Hagel and the Fight for Empire

It has been two weeks since the Obama administration released a trial balloon floating Chuck Hagel as its choice for Secretary of Defense and, after generating scads of analyses from those for and against the former senator, Hagel’s nomination has been effectively secured. The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, interviewing prominent neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, got this unexpected answer when he asked if Khalilzad had any additional thoughts about Hagel: “He deserves serious consideration to be the next Secretary of Defense.” It’s was no endorsement but having a neocon admit that Hagel merits “serious consideration” is a bombshell considering that neocons are arrayed against Hagel, trying their damnedest to assassinate his character. But perhaps the neocon furor is a clever ruse and Khalilzad is actually representative of their inmost thoughts. All their shrieking, then, is the neocon’s way of getting publicity and treading water in a political scene that is increasingly questioning their relevance.

Underneath all the mud-slinging, the neocons know that, at the end of the day, they can tolerate an appointed Hagel. As a realist, Hagel isn’t as fanatically devoted to the potency of the American empire as the neocons but that doesn’t mean he’s about to oversee its dismantling. Realists take a pragmatic approach to the empire, preferring it to be managed competently rather than crazily. Not for them are grand delusions such as ushering in “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” at bayonet point. It could be that the neocons might even appreciate having the realists save the empire they adore from being run into the ground by their own fever dreams. So, the two camps are allies on empire as an American way of life but it’s the direction the realists wish to go that is driving a wedge between them.

The reason the neocons have reservations about Hagel, the reason Khalilzad told Clemons “I have not always agreed with Chuck Hagel’s views,” is because to them the empire would be threatened if the Middle East—where the realists seek to have a lighter footprint–slipped from Washington’s grasp. As they have it, the Middle East is the locus of the empire and its entire edifice could be undone if the U.S. stopped brashly meddling there with anything less than the firmest hand. Compounding their concern, neocons fear that Hagel’s frank talk of divergent interests between the U.S. and Israel will alienate the Israelis, terminate the ‘special relationship’, and thus pull out the linchpin of the American Raj. Israel’s need for unconditional U.S. support is the primary reason we hear for why we must remain so committed to Middle East affairs but what happens if Israel dumps us for a new benefactor should a realist-inclined Washington, say, decide to take a principled stand on settlements? It’s a bridge the neocons never want to have to cross.

Keeping up this justification is what explains the neocons’ Israel-centric outlook—an outlook that they and other “pro-Israel extremists” expect every official in Washington D.C. to have. There must be no daylight between the two nations and realists are threatening to let the proverbial sun shine forth. All the debate over Hagel puts this issue of clashing U.S. and Israeli interests into the forefront of the national discourse as he once declared that his “first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States… Not to Israel.” This comment convinced the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens that Hagel had “cast the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty.” He did no such thing but Stephens does pose a provocative question—is there such a creature as an Israel Firster? Former AIPAC staffer MJ Rosenberg says yes there is but I suspect that neocons appear as if they are Israel Firsters because they are really America Firsters—American Empire Firsters, that is—and they merely recognize how indispensable Israel is for the imperial enterprise and act accordingly.

Yet, as we now know thanks to Mr. Khalilzad, these doubts that the neocons harbor about Hagel aren’t quite enough to sink his possible nomination even in their own minds. Moreover, even if the neocons were wholeheartedly opposed, they would pale before the impressive list of pro-Hagel notables. The path is clear for President Obama to nominate Hagel and do so comfortably. How come he tarries? It’s doubtful he’s taking the neocon histrionics seriously but there is one thing that could be making him waver: Hagel’s position on the Pacific Pivot. As much as Hagel dislikes our Middle East policy he’s equally not fond of instigating a confrontation with China and that might be a deal-breaker for Obama. As J. Dana Stuster, who observes that Hagel is “at odds with the liberal interventionists” as much as he is with neocons, explains:

Nor is he a natural fit with the administration’s signature Asia pivot policy. He is wary of any strategy that smacks of “economic, political, and military containment” of China: “this kind of belligerence would be a disaster for our two nations and for the world…. such a policy would fail.

