Mutter incoherently, and carry a big stick

by John Quiggin on October 21, 2012

Undeterred by the ferocity of recent naval warfare, I had something to say about US Middle East policy in The National Interest recently. It’s essentially an elaboration of this post, in which I presented a comprehensive policy program which will, at least, never be beaten for succinctness.

Given that I was publishing in The National Interest, I didn’t raise any questions about the assumptions implicit in the term “national interest”. But, for the CT audience, I’ll spell out that nothing in my argument changes if you replace it with “US ruling class interest” or similar. The Middle East policy views and objectives of the US ruling class (however defined) are just as incoherent and unachievable as those of the US polity as a whole.

Opening para gives the flavor

The foreign-policy debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is expected to spend a lot of time on the attacks on embassies in Libya and Egypt, which were either sparked by an absurdly bigoted anti-Islamic film or used this film as cover for a pre-planned terror attack. Whatever its value as a debating point, this episode has laid bare the bipartisan incoherence of U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

{ 164 comments }

1

Brett 10.21.12 at 7:28 am

Interesting essay, although I’ve read many of these points elsewhere before:

The first misperception is that oil, and Middle Eastern oil in particular, is a strategic resource of vital importance; therefore the United States must ensure that the flow of oil does not fall under the control of hostile powers. In reality, the economic and strategic significance of oil is greatly overrated. The United States long has derived most of its oil either from domestic sources or from the Americas. A cutoff of Middle Eastern oil might create some inconvenience but far less than it did in 1973. Indeed, the loss of around 40 percent of U.S. refining capacity in the wake of Hurricane Katrina caused only minor disruption.

Oil exists in a global market, so a serious blow to the flow of oil from the Middle East could cause oil prices to rise worldwide. You have a better point about the refineries, but they only handle a fraction of the world’s oil supply.

Moreover, some of our allies (and trading partners) are far more dependent on oil imports from the Middle East than us, and so instability there affect them much harder. Japan in particular imports a significant percentage of its oil supplies from the Middle East.

2

John Quiggin 10.21.12 at 7:31 am

I’ll have more to say about oil soon, I hope, but I’m going to leave it to others to argue about for now.

3

rf 10.21.12 at 11:21 am

The role anti-communism played framing all of these interests shouldn’t be forgotten, whether it was explaining US oil interests initially (for Cold War allies in Europe and Japan) justifying the importance of the Israeli alliance, (especially post 67), or laying the foundations for the relationship with Iran (The Eisenhower administration was as ‘concerned’ about Mossadegh in a Cold War context as they were explicitly about oil.) I think people tend to overstate the extent to which US policy in the region as a whole is driven primarily by oil. Imo, just as with Iraq 2003, ideational factors are a more convincing explanation for US policy in the Middle East than material interests.

On Brett’s point, from the little I’ve read and understood on the topic, it seems to be an increasingly debatable position to argue that a ” serious blow to the flow of oil from the Middle East could cause oil prices to rise worldwide” – or, at least, that any price rises would be anything more than an inconvenience. (I might be overstating that)
I’m reading the book Carbon Democracy at the minute and coming to the realisation I know naught about oil economics, so I’d certainly appreciate any future posts on the topic.

4

Stephen 10.21.12 at 11:54 am

IndexMundi says that Australia imports 731,400 and exports 312,600 barrels of oil a day. If these figures are right, Prof Quiggin is being remarkably unselfish in arguing for a steep rise in the price of oil.

He is very probably right in saying the US would not now be as badly affected as it used to be. But consider China: imports 5,080,000, exports 506,400 barrels a day. What would be the effects there of a steep rise in price? Would they be in the USA’s interest?

5

Earwig 10.21.12 at 11:55 am

w/r/t Oil & Policy

Yes, mind-reading (ideational factors) is always fun — though it will never have significant explanatory power… But we have left something on the table before even beginning to think properly about this:

Policy planners must take into consideration the ability of “rival” nations to access and/or control flows of this resource — and therefore how US actions might shape potentials for action by those rivals.

Looking only at the US’ own domestic oil requirements omits something rather significant from any analysis of oil’s “foreign policy” implications.

6

Stephen 10.21.12 at 11:58 am

Corection: Prof Quiggin is arguing for policies which many people believe would very probably lead to a steep rise in the price of oil. I await with interest his explanation of why he thinks they would not.

7

rf 10.21.12 at 1:11 pm

Well you have to look at two distinct phases of US military posture in the Middle East, or specifically the Persian Gulf, before and after the first Gulf War. I think US policy post 91 is a lot less defensible, which is becoming more or less the conventional wisdom in US policy making circles, it appears to me. You also have to look at the specifics, and not conflate US policy in North Africa and the Levant with that in the Gulf. The alliances in the Gulf are more easily defended on the grounds of national interests than those elsewhere in the region.

Even when arguing in favour of a US presence in the Gulf, to what extent has an explicit US military presence, (and interventions), been more important in maintaining stability than diplomatic support, security agreements and arms sales, especially to Saudi Arabia? It’s now pretty clear that stationing soldiers in the Middle East, becoming heavily involved in the regions politics and taking unpopular positions on certain issues (Palestine, the war in Lebanon, The Iran/Iraq war, Iraqi sanctions) has done more harm than good.
That’s before you get to the economics, which might not be as clear cut as you’re implying.

On China, their position in the region is now largely independent of the US, for better or worse.

http://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/ASIA%20Program_China%20and%20the%20PG.pdf

8

Tim Worstall 10.21.12 at 1:44 pm

Re oil there’s two very different things being said here.

1) “The first misperception is that oil, and Middle Eastern oil in particular, is a strategic resource of vital importance; therefore the United States must ensure that the flow of oil does not fall under the control of hostile powers. In reality, the economic and strategic significance of oil is greatly overrated. The United States long has derived most of its oil either from domestic sources or from the Americas. A cutoff of Middle Eastern oil might create some inconvenience but far less than it did in 1973.”

2) “On Brett’s point, from the little I’ve read and understood on the topic, it seems to be an increasingly debatable position to argue that a ” serious blow to the flow of oil from the Middle East could cause oil prices to rise worldwide” – or, at least, that any price rises would be anything more than an inconvenience. “

1) Is talking about whether Middle East oil flows to the US or not: but does still flow onto the world markets.

2) Is about whether Middle East oil flows onto the world markets or not.

1) Is basically an inconvenience as oil is fungible. Once the shipping lines have got themselves sorted out the oil that would have flowed to country A will now flow to B. But what used to flow to B will be available to flow to A.

2) Is from an inconvenience to a huge price rise (and thus new recession etc) depending upon how much doesn’t flow onto the market and for how long. For if the oil just isn’t being pumped then there’s no possible shifting around of supplies that can be delivered in the same quantities as before.

Mid East exports seem to be in the 15-20 million barrels a day range. Global consumption is 80 million a day or so. Taking out 25% of global production would cause a vast hike in the oil price. Wouldn’t be at all surprised at $300 a barrel or more.

9

Jason Weidner 10.21.12 at 2:17 pm

Trying to gauge the potential economic impact of conflict in the Middle East needs to take into account not only how that conflict might affect global supplies, as per Tim @#7, but also the fact that oil is traded as a commodity in financial markets. The price of gasoline is affected by the price of oil commodity markets, which in turn is affected by perceptions of risk to the supply of oil. While it is true that this influence is felt more in short term than in long term prices, a major spike in prices due to a conflict in the Middle East could have pretty significant global economic consequences.

10

Anarcissie 10.21.12 at 2:21 pm

Among the things the U.S. ruling class surely desires are frightening, repugnant enemies and an ongoing serious of violent crises which can be mastered from time to time through the use of military power. These the Middle East supplies, so the present policies should be accounted a success.

11

Michael Sullivan 10.21.12 at 2:26 pm

Tim W@7: Your number 2: Cutting supply off completely (as opposed to selling only to certain customers), would also cut off the primary GDP source of many of the states in question, making it essentially an economic suicide attack. Possible, sure, but it would literally hurt them more than it would hurt us.

12

Glen Tomkins 10.21.12 at 3:17 pm

@1

Even if it is accepted, purely for the sake of argument, that Mideast oil would have the rest of the world over a barrel if cut off, that hardly justifies a US foreign policy that might claim to be based on keeping Mideast oil flowing, but is not, in any discernible way, conducive to that end.

A much stronger case could be made that the single greatest threat to the flow of Mideast oil in our direction is precisely US foreign policy, which seems to have no focus in the Mideast except giving gratuitous and grievous offense at every opportunity to nations that sit on the oil.

13

Omega Centauri 10.21.12 at 3:20 pm

I would concur with Tim @7. Any significant disruption in the volume of oil for sale worldwide would lead to an economically damaging price spike. Most likely all Persian Gulf oil would not be cut off, there are other physical export channels, pipelines that can take some of the volume without going through the straight of Hormuz etc. And I’d recon, it would still be possible to convoy some tankers through as well. But any shortfall of supply versus demand will create a bidding war for the available supplies. I’d recon that even a 5 million barrel per day shortfall would have serious consequences.

14

Bruce Wilder 10.21.12 at 3:32 pm

Back in June 2006, Al Gore, in an interview in Rolling Stone, said:

Right now we are borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the most unstable region of the world, and to bring it here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. That is nuts! We have to change every aspect of that.

U.S. foreign policy has always been available for hijack by narrow corporate business interests, with a focused interest and no compunctions about the costs imposed on the public of the U.S. or any other country. That was true in the 19th century, when the U.S. Navy maintained a squadron in the Far East, so that a handful of New England merchants could keep up with their British counterparts in pursuing the China trade. It was true in 20th century, when the Marines were used to intervene on behalf of banana importers and banksters, throughout the Caribbean and Mexico and Central America. It was true, when Walter Wriston sought to make Citibank the Central Bank and lender of first resort of a series to a series of hapless Latin American and Africa countries. The scale just increased during and after World War II, as U.S. oil interests discovered the joys of Mideast oil, and, particularly, after 1973, as financialization of the U.S. economy began its gradual, corrupting acceleration.

The core problem, today, is one of political consciousness of the national interest in the U.S. U.S. politics has been taken over by a corrupting plutocracy, whose relation to the national interest in every respect, domestic and international, resembles nothing so much as the interest a parasite takes in its increasingly unhealthy host. Where foreign policy was once of little interest to the nation as a whole, but a handy tool available to a handful of international corporations and their New York and Boston bankers, now the blowback from a collapsing Empire threatens global civilization, and the domestic economy has been devastated by disinvestment driven by globalization and financialization, consequences of foreign policy imperatives that have grown from a Wilsonian idealism into a plutocratic, parasitic monster seemingly beyond any rational, democratic political control.

The U.S. national interest — indeed the human global interest — today, is in the suppression of fossil fuel production and distribution. Not in securing the flow of oil from the Middle East, but in curtailing it. And, not in substituting poisonous development of Alberta oil sands, sponsored by Canada’s plutocratic conservative party, or frakking domestically, at the cost of poisoning the groundwater domestically, but in global suppression of fossil fuel consumption.

We are a long way from organizing the political will to act on the consciousness of an enlightened self-interest in managing our descent along the lee-side of the industrial revolution’s fossil fuel binge, but, if civilization is to survive, we had better get busy.

15

Bruce Wilder 10.21.12 at 3:37 pm

In relation to the upending of U.S. foreign policy by the Arab Spring, it might be helpful to acknowledge the extent to which the Arab Spring is a consequence of the effects of neoliberal economic policy, in the context of peak everything, on median per capita income and food security in the despotic Middle East.

16

Omega Centauri 10.21.12 at 3:40 pm

Not that my argument about the consequences of any potential supply shock in any way counters anything Bruce says (very elegantly) @13. There are many perspectives from which to view this elephant.

17

Mao Cheng Ji 10.21.12 at 3:56 pm

So, they don’t want the flow of oil to fall under the control of hostile powers.
Why?
Presumably because ‘hostile powers’ would be able to blackmail them.

Instead, they want the flow of oil to fall under their control.
Why?
Well, by the same logic, in order to be able to blackmail hostile powers.

Perhaps it would’ve been in everyone’s interests to find a way (shouldn’t be too difficult) to make sure that oil can’t be used as a tool of blackmail.

18

shah8 10.21.12 at 4:16 pm

Well, I’m pretty sure the Libyan crisis played a large role in deepening the malignancy of economic crisis in Portugal.

Comments about the paper…

1) Obama was sending a message to Morsi, not confused about Egypt.

2) The second bullet point is crucial. I do not think Bahrain is stable in any meta sense. The current stability is premised on ethnic identification and bantustans, which puts a larger burden on security forces and pre-empts economic activity. It is not my sense that native Sunni (not sure about all the immigrant Sunni) groups are going to be pulled along by identity games for any real length of time. Bahrain is not Egypt, and there is no rear.

3) I can’t help but think that Israel is going the full Slobo as time goes on. It’s not that other places becomes democratic, but Israel becomes nastily fascist that’s the issue. That whole study of just how many calories it takes to keep Gaza just about starving is chilling.

4) I think what has happened is that there was a morphing of the Carter doctrine, in its realpolitik sense, into a Monroe Doctrine II. We’re basically trying to treat Iran as Cuba and Iraq like Colombia after the wreckage of the Bush diplomatic years made the previous mechanations untenable. We understand too well that the region is becoming more accountable to the people, and that by and large, the people are fed up with neocolonialism. Witness the quiet Jordanian and Kuwaiti political turmoil. This Monroe Doctrine like focus is a consequence of the racist feeling that people are the enemy, the unwillingness to really engage in the regional politics–the lack of a sense of how to participate is biting…So we bully.

5) I think it’s important to understand that the US has many shadow interests in the region–like controlling the drug trade in SA, there is a nexus of guns, glory, and profits for various factions inside and outside officialdom wrt ME. Oil merely anchors it all. We do have national interests there, but those are mostly subtle and basic, like balancing powers such that profits go to American elites and is leveraged into power in other parts of the world. So forth and on.

19

rf 10.21.12 at 4:24 pm

A couple of questions in relation to oil:

(1) How important were the oil shocks in causing the recessions of the 70s and what sort of disruption would be needed to cause a serious economic crisis today?
(2) How exactly could a major disruption in oil supplies from the Middle East occur? (Accepting that oil producing countries are incentivised to keep prices reasonable due to a domestic reliance on oil revenues and to discourage investment in alternative energy) Even during the Iran/Iraq war, for example, Iranian production increased after a drop in response to the 79 revolution and global oil prices remained stable, afaik?

20

Stephen 10.21.12 at 4:32 pm

Mao
Logic may not be so reciprocal.
Given that controlling flow of middle eastern oil may allow hostile powers to put pressure on US: it follows that c.f.o.m.e.o may allow US to put pressure on hostile powers, but only if their dependence on middle eastern oil is as great or greater than that of US. Which is not necessarily so.
And as for finding a not too difficult way of making sure oil supplies can’t be used for blackmail, I suspect that will happen shortly after we find a way of making sure armed force cannot be used for intimidation or conquest.

21

Mao Cheng Ji 10.21.12 at 5:03 pm

Stephen, fair enough on the first point, although in the narrow logical sense only: controlling the flow of oil certainly makes it easier to sanction Iran, for example.

On the second point, what about global trade agreements, international monitoring, WTO, WIPO, all that stuff?

