Sunday, October 05, 2008

The world is changing: the Middle East and the next American President

So I'm going to come out of the deep freeze at least momentarily because I think there's a big picture worth talking about that I haven't really seen anyone put the dots together on yet.

Wow, a lot of really seismic shifts have occurred in the world and the Middle East over the past few months.  I wouldn't say the fact that any one of them has occurred has shocked me, though the fact that so many have occurred so quickly certainly ranks as a big surprise.  And the thing is, as I watch the US presidential election (which is looking more and more likely that Obama will win), I don't see either candidate as particularly well prepared for the world and the Middle East and the US position in both.  Some of that will probably work out for the best for the peoples of the Middle East, world, and even ultimately the US ("ultimately" being a very long term phrase meant to convey that Americans aren't likely going to like the way it feels at first, but in the end will probably wake them up to the new realities of the world and help them find their place in it).

So what's changed?  Let's put these things into two categories which are closely intertwined: (1) Global strategic shifts impacting the position of the United States, and (2) changes in the Middle Eastern landscape.  And let's start with items in category 1 first:
  • The collapse of the US financial system: A lot of the world is half smugly declaring "I told you so" that the US was going to run into financial trouble.  Some of it was stupid meaningless blather such as what comes from Bin Ladenite and salafi bozos who still think the world is flat, but the more serious part of it was from a group of second- and third-tier strategic competitors such as Russia (second-tier), Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and their ilk (all third-tier).  The China's, India's, Gulf OPEC states, and Brazil's of the world are to busy hoping that the flu doesn't spread to their own economies (though Brazil has good reason to be less worried than the rest even if they are not totally immune thanks to not only the commodity boom but also massive new hydrocarbon discoveries in previously inaccessible sub-salt regions), but ultimately this plays to their benefit even if the short- to medium-term could turn very painful for them.  Why do I bring it up?  Because this isn't just an ordinary recession, it marks a true turning of the global economic and financial order.  The US has been jacked up on financial steroids for well over a decade now (plenty of blame to go around here starting with the Clinton era right alongside all the Bush mismanagement, to say nothing of Congress and Greenspan/the Fed) with massive amounts of cheap money, lax lending standards, and generally far too much destruction of the necessary modest amounts of regulation that are needed for a capitalist system to function effectively without imploding.  Well, it's imploding as we speak.  Do I think it's the next Great Depression?  Probably not, probably more like a very long, very deep, very painful recession (where exactly the line between that and a depression is I don't precisely know, but I guess I'm saying I don't envision 25% unemployment and dust bowls in the US, or at least I hope there won't be).  But strategically it comes at a time where we have already set up the global economic balance into a position where not only are the EU and Japan virtual economic power equals with the US already, but for the past decade to half decade the resource exporters of the world have been receiving one of the most massive transfers of wealth in human history.  Russia has been revitalized (though more fragilely than China's more substantial growth), China has turned itself into the cheap goods factory of the US and the world (building that factory has been the single most important factor in driving up energy, agriculture, base metals, and commodities generally which produced the giant transfer of wealth to the resource exporters), India is rising solidly if haphazardly, the Gulf OPEC countries have become one of the key emerging markets with cities that look more modern than anything the US or Europe has to offer (if you ignore the virtual slave labor building them - but hey, no different than how most big cities get built I suppose), and Brazil is quietly but steadily prepping to become a major force in the world and on and on.  The US has kept itself on top strategically and militarily, but economically was ripe for reaching a position where alternative players would start to be in a position to dictate terms.  And that is what is happening.  All of a sudden the US' complaints about sovereign wealth funds have dried up and Wall Street and the Fed are hoping and praying the dollars can flow in from Abu Dhabi and Singapore to prevent the failure of more major institutions.  We're going to hear more and more of this.  And of course the Chinese are in a major position of power holding a trillion dollars of US debt.  They are as always prudent and cautious about that power knowing that an aggressive misuse of it will just shoot themselves in the foot, but they are in a position to dictate more terms instead of being dictated too.  And while strategically no one can touch US military spending yet and hence all remain militarily inferior, the trajectories are pretty clear with Russian and Chinese military spending advancing rapidly each year and each seeking to step by step assert a more global presence (India too, but as with their economy, in more fits and starts).  These are little things right now which compared to US military might look laughable (Russia in South Ossettia and conducting maneuvers in Venezuela, China deploying peacekeepers to Darfur, etc.), but I assert they are clearly the start of a trend of expanding military presence by these powers around the globe while the US' increasingly expensive and economically unsustainable wars (in the face of a declining tax revenue base and massively ballooning national debt/deficits) mean the start of a reduced US presence around the world very much akin to the decline of the European empires post-WWII (though it will likely be more gradual as at present there is no one else to step into the vacuum with the EU still having no coordinated military and foreign policy and China/India/Russia still not having effective enough militaries with the necessary transport capabilities to have a truly global reach).  Bottom line: the collapse of the US economic system was overdue, will be long lived, and will reduce US strategic (not just economic) influence around the world even as that of an array of competitors rises.
