neoconservatives, that are both arrogant and startlingly naive.

Throughout their campaign for regime change in Iraq, and for a global strategy conducive to preserving American ‘unipolarity’, the neoconservatives almost never considered how American power would be received by others, other than to blithely assume that it would be passively accepted. In 1996, leading neoconservative strategists, William Kristol and Robert Kagan, argued that American hegemony would be “benevolent” because American power was almost always “welcome[ed]... and prefer[red]” by others. Thus American ‘unipolarity’ would, in some ways, resemble an “empire by invitation”—Geir Lundestad’s description of US influence in Western Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. However, where Lundestad recognised the need for an invitation, Kristol and Kagan did not: there was no need for an invitation because it would be self-evident to all that an American ‘empire’ was the best form of international order. Hence American power would be ‘welcomed and preferred.’

This glib but deadly contention was reflected in the neoconservatives’ belief that Ahmed Chalabi—a man unknown in Iraq after leaving forty-five years previously—would somehow be a popular leader once anointed by the Americans. It was reflected in the Bush administration’s failure to plan sufficiently for post-conflict peace building and in the insurgency that followed. American power was not ‘welcomed and preferred’ and the peace did not take care of itself.

In addition, the architects of the war had an outdated conventional view of power as a state-based military construct; a view from the Cold War, not one reflective of the era of globalisation. Conventional military dominance was equated with absolute dominance and Krauthammer’s concept of ‘unipolarity’ drew the parameters of power tightly around the state. Its failure to acknowledge unconventional forms of resistance is writ large in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. A triple whammy then, for the neocons and the Bush administration: not just the rejection of American power but through unconventional methods and by non-state actors. 

At the heart of the neoconservative project was a rejection of the Cold War strategic paradigm of containment and deterrence. These strategies were outdated, the neocons claimed, because they were constructed around and premised upon the existence of a competing superpower. Instead, the United States should assume an offensive military posture and pursue preventive war—codified in the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. But the ‘roll back’ of an anti-American regime in Iraq has turned into crisis management. It has become a case of containment: containment of forces that the invasion unwittingly unleashed; containment of a new terrorism, of the new Al Qaeda franchise and containment of sectarian rivalries that are simmering across borders. So far, this containment is failing: the surge might have brought a degree of relief but only in comparison to the bloodbath of 2006. In a broader sense, the Bush administration is also failing to contain anti-American sentiment in the Middle East and amongst Muslims worldwide. What was once viewed as a spike in anti-Washington feeling before and after the invasion has, for the moment, become the norm. Unless dramatic developments under a new administration lead to a radical change in US foreign policy objectives, we shall all—here in the West and also in Iraq—continue to be less safe than we were when Saddam Hussein was in power.


[1] Richard Perle on the New Approach to War in Iraq, Weekend Edition Sunday, 12 November 2006, National Public Radio, URL (accessed 5 October 2007): http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=6475810

[2] ‘Excerpts from Pentagon’s Plan: “Prevent the Re-Emergence of a New Rival”’, NYT, 8 March 1992. All citations taken from this source unless otherwise indicated.


First, the Mass Deception
Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

Those pursuing justification "five years on" should begin with this confession: for the US Government, the invasion of Iraq had nothing to do with the good of the "Iraqi people"....

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US Particularity and the Universality of Liberal Intervention
Mark Spokes, University of Birmingham

Slate magazine are running a series of articles this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. As part of this debate, 'liberal-interventionist' supporters of the war are asked to answer the question: "How did I get Iraq Wrong?" As part of Libertas' own interrogation of the ongoing war, I had originally intended to engage the polemic that had re-emerged from the likes of Christopher Hitchens' obstinate response to 'his peaceniks' that he had not been wrong. However, in his piece yesterday, The Corruption of Liberal Intervention, Bevan Sewell did a superb job in deconstructing the continuing polarised analyses of U.S. intervention. Rather than simply revisit the issues examined by Sewell, I believe it is more useful to answer his call to begin debate upon any conflict between the national interest and liberal intervention. I have already spent some time exploring the tension between conditionality and the rights of man on one hand, and national self-determination and the rights of states on the other. A more interesting question in this context is whether the U.S. can act as the particular agent of liberation through intervention. I would argue that it cannot, but at the same time, this should not necessarily lead to any abandonment of liberation; rather the acceptance of this fact opens up new opportunities.

The Bush administration's belief in U.S. power and responsibility to actively work towards liberation was declared in the 2002 National Security Strategy. "[T]he United States will use this moment of opportunity to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe." This idea of liberation is closely tied to notions of universality and the Bush administration stress the totalising mission the U.S. will embrace: "We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world." At the same time, the U.S. as the particular agent is also evident in the President Bush's concluding words to the preamble: "The United States welcomes our responsibility to lead in this great mission." As Sewell emphasised, the Iraq War has not wholly eradicated such constructions and the 2006 National Security Strategy update maintained the need for the U.S. to maintain its unipolarity. It is vital then that U.S. primacy and the task of universal liberation continue to be interrogated.

It is irrefutable that the discourse of American exceptionalism is significant in maintaining the construction of the U.S. mission of universal liberation. Whilst official documents, like the Bush administration's National Security Strategy, may avoid references to God and Christianity, religious eschatology remains a central element of this exceptionalism. The dualistic struggle between 'good' and 'evil' is still manifest in the clash between freedom and the 'designs of tyrants'. The enduring belief in the Divine Providence of the U.S. is more obvious in many of the public addresses of administration officials and Presidential candidates. In this formulation, the task of universal liberation can be carried out by the worldly U.S. through the intervention of God. The idea that members of the Bush administration have supported intervention through heavenly calling does not sit comfortably with many, particularly in a more secular Europe. Furthermore, the fact that liberation in religious eschatology will only arrive through Revelation has also led many Americans to seek an emancipatory role for the U.S. beyond incarnation. The removal of Divine mediation between the U.S. as a particular agent and its universal task has encouraged an alternative discourse of the U.S. being able to express the universal spirit of humanity.

In its secular guise, the U.S. has a universal role through the embodiment of reason or modernity and can act as an agent with its own ability to master history. Such ideas are frequently found in U.S. official strategic declarations and public addresses, but, as Ernesto Laclau emphasises, the removal of God as guarantor and ground also removes the predetermined nature of a universal role for a particular agent. Whilst the Bush administration continues to assert the special role of the U.S. as agent of universality, this can only be maintained as a contingent hegemonic act. It is this contingency that sustains resistance to U.S. 'liberal-intervention' as an act of liberation. Since establishing itself as a global power, the U.S. has been unable to overcome the perceivable distance between its finitude and the universal task of liberation. In the post-Cold War world, the claims of the 'End of History' have continued to clash with the strategic priority of preserving U.S. unipolarity. Scott Lucas and Maria Ryan have already undertaken much useful work on the Bush administration's focus on a preponderance of power. For many, particularly outside of the U.S., the invasion of Iraq is regarded as just another example of the continuing pursuit of particular interests that undermines any removal of power in universality. Accepting the tension between the particularity of the U.S. and the universality of liberation as irreconcilable should not lead to resignation in a perpetual clash of powerful interests however. For anyone concerned with the fate of humanity, and even the wider world, liberation remains a vital task.

The Bush administration and presidential aspirants will continue in their attempts to persuade the American people of the merit 'liberal-intervention' and the enduring ability of the U.S. to perform such a duty, but the clash between national interests and the desire towards liberation will only be exacerbated as the U.S. experiences relative decline. The American people are not necessarily opposed to maintaining such conflicting priorities. Even before the Iraq War, polls demonstrated that the American people simultaneously supported foreign policy objectives of self-interest and Messianic duty and arguably they have long been rationalised by ideological constructs of exceptionalism that can be found in the likes of Thomas Paine's maxim that "[t]he cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind." Successive policymakers have struggled however, to demonstrate the credibility of such claims to the American people, as well as those affected by U.S. foreign policy. The continuing struggle in Iraq has perhaps only further revealed the very finite nature of U.S. reason and as a result, it is becoming ever more acceptable to consider the substitution of the U.S. as the particular agent to fulfill any universal task.

The recognition of the particularity of the U.S. also further reveals the hegemonic act that elevated the American way of life to the universal horizon. It has and will always generate at least a kernel of resistance, but its contingency is becoming increasingly perceivable. Its deficiency as an emancipatory project may be evident in regions, such as Latin America, and will be in Iraq given the opportunity, but the limits of freedom and equality in American democracy and capitalist development are manifest in the U.S. itself. This is not to say that these values are without any value, but if they are to be the cause of liberation and used as the rationale for intervention then they must have a more inclusive definition. This firstly requires the acknowledgement of the limits of mankind and any particular agent to exclusively represent a universal essence. In accepting our own inability to conceive of or achieve a universal ground alone need not lead to relativist nihilism. Instead, we should recognise that the closure of debate on the universal values and the announcement of any 'End of History' should be replaced with a more open eschatology that encourages ongoing deliberation and negotiation. In the face of U.S. power, many may regard this as idealistic, but to continue accepting the impossible that is the U.S. ability to transcend its particular interests in intervention that would bring universal liberation is arguably more utopian. As a start, surely we must continue Sewell's call to debate the future of liberation beyond the current polemic between acceptance and rejection of U.S. intervention and find a more nuanced assessment of the values that are being defined as universal.


The Corruption of Liberal Intervention
Bevan Sewell, University of Nottingham

Five years after the US-led invasion of Iraq began, in a surreal exposition of pyrotechnical military might through the televised ‘shock and awe’ bombing campaign, we have reached a natural point to pause, reflect and reconsider. To ask, as one well might after half a decade of scandal, tragedy and a fluctuating situation trapped somewhere between cataclysm and stability, how the hell did that all happen and, more importantly, could it happen again?

For in spite of the aura of post-surge triumphalism being espoused by some members of the American government and media, there is little doubt that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein caused a trenchant reassessment of political ideologies for many critics on both sides of the political spectrum. Each of us faced an internal dilemma: the world’s a better place without Saddam Hussein, to be sure, but can we sanction the use of military force to overthrow regimes and despots of which we disapprove? For 1.5 million people protesting in London (and many more in Sydney, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome and New York) in 2003 it appeared the answer was a resounding no and that the potential for war in Iraq was a step too far. Of course, as has now become legend, the protests did little to dissuade our leaders that this was an illegal and unpopular war; in fact, their most obvious impact was to set-up a polarisation of discussion – between the ‘left’ (“appeasers of Saddam”) and the ‘right’ (“humanitarian interventionists”). With both sides embracing polemicism rather than rationalism, we had little chance of a nuanced debate. Any middle ground was mercilessly stamped down by the marching feet of the diametrically opposed opinions of the pro- and anti-war lobbyists. In short, this achieved little. Yet it is worth returning to for what it tells us about the willingness of the American (and, to a lesser extent, the British) government to embark on such seemingly ill-judged wars of liberation and nation-building.

Outpourings of mass protest did nothing to sway the minds of leading officials in Washington and London. Nor, despite some high-profile failings and scandals, has the prosecution of the war brought about a significant reassessment in terms of actual policy. In fact, as Max Hastings has recently written, the costs of the war – both in terms of money and lives – “have not proved so unacceptable that the US or British government, or even the Iraqi administration in Baghdad, has found it necessary to adopt any radical shift of policy.” Indeed, on the back of post-surge proclamations of success – and recent visits by Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John McCain to Iraq – discussions over whether “we” should renounce the doctrine of liberal intervention have begun to emerge, with the prevailing view coming down on the side of needing to learn lessons but not become isolationist.

This is to be expected from some quarters. Richard Perle, one of the leading architects of the neo-conservative movement, wrote this weekend that the “war was just” and, in an attempt to provide evidential justification for these sentiments, argued: “Saddam forced the question: should we risk leaving him in place and hope for the best, or destroy his regime and end the risk that he might collaborate in an attack even more devastating than 9/11?” From Perle, we’d expect nothing less than this blunt distortion of fact. But Perle, and similarly minded ideologues, are not alone in these sentiments. An editorial in Sunday’s Observer preached that, “we must not retreat, chastened into wound-licking parochialism and diplomatic isolation…Whatever the tragic consequences of the Iraq war, we must learn from them, and when the circumstances are right, not flinch from using all the power at our disposal. We can be sure in the knowledge that there will be causes worth fighting for in the future.” The Observer’s commentary was, it seems, building on British Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s, speech at Oxford University earlier this year, at which he stated: “In fact, the goal of spreading democracy should be a great progressive project; the means need to combine soft and hard power. We should not let the genuine debate about the ‘how’ of foreign policy obscure the clarity about the ‘what’.”