22

Nahim 10.21.12 at 5:59 pm

rf @18:

On the first question, I would refer you to Segal’s 2007 article on “Why Do Oil Price Shocks No Longer Shock?” (http://webu2.upmf-grenoble.fr/LEPII/spip/IMG/pdf/Segal_why-do-WPM35_2007.pdf). Basically his thesis is that oil price shocks were not as important a macroeconomic driver as they are commonly thought, and they are likely to have a much smaller impact today then they once did.

On the second question, I think the Arab spring has shown us that major disruptions can still occur, such as with the Libya civil war. You don’t even need a very big fall in oil supplies. The drop in Libyan oil supply from 2010 to 2011 was about 1,2m barrels out of a world total of around 80m barrels, yet prices went shooting up from $70-80 a barrel in 2010 to $110-120 for much of 2011.

One thing to note is that quite often inventory management, stockpiling, increased output from producers with “slack” (e.g. the Saudis) etc. will ensure that supplies stay more or less the same even during a “supply disruption.” So it is probably more useful to describe disruptions in terms of prices, jumpy and unstable as they are.

23

Kukai 10.21.12 at 6:20 pm

The Benghazi story changes by the minute. CIA has changed its story at least three times: the confluence of the Muhammad Film and 9/11 provided cover for this attack.

This much seems clear enough: the people of Benghazi turned on the militias they believed responsible for Chris Stevens’ murder. In so doing, they took more casualties than the four dead Americans.

Expecting a coherent foreign policy at this stage is both facile and simplistic. The ruins of the Ottoman Empire were sawn into their current Procrustean borders, not by the Americans but by the French and British, who made sure the Kurdish people never got a nation. See also the creation of India and Pakistan and Afghanistan: the Durand Line made sure the Pashto never got a nation, either. On and on it goes: democracy can only arise in a nation where people put their nationality above their tribal affiliations.

In short, our current definitions are a dog’s dinner. As with all other such procrustean ex-colonial regimes, Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa’s most populous nation being the sovereign case in point, only Strong Men could subdue the internecine tribal conflicts.

When the USA imprudently decided to invade Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, Saddam made a curious prophecy: the invaders would learn why he had done these things and repeat them entirely. This prophecy came true, to the point where Saddam’s gruesome prison Abu Ghraib was used to torture captives, as Saddam himself had done.

How could the USA have a coherent foreign policy? With whom should we transact business? After Gulf War Part 1 of 2, having restored the autocratic Emir Sabah to the throne of Kuwait, the USA leaned on him a bit, asking him to have some democratic elections. And to his credit, he did have elections for his advisory council. When the ballots were counted, Islamic hard liners had won the day and Kuwait is even more backward and repressive than before.

America must deal with its own hard liners, who insist on blindly supporting the State of Israel, despite its manifestly undemocratic treatment of its Arabs.

Though we wish it were not so, we cannot export democracy. It must emerge from within a given society, replacing bullets with ballots. Revolutions seldom end well unless a coterie of Wise Men can write a proper constitution. It was a narrow scrape with the USA itself: the Constitution of 1789 swept the issue of slavery under the rug. The issue didn’t stay there: it would emerge in the form of a horrible Civil War.

America’s foreign policy seems incoherent because the national borders of these Procrustean regimes are incoherent. The most dangerous Outdated Assumption is the stupidity of believing these nations will be For Us or Against Us. The people of Libya and Syria and Iraq are now lapsing into confessional and tribal warfare, dragging Lebanon and Turkey into the cauldron with them. It will take at least three decades to sort it all out.

America must endure this madness, helping where we can, avoiding being dragged into the cauldron ourselves. Four million refugees have yet to return to their homes in Iraq: Iraq has become Ireland in the 1970s writ large. The USA has turned away from Iraq: now it lapses into civil war again. Don’t blame America for Iraq’s civil war: as with the death of Tito, no sooner was the last shovelful of soil thrown on his grave than Yugoslavia (yet another Procrustean regime) descended into civil war. Europe stood about with one thumb in its mouth and the other stuffed up its fundament, doing nothing else all the while.

We could help with refugee relief. There’s the one constructive thing America could do. The Arab Spring is only the overture. Worse is coming and it will get far worse before it gets any better.

24

Stephen 10.21.12 at 7:19 pm

Mao
On the first point, I was thinking more of the manifest futility of the US trying to put pressure on the hostile governments of, say, Venezuela or Russia by reducing the flow of Middle Eastern oil.
On the second: you mention “global trade agreements, international monitoring, WTO, WIPO” as means of preventing the use of the oil weapon. I would be interested to know how these could have been used to prevent the oil shocks of the 1970s, or the similar use of gas prices by Russia to put pressure on more westerly states. Particularly WIPO which as I understand it deals with intellectual property.
By the way: the OP’s phrase “bipartisan incoherence” is admirably concise.

25

rf 10.21.12 at 7:20 pm

Thanks for the response and link Nahim, that clears up a lot

26

Stephen 10.21.12 at 7:29 pm

rf@7: agreed, China’s position in the Gulf is not itself dependent on that of the US. My point was, though, that if a US withdrawal from the region as advocated by JQ were to result in a significant surge in oil prices, the economy of China (ditto Japan and India) would be badly hit. Which would not necessarily be a good thing; even if the economy of the US, as JQ maintains, would not be directly very much affected.

27

Mao Cheng Ji 10.21.12 at 8:04 pm

Stephen, on the first point: I understand what you had in mind, but I was pointing out that controlling the flow of oil (a significant part of it) will still allow you to pressure hostile oil-producing states. You could, for example, damage Russian state budget by increasing OPEC production.

Of course I wasn’t suggesting that WIPO should regulate the oil market, it’s just an example of a global international trade agreement.

28

Glen Tomkins 10.21.12 at 9:30 pm

This thread really is, in the most important respect, the twin of that provoked by Quiggin’s earlier post about the lack of need for a US Navy. This one, as his reference to his own earlier post makes clear, is about the lack of need for a US Middle East foreign policy. Our foreign policy towards the Middle East couldn’t help but be incoherent, because there is no need for such a thing. It’s a hothouse product that has no relation to real needs, and therefore it just grew and grew in random directions, in the absence of any need to actually work, to actually do anything in the real world. The fact that the US has a Mideast foreign policy is a testament, not to the importance of the Mideast, but to the US’s astonishing belief that it has the luxury to indulge its most exotic and exorbitant fantasy desires, and completely ignore real world costs and consequences.

Despite the very many undoubtedly sage points being made about the importance of Middle East oil, and the best means of controlling access to same, no one seems at all willing to engage the central point here, the idea that all of this sagacity is quite beside the point because control of the Mideast, even if necessary to control our oil supply, is simply not the best way to secure that supply. Not having any foreign policy in the Mideast would improve the security of that supply enormously and immediately, to a greater degree and with higher confidence, than any cunning plan to control events there.

They have oil that they would like to sell, and that we would like to buy. No one needs to be controlled or coerced.

And however much the people who propose that we have a foreign policy in the Mideast, that we have permanent friends and permanent enemies, and thus create dragons that will always need slaying, claim that our policy really can and should be just defensive, that we should only be out to prevent this power or that from obtaining control, our continued lack of success at control should make the point sufficiently that lesser powers will merely destroy themselves if they attempt what even the US cannot do.

29

Harold 10.21.12 at 9:49 pm

But, but … Wemust control the Near East. It is the vital route to Britain’s Indian Empire and we allowed Stalin to take over Eastern Europe at Yalta in exchange for securing it. How can we give it up, now, sixty-five years later? And besides it has oil.

30

Watson Ladd 10.21.12 at 10:07 pm

I think people are fundamentally misunderstanding US foreign policy. The US aims to contain regional powers, so as to avoid conflict between regional powers that will necessitate intervention. Remember, the US backstops the UN, and as such has borne the brunt of interventions that have been necessary.

From that perspective US middle east policy in the post-cold war period has been fairly understandable. The US supports Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as the “responsible” regional powers. Other countries can simply opt out of having significant military capacity, secure in the knowledge that the US contains its regional partners, or try to oppose the troika.

In the modern world, there is no “national interest” as historically understood. What a country cannot buy is not worth paying for in blood and money. But this is just as true of other countries as the US. Yet, wars still happen. Furthermore, a logic of abandoning military power in the name of domestic interests is just as nationalistic as the converse.

31

John Quiggin 10.21.12 at 11:03 pm

As I said, I’m working on a bigger piece on oil, and don’t want to cover the topic in detail. But when we have reached the point of arguing that a central goal of US foreign/defense policy is to secure China’s access to cheap resources, I think “bipartisan incoherence” is a pretty accurate summary of the case.

32

Bruce Wilder 10.21.12 at 11:09 pm

Glen Tomkins: They have oil that they would like to sell, and that we would like to buy. No one needs to be controlled or coerced.

The historical record is of an actual U.S. foreign policy, backed by military and naval force. So, let’s acknowledge that some “one” is being controlled and coerced, on a regular basis.

Making sure that a lot of raw petroleum is available for export, and that it can be exchanged, not for goods, but for financial claims, requires keeping power in the hands of small, despotic elites, interested in maintaining an extractive regime, that prevents the spreading of revenues around, to finance developmental investment and mass-consumption.

33

Bruce Wilder 10.22.12 at 12:13 am

I suppose the point that I am reaching for, but not grasping at 32 relates to comments I made earlier, in the comment thread on Corey Robin’s Forced to Choose: Capitalism as Existentialism post. That is, scarcity implies not just choice, but, also, conflict and coercion.

U.S. foreign policy, historically, been ceded to the attention of interested parties, frequently of a vicious and greedy sort, by a naive idealism, which doesn’t take responsibility for choosing the aims, purposes and scope of coercion. The OP, in questioning whether the U.S. even needs a Mideast policy, seems as much committed to extending this idealistic negligence as correcting it.

34

MQ 10.22.12 at 12:40 am

The US supports Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey as the “responsible” regional powers.

you seem to have omitted at least one other Middle Eastern regional power that the U.S. supports…

also, the policy of violently preventing the rise of new regional powers has a very poor historical record.

35

John Quiggin 10.22.12 at 12:48 am

@Bruce As the post title suggests, we seem to be in furious agreement.

36

Omega Centauri 10.22.12 at 12:49 am

I think we should acknowledge that their are two operation definitions of “rational policy”. In the first sense, would be what should the rational policy be given the absence of significant domestic pressure groups. The second sense, takes into account the constraints imposed by such pressure groups and any other constraints that might appear artificial to type one strategists. An external observer for the most part can only observe type two strategies, and may not be able to infer what the operational policy making team is really thinking after they’ve had a few beers.

So, we have some pretty strong entrenched interest groups affecting the results. The most obvious is the Israeli lobby. It largely dictates that the express overall policy be “make the middle east safe for Israel”. There are also other major lobbies, most of whom prefer not to be named; commercial interests, such as arms manufacturers who want a muscular foreign policy to drive sales, both domestically, and towards those whom we’ve deemed to be allies. Other commercial interests, oil service firms, financial firms, agricultural exporters etc. Other shadowy political forces, Xtian Zionists, control freaks etc. Interests associated with the domestic security industry, such as homeland security, and major contractors in the war on terror etc.

37

Glen Tomkins 10.22.12 at 1:14 am

@Bruce Wilder

My point is that coercion is not necessary to keep the oil flowing, that coercion is, in fact, counter-productive to that end, even if keeping the oil flowng were the be-all and end-all that people who imagine themselves to be pragmatists imagine it to be. In fact, I think the more realistic view of the matter is that these people have to posit some sort of tragic, oil-driven, necessity to the US behaving badly, because they have to believe that US policy has to make some sort of sense. You end up with even people who oppose US policy as immoral, accepting the idea that at least it makes pragmatic sense.

I really don’t see the main problem here as one of evil intentions, that the US does terrible things in the Middle East because it pursues its own interests ruthlessly and without concern for harm to others. Oh, the ruthlesness and the harm are real enough, but the truly frightful aspect is that it is all done were there is no need for ruthlessness or harm. Our policy is what it is because it would be too much trouble to keep it squared with reality, so inertia carries it on a course ever further away from any rational purpose it might once have served. We indulge the luxury of even war for no purpose beyond helping win the next midterm elections. And neither party dares to halt the course, or even deflect it slightly away from a path dictated by foolish and unnecessary fears, out of fear that another “terrorist” attack after any sort of pulling away from the Global War on Terror would be politically disastrous.

38

Watson Ladd 10.22.12 at 3:40 am

Omega and others, you are presupposing that nations have “interests” independent of the “domestic pressure groups”. The problem with this logic is that all interests are rooted in the interests of persons within the state: it is impossible to imagine British policy towards France 1798 onwards without considering Pitt’s personal opposition to the revolution and its accomplishments. There is no natural policy absent these interests, just as it doesn’t make sense to talk about what people ought to do for fun, absent their interests.

39

ponce 10.22.12 at 6:44 am

Are there really “domestic pressure groups” strongly lobbying for the U.S. to put military bases in Qatar instead of somewhere like Bahrain?

40

shah8 10.22.12 at 7:36 am

Military bases tend to be a kind of sinecure for various officials. So there’s always pressure to keep old ones and build new ones within military bureaucracy.

Bahrain is important because of the port. Doha is good for land personnel. Or so that goes.

41

Stephen 10.22.12 at 8:13 am

JQ@31
I don’t think anyone’s arguing that keeping a flow of cheap oil to China (and Japan, India, Australia, etc) is or has ever been a deliberate goal of US policy. Rather, that US policy in the Middle East has had different goals – some conflicting with others – but a consequence of reversing that policy could well be to mess up the economies of China, etc, probably with undesirable results, even if the US economy was less damaged.

42

Bruce Wilder 10.22.12 at 8:17 am

Watson, Omega does raise an issue, concerning whether we are justified in adopting a certain economy of expression, in attributing a singular “interest” to a unitary (aka undifferentiated) state, on the path to trying to discern how that interest ought to be, ideally, construed. Then, Omega suggests that policy is pursuit of that rationally calculated ideal “unitary” interest is in tension with the course, which a state can actually pursue, given the constraints component or constituent interest groups that make up the state, impose in the political process of bargaining over how the state will pursue “its” interest.

“Interests” of the constituents of a political organization are not, we should be clear, properties of the individual constituents, considered atomistically. Political interests are not properties of the individual, in the way, say, taste in movies might be, or preferences for one cuisine or recreation over another, might be a property of a particular idiosyncratic person. Political interests are always properties of the political entity, enterprise or organization, in which constituents share. This is because material interests arise as the benefits produced by the social cooperation of political organization. It is the social cooperation in politics, in the political organization, which is the state, or the state-cooperating-in-the-world-of-states, which produces the material benefits, a share in the distribution of which, is sought by contending constituents. The constituents contend over the way the state behaves, because there is disagreement about how state conduct will affect the production and distribution of benefits, as well as differentially situated actors struggling over the expected distribution. (I’m not sure that you can tease the two things apart.)

Glen Tomkins @ 37 made think about the conduct of Japan in the 1930s, leading up to World War II: the rightist militarists, who came to dominate Japanese politics in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, had the sort of stunted worldview fairly typical of rightists, a view of how one goes about inducing others to cooperate, which leans in the direction of violent aggression and dominating control, and which can seem almost unbelievably stupid to those of us, who are more enlightened, particularly after it has dramatically failed, by provoking retaliation, or has simply failed to secure a stable committment to productive cooperation on beneficial terms. Whipping the slave, who cares for your children or prepares your food can prove problematic, but this simple insight can be difficult for people embedded in, dependent on, or benefitting from a slave state, to fully appreciate. Utter ruthlessness can be expedient, but still be stupid; in fact, utter ruthlessness, generally, is stupid.

