Why is the American political class so intent on reviving the Cold War? Why does Israel have it in for Iran?
These are complicated questions; many factors are involved.
But there is “a fact of life,” as it were, that bears on the answers to both questions: that to keep their regimes – their distinctive ways of organizing cultural, economic, and political institutions — going, the United States and Israel need enemies, and the ones most readily at hand no longer seem up to the task.
One reason why Russia has again become America’s enemy, and Iran Israel’s, is that good enemies are hard to find.
When the Soviet Union imploded, America’s political and economic elites found themselves facing a problem that they had not seen coming: how to make do without a rationale that had served them well for as long as anybody could remember.
Almost from the moment World War II ended, Americans were made to understand that an Evil Empire threatened the Land of the Free. That implacable foe, the Soviet Union was, by any reckoning, a worthy antagonist, and an enemy for all seasons — of limitless scope and world-class capabilities.
It provided our rulers with reasons why so much of our wealth had to be spent fattening an ever expanding military-industrial complex, why our basic liberties might have to be (and sometimes were) curtailed, and why dissent had to be kept in bounds.
In totalitarian societies, states force compliance with the demands of rulers and the exigencies of regimes through the use or threat of force. We Americans had little need of that; our propaganda system gave us motivation enough to make “defense” our highest priority.
A less formidable adversary could not have brought us to that point. What our rulers needed was a foe capable of “scaring the hell out of us,” as the stately Dean Acheson famously said.
Therefore, if the Soviet Union had not existed, it would have had to be invented. It was invented to some extent, especially at first. In short order, though, it became a credible enough adversary in its own right; a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying us many times over will have that effect. Our ruling class could then rest easy; all was well.
Too bad for them, that the Communist system collapsed in 1989 and that those damnable Russians threw in the towel two years later. What a nightmare!
It took a while for them to realize what a pickle they were in. For a few years, they rejoiced in the prospect of a pax Americana superseding the bipolar Cold War order. They even tendered the thought that history had ended with the triumph of liberal democracy.
Before long, though, they realized that they could not make do without the status quo ante or some functional equivalent of it restored. The empire was becoming too hard to superintend.
With one of the Cold War’s two major players gone missing, governments, like the one in Iraq, that had become accustomed to playing one superpower off against the other were starting to act up; while nationalist and fascist currents that the Soviet Union had long suppressed revived, with dangerously destabilizing consequences. There was also the prospect of China on the rise; what to do about that?
An even greater problem was that with nothing frightening the peoples of the West into acquiescence, how could NATO and the several other international institutions through which the United States secured its position as a global hegemon be justified and sustained?
And how could the American people to be scared into acquiescence?
Pro-Soviet political parties and movements had been in terminal decline for decades before the Soviet Union’s demise. Nevertheless, its disappearance damaged the historical Left, which had also been in crisis, largely for unrelated reasons, in all the four corners of the earth.
The consequences were especially devastating to secular political forces in historically Muslim regions, where, in the absence of viable Left alternatives, forms of religious fanaticism that had only recently seemed unimaginable in the modern world emerged and flourished.
The American role in bringing that particular cause of disorder into being and in magnifying its consequences was enormous. America’s ability to control the monster it had helped bring into existence was lame.
But with terrorism on peoples’ minds, our “billionaire class” and our masters of war could rest easy: the world was again becoming a scary place.
Seeing which way the wind was blowing and having nothing more to offer than “fear itself,” they had figured out how everything could change in order to remain the same.
And so, “terrorism” was made to play the role Communism had. This worked for a while. However, it soon became old.
The beauty of the original dispensation was that it permitted the military-industrial complex to call the shots without ever having to prove its mettle. So long as direct confrontations between the United States and the Soviet Union were avoided, it was impossible to tell how well they were doing. They could therefore never be called to account in ways that could jeopardize widespread beliefs about their indispensability to the regime.
This is not so under the new dispensation. With terrorism in Communism’s place, pipsqueak Davids can and do challenge the Goliath America had become, much to the embarrassment of our political leaders, death merchants, and Masters of War.
To be sure, even with the Cold War on, the Vietnamese and others succeeded in delivering decisive blows to the American empire. But wars of national liberation and other forms of anti-imperialist resistance back then were the work of giants, engaged in protracted struggles at grave cost to themselves.
The terrorism our rulers invoke to scare the hell out of us now is the work of religious fanatics. It can be genuinely terrorizing, especially when recounted over and over on corporate media outlets, but, in the end, there is no way to make them out to be anything more than pathetic.
