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The United States was blessed among nations. On the north, she had a weak neighbour; on the south, another weak neighbour; on the east, fish; and on the west, fish.
–Jules Jusserand, French Ambassador to the US, 1910
Nothing happens at the supposedly dazzling do at the World Economic Forum held at Davos – at least, of the constructive sort. It is a heavily catered talk bonanza on what people have already agreed to. It has a huge pretence to discuss policy. This year’s backslapping colloquium even had a touch of star dust in the form of Goldie Hawn and meditation aficionado Matthieu Ricard. But one thing to take away from the conference were remarks made by US Secretary of State John Kerry. He was not pleased. Kerry was slighted by remarks that the United States was disengaging. Relevant questions: how and where?
Reasons vary on this purported power withdrawal. Perhaps the US hegemon is getting sated. The strains placed by natural resources are less, given the increased reliance on shale oil and gas. Since 2008, American imports of natural gas and crude oil have fallen 32 percent and 15 percent respectively. The exercise of realpolitik tends to diminish when the domestic market has less reason to reach out.
A very big issue that looms is the agreement by Washington, along wither other powers, with Iran over its nuclear program. The arrangement made the Middle East advisor to President George W. Bush, Michael Doran, suggest that Obama had “announced that the United States cannot be relied upon to stand up to Iran.” As a consequence, “Israel and our Arab allies will be forced to live by their wits” (The Week, Dec 2, 2013). Such is Doran’s jungle logic.
Doran’s rather primitive view of alliance and friendship has not impressed Kerry, who was no doubt aware that popular opinion in the US is against a further entrenchment of the US in the Middle East. “I must say, I’m perplexed by claims I occasionally hear that somehow America is disengaging from the world – this myth that America is pulling back, or giving up or standing down” (Guardian, Jan 24).
For Kerry, disengagement is an insult to the machismo of American power. It suggests a form of premature ejaculation, a limpness of purpose. Nothing, he argues, could be further from the truth. The US had its fingers in several areas of involvement – cutting off prospects of an Iranian nuclear option, monitoring the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and a continuing interest in Syria despite ceding most deliberation on the subject to the United Nations.
That is the sore spot for Kerry. “The most bewildering version of this disengagement myth is about a supposed US retreat from the Middle East. You can’t find another country, not one country, as proactively engaged, or that is partnering with so many Middle Eastern countries as constructively as we are, on so many high-stake fronts.” The wording is crucial. Kerry is emphasising partnership, consensual, involved relationships, rather than those directed by the bludgeon or the military purse.
Leaving aside Kerry’s remarks, the hegemon is far from disengaging, let alone disengaged. It is merely the form of engagement that has changed. It remains clumsier than ever, wielding its power as a blind brute in a room. Its technological reach, at least in the military sense, remains unparalleled. The killing by drones outside any cohesive, let alone recognisable framework of law, continues with unmitigated dedication. The Snowden revelations last June showed how extensive the eye of the United States reaches. The US, in short, is overly, even obsessively, engaged.
Students of US power should turn up their noses at the idea that isolationism was ever an issue once President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Imperial Germany on April 2, 1917. With that declaration, Wilson showed not merely that the US was not too proud to fight – he showed it was up for the grubby role of global politics. The idea that, after World War I, the US somehow froze itself into the “normalcy” of isolation (to use President Warren G. Harding’s words) is a fancy superstition. The US might have pretended to be neutral till the attack on Pearl Harbour, but it was hardly isolationist. To not be formally appended to the League of Nations never precluded international involvement by the US.
It’s all a matter of focus and accent in terms of where current US policy is heading. The Middle East, for Obama, was always the bloodied reminder of adventurism by the Bush administration. But it wasn’t going to go away. Leave, and leave a situation of chaos. Remain, and create chaos. Afghanistan remains Obama’s fundamental disaster even as Iraq slides into further civil strife. This has gotten the hawks worried, and not merely of the neoconservative breed. Iraq is seen to have been left in the lurch.
The White House has other zones in its strategic sight. The Asia-Pacific region has been the focus of Obama Mark II, and that aspect of it is shown by such secret negotiations as those regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. Washington would like to lock in the trade area before it gets ahead of itself.
An argument has been made that the US is irresponsible to “disengage” from the Middle East because such a move emboldens its rivals. A threatening vacuum will appear, letting other contenders rush in. Russia will see prospects. China will beam in anticipation of swooping in on the economic and security kill. And of course, there are those naughty Iranians, over whom Washington should keep a close eye on.
There is much in favour of US disengagement as a general rule. The tally figures on US involvement in the Middle East come out poorly. Whatever the American Enterprise Institute might let you think, the interventions, policing actions and moments of meddling have been catastrophic. Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy (Nov 21, 2013) has made the plain observation that, “Apart from the direct costs, extensive US interference had two obvious negative effects: It helped fuel anti-American terrorism, and it gave some regional powers additional incentives to pursue weapons of mass destruction.”
We can at least agree with Kerry on one thing: the US is far from disengaged, milling about, wishing to be noticed as the brashest figure in the room of diplomacy. It may well be fitting to come clean on the subject, and initiate genuine global disengagement. The imperial sentiment is only ever satisfactory for the imperialist, along with its supine collaborators. Washington might actually win more plaudits for assured departures, rather than delayed exits.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: email@example.com