The news from Yemen is grimly familiar – more protestors shot by President Saleh’s security forces and plainclothes thugs. But now the US government has shifted position, letting it be known in various ways that it’s time for Saleh to go. Their hope now is that a replacement will allow the operations against Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula to continue as before. A few thoughts about this.
The approach taken by the Administration here has been broadly consistent with that adopted in relation to Mubarak in Egypt. The Administration initially supported Mubarak’s proposal to stay in power and implement reforms, then shifted to the idea of replacing Mubarak with someone like … who could be trusted to pursue the same policies. When that became untenable, the Administration supported a transitional military government with elections to follow, and this outcome looks sustainable at present. However, there’s no guarantee that the government produced by elections will be as pliable as Mubarak’s, particularly in relation to Israel.
These developments don’t fit well with claims about continued US hegemony, at least if hegemony is supposed to entail a capacity to control outcomes. Obviously, the US is not a negligible player, and its change of side will probably hasten Saleh’s departure. On the other hand, the US changed sides only when it became clear it would be on the losing side otherwise. So, its position might affect the timing and consequences of Saleh’s fall, but it wasn’t decisive in bringing it about.
Libya is a more complicated case, but tells much the same story about US capacity to control events. In this case, the US Administration moved earlier to drop its support for (or rather, acceptance of) Gaddafi, but resisted the push for military intervention until the pressure from a variety of sources became irresistible. Calls for action from the rebels and their sympathisers in the Arab world, but the big push came from Sarkozy and the French government.
This push did not, of course, reflect a commitment on Sarkozy’s part to humanitarian values, but rather a public reaction against Sarkozy’s initial embrace of Ben Ali in Tunisia, made more influential by his general domestic vulnerability. Still, the fact that, for whatever reason, French pressure could drive the US to support intervention is certainly a further point against the idea of the US as hegemon.
It’s certainly true as Dan Nexon pointed out a few weeks ago, that the Libyan intervention points up the unique military capacities of the US state. As Nexon observes, despite being engaged in two wars, the US was able to allocate a carrier battle group to Libya and send ships to Japan in response to the earthquake. And when the intervention started, it became clear that only the US had the capacity for the kind of precise targeting of air defence systems demanded by the political exigencies of the case, with very low tolerance for civilian casualties directly caused by bombing.
On the other hand, as Nexon observes, it’s not at clear that this is a sensible allocation of resources, particularly given the consistent failure of the US military to deliver promised outcomes. Almost a decade after they began, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are still dragging on. In Libya, the intervention has yet to succeed in its UN-approved mission of protecting civilians who have been under siege in Misrata and elsewhere for weeks, which renders somewhat moot the question of whether the mission should be extended to include Gaddafi’s overthrow. And the Navy ships providing aid to Japan turned around after they detected high levels of radiation.
What does this imply for what’s left of the US support for autocracy in the region, most obviously in Bahrain and Arabia (and for that matter, in Iraq, where Maliki looks a lot more like the rulers who are being overthrown than a model for democratic aspirations)?
First, from the viewpoint of the regimes in question, and particularly the Al Khalifas in Bahrain, US support isn’t worth a hill of beans. Certainly, they aren’t going to get any military help in suppressing domestic opponents – the political cost of sending in the Marines would be prohibitive, particularly after the Libyan intervention in pursuit of diametrically opposed goals. And, while they’ll continue to give verbal and diplomatic support as long as it looks as if opposition can be suppressed without too much overt violence, that won’t last if popular resistance continues.
At some point, the Administration will look for a suitable successor, willing to negotiate continued basing rights for the Fifth Fleet. And, even that isn’t an absolute necessity. US support for Marcos in the Phillipines was cemented by Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval base, but both were closed after he fell from power, and the Seventh Fleet moved to Japan. The Fifth Fleet could operate from Diego Garcia if necessary. It’s even possible that the US might rethink the costs and benefits of maintaining a navy far larger than those of the rest of the world put together.
Then there’s the Saudi kingdom in Arabia. There’s no doubt that the US military-industrial establishment sees the maintenance of the Saudi regime as critical, on the basis of a mistaken belief in the crucial economic significance of oil. But even though this belief is widely shared by the US public, the Saudi regime is so toxic, in political terms, that effective intervention to protect it would be a very hard sell.
Now let’s do what game theorists call backward induction. The crisis in the Arab world has shown that, when push comes to shove in the form of a popular revolt, the US state will have no choice but to leave friendly dictators to their fate. But, if that’s the case then a rationally self-interested US state would not commit significant (military, financial or political-credibility) resources to backing those dictators in the first place, since the benefits are likely to prove transitory. So, even if the current wave of revolts peter out leaving some of the autocracies in place, it would make good sense for the US state to disengage from them.
fn1. This kind of premodern thinking, in which the appropriation of physical resources is economically crucial, is characteristic of international ‘realism’. US oil imports from OPEC are worth about $180 billion a year, or 1.5 per cent of US national income. The premium paid by the US in additional military expenditure, largely justified by concerns about oil, far exceeds this.