I guess I ended up throwing all the "global strategic issues" into that one bullet :)  Ok, so on to section 2, shifts in the Middle Eastern landscape that an increasingly constrained US is going to face:
  • Not quite the Middle East (guess it depends whose map you're looking at), but nobody seems to have really noticed that the US is now at war in Pakistan.  Didn't notice it did you?  There's no getting around it, we now regularly attack Pakistan, the Taliban had already made the Northwest Frontier Province a major base for their Afghan insurgency and the Pakistani Taliban had grown increasingly assertive and violent inside Pakistan.  I've long said I have no idea what you really do to right Pakistan, but geez, it's really turning into a direct mess for the US right now.  Obama thinks he's really smart on Pakistan and will carry on or even deepen the current military action despite the obvious intractability of the situation.  McCain is a trigger-happy nutzoid who I'm sure will take whatever is not working and double down having taken all the wrong lessons from the current comparative calm in Iraq (hint: the "surge" wasn't the key at all to what happened there).  Ultimately it's about finding as graceful an exit as possible, but with the US now backing a clearly failed Karzai in Afghanistan and the single most corrupt politician in Pakistan who has become president with US support (along with the thousands of people Zardari bribed), the US is neck-deep in blame for everything going wrong and it will be even tougher to find that graceful exit than it is in Iraq because you can only leave if there is a coalition of forces somehow sharing power in these regions who consider Al-Qaeda an enemy (which btw, is what has happened in Iraq, the politicians just don't seem capable of acknowledging they still despise the US).  I don't envy the next President, they're coming in with poor options and a lousy deteriorating situation which is nowhere near peak.
  • Phantom Iraqi calm.  Admittedly the biggest surprise to me in the past year in Iraq has been the collapse of Sadrist power.  Well, I shouldn't take that too far, the man is nowhere near from gone or able to be written off.  I wrote a couple years ago I think about how at some point the Sadrists might morph into the kind of disciplined force that Hizbullah has become in Lebanon.  What we've seen was that the hotheaded young Sadr was unable to contain the people acting in his name from their orgy of violence.  The possibility of a broad-based nationalist coalition of forces never came together, Sadr was being increasingly discredited on the streets because of his thugs violence (especially once the ethnic cleansing which took place under buffoon-like American supervision was basically completed), and he finally had to admit to himself he had to clean house.  I'm sure there were all sorts of back-room conversations, threats, cajolings, and deals as well with Tehran, the Americans, ISCI, Fadhila, etc. as well, but bottom line was that Sadr's path as it was fell apart.  The question for him is, what comes next?  His name continues to carry great weight, his organizations have been largely purged it would seem of those not under his control, so what is he planning next and what are his constraints?  I presume his constraints include a much reduced organization now that people really do have to take orders, ISCI/Fadhila/other Shi'a sectarian rivals having had the purse strings and reins of power locally and nationally for a while giving them an incumbents bribery and familiarity advantage, and likely Tehran telling him to keep his jets cool still for a while.  On the other hand, I would presume that those still with him are receiving more disciplined, advanced military training and armaments should he so choose to unleash them and that politically he could still garner a large enough bloc of votes to quell pure ISCI power plays.  Anyway, Sadr is one leg and the point is he is down but not out and highly likely to come back as a violent key player against the Americans at some point.  At the same time, the former Sunni-dominated insurgency fighters in the west of the country and Baghdad grow increasingly uppity with their lack of inclusion in the new power structures of the state Maliki is trying to build and control.  Their distrust and hatred of the Americans never went away, it just took a temporary back seat to their distrust and hatred of Al-Qaeda who tried to rule them like Taliban and at which they violently and successfully balked.  Then of course there's the eternal question of the Kirkuk tinderbox, but more importantly as a potential flashpoint is that the entire border of Kurdistan is now and open and sore question with the Peshmerga having taken chunks of land they did not have pre-invasion and loathe to give them up even as the Maliki state seeks to get them to back off.  Bottom line to all of this: while violence is down for now (notice I use the relative "down", it's still incredibly bad if you're an Iraqi, you or I wouldn't want to live there), there are not just potential sources of fresh flames, there are many that the gas is already turned up to high on even as we never know when someone will light the next match.
  • The collapse of the two-state Palestinian-Israeli peace option and the imploding contradictions of Israeli society.  The "peace process" has been a dead letter for some time now.  To truly bring peace requires either complete Palestinian surrender to Bantustans (won't happen) or an Israeli willingness to literally dismantle or abandon the entire first-world road, power, water, communications, sewer, housing and other physical infrastructure of a population of settlers bigger than that of about 1/3 of the countries in the world (i.e., about 1/3 of the countries in the world each individually have fewer people in them than the number of illegal Israeli colonizers living on stolen Palestinian land in the 1967-Occupied Territories).  And that's without even touching on the biggest but most important issue, the Palestinian right of return for their ethnically cleansed refugees of 60+ years (an issue the US and Israelis keep naively hoping they can wish away as they have done since 1948 especially after the Israelis assassinated Swedish diplomat and UN mediator Folke Bernadotte for having tried to get the Israelis in practical terms to live up to their promise and obligation to let the refugees back home instead of shooting them dead as "infiltrators" when they tried to go back home or even just briefly tend to their farms).  