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.