Did Hagel sink his nomination on account of that statement? Perhaps not—the President could still view him as an invaluable voice to have in his cabinet considering that the U.S. will no longer be a global power by 2030, according to a report by the National Intelligence Council. Washington has been warned that “the ‘unipolar moment’ is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.” To settle into this impending transition of America’s global standing, who better to have as Secretary of Defense than a man who, as Stuster notes, presents himself in his book America “as an Eisenhower conservative–low budgets and no wars.” Hagel didn’t meet that standard as a senator but maybe the responsibility he’ll bear as head of a leaner Pentagon will give him the opportunity to achieve his ideal. So, will Obama face reality in a time of decline and select Hagel or will he yield to the partisans of empire–neocon and liberal interventionist alike—and pass the buck?

The Hagel Hullabaloo

The wriggle and struggle for high political office can get rowdy on Capitol Hill but Obama’s pick for Secretary of Defense is already proving to be extra contentious. Why all the controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel’s appointment? Why would a senior Republican aide, use near slanderous language to defame Hagel, saying “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” I say near slanderous language because this aide and his confreres in the pro-Israel camp aren’t sincere in their censure. All of Hagels soon-to-be critics are deliberately and desperately leveling this charge because Hagel at the Pentagon’s helm means their jobs are at stake. To anyone making their living weaving reasons for why the U.S. must stay comfortably nestled in Middle East affairs the comparatively non-interventionist Hagel appears as the kiss of death for their policy-making prominence.

The droves of Hagel detractors care more about their own continued relevance than in the former senator’s supposedly nefarious character and, if pressed, they might grudgingly admit they value Hagel’s voice and could even wind up supporting him. How can I know this? Because that’s exactly what ended up happening to Hagel’s ideological equivalent and colleague, Senator Richard Lugar. Lobelog’s Marsha Cohen tells of the trajectory Lugar’s reputation took from the pro-Israel camp’s whipping boy at the time of John Kerry’s presidential run to their darling during the latest campaign:

Ironically, during the 2012 election cycle, Lugar—who the New York Sun dubbed “Ayatollah Lugar” for his skepticism about the wisdom of Iran sanctions—received $20,000 from NORPAC, a leading pro-Israel political action committee in New Jersey, more than any other candidate in the 2012 election cycle. The Jewish Week explains why pro-Israel groups lamented Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana GOP primary and his absence from the Senate: “… Israel advocates and GOP insiders explained that Lugar represented a breed of lawmaker who pro-Israel groups see as valuable to their cause and disappearing: One who reaches across the aisle. “Lugar wasn’t actively pro-Israel, but he wasn’t anti either,” said Mike Kraft, a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1970s and 1980s who now is a consultant on counterterrorism and writes for a number of pro-Israel websites and think tanks. “But generally losing a good, balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy is a real tragedy. It weakens the American political system.

Neither pro nor anti-Israel—a neutral position like that is what all of congress ought to adopt. If pro-Israel advocates are able to appreciate Lugar as a “balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy” then maybe the U.S. can consider terminating its ‘special relationship’ with Israel and putting some daylight between the two countries to the mutual benefit of both. Israel would love not having to be under a superpower’s thumb and the U.S. normalizing relations with Israel to the point where we no longer unconditionally back its government’s every move would go a long way towards restoring our stature in the Arab and Muslim world. A more even-handed U.S. as arbiter would finally be able to negotiate in good faith, settle the festering Israel-Palestinian conflict (unless the two parties prove capable of doing so), dismantle our military presence in the Middle East, and leave.

