The new conventional wisdom, laid out in a growing pile of books and articles, is that the US under President Donald Trump has been withdrawing from the world. Bernard-Henri Lėvy adds to the stack with his latest book, The Empire and the Five Kings: America’s Abdication and the Fate of the World (2018). US withdrawal is alarming, Lévy says, because the world relies on US leadership.
The French intellectual superstar (“BHL,” as he is known in France) is concerned here solely with the Middle East. While BHL is convinced that the US is withdrawing from the Middle East, he ignores evidence that the US remains active there.
First, think of US involvement in Yemen. The Empire and the Five Kings contains two brief references to the massively destructive war being conducted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. BHL, however, fails to mention that the US is in the war. Since 2015, the US has been facilitating the destruction of Yemen by providing the Saudi-led coalition with intelligence sharing, targeting assistance, and (until November last year) in-air refueling of coalition warplanes. On April 16, President Trump vetoed a Congressional resolution which would have forced the US to end its assistance to the Saudi-led coalition. The US appears to be in Yemen for the duration.
Second, since January 2017, the Trump Administration has been busy negotiating the sale of two nuclear reactorsto Saudi Arabia, ignoring the danger that the kingdom has something more in mind than generating electricity. BHL gives no indication that he knows about the prospective sale. Nor does BHL mention an even more ambitious scheme the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is involved in. The so-called “Marshall Plan for the Middle East” envisions the construction of dozens of nuclear reactors not just in Saudi Arabia but throughout the region. Get ready for nuclear proliferation in the most unstable region in the world.
Third, is the Trump Administration’s plans for war with Iran. National Security Advisor John Bolton has spent much of his career promoting regime change in Iran. Bolton issued a statement on Iran on May 5. Bolton announced that the US is deploying a carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Middle East. According to the New York Times, the US deployment is supposedly in response to intelligence that Iran-backed groups are preparing to attack American troops in Syria and Iraq. Is the US deployment intended to provoke an incident giving the US an excuse to attack Iran?
In the meantime, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “maximum pressure” strategy has been softening up Iran for the kill. The Administration continues to tighten US economic sanctions on Iran. The president announced in late April that he was ending the waivers which allow eight countries, mostly US allies, to purchase Iranian oil. The goal of US sanctions is to reduce Iran’s oil exports to “zero.” That will destroy Iran’s economy and increase the suffering US sanctions have already caused ordinary Iranians.
The US Betrayal of the Kurds…and Others
Why does BHL think the US is withdrawing from the Middle East? The reason is the US abandonment of the Kurds. In September 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum in which 93%of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence. The Iraqi central government and Iranian militias responded by invading Kurdistan that October. The US and the Western democracies who had been full of praise for the Kurds up till that point, did nothing. The Kurds see this abandonment as a “betrayal.” So does BHL.
This was not the first time the US sat on its hands and allowed an oppressed people to be crushed. There are many other examples. The Spanish Republic in 1938. Czechoslovakia in 1938 and again in 1968. Hungary in 1956. Bangladesh 1971. Poland 1981. Sarajevo in the 1990s. Those aren’t my examples: they’re in The Empire and the Five Kings.
Nevertheless, BHL regards America’s desertion of the Kurds as an anomaly. BHL sees the US as a force for good in the world, “the second home of every free person on the planet.” Yes, sometimes the US does evil. On balance, though, the US does more good than harm in the world:
Imagine a scale capable of weighing the good and the bad that people do. On such a scale, Hiroshima; the support given to dictatorships in Brazil, Chile, and the rest of Latin America; the napalm used in Vietnam; and, now, “America First.” But don’t they weigh less than the role of the United States in the two world wars? Its two rescues of Europe? Its strong, constant, and ultimately victorious stand against various forms of communism? Its punishment of the butchers of the Bosnian War? The liberation of Kosovo? The war against the Taliban in Afghanistan? The worldwide fight against radical Islam, up to and excluding the treatment of Kurdistan?
The Reluctant Sheriff
BHL believes the US is an empire, but a benevolent one. BHL obviously would agree with Thomas Jefferson’s description of the US as an “empire of liberty.” He quotes André Malraux: “The United States is the first country to have become the most powerful in the world without having sought it.”
Malraux’s observation recalls the Englishman who said that the British Empire had “conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind,” and is equally naïve. Lévy could stand to brush up on William Appleman Williams. He would be reminded that the American Empire began at least as far back as the Spanish-American War (not the end of World War Two, as Levy thinks) and was conceived as an instrument to create “a foreign market for our surplus products,” in the words of President William McKinley. It’s amazing that a book can say so much about empire, and so little about imperialism.
Since the US never sought the position of world leader, Lévy writes, it is not surprising that the US is now relinquishing the burdens of world leadership. To quote Richard Haas, president of that establishment mainstay, the Council on Foreign Relations, the US has always been a “reluctant sheriff,” keeping the peace and ensuring world order out of a sense of duty.
This brings us to the second half of BHL’s thesis. BHL contends that the world needs American leadership. It alarms him that the Trump Administration instead sees America’s place in the world in narrow, nationalistic terms. The new approach has resulted in the US ceding its influence in the Middle East to five “kings”: Russia, China, Saudi Arabia (a literal kingdom), Turkey, and Iran.
Does the world need US leadership? The US thinks so. Since at least World War Two, the US has acted on the belief that the rest of the world can’t get along without us.
Yet in the instances we looked at—nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, genocide in Yemen, and sabre rattling over Iran—US “leadership” is taking the world in a very dangerous direction. Could it be that the world would be better off without US “leadership”?
The Empire and the Five Kings went to press before the world learned that the US was about to betray the Kurds again. On December 19, 2018, President Donald Trump announced that he would be withdrawing US troops from Syria. US forces have been a barrier between the Kurds and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.
In a January op-ed in the Washington Post, Lėvy urges Trump to reconsider his December 19 decision. Perhaps Trump heard. Shortly afterwards Trump began backpedaling on leaving Syria.
I disagree with Bernard-Henri Lėvy about many things. I disagree about the world needing US “leadership” (a euphemism for US hegemony). But Lėvy is right about the Kurds. He is right that the world’s 30 million Kurds deserve their own state. And he is right that after making a commitment to the Kurds the US should not abandon them. The US should never have been in Syria in the first place, but that’s another matter. The least the US can do is to not knife the Kurds in the back.