Five years, of course, is in some ways a long time. But are we really so far removed from the run-up to the Iraq war that our politicians and our leaders can openly espouse the validity of liberal interventionism? Lofty sentiments about morality and calls for policies to be engineered through the United Nations are not demonstrative of lessons having been learnt. The UN – due to the unfair distribution of power among the five permanent members of the Security Council – is nowhere near becoming a body that can shape a global foreign policy. Similarly, who will be the arbiter of which nations it is deemed morally imperative to intervene in? Beyond the immediate desire to do good – and who, for example, would seriously argue that intervening to prevent genocide was not a ‘good’ thing – there is very little recognition of the ideological impulses that drive intervention. This has been especially true with regard to the United States.

In writing about the Vietnam War in 1999, Frederik Logevall demonstrated remarkable prescience when he cautioned that something “very much like it could happen again”, providing that a “permissive context” was in place that accommodated officials advocating a bellicose strategy and made it seem as though they were advocating a plausible policy. I would argue that Logevall’s warning needs to be extended: while it is easy to chastise the Bush administration for driving the decision to invade Iraq, it is more useful to recognise the ideologies that allowed such a move to take place, and which – five years later – ensure that the refrain of liberal intervention remains prominent. Therefore, I would suggest that we need to become more cognisant about the fact that, under certain circumstances, both American and British officials have an ideological compulsion to adopt expansive – and, crucially, educational – foreign policies. Or, to put it another way, Washington and London – irrespective of which party is in power – continue to hold true to the idea that democracy and the western model can, if exported around the world, work as tools of international improvement. True, this view is myopic in its simplicity; but given certain circumstances there are strong ideological factors that suggest that future wars of ‘liberation’ are by no means impossible. Not because it is morally correct to intervene as David Miliband and the Observer might argue, but because it is a leap of faith too far for us to expect anything else. It is beyond naïve to assume that future interventions can be guided by stricter criteria than those which led to Iraq; future interventions will be predicated, as they always are, by the circumstances of the time and by the influences and events that have shaped the lives of those people who happen to be in power.

This is not a belief unique to the Bush administration or the neo-conservatives either. Following America’s late-entrance into World War One, Woodrow Wilson wasted little time in taking the opportunity to impose his pre-eminent beliefs regarding the future of the world system onto the post-war peace process. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt’s response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, was to tell the American people that, “We are going to win the war and we are going to win the peace that follows”; an announcement that seemed to assume the mantle of Wilsonianism in taking responsibility for the shape of the post-war world. In both cases, a “permissive context” – both in the domestic political sphere and, to an extent, among Washington’s international allies – presented American leaders with an obvious opportunity to seize the moment. There are, of course, inherent differences between the two World Wars and the course of events after the terrorist attacks on 9/11 and the path to war in Iraq. But the willingness of American officials to seize moments such as these and affix their own agendas to them is a recurrent event.

Underpinning it all are the ideological constructs of the American mindset; ideological constructs that, in the minds of US policymakers over the years, have legitimised broad foreign policy doctrines and epochal decisions. In discussing the decision of the Eisenhower administration to support the construction of a South Vietnamese state around the figure of Ngo Dinh Diem in the 1950s, Seth Jacobs argues that ideological assumptions pertaining to race, religion and manifest destiny, “facilitated those activities by making them seem logical and necessary and blinding policymakers to their consequences.” Disastrous policy can, most assuredly, flow from ostensibly ‘good intentions.’ The doctrine of liberal intervention – which should have been so tarnished by Iraq – can enjoy a rhetorical resurgence five years on due to these predominant ideological leanings.

Any suggestion contrary to this immediately resuscitates the debates of 2003: right is pitted against left, and emotive terms such as “appeasers of terrorists”, “enemies of democracy” or “tyrants” and “infringers of civil liberties” re-emerge. The relative freshness of these divides – five years, after all, is not as long as it seems – ensures the polarisation of opinion, rather than rational debate. Consequently, we are no closer to establishing a complete understanding of ‘why we intervene’, or being able to say with any sort of certainty that it won’t happen again. To the contrary, it seems likely that it could happen again. While Barack Obama may talk nobly about “engagement” and pursuing diplomatic solutions, the ideological and political constraints that come with the White House could easily force his hand. What impact might a new terrorist attack on the American mainland have on an Obama presidency? Would he practice engagement in the wake of such a tragic occurrence, or would he be compelled to act? Could he resist the domestic and international pressure to demonstrate American resolve and, potentially, pursue a policy that could bring about the overthrow of a sovereign government?

It is not that far-fetched a scenario. In the context of 9/11 – amidst the sentiments of Le Monde stating “we are all American now” – an American response was not just likely; it was inevitable. The history of US involvement in Iraq – coupled with the agenda being set by neo-conservative ideologues within the administration – dictated that Afghanistan, and then Iraq, would be the locale for the US response to 9/11. As noted frequently elsewhere, 9/11 provided the opportunity for the administration to pursue pre-existing goals. Promoting democracy in the Middle East may have been the particular goal in mind – buttressed by the ideological support of American traditions – but this was not that far removed from previous instances of US presidents seizing the initiative. Indeed, it would be perplexing if they did not. We elect our leaders to protect and pursue the national interest: we cannot, therefore, quibble when, believing they are acting in accordance with their mandate, they choose to pursue expansive agendas. We can, though, reassess our choice and vote out of office any leader we perceive to be acting beyond their remit or indulging in egregious abuses of power.

In amongst the column inches evaluating the relative success of the surge, we have – over the last five years – lost sight of the fact that at no time, from 9/11 onward, have “we” come to an acceptable reconciliation between pursuing the national interest and understanding the appeal of liberal intervention. If the whole sorry tale of events relating to Iraq has not dimmed the lustre of this idea, then there is an urgent need for us to re-examine its appeal and to seek to somehow negotiate this compulsion toward benevolence and humanitarianism, pursued on the back of short-sighted and self-interested policies. The polarisation of debate in the run-up to war ensured that this discussion could not take place. And, to be sure, it is still difficult as Christopher Hitchens cantankerous response to Joseph Stiglitz’s economic evaluation of the war made clear in last week’s Washington Post. But if liberal intervention remains an attractive idea, and if American (and British) ideology continues to provide a legitimising framework, it is a debate that needs to be conducted as swiftly and as rationally as possible.



10th March
Perpetual Defiance: 
Fidel Castro, the United States and Why the US and Cuba Can't Get Along 

Bevan Sewell, University of Nottingham

Fidel Castro's decision to stand down as the head of the Cuban state brought to an end one of the most tempestuous relationships in modern political history: that between the leading light of the Cuban Revolution and the United States Government. In this essay, Bevan Sewell examines why, for almost fifty years, the US and Cuba have been unable to bring about a rapprochement in the bilateral relationship. The answer, he argues, lies in the impact that Castro's accession to power had on the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration's policies toward Latin America.

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13th February
The Netherlands and Afghanistan: Once More Unto The Breach Dear Friends
Giles Scott-Smith, Roosevelt Center Middelburg

Recently, the issue of NATO involvement in Afghanistan has come under increasing scrutiny; especially following the comments made by US Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. In this analysis piece, Libertas contributor, Giles Scott-Smith, examines the role of the Netherlands in Afghanistan and discusses whether or not this is likely to change in the near future.

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4th February
Waving Goodbye to Hegemony
Parag Khanna, New America Foundation

[A provocative, thoughtful essay about the shifting relationship between American power and the world beyond the Bush Administration. This first appeared in The New York Times Magazine.]

Turn on the TV today, and you could be forgiven for thinking it’s 1999. Democrats and Republicans are bickering about where and how to intervene, whether to do it alone or with allies and what kind of world America should lead. Democrats believe they can hit a reset button, and Republicans believe muscular moralism is the way to go. It’s as if the first decade of the 21st century didn’t happen — and almost as if history itself doesn’t happen. But the distribution of power in the world has fundamentally altered over the two presidential terms of George W. Bush, both because of his policies and, more significant, despite them. Maybe the best way to understand how quickly history happens is to look just a bit ahead.

It is 2016, and the Hillary Clinton or John McCain or Barack Obama administration is nearing the end of its second term. America has pulled out of Iraq but has about 20,000 troops in the independent state of Kurdistan, as well as warships anchored at Bahrain and an Air Force presence in Qatar. Afghanistan is stable; Iran is nuclear. China has absorbed Taiwan and is steadily increasing its naval presence around the Pacific Rim and, from the Pakistani port of Gwadar, on the Arabian Sea. The European Union has expanded to well over 30 members and has secure oil and gas flows from North Africa, Russia and the Caspian Sea, as well as substantial nuclear energy. America’s standing in the world remains in steady decline.

Why? Weren’t we supposed to reconnect with the United Nations and reaffirm to the world that America can, and should, lead it to collective security and prosperity? Indeed, improvements to America’s image may or may not occur, but either way, they mean little. Condoleezza Rice has said America has no “permanent enemies,” but it has no permanent friends either. Many saw the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as the symbols of a global American imperialism; in fact, they were signs of imperial overstretch. Every expenditure has weakened America’s armed forces, and each assertion of power has awakened resistance in the form of terrorist networks, insurgent groups and “asymmetric” weapons like suicide bombers. America’s unipolar moment has inspired diplomatic and financial countermovements to block American bullying and construct an alternate world order. That new global order has arrived, and there is precious little Clinton or McCain or Obama could do to resist its growth. 

The Geopolitical Marketplace

At best, America’s unipolar moment lasted through the 1990s, but that was also a decade adrift. The post-cold-war “peace dividend” was never converted into a global liberal order under American leadership. So now, rather than bestriding the globe, we are competing — and losing — in a geopolitical marketplace alongside the world’s other superpowers: the European Union and China. This is geopolitics in the 21st century: the new Big Three. Not Russia, an increasingly depopulated expanse run by Gazprom.gov; not an incoherent Islam embroiled in internal wars; and not India, lagging decades behind China in both development and strategic appetite. The Big Three make the rules — their own rules — without any one of them dominating. And the others are left to choose their suitors in this post-American world.

The more we appreciate the differences among the American, European and Chinese worldviews, the more we will see the planetary stakes of the new global game. Previous eras of balance of power have been among European powers sharing a common culture. The cold war, too, was not truly an “East-West” struggle; it remained essentially a contest over Europe. What we have today, for the first time in history, is a global, multicivilizational, multipolar battle.

In Europe’s capital, Brussels, technocrats, strategists and legislators increasingly see their role as being the global balancer between America and China. Jorgo Chatzimarkakis, a German member of the European Parliament, calls it “European patriotism.” The Europeans play both sides, and if they do it well, they profit handsomely. It’s a trend that will outlast both President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, the self-described “friend of America,” and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, regardless of her visiting the Crawford ranch. It may comfort American conservatives to point out that Europe still lacks a common army; the only problem is that it doesn’t really need one. Europeans use intelligence and the police to apprehend radical Islamists, social policy to try to integrate restive Muslim populations and economic strength to incorporate the former Soviet Union and gradually subdue Russia. Each year European investment in Turkey grows as well, binding it closer to the E.U. even if it never becomes a member. And each year a new pipeline route opens transporting oil and gas from Libya, Algeria or Azerbaijan to Europe. What other superpower grows by an average of one country per year, with others waiting in line and begging to join?

Robert Kagan famously said that America hails from Mars and Europe from Venus, but in reality, Europe is more like Mercury — carrying a big wallet. The E.U.’s market is the world’s largest, European technologies more and more set the global standard and European countries give the most development assistance. And if America and China fight, the world’s money will be safely invested in European banks. Many Americans scoffed at the introduction of the euro, claiming it was an overreach that would bring the collapse of the European project. Yet today, Persian Gulf oil exporters are diversifying their currency holdings into euros, and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has proposed that OPEC no longer price its oil in “worthless” dollars. President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela went on to suggest euros. It doesn’t help that Congress revealed its true protectionist colors by essentially blocking the Dubai ports deal in 2006. With London taking over (again) as the world’s financial capital for stock listing, it’s no surprise that China’s new state investment fund intends to locate its main Western offices there instead of New York. Meanwhile, America’s share of global exchange reserves has dropped to 65 percent. Gisele Bündchen demands to be paid in euros, while Jay-Z drowns in 500 euro notes in a recent video. American soft power seems on the wane even at home.