Terrorists are unworthy antagonists, and the terror they cause is a slender reed upon which to hang the fate of the regime.
Worse still, from our rulers’ point of view, their successes, such as they are, discredit the regime by underscoring the inability of its forces of order to secure public safety, despite the resources thrown their way.
Back in the eighties, with a view to overcoming the so-called Vietnam Syndrome, Ronald Reagan and then Bush the Father started wars against mighty Granada and Panama, respectively. Since then, with the arguable exception of the first Bush war against Iraq, the American military has never actually won a war.
The United States has never exactly lost a war either. With resources to spare and a population willing to tolerate considerable levels of rectifiable but unmet social needs, the United States has instead turned the wars it has not won into low-grade military conflicts that wax and wane in intensity, but never go away.
Thus world domination has given us perpetual war, not perpetual peace. The inevitable result is that we are, at one and the same time, scared as hell and gripped by war fatigue.
A further problem for defenders of the status quo is the dawning realization on the part of everyone who is not willfully blind that, on the whole, America’s military ventures in the War on Terror have been counter-productive – that they have recruited more terrorists than they have killed, and that they have made a self-fulfilling prophecy out of the widely believed but ultimately fatuous claim that the Muslim world and the West are locked in a “clash of civilizations.”
With terrorism in Communism’s place, we find ourselves mired in wars that don’t just fail to address the problem they purport to solve, but that are the problem themselves. Communism was a more serviceable bugbear.
The Soviet Union was remote enough, thanks to the “iron curtain,” and militarily mighty enough to serve as a durable and worthy enemy. China, whether conceived as an ally of the Soviets or as their actual or potential enemy, was, and still is, worthy too.
But there is no way to turn the world’s 1.7 (some say 2.1) billion Muslims into serviceable substitutes, especially now that so many of them live, not just in distant and exotic lands, but also among the peoples of the West as friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens.
It was therefore only a matter of time before those who are wedded to America’s time proven way of maintaining its increasingly corrupt and decreasingly democratic regime would look elsewhere for something with which to scare the hell out of everyone who might otherwise not acquiesce.
With no better enemy available than the one that had seemingly expired decades ago, the time therefore came to bring the old rotting corpse back to life.
This realization was not the main factor leading the Democratic Party and its media flacks to give themselves over to a kind and degree of Russophobic Cold War revivalism that would have embarrassed even classical Cold Warriors and old school neoconservatives.
But it surely was a significant factor – not least because of its instinctive appeal to leading members of the Democratic Party’s nomenklatura, people long in the tooth like the Clintons, who imbibed Russophobia with their mothers’ milk, and who came of age politically before the bipolar world order that collapsed in the years between 1989 and 1991 effectively disappeared.
That American elites would take aim at Russia makes sense; for more than seventy years, that has been the American way. That Israel would take aim at Iran makes less sense. It is historically anomalous and it defies geopolitical logic and longstanding cultural understandings.
Indeed, were an Israeli Rip Van Winkle who had fallen asleep as recently as a decade or so after the Iranian Revolution suddenly to awaken, he would find relations between Israel and Iran among the most baffling developments he would encounter.
He could adapt well enough to Israel’s newfangled “existential threat” gibberish; the concept existed before the expression entered the political lexicon. But he would be surprised to learn that Persians, not Arabs, were the ones posing an existential threat to the Jewish state.
The Zionist project began as a reaction to late nineteenth century European anti-Semitism, not as an expression of longstanding, much less eternal, national aspirations. In effect, the first Zionists believed that anti-Semites were right; that Jews cannot be assimilated into even the most enlightened European (and North American) societies. Palestine was therefore not an essential part of the original Zionist idea; a Jewish state could be anywhere.
But, in line with the thinking of peoples all over Europe at the time, nationalist sentiments soon came to dominate Zionist ideology, along with an historical narrative according to which the world’s Jews were not just co-religionists but also members of a distinct ethnos, destined to turn the Holy Land of the Jewish religion into a homeland for a Jewish nation.
Thus it was determined that the Jewish state could only be in Palestine — not Uganda or the wilds of Patagonia, as some had suggested. From that moment on, Arabs in Palestine and nearby regions became a problem. Their Sin was being there. Persians were not of any particular concern at the time; neither were Muslims generally.