So there are two fuzzy dimensions to the problem of differences of opinion over the “best” course for state policy. One is that there is a continual contest over control of state policy and conduct, and the parties to that contest over control may not reach a equilibrium policy outcome, which at all resembles the course, which would be chosen by a personally disinterested, but dutiful and supremely rational, calculating statesman, a philosopher-king, as it were. Whether a “philosopher-king” is a useful institutional model for the how of actually arriving at “ideal” policy seems questionable to me, but leave that aside for a moment; for our purposes, it gives us a way to identify some prima facie “best policy” by ratiocination, and make judgments, based on distinguishing actual policy from at least that standard.

Politics is a social organization “thinking” about its course of action. Some politics, some states are smarter than others, because they waste less in disputes, or let their disputes handicap the design and execution of policy less, or, simply, do a more pragmatically effective job of strategically defining their shared “interests”. The “interests” of the state do not exist, apart from the conceptualization of those interests, by those organizing and directing the state. The quality of that conceptualization can matter a lot, because strategy can matter to winning.

43

Z 10.22.12 at 8:30 am

How about a comparative advantage analysis? The US sole comparative advantage in the current world is its military power, but this comparative advantage is huge. All things being equal, we should expect the US/the US ruling elites to be much more prone to solutions involving military power, either in the form of outright warfare (Iraq, menaces agains Iran) or in the form of military aid (Egypt) and cooperation (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain). Because democracies tend to be more peaceful, more rational in their investments and decision process and to care less about military prestige (not to mention that they usually don’t need an army to discipline their own people), the US tends to back autocratic regimes. Note also the kind of veneration part of the American establishment seems to have for military power at a time when (as you often point out) it seems absolutely clear that any military intervention is bound to be a negative sum game.

This is not at all incoherent once granted the belief that the US is and should remain exceptional among the current powers. As for why the US elite regards that belief as sacrosanct, even though it seems almost psychotic by now, I would venture the guess that it is a useful mask to the hard truth that by several reasonable measure, the average American is now having it harder than average people from many comparable countries.

So I would amend your post title slightly in “When all that distinguishes you is a big stick, you might as well wave it around” or perhaps “You don’t have health care and you’ll finish your studies with a lifetime of debt, but at least you have a military basis in Barhain”.

44

Bruce Wilder 10.22.12 at 8:33 am

Glen Tomkins @ 37

I understand that there’s a liberal/libertarian ideological and rhetorical framework that wants to claim that there’s “no coercion” in cooperative relationships structured in certain ways, e.g. “free markets”. I’m saying that’s b.s. There’s always coercion; it takes coercion to constrain human behavior to “free markets” and to prevent strategic coercion in, say, the form of a hold-up robbery. Focusing coercion to produce some relationship architectures is better than others, imho, but coercion is never absent, as long as scarcity begets conflict as well as choice. I am saying that an idealism falsely founded on a b.s. claim about the absence of coercion leads to irresponsibility about applying coercion, in U.S. foreign policy. It creates a kind of schizophrenia in the politics of U.S. foreign policy, in which the idealists play in one imaginary sandbox, congratulating themselves on their high-minded pursuits, and ignore the business interests, their near-sightedness uncorrected by the lens of idealism, using coercion, like it was some kind of state socialism entitlement, a police and fire department you can call to do your bidding at no cost.

45

bjk 10.22.12 at 1:06 pm

There are no tracks in the ocean. Oil tankers have rudders. The fallacy of dedicated pie slices.

46

Glen Tomkins 10.22.12 at 1:42 pm

Bruce @44,

You make me out as being as talented as M Jourdan of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who had been producing prose effortlessly his whole life without even knowing what prose was. I only wish that I were smart enough to manage a libertarian/liberal ideological and rhetorical framework, let alone understand what that might mean.

Ideological frameworks aside, yes, I actually do believe that, to take this one concrete example, the oil would continue to flow from the Gulf even if we disbanded the Army and the Navy down to a corporal’s guard (since we’re talking about the Middle East, I’ll throw in taking back all the armaments we’ve given to the IDF), that this is an entirely different case from the consequences of disbanding the police and fire depts, which I do not support. The latter would have real negative consequences, the former none besides the beneficial ones.

If we look around today, we see many nations with no appreciable army or navy, and the oil continues to flow to them. And this is true despite the fact that these disarmed nations are in the very condition that people who believe in carrying a big stick cite as the ultimate justifier for having a large military, the need to ward off other predator nations, the defensive argument. Not only can these nations not coerce the oil producers, they are powerless to stop nations such as the US, which carries big sticks, from coercing the producers. And yet the oil flows to such nations, and on terms that do not seem much different than the deals the big stick nations get. If we look at the US in the past, before WWII, we see a nation that disbanded its military, and intelligence services, down to a corporal’s guard in between wars, and yet suffered no consequences of that lack of a big stick, our trade did not stop flowing.

I will readily concede that not everyone who believes that imperialism is a real temptation, that actual good, if only material good, could come of it, believes that strong countries like the US should give in to that temptation. I’m only asking you to entertain the idea, if only to refute it, that imperialism is not just immoral, but also an insane fantasy, that there is no pot of even just gold at the end of that rainbow. You seem to share this with the imperialists, a belief that imperialism is working, or could work if only we get the tactics right (or wrong, I guess, if you’re against imperialism).

To cite the locus classicus of Middle East control fantasies, knocking off the Mossadegh regime wasn’t just criminal, it was self-defeating in purely pragmatic terms. It was the work of people trapped in a fantasy world, not the workings of some capitalist plot. I’m not put off that belief by the fact that the mechanics of it actually was a literal capitalist plot. Sure, always blame the CIA — even if you’re wrong, you’re right. But the CIA has no clue what it’s doing, and what it does has no relation to the real world except as a generator of essentially random violence. Blaming the CIA, or the libertarian/liberal ideolgical and rhetorical frameworks that mind-control the likes of Glen Tomkins, is like blaming entropy, it explains nothing because it explains everything.

47

ajay 10.22.12 at 2:24 pm

If we look at the US in the past, before WWII, we see a nation that disbanded its military, and intelligence services, down to a corporal’s guard in between wars, and yet suffered no consequences of that lack of a big stick, our trade did not stop flowing.

No, not really. The US got into WWII, if you’ll cast your mind back, because the Japanese navy attacked Pearl Harbor, which was (pardon me for shouting) AN ENORMOUS US NAVAL BASE FULL OF HUGE GREAT BATTLESHIPS AND CRUISERS AND DESTROYERS. The US was not a demilitarised country at any point between 1918 and 1941. It had one of the largest and most powerful navies in the world. If it had indeed “disbanded its military down to a corporal’s guard” then there wouldn’t have been anything in Pearl Harbor worth sinking, would there?

48

Harold 10.22.12 at 2:49 pm

“Disbanded its military” is rather hyperbolic, but the US had instituted a controversial peacetime draft and begun rearming a year or so before Pearl Harbor, as New Deal spending was shifted over to the military — where it has remained ever since.

49

ajay 10.22.12 at 2:56 pm

48: yes, and all the ships in Pearl Harbor were launched long before that happened. The US had a big navy in 1920 and it had a big navy in 1930 and it had a big navy in 1940. The idea that the US didn’t have world-class naval power at any point between the wars, as Glen suggests, is just ludicrous.

50

Harold 10.22.12 at 3:05 pm

http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/document.php?id=cqresrre1938122700

Actually, as former secretary of the Navy, Roosevelt was particularly interested in ship-building pretty much from the beginning. http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/ship/scn-1933-roosevelt.htm

Interesting that they passed laws limiting excess profits by military contractors.

51

William Timberman 10.22.12 at 3:10 pm

Bruce Wilder seems determined to locate the axis of evil in human affairs, or in political affairs at least, and it seems to me that he’s done a pretty good job of it. To take a fairly simple example which seems to confirm his observations, Bismarck by most historical accounts applied a combination of astute insight into the politics of his era, and the limited state power at his disposal, to reconcile a number of conflicting interests which at the time might have seemed irreconcilable to a lesser political thinker. By doing so successfully, he not only managed to weld the German comic-opera principalities into a modern nation state, but managed as well to keep Prussian Junkers who were his patrons in power long past their apparent sell-by date.

I very much doubt, however, that had Bismarck been in office, and at the height of his powers twenty five years later than he was, he would have been able to prevent, deflect, win, or even survive the World War which was at least partly the legacy of what were at the time — and are still today — considered his greatest accomplishments. In other words, even a brilliant politician can only work with the insights and resources at his disposal at the time, and no matter how careful such clever fellows are about what they wish for, events can and will outrun their best efforts. (And God help us, of course, if a shortage of smart people forces us to hand the tiller over to stupid people. The U.S. House of Representatives, anyone?)

Prudence in political affairs, it seems to me, particularly in so-called foreign policy, requires not only foresight and intelligence — and power, of course — but also the widest possible consultation with others, most especially with those who see politics as a regrettable necessity rather than a self-aggrandizing game, great or otherwise. We need to take democracy more seriously, ponderous and unpredictable as it is. We might not be able to significantly alter the evolution of human technologies and the societies which have come to depend upon them by doing so, but we just might reduce the horrific body count which has always been the side-effect of such evolution in the past. It certainly seems worth trying.

52

Barry Freed 10.22.12 at 3:34 pm

I don’t have the figures to hand and it’s true what ajay says of the US Navy but the Army was very small between the wars.

53

ajay 10.22.12 at 3:43 pm

Barry is correct, of course. IIRC in 1939 it was the 19th largest army in the world, just behind Portugal.
But it’s the navy that mattered: that’s what gave the US the ability to maintain colonies like Hawaii and the Philippines and so on, thousands of miles from the mainland.
The oil issue is a red herring, of course; the US was an oil exporter in 1940, not an importer (hence the Pacific war in the first place).

54

Mao Cheng Ji 10.22.12 at 3:49 pm

Yes, interests are institutional, not personal. And they are perfectly suitable for objective analysis.

55

ponce 10.22.12 at 4:07 pm

@40 “Military bases tend to be a kind of sinecure for various officials. So there’s always pressure to keep old ones and build new ones within military bureaucracy.”

These officials aren’t really an effective domestic interest group, though.

Domestic interest groups may lobby for more U.S. aid/military support/diplomacy in the Middle East, but the specifics of where and how much is up to the government agencies involved.

And most of that just seems to be kneejerk reactions to whatever is happening there on a given day.

56

Michael Sullivan 10.22.12 at 4:25 pm

Stephen@41: Like Glen T, I don’t see why a major scaleback of US military power and expenditure would suddenly threaten the flow of trade. Sure, if we truly eliminated our imperial presence completely, and other countries did not take up their own portion of the burden of policing international waters, then there is the possibility that pirates or aggressor states could interrupt trade flows.

But in reality, we could scale back our military commitments by 50-75% while still maintaining enough imperial power to seriously damage any kind of rogue state that threatened the rich and emerging world pax emporia. The only real threat would be a major rich or very large emerging state that decided to exit the system.

And drawing down our military power does not mean we would eliminate the possibility of raising it back up in the event of a real threat to world trade or our truly vital interests. In 1998 we spent only a bit more than 1/2 of what we are spending today. Does anyone seriously believe we couldn’t scale back significantly even from there without threatening world trade arrangements?

It would primarily reduce our ability to stick our necks wherever we want. But as we’ve discovered in the last 12 years, even at current spending levels, our ability to do that in ways that actually further our national interest is extremely limited at best.

Enforcing equilibria which benefit 90+% of the globe (keeping shipping lanes open) is very inexpensive compared to even limited force projection goals which are ours alone and highly contested by some significant local population.

57

JohnR 10.22.12 at 4:38 pm

Interesting discussion. Apropos of nothing in particular, @Bruce/14: “enlightened self-interest”. Now, there’s a lovely term which at first blush appears to mean something, but the closer you look, the fuzzier it gets. At microscopic resolution it’s merely a sort of undifferentiated beige radiation. Seriously, that term would go up near the top of my list of things that “everybody understands”, but which many of us would find ourselves disagreeing about the details of. Attempting to make sense of it, we end up in a sort of ‘Clouseau’ zen-like state, where we understand everything, yet we understand nothing. For those who are interested, I’m way ahead of you.
As for the ME, there’s nothing wrong there that millions of years and oceans of beer couldn’t solve. Anything short of that is unlikely to put much of a dent in the problem. Humans just love to hate each other too much.

58

MPAVictoria 10.22.12 at 5:25 pm

“In 1998 we spent only a bit more than 1/2 of what we are spending today. Does anyone seriously believe we couldn’t scale back significantly even from there without threatening world trade arrangements? “

This.
There is no reason why the US has to spend anywhere near the amount of money it does on defence. Somewhere around half of the current budget would be more than sufficient.

59

Glen Tomkins 10.22.12 at 6:42 pm

AJAY,

Oh, wait, my allcaps button must have got stuck. Seems that’s going around, so I’m sure you’ll understand.

At any rate, sure, we did not, before WWII, in fact, tend to reduce our interwar naval forces to nearly the same extent as we did with our land forces. The difference is embedded in the Constitution itself, which does not allow Congress to authorize land forces for longer than two years at a time, but which puts no such restriction on naval forces. Until the war of 1812, the two-year limit was taken seriously enough that every two years, we went through the motions of mustering every single soldier out of the ranks, only to re-enlist them later in the same day under a different regimental name. That’s why the Army’s regiments can trace no real, steady lineage to before 1812.

But we certainly did not, even by the years between WWI and WWII, when we were already sliding toward default imperialism, think as we do today, that we simply must have a navy powerful enough to defeat the combined navies of the rest of the world improbably all allied against us. Our navy at the time was small enough that it largely could all fit into Pearl Harbor. Good luck trying that today.

And yes, a goodly bit of the US Navy though it was, there really wasn’t much in Pearl Harbor worth sinking that day, certainly not the capital ships, or perhaps the CAPITALIZED SHIPS on your list, if you prefer. The Japanese wanted the carriers, but got unlucky. The oilers were worthwhile targets, but when the Japanese saw that there were no US carriers in the bag, the correct, though quite nervy, thing to have done would have been to leave the battleships unharmed. The USN would have been almost compelled to follow Plan Orange and send a relief fleet built around those battleships, led a by a battleship admiral, to the relief of the Phillipines. Not a ship of that expedition would have returned, including the transports loaded with two army divisions. It might have won the war for them.

Having a large interwar military establishment is bad military policy, quite aside from the expense, and quite aside from the temptation to imperialism it creates. A permanent force creates deadly institutional inertia. By sinking all those battleships, the Japanese forced us to rely on carriers, and the carrier count kept us from rashly trying to relieve the Phillipines. They saved us from ourselves. My idea is that we shouldn’t rely on enemies to help us out like that, we should free ourselves of institutional inertia by keeping interwar forces down to a test-bed and a mobilization base. Compared to what we maintain today, that would look like a corporal’s guard, so fregive for using that provocative description. If this comments engine permitted, I would put “corporal’s guard” in about 6 point font, but I’m sure you get the message.

60

Glen Tomkins 10.22.12 at 7:02 pm

Harold@48,

Sure, it’s hyperbolic. I assume JQ doesn’t really want to zero out the USN either, as in that last thread he started that generaed so much heat. But my point, and JQ can speak for himself as to what he meant, in being hyperbolic and talking in terms of zeroing out, is that zero force levels would serve our security interests better than the present way too much force levels.

