One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

If managerial and bureaucratic incompetence don’t sink Barack Obama’s “signature legislation” before it gets going, more people will have health insurance, thanks to the inaptly named Affordable Care Act, than ever before; not everybody, but significantly more than presently do.

On the other hand, the private health insurance industry, along with big Pharma and countless other health care profiteers, will make out like the bandits they are.  Worse still, their control over the American health care system will become even more entrenched than it already is.

Worst of all, barring unforeseeable developments – like an unprecedented level of popular mobilization and a growing general awareness of Obamacare’s absurd reliance on profit-driven market mechanisms — the cause of genuine reform, reform that would bring the United States to the level other developed countries achieved decades ago, will be set back, perhaps for another generation.

One step forward, two steps back.

Will it be the same with the agreement reached in Geneva on November 24 between Iran and the United States — along with Britain, France and Germany, and also China and Russia?

The Obama White House and the Kerry State Department claim that they played a decisive role in shaping the outcome.  There is no reason to gainsay them; the agreement is timid enough to make their contention plausible.  But it does mark another step forward for them.

Or rather a toddler’s half step that, like the halting efforts of a baby learning to walk, draws extravagant praise from doting supporters.  In the toddler’s case, praise is positive reinforcement.  With Obama, it’s not clear what and the others think they are doing.

The “international community” (the United States with its coalition of the willing in tow, plus China and Russia, going along for their own reasons), conceded very little; they will temporarily scale back some gratuitously cruel and burdensome sanctions.

Nevertheless, the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democrat Robert Menendez, thinks Obama and Kerry conceded too much.  But then, even for a United States Senator, Menendez is an exceptionally mean-spirited sort.

He also said that Iran conceded too little, agreeing only to run in place for a while longer.

On Middle Eastern matters, Menendez, like most legislators in Congress, gets his marching orders from the Israeli government and its U.S. lobbyists — so it is no surprise that he will grasp at any straw to stick it to Iran, even if it means sowing seeds of trouble ahead for Obama.

Nevertheless, he is right; the Iranians got the better end of the deal.

Of course, on the face of it, Iran conceded more; Obama’s cheerleaders have been pointing this out ad nauseam.  They will halt and partially reverse their uranium enrichment program; also they agreed to an invasive inspections regimen.

It is not clear, however, how much of a concession this is — since Iran was not intent on building a nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future in any case.

No doubt, the representatives of the international community, as they think of themselves, understood this.  But they had to pretend that they did not – mainly to please Israel, which, having divided and neutered the Palestinian resistance, has turned an imaginary Iranian bomb into an existential threat.

Without an existential threat, Israel’s leaders would find themselves in trouble; they would be at a loss to keep the society they govern together and to keep the “diaspora” on board.

Ironically, the real existential threat they face is the absence of an existential threat.  Because no plausible one actually exists, one had to be invented.

For the United States and the others, going along makes sense: not only because it pleases the Israel lobby – an imperative for risk averse politicians who haven’t quite figured out how little they have to fear from its machinations – but also because it pleases the Saudi royal family and the other Gulf Sheiks.  They would like nothing more than for the U.S. to go after Iran.

For the Israeli government, anti-Iranian animosity is useful given the lack of a better alternative; for the oil rich overlords of the Arabian Peninsula, it reflects a longstanding historical antagonism.

Being much the better negotiators, the Iranians played along – seeming to give up a great deal, while actually giving up very little.

* * *

Needless to say, Iran would be better off with nuclear weapons, assuming everything else remained the same.  Arguably, the world would be better off too.

The Bush-Obama wars in Iraq and Afghanistan made Iran a preeminent regional power; nuclear weapons would enhance their role.  This may or may not be a good thing for the Iranian people, but it is undeniably in Iran’s national interest, as traditionally conceived.

The interests of a nation, though not of the vast majority of the people who comprise it, are the interests of its political and economic elites.  These vary, according to circumstances.

But because it is a precondition of all the others, security is a preeminent national interest for all countries.  And for any nation that is or aspires to be a regional or global power, the best way to attain national security is to be not just the peer of any and all potential rivals, but also to dominate them politically, diplomatically and militarily.

This has long been the guiding principle of American foreign policy; and, notwithstanding the “American exceptionalism” Obama blathers on about, it is the same for all countries – Iran as much as the United States.

If there is a difference, it is just that the bigger – or rather the more domineering — they are, the more they delude themselves.  “Exceptional” America is exhibit number one.

Cloaking imperial ambitions in an idealistic guise is as American as Thanksgiving dinner.  The Pilgrim Fathers brought the illusion over with them on the Mayflower – and Americans have been on the side of the angels ever since.

That was how it was when European settlers decimated the indigenous peoples of North America; and it has been an abiding theme of the American imperium as it extended its grip – first into the Western hemisphere, then around the eastern Pacific, then throughout the “Free World,” and finally over the entire planet.