From the outset, it was clear too that whatever else it might be in the minds of its proponents, Zionism was a colonial project and that a Jewish state could only be a settler state.
There were, and still are, Zionists with loftier intentions, but there has never been any way around the fact that for a Jewish state to be established in Palestine, it would be necessary to do to the people living there what settlers from Britain, Spain, Portugal, France, and the Netherlands had done to the peoples of the Antipodes and the Americas.
Those colonial ventures succeeded by depopulating the lands they settled, thanks mainly to guns and germs, and by subordinating indigenous peoples who had somehow managed to survive.
Intermarriage also diminished native populations and cultures. There was more ethnic melding in territories taken over by Spain and Portugal than in other areas of European settlement, but the phenomenon was commonplace in many parts of the New World.
In sub-Saharan Africa and in the Maghreb, European settlers had a harder time laying down roots because prevailing conditions were less propitious. But they had successes nevertheless, at least for a while. They had the good fortune to come along at a time when social and economic circumstances and therefore the spirit of the age, the Zeitgeist, accorded with their ambitions.
Israel’s misfortune, on the other hand, was to be conceived and born just as anti-colonial movements all over the world were coming into their own and beginning to succeed. Therefore, the Zeitgeist was emphatically not on its side.
But post-War guilt over the fate of European Jewry was. It was that guilt, more than anything else, that caused the newly launched and still Western dominated United Nations to call for the establishment of a Jewish state in part of Mandate Palestine. Exactly which part has been contested ever since.
Thus the state of Israel was born without fixed borders but, in the eyes of Western nations, with nearly limitless moral capital.
In the United States, it has secured that advantage with the help of one of the most dogged, nefarious, and well-funded lobbies on the face of the earth. Similar lobbies exist in nearly all other Western countries.
In these circumstances, the victims of the Zionist project would have had little hope of resisting expropriation and deportation with the best of political leaderships directing their efforts.
But, to make matters worse, for most of their history – but especially before a genuine national liberation movement emerged under Yasser Arafat’s leadership and then again after his death (possibly at the hands of assassins) – Palestine’s leaders have not served their constituents well.
Palestinian efforts to resist Israeli domination have therefore always been handicapped – politically and militarily. Palestinians have a moral case that earns them support around the world, but the arguments, no matter how compelling, fall on deaf ears in the ruling circles of the West.
Times are changing however, as Israel becomes bolder in its depredations, and as Western public opinion becomes increasingly aware of the Palestinians’ plight and the injustice of their situation.
Christian Zionists remain on board – they continue to support Donald Trump as well — but others, including Western Jews, younger ones especially, increasingly hold different views.
The Israeli regime has always required enemies; it requires them now more than ever. But, as in the American case, only worthy enemies will suffice.
They are hard to find. With the United States and other Western powers in tow, talk of existential threats to the Jewish state ring increasingly hollow.
In addition to that, there is the IDF, the Israel Defense Forces, a nuclear juggernaut, armed to the teeth, enjoying almost universal support within Israeli civil society and a reputation for excellence around the world. But its problem is much the same as one the American military confronts: for all its might, it is no longer suited to winning the wars it fights. All this self-proclaimed “most moral army in the world” can do is kill, maim, and bully.
It would be different if Israel had traditional state armies to fight. But it has not had enemies like that for many years. Instead, it has only defenseless populations, equipped with primitive homemade weapons to slaughter; and, of course, settlers to protect.
There are still those for whom it is axiomatic that in its War of Independence — Palestinians call it the naqba (catastrophe) — plucky little Israel fought off and defeated a coalition of mighty Arab armies.
However, the consensus view among informed historians is that there was never any doubt what the outcome of the 1948 war would be, and that its purpose was not to defend the nascent state against Arab hordes so much as to ethnically cleanse the territory of Arabs.
Keeping the myth of a besieged and embattled Israel alive would be a problem even if Israel’s War of Independence had been more like unreconstructed Zionists claim it was. Jordan fell away from Day One, Lebanon long ago became a lost cause, and Egypt, by far the greatest danger Israel faced, was neutralized at Camp David.
Then the two Bush wars rendered Iraq harmless, and, for a variety of diplomatic and military reasons, Syria was effectively neutralized as well — even before inept American and European reactions to the Arab Spring brought that country to the brink of ruin.
And now a de facto Salafi-Zionist alliance, spurred in part by Saudi efforts to establish itself as a regional hegemon, has isolated Palestinians further. The theocrats in Riyadh have it in for the theocrats in Tehran, much to the detriment of the Palestinian national movement.