As a practical matter, between wars, yes, we should keep enough force structure to serve as a test bed and a mobilization base for the next war. For the Navy, you should add whatever force is needed to fight pirates and serve as a fleet in being to threaten the disruption of trade of potential enemies. We could cut our land forces perhaps 95% and achieve that, but the Navy perhaps “only” by 80%.

Speaking of the mobilization base, I think that the draft was reinstituted and military spending increased in ’39-’41 in response to the threat of war, not to help the economy recover, however much it achieved to that end. Disbanding the military down to a test-bed and mobilization base between wars isn’t the same as pacifism, it’s sound military policy. If we had been burdened with the same bloated level of land forces we have today back in the 1919-1939 period, we would have sent 10 divisions to France to be annihilated in 1940 along with the French army and the BEF. We had instead the luxcury of building a force from our interwar mobilization base that was actually suited to warfare as it had changed since WWI, and which therefore did pretty well in WWII.

61

Harold 10.22.12 at 7:17 pm

I was responding to the posts immediately before mine, not to JQ. I have no quarrel with the gist of this thread. Excessive spending on military is bad economic policy for many reasons.

62

William Timberman 10.22.12 at 7:43 pm

GT @ 48

The test bed idea at first glance looks like a fine one — my military father always thought it was the right way to go because it allowed you to go to war with the latest technology, rather than piles of obsolescent stuff built years before. The argument against it advanced after WWII was that no technologically capable enemy — e.g., the Soviet Union — was likely to give you the time to build another Arsenal of Democracy, no matter how far away across the ocean you were.

Nowadays, of course, we’re likely to have plenty of warning, short of a nuclear war that would make conventional military procurement a non-sequitur anyway. If some future China, Russia, or United Europe were to decide to play the same full spectrum dominance game that the Pentagon likes to play now, and the U.S. couldn’t stop them short of a pre-emptive war, it might be that the warning time would shrink again.

In the meantime, however, one wonders whether or not the shrunken manufacturing capacity of the U.S. would be quite up to the task of equipping a land army the size of the one the U.S. fielded in 1942-45 in anything like that length of time. Which is why, I suppose, that the folks who fancy themselves strategic planners in the U.S. these days want to hang on to as many ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carrier attack groups as they can.

Understandable, in other words, but in the larger scheme of things, such as the continued viability of the human species, absolutely mad.

63

William Timberman 10.22.12 at 7:45 pm

GT @ 40, that is, responding to Harold @ 48

64

William Timberman 10.22.12 at 7:46 pm

Damn! GT @ 60, responding to Harold @ 48

65

rf 10.22.12 at 7:49 pm

The post isn’t specifically about US military policy though, but why the US has framed its interests in the region as it has, how it’s protected them and the costs and benefits of this, both for the US and the countries in the Middle East. Personally, I think a softer hand would have been more beneficial and encouraged greater regional security co-operation and lessened the need for US meddling. (US policy though has been purposely divisive, whether towards pan Arabism or more recently towards Iran in the Gulf) So why has US policy in the Middle East been so bad, consistently, even in comparison to other regions? Why indeed?!

66

James 10.22.12 at 7:58 pm

No more intervention to prevent Genocide? This is the unintended consequence of the policies (reduced navy, reduced military, leave regions) you advocate.

67

rf 10.22.12 at 8:00 pm

This is at JQ? If me then I haven’t really advocated this to the degree you suggest

68

Glen Tomkins 10.22.12 at 8:08 pm

@49,

What we had between the wars is nothing like what we have now. Anyone calling today for the US to scrap its Navy down to a 5:5:3:1.75:1.75 ratio of capital ship tonnage, or 5:5:3:3:3 total ship tonnage, with other naval powers, would be branded a pacifist, Communist, al Qaeda supporter who dropped too much acid in the ’60s.

Even more ludicrous (no, I’m not playing tit for tat, I got the word from “ludicrous speed” in Spaceballs, an excellent point of reference for this discussion) is the idea that this size USN, relatively puny as it was compared to today’s USN, in any way freed the US to project anything but folly.

The decision-makers of the time themselves thought that battleships were white elephants rahter than strategic assets, or they wouldn’t have traded away force levels in capital ships in the Washington Treaty. Nations never trade away the right to build whatever armaments they think they really need. WWI had rightly convinced them that their navies were battleship heavy, but they had the problem that their propaganda had turned the battleship into the premier, prestige ultimate weapon in the popular mind. They couldn’t just scrap them, as they would have if they hadn’t been already on the path towards the utter cluelessness that at least the US has got to today, not after all the money they had persuaded their publics to sink into them, and the awesome power they had pretended resided in them. So the naval powers concerted in a common sell-off of these worthless assets, they all pretended that it was only safe to scrap what was really an excess because each had fought manfully at the negotiating table to get the other powers to cut their awesomely powerful battleships. It was all as big a sham as the various SALT treaties. I’m all in favor of shams that cut useless and dangerous weapons, but am more in favor of cutting the shammery and just dumping useless armaments and force structure unilaterally. The rest of today’s world has already done that, and it’s long past time for the US to follow that lead

At any rate, in the interwar years we could have projected all the force we needed to keep all those banana republics safe for the United Fruit Company with a few leaky old gunboats. There was more of farce projection than force projection in the interwar USN. The only difference from today is that now we’ve mastered the trick of replaying farce as tragedy.

69

Salient 10.22.12 at 8:15 pm

Would the test-bed idea require enormous stockpiling of raw materials?

70

rf 10.22.12 at 9:15 pm

@66

To what extent is genocide prevention a major interest in US foreign policy? And how successful has that ‘policy’ been?

71

Matt 10.22.12 at 9:43 pm

In the meantime, however, one wonders whether or not the shrunken manufacturing capacity of the U.S. would be quite up to the task of equipping a land army the size of the one the U.S. fielded in 1942-45 in anything like that length of time. Which is why, I suppose, that the folks who fancy themselves strategic planners in the U.S. these days want to hang on to as many ballistic missile submarines and aircraft carrier attack groups as they can.

Is fielding a huge army even the right response to military threats the USA may face? If the USA is up against another large uniformed trained force with guided munitions, I presume they’ll quickly cut each other to ribbons. Almost like nuclear warfare without radiation poisoning: a short intense spasm of violence (because most of the weapons now find their targets) instead of a prolonged WW II scenario. If it’s trying to occupy a nation without modern weapons and training, the USA will have a week of glory wiping out large weapons and uniformed soldiers and then endure 20 years of sniper attacks and improvised bombs.

72

James 10.22.12 at 9:57 pm

re @70. The last successful US genocide prevention/intervention that I am aware of was Bosnia. The US also interrupted the civil war between northern and southern Sudan for 8-10 years. As this looks to be starting up again, at best it was a reprieve. So the end of 1 genocide and delay of 1 civil war in 20+ years.

73

rf 10.22.12 at 10:45 pm

Interesting post by Phil Arena on Obama/Romney FP, Gore invading Iraq so and and so forth

http://www.whiteoliphaunt.com/duckofminerva/2012/10/the-difference-parties-dont-make.html

74

LFC 10.22.12 at 10:47 pm

W. Timberman @51
I very much doubt, however, that had Bismarck been in office, and at the height of his powers twenty five years later than he was, he would have been able to prevent, deflect, win, or even survive the World War which was at least partly the legacy of what were at the time — and are still today — considered his greatest accomplishments.

It can be argued that if Bismarck had remained in office after 1890, the odds of WW1 occurring (when it did, or perhaps even at all) go down (though by how much is, of course, debatable). See under: Reinsurance Treaty, lapse of.

75

William Timberman 10.22.12 at 11:33 pm

Matt @ 71

Yes, that’s pretty much the absurdity of U.S. military orthodoxy/arms procurement in a nutshell. The U.S. can punish just about anyone, but control almost nothing. It pays out a literally unimaginable fortune, turns its foreign policy establishment into a pack of technocratic hyenas in uniform, and winds up at the end of the day with only two choices: Either it goes about poking every beehive with a stick, or it reduces every offending neighborhood to molten slag. Neither is value-for-money.

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Harold 10.22.12 at 11:48 pm

It’s just a bunch of interest groups on automatic pilot.

77

tomslee 10.23.12 at 12:34 am

No more intervention to prevent Genocide?

Fortunately, also fewer deformed babies in cities such as Falluja and Basra.

78

Kukai 10.23.12 at 1:34 am

@28

The fact that the US has a Mideast foreign policy is a testament, not to the importance of the Mideast, but to the US’s astonishing belief that it has the luxury to indulge its most exotic and exorbitant fantasy desires, and completely ignore real world costs and consequences.

This. Well, upon reflection, the only possible rejoinder is to observe those Costs and Consequences cannot be completely ignored. They’re just too painful. A great crop of military tombstones have grown up in the graveyards of America. Trust me, they’re painful.

79

Kukai 10.23.12 at 1:42 am

@77: Every single child in Iraq and Afghanistan has PTSD. The most fundamental deformation of a child’s mind starts with concussion. Every child knows someone who died a violent death in these wars.

Sure, here in America, we’re facing a tsunami of mental illness in our returning troops. But for a brief moment, consider what war does to children.

80

Hidari 10.23.12 at 3:35 am

“No more intervention to prevent Genocide? “

Also no more interventions to cause genocide. Swings and roundabouts.

81

ajay 10.23.12 at 9:16 am

But we certainly did not, even by the years between WWI and WWII, when we were already sliding toward default imperialism, think as we do today, that we simply must have a navy powerful enough to defeat the combined navies of the rest of the world improbably all allied against us. Our navy at the time was small enough that it largely could all fit into Pearl Harbor…. The decision-makers of the time themselves thought that battleships were white elephants rather than strategic assets, or they wouldn’t have traded away force levels in capital ships in the Washington Treaty

Washington Treaty, 5:5:3 ratio, there was an Atlantic Fleet as well you know, trying to stop wars by disarming, fewer limits on carriers, why did they keep building battleships in the 40s then?…

Glen, there isn’t an actual need for someone on CT always to be talking ignorant rubbish about naval history. It is not an Internet Tradition (and I should know, I am aware of them.)

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Tim Worstall 10.23.12 at 9:55 am

@53 “Barry is correct, of course. IIRC in 1939 it was the 19th largest army in the world, just behind Portugal.”

Portugal defending a colonial land empire at the time, the US not so much.

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Cranky Observer 10.23.12 at 11:12 am

= = = The Middle East policy views and objectives of the US ruling class (however defined) are just as incoherent and unachievable as those of the US polity as a whole. = = =

Is it disembodied interests all the way down, or do individual actors/small teams ever come into play? I agree that US Middle Eastern policy from 2001 forward seems foolish and ill-advised, but I’m going to have to defer on “incoherent” until we understand a bit more about the role and goals of a Mr. Richard Cheney. That coterie set out to accomplish something and it is not clear to me how displeased they are with the overall results.

Cranky

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Harold 10.23.12 at 11:31 am

They did “liberate” Iraqi oil from being a state monopoly.

85

Salient 10.23.12 at 12:31 pm

there isn’t an actual need for someone on CT always to be talking ignorant rubbish about naval history

What we do need is some ignorant rubbish about cavalry and bayonettes.

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Andrew F. 10.23.12 at 2:35 pm

The complexity of the factors mentioned shapes US policy in the Middle East (holding in abeyance the question of whether the US has an interest in the Middle East). These factors are well-known, well discussed, and at the forefront of any serious discussions of US Middle East policy. With all due respect, you’re mistaking complexity of policy for an overall incoherence of policy (though, I do agree that the invasion of Iraq was a divergence from ordinary US policy in the Middle East).

US policy in the ME quite clearly takes into account all the factors you mentioned, including:

(1) That autocratic regimes can, and not infrequently do, fail. Hence the US pivot on Mubarak as his regime entered the final act, and US pivots at times of transition elsewhere in the region. That autocratic regimes, usually lacking broad institutional loyalty and legitimacy, are subject to a variety of risks that are mitigated in other types of nation-states is not news to the US foreign policy establishment. There’s a lengthy and deep literature on regime stability – some of it, especially that produced during the Cold War, obviously undertaken with US foreign policy in mind.

(2) That the rise and fall of governments in the ME can be influenced by the US, but that the US does not have sufficient power to reliably and precisely select governments. Using economic and even military levers, the US can push in one direction or another, but never precisely, and always with vast limitations imposed by the circumstances of the countries in question and by US domestic politics. Hence (with rare but notable exceptions) US caution in dealing with changing circumstances in the ME, and hence US willingness to work with different types and forms of governments in the ME.

(3) That elected governments are not always friendly, either to the US or to human rights. Democratic peace theorists use “democracy” in a very robust way; they use the term to refer not simply to political systems in which the government is subject to regular elections, but to systems that must additionally include a high degree of rule of law and a respect for an egalitarian conception of human rights. In fact, US urging that governments in the ME should focus upon educating and liberalizing their populace, and diversifying their economies, are frequently founded precisely upon the twin facts that (i) authoritarian regimes are, over time, vulnerable to popular discontent caused by economic disruptions, religious or political radicalization, and other factors and (ii) when autocratic regimes do eventually lose power, peacefully or not, gradually or not, an educated and liberalized population is much more likely to create a friendly democracy (in the robust sense of the term) than an uneducated and non-liberal population.

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Shelley 10.23.12 at 2:57 pm

Not sure how there’s bipartisan incoherence when no one knows what Romney would really do….

88

ajay 10.23.12 at 3:37 pm

Portugal defending a colonial land empire at the time, the US not so much.

The Philippines, Hawaii, Alaska, Samoa.

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Harold 10.23.12 at 4:02 pm

Not to mention Haiti and Central America.

90

Theophylact 10.23.12 at 4:57 pm

ajay @88:

I would argue that Alaska was not a colony, and that the Philippines, Hawaii (already a Territory) and Samoa didn’t constitute a “land empire”, all being islands.

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Bruce Wilder 10.23.12 at 5:08 pm

Andrew F. @86: “US policy in the ME quite clearly takes into account all the factors . . . mentioned . . .”

Andrew’s comment well illustrates the schizophrenia of U.S. foreign policy, which is particularly acute in the Mideast. On top — meaning occasionally audible on op-ed pages in the U.S. or in discussions among supremely ignorant pundits on cable news or in the self-serving, self-congratulatory apologetics of U.S. politicians — there’s the U.S. foreign policy of “urging” this or that high-minded course on foreign governments, recommending that this dictator or that “go”, ultimatums, defense of human rights, endorsement of democracy (in principle, in response to riots), etc. In other words, the U.S. foreign policy that Andrew F takes cognizance of, and thinks is stymied by the complexity of the world, and the limits of U.S. power, given available levers of power to “control” events, precisely.

This is the frothy top-level foreign policy, the foreign policy, where American domestic public opinion matters enough that public relations principles must be followed in shaping its rhetorical rationalizations.

Below this are the bathyspheres of operational foreign policy, where bureaucracy meets bureaucracy, money changes hands, personal and “tribal” alliances are formed, spies and fraudsters ply their trades, and business interests make use of U.S. power. Occasionally, things go wrong in this “deep” foreign policy, and, in a blow-out, the ugly reality pops to the surface, in, say, the overthrow of an Allende, and attracts media attention for an instant.

