The ripples from General David H. Petraeus’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee continue to spread. Mingled with excitement (or apprehension) about the administration’s tough words in response to recent Israeli expansionist plans, it may signal an end to America’s unconditional support for Israel.
However, less attention has been paid to the second half of this much-quoted sentence from the Petraeus testimony: “The enduring hostilities between Israel and some of its neighbors present distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests in the AOR” (Area of Responsibility).
Yet this also raises valid questions: What are America’s interests in the AOR — where 20 countries are home to half a billion people? Is it a good thing to advance them? For answers, it is instructive to study the full 56-page testimony.
This is how Petraeus describes the AOR: “[ONE] contains vital transportation and trade routes…. [TWO] … encompasses the world’s most energy-rich region.” He notes that the Arabian Gulf and Central Asia account for at least 64 and 46 percent, respectively, of the world’s known petroleum and natural gas reserves, and 34 percent of crude oil production.
Thus, the United States “has substantial strategic interests in, and related to, the region.” Specifically, the security of U.S. citizens and their homeland; regional stability; international access to strategic resources, critical infrastructure, and markets; and the promotion of human rights, the rule of law, responsible and effective governance, and broad-based economic growth and opportunity. The rest of the testimony describes how the U.S. armed forces in Central Command use the taxpayer money allocated by Congress to advance these interests.
In a flattering 11,000-word profile in the May 2010 of Vanity Fair, Petraeus comes across as a brilliant and dedicated man, more genuinely concerned about the peoples of the AOR than other Bush appointees.
But the testimony appears riddled with blind spots due to the framework within which the U.S. establishment functions: In the final analysis, the way the United States defines its interests trumps the way the people of the region might define their interests.
Applying a non-establishment framework reveals contradictory and unachievable AOR goals: To promote regional stability, for example, CENTCOM aims to secure host-nation populations; conduct counterinsurgency operations; and help reform or build government capacity.
But what if host-nation populations don’t want to be secured by U.S. forces and those of non-democratic and corrupt governments? What if members of those host populations become collateral damage? What if they prefer indigenous forms of government to those of the United States and its partners? The United States would have to continue to impose stability, which would continue to provoke resistance.
Petraeus lists many factors directly provoking instability in the region from Afghanistan and Pakistan through Iran, Iraq, and Yemen. Yet his report is silent on the U.S. role in creating instability, whether its support of the Mujahideen to entrap the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan, or its invasion of Iraq, or the green light for Israeli attacks on Lebanon and Gaza. These realities are all within the region’s living memory, and U.S. claims of concern for regional stability ring hollow.
Moving on to the security of U.S. citizens and their homeland, it can be argued that U.S. overseas interventions expose its armed forces to harm while doing little to protect the homeland. Homeland security is better, and more cheaply, achieved at home through reliable intelligence within constitutional protections, rather than by draining the economy to maintain a costly global network of over 800 military bases.
International access to strategic resources and markets? The region has traded internationally since time immemorial: Everyone buys and sells with everyone else. When markets and trade routes have been affected — e.g., the closure of the Suez Canal in 1956, or 1967, or the oil embargo of 1973 — this has been the result of foreign intervention.
Broad-based economic growth? This has yet to be achieved in the United States itself, so how can the U.S. army and foreign service achieve such a goal in distant lands, especially as development is an incremental process that takes generations? Nor can one promote human rights and the rule of law through the barrel of a gun.
Reading Petraeus’ testimony, one is overwhelmed by how strongly the United States sees the region as its to command. In earlier decades, U.S. imperial designs were more discreetly exercised. The United States is now like Israel, directly occupying large parts of the region. Indeed, U.S.-Israeli tensions can be seen as a clash between the interests of two occupying powers.
The best way for America to achieve its goals would be to seek a definitive end to Israel’s occupation and other human rights violations; to itself get out of the occupation business with its attendant violations; and, to scale back its global military presence.
Many in the region remember a time when U.S. embassies were small, attractive and easily accessible places and U.S. influence was exercised through cultural centers and institutes of higher learning. It is time to roll back. For America abroad, less is more. Much more.
NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.