The U.S. should not just leave the Middle East but everywhere else our troops are garrisoned and reset to a republican foreign policy of non-interventionism. Scrapping the empire would save substantial sums and get our economic house in order. But there will be resistance to this retrenchment from the imperially inclined in Washington for whom empire is very profitable. That’s another reason why Hagel will have to face ferocious opponents—his accession to Secretary of Defense would hit them hard in the money bag if the imperium was shrunk in any appreciable way. Hagel is a wary realist who doesn’t subscribe to the neocon Ledeen Doctrine which urges that “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Hagel realizes that the American people are war-weary and as a veteran himself who is cognizant of the rigors of armed conflict he would never attack other countries for such crass reasons as keeping those puny nuisances in line.

Hagel may be a realist but this doesn’t make him an unqualified non-interventionist. Dana Milbank, defending Hagel’s credential’s, reminds us that he “isn’t opposed to war (he voted for the conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq) but knows the grim costs of going to war without a plan.” Further, he “unlike some of his neocon critics, knows that military action doesn’t solve everything.” Hagel may not be a Ron Paul, but having his influence in the Cabinet is infinitely preferable to an environment where hawks who want to wage war for war’s sake are allowed to proliferate. Hopefully, his entry into the Obama administration will open the door for non-interventionists to have a greater say in public opinion since foreign policy realism will gain a new found prominence. Perhaps they could also one day persuade Hagel to agree that a true realist would recognize that maintaining a ruinous empire is not in our national interests.

Strange Bedfellows in the Post-America Middle East

Perusing David Turner’s archive to plumb his views on the Pacific Pivot, I stumbled across his treatment of another topic which I had in the past mentioned factored into Israel’s stance on Iran—the Periphery Doctrine. An alliance with neighboring non-Arab countries that was, as former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami put it, “created in the 1950s as a tool for avoiding peace with the Arabs,” Turner asserts in his piece ‘After America Leaves’ that Israel is newly sprucing up this strategy not just to counter the Arab Awakening but, more importantly, as “a long-term strategic response to shifting American policy priorities.”

The revamped doctrine, Turner outlines, will naturally have Iran as its focus but against that ‘existential threat’ a string of periphery allies is no substitute for the support of the exiting Uncle Sam. Reorienting accordingly, “the real revolution in the doctrine is Israel’s outreach to India and China” but since they are the “next generation superpowers” Turner posits Israel might in the meantime try to court Russia.

Were it to fill the void of an absconding America in the Middle East, Russia becomes to Turner the prime candidate to “replace America’s ‘special relationship’” based on their mutual antipathy towards the spread of Islamism. Promising as this potential pact sounds, Turner nevertheless thinks it “unlikely based, if nothing else, on the fact of Russia’s relationships with Iran and Syria” and he ends up doubting that “Russia and Israel will enter into strategic partnership at the level of that which exists with the United States.” One would expect that this bleak outlook would send Turner into mourning as Israel would be cast adrift in a harsh, unforgiving Arab sea but he lets out nary a whimper. On the contrary, he quickly finds a silver lining in Israel having a lack of benefactors:

“And if, following America’s exit, Israel might not have the immediate security of a superpower with similar regional interests in a future conflict, neither would Israel have to ask permission to protect its own interest when they diverge from that superpower.”

Nations—no matter how intimately they try to align themselves–don’t have identical interests and that is no less true of the U.S. and Israel. Turner is acknowledging this truism above and he is aware that for all the unconditional support Israel receives from the U.S., the ‘special relationship’ has a definite downside. Israelis are doubtless resentful of their dependence on all the U.S. foreign aid and military largesse and they must bristle all the more when they have to get Washington’s blessing for their foreign policy decisions. The Israeli’s silent fury rarely reveals itself but Turner’s talk of Israel seeking other patrons reminded me of one instance when it did.

Twenty one years ago, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was incensed when U.S. President George H.W Bush called for conditions on the annual housing loan guarantees to Israel. “We may have to find a new benefactor,” threatened Shamir quite credibly. At the time, former ambassador to Qatar, Andrew Killgore, analyzed to what lengths Shamir was willing to go. China qualified as an option even then but he also found a seemingly inconceivable prime candidate for the role of “new benefactor”–Iran.