The deeply hidden foreign policy operations, though, are not the cause of American foreign policy schizophrenia, though. That schizophrenia is rooted in ignorance of what is in plain sight, but ignored by the ignorant-of-all-things news pundits, who serve up the pablum of “the world is flat” and the bumperstickers of “globalization”, and the foreign policy establishment, and, therefore, the general (American) public. The ignorance of the American public of what is done in their name certainly seems to contain within it a callous indifference to bloody and horrific consequences, indistinguishable from collective psychopathology; at other times, politicians seem to think a few references to the oppression of women in far-off Afganistan should be enough to gain permission for a few more billion dollars weeks of military operations. I think it is the superficiality of narrative, which near-complete ignorance of even the moderately “informed” public, permits is the main feature, which enables the freedom of the bathyspheres, to do crazy stuff, ultimately destructive to the national interest. I am not saying, ignorance of the bathyspheric operations specifically, but ignorance of general conditions and trends and of broad policy consequences, and therefore any awareness of an American national interest in the Mideast or the world, frees the bathyspheres from having to be controlled from the top, from having to conform to a rational pursuit of broad, strategic conceptions of an American national interest.

To put this concretely, yes, the U.S. “pivoted” on support for Mubarak. Highly visible. Almost completely meaningless. And, no, the U.S. cannot “control” the chaos of a society sinking into mass rioting. Thanks for that brilliant foreign policy insight. The channelling of vast sums of U.S. foreign aid through the Egyptian military, with the predictable result that the Egyptian military forms the only strong institutional framework in the Egyptian political economy, operating and investing in all kinds of non-military enterprises, creating career paths for the ambitious, training people for adminstrative and political tasks, etc. — this, too, was American policy, but policy carried out in plain sight, with little or no awareness or concern for the probable long-term consequences. And, the neo-liberal economic “reforms” imposed at American urging (the Washington Consensus, not as originally formulated with its concern for strong institutions, rule of law, etc., but as corrupted into a Chicago school prescription for free-market looting and authoritarianism), which pushed the Egyptian working class to the edge of famine — what should we make of that?

If American foreign policy top-level principles cannot direct even the first level of policy — the foreign aid funding (which is, as a consequence, is nearly all military funding to support authoritarian police/military states) and the pushing of global trade policy harmonizations, which are nearly all neo-liberal crap to facilitate corporate looting — still less can anything be done on the bathyspheric, operational level. So, the American bureaucracies of intelligence make alliances with Egyptian torturers — oh so fun!

Anyway, this is the shape of my “furious agreement” with the OP: not that the U.S. has no genuine interest in the Mideast, but that the U.S. is so institutionally incapable of pursuing a genuine and benign interest that it would be better to pursue no interest at all, by cutting off its own means of pursuing its interests. Now, if only it were possible, to do the same in domestic policy, before the plutocracy loots the country into banana republic territory.

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Bruce Wilder 10.23.12 at 5:17 pm

Theophylact @ 90

Once the “Pink Map” ambition to link Angola to Mozambique foundered on its conflict with British ambitions for an African Cairo-to-the-Cape empire, around 1890, taking down the monarchy with it, the Portuguese didn’t have a “land” empire abroad, either. It was really just an archipelago of islands and port enclaves in Africa and Asia.

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Harold 10.23.12 at 5:36 pm

Sometimes I wonder who is making our policy. The 19th century doctrine of Papal infallibility did not repudiate the Pope’s “right to depose secular princes”, though a year after its promulgation the Pope Pius IX, noted that the right “rested on temporal reasons” and as these no longer exist it is no longer used. But as commenter notes that “though it lies in abeyance it is still a right”, dating from, no doubt, from “happier times” (i.e., the Middle Ages), which seem to have returned with the initiation of the Cold War.
http://books.google.com/books?id=NxA4AAAAIAAJ&pg=PA242&lpg=PA242&dq=J+B+Bury+History+of+the+Papacy+in+the+nineteenth+century&source=bl&ots=dBnNQHYMxx&sig=iGSJkPl-pfUcwaSFnjc7xZJmZck&hl=en&sa=X&ei=tNGGUOqpB4KB0AGknICADg&ved=0CFwQ6AEwCTgU#v=onepage&q=right%20to%20depose%20princes&f=false

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Wonks Anonymous 10.23.12 at 5:50 pm

The oil embargo had a big effect because of price controls.

I always thought Michael Neumann had the most persuasive explanation of why the Iraq War occurred.

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LFC 10.23.12 at 7:07 pm

B Wilder @91

…ignorance of general conditions and trends and of broad policy consequences, and therefore [of] any awareness of an American national interest in the Mideast or the world, frees the bathyspheres from having to be controlled from the top, from having to conform to a rational pursuit of broad, strategic conceptions of an American national interest.

B Wilder assumes that a more knowledgeable, less ignorant public and f-p establishment would lead to a more “rational” pursuit of ‘the national interest’. He implies that there is an objectively discoverable,”benign”, “genuine” nat’l interest and that only widespread ignorance blocks its pursuit. This ignores the obvious point that foreign policy is a political question, hence differences of values (not always reconcilable) and of concrete material interests come into play; it’s not simply, or necessarily even mainly, a matter of lack of knowledge. To suggest otherwise is wrong.

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Stephen 10.23.12 at 7:14 pm

Re: quite pervasive belief that US can vastly reduce armed forces, expand again if needed.

Previous test cases (all in fairly remote past by US standards, but all we have):

British army, 1914. As government policy, kept very small by European standards, not issued with equipment that Haig et al. thought necessary for European war. Consequence: 1914, much of regular army lost; 1915-16, attempts to expand army from vastly reduced basis resulted in heroic, sometimes necessary but catastrophic failure; 1917, army improving; 1918, enemy conclusively defeated after terrible losses.

British army, 1919-1933. Ten Year Rule as government policy dictated no major war to be fought in next 10 years. 1933, law relaxed. By 1942 army actually quite efficient: unfortunate that war began (from British point of view) in 1939.

US army and navy, 1939-1943. Expansion began from slight (army) and reasonable (navy) basis. Consequences – Kasserine, Savo Island – lamentable. Later, much improved.

German navy, 1933: inadequate. 1939 and thereafter: expansion attempted, still inadequate.

Counterexamples, of course French army 1940, Russian army 1941: decades to prepare, still inadequate. (But more a matter of inadequate high-level strategy than inadequate preparation?)

Conclusion, I fear: expanding military and naval resources less simple than inflating balloon.

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Stephen 10.23.12 at 7:38 pm

Andrew F @86
“complexity of the factors mentioned shapes US policy in the Middle East”.

Attempt, no doubt too simple, at describing factors shaping US policy, or policies, in ME.

Main though not always sole factor driving US government policy (other important US factors not necessarily concordant) in ME and other foreign parts: to help achieve re-election of current governing party, or at least to do nothing to prevent re-election.

In ME, this reduces to two apparently incompatible goals:
a) to keep major oil-exporting states, or as many of them as possible, allied to US and happily oil-exporting. Failure here: oil exports fall into hostile hands (Russian, overtly islamist), oil shock, gas lines in US, recession in economically important states even if not directly in US.
b) to keep financing and arming Israel, whether for genuine belief (yes, even politicians sometimes have these) in Zionist project, or for domestic electoral considerations.
Problem is, large parts of population in major oil-exporting states bitterly hostile to (b), and humiliated by recurrent defeats of Muslim states consequent to (b).
Problem resolved by goal (c): to encourage and keep in power, as far as possible, governments of ME states that will ignore (b), suppress large parts of their dissenting populations, continue with goal (a).
Complicated further by goal (d), US enthusiasm for democracy [widely regarded outside US as efficient method, in some but not all circumstances, for achieving good government, which is not always absent in non-democratic states: in US, at least on paper, as a universal blessing] which often contradicts goal (c) and therefore imperils goal (b) which may contradict goal (a).

Or to put it more simply: if the US pulls out of the ME, what becomes of Israel, what are the prospects for peace there, or for the next Arab-Israeli or Iranian-Israeli war?

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Barry 10.23.12 at 7:45 pm

rf @ 70:

“To what extent is genocide prevention a major interest in US foreign policy? And how successful has that ‘policy’ been?”

As was recently demonstrated in Bahrain, if the US supports a government, mass murder is quite OK (just keep it out of the front pages).

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P O'Neill 10.23.12 at 9:27 pm

In the squirrel/nut category, Daniel Pipes on last night’s US Presidential debate

The European crisis got no mention, nor did India, Germany, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, or Australia. In contrast, Egypt was mentioned 11 times, Libya 12 times, Iraq 22 times, Pakistan 25 times, Syria 28 times, Afghanistan 30 times, Israel 34 times, and Iran 47 times.

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Substance McGravitas 10.23.12 at 9:41 pm

The European crisis got no mention

Two cautionary mentions of Greece, but not as a foreign policy issue.

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JW Mason 10.23.12 at 9:48 pm

Anyway, this is the shape of my “furious agreement” with the OP: not that the U.S. has no genuine interest in the Mideast, but that the U.S. is so institutionally incapable of pursuing a genuine and benign interest that it would be better to pursue no interest at all, by cutting off its own means of pursuing its interests.

This.

The objection to the navy (and the army, air force, and the rest of it) isn’t fundamentally that the means are too costly relative to the ends, but that the ends are bad.

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Matt 10.23.12 at 10:18 pm

Re: quite pervasive belief that US can vastly reduce armed forces, expand again if needed.

Conclusion, I fear: expanding military and naval resources less simple than inflating balloon.

You could cut 60% of US military spending and it would still be twice as much as any other nation. Also all of your examples are from a pre-nuclear era. If Zombie Hitler grabbed control of modern Germany and was determined to take Moscow or Paris, either defender could reduce Germany’s cities to radioactive ruins, and its armed forces to a dead bee’s stinger, no matter how many tanks, ships, and soldiers Germany fielded.

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James 10.23.12 at 10:19 pm

Would the size of the US armed forces, or the expenditure, be justified by the existence a similar sized force from another nation? I have the impression that the end goal is ‘reduce US military size’ and ‘cost’ and ‘overwhelming nature’ is simply a means argument.

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Matt 10.23.12 at 10:45 pm

Would the size of the US armed forces, or the expenditure, be justified by the existence a similar sized force from another nation? I have the impression that the end goal is ‘reduce US military size’ and ‘cost’ and ‘overwhelming nature’ is simply a means argument.

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: what about nuclear weapons? Giant conventional militaries are just big expensive targets in a nuclear war. It also feels wildly implausible to me that you could ever have a big Great Powers brawl on the scale of WW II again without it descending into nuclear mayhem. Believing that it’s possible to have a good old fashioned 5 years Total War any more strikes me like the ludicrously over-optimistic expectations among the belligerents at the beginning of World War I.

In the navy thread someone made a case that strong conventional forces were still important, because then the USA could defeat China if it tried to invade Taiwan. If China had a marginally better navy I guess the USA would just have to lose a few carrier groups and a few thousand sailors before rationally de-escalating and seeking peace. Yes, that sure sounds like the USA I know.

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LFC 10.24.12 at 4:50 am

Question for B Wilder and JW Mason:
What is the “genuine” and “benign” natl interest of the US in the Mideast that it is “institutionally incapable” of pursuing? If your answer is an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement, I’m not sure how the US “cutting off its…means of pursuing its interests” (whatever that means, exactly) would help. Exerting more leverage on Israel (however unlikely that is to occur) might help, but that’s different.

Matt @103
It also feels wildly implausible to me that you could ever have a big Great Powers brawl on the scale of WW II again without it descending into nuclear mayhem.
I have suggested repeatedly in CT threads — to little effect (although a few people have acknowledged the argument and one or two perhaps have agreed with it) — that the reason another great-power war is unlikely has much more to do w/ change in norms than anything else. This argument, which is not original with me, has gotten, as I say, little traction with the CT commentariat, which I’m beginning to think is, if anything, one piece of evidence that it may well have some merit.

106

Hidari 10.24.12 at 5:01 am

“great-power war is unlikely has much more to do w/ change in norms than anything else. “

Surely another, better reason, is that there is currently only one “great power”?

I’m not ruling out the possibility of the US declaring war on itself just to keep itself ın practice (futile impossible meaningless wars would not be out of character) but it does seem unlikely at the moment.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pax_Americana

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LFC 10.24.12 at 6:30 am

“currently only one “great power””

well, this is a question of definitions obvs.

A few definitions are possible. One is Mearsheimer’s in Tragedy of Great Power Politics, p.5:

To qualify as a great power, a state must have sufficient military assets to put up a serious fight in an all-out conventional war against the most powerful state in the world…. In the nuclear age great powers must have a nuclear deterrent that can survive a nuclear strike against it, as well as formidable conventional forces.

A definition that is less focused on mil. capability is in R. Jackson, The Global Covenant, p.173:

…a ‘great power’ is a state whose weight (in military power, in political prestige, in economic wealth) is of such magnitude that it is among a very select group of states whose policies and actions can affect the course of international affairs…. Power inevitably carries responsibility. Great powers…are answerable for their conduct regarding the most important international issues….

I prefer the second of these definitions, but under either one there is definitely more than one great power in the world.

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LFC 10.24.12 at 6:38 am

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Bruce Wilder 10.24.12 at 11:53 am

LFC @ 95 and subsequently

I’ve read your several recent comments. I cannot say they make much sense to me.

Foreign policy is a political question. I have never imagined that it wasn’t.

“a change in norms”? Really?

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LFC 10.24.12 at 2:52 pm

Foreign policy is a political question. I have never imagined that it wasn’t.

Fair enough, but I was objecting specifically to the comment in which you said the main problem was ignorance. In previous comment(s) you did talk about interest groups etc.

“a change in norms”? Really?

see e.g. here

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ajay 10.24.12 at 3:25 pm

I’m going to sound like a broken record, but: what about nuclear weapons? Giant conventional militaries are just big expensive targets in a nuclear war.

But nuclear wars don’t happen. They don’t happen against non-nuclear opponents – the US didn’t use nuclear weapons against North Korea or Iraq. The UK didn’t against Argentina. The USSR didn’t against Afghanistan.
And they don’t happen against nuclear opponents because no one wants to get their cities incinerated.
And in all those non-nuclear wars, it turns out that a large conventional military is actually rather handy.

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Bruce Wilder 10.24.12 at 4:25 pm

LFC @ 110

Regarding “norms”, I probably should have been clearer that my incredulous response is not to the notion that “norms” are in the mix, so to speak, but that anyone would think “norms” are a good place in an explanatory structure, to pound a nail and hang a picture (– personally, I like to locate the stud behind the drywall). “Norms” regarding warfare, at least among what used to be called the Great Powers, has certainly changed. One might note that the creation of the United Nations was a deliberate attempt (and its creation was a goal of American foreign policy in WWII), to change those “norms”. So were Woodrow Wilson’s 14 points, and, in different respects, the Geneva Conventions.

World War I was “an important turning point in this context” (to quote the blogpost, you linked), because it marked a change in the ruling class of Europe. Up until the First World War, and for arguably a millenium, war was the business of a military caste of hereditary aristocrats, the descendants of the “thugs and criminal gangs”, which first mastered their caste craft in Normandy and Anjou in the 9th and 10th centuries. Their claim to control states and war and what, after the Peace of Westphalia was called “foreign policy”, was challenged before by mass participation — in the wars of religion and in the French Revolution, but their Empires had kept up through the 19th century, with the bourgeois nation-state, like the clipper ships that outran, for a long time, the first few generations of steamship.

The thing with norms is that they keep on changing. What Bush did in Iraq, the Allies prosecuted at Nuremberg, you may recall.

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Matt 10.24.12 at 5:32 pm

But nuclear wars don’t happen. They don’t happen against non-nuclear opponents – the US didn’t use nuclear weapons against North Korea or Iraq. The UK didn’t against Argentina. The USSR didn’t against Afghanistan.
And they don’t happen against nuclear opponents because no one wants to get their cities incinerated.
And in all those non-nuclear wars, it turns out that a large conventional military is actually rather handy.