Obama’s “humanitarian” interveners are only the latest in a long line.

Sometimes, though, America’s foreign policy elites are not so blatantly self-deceived.

Teddy Roosevelt famously declared that America ought to “speak softly and carry a big stick.”  That is more or less the gospel that “realist” geopolitical strategists have been espousing for decades.

For them, Woodrow Wilson was just blowing air when he went on about “making the world safe for democracy.”  A century later, Susan Rice and Samantha Power — always on the ready to exercise a “responsibility to protect” – are doing it again.

Then there are the neoconservatives empowered after 9/11 under the aegis of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  They are even more Wilsonian than the humanitarian interveners – except that they are not content just with making the world safe for democracy; they also want to make it safe for Israel or, since the two are identified in their minds, for both.

They are dangerous in much the way that the humanitarian interveners are — because, like them, they seem genuinely to believe what they proclaim.

For realists, on the other hand, geopolitics is a Great Game in which nations with competing national interests contend.  Empowered realists can do grave harm too; witness Henry Kissinger.  But at least they are not in the thrall of self-serving delusions.

And so it is that in recent years the conventional wisdom has come to be that TR-style realism and Wilsonian idealism are rival poles of attraction for America’s foreign policy elites.

In truth, though, even the realists sometimes succumb to illusions about “American exceptionalism.” With the institutions that shape public and elite opinion working overtime to make the case, the idea that the Land of the Free is a beneficent agent of providential design can be difficult to shake.

So is the much more recent idea that Muslim states, most of them anyway, are theocratic monstrosities whose geopolitical strategizing, if not irrational, is moved more by religious zealotry than the usual reasons of state.

At the same time, Wilsonian idealists, the neoconservative ones especially, are realists under the skin.  This is why it is is as plain to them as to anyone that it would be in Iran’s interest to develop a nuclear capacity.

That simple truth is acknowledged across the entire spectrum of elite foreign policy thinking.  If Obama and Kerry are to make their step forward stick, they will have to deal with this inconvenient fact.  Otherwise today’s bipartisan skeptics could turn into overt opponents in the not distant future.

The forces intent on demonizing Iran would have a harder time of it if another simple, also obvious, truth registered in mainstream thinking.  But the idea that an Iranian bomb might actually be a good thing — as long as regional, much less global, nuclear disarmament is out of the question – hardly registers at all.

If nothing else, an Iranian bomb would deter Israeli aggression – not just against Iran but also against all the neighboring states, and against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories.  It would counter the deleterious effects of Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly.

The Iranians therefore have good reason to want a bomb, and the rest of the world would be wise to let them have one.  But, in today’s world, there is no way to get from here to there.

No one understands this better than the Iranians themselves; it is they, after all, who bear the weight of the forces arrayed against them.

The problem is not just Israel; it is Israel plus the United States and the European powers that nowadays follow American direction.

The United States has never taken well to vassal states that defy its authority – Cuba is the most extreme example.  Neither does it tolerate regimes that show too much independence.  The Serbians can attest to that, along with many others.

Even worse for Iran, American governments still bear a grudge against their country for the hostage crisis that overtook the final 444 days of Jimmy Carter’s presidency.  And like insecure parents of wayward and rebellious children, they become offended when their former wards don’t show proper respect.

The Great Satan is like that; and the Iranians don’t mince their words.

Once upon a time, the imperialist West had wiser leaders – in Europe.  Saul Landau used to remark on the contrast between the ways Eisenhower and Kennedy treated revolutionary Cuba, and the policies Charles De Gaulle adopted, around the same time, to deal with the revolutionaries who won Algeria’s independence from France.

The difference is especially striking inasmuch as the Algerians liberated what was technically still a department of the French Republic.  Cuba, on the other hand, was just an offshore island – of no great importance to any important sector of American capitalism outside organized crime.

But maturity and wisdom have never been the American way.

Nowadays it is the same in Europe – especially in France, where the residual influence of the Gaullists’ independent streak faded away along with freedom fries.   In its zeal to assure that the empire is properly policed, France today, under a “socialist” government, is even worse than the United States.

The Iranians understand too that, ever since the Shah was deposed, American governments have been eager to restore a biddable Iranian state into America’s ambit, and that America’s leaders will not shy away from opportunities to put one in place.

Finally, they realize that since a major concern of the imperium these days is control of the world’s oil supplies, the United States will do whatever it takes to placate the Saudis and the other oil rich Gulf Sheikdoms.  Their potentates have no domestic lobbies promoting their interests, just public relations flacks; but our leaders’ eagerness to remain in their good graces works well enough.

For the Iranians, then, the choice came down to agreeing not to do what they were not about to do anyway in exchange for some relief from sanctions as burdensome, cruel and murderous as the ones Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright leveled against Iraq in the 1990s.  Striking the deal they did was a no-brainer.