And so, the vaunted IDF is reduced to periodic slaughters of Palestinians living in the open-air prison that Gaza has become. It has not had an enemy worthy of the name since Hezbollah, a non-state actor supported by Iran, fought it to a draw more than a decade ago.
This is quite a problem for the IDF and, even more, for a regime that depends on existential threats to overcome internal divisions and to retain the support of the majority of the world’s Jews and of Israel’s allies abroad.
Therefore, even more than the Soviet Union in the Cold War era or Russia now, if Iran didn’t exist, it would have to be invented.
This would astonish an Israeli Rip Van Winkle. What he had known was a world that deprecated and villainized Arab countries, and that cultivated ties with non-Arab Muslim states in the Greater Middle East – Turkey, of course, but also mainly Israel’s existential threat du jour, Iran.
This is not to say that there was ever much fondness between the European Jews who came to Palestine and Turks or Persians; as Europeans, they shared the attitudes and prejudices of the ambient cultures in which they had lived.
Europeans held all non-European peoples in contempt; of the peoples of the Greater Middle East, Arabs were the most despised of all.
It was therefore easier for Israel to make common cause with Turkey and Iran than with Arab powers, especially when there were sound geopolitical reasons for doing so. There were obvious reasons of that kind: could anything be more congenial to the geopolitical situation Israelis confronted than alliances with militarily powerful non-Arab states situated just beyond the outer boundaries of the Arab world?
And so, while public opinion in Iran was, of course, more sympathetic to Muslim co-religionists (Shia or Sunni) than to European Jews, it was comparatively easy for pre-Revolutionary Iran to ally with the Jewish state.
The Iranian Revolution put an end to that. Even so, in the years following the seizure of state power, a time when the ruling theocracy in Iran was especially given over to rhetorical extremes, the alliance with Israel never entirely lapsed. There were times during the Iran-Iraq War, and as the events that led to the Iran-Contra affair unfolded, when it was actually rather robust.
It was only after the first Bush war against Iraq ended the prospect of serious Arab-Israeli hostilities, and after it had become indisputably clear that Palestinian resistance posed no serious military or diplomatic threat to Israel, that Iran would become a full-fledged, serviceable existential threat.
Russia served as a bogeyman for Americans for so long that Russophobia was easy to revive when the time came. But since Biblical times, Jews have held Persia and Persians in high esteem.
Israel may not be “the nation state of the Jewish people” that Benjamin Netanyahu claims it is, but for the people living there, or rather the eighty percent or so of the Israeli population that is Jewish, respect for Iran and its heritage comes naturally, while anti-Iranian animosities go against the grain.
Fear mongering can and does overwhelm that sentiment, but it is nevertheless there, beneath the surface, affecting public opinion at some level.
They therefore need a war bad, a war against a worthy antagonist. Iran is the only serviceable one in sight.
The Israeli Right understands this; this is why Netanyahu fear and war mongers as much as he does.
The problem, though, is that without American help, Israel would lose the war its leaders and many of its people want and may actually need if the regime now in place is to survive. They would likely lose too badly to save face.
If America was led by sensible people, it would never be dragged into such a dangerous folly. But it is led by Donald Trump.
And, on matters of interest to the Israeli Right, Trump, it seems, is himself becoming increasingly led by Zionist plutocrats of the Sheldon Adelson type, and by similarly noxious Israel-fisters.
As the Donald cleans house, settling accounts with everyone in his administration who he thinks has not shown him due respect, as if anyone who knows him could fail to despise him, has said bad things about him, the number of persons within Trump’s inner circle who are not in Netanyahu’s ambit is diminishing rapidly. Therefore, the danger that Netanyahu will get what he is asking for, goes up.
And, with each passing day, Trump becomes increasingly unhinged. If events tumble out of control, as they likely will with no one sensible in charge, the consequences could be catastrophic.
Regimes that need enemies are trouble — for the people over whom they rule and for the world.
The trouble is all the worse when serviceable enemies are hard to find.
And when the regimes are those of the United States and Israel, the two most bellicose nations on earth, countries with enormous militaries that are seldom idle, nuclear weapons, overactive intelligence services, and morally deficient leaders of dubious competence and consummate stupidity, leaders who are becoming increasingly unhinged as the law closes in on them for corruption and other high crimes and misdemeanors, the situation is perilous indeed.