The bolded case seems central here. You don’t see anyone seriously threatening nuclear powers with conventional forces either, because (again) no one wants to get their cities incinerated. Nuclear powers are basically off-limits for invasion by rational actors, no matter how large the conventional forces. China doesn’t need more soldiers to counter the USA and the USA doesn’t need more soldiers to counter China. Knock the world’s nuclear powers off your list of potential conventional-war foes and the largest useful conventional military shrinks considerably.

As for a large conventional military being rather handy for non-nuclear wars, I would prefer the phrase “acts as an attractive nuisance.” North Korea, Iraq, Argentina, and Afghanistan were never in a position to take the fight to the USA, UK, or USSR. Nor could Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia threaten the USA, Hungary or Czechoslovakia threaten the USSR, or Malaya threaten the UK, if you were looking for other good examples of conventional power projection. Thank goodness the UK, USSR, and USA had the strong conventional forces to do so much good for their own citizens and foreigners as well.

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Andrew F. 10.24.12 at 5:35 pm

Bruce @91: Let me preface all of this with a big IMHO. I’m not sure your concrete example is the best. The power of the Egyptian military in Egyptian society pre-dated US foreign military financing by a somewhat significant number of years, after all, and the US decision to provide the Egyptian military with financial and technical assistance, of course, was linked to a rather pressing issue at the time. As to views among the US foreign policy establishment of the Egyptian military’s role in Egyptian society, those views are considerably more nuanced than you seem to think. Here and here are two papers with some good references.

As to the US view of the role of reform in Egypt, the diplomatic cables provided via Wikileaks would offer what is likely a high-level summary of US preferences for, and pressure to undertake, democratic and economic reform – along with, I’d imagine, Mubarak’s counterarguments.

My view, Bruce, is not that US foreign policy has all the right goals and is stymied by the complexity of the world. The issue here is coherence, after all, not justification. My view is that the complexity of the world requires the US to deal with many types of governments and leaders and societies, and to balance many different types of goals and priorities (most of which are difficult/impossible to quantify). While inconsistencies do arise, the overall policy and approach is actually quite coherent. I do not think the examples raised in the article are examples of incoherence.

There are plausible arguments that some of these tensions result from the influence of political lobbying groups within the US – I agree with just about everything LFC has said here. However, many of the more obvious tensions simply result from the fact that the world forces tradeoffs upon us. Regional stability purchased by the maintenance of a balance of power among different governments and trade between those same nations, for example, may result in less credibility in threatening to withhold military or economic assistance unless such reforms are undertaken – and consequently such threats either aren’t made, or the reforms pushed for are less ambitious than might otherwise be preferred (but which stand a chance of actually happening). Such tradeoffs unfortunately have nothing to do with the ignorance of the American public, or unpleasant and secret deals between interest groups, or an inability of the US Government to take cognizance of its national interests.

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rf 10.24.12 at 6:08 pm

But the US military as a ‘deterrent’ works in a number of more subtle ways short of large scale great power annihilation, arguably reinforcing the international system and encouraging global order. I think the argument is probably over made, but it seems more desirable than a global order built on the threat of mass destruction.

Also, thinking that the US is a ‘force for good in the world’, as subjective as that may be, and finding its policy towards certain regions at certain times to be problematic, to say the least, aren’t mutually exclusive positions to hold, but a lot of the above is perhaps going a little far in conflating the two.

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Stephen 10.24.12 at 6:17 pm

Matt@102

For various reasons, I’m less happy about the idea of preventing aggression by tossing nuclear warheads merrily about than you seem to be.

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LFC 10.24.12 at 6:44 pm

Bruce Wilder:
Regarding “norms”, I probably should have been clearer that my incredulous response is not to the notion that “norms” are in the mix, so to speak, but that anyone would think “norms” are a good place in an explanatory structure to pound a nail and hang a picture

We disagree. There are various places to pound a nail and hang a picture, and ideas and norms can sometimes be one such place, in my view. Regrettably I don’t have time to get into an extended discussion of this, which may be just as well, since I would not convince you and vice versa. But I might just refer you to Weber’s remark that “very frequently the ‘world images’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.”

118

Stephen 10.24.12 at 6:51 pm

Bruce Wilder @112

So happy to learn that “World War I was an important turning point in this context because it marked a change in the ruling class of Europe. ” Obviously European history post-1918 was marvelously peaceful.

And “Up until the First World War … war was the business of a military caste of hereditary aristocrats”. I am sure you would agree that the French Republic, 1914, was controlled by hereditary aristocrats like Viviani (Algerian-born socialist), Clemencau (son of a doctor in the Vendee), Joffre (son of a vineyard owner), Foch (son of a civil servant in the Pyrenees), Petain (son of a farmer) …

In the UK you might also like to take a look at Asquith (son of a wool merchant),
Haldane (son of a Scots lawyer), Kitchener (son of a minor Irish landowner), French (son of a minor naval officer), Jellicoe (ditto), Haig (son of an alcoholic distiller) … let alone Robertson (son of a tenant farmer, servant of the Earl of Cardigan before enlisting).

Or on the other side you could consider Ludendorff (son of a minor landowner with a commission in the reserve cavalry) …

You may wish to readjust your prejudices.

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LFC 10.24.12 at 7:00 pm

Stephen @117
WW 1 marked a change in how many (not all) writers, publicists, academics, opinion-molders, politicians etc. in some of the countries involved thought about war, in terms of purported benefits vs. obvious costs. That WW2 happened does not alter the long-term importance of that change.

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Stephen 10.24.12 at 7:04 pm

Matt@113

Dead right, nobody sane threatens nuclear powers in their home territories or fear of incineration Outside home territories however, as Ajay points out, different matter.

Tell us now honestly: would you have preferred murderous fascist military regime of Argentina to have conquered the inoffensive Falklands, or to have them defeated by conventional British forces?

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Stephen 10.24.12 at 7:09 pm

General question posed above, nowhere answered.

Suppose as per OP and others, US decides armed forces are largely superfluous, withdraws to minimal status for continental defence.

What are likely effects on
a) security of Israel
b) future Israeli/neighbour wars, nuclear or otherwise
c) re-election of supporters of responsible US government ?

Answers?

122

John Quiggin 10.24.12 at 7:15 pm

@Stephen I must say I’ve been stunned by the fact that a post on the Middle East, linking to an article that talks about Israel-Palestine has produced almost no comments on this topic so far.

My short answers are (a) Nothing, (b) nothing (c) catastrophic defeat, which is a typical instance of why US policy in the region is such a mess.

123

Glen Tomkins 10.24.12 at 8:41 pm

ajay@81,

Speaking truth to power is not nearly so hard as speaking truth to rubbish, so I can sympathize. But since speaking truth to what you imagine is rubbish is a blog tradition, is in fact the essence of the blog experience, why don’t you give it a whirl just one more time? You certainly can’t be under any illusion that anybody on this thread knows as much about naval history as yourself, so I assume you have some tolerance for refuting rubbish.

My point about the Washingtion Treaty is that the fact that the US at that time would accept ratios of 5:1.75, 5:3, and even a 5:5 with GB, is a pretty solid proof that US miltary policy lived on a whole different planet and breathed a completely alien atmosphere than we do now. Draw on your great fund of knowledge of naval history and contemporary military policy to give us your shoot-from-the-hip estimate of what sort of ratio of comparative forces we insist on now. Don’t go with tonnage, some cheap out like that is what we would expect from some rubbish monger. Nowadays a big obsolete ship like the General Belgrano may displace a lot of tons, but is more of a threat to its crew than the enemy. In terms of capability, I’ll throw out my completely ill-informed conjecture that today’s ratio is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100:5:3:1.75:1:75. Please give us a more informed ratio.

Now, look at your ratio for 2012, and look at the Washington Treaty ratio of 1922. I look at the Washington Treaty numbers, and I see a military policy that had as its goal a navy strength designed to stand up, in concert with potential allies, to the strength of potential alliances of rival naval powers. Whatever else our policy maers of that time might have got wrong, you can alt least ground their thinking in principles that are alt least understandable. But when I contemplate what the ratio is today, I see no thought process at all. To call it incoherent muttering is overly kind. We’re not looking for balance, we’re not planning for potential wars and to deter potential adversaries. We have force levels that could be cut in half, and cut in half again, and still overmatch any potential combination of adversaries. Why?

I’ld be happy to respond to any of the particulars of what I had to say that struck you as rubbish. But I ask you to limit this response to just this one issue, the idea that US military policy and force levels used to be tethered to the military policies and force levels of potential adversaries, but has now become untethered. What are your thoughts on that? True? Untrue? If true, why? If untrue, what is your proposed rationale for current force levels?

I ask for that limit because I don’t have a sense that you are bothering to keep to any sort of purpose behind your contributions to this thread. For mysef, I find Quiggins’ point, that he can’t discern anything but incoherent muttering guiding the big stick the US carries today, compelling, and everything I’ve contributed has been to try to respond to that idea. What are you doing on this thread? Agree with Quiggins? Yes? No? Why? I look at your responses, to me and to others, and I can’t see that you’re intrerested in making any sense of the store of knowledge you possess about military affairs, at least not to the point of engaging with ideas, as opposed to random facts that you obviously think refute something.

That state of affairs is not uncommon, that a person knows a lot of facts about a particular subject matter, but has never really bothered to try to make what sense can be made of it all, and is capable of no reaction but annoyance when others try to make some sense of it all. When and if you decide to stop treating your knowledge of naval affairs, and this thread, as a rubbish heap, by all means please respond.

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Cranky Observer 10.25.12 at 12:10 am

= = = Bruce Wilder @ 5:08 “This is the frothy top-level foreign policy, the foreign policy, where American domestic public opinion matters enough that public relations principles must be followed in shaping its rhetorical rationalizations.

Below this are the bathyspheres of operational foreign policy, where bureaucracy meets bureaucracy, money changes hands, personal and “tribal” alliances are formed, spies and fraudsters ply their trades, and business interests make use of U.S. power.” = = =

Agreeing with most of your 5:08, I am still left with the question of whether this is driven by disembodied interest groups and pressures all the way down, or whether individual actors/small groups of actors do or can take actions that deliberately steer this mess (pre-noting that ships the size of supertankers are hard to steer and turn but they are eventually navigated from port to port by knowledgeable people).

Specifically, the group that formed around Richard Cheney 2.0 from 1995-2000 had some ideas about how US Middle Eastern policy should be directed, some of which they published and presumably some they kept secret. Most of them ended up in senior positions in the Bush II Administration where they formed one of the most tight-lipped and shredder-happy executive teams in human history. Did they attempt to take any actions to implement their desired ends in the Middle East or elsewhere, whatever those were [1]? If so, were they successful? Could they have been successful? These are not to me trivial questions.

Cranky

[1] Keeping in mind that any good player in the game of thrones will have multiple intercutting strategies in play at any given time, and will take actions that may seem contradictory or inexplicable as a result.

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ajay 10.25.12 at 9:11 am

123: honestly? I wouldn’t know where to start.

126

Peter T 10.25.12 at 11:16 am

I can agree with the post about US Middle Eastern policy, but pulling back might not save as much money as people think. The US spends a lot on its armed forces, and they vastly outgun the rest of the world, but they are, in many respects, not big enough to meet even a reasonable level of posited threat (most of the rest of the western world lacks the forces to fight even a very small war – police actions like Liberia are the most they can manage).

The US army was very nearly broken by the war in Iraq – a shortage of many specialists, front-line soldiers doing several tours without a break, morale dropping fast. And that was in a country where 10 per cent of the population were on your side, and another fifty per cent only sporadically hostile. As for the navy, it takes three carriers to keep one on station (one there, one in transit, one in refit). So you need at least six to stay in the field against a moderately competent enemy (who might get lucky and put one carrier out of action).

The cause is that modern forces have very high tail to teeth ratios. This makes them effective against conventional opposition, but leaves them lacking the front-line forces needed to cope with prolonged low-level opposition. The air force can greatly assist naval and ground forces, but cannot force a decision by itself, so air dominance is less than a big stick against a politically-united opposition.

As US policy makers contemplate a world where the US might have to meet both conventional threats and prolonged low-level opposition, they may not be as confident as CT commenters assume.

As an aside, the Brits in the hey-day dealt with a similar issue by having two armies – the conventional British Army for “real wars” and the Indian Army for the other sort. Once they lost the Indian Army, they rapidly found the British Army inadequate, and downsized their commitments.

Of course, the US could deal with this situation by trying to make the use of force less acceptabel world wide. But this does not seem to be on the table.

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Andrew F. 10.25.12 at 4:02 pm

Stephen @121 – The US does a lot to maintain regional stability in the Middle East. Some of that, as I mentioned @114, is accomplished via the Foreign Military Financing programs. Some of it is accomplished by holding large-scale joint military exercises, exchange programs, and training programs. Some of it is accomplished by fostering trade, and educational programs.

But behind all of that is the US commitment to using its full military resources to ensure international stability in the Middle East.

A complete US withdrawal of military resources and commitments from the Middle East would result, rather quickly, imho, in the following:

(1) Massive increases in military expenditure by Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, as the respective relative security of each country is immediately and hugely shifted by the change in US posture;
(2) A greatly increased likelihood of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities, with the covert assistance of other Arab states;
(3) Massive new investments by some of the aforementioned countries in naval forces, and a greatly increased likelihood of naval incidents;
(4) Greater likelihood of the more advanced states in the Middle East obtaining nuclear capability;
(5) Based on the projections of others as to the effect of regional conflict in the ME, certain near-term oil futures spiking upwards of $150/bbl;
(6) Secondary effects upon US alliances in East Asia and elsewhere.
(7) Economic and social reform programs in some of those states would be stunted as a result of increased state emphasis on military security, a heightened sense of vulnerability, and decimated US influence. The global economic effects from all of this would not be helpful either.

Now of course there are many middle paths between the scenario you mentioned, and maintaining the current size of US forces dedicated to the ME. Not all of those middle paths would have the effects I mentioned.

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Bruce Wilder 10.25.12 at 4:52 pm

The original post asserted — for CT eyes only! — “nothing in my argument changes if you replace [U.S. national interest] with “US ruling class interest” or similar. The Middle East policy views and objectives of the US ruling class (however defined) are just as incoherent and unachievable as those of the US polity as a whole.”

This prologue (can you call it a “premise”?) calls the whole argument into question, though. Everything should change, with a shift from a foreign policy driven by the aspirations of a mass democracy to a foreign policy driven by a narrow, benighted “ruling class”, between a foreign policy of Wilsonian internationalism, driven by FDR, Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the foreign policy of the Project for a New American Century described by Cranky Observer @ 124, the foreign policy of Cheney, Rumsfeld and company.

Peter T ably makes the case for an analysis, framed narrowly around the problems of military force structure, but I think that misses the big picture. Foreign policy and much else is driven forward by developments in the structure of the broader political economy, with the military force structure only a feedback loop. A provocative post proposing a radical restructuring of the military force is useful if it gets people to notice the bigger picture. But, the bigger picture is that there is a tension between the nation-in-arms as revealed by the French Revolution, which feels political solidarity (fraternité) and wants to be a republic and nation-state and modern industrial economy of middle-class prosperity founded on a high-level of organization and mutually beneficial social cooperation, and a professional military doing the bidding of a neo-feudal, self-interested elite, whose goals are an Empire and an extractive, exploitive political economy.

