In his final State of the Union address, President Barack Obama made sure that he gave no impression that he was going to phone it in on foreign policy. He wanted to let Americans know that his waning influence won’t be keeping him from staying on the ball and that he’ll be proactively grappling with all the global flashpoints. His spirited don’t-count-me-out-yet tone, however, won’t be translating into a new approach towards those problem areas. As Reuters reports, “former U.S. officials and experts familiar with the White House’s thinking say he appears locked into policies aimed more at containing such threats and avoiding deeper U.S. military engagement in the last year of his presidency.” This will come as a disappointment to those who aren’t fans of Obama playing it safe–“Recent polls show that more than half of Americans disapprove of the way Obama is handling foreign policy and two-thirds are displeased with his response to Islamic State and the terrorist threat,” notes Reuters—but they ought to be grateful that the President is confining himself to cautious containment and not, for instance, swallowing the Islamic State’s obvious bait.
Another massive infusion of U.S. troops in the Middle East would rally a ruck of new recruits for ISIS, making them much more difficult to defeat than if we stuck to having the Sunni nations lead the fight. No matter how ISIS’s state apparatus is brought down, the victory lap will be a short one since then they just get degraded, reverting to their earlier status as an ordinary terrorist organization that will continue to target the West and be a beacon for Islamic extremism. Even assuming we manage to destroy ISIS root and branch (doubtful considering al-Qaeda has survived all this time) other radicalized groups will quickly take up the jihadist mantle. We all need to get it through our heads that the ‘War on Terror’ is unwinnable through military means and instead seek to uncover the fundamental causes that breed extremism in Muslim societies. French economist Thomas Piketty digs deep in an op-ed for LeMonde and concludes that inequality—an inequality that may be the steepest in the world–drives jihadism. The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley provides a summary for English-speakers:
“Piketty writes that the Middle East’s political and social system has been made fragile by the high concentration of oil wealth into a few countries with relatively little population… This concentration of so much wealth in countries with so small a share of the population, he says, makes the region “the most unequal on the planet.” Within those monarchies, he continues, a small slice of people controls most of the wealth, while a large [slice]—including women and refugees—are kept in a state of “semi-slavery.” Those economic conditions, he says, have become justifications for jihadists, along with the casualties of a series of wars in the region perpetuated by Western powers. His list starts with the first Gulf War, which he says resulted in allied forces returning oil “to the emirs.” Though he does not spend much space connecting those ideas, the clear implication is that economic deprivation and the horrors of wars that benefited only a select few of the region’s residents have, mixed together, become what he calls a “powder keg” for terrorism across the region. Piketty is particularly scathing when he blames the inequality of the region, and the persistence of oil monarchies that perpetuate it, on the West: “These are the regimes that are militarily and politically supported by Western powers, all too happy to get some crumbs to fund their [soccer] clubs or sell some weapons. No wonder our lessons in social justice and democracy find little welcome among Middle Eastern youth.” Terrorism that is rooted in inequality, Piketty continues, is best combated economically. To gain credibility with those who do not share in the region’s wealth, Western countries should demonstrate that they are more concerned with the social development of the region than they are with their own financial interests and relationships with ruling families. The way to do this, he says, is to ensure that Middle eastern oil money funds “regional development,” including far more education.”
Economic and political repression indeed constitute the “powder keg” of terrorism in the Middle East and if the fuse to it is ever to be put out it up to us to do so because Washington won’t be changing the policies that are conducive to U.S. corporate interests. Supporting autocratic governments that subject the majority of their citizens to “semi-slavery” fosters a very friendly business environment as these downtrodden populations are hardly in a state to create labor movements that would threaten foreign investments. Washington also intervenes to steer the region clear of democracy because policymakers don’t want the voting public of these countries (or any other countries, for that matter) to elect governments that would be protectionist, nationalize industry, or that close off their markets to the U.S. by forming exclusive trading blocs—all of which would imperil the Open Door World that capitalism depends upon. So it turns out that, at bottom, our security is most menaced by the imperialism that is needed to perpetuate an economic system that benefits a minuscule few. For the sake of our real security—the security of the people, not the security of the nation-state and the wealth and privilege of economic elites—Americans must do away with capitalism and set about replacing it with something that doesn’t generate international conflict to ensure it runs smoothly.