And Europe’s influence grows at America’s expense. While America fumbles at nation-building, Europe spends its money and political capital on locking peripheral countries into its orbit. Many poor regions of the world have realized that they want the European dream, not the American dream. Africa wants a real African Union like the E.U.; we offer no equivalent. Activists in the Middle East want parliamentary democracy like Europe’s, not American-style presidential strongman rule. Many of the foreign students we shunned after 9/11 are now in London and Berlin: twice as many Chinese study in Europe as in the U.S. We didn’t educate them, so we have no claims on their brains or loyalties as we have in decades past. More broadly, America controls legacy institutions few seem to want — like the International Monetary Fund — while Europe excels at building new and sophisticated ones modeled on itself. The U.S. has a hard time getting its way even when it dominates summit meetings — consider the ill-fated Free Trade Area of the Americas — let alone when it’s not even invited, as with the new East Asian Community, the region’s answer to America’s Apec.

The East Asian Community is but one example of how China is also too busy restoring its place as the world’s “Middle Kingdom” to be distracted by the Middle Eastern disturbances that so preoccupy the United States. In America’s own hemisphere, from Canada to Cuba to Chávez’s Venezuela, China is cutting massive resource and investment deals. Across the globe, it is deploying tens of thousands of its own engineers, aid workers, dam-builders and covert military personnel. In Africa, China is not only securing energy supplies; it is also making major strategic investments in the financial sector. The whole world is abetting China’s spectacular rise as evidenced by the ballooning share of trade in its gross domestic product — and China is exporting weapons at a rate reminiscent of the Soviet Union during the cold war, pinning America down while filling whatever power vacuums it can find. Every country in the world currently considered a rogue state by the U.S. now enjoys a diplomatic, economic or strategic lifeline from China, Iran being the most prominent example.

Without firing a shot, China is doing on its southern and western peripheries what Europe is achieving to its east and south. Aided by a 35 million-strong ethnic Chinese diaspora well placed around East Asia’s rising economies, a Greater Chinese Co-Prosperity Sphere has emerged. Like Europeans, Asians are insulating themselves from America’s economic uncertainties. Under Japanese sponsorship, they plan to launch their own regional monetary fund, while China has slashed tariffs and increased loans to its Southeast Asian neighbors. Trade within the India-Japan-Australia triangle — of which China sits at the center — has surpassed trade across the Pacific.

At the same time, a set of Asian security and diplomatic institutions is being built from the inside out, resulting in America’s grip on the Pacific Rim being loosened one finger at a time. From Thailand to Indonesia to Korea, no country — friend of America’s or not — wants political tension to upset economic growth. To the Western eye, it is a bizarre phenomenon: small Asian nation-states should be balancing against the rising China, but increasingly they rally toward it out of Asian cultural pride and an understanding of the historical-cultural reality of Chinese dominance. And in the former Soviet Central Asian countries — the so-called Stans — China is the new heavyweight player, its manifest destiny pushing its Han pioneers westward while pulling defunct microstates like Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, as well as oil-rich Kazakhstan, into its orbit. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization gathers these Central Asian strongmen together with China and Russia and may eventually become the “NATO of the East.”

The Big Three are the ultimate “Frenemies.” Twenty-first-century geopolitics will resemble nothing more than Orwell’s 1984, but instead of three world powers (Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia), we have three hemispheric pan-regions, longitudinal zones dominated by America, Europe and China. As the early 20th-century European scholars of geopolitics realized, because a vertically organized region contains all climatic zones year-round, each pan-region can be self-sufficient and build a power base from which to intrude in others’ terrain. But in a globalized and shrinking world, no geography is sacrosanct. So in various ways, both overtly and under the radar, China and Europe will meddle in America’s backyard, America and China will compete for African resources in Europe’s southern periphery and America and Europe will seek to profit from the rapid economic growth of countries within China’s growing sphere of influence. Globalization is the weapon of choice. The main battlefield is what I call “the second world.”

The Swing States

There are plenty of statistics that will still tell the story of America’s global dominance: our military spending, our share of the global economy and the like. But there are statistics, and there are trends. To really understand how quickly American power is in decline around the world, I’ve spent the past two years traveling in some 40 countries in the five most strategic regions of the planet — the countries of the second world. They are not in the first-world core of the global economy, nor in its third-world periphery. Lying alongside and between the Big Three, second-world countries are the swing states that will determine which of the superpowers has the upper hand for the next generation of geopolitics. From Venezuela to Vietnam and Morocco to Malaysia, the new reality of global affairs is that there is not one way to win allies and influence countries but three: America’s coalition (as in “coalition of the willing”), Europe’s consensus and China’s consultative styles. The geopolitical marketplace will decide which will lead the 21st century.

The key second-world countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia are more than just “emerging markets.” If you include China, they hold a majority of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves and savings, and their spending power is making them the global economy’s most important new consumer markets and thus engines of global growth — not replacing the United States but not dependent on it either. I.P.O.’s from the so-called BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China) alone accounted for 39 percent of the volume raised globally in 2007, just one indicator of second-world countries’ rising importance in corporate finance — even after you subtract China. When Tata of India is vying to buy Jaguar, you know the landscape of power has changed. Second-world countries are also fast becoming hubs for oil and timber, manufacturing and services, airlines and infrastructure — all this in a geopolitical marketplace that puts their loyalty up for grabs to any of the Big Three, and increasingly to all of them at the same time. Second-world states won’t be subdued: in the age of network power, they won’t settle for being mere export markets. Rather, they are the places where the Big Three must invest heavily and to which they must relocate productive assets to maintain influence.

While traveling through the second world, I learned to see countries not as unified wholes but rather as having multiple, often disconnected, parts, some of which were on a path to rise into the first world while other, often larger, parts might remain in the third. I wondered whether globalization would accelerate these nations’ becoming ever more fragmented, or if governments would step up to establish central control. Each second-world country appeared to have a fissured personality under pressures from both internal forces and neighbors. I realized that to make sense of the second world, it was necessary to assess each country from the inside out.

Second-world countries are distinguished from the third world by their potential: the likelihood that they will capitalize on a valuable commodity, a charismatic leader or a generous patron. Each and every second-world country matters in its own right, for its economic, strategic or diplomatic weight, and its decision to tilt toward the United States, the E.U. or China has a strong influence on what others in its region decide to do. Will an American nuclear deal with India push Pakistan even deeper into military dependence on China? Will the next set of Arab monarchs lean East or West? The second world will shape the world’s balance of power as much as the superpowers themselves will.

In exploring just a small sample of the second world, we should start perhaps with the hardest case: Russia. Apparently stabilized and resurgent under the Kremlin-Gazprom oligarchy, why is Russia not a superpower but rather the ultimate second-world swing state? For all its muscle flexing, Russia is also disappearing. Its population decline is a staggering half million citizens per year or more, meaning it will be not much larger than Turkey by 2025 or so — spread across a land so vast that it no longer even makes sense as a country. Travel across Russia today, and you’ll find, as during Soviet times, city after city of crumbling, heatless apartment blocks and neglected elderly citizens whose value to the state diminishes with distance from Moscow. The forced Siberian migrations of the Soviet era are being voluntarily reversed as children move west to more tolerable and modern climes. Filling the vacuum they have left behind are hundreds of thousands of Chinese, literally gobbling up, plundering, outright buying and more or less annexing Russia’s Far East for its timber and other natural resources. Already during the cold war it was joked that there were “no disturbances on the Sino-Finnish border,” a prophecy that seems ever closer to fulfillment.

Russia lost its western satellites almost two decades ago, and Europe, while appearing to be bullied by Russia’s oil-dependent diplomacy, is staging a long-term buyout of Russia, whose economy remains roughly the size of France’s. The more Europe gets its gas from North Africa and oil from Azerbaijan, the less it will rely on Russia, all the while holding the lever of being by far Russia’s largest investor. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development provides the kinds of loans that help build an alternative, less corrupt private sector from below, while London and Berlin welcome Russia’s billionaires, allowing the likes of Boris Berezovsky to openly campaign against Putin. The E.U. and U.S. also finance and train a pugnacious second-world block of Baltic and Balkan nations, whose activists agitate from Belarus to Uzbekistan. Privately, some E.U. officials say that annexing Russia is perfectly doable; it’s just a matter of time. In the coming decades, far from restoring its Soviet-era might, Russia will have to decide whether it wishes to exist peacefully as an asset to Europe or the alternative — becoming a petro-vassal of China.

Turkey, too, is a totemic second-world prize advancing through crucial moments of geopolitical truth. During the cold war, NATO was the principal vehicle for relations with Turkey, the West’s listening post on the southwestern Soviet border. But with Turkey’s bending over backward to avoid outright E.U. rejection, its refusal in 2003 to let the U.S. use Turkish territory as a staging point for invading Iraq marked a turning point — away from the U.S. “America always says it lobbies the E.U. on our behalf,” a Turkish strategic analyst in Ankara told me, “but all that does is make the E.U. more stringent. We don’t need that kind of help anymore.”

To be sure, Turkish pride contains elements of an aggressive neo-Ottomanism that is in tension with some E.U. standards, but this could ultimately serve as Europe’s weapon to project stability into Syria, Iraq and Iran — all of which Europe effectively borders through Turkey itself. Roads are the pathways to power, as I learned driving across Turkey in a beat-up Volkswagen a couple of summers ago. Turkey’s master engineers have been boring tunnels, erecting bridges and flattening roads across the country’s massive eastern realm, allowing it to assert itself over the Arab and Persian worlds both militarily and economically as Turkish merchants look as much East as West. Already joint Euro-Turkish projects have led to the opening of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline, with a matching rail line and highway planned to buttress European influence all the way to Turkey’s fraternal friend Azerbaijan on the oil-rich Caspian Sea.

It takes only one glance at Istanbul’s shimmering skyline to realize that even if Turkey never becomes an actual E.U. member, it is becoming ever more Europeanized. Turkey receives more than $20 billion in foreign investment and more than 20 million tourists every year, the vast majority of both from E.U. countries. Ninety percent of the Turkish diaspora lives in Western Europe and sends home another $1 billion per year in remittances and investments. This remitted capital is spreading growth and development eastward in the form of new construction ventures, kilim factories and schools. With the accession of Romania and Bulgaria to the E.U. a year ago, Turkey now physically borders the E.U. (beyond its narrow frontier with Greece), symbolizing how Turkey is becoming a part of the European superpower.

Western diplomats have a long historical familiarity, however dramatic and tumultuous, with Russia and Turkey. But what about the Stans: landlocked but resource-rich countries run by autocrats? Ever since these nations were flung into independence by the Soviet collapse, China has steadily replaced Russia as their new patron. Trade, oil pipelines and military exercises with China under the auspices of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization make it the new organizing pole for the region, with the U.S. scrambling to maintain modest military bases in the region. (Currently it is forced to rely far too much on Afghanistan after being booted, at China’s and Russia’s behest, from the Karshi Khanabad base in Uzbekistan in 2005.) The challenge of getting ahead in the strategically located and energy-rich Stans is the challenge of a bidding contest in which values seem not to matter. While China buys more Kazakh oil and America bids for defense contracts, Europe offers sustained investment and holds off from giving President Nursultan Nazarbayev the high-status recognition he craves. Kazakhstan considers itself a “strategic partner” of just about everyone, but tell that to the Big Three, who bribe government officials to cancel the others’ contracts and spy on one another through contract workers — all in the name of preventing the others from gaining mastery over the fabled heartland of Eurasian power.

Just one example of the lengths to which foreigners will go to stay on good terms with Nazarbayev is the current negotiation between a consortium of Western energy giants, including ENI and Exxon, and Kazakhstan’s state-run oil company over the development of the Caspian’s massive Kashagan oil field. At present, the consortium is coughing up at least $4 billion as well as a large hand-over of shares to compensate for delayed exploration and production — and Kazakhstan isn’t satisfied yet. The lesson from Kazakhstan, and its equally strategic but far less predictable neighbor Uzbekistan, is how fickle the second world can be, its alignments changing on a whim and causing headaches and ripple effects in all directions. To be distracted elsewhere or to lack sufficient personnel on the ground can make the difference between winning and losing a major round of the new great game.

The Big Three dynamic is not just some distant contest by which America ensures its ability to dictate affairs on the other side of the globe. Globalization has brought the geopolitical marketplace straight to America’s backyard, rapidly eroding the two-centuries-old Monroe Doctrine in the process. In truth, America called the shots in Latin America only when its southern neighbors lacked any vision of their own. Now they have at least two non-American challengers: China and Chávez. It was Simón Bolívar who fought ferociously for South America’s independence from Spanish rule, and today it is the newly renamed Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela that has inspired an entire continent to bootstrap its way into the global balance of power on its own terms. Hugo Chávez, the country’s clownish colonel, may last for decades to come or may die by the gun, but either way, he has called America’s bluff and won, changing the rules of North-South relations in the Western hemisphere. He has emboldened and bankrolled leftist leaders across the continent, helped Argentina and others pay back and boot out the I.M.F. and sponsored a continentwide bartering scheme of oil, cattle, wheat and civil servants, reminding even those who despise him that they can stand up to the great Northern power. Chávez stands not only on the ladder of high oil prices. He relies on tacit support from Europe and hardheaded intrusion from China, the former still the country’s largest investor and the latter feverishly repairing Venezuela’s dilapidated oil rigs while building its own refineries.

