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The New Ancien Regime Arrives in the White House

The United States is indeed exceptional. It is the only country that ushers in a new Presidency by displacing thousands of the highest Executive Branch officials. That leaves in place those who are indentured to public service but, with the exception of the uniformed military and Intelligence services, almost never make policy, direct its implementation or review it. ‘Change’ you can believe in because it is dictated by law and rooted tradition.

It is one of the age’s secular mysteries how institutional integrity and coherent programs survive this upheaval. Foreigners in particular fret over how they are going to handle fresh personalities and new ideas. After all, all this motion could jeopardize their own plans and commitments. Anxiety is abated somewhat when they look back at other transitions to find that continuity eclipses innovation by a wide margin. There is more change of style than of substance. That holds for both persons and policies.

Placed in historical perspective, it is striking that shifts by Washington, and hence adjustments required of other powers tend to be marginal. Think of the Cold War. Premises and purposes varied ever so slightly between Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan. Events more than leaders were the primary cause of significant alterations in its modalities. Stalin’s death, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (above all), Vietnam, the 1973 complex of Middle East crises, the fall of the Shah, Afghanistan and then – finally and conclusively – the arrival in the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The post-Cold War era has witnessed similar continuity. Six successive administrations headed by four different Presidents have dedicated America to accomplishing the same ends. They have been: promote the extension of a globalized world economy grounded on neo-liberal principles are far as possible; foster democratic political systems for the long-term headed by leaders sympathetic to Washington’s philosophy and leadership; stress the latter when forced to choose in the short-term; isolate and bring down any government that actively resists this campaign; and maintain the United States’ dominant position as rule-setter in international organizations.

The horror of 9/11 has forced some modification in the modus of this strategy insofar as it announced a unique threat that the country’s political class countered by calling for the aggressive deployment of military force under the rubric of the “war on terror.” Its application only became divisive when advertised deceitfully and led to embarrassing failure – in Iraq. The collective effort to blur that reality, along with the implicit agreement to renounce the idea of holding anyone or group accountable, has voided the experience of any lessons learned. Once accomplished, that mission of induced amnesia managed to dull the whole experience in the evanescent collective American memory; the “war on terror” has proceeded on the rails laid down in 2001. That includes massive programs to spy on Americans that have denatured much of the Bill of Rights. This last has near unanimous bipartisan backing – despite the paucity of evidence that it has made us any safer.

The much publicized Obama deviations from the Bush approach do not amount to much. Its basic pillars remain firmly in place. True, Obama has not repeated the Iraq intervention. But in fact there has been no opportunity or reason to repeat it. To take military action against Iran was always irrational since any threat from that quarter was intangible and indirect. Too, the consequences would be intolerable for all but the hard-core devotees of American expansionism. Moreover, the Iranians made it clear years ago that they were ready for a deal on their non-existent nuclear program any time that an American President was ready to sit down for serious negotiations with a charter member of the “Axis of Evil.” On that score, Obama has not changed the depiction of the Islamic Republic other than its nomenclature.

Elsewhere, America has moved aggressively using drones, Special Forces and political pressure to suppress a wide range of “bad guys” who may or may not be terrorists, or threats to the U.S. They include Mali, Chad, Niger, Libya, Philippines,Somalia, Yemen, Iraq-again, Syria, as well as those old stand-byes Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Libya, Obama managed to create chaos on a scale that even exceeds Iraq without even putting American boots on the ground. A few are there now that the country has become a Club Med for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups of native origin.

In the Middle East more broadly, continuity is starkly apparent. In addition to treating Iran as implacably hostile, the United States has not wavered in its unqualified backing for Israel’s systematic brutalization of the Palestinians, for the Egyptian’s military suppression of all opposition – including the democrats of the ill-fated Arab Spring, for the autocratic ways of the GCC statelets, for Saudi Arabia’s entrenched autocracy that legitimizes itself by reckless promotion of anti-Western Wahabbism throughout the Islamic world and which has launched a bloody imperial war against its enemies in Yemen. That backing  for the KSA, matched by Obama’s uncritical backing of Turkey’s Erdogan, has placed the United States in de facto alliance with al-Qaeda in Syria. It also has inhibited Washington from confronting both Turkey and Saudi Arabia for their critical role in the genesis and fostering of the Islamic State.

All of these positions are approved by nearly the entire foreign policy establishment – Republican or Democratic. Only Syria is an exception insofar as there are those who would like to see a large American military engagement to unseat Assad. There is a lot of hot air blown on this question. However, the reality is that there is no method for the United States to intervene without paving the way for a Salafist takeover of the country. That is not an outcome which any incumbent of the White house could tolerate. Moreover, Americans are not prepared for a repeat performance of Iraq – whatever the blustering commentators and politicos sprout in the ceaseless war to impugn Obama and all his works.

What stands out from this review is the degree of consensus among those who pay attention to foreign policy and especially among those who may hold positions of responsibility in a new administration. Given that paramount reality, there is little reason to expect more than slight modifications in existing policies. The fact that those policies are sterile and/or manifest failures does not change that logic. For independent thinking is a rarity these days; the MSM have set aside all skeptical instincts out of cowardice, careerism and profit maximizing; and, on the Middle East, there are powerful domestic political interests that press hard, in private as well as public, in favor of the status quo fortified by more muscle re. Iran and Syria.

