Monday, February 09, 2009

The Great Unwinding

One point that I haven’t seen made yet, that I think should be made, is that Iran, Russia, and China are probably overjoyed that President Obama is not going to pull the plug precipitously on Iraq and Afghanistan. Absent a continued American commitment to the doomed but dangerous democracy crusade and regime change in Iran, there’s nothing our competitors and enemies like to see more than American forces, focus, and political capital tied up in open-ended and unprofitable face-saving regime stabilization efforts in the dead ends of Iraq and Afghanistan.

So, when I see Iran and Russia graciously negotiating to assist in transit of NATO military supplies to Afghanistan, I see two things at work: first, thanks to the American supply travails in Pakistan (and the closing of the main U.S. airbase serving Afghanistan, Manas in Kyrgyzstan, apparently at the behest of the Russians), they see an opportunity to engineer engagement with the United States on favorable terms.

Second, they want to keep the supply lifelines open so the United States doesn’t have an excuse to leave.

Even though pulling the plug on Iraq and Afghanistan might, on balance, be better for the United States.

There is a certain logic to America’s predicament that is pleasant to ignore: that a nation that is overextended financially and militarily should not expect that, after the mandatory wrenching readjustment, it can return to the previously overextended state and continue to advance as if nothing had happened.

In economics, for instance, it is somewhat optimistic to expect that the United States will automatically bounce back to historical levels of GDP and growth after an asset binge funded not by productivity and domestic savings but by colossal amounts of debt advanced by international creditors.

In foreign affairs, it is also extremely optimistic to assume that a colossal and reckless projection of military power into the Middle East and Central Asia—not one, but two of the dreaded land wars in Asia at the same time--again funded by those obliging international creditors, that failed in its ultimate objective of toppling Iran and turning the region into a patchwork of grateful American clients and a bulwark against the nefarious Russkies, can be rationalized without creating a power vacuum that other powers, with compelling interests, useful proximity, and significant military, diplomatic, and economic advantages, will venture to exploit.

Of course, as Ronald Reagan famously stated, facts are stupid things, and implying American decline—or even diminished American expectations—is political suicide.

So I predict that President Obama will draw his inspiration from King Canut, not only denying the advance of the tide but claiming that it can be made to retreat.

Instead of letting America’s compromised banks collapse, let the GDP take a genuine hit, and start with a relatively clean slate—and turn an acknowledged recession into a recognized Depression e.g. ratcheting down the baseline for GDP--President Obama appears committed to chunk money into the financial system in an effort to rescue the loans made during the Bush-years binge and puff some more life into the asset bubble.

Overseas, there is little logic in spending a trillion dollars to turn Iraq into an impotent little brother of burgeoning regional power Iran, or spending hundreds of millions to turn miserable land-locked Afghanistan into a fragile American satrapy while—a point I have made ad nauseum—accepting as collateral damage the descent of Pakistan, a nation of 170 million, into crisis and insurrection.

But, beyond the genuine geopolitical costs of allowing Iran to assume a dominant role in Iraq affairs or acquiescing to the return of extremist rule to Afghanistan, it would be politically untenable for President Obama to acknowledge a limit to America’s resources or commitment to the regimes we set up in the Middle East and South Asia, or surrender the ability to influence events in those countries through the continued presence of tens of thousands of U.S. troops, spooks, and contractors.

So expect the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to linger, to the satisfaction of the Iranians, Russians, and Chinese, despite the high costs and meager benefits, and by forgoing the advantages that might be gained by concentrating America’s resources of military, diplomatic, and economic power elsewhere.

The fact that Western observers fail to consider that the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns are largely financial and strategic liabilities to the United States is, I think, a sign of panic and denial: the possibility that the Middle East and Central Asia are not currently fertile fields for U.S. policy and disengagement might be the best solution, at least in the near term, seems to strike at the heart of America’s shaky hyperpower self-esteem.

As to the long-term costs of disengagement, it has come to my attention we have already invaded Iraq twice in the last quarter century and, if we count our considerable financial, material, and logistical support for the anti-Soviet mujihadeen, yes, we’ve also fought two wars in Afghanistan during roughly the same period, so there would be no obstacle to us returning to the region and invading these long-suffering nations for a third time if we believed that our national interest demanded it.

To expand on this point, it appears that the United States has the ability to destabilize the region through the creation of isolated, pro-American bastion states, but lacks the reach to stabilize it—which might be a clue that it might be better for all involved if we either took our knitting elsewhere, or at least took a back seat to regional powers who, unlike us, have a genuine stake in the turning these battered countries into peaceful and functioning states that enjoy good relations with their neighbors and are integrated into the regional economic and security system.

If America has a strategy for Eurasia right now, it seems it is helplessly hoping that the current recession exacerbates the social and political weaknesses of China, Russia, and Iran they fall on their behinds—with dire consequences for hundreds of millions of people--and we, bloody, broke, but unbowed, get the last laugh.

But, as President Obama is perhaps realizing, hope is not a plan.

By focusing on the costs to American prestige and interests by disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, it seems the think tankers are tacitly admitting that they cannot imagine regions in which our prestige and interests can be advanced more effectively.

Beyond the whole South Asian quadrant down through Indonesia, I can think of a couple places: Central and South America. Why, two hundred years after the Monroe Doctrine, our geopolitical take south of the border amounts to a handful of closet fascists and the rest of the continent is run by governments that dislike or hate us, has always been something of a mystery to me.

But that would take this blog even farther afield from China than it usually goes.


blowback said...

I think you are being a bit unfair on King Canute:

Henry of Huntingdon, the 12th century chronicler, tells how Canute set his throne by the sea shore and commanded the tide to halt and not wet his feet and robes; but the tide failed to stop. According to Henry, Canute leapt backwards and said 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws'. He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again.

There is a parable in there for Obama.

China Hand said...

Yes, I was unfair to the good king. Thanks for the correction and the citation.

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