But Chávez’s challenge to the United States is, in inspiration, ideological, whereas the second-world shift is really structural. Even with Chávez still in power, it is Brazil that is reappearing as South America’s natural leader. Alongside India and South Africa, Brazil has led the charge in global trade negotiations, sticking it to the U.S. on its steel tariffs and to Europe on its agricultural subsidies. Geographically, Brazil is nearly as close to Europe as to America and is as keen to build cars and airplanes for Europe as it is to export soy to the U.S. Furthermore, Brazil, although a loyal American ally in the cold war, wasted little time before declaring a “strategic alliance” with China. Their economies are remarkably complementary, with Brazil shipping iron ore, timber, zinc, beef, milk and soybeans to China and China investing in Brazil’s hydroelectric dams, steel mills and shoe factories. Both China and Brazil’s ambitions may soon alter the very geography of their relations, with Brazil leading an effort to construct a Trans-Oceanic Highway from the Amazon through Peru to the Pacific Coast, facilitating access for Chinese shipping tankers. Latin America has mostly been a geopolitical afterthought over the centuries, but in the 21st century, all resources will be competed for, and none are too far away.

The Middle East — spanning from Morocco to Iran — lies between the hubs of influence of the Big Three and has the largest number of second-world swing states. No doubt the thaw with Libya, brokered by America and Britain after Muammar el-Qaddafi declared he would abandon his country’s nuclear pursuits in 2003, was partly motivated by growing demand for energy from a close Mediterranean neighbor. But Qaddafi is not selling out. He and his advisers have astutely parceled out production sharing agreements to a balanced assortment of American, European, Chinese and other Asian oil giants. Mindful of the history of Western oil companies’ exploitation of Arabia, he — like Chávez in Venezuela and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan — has also cleverly ratcheted up the pressure on foreigners to share more revenue with the regime by tweaking contracts, rounding numbers liberally and threatening expropriation. What I find in virtually every Arab country is not such nationalism, however, but rather a new Arabism aimed at spreading oil wealth within the Arab world rather than depositing it in the United States as in past oil booms. And as Egypt, Syria and other Arab states receive greater investment from the Persian Gulf and start spending more on their own, they, too, become increasingly important second-world players who can thwart the U.S.

Saudi Arabia, for quite some years to come still the planet’s leading oil producer, is a second-world prize on par with Russia and equally up for grabs. For the past several decades, America’s share of the foreign direct investment into the kingdom decisively shaped the country’s foreign policy, but today the monarchy is far wiser, luring Europe and Asia to bring their investment shares toward a third each. Saudi Arabia has engaged Europe in an evolving Persian Gulf free-trade area, while it has invested close to $1 billion in Chinese oil refineries. Make no mistake: America was never all powerful only because of its military dominance; strategic leverage must have an economic basis. A major common denominator among key second-world countries is the need for each of the Big Three to put its money where its mouth is.

For all its historical antagonism with Saudi Arabia, Iran is playing the same swing-state game. Its diplomacy has not only managed to create discord among the U.S. and E.U. on sanctions; it has also courted China, nurturing a relationship that goes back to the Silk Road. Today Iran represents the final square in China’s hopscotch maneuvering to reach the Persian Gulf overland without relying on the narrow Straits of Malacca. Already China has signed a multibillion-dollar contract for natural gas from Iran’s immense North Pars field, another one for construction of oil terminals on the Caspian Sea and yet another to extend the Tehran metro — and it has boosted shipment of ballistic-missile technology and air-defense radars to Iran. Several years of negotiation culminated in December with Sinopec sealing a deal to develop the Yadavaran oil field, with more investments from China (and others) sure to follow. The longer International Atomic Energy Agency negotiations drag on, the more likely it becomes that Iran will indeed be able to stay afloat without Western investment because of backing from China and from its second-world friends — without giving any ground to the West.

Interestingly, it is precisely Muslim oil-producing states — Libya, Saudi Arabia, Iran, (mostly Muslim) Kazakhstan, Malaysia — that seem the best at spreading their alignments across some combination of the Big Three simultaneously: getting what they want while fending off encroachment from others. America may seek Muslim allies for its image and the “war on terror,” but these same countries seem also to be part of what Samuel Huntington called the “Confucian-Islamic connection.” What is more, China is pulling off the most difficult of superpower feats: simultaneously maintaining positive ties with the world’s crucial pairs of regional rivals: Venezuela and Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, India and Pakistan. At this stage, Western diplomats have only mustered the wherewithal to quietly denounce Chinese aid policies and value-neutral alliances, but they are far from being able to do much of anything about them.

This applies most profoundly in China’s own backyard, Southeast Asia. Some of the most dynamic countries in the region Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam are playing the superpower suitor game with admirable savvy. Chinese migrants have long pulled the strings in the region’s economies even while governments sealed defense agreements with the U.S. Today, Malaysia and Thailand still perform joint military exercises with America but also buy weapons from, and have defense treaties with, China, including the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation by which Asian nations have pledged nonaggression against one another. (Indonesia, a crucial American ally during the cold war, has also been forming defense ties with China.) As one senior Malaysian diplomat put it to me, without a hint of jest, “Creating a community is easy among the yellow and the brown but not the white.” Tellingly, it is Vietnam, because of its violent histories with the U.S. and China, which is most eager to accept American defense contracts (and a new Intel microchip plant) to maintain its strategic balance. Vietnam, like most of the second world, doesn’t want to fall into any one superpower’s sphere of influence.

The Anti-Imperial Belt

The new multicolor map of influence — a Venn diagram of overlapping American, Chinese and European influence — is a very fuzzy read. No more “They’re with us” or “He’s our S.O.B.” Mubarak, Musharraf, Malaysia’s Mahathir and a host of other second-world leaders have set a new standard for manipulative prowess: all tell the U.S. they are its friend while busily courting all sides.

What is more, many second-world countries are confident enough to form anti-imperial belts of their own, building trade, technology and diplomatic axes across the (second) world from Brazil to Libya to Iran to Russia. Indeed, Russia has stealthily moved into position to construct Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor, putting it firmly in the Chinese camp on the Iran issue, while also offering nuclear reactors to Libya and arms to Venezuela and Indonesia. Second-world countries also increasingly use sovereign-wealth funds (often financed by oil) worth trillions of dollars to throw their weight around, even bullying first-world corporations and markets. The United Arab Emirates (particularly as represented by their capital, Abu Dhabi), Saudi Arabia and Russia are rapidly climbing the ranks of foreign-exchange holders and are hardly holding back in trying to buy up large shares of Western banks (which have suddenly become bargains) and oil companies. Singapore’s sovereign-wealth fund has taken a similar path. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia plans an international investment fund that will dwarf Abu Dhabi’s. From Switzerland to Citigroup, a reaction is forming to limit the shares such nontransparent sovereign-wealth funds can control, showing just how quickly the second world is rising in the global power game.

To understand the second world, you have to start to think like a second-world country. What I have seen in these and dozens of other countries is that globalization is not synonymous with Americanization; in fact, nothing has brought about the erosion of American primacy faster than globalization. While European nations redistribute wealth to secure or maintain first-world living standards, on the battlefield of globalization second-world countries’ state-backed firms either outhustle or snap up American companies, leaving their workers to fend for themselves. The second world’s first priority is not to become America but to succeed by any means necessary. 

The Non-American World

Karl Marx and Max Weber both chastised Far Eastern cultures for being despotic, agrarian and feudal, lacking the ingredients for organizational success. Oswald Spengler saw it differently, arguing that mankind both lives and thinks in unique cultural systems, with Western ideals neither transferable nor relevant. Today the Asian landscape still features ancient civilizations but also by far the most people and, by certain measures, the most money of any region in the world. With or without America, Asia is shaping the world’s destiny — and exposing the flaws of the grand narrative of Western civilization in the process.

The rise of China in the East and of the European Union within the West has fundamentally altered a globe that recently appeared to have only an American gravity — pro or anti. As Europe’s and China’s spirits rise with every move into new domains of influence, America’s spirit is weakened. The E.U. may uphold the principles of the United Nations that America once dominated, but how much longer will it do so as its own social standards rise far above this lowest common denominator? And why should China or other Asian countries become “responsible stakeholders,” in former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s words, in an American-led international order when they had no seat at the table when the rules were drafted? Even as America stumbles back toward multilateralism, others are walking away from the American game and playing by their own rules.

The self-deluding universalism of the American imperium — that the world inherently needs a single leader and that American liberal ideology must be accepted as the basis of global order — has paradoxically resulted in America quickly becoming an ever-lonelier superpower. Just as there is a geopolitical marketplace, there is a marketplace of models of success for the second world to emulate, not least the Chinese model of economic growth without political liberalization (itself an affront to Western modernization theory). As the historian Arnold Toynbee observed half a century ago, Western imperialism united the globe, but it did not assure that the West would dominate forever — materially or morally. Despite the “mirage of immortality” that afflicts global empires, the only reliable rule of history is its cycles of imperial rise and decline, and as Toynbee also pithily noted, the only direction to go from the apogee of power is down.

The web of globalization now has three spiders. What makes America unique in this seemingly value-free contest is not its liberal democratic ideals — which Europe may now represent better than America does — but rather its geography. America is isolated, while Europe and China occupy two ends of the great Eurasian landmass that is the perennial center of gravity of geopolitics. When America dominated NATO and led a rigid Pacific alliance system with Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand, it successfully managed the Herculean task of running the world from one side of it. Now its very presence in Eurasia is tenuous; it has been shunned by the E.U. and Turkey, is unwelcome in much of the Middle East and has lost much of East Asia’s confidence. “Accidental empire” or not, America must quickly accept and adjust to this reality. Maintaining America’s empire can only get costlier in both blood and treasure. It isn’t worth it, and history promises the effort will fail. It already has.

Would the world not be more stable if America could be reaccepted as its organizing principle and leader? It’s very much too late to be asking, because the answer is unfolding before our eyes. Neither China nor the E.U. will replace the U.S. as the world’s sole leader; rather all three will constantly struggle to gain influence on their own and balance one another. Europe will promote its supranational integration model as a path to resolving Mideast disputes and organizing Africa, while China will push a Beijing consensus based on respect for sovereignty and mutual economic benefit. America must make itself irresistible to stay in the game.

I believe that a complex, multicultural landscape filled with transnational challenges from terrorism to global warming is completely unmanageable by a single authority, whether the United States or the United Nations. Globalization resists centralization of almost any kind. Instead, what we see gradually happening in climate-change negotiations (as in Bali in December) — and need to see more of in the areas of preventing nuclear proliferation and rebuilding failed states — is a far greater sense of a division of labor among the Big Three, a concrete burden-sharing among them by which they are judged not by their rhetoric but the responsibilities they fulfill. The arbitrarily composed Security Council is not the place to hash out such a division of labor. Neither are any of the other multilateral bodies bogged down with weighted voting and cacophonously irrelevant voices. The big issues are for the Big Three to sort out among themselves.

Less Can Be More

So let’s play strategy czar. You are a 21st-century Kissinger. Your task is to guide the next American president (and the one after that) from the demise of American hegemony into a world of much more diffuse governance. What do you advise, concretely, to mitigate the effects of the past decade’s policies — those that inspired defiance rather than cooperation — and to set in motion a virtuous circle of policies that lead to global equilibrium rather than a balance of power against the U.S.?

First, channel your inner J.F.K. You are president, not emperor. You are commander in chief and also diplomat in chief. Your grand strategy is a global strategy, yet you must never use the phrase “American national interest.” (It is assumed.) Instead talk about “global interests” and how closely aligned American policies are with those interests. No more “us” versus “them,” only “we.” That means no more talk of advancing “American values” either. What is worth having is universal first and American second. This applies to “democracy” as well, where timing its implementation is as important as the principle itself. Right now, from the Middle East to Southeast Asia, the hero of the second world — including its democracies — is Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

We have learned the hard way that what others want for themselves trumps what we want for them — always. Neither America nor the world needs more competing ideologies, and moralizing exhortations are only useful if they point toward goals that are actually attainable. This new attitude must be more than an act: to obey this modest, hands-off principle is what would actually make America the exceptional empire it purports to be. It would also be something every other empire in history has failed to do.