It’s not too shocking really given the complicated Iran-Israeli relationship as narrated by Trita Parsi and it does dovetail with the aforementioned periphery doctrine, confirming my conjecture that Israel wants to have Iran in its corner once more. Killgore proceeds to show the ease with which Israel can flip on Iran and elaborates on how what he coined the “Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis” would be reborn:

Through its influence in Washington, Israel could even see to it that Iran got nuclear weapons, and the Arabs didn’t. Two Middle Eastern nuclear powers, working cooperatively, could dominate the area and blackmail hostile American presidents into abandoning their own tendencies to throw their weight around in the Middle East.”

What a development in international affairs that would be! And it certainly could occur should a frustrated Israel grow weary of having to “ask permission to protect its own interest.” From all I’ve gathered, Turner, the late Prime Minister Shamir, and perhaps Israelis in the main all object to American intervention and therefore we should oblige them by severing the ‘special relationship’ and withdrawing militarily and politically from the Middle East. Israel would not fare badly if we did so—especially if the Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis Killgore envisioned does materialize. To silence the scoffers who say this alliance can’t happen because the two nations are too entrenched as enemies just recall that Israel was prepared to reach a rapprochement with Iran in the mid-Nineties and was serious enough to request Russia and Kazahkstan to mediate.

A Tehran-Tel Aviv axis would be a godsend for those Americans who want their country to pivot homeward and revert to a republic instead of remaining a hegemon bestriding the globe. Anyone arguing that an absent U.S. would trigger Middle Eastern Armageddon would be proven foolish as regional power blocs are formed in place of chaos and all the nations in the neighborhood successfully settle their own rows on their own terms. The U.S. does not need to throw its weight around the whole world to keep everything from going to pieces. Indeed, the U.S., conceived in liberty, should get out of the empire business which is hypocritical given our history. As historian Merrill Jensen observes “above all, the Revolution itself was a revolt against centralization of political authority,” not to mention the British Empire. So let’s politely excuse ourselves from the role of centralized global hyperpower on the world’s stage before we are unceremoniously shown the exit.

Pivot Homeward, America

When a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza was reached a couple weeks ago, the great question on everyone’s mind was what Operation Pillar of Cloud was about. Fox News speculated if it was a dress rehearsal for Iran and Israeli writer Amir Oren argued in his article ‘For Netanyahu, Gaza escalation could pave the way for Iran strike’ that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have not given up the dream of carrying out a major operation in Iran.” It was nothing of the kind, for both Israel and the United States are loath to start a shooting war with Iran or engage in regime change there. Iran is far too valuable a villain, you see.

One time, I half-jokingly proposed that, because of the nature of Washington’s ‘voodoo sanctions’ which give several nations escape routes and profits the regime, the U.S. and Iran were covertly colluding. Pierce through all the public denunciations and you’d find the ‘foes’ giving each other a knowing wink and a nod from afar. Though made in jest, I unwittingly hit upon a truth. After the 2005 Iranian elections, Scott Petersen recorded this gem from Iranian political analyst, Saeed Laylaz: “There are three ideological capitals, in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. They are apparently against each other, but they love each other. They need each other. We need a foreign enemy to control the country.” Though the ‘we’ in that last sentence was referring to Iran, it’s no stretch to presume that Laylaz’s statement equally applies to the other “ideological capitals” and that all three regularly use a looming bugaboo to sidestep domestic economic issues.