But that's not what's new, everyone serious involved in those diplomatic processes (which btw includes neither Bush, Rice, Ross, Olmert, Livni, or Abbas) has known the peace process is dead as Carolina roadkill (and less tasty) for a long time and just kept around to make it look like something is happening to cover the top politicians political rears.  What is new are two trends, one each from the Palestinian and Israeli sides.  On the Palestinian side the outbreak of the Al-Aqsa Intifada I would argue while expressing on one level hopeless but justified rage at the Israeli occupation, was still ultimately aimed for most folks at the hope/possibility of getting a real two-state solution.  But somewhere along the line, or metamorphosis has begun to occur.   A lot of ordinary Palestinians around the world and in Palestine itself are starting to really first demand a genuine right of return and rightly spit in Abbas' and Dahlan's faces when they tell them they're going to have to give that up.  They're finally standing up and saying it is their inalienable right in a louder more organized voice, I would argue largely because the Israelis have shown they have no interest in a two-state peace.  That of necessity will entail considering a one-state solution.  While not a lot of folks in Palestine have fully thought this through and its practical implications, the wheels of motion are starting to churn.  While Abbas-and-Dahlan-bootlickers join Olmert-the-anti-Arab-racist in bringing it up more as a threat ("oh no, oh no, if you don't give Abbas enough crumbs to stay in power and call it a final peace deal, Palestinianss will have to be treated as equal human beings with the same guaranteed rights as Israelis and *that* would be a disaster!" the proponents say), more parties are starting to think in practical terms of what it would mean.  The growing solidarity between Palestinian citizens of Israel and their cousins in the 1967-Occupied Territories is a positive trend in this sense as they are a population that understands (even if in a discriminated-against manner) what such co-existence will entail on a more practical level, though obviously a genuine solution will require far great equality than Palestinian citizens of Israel currently receive.  That's the Palestinian side, on the Israeli side, the long train of the Al-Aqsa Intifada and the Hamas takeover of Gaza (especially with its exposure of Abbas and Dahlan increasingly as Palestinian Quislings for Israel) is finally starting to have an effect exposing the contradictions of the Israeli system's notion of a "Jewish democracy".  While most mainstream Israelis have long felt you can have both, the reality that this is impossible without another mass Palestinian ethnic cleansing is becoming more and more obvious.  The fault line it is showing up on most obviously is the increasingly violent (as if they weren't incredibly violent to begin with, but they have gotten noticeably worse) behavior of the Israeli settlers.  Even mainstream Israelis who have an attitude remarkably similar to old-school South African Afrikaner racists (no, I don't think all South African Afrikaners are racists, but obviously there was a pretty hefty core who were and who kept that system going for so long before it collapsed under its own contradictions just as Israeli Apartheid is going to) that permits a huge amount of anti-Palestinian official violence, are increasingly put off by the actions of Israeli settlers who are burning Palestinian olive groves in greater numbers, beating Palestinians senseless in greater numbers for no reason, and generally violently rioting while the Israeli Army stands by and does nothing (as a reference point, non-armed peaceful Palestinian demonstrators are regularly fired upon with live ammunition, rubber-coated steel musket balls, and a broad array of other lab-experiment supposedly-but-by-no-means-always non-lethal weapons).  Suddenly Israelis who had convinced themselves for over a decade that a two-state solution could exist with them stealing most of the prime land from the already tiny 1967-Occupied Territories (chopping it up into isolated bits by grabbing a key strategic 1% here and 1% there) and with them denying Palestinians their fundamental human right of return to their homes, are realizing that the settlers whose state-subsidized job it is to create those conditions, are increasingly running amok of even the racist laws set up in their favor.  Moreover, those settlers themselves are talking very clearly about being above any secular law of the state (something most Israelis think however naively is a real bedrock principle of Israel) and some are even talking about creating their own state.  More than a few shades of the Colones in Algeria here in their dying days.   I won't draw that parallel too far as the outcome here will clearly take a different form.  Bottom line: Israelis are starting to realize that something is starting to not work in their plan to try and steal maximum Palestinian land without the Palestinians.  Olmert said it flat out when he stated his "fear" that Palestinians would start a civil rights movement to demand equal rights in one state, and the increased settler rioting is at least showing most Israelis that something they can't quite identify yet (but which in reality is the fact that the settlements have inextricably and permanently tied the entire country into one contiguous Israeli-Palestinian state already de facto just not de jure) is not sustainable in the way things are going.  Somehow sending fanatical settlers who think they are God's law incarnate (and that oddly they think God's law is to steal and murder...did these guys never read the 10 commandments?) is not meshing with the notion of producing a sufficiently ethnically-pure Israel that can claim to be a "democracy" by controlling Palestinian population levels.  They're not willing to admit how disgustingly racist the notion has been all along yet, but they're realizing that somehow it's not working because the settlers are embarrassing their notions of themselves and how civilized they thought they were (even as they quietly and systematically have carried out incredibly inhumane, uncivilized brutality for decades but managed to convince themselves it was ok because they institutionalized the brutality which they thought made it acceptable).
I'm not even getting into Iran, that's an ongoing story.  Maybe Ahmadinejad will be booted out in the next Presidential elections there and more sensible face of the regime will show up, maybe the nuclear issue will worsen or improve, I don't know, but that one at present doesn't change the basic dynamics of the region much from what we already know.