Second, Pentagonize the State Department. Adm. William J. Fallon, head of Central Command (Centcom), not Robert Gates, is the man really in charge of the U.S. military’s primary operations. Diplomacy, too, requires the equivalent of geographic commands — with top-notch assistant secretaries of state to manage relations in each key region without worrying about getting on the daily agenda of the secretary of state for menial approvals. Then we’ll be ready to coordinate within distant areas. In some regions, our ambassadors to neighboring countries meet only once or twice a year; they need to be having weekly secure video-conferences. Regional institutions are thriving in the second world — think Mercosur (the South American common market), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the Gulf Cooperation Council in the Persian Gulf. We need high-level ambassadors at those organizations too. Taken together, this allows us to move beyond, for example, the current Millennium Challenge Account — which amounts to one-track aid packages to individual countries already going in the right direction — toward encouraging the kind of regional cooperation that can work in curbing both terrorism and poverty. Only if you think regionally can a success story have a demonstration effect. This approach will be crucial to the future of the Pentagon’s new African command. (Until last year, African relations were managed largely by European command, or Eucom, in Germany.) Suspicions of America are running high in Africa, and a country-by-country strategy would make those suspicions worse. Finally, to achieve strategic civilian-military harmonization, we have to first get the maps straight. The State Department puts the Stans in the South and Central Asia bureau, while the Pentagon puts them within the Middle-East-focused Centcom. The Chinese divide up the world the Pentagon’s way; so, too, should our own State Department.

Third, deploy the marchmen. Europe is boosting its common diplomatic corps, while China is deploying retired civil servants, prison laborers and Chinese teachers — all are what the historian Arnold Toynbee called marchmen, the foot-soldiers of empire spreading values and winning loyalty. There are currently more musicians in U.S. military marching bands than there are Foreign Service officers, a fact not helped by Congress’s decision to effectively freeze growth in diplomatic postings. In this context, Condoleezza Rice’s “transformational diplomacy” is a myth: we don’t have enough diplomats for core assignments, let alone solo hardship missions. We need a Peace Corps 10 times its present size, plus student exchanges, English-teaching programs and hands-on job training overseas — with corporate sponsorship.

That’s right. In true American fashion, we must build a diplomatic-industrial complex. Europe and China all but personify business-government collusion, so let State raise money from Wall Street as it puts together regional aid and investment packages. American foreign policy must be substantially more than what the U.S. government directs. After all, the E.U. is already the world’s largest aid donor, and China is rising in the aid arena as well. Plus, each has a larger population than the U.S., meaning deeper benches of recruits, and are not political targets in the present political atmosphere the way Americans abroad are. The secret weapon must be the American citizenry itself. American foundations and charities, not least the Gates and Ford Foundations, dwarf European counterparts in their humanitarian giving; if such private groups independently send more and more American volunteers armed with cash, good will and local knowledge to perform “diplomacy of the deed,” then the public diplomacy will take care of itself.

Fourth, make the global economy work for us. By resurrecting European economies, the Marshall Plan was a down payment on even greater returns in terms of purchasing American goods. For now, however, as the dollar falls, our manufacturing base declines and Americans lose control of assets to wealthier foreign funds, our scientific education, broadband access, health-care, safety and a host of other standards are all slipping down the global rankings. Given our deficits and political gridlock, the only solution is to channel global, particularly Asian, liquidity into our own public infrastructure, creating jobs and technology platforms that can keep American innovation ahead of the pack. Globalization apologizes to no one; we must stay on top of it or become its victim.

Fifth, convene a G-3 of the Big Three. But don’t set the agenda; suggest it. These are the key issues among which to make compromises and trade-offs: climate change, energy security, weapons proliferation and rogue states. Offer more Western clean technology to China in exchange for fewer weapons and lifelines for the Sudanese tyrants and the Burmese junta. And make a joint effort with the Europeans to offer massive, irresistible packages to the people of Iran, Uzbekistan and Venezuela — incentives for eventual regime change rather than fruitless sanctions. A Western change of tone could make China sweat. Superpowers have to learn to behave, too.

Taken together, all these moves could renew American competitiveness in the geopolitical marketplace — and maybe even prove our exceptionalism. We need pragmatic incremental steps like the above to deliver tangible gains to people beyond our shores, repair our reputation, maintain harmony among the Big Three, keep the second world stable and neutral and protect our common planet. Let’s hope whoever is sworn in as the next American president understands this.

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30th January
Bush's State of the Union: All That Remains --- A Faith
David Ryan, University College Cork

Despite the interruptions, the applause, the patchwork ovations, the ritual and the performance there was little in the 2008 State of the Union to suggest that the Union was in fact strong, beyond reference to a repetitious faith in Republican principles.

President Bush’s opening gambit surveyed the tough times that tested the nation ‘in ways none of us could have imagined.’  The Administration was facing decisions of war and peace, economic competition, and health and welfare, indeed the same decision that pervaded debate in everyone’s real area of interest: the wars for the White House in 2009. 

Bush asserted that those testing issues called for vigorous debate and that they ‘answered the call.’  At the same time, he was already predicting how we historians might record the legacy: that amidst this debate ‘we acted with purpose’ and that  showed the world ‘the power and resilience of American self-government’. Confident stuff, given that it came from a president whose latest approval ratings have dipped below 30% according to a New York Times/CBS poll. 

Of course there are always different casts on history: one might suggest that whilst acrimony and debate have cast their shadow over recent years, with an acute accent on the present, it was actually the combination of a broad but undefined sense of ‘purpose’ with a relative lack of ‘debate’ that took the United States into Iraq.  Nevertheless Bush expressed his faith that the ‘most reliable guide for our country is the collective wisdom of ordinary citizens’. Indeed, this wisdom had sent him and his colleagues to Washington ‘to carry out the people’s business’, even if this business included strenuous efforts to fool those people with images of mushroom clouds and WMD or assertions on the connections between al Qaeda and Iraq. 

If acrimony and debate had preceded the 2007 State of the Union as Bush moved to implement the ‘surge’ in Iraq, this year’s picture was presented as one of greater hope.  Bush reported that the US surge, backed by the so-called ‘Anbar Awakening’ and the increased deployment of Iraqi soldiers and police, was working. Indeed, it would permit a drawdown of at least 20,000 US soldiers, even if this still did not have a specific timetable.

Though Iraqi reconciliation was mentioned, the speech remained silent on the specifics that still need to be worked out. Bush rightly noted that, despite recent success, the situation would remain tentative. Any hasty withdrawal of US forces might lead to the disintegration of the putative success.  And so the gist of the speech was to prepare Americans for the continued ‘tough fighting ahead’ and the idea that finally the US military had moved beyond the updated search, destroy and leave operations to clear, stay and hold strategies.  So, whatever the peculiarities of the origins of this conflict, the successor to Bush will still face serious difficulties. Whatever the manner of the final accounting of the exit strategy, it will have profound implications for the idea and identity of the United States and its foreign policy. 

At the heart of the speech was a profound confusion born of faith in liberty and the idea of the United States. Bush worked with the premise that when people are given the chance, they will opt for freedom. This premise is accurate, no doubt, but it needs to be conditioned and defined more precisely; for instance, Pew research polls  indicate that there is a significant wariness amongst respondents when those values are attached to US power. If people would prefer to live in societies with greater freedom, the US support for authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East has not necessarily advanced that process. 

Bush’s identification of the US as spreading ‘the hope of freedom’, however, is cast  within the context of the ‘defining ideological struggle of the 21st century’, that waged against the terrorists.  This confusion of freedom arises both from the conflation between the terrorists and the tyrants that Bush identified in 2002 and from the conflation of this particular struggle with the ideological purpose of US foreign policy identified in the pivotal speeches in the days after 9/11. That freedom and the War on Terror are now integrated is a product of US choices and decisions taken years earlier.

Inevitably the theme of strength and faith was going to illuminate this President’s attempt to shine at the periphery of the limelight, when he concluded --- as he must --- that the ‘state of our Union will remain strong.’  It was an ironic juxtaposition because when Bush identified the ‘secret’ strength and ‘the miracle of America’, he found it not in the greatness of government but ‘in the spirit and determination of our people’. This people had changed the course of the history of the world, turning the fragile democracy of the years of Confederation into the most powerful nation on earth and creating ‘a beacon of hope for millions.’  The Founders, Bush asserted, had wisely ‘wagered that a great and noble nation could be built on the liberty that resides in the hearts of all men and women’ because they trusted the people.

Yet, following the analysis of Richard Hofstadter, one could argue that wisdom lay in the Founders’ lack of trust on the part of the Founders in the altruism of the people and their recognition of selfish inclinations. This judgement persuaded them to design a political system to check, balance and place limits on the people and political factions.  It was the failure of this system in 2002, 2003 and beyond that has and will continue to have profound consequences for the Union and its place and identity in the world. 

If Bush were truly concerned about the faith in the American people, he might be reminded that only 19%, according to the New York Times, think ‘the country is generally on the right track, as low a number as any recorded.’  

Comment on this....


30th January
Scott Lucas on Good Morning Scotland: The Florida Primary

BBC Scotland discussed the state of the Republican contest with Scott Lucas in a featured interview. It can be found just after the 2:10:00 mark on the Webcast.



21st January: 
Cornered in Square One: Bush's Foreign Policy Hits a Dead End
Steven Weber, University of California and Bruce W. Jentleson, Duke University

[A concise, incisive assessment of what the Bush Administration --- and its successor --- faces after seven years in pursuit of the unipolar moment. This piece, originally published in the Los Angeles Times, is reprinted with the consent of the authors.]

After years of proclaiming that it understood international politics better than its predecessors, the Bush administration is now trying to undo the damage its first seven years have wrought -- trying, in effect, to take U.S. foreign policy back to where it was before President Bush was sworn in.

But the world is a very different place today, and much less advantageous to the United States. Square one, administration officials are finding, is no longer really square one.

In 2001, the administration declared a revolution in the practice and substance of U.S. foreign policy. It ridiculed liberal internationalist ideals of multilateral cooperation. It opposed using U.S. military power dressed up as "nation-building." It wrote off global warming as Al Gore's obsession, and it said it wouldn't get bogged down, as its predecessors had, in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking.

Then after 9/11, the administration went even further, developing a radical new doctrine for the preemptive use of military force. The war on terrorism became its defining issue -- indeed its supreme purpose superseding all else, strategically as well as morally.

Today, the world looks very different. And in trying to reverse the damage done during its first seven years -- including an overstretched military and a loss of global prestige and influence -- the administration, ironically, has quietly adopted many of the policies it once scorned.

At the end of his term, President Clinton was successfully working to preserve the benefits and correct the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework that aimed to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program. After taking office in 2001, the Bush administration wrote off this progress and instead placed North Korea into the "axis of evil." It then halfheartedly went along with the six-party talks, initiated in 2003 and hosted by China, on the security issues raised by North Korea's nuclear weapons program.Meanwhile, North Korea built more warheads, declared itself a nuclear power in 2005 and conducted its first nuclear test in October 2006.

With the problem worsening, the administration finally loosened the negotiating strictures, and a major agreement with North Korea was reached in early 2007. Although the pact has only been partly implemented and compliance is spotty, it was enough for Bush, who called Kim Jong Il a "tyrant" and "Pygmy" in 2003, to write the North Korean leader a personal "Dear Mr. Chairman" letter last month, reiterating the U.S. commitment to security guarantees for Pyongyang and other benefits if it lived up to the deal.

All well and good. But it's a North Korea policy not that different from Clinton's -- exchanging nuclear disarmament for economic and energy assistance with a goal of diplomatic normalization. Except now North Korea has a larger (and tested) nuclear arsenal to be dealt with.

In the Middle East, the Bush administration backed off the traditional U.S. role of peace broker between Arabs and Israelis. "The road to Jerusalem," it explained, "runs through Baghdad." In other words, ousting Saddam Hussein was the key to unlocking a Palestinian-Israeli deal. Yet even after Hussein's fall, U.S. peace efforts amounted to little more than drive-by diplomacy, a trip here and a speech there but no sustained campaign to secure a settlement in the decades-old conflict.

Then late last year, at the peace conference in Annapolis, Md., the U.S. revived its role as Mideast peace broker. Last week, Bush even flew to the region and met with the principals to get the process off the ground. But the obstacles to a settlement seem greater now than when Bush took office. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank is weak and fragmented. Hamas controls Gaza. The Israeli public feels less secure and more encircled by hostile foes in large part because of the war in Iraq. And seven years of West Bank settlements have further radicalized Palestinian youth.