It’s no conspiracy, just typical political theater where behind-the-scenes reality reveals a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between superficially hostile governments. Accordingly, neither Washington nor Tel Aviv will touch their convenient nemesis in Tehran but the narrative of imminent military attack dies hard. I wasn’t surprised therefore to see the ‘dress rehearsal’ thesis reiterated by Israeli writer David Turner. He cites a report that claims ‘Pillar of Cloud’ was a coup engineered by Obama as part of a grand plan to confront Iran. Leaving the veracity of Debka’s assertions aside, the most intriguing part of Turner’s piece is his thoughts on the Pacific Pivot: “To abandon the [Middle East] region would be a signal to the world, including its “allies” and dependencies of the Far East of America the fading giant: of America the Unreliable… What message to future enemies and allies will the US send if it abandons the Middle East to Iran…?”

Turner sounds as if he doesn’t object to the Pivot if Iran is drubbed into submission before the U.S. departs but this is belied by a cursory look at his recent work on that topic. “Over the years I have written regarding America gradual withdrawal from the Middle East,” writes Turner, echoing both myself and Hannah Allam, who was told by unnamed analysts that “Even before the Arab Spring the U.S. government was subtly disengaging from the Middle East.” While not going years back into his archives, I soon enough found that Turner’s assessment of the Pivot mirrored my own with the exception that U.S. withdrawal horrifies him. He agrees with me that the U.S. (under both parties) would rather contain China than deal with Iran and proceeds to upbraid America with livid language for its dereliction, accusing the U.S. of “slinking away like a thief into the sunset.” To the trembling Turner the Middle East is “scary enough” without wondering “whether the promised US security blanket is real or just smoke and mirrors.”

From the tone of Turner’s language this “security blanket” doesn’t sound like it’s merely about Iran but a commitment in perpetuity. Indeed, attaining the pitch of his indignation, Turner throws up his hands and says, “If the US wants out of the responsibilities it agreed to when it replaced Britain and France, to protect the oil monarchies and regional allies, it should just come out and say so.” Let’s admit just that. We should step away from this potentially endless protection racket—America should be a republic, not an imperial power reigning over the Middle East propping up puppets. We should second John Quiggin’s recommendation: “it is time to reconsider whether the US really has significant national interests in the region—and if so, what those interests are. Assumptions inherited from the 1970s are no longer an adequate basis for policy.” What a help this would be since no one ever does explain in depth what these precious interests are.

Perhaps because a thorough re-examination would show that at bottom there are none–none that require pervasive American political and military intervention, at any rate. Securing oil supplies was never necessary and, assuming it was, a new-found windfall of U.S. fuel now renders the Carter Doctrine obsolete. An America that becomes the largest oil producer on the planet has no cause to worry about who the Gulf States sell their product to. So why not get out of the Gulf (that goes for the Pacific too) and sell all the military bases? It’s not as if there will be a Middle East apocalypse in our absence. Hard to imagine, to be sure, but without the U.S. as a ‘protector’ the quarreling nations there might elect diplomacy instead of reflexively resorting to the sword. In spite of the outrage of Turner et al, between the Arab Awakening and the changing energy situation the U.S. can finally afford to pivot homeward.

The Regime Change Red Herring

On the first of November there was somewhat of a dust-up in the Persian Gulf when Iranian jets fired at a U.S. drone that debatably encroached over Iranian airspace. Fortunately nothing ever came of the incident–the drone wasn’t damaged as the fighters were likely sending warning shots and Washington chose to cover-up the incident, disclosing it a week later. Both sides clearly are keen on de-escalation and preventing all-out war. But if war is something the U.S. is desperately seeking to avoid, why are there drones spying on Iranian oil tankers to begin with? Why is a burgeoning buildup of the U.S. navy occurring in the Gulf, increasing the chances of an untimely encounter triggering a casus belli? Well, it’s on account of all the tensions caused by crippling sanctions on Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Iran’s nuclear efforts, however, cannot be the reasons for the sanctions when their research and development isn’t in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s enough to leave one wondering what insidious sort of game is being played here.

