Saturday, September 01, 2012

Victor Davis Hanson bids "Goodbye, Middle East"

A friend drew my attention to a column by Victor Davis Hanson in today's New York Post titled "Goodbye, Middle East: America doesn't need the grief".  Its argument is that "The United States is backing off from the Middle East — and the Middle East from the United States."  And although Hanson doesn't quite come out and say so explicitly or unequivocally, the dominant tone of the piece—not to mention the subhead that was presumably written by the Post editors—strongly implies that US disengagement from the Middle East would probably be a good thing.

Victor Davis Hanson certainly can't be regarded as a serious analyst of the Middle East or of US international relations. And although his work as a classical historian deserves respect, his ventures into popular right-wing punditry over the past decad or so have often tended to range from superficial and unconvincing to offensive, pernicious, and even unhinged. Some of the points underlying his argument in this column, including the suggestion that North American self-sufficiency in energy supplies will soon allow the US to ignore Middle East oil and its geopolitical implications, strike me as implausible. And I'm not sure whether the central argument will turn out to be correct.

Nevertheless, I think this column deserves a few moments of attention, if only for its symptomatic interest. It captures a widespread mood of irritation, frustration, exasperation, and disillusionment with the whole region that really does run through a good deal of US public opinion right now, including many former supporters of the Bush II administration, the 2003 Iraq war, and the so-called Bush Doctrine of promoting democracy in the Middle East. A lot of these people, waking up with a hangover, now have the feeling that the region and its people are simply hopeless, so to hell with them.

(Some of these themes come through, for example, in the increasingly common calls by Republican figures like Newt Gingrich for accelerated US withdrawal from Afghanistan—the basic message is that place is hopeless, the people are just tribal savages anyway, and in fact we should "reassess the whole region". So it may not be accidental that the word "Afghanistan" almost never came up at the just-completed Republican convention, except when Clint Eastwood blamed the invisible Obama for American intervention there. Of course, many alleged "progressives" and so-called "realists" say pretty much the same things, in slightly different ways.)

So when someone like Hanson makes points like the following, and they appear in a Murdoch newspaper, it might be sensible to take them as straws in the wind:
Let’s get this all straight. America has been damned for its Machiavellian shenanigans in supporting authoritarian governments; for its naive idealism in using force to implant democracies; for its ambivalence in not using force to protect democratic protestors; and for its recent isolationism in ignoring ongoing Arab violence. [JW: That sums it up pretty nicely.] Why, then, bother?

The subtext of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is that the region, if given a chance, will embrace its own brand of freedom But that doesn’t appear to be happening in Egypt. And democracy doesn’t seem to be the common glue that holds together various Syrians fighting to overthrow the odious Assad dictatorship. [....]

Staggering US debt also explains the impending divorce. [....] Perhaps soon the problem will be that we simply will not have enough power to use it for much of anything — and would have to ask the UN for permission if we did.

Usually nothing good comes from American isolationism, especially given our key support for a vulnerable democratic Israel. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, our Humpty-Dumpty policy of Middle East engagement is now shattered. [....]
I see this as one more sign that there is very little appetite in American public opinion, including its Republican precincts, for any new adventures anywhere in the Muslim world. Low-cost and largely indirect operations like the one in Libya may be tolerated, but even that one wasn't very popular. Any serious intervention requiring sustained commitment and the possibility of significant costs in money and casualties would be extremely unpopular. Politicians aren't likely to ignore that.

The rather unusual period of US foreign policy after World War II often misleads people into forgetting that the dominant underlying thrust of public opinion in the US—and that emphatically includes most sectors of right-wing public opinion—has always been, and remains, more or less isolationist. For many if not most Americans, part of the very meaning of America is that America is the world. Ideally, to adapt a wonderfully illuminating phrase from the historian J.G.A. Pocock, America is and ought to be a "closed geopolitical utopia". The rest of the world is there mostly to visit on occasion and to watch very intermittently on TV—unless specific actors out there are threatening to bomb us or, more rarely, when ties of ethnic or family solidarity provoke feelings of sympathy for specific groups or countries elsewhere.

It usually takes very special circumstances, like the perceived Soviet threat during the Cold War or the mood of panic and outrage following the 9/11 attacks on the US, to shake the American public out of its default isolationism and to induce it to defer to the more internationalist orientations that have predominated in political and foreign-policy elites. That mood of exception may be fading again.

In the last two contests for the Republican presidential nomination, Ron Paul was an outlier among the major candidates (not that he was the only pernicious and reactionary political troglodyte among the top candidates, but the specific flavor of his reactionary politics was distinctive). However, the viewpoint he represents, including his unreconstructed 19th-century isolationism, strikes a genuine chord with an awful lot of American voters both inside and outside the GOP ... and it's quite possible that Republican politicians will have to take that constituency into account. A few speeches at this week's Republican convention did include some talk about the need for active "world leadership" by the US, but those themes were relatively peripheral, even in the form of sloganeering bluster; and in most cases (Condoleezza Rice and John McCain were the main exceptions) the rhetorical nods in this direction sounded more ritualistic than serious.