In Iraq, the success attributed to the surge led by Gen. David H. Petraeus has returned the country to levels of violence no worse than in 2004. Whether the progress in security can be sustained is fundamentally a political issue, and one for which the prospects remain poor. The Iraqi government has not passed major legislation for sharing oil revenue, reversing the extremes of de-Baathification or revising election laws -- all benchmarks considered crucial to fostering trust and some reconciliation among the country's religious and ethnic groups.

But the idea that Iraq would be the leading edge of democratization of Arab countries in the Mideast is seldom heard anymore. And while the situation is completely different from what it was in 2000 -- Hussein is gone, there are hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops in the country and there is a democratically elected government -- success in Iraq in 2008 is defined, for all intents and purposes, as containment: no weapons of mass destruction, no terrorist havens and no spillover of internal violence into other countries. That's a policy a lot like Clinton's.

The big winner of the Iraq war has been Iran, whose influence in the region has multiplied, particularly in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza. After 9/11, and again in 2003, the Bush administration effectively rebuffed potential opportunities to improve relations with Iran when the Iranians hinted at a willingness to bargain.And it joined the European Union-led talks on Iran's nuclear program late in the game. Throughout, U.S. rhetoric toward Iran, also branded a member of the axis of evil, became increasingly bellicose, with threats of military action if Iran continued to pursue nuclear weapons.

The end result of all this? Well, it turns out that Iran stopped its nuclear weapons program in 2003, according to a recent National Intelligence Estimate, though the country is continuing its nuclear fuel enrichment program. So the goal now is to constrain Iran's nuclear program and limit its reach in the region while waiting for political change inside the country to alter the terms of the game in our favor. If U.S. policy succeeds in 2008, the outcome will look remarkably like it did in 2000, when a change of leadership in Iran led to U.S. overtures for better relations.

But the next president will not be starting from an international position similar to the one Bush inherited no matter how successful the administration is in undoing the damage of its failed policies. A once internationally weak and democratizing Russia has become an autocratic and provocative petro-state. China's economy is more than twice the size of what it was in 2000, and its global influence has correspondingly risen. And a new generation of jihadists, no less committed to violence, is eager to continue the anti-America campaign.

The GOP candidates who would build on Bush's old approach to foreign policy clearly don't get how the world has changed. But neither do Democrats who stress reversing what Bush has done. No one should feel vindicated by the Bush administration's reversals, because defining the future of U.S. foreign policy in terms of the past would be as big a mistake for the next president as it was for Bush.

When you are a great power, a lost decade does not simply leave you back where you started. It leaves you far behind. Our presidential candidates had better plan to do more than simply reboot the system and start over, as though the clock had stopped in January 2001.

Steven Weber is professor of political science and director of the Institute of International Studies at UC Berkeley. Bruce W. Jentleson is professor of public policy studies and political science at Duke University.



15th January: 
Press Coverage: "America and the Middle East: Liberty and Justice"

The Conference has now received excellent coverage in Beirut's Daily Star.


15th January: 
Follow-up on "America and the Middle East: Liberty and Justice"
Observations by Helena Cobban and Stan Katz

[Helena Cobban, a participant in the conference held at the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at American University Beirut, offers her wide-ranging survey and critique on her blog, Just World News.

Stan Katz of Princeton University, whose contribution to the opening roundtable can be found under the entry for Week of 7th January, follows up with a comment for the Chronicle of Higher Education.]

Conference in Beirut; "justice"; cluster bombs

Helena Cobban

It was truly international gathering-- even if not yet sufficiently so. The 50 or so presenters included scholars from Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, occupied East Jerusalem, Turkey, Germany, the UK, Netherlands, France, along with roughly 25 from the US. The conference's title was "Liberty and Justice: America and the Middle East". It was certainly notable that it was taking place just days before His High Excellency President G.W. Bush launched on his imperial-scale tour of his Middle East outposts... Checking up, no doubt, on the state of "Liberty and Justice" in Israel, Palestine, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the other countries he's visiting. But that was a very different kind of "east-west" interaction!

One lack at the conference that I noted was the absence of any Iraqi scholars. Iraqis have, after all, been at the receiving end of most of the US's policy in the region over the past five years. What do they have to say on the conference's topic? I do not know whether the conference organizers had invited any, and they failed to attend; or whether none had ever been invited. The inviting process did seem a little haphazard in some ways. But one thing that was clear was the outreach and effort the organizers had undertaken in order to secure the participation of four or five scholars from Tehran. That was an excellent thing to do. I wish I'd spent more time trying to get to know the Iranian participants.

One of the sessions that Stan Katz attended, but I didn't, was on the challenge of teaching American studies in the Middle East. He wrote:

    The speakers included the head of a new MA program at Teheran University in Iran (who seems, from his utterly colloquial language, to be an American), the director of the program at the University of Jordan in Amman, and a young graduate student from Al Quds University in East Jerusalem... In each case, though, there seemed to be considerable student interest in studying America, which in the year 2008 is both surprising and encouraging.
I don't know why he finds this surprising? The US is the dominant power in this region, and members of subordinated or "challenger" nations always have an intense need to understand the inner workings of the big imperial power. It is often a matter of sheer survival to be able to do so. I have always found that any random group of non-Americans, anywhere in the world, knows a lot more about the internal workings of US politics and society than any random group of US citizens knows about the internal workings of any other society, including neighboring Canada or Mexico. It is not just a question of the near-saturation of the world's public media with US-made cultural products, though that is one factor. But even more concretely, it is dictated by the intense need that members of weaker nations have to be able to understand the imperial power so they can optimize their chances of surviving under its domination...

And then, I'm not sure that Stan or anyone should easily jump to the conclusion that the desire of Middle Easterners to study America is "encouraging", as such-- except inasmuch as it indicates that there exists a large desire to understand other people across even some extremely thorny political divides. But if, as presenter Scott Lucas said-- and I agree-- we should be trying to decenter America within the global discourse, then we should applaud efforts by Middle Easterners to study Chinese society, or Indian society, or the cultures of Latin America or Europe as being equally "encouraging." Perhaps, above all, we should consider the efforts of academics anywhere to look objectively at-- and do something about-- the situation of their own societies to be the most encouraging step of all?

From this perspective, I think maybe one of the biggest and most lasting outcomes the conferences might have been the participation in it of around two dozen US scholars. These were mainly not scholars of the Middle East, but scholars in one or another portion of "American studies". So by coming to Lebanon-- a country that throughout the past decades of US hegemony in the Middle East has been buffeted around by the political forces loosed on the region by that hegemony-- these American Americanists probably had a bigger chance to learn something about their (our) country's real role in the world than they would have from consuming thousands of hours of CNN or other parts of the MSM. They had the chance, in Beirut, to meet as colleagues with peers from Iran, Palestine, and other "exotic" and demonized countries. They had the chance to go and witness at first hand some of the effects that the US's strong support (and heavy mid-war military re-supply) of Israel's 2006 assault had on the people and country of Lebanon... What an excellent way for them to learn some more about America's role in the world.

"Liberty" and "justice", indeed.

I wish the conferences organizers had put the words in scare-quotes like that in the conference title? But I suppose the multiple ironies embedded within the title as it stood were plain enough to see.

Many of the American Americanists were interesting people. In his introductory remarks, CASAR director Patrick McGreevey did an effective job of underlining the ironies embedded in the "Liberty and Justice" title. Including, he reminded us of George W. Bush's fall 2001 vow that he would "bring Osama bin Laden to justice-- or bring justice to him," which always struck me as a classic example of the misuse of the discourse of (true) justice.

First of all, what kind of justice would it be, that we would seek to bring OBL to? Would it look anything like the form of (miscarriage of) justice to which Saddam Hussein was brought? A hastily convened, US-dominated kangaroo court, which issues a death sentence and then carries it out in an extremely inflammatory manner?

I'm reminded of the words of ANC leader Rejoyce Mabudhafasi when I asked her what she wished had been done to the authors and upholders of the apartheid system-- and she said something like, "We could never be the kind of people who do to them what they did to us, and nor would we want to be. So I think only the Almighty can decide what to do to 'bring justice' to them." I do feel that way about OBL-- though I am of course also strongly of the opinion that the man's capacity for doing harm and violence, which he retains to this day, urgently needs to be incapacitated, a goal that can be achieved in any number of ways...

And then, what sort of justice might it be, that we would seek to bring to OBL? I don't imagine that GWB was thinking of assembling a traveling courtroom and then parachuting the whole thing in, black robes and lawyers and lawbooks and all, once the US military had found OBL, wherever he might be by that point. I rather strongly suspect that the "justice" GWB was thinking of bringing to him instead was a targeted assassination-- such as the US and Israel have made something of a habit of carrying out against suspected adversaries over recent years.

But that is, it seems to me, a profound abuse of the whole concept of justice. And not one that we should just slyly wink at, or go along with.

... Anyway, I realize I'm getting off the topic a little here. I just want to say I really appreciated the opportunity to be at the conference. I met some really interesting people and heard some great discussions. It also felt really good to be able to re-connect a little with some of my friends in Beirut, though sadly I didn't have nearly enough time to re-connect with everyone I wanted to.

Oh, I did learn something very interesting indeed about the cluster bombs issue while I was there. This was from Timur Goksel, the wise and well-informed Turkish diplomat who was head of UNIFIL's info operations from 1978 through 2002 or so. He said that one explanation he had heard for the Israelis stunningly large scale of use of cluster bombs was that the bombs were out of date and needed to be disposed of. So since disposal of any kinds of bombs is a not-cheap and sometimes risky business, the relevant decisionmakers in the IDF had thought why not lob all of those out-of-date cluster bombs into Lebanon and force Lebanon and the UN pay the price?

And as we all know, the price in human lives and livelihoods lost, as well as in $$$, has been huge-- and it continues to be exacted to this day. I don't have the figures easily to hand, but this late 2006 report from Haaretz says that the battalion commander of an IDF rocket unit "stated that the IDF fired around 1,800 cluster bombs, containing over 1.2 million cluster bomblets. By 30 August, 2006-- just 16 days after the ceasefire went into effect-- UN clearance experts had found "100,000 unexploded cluster bomblets at 359 separate sites" in south Lebanon.

The "dud rate" of the bomblets was reported at the time to be extremely high, and I do recall that some reports also noted that many of the cluster bombs that had been fired into Lebanon had had a production date of "1974" on them... So yes, the idea that the IDF might need to dispose of them seems to make a lot of sense.

Also, a large proportion of the cluster bombs that were fired were fired in the very last days of the war-- during that strange and terrifying three-day period during after the terms of the ceasefire had already been agreed, but before it went into effect.

Conference in Beirut

Stan Katz

The second day of the AUB conference on American Studies in the Middle East was fascinating. Patrick McGreevy, the admirable American director of the Center for American Studies in the Arab Region, has done a wonderful job in attracting attendees from Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Palestine, Lebanon, Algeria, Cyprus as well as from Europe and the U.S. And the conference has been enlivened by the participation of several graduate students in American Studies from the region, including four from the University of Teheran.

In the morning I heard a fine session on American public diplomacy in Lebanon and Iran (the Iranian graduate student who made one of the presentations was particularly interesting), as well as the role of liberal, American-style education in the Middle East — at AUB, the American University of Cairo, and Robert College in Istanbul. It is fascinating to consider the difficulties of bringing a very American notion of undergraduate education to entirely different cultures, and also to cope with the challenges of adapting liberal education to societies in serious transition. The original Protestant mission has disappeared in every case, replaced by a strong commitment to general education in societies in which professional undergraduate education is the norm.

I also attended a lively session on American foreign policy in the Middle East, with papers by Iranians, an American based in Amsterdam, an American based in Birmingham (UK), and a Middle Easterner based in Dresden. You can imagine what a difference the locations and life experiences of these scholars had made to their understanding of the U.S. role in a trouble region, especially at a time when our role in the region is more contested than it has ever been before. And this was also the topic of an all-American afternoon panel on American foreign policy, built around the distinguished University of Virginia Middle East expert Bill Quandt, his admirable journalist-wife Helena Cobban, and two former U. Va. graduate students — this was mainly an attempt to predict where the current presidential candidates might take our country on the question of Middle East policy after 2008.

And the conference concluded with a very subtle lecture by Amy Kaplan of the University of Pennsylvania, who deconstructed the meaning of “homeland security,” focusing on the novel use of “homeland” after 2001, and on the range of new meanings for and practices of “security” since 9/11. She showed how much a literary scholar can have to say about our understanding of political terms and practices.

The Beirut conference has been a positive experience in every way. I learned a lot substantively, I met a group of engaged and interesting teacher/scholars, and I think I may be able to assist U.S. cooperation with American Studies programs in Iran and Palestine. Besides, the weather is wonderful and Beirut is enchanting. I have, I confess, though, heard the words “narrative” and “discourse” more often than I thought I needed to.