What am I saying with all this?  While each story is fascinating in its own right the big picture point I am trying to make is that the next US President is facing the imminent end of the US' brief-lived (only about 2 decades) sole-superpower-status and that this will have huge implications for the Middle East as well as the fact that US-overzealousness in multiple Middle East issues has been part of the factors which have weakened the US.  Is it imminent collapse and replacement by China in a year?  No, of course not.  But the pace of the shift to a multi-polar world has picked up subsantially from what I would have expected a year ago.  China and the developing world will have to whether this US economic slowdown too, but with multiple no-end-in-sight and ultimately-pointless-but-we're-too-fearful-of-the-world-and-insularly-stubborn-to-admit-it wars draining US coffers and influence, the process is in full swing and shows no signs of abating even if there will be plenty of bumps in the road.

The question for the US is this in the years ahead: can the country find itself a new role as one of the many key players in a more balanced multipolar world, or will it bury itself in insularity, fear, and claims of eternal righteousness until it is literally a third rate power in a couple of decades?  I would think that the US system has enough flexibility in it to end up in the more positive former scenario after it takes a few lumps, but heaven help the poor innocents who are going to lose their lives and livelihoods in the process.

And then there's the Middle East (and virtually every region of the globe) where declining US power is going to have all sorts of localized effects.  What does Israel do if US power (both direct and indirect through munitions shipments) can't stop Iran getting nukes?  I don't forecast Armageddon, I forecast a very changed regional strategic balance (this is assuming we don't have a merged single state by then in which case a regional nuclear-free zone becomes much easier to achieve).  And in the near term a more assertive Russia is already changing Israel's strategic balance as it's more effective anti-tank weapons and even intelligence finds its way via third party channels to Israel's most effective foe in Hizbullah, plus Syria's military gets an upgrade and implicit protection from the now official more frequent Russian Navy usage of the Syrian port of Tartous.  Iran gets more willing fat on economic rents to play an assertive role.  All things already happening to one degree or another and changing calculations.  And what happens if the US and NATO are forced to withdraw from Afghanistan and Pakistan?  More realistically in the next President's term, how bad do things get before the US and NATO start trying to figure out how they get out of there?  And more immediately, what does Iraq look like post-pullout?  Who fills the vacuum?  Are Maliki and ISCI strong enough with Iranian support to survive?  How much regional competition gets funneled into Iraq?  Does a new round of the Civil War ignite ala Lebanon's on-again-off-again 15 years of fighting?

More questions than answers, but sensible answers have to start with knowing the right questions first.  Something utterly lacking in the past 8 years of "no questions, I'm busy shooting" US policy.

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