So, at the end of the day, it makes very little difference which of the names bandied about for senior foreign policy posts will be inscribed on the lintels above the imposing entrances to the offices of the high & mighty.

What about Russia? America’s relations with Russia carry greater consequence for long-term American interests, especially in Europe, than anything going on in the Middle East. The unspoken truth is that the Middle East would hardly count were it not for Israel, oil and terrorism. And the last is in good part a derivative of what we have done in regard to the first two. Europe is another matter.

The flaming of a new Cold War is laden with consequence – including risk of serious conflagration. Since the Kiev coup of February 2014, tensions between Moscow and the West have risen to dangerous levels. Many in the United States seem to welcome the development. Prominent among them are those who since 1991 have set as a cardinal national goal the permanent subordination of Russia within international structures designed and directed by the West. Putin’s dedication to preventing that fate cast him as an opponent, and now enemy, of the United States. In this line of thinking, peace and stability in Europe are predicated on winning this struggle. That means isolation, restricting Russian influence of any kind anywhere, and eventually supplanting him with someone prepared to accept that country’s predestined place in the envisaged pax Americana.

Developments in the Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea, the fighting in the Donetsk basin have created the occasion for this contest to take on dimensions of a full-blown geopolitical conflict. We should bear in mind a few inconveniently neglected facts. Washington under Bush pressed very hard for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO as far back as 2007-08 – prevented only by resistance from the West Europeans sensitive to Russia’s concerns about being encircled.  The United States remains officially committed to that expansion of NATO. From Moscow’s vantage point, NATO in the post-Cold War era looks to have as its main purpose the exclusion of Russia from the main arena of European affairs.

At the same time, Washington encouraged its Georgian protégé, Mikheil Saakashvili,to attack the breakaway province of Southern Ossetia – Georgia’s armed being trained and equipped by the U.S. That prompted a Russian intervention and humiliating defeat for Georgia. Washington played a critical political role in the ousting of democratically elected  President Viktor Yanukovych because he hesitated at signing onto a deal that would have made Ukraine a dependent of the European Union and an IMF ward. And it is Washington that has rebuffed or undermined every one of Putin’s several attempts to reach a modus vivendi on Ukraine as a crucial step toward fashioning terms for a modus vivendi between Russia and the West.

On Russia, as on Syria, there exists a uniformity of thinking among American political elites grounded in a simplistic narrative wherein we wear the white hats and Putin is depicted as wearing a black hat with the discernible imprint of a Red Star. However divorced from reality these images are, they are held with near universality. Obama has taken as tough a line on Russia as a rational person could. Hillary has done the same – with the addition of some female pectoral flexing (e.g. calling Putin a “new Hitler”). If truth be told, American policy-makers were far more comfortable with Yeltsin’s enfeebled, declining, oligarch ridden and compliant Russia than they have been with Putin’s Russia.

The real question is not whether American policy toward Russia will become more belligerent (it cannot without risking outright war). Rather, it is: will there be persons in the new administration ready to take a dispassionate view of Russia and move us off the current confrontational track? At the moment, there is no evidence of any. Indeed, the atmosphere is redolent of the 1950s in its stark imagery, self-righteousness, bellicosity and Manichean perspective. The only thing missing is a justification.

American policy-makers have segregated Russia from their thinking about relations with China. This reflects an all too common habit of a disjointed, serial approach to matters whose complex linkages are beyond the capacity of our strategists. Russia is important for three reasons: it is a major presence in the European geopolitical space; it has considerable military capability along with a demonstrated will to use it; and it is contiguous to and experienced in the greater Middle East where it has serious national interests. However, Russia today is not the global power that it was in Soviet days.

China, by comparison, is well on its way to becoming a global world power. It has now and is expanding all of the requisite assets: economic, military and political. China also has an ancient history of seeing itself as the center of the world (The Middle Kingdom) that is closely associated with its self-image of exceptionalism and superiority. Hence, every reasonable observer recognizes that the future shape of world affairs will be determined primarily by the terms of an evolving relationship between the United States and China. Everything else we do should take that into account.

The inner logic of this situation points to the conclusion that Washington should bend its efforts toward the maintenance of as cordial relations with other powers as possible, and to avoid unnecessarily alienating or antagonizing them. Our credibility and our authority, as well as our tangible power, dictate that we follow that maxim. In regard to Russia, we are doing the exact opposite.  Instead, we seem inclined to pick fights wherever the opportunity presents itself – especially with Moscow. That is a sign of insecurity – not confidence. It is counter-productive behavior from the perspective of long-term national interests. It serves emotional needs rather than political needs. It perpetuates an unthinking commitment to an unrealistic conception of what the United States is, and what it can accomplish in the world – one  that is becoming a growing liability as the disparity widens between illusion and reality.

In regard to China, Washington is tending to reduce a uniquely complicated challenge in unprecedented global circumstances to a simplistic contest for dominance.  The actual stake  is the terms of  collaboration in ordering and managing a multiform, interdependent world. Will they more closely approximate our conception (and better serve our interests) or China’s conception and interests?  Or will we all fail to agree on rules-of-the-road and suffer the consequences.  Neither Marine bases on Australia’s crocodile coast nor a symbolic embrace of Laos will affect the outcome.

Will a President Clinton, and her administration, be cognizant of the imperative to engage in this kind of probing reappraisal? We see no indications of such an inclination. Indeed, quite the opposite.

“Nothing can come of nothing.”

More articles by:

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.

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