11th January: 
America and the Middle East: Liberty and Justice

"Illusions of Power, Illusions of Coherence:
US Foreign Policy Before and After 9/11"
Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham

The Bush Administration may be distinctive in its "grand strategy" of pursuing the unipolar, that is, an assured American preponderance of power across the globe. The development of that strategy has been far from coherent, however, and its approach of the US "against everyone, against no one" was doomed to failure. Here's why....

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Week of 7th January: 
America and the Middle East: Liberty and Justice

This week Libertas will be involved in the second international conference of the Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR) at the American University of Beirut. Academics, activists, journalists, and members of the public from almost all Middle Eastern countries and Iran, as well as participants from North America, Europe, and Asia, are discussing the complexities of the US relationship with the Middle East. The opening session offered four different perspectives for discussion:

Melani McAlister, George Washington University
"American Evangelicals and the Middle East"

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Rami Khouri, Journalist and Policy Analyst, Beirut
"Hopes for American-Arab Convergence"

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Scott Lucas, University of Birmingham
"Shifting the Gorilla: De-Centring 'America' in the Middle East"

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Stanley Katz, Princeton University 
"American Conceptions of Democracy and the Rule of Law 
from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush"

followed by Question and Answer Session

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Week of 24th December: 
No Grey Areas: The Left and the Nature of Debate (Part One)
Bevan Sewell, University of Nottingham

Of course, the notion of intervening to promote freedom and democracy and to usher in a more peaceful world is an attractive one. Yet, asserted prima facie and with no consideration of less exalted motives such as power and profit and a recognition that political, social, and economic circumstances are not universal, it is little more than a dream. As the stark realities of recent interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown, such interventions are incredibly difficult. Beset by myriad complications, they are unlikely to end in the simple recognition of western forces as “liberators”....

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Week of 17th December: 
To Bomb or Not to Bomb: Is That the Only Question?
Giles Scott-Smith, Roosevelt Centre

In September 2007 Michael Ledeen, the well-known hard-line conservative, published a book entitled The Iranian Time Bomb. The press release, available on the American Enterprise Institute’s website, begins with the following statement: “Iran declared war on the United States in early 1979, when the shah was overthrown and the revolutionary regime of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini came to power.” From this starting point Ledeen’s book continues by emphasising the consistent Iranian involvement in Middle East terrorism, including close Iran-Al Qaeda ties and Tehran’s violent meddling in Iraq and Afghanistan. In response the only sensible option for the United States is to link up with discontented elements inside Iran, push for a “democratic revolution”, and secure a “peaceful regime change”. Otherwise Washington will have to “bomb Iran” or face the impending reality of a nuclear-armed “theocratic fascist regime.”

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Week of 10th December: 
Beyond 'With Us or Against Us': Understanding the Middle East

For almost as long as there has been a Western presence in the Middle East there has been a misunderstanding of the region’s diverse cultural and religious characteristics. In part, this arises from the complex history, extending over many centuries, of the region. More importantly, though, it has arisen because of a near-compulsion amongst western officials to reduce the situation in the region to the point of caricature, rationalising decision-making and giving policies a veneer of coherence. Inevitably, this has led to a “preponderance of presumption”, assuming that problems in the Middle East can be solved by an adherence and dedication to the spread of “freedom” and “democracy”.

Quite clearly, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is well beyond that being clung to by officials and (some) commentators in Washington and London. Important, defining questions as to the impact of the administration’s policies in the region have been overlooked due to the myopic focus on spreading democratic principles. For example: what stance is the US taking toward the differing religious groups in the area? What impact will this have on Middle Eastern stability? Most importantly, does America have any capacity at all to broker a solution in ongoing factional disputes between different religious groups? In focusing so heavily on whether or not Iraqi democracy is flourishing, or whether the ‘surge’ is quelling the insurgency in Iraq, politicians and commentators are by-passing these crucial debates.

The two featured essays this week attempt to redress this balance by launching a discussion on the wider implications of US policy in the Middle East. Freed from the single-mindedness and presumptions that have long been the hallmarks of western policy in the region, Chris Emery, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham, and Larbi Sadiki, a lecturer at Exeter University, view the current situation within frameworks that negate the either/or, binary constructions that are typically applied to the Middle East. There is no with-us-or-against-us; no good or bad. Instead, there are a series of views, opinions and counter-opinions that breathe new life and new perspectives onto the impact of the western role in the Middle East. It is, thankfully, a debate that looks to escape the shackles of spreading democracy and quelling insurgencies; unfortunately, as with all the best commentaries, there are no easy answers. After extracts from the two essays below there are three responses: one from Chris Emery, one from Bevan Sewell and one from Scott Lucas. We hope you will join in the debate on the Libertas Discussion Forum.


The Shia/Sunni Cold War: A Strategy and Saudi Illusion 

Chris Emery, University of Birmingham

Back in February, Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed that the United States and Israel were deliberately stirring sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunni in order to exploit all Muslims. If his analysis is correct, then it appears US policy has evolved significantly following its first hand encounter with Islamic sectarianism in Iraq. His comments came as Secretary of State Rice outlined “a new strategic alignment in the Middle East”; a policy which Seymour Hersh derisively surmised as “Supporting the Sunnis anywhere we can against the Shia.” Martin Indyk, an architect of Clinton’s ‘dual containment’ policy, warned of a strategy that could lead the Middle East into a “Serious Sunni-Shiite Cold War.”


Response to 'The Shi'a/Sunni Cold War

Larbi Sadiki, University of Exeter

Reading the Shia-Sunni posturing as a form of ‘Cold War’ mis-reads both history and politics. Ahistorically rendered, the Shia-Sunni tension misses lessons from the Muslim past. It is not convincing to shrink history into the few volatile years since the sacking of Baghdad by the US and its allies in 2003. Similarly, it is ahistorical to narrate history from the rhetoric of sheikhs, emirs, hyper-presidents, and foreign-policy officials.



Response by Chris Emery

I enjoyed your response, but cannot help but feel you have based your response on, and only on, a false reading of my argument. That is, that Shia-Sunni tensions can be accurately described as a 'Cold War'. I think this mis-reading is probably the result of me quoting Indyk, as well as the working title (which tellingly also includes the word 'illusion'). My article is a critique of US support for dubious Sunni groups, regional fears of Iranian influence masked in a sectarian cloak, and unique (post 79) US mindset of political Shi'ism. I stand by my assertion that the Saudis have manipulated sectarian tensions to achieve strategic and domestic goals. Equally, that the US support for Sunni extreemists is a risky strategy. At no point do I assert or defend an argument that a 'Shia-Sunni Cold war' is an accurate characterisation of these tensions or tactics. Indeed, the deliberately superficial nature of such rhetoric is what I am trying to convey. In particular, your point that neither Shia or Sunni are monolithic groups is directly addressed in my own piece. In conclusion, I agree with most of your analysis but feel you have slightly mischaracterised my own.


Response by Bevan Sewell

I thought both of these pieces had wider implications for what we understand about the Middle East; my response below is an attempt to discuss some of these issues. In particular, the way that western officials have 'simplified' their views of the region in order to aid their policymaking processes.

An early example of how this simplification could affect policy came with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Ostensibly, the declaration was issued to assure British support for a Jewish homeland. Crucially, however, the document stated that it would do so only on the understanding that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”. The British government was assuming that it had the capacity to support a Jewish homeland without transgressing the civil and religious rights of the Palestinians. This betrayed an ingrained ignorance among western officials when dealing with the Middle East: it assumed that people in the Middle East wanted to follow the western system of government and, most importantly, that the region could be reshaped without further disruption.

In the past ninety years such assumptions have been shown to be fatuous, ill-informed and almost wholly ignorant of the region’s history. And yet, the evident lesson has still not been learnt. Since 2001, the American government has reverted to a Middle Eastern policy that is as presumptive as that outlined by the British in 1917. At its heart was the belief that, due to America’s preponderance of power, the US could (and would) act to shape a new region. Ron Suskind, in a 2004 article, quotes a “senior advisor to President Bush” as stating: “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality…we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” Just what this belief meant with respect to the Middle East was outlined by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at an early meeting of the Bush administration’s National Security Council in January, 2001. “Imagine what the region would look like without Saddam and with a region that is aligned with US interests,” he stated. “It would change everything in the region and beyond.”

Rumsfeld’s simplistic rendering of an American ability to reshape the Middle East was almost totally devoid of any sophisticated analysis of the complex nature of the region. Not just in terms of the capacity of American power, but also, in terms of the different religious groups in the region and their relationships with each other. Of course, it was not just the ill-fated Rumsfeld that adopted this approach; both the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and, more disappointingly, the American press corps were equally guilty of such gross simplifications. Blair was as culpable as Rumsfeld in outlining his belief that western values and principles could remodel the world. In a 2007 article in Foreign Affairs, he stated that: “We could have chosen security as the battleground. But we did not. We chose values… We can win only by showing that our values are stronger, better, and more just than the alternative.” Again, like the former Secretary of Defense, it was a worldview that ignored the complex cultural and religious patterns in Middle Eastern society. Moreover, it betrayed the continued ignorance among western officials as to the detrimental impact that their policies were having in the region. It was a viewpoint compounded by media reports that hailed the spread of democracy in the region following tentative steps such as the forging of a ‘new’ Iraqi constitution, or slight signs of change in the Lebanon. This process reached its nadir in 2005 when, following initial elections in Iraq, NBC Nightly News asked: “What if we’re watching an example of presidential leadership that will be taught in American schools for generations to come? It’s an idea that’s gaining more currency.”

Quite clearly, the situation on the ground in the Middle East is well beyond that being clung to by officials and (some) commentators in Washington and London. Important, defining questions as to the impact of the administration’s policies in the region have been overlooked due to the myopic focus on spreading democratic principles. For example: what stance is the US taking toward the differing religious groups in the area? What impact will this have on Middle Eastern stability? Most importantly, does America have any capacity at all to broker a solution in ongoing factional disputes between different religious groups? In focusing so heavily on whether or not Iraqi democracy is flourishing, or whether the ‘surge’ is quelling the insurgency in Iraq, politicians and commentators are by-passing these crucial debates.

Response by Scott Lucas

My thanks to Chris Emery and Larbi Sadiki for two provocative and important pieces. Timely pieces, necessary to get beyond superficial interpretations in the debate over US foreign policy and the Middle East --- only this morning, I was reading an editorial by Stephen Biddle of the Council for Foreign Relations which used Sunni-Shi'a "civil war" to rationalise a call for a long-term American occupation "to police an Iraqi cease-fire".

While the two essays feature different approaches and, indeed, offer a spirited debate, I find them complementary. If Emery's framework highlights the interests of actors --- inside and outside the region --- to manipulate and even foment Sunni-Shi'a division, Sadiki's response provides an essential historical context for conflict which is not only religious but nationalistic.

Indeed I think each author implicitly sets out, from a base of knowledge beyond mine, there is no need for an "either/or". One cannot completely set aside a political, cultural, and religious tension between Iran and Arab neighbours as well as the possible tension of faith, intersecting with economic and political issues, within Iraq. At the same time, the pursuit of strategic aims in Iraq not only by the US and Iran but also by Saudi Arabia and Syria have all placed the Sunni-Shi'a relationship in a shifting context.

My question from these essays remains the fundamental one of whether a Sunni-Shi'a civil war in Iraq has been a likely, if not an inevitable, outcome after March 2003. In part, this is a "local" question on which I rely on the expertise of others: has Robert Fisk been right to assert that the Sunni-Shi'a battles in Iraq were on a post-1975 Lebanese model, triggered by external meddling? Or was it inevitable that the long-term minority Sunni domination of Iraqi structures of power would lead not only to Shi'a resentment but a post-Saddam reconstruction of the Iraqi system on sectarian lines?

In part, though, I think one might critique Emery's portrayal of outside intervention as the catalyst, even while recognising its significance. To give an example, Emery's attention to Saudi Arabia generally cites Sunni activists who are not in the inner ruling elite. I do think there have been indications that the Saudi regime was pursuing a backing of Iraqi Sunnis against the al-Maliki government but there are also indications that this strategy may have been modified in recent months. It is interesting, for example, to see the interactions between Iran, including Ahmadinejad, and Saudi Arabia in what appears to be an attempt to negotiate a co-operative position over Iraq. Put bluntly, I think national security and other political and economic interests trump religious affiliation, at least to an extent.