For all its vast cost, the U.S. military, a volunteer force, scattered across a global network of bases, fighting often “secret” wars on behalf of private business interests and local despots valued for their corruption, has a completely different character from the mass conscript armies, which fought the First and Second World Wars. The strategic incompetence demonstrated in Iraq and Afganistan, and the indifference to the effect of repeated tours of duty, and the deep use of reserve and militia (National Guard) forces, is a feature of plutocratic government, where the plutocrats derive their wealth from disinvestment, resource extraction (oil) and looting. (e.g. Cheney, Romney, frakking)

The “foreign policy” that rationalizes the conduct of the current regime (the Bush2-Obama regime; the continuity is striking) makes use of the vocabulary of liberal internationalism left over from the Second World War, but empties the terms and concepts of the original meanings. Cheney’s neocon Project for a New American Century clearly misread the outcome of WWII, thinking that the U.S. could occupy Iraq and Afganistan, as it had occupied Japan and Germany, and on that basis, establish for two or three generations, a new pattern of alliance and projection of force in the world. The neocons have a kind of bizarro-world idea of how politics and political institutions work. That’s the source of the incoherence, imho, of which Quiggin takes note.

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rf 10.25.12 at 5:57 pm

” between a foreign policy of Wilsonian internationalism, driven by FDR, Truman, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the foreign policy of the Project for a New American Century”

Isn’t this a slight contradiction in light of your previous poo pooing of ideational factors in US foreign policy? Not trying to troll, just maybe I’m misunderstanding

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Cranky Observer 10.25.12 at 6:16 pm

= = = Bruce Wilder @ 4:52: “Cheney’s neocon Project for a New American Century clearly misread the outcome of WWII, thinking that the U.S. could occupy Iraq and Afganistan, as it had occupied Japan and Germany, and on that basis, establish for two or three generations, a new pattern of alliance and projection of force in the world.” = = =

I was in general agreement up to that point. As I mentioned earlier any good player in the game of thrones will have more than one strategy and probably a whole set of goals; some of those will conflict but it is necessary to keep options open and avoid being trapped. My personal option (worth what you are paying for it) is that although Mr. Cheney took a weird turn to the paranoid after he left office in 1992 he remained very canny. As far as I can tell his underlying concern is that in the not-too-distant future there will be an apolyptic war for the last of the oil [1] and that he wanted the United States to be in the best position to win that conflict (and not coincidentally his friends to be in the best position to profit from it). The best possible outcome of the attack on Iraq would have been a US protectorate with flower-throwing natives pumping oil at US command, but if that didn’t happen (as in the event it did not) there were other goals and strategies to fall back on. Whether or not Mr. Obama agrees with that none of us know, but it appears on the surface that he follows the classic internationalist + realist model.

As an aside, FDR was well-connected with the ultrawealthy and international businessmen of his day (as was Wilson) and while he conceived their long-term interest differently than they did I don’t think one can say he opposed or undermined them.

= = = The neocons have a kind of bizarro-world idea of how politics and political institutions work = = =

On that we are in full agreement. Noting however that many of the well-known neocons are probably just serving as useful idiots (Bolton).

Cranky

[1] And I can’t say he’s wrong about that; when 2050 rolls around the petroleum situation could get very ugly.

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Stephen 10.25.12 at 7:25 pm

JQ@122
Obviously, we share total bewilderment at failure of others to consider glaringly obvious problem. I can’t explain it, either.

But I’m afraid my more optimistic and otherwise pessimistic analysis tends towards:
if (a) nothing, (b) nothing, then possibly (c) nothing if US electorate reasonably sensible. Wanna bet?

But alas, at least equally possible and I fear more probable; (a) medium to long-term, weakening of Israel if deprived of US support, probably too late to switch to Russian support (b) Armageddon, given that no sane that no sane government would attack homeland of nuclear power, but sanity of all ME actors not guaranteed (c) as you said.

So here we are: we both from different perspectives can see desperate problem; in blog with very many informed and intelligent posters, nobody gives a damn.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

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Stephen 10.25.12 at 7:25 pm

JQ@122
Obviously, we share total bewilderment at failure of others to consider glaringly obvious problem. I can’t explain it, either.

But I’m afraid my more optimistic and otherwise pessimistic analysis tends towards:
if (a) nothing, (b) nothing, then possibly (c) nothing if US electorate reasonably sensible. Wanna bet?

But alas, at least equally possible and I fear more probable; (a) medium to long-term, weakening of Israel if deprived of US support, probably too late to switch to Russian support (b) Armageddon, given that no sane that no sane government would attack homeland of nuclear power, but sanity of all ME actors not guaranteed (c) as you said.

So here we are: we both from different perspectives can see desperate problem; in blog with very many informed and intelligent posters, nobody gives a damn.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?

133

Stephen 10.25.12 at 7:37 pm

Andrew F. @127:
Agreed except for (1) massive increase in spending by Lebanon, Jordan: two of the more decent states in the region, but skint.
And (6): understatement of Himalayan proportions.

Don’t know why previous post duplicated: please correct.

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Stephen 10.25.12 at 7:43 pm

Peter tT@ 126
“The cause is that modern forces have very high tail to teeth ratios. This makes them effective against conventional opposition, but leaves them lacking the front-line forces needed to cope with prolonged low-level opposition.”

Discuss with respect to Operation Banner.

You are free to argue that, despite US support, the opposition were at a very low level.

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rf 10.25.12 at 8:18 pm

Andrew @ 127
(1) Perhaps with a more reasoned approach to the region these past 30 years there might be a thawing in the relationship between the Gulf states and Iran, and greater regional security cooperation. (As has happened in other places after US disengagement) There probably wouldn’t be a potential Iranian Nuke. Perhaps there might even be a sensible resolution to the question of Palestine and by extension the situation with Palestinian refugees. And maybe this would have led to a less ambivalent (being generous) attitude towards Israeli aggression in the region, primarily in Lebanon. Maybe a mature approach to the region might have spared it the worst of US policy (sanctions, Iraq 2003, the resulting refugee crisis) All in all your counterfactual is doing a lot of work.
(2) Well with no Iraq war in 2003, a stronger hand with Israel and a meaningful dialogue with Iran, perhaps this Nuke wouldn’t be an issue.
(3) Yeah possibly, though what presence does the US (or International community) need to maintain to prevent this?
(4) Where’s the evidence supporting the concept of regional nuclear arms races?
(5) Well this is speculative and dependant on accepting everything that’s gone before.
(6) To what extent? Can you elaborate?
(7) I think you’re going to have to expand on this. You seem to be accepting that all ‘economic and social reform programs’ in all of these countries serve the same purpose and are all going to be affected equally by this new need to increase ‘state emphasis on military security’. To really make this case I think we’d have to have a deep knowledge of the many forms of state policy in the region, and I don’t think anyone here does.

This is obviously simplistic and overly optimistic, but you’re presenting an incredibly bllinkered, and patronising, position here

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rf 10.25.12 at 8:35 pm

Actually, maybe I read your post too quickly, though I’m not sure how useful it is to talk about ‘a complete US withdrawal of military resources and commitments from the Middle East’, which isn’t going to happen and doesn’t really mean anything, rather than US policy as it has, does and will exist.

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Matt 10.25.12 at 11:48 pm

For various reasons, I’m less happy about the idea of preventing aggression by tossing nuclear warheads merrily about than you seem to be.

Who said I’m happy about the spread of nuclear weapons? I said that nuclear weapons render nations invasion-proof no matter how great the conventional forces arrayed against them. I consider invasion-proofing generally desirable, but if anyone with nuclear weapons behaves non-rationally (or behaves rationally to an imaginary threat, e.g. launches on faulty warning from automated systems) then more people could die in a day than in both World Wars combined. And billions more could die in the years following, depending on just how great the climate impacts are. A nuclear war could easily be the greatest catastrophe in recorded history.

Maybe you consider powerful conventional forces desirable in that they are less of an existential risk than nuclear weapons. But conventional strength can actually encourage nuclear reliance instead of reducing it, at least on the side with relative conventional weakness. NATO relied on tactical nuclear weapons to counter numerically superior Warsaw Pact forces before precision guided munitions were available. Israel developed nuclear weapons at a time when it was surrounded by hostile neighbors and unsure of maintaining its territory with conventional weapons. Pakistan grows its nuclear arsenal because it can never catch up with India on conventional terms. If Iran develops nuclear weapons it will certainly be spurred by the impossibility of defending against its enemies’ conventional forces.

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Bruce Wilder 10.26.12 at 1:41 am

rf @ 129: “Isn’t this a slight contradiction in light of your previous poo pooing of ideational factors in US foreign policy?”

Yes, it is. I am backtracking a bit, because it is not my view that ideas are wholly unimportant, only that ideas tend to be story-telling rationalizations, with many important ideas following or conditional upon, other developments, developments, which form their essential context. And, I wanted to protest against re-ifying ideas, without reference to events or institutional or “structural” developments. Hence, my reference to wanting to find the stud behind the drywall. Ideas can be very important to shaping people’s perceptions of their interests (and with whom they hold common interests, affecting political coalitions and identities), the meanings assigned to political developments and expectations about trends and “progress”. And, because of psychological processes, such as semantic generalization, ideas can have some evolutionary dynamics driven, as it were, not only by “selection pressures”, but by their own logic or a kind of conceptual entropy. I am not unsympathetic with the opinion of Weber, LFC offered @117.

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Peter T 10.26.12 at 1:41 am

Bruce @ 128

There is a tension. But there’s also a coincidence between the interests of a comfortable middle class and the ability of a professional army to encourage arrangements that extract wealth from elsewhere to the benefit of that middle class. The British Empire provided a lot of middle class jobs, both in the UK and abroad. It also provided a fair amount of free land, and a continuing stream of commercial wealth. To a lesser extent, the French Empire did the same. And the benefits to the US of western expansion/the China trade/cheap oil for 30 years and all the rest are also large.

My point was just the narrow one you mention. If I had to explain the larger incoherence, I would start by observing that policy-makers have an occupational compulsion to think that there are no insoluble problems (economists share a bit of this too, partly because they try so hard to be policy-relevant). The result is that where no solution exists, the outcome tends to a kind of endless loop of unsatisfactory muddles, continually fine-tuned with no particular outcome, interspersed with sporadic lunges at some more radical option. Bit like a large dog trying to sleep in a small kennel. In the Middle East, the US wants to both support and restrain Israel, damp down a variety of local tensions, keep other powers out, keep the local powers either on side or impotent, retain influence over oil politics and so on. Since these goals conflict in multiple ways, and since the local players are not clueless (see Iran – the big winner from the Iraq war), and since the world keeps changing, they just keep going around. A set of more democratic policy-makers with the same goals would end up in the same position.

I think Operation Banner supports my case – what proportion of the British army did it tie up? For what result?

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Mao Cheng Ji 10.26.12 at 2:12 am

” In the Middle East, the US wants to both support and restrain Israel, damp down a variety of local tensions, keep other powers out, keep the local powers either on side or impotent, retain influence over oil politics and so on. Since these goals conflict in multiple ways…”

Most of these are not goals, they are means. I think what happened there was that US rulers got scared of nasserism. Preventing any possibility of independent socialist pan-Arabism is the goal. The rest are details.

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Joe 10.26.12 at 2:16 am

Iran’s nuclear ambitions may have something to do with the fact that, as of 2012, there are roughly 40 major military installations in the countries surrounding it. Of the 13 countries that border Iran by land or by sea, 12 are home to US military installations (the lone exception being tiny Armenia.) And this is not counting aircraft-carriers in the Persian Gulf.

Of course they’re looking for some kind of a deterrent – their leadership would be derelict in their duties if they weren’t.

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Bruce Wilder 10.26.12 at 4:50 am

Cranky Observer @ 130

I think it quite plausible, that Cheney was informed by a detailed anticipation of peak oil and its implications for geo-politics, given that he was head of Halliburton, an oil services giant in a better position to know, than almost any other organization.

If I were to say, “Cheney was wrong,” in pursuing the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a U.S. policy, I mean morally wrong, in a deep, profoundly political sense. It is that infectious immorality, and the social and organizational incapacity to oppose it with some articulate and public-spirited identification with a broader national interest, which makes for the “incoherence” of policy.

The Game of Thrones, as played by a Cheney, is not distinguished so much by plans-within-plans or flexibility with regard to goals, as by a pervasive carelessness about the welfare of the realm. The ambition for wealth, honor and power that drive the game is unconstrained by any consideration of the effect on those dominated or on the costs to the bit and background players. For someone in the spectrum of political worldviews occupied by Cheney, domination of others and externalization of costs are as vital, central to the core, and usually unnoticed, as breathing air. If wage suppression to the point of slavery, endemic corruption of officials, depletion of the commons, or pollution of the natural environment build private wealth (and what other kind of wealth can there be?), it’s all to the good.

A Cheney can cunningly anticipate peak oil or climate change, but he anticipates coping and adjusting privately, by the exercise of power in pushing the costs off onto others, onto the losers. The idea of political cooperation for a shared and common good, and the acceptance of constraints on self and the narcissistically valued power of self (Go Galt!), which that entails, is “impractical”.

The kind of world we are making for ourselves and others cannot be contemplated.

I don’t know about the plans-within-plans aspect of the Bush Administration’s Iraq strategy, which looked pretty plan-free on the surface. Maybe, Cheney did acquiesce in throwing $18 billion at ill-planned Iraqi Reconstruction, figuring that the returns on spending that money, corruptly and incompetently, with Halliburton and Bechtel was a kind of bizarro-world version of the economist’s second-best. I think, fundamentally, Cheney simply did not care about the cost to the United States as a whole; I think, fundamentally, he cannot, within the confines of his worldview, calculate on the welfare of an abstract collective — it is simply beyond his comprehension. When his mind glides over the range, from positive-sum game to zero-sum to negative-sum, he doesn’t encounter even a mental speedbump, so focused is he on the relative gains to self (and those like himself, however he conceives that class); if his gains increase, that’s good, and if his relative gains increase because he gains at the expense of others, so much the better.

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Bruce Wilder 10.26.12 at 5:07 am

Peter T: “A set of more democratic policy-makers with the same goals would end up in the same position.”

A set of more democratic policy-makers would have different goals, and feel constrained in different ways by the costs, risk and externalities, and, so, could be expected to arrive in a different place.

Organizing a broad, democratic constituency, though, is costly compared to organizing a conspiracy, even a conspiracy of fools.

144

Cranky Observer 10.26.12 at 11:59 am

Bruce Wilder @ 4:50,
Your posts to this thread have been brilliant and per previous I agree with most of what you said and don’t disagree with the rest. However, I would like to note that one of GRRM’s points in Game of Thrones is that human beings are complex mixtures of motivations, emotions, goals, and actions, some good and some not so good, and it is difficult to pin anyone down definitively [1] – even the powerful who are seeking large personal stakes (and in today’s world, whose actions are documented). IMHO this reflects real political and national life [2]. It is possible that Cheney and his group actually believe that they are acting in the best long-term interests of their nation while simultaneously taking short-term actions that disinterested parties find damaging or incomprehensible, and that they believe that while simultaneously taking actions that benefit themselves and their friends and cause suffering to lesser beings.

Cranky

[1] In my personal opinion post-1992 Richard Cheney is a close to pure evil a human being as we have seen on Earth in a long time. But I try to keep that belief under control as I explore the questions of whether he and his group actually had a long-term plan for their actions, how effective they were in carrying it out (a question I think is quite important to Mr. Quiggan’s OP), and if so whether they achieved any of their goals.

