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Obama's Long War - Enduring Security And Perpetual Illusion

Politics / Middle East Dec 10, 2013 - 05:51 PM GMT

By: Andrew_McKillop


In a December 6th thinkpiece for 'Washington Post', Andrew J. Bracevich argues that the drift of history and the progression of things signal that now is the time for “ringing down the curtain on (the USA's) 30-plus-year military effort to pull the Islamic world into conformity with American interests and expectations”. As he says, this job befell to Obama and its high time the curtain falls. Almost for sure and certain, this will bring a sense of loss. Bacevich notes that the politics of war in former ages – he quotes Wellington – deals a melancholy sort to the victors of great wars, comparable with what the vanquished resent. They often plot and scheme to make revenge war when they can – not necessarily on their previous enemies. In other words, on collateral country victims of previous defeat. 

The Middle East and North Africa, for a least 150 years has been riddled with tit-for-tat revenge wars, more often exploiting ethnic, religious, and community tensions – than economic and national interests in the modern sense. Only after the 1917 collapse of the Turkish Ottoman Empire did the region add another conflict-layer to the war cake, with hastily cobbled “new nations” inside unsure borders defined by already-departed and squabbling powers, including the US. What exactly the US wanted in a region “from Egypt to Pakistan” at the start of its 30-year-long neo-pacification attempt, which Bacevich dates from the last 2 years of Jimmy Carter's presidency, is bathed in confusion. Saying the US wanted “conformity with American interests”, and its expectations, is at best a tautology. More like a smokescreen for illusion, a political wayang shadow play jerkily projected at the back of the cave. All kinds of theories and theses have been, and will be published on this conundrum. One part of it is however all too simple – the alpha male urge to war.
Bracevich cites the gung-ho slogan of Washington neoconservatives in the period we can precisely date at 1991-2003. They said anybody can go to Baghdad, or at least hit it with cruise missiles, but “real men” hanker to go to Tehran. What exactly they would do there, except possibly reinstall a Shah or a Shah-surrogate, was never explained. To be sure oil would provide a big black smokescreen, but as Bracevich says times have really changed for the USA's previous Petro Quest, obsession, or excuse.

As Bracevich says, Americans are taking time to to digest the news and adjust their minds but the US no longer has to kowtow to the Saudis. Due to the shale gas and shale oil revolutions, the US is approaching oil-and-gas independence, already sealed for gas. The previous US-Saudi doctrine, that for both evident and hidden reasons was always secret, could be called “Pump and Protect”. Even if the US was always far less dependent on Middle Eastern oil imports than most of its European allies, and its Asian allies including Japan and Korea, Saudi royal hands on the oil spigot had to be protected and coddled.

Next we have the Israeli conundrum. A tiny country of which its Jewish population is about a third of New York City. Without oil or anything else of special resource economic interest. Israel is easily the strongest power in the Middle Eastern schoolyard – measured only by nuclear clout – and the Jewish state has a fixation on national security. For Bracevich, this is no surprise, and he says “It has every right to do so”. But as he also says there is no logical follow-on that Washington has to underwrite, bankroll, arm and turn a blind eye to Israeli political action that runs counter to U.S. interests. One he identifies is the intentionally provocative colonization of the occupied territories. In any case, as Bracevich also notes, Israel and Iran are not neighbors – in any sense of the term – and in the same way Israel disregards U.S. objections to its growing settlements in the West Bank, the United States can or should refuse to allow Israeli objections to determine its Iran policy.

In their heyday, not so long ago, Washington's gung ho neoconservatives trumpeted that – being real men with the right stuff – they not only could, but should “go to Tehran”. What happened in Baghdad, Benghazi, Cairo, Tunis and a string of other regional Arab cities wracked by street revolution, not just rebellion, seething with anti-Americanism, only slightly blunted their rhetoric - but the film did not stop there. Baghdad was a bust long before Arab Spring. When the dictator fell, the country fell apart, the Kurds separated, rump Iraq descended into sunni-shia civil war fought with car bombs and kamikaze, and few or no persons thanked the USA. By the force of events, Obama was forced to see that in Tehran there was a way out of perpetual war, and the fateful results of that war which are guaranteed melancholy.

Avoiding great power angst and melancholy, coupled with the huge size of Iran compared to easily whipped smaller regional players, made it urgent for Obama to grasp almost any deal. As Bracevich says, the choice for Obama was stark and clear. Accept the Islamic republic, and the Iranians will stay at home and accept the regional status quo. They will pump more oil and be grateful to do it. Iran gets survival – and the US avoids more self-inflicted wounds and can set about repairing the large ones it already has. Obama's quest for second-mandate grandeur could also receive a caress instead of another slap in the face. Bracevich compares Obama's Iran policy with the bargain that Nixon offered Mao Zedong.  Keep your revolution at home, and we will make peace with you. In that light, the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program were only the medium for achieving this larger end.


Another simple reading of what befell to Obama whether he wanted it or not, is that time ran out for the post-World War 1 (let alone post WW II and post-Soviet) version of the Middle East and the Arab world. The US had played a leading role in this shadow play, sometimes at the front of the scene. In the limelight, taking the rising catcalls as well as the declining accolades. Its European allies admitted reality long before the US, and bowed out of the region decades ago - their atavistic colonial urge is now limited to action like France's low-budget wars in tiny-population Mali and similarly underpopulated Central African Republic.

The overused term for the Middle East – a “tinderbox” - ignores the fact that the “tinder” is nuclear these days. The potential for lightning fast escalation from frontier skirmishes and raiding, from proxy war jousting with kamikaze terrorists or other operatives, to nuclear war, now exists and Obama was unable to ignore it. It was time to bow out and stop throwing oil at a smoldering fire. The Iran nuclear sideshow its shadow theater negotiations were a handy way to declare the perpetual US colonial war over and finished.

Bracevich and others – including the Saudis and Israelis – are obliged to see that the turning point in a 30-year series of mostly small, quick and dirty wars with no clear winners, that the US set itself as a “pacification policy” for the region, has now arrived. Obama was the president in office when it happened, making it hard to blame him for the 30-year backlog of animosity and desire for revenge that has been stacked high in the region. As I note in another recent piece “The Magic Security Trip”, the US War on Terror was a logical part of the illogical and illusory attempt to “pacify” the Middle East. This war – the exact and total opposite of a great war – has to be declared over and wound down, at least as fast as the Iran standoff, but saying so will be very difficult.

By Andrew McKillop


Former chief policy analyst, Division A Policy, DG XVII Energy, European Commission. Andrew McKillop Biographic Highlights

Co-author 'The Doomsday Machine', Palgrave Macmillan USA, 2012

Andrew McKillop has more than 30 years experience in the energy, economic and finance domains. Trained at London UK’s University College, he has had specially long experience of energy policy, project administration and the development and financing of alternate energy. This included his role of in-house Expert on Policy and Programming at the DG XVII-Energy of the European Commission, Director of Information of the OAPEC technology transfer subsidiary, AREC and researcher for UN agencies including the ILO.

© 2013 Copyright Andrew McKillop - All Rights Reserved Disclaimer: The above is a matter of opinion provided for general information purposes only and is not intended as investment advice. Information and analysis above are derived from sources and utilising methods believed to be reliable, but we cannot accept responsibility for any losses you may incur as a result of this analysis. Individuals should consult with their personal financial advisor.

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