That isn't to say, of course, that perceptions of a Sunni-Shi'a divide are not propelling certain policies. I think that Emery is on the mark to note the US strategy of backing local Sunni groups and, beyond Iraq, of attempting to isolate Iran with a "Sunni" regional front. Even here, however, there are nuances --- Petraeus's overt thank you to Moqtada al-Sadr for his contribution to the success of the "surge" raises long-term questions over whether the US can comprehend a broader political approach leading to Sunni-Shi'a and also Shi'a-Shi'a reconciliation.

(A tangential but important note beyond these essays. While both have usefully evaluated the Sunni-Shi'a question, there is also the equally important dynamic of Kurd-Arab relations. In an item on Al Jazeera today, it was casually mentioned that the universities in Kurdistan --- trumpeted in US-UK media as great successes --- are not admitting Arab students.)


Week of 3rd December: Kennan's Legacy?
The Continued 'Inspiration' of George Kennan: Multilateralism and US National Security

Kaeten Mistry, University of Birmingham

Long considered the architect of US containment strategy during the Cold War - a belief helped by John Lewis Gaddis's recently revised version of "Strategies of Containment" - George Kennan casts an indomitable shadow over US foreign policy. He is, with predictable regularity, invoked by modern-day officials and commentators alike as a touchstone for American policy. However, as Kaeten Mistry argues in this essay, it is some of Kennan's least known traits and beliefs that are perhaps most redolent in the post-9/11 era. 

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Week of 26th November: Collective Memory
Memory Lane 1: The Mayaguez Syndrome

David Ryan, University College Cork

In the aftermath of the American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975, US attempts to observe the lessons of that ill-fated intervention were accompanied by an all-guns blazing response to the Mayaguez Incident. In this essay, David Ryan asks whether these events from thirty years ago suggest potential developments in the Middle East today and whether a frustrated American government might act to restore some semblance of US military potency by opting for a short-term engagement with another power in the region. 

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Sowing the Seeds of Failure in the Western Hemisphere:
Incoherent Identities in American Hegemony

Mark Spokes, University of Birmingham

Following President Bush's trip to Latin America earlier this year, 2007 was supposed to see the US regenerating inter-American relations after seven years of unfulfilled expectations. In this article, Mark Spokes examines just how closely the Bush administration has stuck to this mission statement and asks what this tells us about the nature of US-Latin American relations and the state of American power.

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Week of 19th November: Film, Politics, and US Foreign Policy

The Iraq War As Class War: Redacted
Melani McAlister, George Washington University

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The opening of Brian De Palma’s Redacted this weekend marked a new moment in the debates about the Iraq war in the United States . The widely admired director of Scarface, Dressed to Kill and Casualties of War has created an important film – at once fascinating and deeply flawed, compelling and utterly infuriating. Based on the true-life story of the rape of an Iraqi girl and the murder of her and her family by a squad of American soldiers, the film created a sensation at the Venice Film Festival last summer, where it got a five-minute standing ovation, and De Palma won the award for Best Director.

Redacted is a turning point in large part because it speaks about the Iraq war in ways that, up until now, have been the provenance of documentaries. For several years, remarkable films like Dreams of Sparrows or Gunner Palace have been exposing the horrors of the war, the suffering of Iraqi civilians, and the nightmarish quagmire faced by US soldiers. De Palma undoubtedly knows this: Redaction wears its longing for documentary status on its sleeve. One character tells us at the beginning of the film that we won’t be offered a straightforward chronological Hollywood story, and indeed the most compelling aspect of Redacted is the self-conscious way it is structured, supposedly stitched together from a variety of sources. One large part is supposedly the video diary made by one of the soldiers; some action is viewed as if through a security camera; and sometimes we see a fake French documentary that is delicious parody. There is also a beheading, which we see as if it were on a web site, and some scenes are shown as news reports by an al-Jazeera-like station.

De Palma’s self-consciousness about form invites the audience to see how much our knowledge of the war is based on our own stitching together of such partial and problematic sources. De Palma is certainly not the first director to engage and question the power of the image; the compromised role of news, entertainment, and surveillance, has been taken up in movies from The Siege (1998) to Syrianna (2006). But Redacted does it very well, and De Palma goes well beyond simply criticizing the news media. He shows us ourselves, caught between so many ways of seeing that we somehow refuse to see at all.

At this level, Redacted is superior to most of the flurry of films about the Iraq war or the so-called war on terror that have come out this fall. The Kingdom, for example, starring Jamie Foxx, is a showy fantasy about a group of FBI agents who go to Saudi Arabia to hunt down the Muslim bad guys who have bombed a US outpost. The film features buddy bonding, Jennifer Garner in tight T-shirts, and plenty of action, plus a few good Saudis amongst all the terrorists to prove that the film isn’t anti-Arab. Though there are a few moments of minor critique in the film, The Kingdom generally says that --diplomacy be damned -- fighting the war on terror is a tough job, and if we want it done right, then Americans have to do it, wherever and whenever they please.

There have been other more critical films, of course, such as the Valley of Elah and Lions for Lambs, though both were flawed by their own earnestness, and hamstrung by the necessity of waving a “support our troops” banner behind almost every statement of criticism of the war.

At first, it seems like Redacted feels no such necessity, that it is a tough-minded and thoroughgoing critique. Granted, it is in many ways an old-fashioned platoon film with a multicultural American cast. The center of the story is McCoy, a ruggedly handsome and rather idealistic solider who is ultimately complicit in the cruelty. The group also includes a hard-nosed African American sergeant, who dies early and needlessly; a white but vaguely ethnic intellectual of the group; a Latino video diarist, whose home-movies are supposed to be his ticket to film school; and two white goons who initiate the violence. Unlike many platoon films, however, Redacted insists that the soldiers are not just victims of the nightmare of war. Yes, the Iraq war should never have happened, but the attacks on civilians are also born from the racism and arrogance of these particular men, and the aggressive, woman-hating masculinity of the military culture around them.

I was compelled by this edginess, by the anti-earnestness of the film’s anger. But DePalma lost me when he decided to place the primary impetus for the rape and murders almost entirely in the hands of two characters who are little better than parody. Flake and Rush are irredeemably stupid, Southern racists who love porn and decorate their bunks with confederate flags. The two goons are working-class stiffs to the core. In case their “ain’ts” aren’t enough to tell us that back home these guys are likely to be driving pickups to factory jobs, we get the picture when one of the two, Flake, tells a long and chilling story of his brother, a pool-playing Teamster who, like Flake, delights in senseless murder. These two soldiers hate Arabs, of course, and, in the end, everybody else in the unit is pulled, with varying degrees of protest, into their murderous sexually charged rage.

The Southern racist bad guy is certainly not a new character in American movies, but what’s striking is how De Palma uses commentary about the domestic politics of race and racism to comment on America ’s role in the world. In fact, De Palma is far from alone in this. Race matters a great deal when Hollywood sends Americans abroad – often in unexpected ways. These days, when Hollywood want to show that a particular use of global power is good, it often signals the justice of military might by placing African Americans characters in a leading role. Thus The Kingdom signaled the fundamental moral uprightness of the Americans’ mission in Saudi Arabia by casting Jamie Foxx as the FBI agent leading the team. You could see something similar with Denzel Washington holding up American justice in The Siege or Courage Under Fire, or Samuel Jackson as the officer who makes hard decisions in Rules of Engagement, or just about  any movie with Morgan Freeman as president. Even zombie movies take the cue: in the best B movie of this year, 28 Weeks Later, US troops occupy Britain after an outbreak of zombie-ism, and when a U.S. general takes the horrible step of ordering massive killing of civilians, we know that this is repugnant but necessary – and we know that in part because the General is played by the sexy and righteous Idris Elba (who in recent years also played a sexy and very unrighteous drug dealer on HBO’s The Wire).

I’m not saying it’s the case that Hollywood generally treats African American men as moral exemplars, of course -- far from it. But that’s what makes the association of black men with the justification of US military or police actions so striking. Hollywood , which all but ignores the daily lives of African Americans, draws on a perverse kind of racial liberalism to authorize its use of force abroad -- the black general as righteousness insurance. (Which is what I guess Colin Powell was for the Republicans, before he got caught lying at the United Nations about the justifications for the Iraq War.)

De Palma uses race differently, but to a similar effect: Other members of the Redacted platoon, like the square-jawed McCoy, are implicated, but the truly guilty are the ignorant, racist southerners who insist that they are going to kill some “sand niggers.” They are the hicks who show up to war wrapped in a Confederate flag, and who take otherwise decent men down with them.

At one point in the film, one character makes an anxious comparison to Abu Ghraib. The reference is supposed to highlight the bravery of our somewhat-hero McCoy for telling the truth, even in the face of embarrassing the military. But there is another layer here, as De Palma also evokes, without self-consciousness, the moral complexities of that real life nightmare: as we all know, the lower-level military police at Abu Ghraib have been convinced for their crimes, while most of those who set the policies that authorized torture are still wandering the halls of power.

It was obviously useful for the architects of the Iraq war to posit, as our president did after Abu Ghraib, that we can solve the problem of such horrors by getting rid of the few “bad apples” – those who sully an otherwise righteous democratizing project. But De Palma, who imagines himself challenging such hubris and delusion, offers up exactly the same sacrifice to the gods of war: Don’t blame us, we’re very upset about the war! Take them, the ones who are really to blame: they’re right over there, somewhere near the Walmart parking lot. We’ll wait here, in the theater; and meanwhile, we promise to feel really bad about what they are doing in Iraq .

Prophetic Face in the Crowd
David Haven Blake, College of New Jersey

It is time to enter a new film into American political consciousness, one more suited to the spectacle of Fred Thompson announcing his presidential campaign on "The Tonight Show" or Barack Obama boogying with Ellen DeGeneres on daytime TV. My nomination is "A Face in the Crowd" (1957), screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan’s startling film about the power of media and celebrity. Though the occasion was hardly noticed, the film recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Could there be a better time to reflect on its continuing relevance?
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Week of 12th November

Tales from the Margins:
Entering the Anglosphere
Giles Scott-Smith, Roosevelt Centre

In the autumn of 2002 the foreign policy of the Netherlands took a decisive turn, the implications of which still play out in Dutch politics and could continue do so for several years to come. This refers to the conscious decision, in the wake of 9/11 and with the Iraq issue coming to the boil, to place Dutch foreign policy closely in tune with US unilateralism. In short, the Dutch entered the Anglosphere and show every intention of remaining there.  Read more...

Norman Podhoretz’ Wars: 
It’s 1938 all over again (and again...)
Maria Ryan, Nottingham University

At 77 years of age, Norman Podhoretz, one of the most influential and infamous American public intellectuals of the post-war era, is back in the limelight once again after a protracted post-Cold War absence. After admitting in 1989 that he was so bewildered by the collapse of Soviet communism that he no longer knew what to write; after pronouncing neoconservatism—the political ideology that he helped bring to life—dead in 1996 (a victim of its own success, he claimed); and after handing over the ‘neoconservative’ baton to a new generation of post-Cold War activists during the Clinton years, Norman Podhoretz has a new lease of life. Read more...


Week of 5th November

More of the Same?:
The (Hypothetical) Future of US – Latin American Relations
Bevan Sewell, De Montfort University

Since President Bush’s whirlwind tour of Latin America this spring, there has been very little substantive change in US-Latin American relations. Commentators and the media have, almost exclusively, continued to focus on the developing contretemps between Washington and Caracas (aided and abetted in no small measure by President Chavez’s constant baiting of the US) or, alternatively, on what might happen in Cuba if Fidel Castro was to die. Almost the entire range of inter-American relations has been reduced to the personal animosity between Bush and Chavez and continuing US annoyance at the remarkable longevity of the Cuban Government. And yet, as a fellow blogger has detailed recently, there is far more to US-Latin American relation than this Washington-Caracas-Havana triangle.  Read more...



American Policy and Iran’s Nuclear Programme: the China Analogy
Matthew Jones, University of Nottingham

For historians of American policy toward China in the 1960s, the current nuclear crisis over Iran has some eerie and suggestive parallels. The first Chinese nuclear test explosion took place in October 1964, thus breaking into the monopoly held by the Occidental powers of the United States, Soviet Union, Britain, and France. Over the preceding two years, elaborate discussions had been held in Washington over how to this unwelcome event might be forestalled, or if it occurred, what implications it would have for the American security system in East Asia and the Western Pacific. By the end of the Kennedy administration it was China, rather than Khrushchev’s Russia, which was regarded as the chief pariah state of the international system, with which rational debate and dialogue was not possible. Through the support it gave to revolutionary movements around the world, its violent denunciations of US imperialism in Asia, and the succour it provided to Communist North Vietnam and North Korea, the PRC had become the rogue state par excellence. What it might do when it acquired nuclear weapons sent shivers down the spines of many onlookers (not least President Kennedy himself). Read more...