The name of the game is generally suspected to be regime change. Iraq was similarly hit with sanctions which were designed not to abate until Saddam Hussein stepped down and had he abdicated it still wouldn’t have sufficed since some sanctions remain to this day. But which nation is tenaciously pushing for the endless punishment of Iran? It’s not the United States that is this intent on waging economic warfare against Iran to the extent of changing that country’s government. When Washington babbles about regime change it’s to enrage the Iranians and give them bad press. What about the primary driving force of the sanctions campaign—the Israeli government? Do they seriously contemplate promoting that goal? Their rhetoric suggests it but, like Washington, Israel’s strategy follows a different trajectory.

Israel isn’t looking to do a thing to its most convenient bogy that distracts from difficult domestic issues. This was noticed earlier in the year by Israeli writer Akiva Eldar, who ruminated on the consequences of successfully precluding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. From the perspective of the current Israeli government, the results would be a veritable nightmare scenario. Calling the hypothetical elimination of this threat a “Pyrrhic victory” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Eldar envisions in that event “world powers will turn toward other crises in the Middle East–including, of course, the Israeli occupation and its injustices. Without having to fear an Iranian nuclear bomb, Israelis are liable to get involved in the demographic and democratic issues in their own country.” Israel cannot afford to have Iran vanish from the international agenda and if that means, as Eldar implies, Netanyahu secretly fears a victory on the Iranian nuclear issue, then the prospect of Israel indirectly installing a docile, unmenacing regime in Iran is nil.

Lending more uncertainty to the purpose of these sanctions as an instrument of instigating economic misery and revolt was the high risk of the tactic backfiring. Indeed, the sanctions are patently failing, causing a rally around the flag effect which was predicted by analysts and therefore doubtless understood by Israeli officialdom to be the likeliest outcome. If they knew this, what are the sanctions really about? Israel’s actual aims were briefly betrayed by no less than its own President, Shimon Peres.

According to Gabe Fisher, Peres had “expressed fear that the Iranian situation would bring about some kind of renewed “Cold War”… but also spoke hopefully of a cold war that eventually “brings democracy to a new area.” Peres doesn’t fear this scenario; more like he would welcome it. Taking a leaf from Washington’s playbook, Israel is consciously fostering a Cold War against Iran as part of the Great Game of the Middle East and cloaking this in a regime change agenda to make the conflict easier for Israelis to swallow.

Besides assisting Israel in its contest with Iran for regional hegemony, this Cold War and its perennial tensions are calculated–as I have written–to prevent the Pacific Pivot. Since I made that estimation there have been some subtle signals to that effect. McClatchy’s Hannah Allam quotes in her piece about U.S. eagerness to extricate itself from the Middle East one Michael Signh who ominously warns policymakers that they “don’t have the choice of ignoring the Middle East.” Signh and others of his kidney in Washington think tanks devoted to the Middle East are petrified of the Pivot, scrambling haphazardly for any justification to evade a much-needed disengagement. “We have to recognize that we have enduring interests in this region,” Signh practically pleads to the State Department but concerning what those national interests are he has nothing to say. Such desperation among aficionados of America’s influence in the Mideast here means that alarms must be sounding even louder in Tel Aviv.

In the end, all the bawling over a nuclear Iran and talk of booting out the mullahs is a red herring. Israel (and the West too) does not seek war or a change of Iranian leadership lest a friendly Iran compel Israel to finally face down its thorniest dilemmas. Neither do they seek victory via a diplomatic resolution. No, the Iranian scapegoat must be left unscathed. The Israeli government is not alone in relying on this technique; in fact it is universally practiced by all governments, which are adept at inventing bêtes noires to draw attention away from domestic disputes that seem nearly insoluble.

Governments have traditionally depended upon a “splendid little war”–as John Hay affectionately christened the Spanish-American War—to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and a Cold War works just as well as a hot one. Hence whenever you read of one the latest laughable attempts to portray Iran as the Big Bad remember it can be reduced to politicians saying “What? Who cares if the country’s broke? Don’t you know Iran might decide to build some (useless) nukes (that would threaten nobody)!?”