The Israeli government is therefore right about something: the Iranians must now be very pleased with themselves.  Let Obama’s publicists tout his foreign policy achievement; the joke is on him.

But Obama et. al. weren’t entirely snookered; they did get something in return for their concessions.  They got relief from having to deal with the consequences of their own bumbling, and from Obama’s almost pathological inability to advance his own cause.

The Russians enabled the Nobel laureate to back away from a potentially devastating intervention into the Syrian civil war that otherwise seemed inevitable after the Syrian government (or rogue elements within it) crossed, or seemed to cross, the infrangible “red line” that Obama had foolishly laid down.  Similarly, the Iranians enabled Obama to avoid, or at least postpone, a potentially more devastating – and counter-productive – war with Iran.

No wonder he jumped at the opportunity.  He may have gained very little, or nothing at all, from agreeing to make the sanctions less deadly, but he did save himself and the world from a potentially catastrophic turn towards war.

A step forward by all means!  But, then, if Obama stays true to form, we can expect two steps back to follow.

Now would be an ideal time to “look forward,” as Obama likes to say – by forcing Israel to make peace with the Palestinians on terms that both sides can accept.  Don’t count on it, however.

Part of the problem is that Obama evidently still refuses to acknowledge what is plainly the case: that, if he wants, he can defy the Israel lobby with impunity; and, if he tries hard enough, he can bring Congress along.

Or even if he does understand that the Israel lobby doesn’t have to call the shots, he is too risk averse not to fall back into familiar routines.  Giving the Israelis something back when they don’t get their way – making it up to them somehow — is an old story.

A prototypical example – remarkable because it took place at a time when a Salafi-Zionist alliance was unthinkable, and when Israel and Iran were still “best friends for life” – was Jimmy Carter’s decision to build a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall as the quid pro quo for selling F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia.

What an odd decision!  To be sure, the United States could have done more than it did to save European Jewry.   But the Holocaust was not an American thing.

If there was to be a remembrance of genocide on the National Mall, would it not be far more apt to commemorate the genocide the American government perpetrated against the native peoples of the Americas?

Yet it was not until years later that the National Museum of the American Indian opened; and, as one would expect in a political universe given over to identity politics, it is devoted mainly to the celebration of Indian culture, not to recounting what the European settlers who founded the American republic and who then went on to “win” the West did to the land’s indigenous peoples.

Expect much the same from the National Museum of African American History and Culture when it finally opens in 2015.  It too will “accentuate the positive,” not slavery or the role the slave economy played in building the United States.

There is a case to be made that national museums nowadays ought to “celebrate difference”—and that the nation’s original sins should be remembered and studied in other ways and at other venues.  But surely if the National Mall is to house a solemn remembrance of a crime against humanity, one of our own would be more appropriate than one conceived and carried out in distant lands.

On the other hand, if the idea is to legitimate the Zionist project, then a Holocaust Museum in as prominent a place as can be makes sense.  This is why the Israel lobby wanted a Holocaust Museum on the National Mall in the first place.

And it is why instead of presenting the Nazi Judeocide as a product of capitalism and its fascist offshoot gone bad, and as an object lesson in what can happen in the course of total war.

Holocaust museums typically make a case for eternal Jewish victimhood.

Worse, they lend credence to the idea that Jews have somehow earned an inexhaustible supply of moral capital that the Israeli state can rightfully claim as its own.  On this basis, they imply that the Israelis can never be called to account, no matter what they do to the Palestinians or anyone else.

Holocaust remembrances also play a role in keeping the empire going.  By depicting Nazis as evil incarnate, they make what Americans did to native peoples and to Africans brought here as slaves – and to the many peoples that have fallen victim to the American empire’s predations subsequently – seem not so bad in comparison.

Unlike them, we are well intentioned; it is just that, from time to time, “mistakes were made.”

Nevertheless, the actual Museum built on the Mall turned out fairly well.  It is less kitschy than most and not as transparently Zionist.  It has a serious, even scholarly, side.

Indeed, the main reason to object to it is just that it should not be located where it is.  In the end, Carter’s bargain amounted to a fairly benign quid pro quo.

One can only hope that when Obama follows his predecessor’s lead — as he surely will because it is his nature not to take risks, even when, as in this instance, the dangers inherent in striking off in new directions are wildly exaggerated– his steps backward will be no more deleterious.

But the chances for that are poor.  If we have learned anything over the past five years, it is that where Obama goes, disappointment follows.

We have also learned that unlike his halting steps forward, Obama’s steps backward are robust.  One need only consider Obamacare to see that, though there are many other examples – especially in the purportedly progressive changes he has made to the Bush-Cheney War on Terror, and to their assault on privacy and due process rights.

The hapless Benjamin Netanyahu, Prime Minister of Israel, is now in full-throttle complaining mode, but if he still had the wits he was born with, he would be salivating at the prospect. Palestinians beware!

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).