(Obviously, there are plenty of ways to engage with other countries that don't involve bombing or invading them. But among many American voters, non-military forms of international engagement are even less popular than military ones—e.g., Ron Paul's proposals to quit the UN, end foreign aid, seal US borders against immigration, and so on are big applause lines. So I think it would be unwise to assume that a resurgence of neo-isolationist impulses in the electorate would nudge Republican politics toward more reasonable and constructive foreign-policy positions.)

Or, on the other hand, countervailing tendencies may prove to be more politically significant in the end. (And the world is full of surprises and unexpected events, as we know from recent history, which could change the whole situation.) I hope that wiser and more constructive options prevail, because if the US body politic succumbs to any significant degree to these temptations for generalized disengagement from the Middle East and beyond, then the consequences are likely to be very unpleasant all around.  But as I said, this little cri de coeur from Victor Davis Hanson may be worth a few moments of reflection.

—Jeff Weintraub

===================================
New York Post
September 1, 2012 [Posted August 31, 2012 at 10:50 p.m.]
Goodbye, Middle East
America doesn't need the grief

By Victor Davis Hanson
headshot The United States is backing off from the Middle East — and the Middle East from the United States.

America is in the midst of the greatest domestic gas and oil revolution since the early 20th century. If even guarded predictions about new North American reserves are accurate, over the next decade the entire continent may become energy-independent, with little need of petroleum imports from the Middle East.

This coincides with mounting Chinese dependency on Middle Eastern oil and gas. So as the Persian Gulf becomes less important to us, it grows even more critical to the oil-hungry, cash-laden — and opportunistic — Chinese.

After two wars in the Middle East, Americans are as tired of our forces being sent over there as Middle Easterners are of having us there.

The usual Arab complaint against the United States during the Cold War was that it supported anti-communist authoritarians in the oil-rich Gulf and ignored democratic reform. After the 1991 Gulf War, the next charge was that America fought Saddam Hussein only to free an oil-rich, pro-American monarchy in Kuwait, without any interest in helping reformists in either Kuwait or Iraq.

After the Gulf War of 2003, there was widespread new anger about the use of American arms to force-feed democracy down the throat of Iraq. Finally, during the 2011 Arab Spring, the Arab world charged that the United States was too tardy in offering political support for insurgents in Egypt and Tunisia, and again late in “leading from behind” in helping European nations remove Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy. Now the Arab world is hectoring America to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Let’s get this all straight. America has been damned for its Machiavellian shenanigans in supporting authoritarian governments; for its naive idealism in using force to implant democracies; for its ambivalence in not using force to protect democratic protestors; and for its recent isolationism in ignoring ongoing Arab violence. Why, then, bother?

The subtext of Middle Eastern anti-Americanism is that the region, if given a chance, will embrace its own brand of freedom But that doesn’t appear to be happening in Egypt. And democracy doesn’t seem to be the common glue that holds together various Syrians fighting to overthrow the odious Assad dictatorship.

New Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood attended college and later taught classes in California. Apparently Morsi once came here to enjoy American freedom and for his family to be protected by our tolerance and security. Is that why he is crushing liberal opponents and the Egyptian media — to ensure that they never enjoy the protections and opportunities that were offered to him while a guest in the United States?

Note that anti-Americanism was often attributed to the unique unpopularity of Texan George W. Bush, who invaded two Middle Eastern countries, tried to foster democracies and institutionalized a number of tough antiterrorism security policies. In turn, Barack Obama was supposed to be the antidote — a Muslim family on his father’s side, his middle name Hussein, early schooling in Muslim Indonesia, a number of pro-Islamic speeches and interviews, apologies abroad and a post-racial personal story.

Yet recent polls show that Obama is even less popular in the Middle East than was Bush.

Staggering US debt also explains the impending divorce. With $5 trillion in new American borrowing in just the last four years, and talk of slashing $1 trillion from the defense budget over the next 10 years, America’s options abroad may be narrowing. President Obama also envisions a more multilateral world in which former US responsibilities in the Middle East are outsourced to collective interests like the United Nations, the European Union and the Arab League.

Perhaps soon the problem will be that we simply will not have enough power to use it for much of anything — and would have to ask the UN for permission if we did.

Usually nothing good comes from American isolationism, especially given our key support for a vulnerable democratic Israel. But for a variety of reasons, good and bad, our Humpty-Dumpty policy of Middle East engagement is now shattered.

And no one knows how to — or whether we even should — put it together again.

author@victorhanson.com

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