[2] Not surprising given GRRM’s study of the War of the Roses prior to undertaking his very, very, very, very long novel.

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Andrew F 10.26.12 at 1:04 pm

rf @136: I was responding to a hypothetical raised by Stephen @ 121.

Still puzzling over how exactly current US policy in the ME can be characterized as incoherent. One quote from the article:

The crisis in Syria provides an even more graphic illustration of the incoherence of the foreign-policy debate. It is generally agreed that the civil war now raging in Syria is, or ought to be, a matter of grave concern to the United States. The administration’s position, demanding an end to the rule of Bashar al-Assad but taking few concrete steps to bring this about, has been widely criticized. But the proposed alternative policies run the gamut from immediate military intervention on the side of the rebels to tacit, and occasionally overt, support for the status quo.

I don’t see incoherence in policy here. The civil war in Syria is important to the United States; the current policy appears to be the cautious provision of technical and advisory assistance, either directly or by helping other countries do so directly, to rebel factions that appear a good fit for US interests and values, and for a stable and progressing Syria. The US preference that Assad become a former despot must be reconciled with US preferences that Syrian chemical and other weapons do not fall into the possession of radical Islamists, that a recognized and legitimate alternative to Assad emerge from the civil war, which alternative can continue to cohere Syria as a nation-state, that a faction even worse than Assad does not obtain significant political power in a new Syrian government, that any US military involvement is proportional to US interests in the matter, avoidant of involvement in certain regional issues in which the US would prefer not to engage (e.g. the Kurdish question), and has a time-horizon and level of commitment that fit within US domestic political constraints.

And indeed, Romney and Obama largely agreed on the appropriately cautious, current policy as the best way to satisfy those preferences. The only item of disagreement was on the question of the provision of “heavy weapons” to rebel factions.

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Stephen 10.26.12 at 6:49 pm

CO@143
“In my personal opinion post-1992 Richard Cheney is a close to pure evil a human being as we have seen on Earth in a long time”
As the saying goes: for an European a hundred miles is a long distance, for an American a hundred years is a very long time.
Reference Pol Pot, Mao, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, the deplorable Chesney is (from an European/Asian perspective) a mere tiddler. Reference Bokassa, King Leopold or Idi Amin he (from an African perspective) counts for little either.
JQ will doubtless explain, correctly, that he is unmatched for iniquity in Australia.

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Consumatopia 10.26.12 at 7:00 pm

@144, to have a coherent policy, it is not enough to show that you have a valid reason for seeking all the mutually incompatible things that you are seeking. If you have a preference for X, and a preference for Y, but X and Y are incompatible, you can’t reconcile those goals, you have to give one or both up.

You’ve referred to a preference that Assad no longer be in office, and a preference to avoid a number of events that would be more likely if Assad is no longer in office.

Current policy of aiding rebels indirectly is compatible with the first of these preferences, but not the second–given the indirectness of our involvement, our influence is very limited, so the more likely Assad is to fall, the more likely it is that Syrian chemical and other weapons fall into the possession of radical Islamists, or a faction even worse than Assad takes power.

Perhaps there is a consistent set of beliefs that would explain which dictators would the U.S. would prefer to see hold onto power. But no one has managed to explain that set of beliefs here–and it’s certainly not a conversation American leaders are inclined to have with their constituents very often.

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Stephen 10.26.12 at 7:02 pm

Peter T@139
“I think Operation Banner supports my case – what proportion of the British army did it tie up? For what result?”

Tying up? At the peak of the British surge, early 1970s, rather less than 10% of British armed forces. After subsequent collapse of PIRA immediate insurrection, and adoption of the Long War strategy, about 3-4%.

For what result? Haven’t you noticed? Complete defeat of PIRA: abandoning of armed struggle, disarmament of their forces, acceptance that their war aims (British withdrawal from NI, reunification of Ireland whether the northern part wants it or not) are unattainable, cooperation of former PIRA leaders in administering British rule in NI. Latest opinion poll shows only 7% of NI electorate – that is, less than half of Sinn
Fein voters – actually want a reunited Ireland.

Saw a slogan on a wall in NI: BRITS OUT, to which someone had added WITTED THE IRA.

Sorry if I’m treading on your dreams.

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Cranky Observer 10.26.12 at 7:10 pm

Stephen @ 6:49: I’m on mobile do short response, but I am certainly aware of your list and took it into account in making my statement (which includes my estimation of the trajectory of the USA and those attached to it over the next 50 years).

Cranky

Of course, I’m also aware of Keynes observation about the long run.

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Cranky Observer 10.26.12 at 7:16 pm

Consumatopia @ 7:00: IMHO the argument is that a perfectly consistent policy may not be possible, and that institutions and possibly individuals will constantly be struggling with (or repressing awareness of) conflicting goals & strategies.

Cranky

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rf 10.26.12 at 7:24 pm

” Latest opinion poll shows only 7% of NI electorate – that is, less than half of Sinn
Fein voters – actually want a reunited Ireland.”

Sure that’s old news bro. In fact it’s considerable growth from the 73 referendum?

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Stephen 10.26.12 at 8:27 pm

CO @ 149

Apologies, I’d misunderstood you.

If I’ve got it right this time: you are maintaining that the effects of the deplorable Cheney’s policies, over the next 50 years, will turn out to be incomparably worse than the known effects of the policies of Pol Pot, etc.

Obviously, you can’t prove they will, and nobody can prove they won’t.

But a confident opinion that “Richard Cheney is a close to pure evil a human being as we have seen on Earth in a long time” would seem to be dependent on the unknown future, no?

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Stephen 10.26.12 at 8:34 pm

rf@150

There’s an important difference; I’m sure you know it, but not all CT readers will. In 1973, all Catholics were told by Gerry Adams and friends to abstain from voting in the referendum about Irish unity, or else. Intimidation by armed and murderous fascists can be quite effective: the unintimidated vote was overwhelmingly against unity.

Recently, GA (who was never in the IRA, so he wasn’t) can no longer credibly threaten people: the general, unintimidated opinion poll result is still massively against unity. Tough.

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Cranky Observer 10.26.12 at 10:12 pm

Stephen @ 8:27,
I think I’ve laid out my thinking fairly clearly; you are welcome to lay out yours. I’m not particularly interested in being led down the eristic path to “admitting” the neocons were really right and the libruls were responsible for the invasion of Iraq.

Cranky

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Peter T 10.27.12 at 6:06 am

Stephen

I should have been clearer. It’s not “what proportion of the British army as a whole did NO tie up”, but what proportion of British army front-line infantry did it tie up? And what proportion of the disposable reserve were these? Tanks, helicopters, artillery and associated support staff and so on do not count in a low-level conflict (that’s why the people without these go for a low level conflict). Similarly, a conflict that ties up all or most of your reserve is one to avoid (see French in Vietnam – what they lost at Dien Bien Phu was a small fraction of their total force, but pretty much all their reserve).

As for what the IRA gained, well, participation in government (denied for the previous 80 odd years), the formation of all-Ireland institutions and so on. These would have been fiercely denied in the 60s. Sure, they did not get a united Ireland, but its rare that anybody gets what they want out of a war.

Bruce – I agree with almost all you say. But a set of democratic policy-makers might find it easier to abandon some goals, and so achieve the others. Bit hard to say which ones they would let go or keep, though.

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John Quiggin 10.27.12 at 7:49 am

@Andrew F: Romney has taken just about every position possible on every issue, so it’s hard to be definitive, but I understand his official line to be “arm the rebels”
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/world/middleeast/romney-condemns-obamas-syria-policy.html
while other senior Repubs have called for airstrikes.

Others on the political right, are opposed to the entire Arab Spring
http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/article/arab-spring-or-islamist-winter

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rf 10.27.12 at 10:32 am

‘I don’t see incoherence in policy here’

But of course US policy is going to be somewhat incoherent in Syria; it has to be as it’s responding to quickly changing events. Providing some non-lethal assistance while relying on Qatar, Saudi and Turkey to supply (some weapons) while seemingly unsure of how best to protect US interests (what opposition groups to support, whether to push for a ‘stable, democratic post Assad regime’ or fight Iran by proxy) would seem to me to not exactly be a fully formed coherent response. That’s not necessarily a criticism, but that incoherence has been set in from the start, when diplomatic efforts were concentrated on other areas of the uprisings.

Being the NYT and their very special take on the Middle East, this is obviously alarmist, but there will be some amount of truth to it

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/10/15/world/middleeast/jihadists-receiving-most-arms-sent-to-syrian-rebels.html?_r=1

The longer US ‘interests’ diverge (or are seen to) from those of Saudi, Qatar and Turkey, and US agencies build contacts on the ground within the opposition, the deeper the US is going to become involved, which will then shape what US ‘interests’ are. I’m not sure how US policy can be called anything but incoherent, because I don’t see how US policy could be anything but incoherent at the moment.

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rf 10.27.12 at 11:45 am

But Stephen, imho, the idea that operation banner is responsible for any change in attitudes is pretty absurd and undermines the validity of your points about the security forces successes in making the paramilitaries largely un-operational. You’re also arguing a straw-man as you obviously know that Irish unity is now, has really always been and probably always will be mainly a minority concern.

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Bruce Wilder 10.27.12 at 6:48 pm

While I certainly agree that Cheney and his PNAC pals were a highly destructive force, on full reflection, I am not entirely comfortable attributing “evil”, manifest in the doings of governments and nation-states, to a person. Cheney’s character is certainly nothing to admire: a draft-evading war-monger, who thinks it’s fun to get drunk and shoot captive quail with a shotgun, and who used his high office to direct billions to his old employer for shoddy work, etc. There are many indications, that Cheney is not someone about whom I would find much to respect or admire.

Even in a thoroughly authoritarian state, in an advanced state of social disintegration, I am suspicious of explanations that attribute everything that goes wrong to the madness of a single individual, directly or indirectly. Rousseau’s philosophy was not “the cause” of the Reign of Terror, Nicolae Ceaușescu was not the only guilty Romanian, and Pol Pot was not sui generis. The social disintegration, itself, which gives so much scope to a psychopath to operate unopposed or to amplify his madness into state policy, must be noticed, even, or especially, in the extreme and extensive cases. (Yes, you right-wing fools, Richard Nixon had something to do with igniting the horrors that followed in Cambodia.)

The United States is on an ugly path, in its domestic affairs and in its foreign policy, and Cheney helped to put it there. It is popular on the American Left, to attribute power to movement conservatism and its long-term success in building up institutional strength and accumulated, systematic policy change in its favor. But, those trends could, with as much or more justice, be attributed to the failures to oppose or moderate the Cheneys of the Right.

Cranky Observer has mentioned Cheney’s evident turn toward paranoia, after 1992, but I would narrate that differently. What happened after 1992, is that Cheney was no longer constrained by subordination in a hierarchy headed by moderate Republicans, like Ford or Bush I, who had some sense of consequences and a moral compass. All the things about the worldview of people like Cheney, which I complained about, when I wrote

If wage suppression to the point of slavery, endemic corruption of officials, depletion of the commons, or pollution of the natural environment build private wealth (and what other kind of wealth can there be?), it’s all to the good.

all of that can be perfectly fine, perfectly innocuous in outcome, if opposing interests and views constrain the actual outcomes in state policy. Its fine to advocate for lower wages, if someone else can make the case for higher wages, and the outcome is a sensible compromise that respects the full complexity of the case. Any production process is going to produce pollution; that follows from the Second Law of Thermodynamics. A demand from the Left that business produce no pollution at all is as unrealistic, and as apt to produce undesirable results, as an expressed desire from the Right to create environmental destruction as a means of creating wealth. These worldviews are extremes of human ambivalence, and as long as the political conflicts they represent are processed in politics into a policy that finds a rational middle ground, we muddle through reasonably well. It is the elimination of conflict from politics, which produces the “evil” result — the turn to toward an expedient authoritarianism, which respects neither complexity nor the interests of those rendered politically powerless.

Cheney’s worldview — his “realism” and “practicality”, even his ruthlessness at times — were fine, and even healthy, in politics in which they had to be compromised, to accomodate other considerations. If there had been someone to insist on a competent plan and administration of the Reconstruction in Iraq, or to argue the case for an early and certain exit, or to match the paranoia about weapons of mass destruction with a reasonable scheme and schedule for rounding up Iraqi weapons caches and destroying them, etc., the “evil” and “incoherence” of policy, both, might have been resolved.

In the event, Cheney rolled over very weak opposition, in the Bush Administration and in the Senate and in American politics, generally. The Republicans rolled over Democrats to steal the 2000 election. They rolled over Democrats to get approval for the Iraq invasion on the most dubious grounds. They rolled over the left on torture. I could go on and on, and draw parallels on the financial de-regulation, the financial crisis, bank bailouts and Obama’s refusal to prosecute banksters.

At some point, I think, we have to notice the missing element, which distinguishes liberalism from neo-liberalism, the ceding of principle and the dismantling of institutions on the centre-left, which corresponds to the rise of movement conservatism on the right, and has resulted in a politics without essential conflict, and, therefore, policy without vital compromise or inclusive vision.

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rf 10.27.12 at 9:18 pm

That’s a wonderful post Bruce Wilder, if I may say so!

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LFC 10.27.12 at 9:53 pm

JQ @156
never heard of Michael Totten, thks for the link. appears to be a working journalist rather than right-wing propagandist but that’s only an immediate reaction after a couple of mins inspection…

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Cranky Observer 10.27.12 at 10:52 pm

Bruce Wilder @ 6:48,
Brilliant work, however once again I am in the position of agreeing with 98% of what you say but still being left asking my question of Mr. Quiggin at 10.23.12 at 11:12 am: Is it disembodied interests all the way down, or do individual actors/small teams ever come into play? I’ve worked for some good-sized entities and tried my hand as a manager at two, and I’m familiar with how large complex organizations seem to have anthropomorphic structures, goals, and cultures that are more than the sum of their human participants. Still, in any given generation people are going to try to move, change, and use those organizations, and I’m left wondering whether any single person or small group of persons can accomplish that [1] or whether they are deceiving themselves or just nibbling at the margins.

Cranky

[1] Again noting that while supertankers are indeed difficult to steer and to turn they are in the end successfully navigated from port to port.

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William Timberman 10.27.12 at 11:38 pm

The Exxon Valdez. (Sorry, Cranky, but I couldn’t resist.) If something is designed on the basis of potentially disastrous false assumptions, as U.S. foreign policy seems to be, it doesn’t take much inattention to expose them for what they are. Stubbornness only adds to the scope of the disaster, and Cheney is nothing if not stubborn. When a lot of lives are stake, pigheadedness can do just as much damage as evil. Calling it evil is just a handy way to measure the extent of the damage.

As someone pointed out about President Obama’s possible collusion in war crimes, if you bomb one wedding party, it’s a regrettable error. If you bomb two, it’s negligence. If you bomb them repeatedly, it’s policy, and you’re responsible.

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John Quiggin 10.28.12 at 10:01 am

@Cranky Not sure if I’m responding exactly, but on my estimate, the only genuinely important individual player was Rumsfeld. He really believed that a war with a medium-sized third-tier power like Iraq would demonstrate the capacity of the US military to achieve a sustainable and favorable outcome rapidly and with minimal cost, thereby generating a credible threat against any similar power that might ever defy the US. This belief wasn’t shared by Powell (when he ran the military) or by lots of others.

By contrast, I don’t think Cheney mattered much at all. The fact that Iraq had oil guaranteed a lobby in support of invasion to secure it, even if most members of that lobby, including Cheney, had no idea what that meant or how the US was supposed to benefit.

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