A bad case of imperial impotence

The Middle East crisis reveals that the USA, leader of the Western world, is suffering an acute loss of grip on global affairs.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, has announced the modest ambition to remake the Middle East in response to the current crisis. The image she hopes to project is one of America in command and control of global affairs. It is an image bolstered by many of America’s opponents, who claim US support for Israel’s offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon is the latest stage in the Bush administration’s scheme for world domination, as symbolised by the infamous neo-con Project for the New American Century.

But both sides are indulging in fantasy politics. The reality of events in the Middle East and elsewhere reveals that the USA, leader of the Western world, is suffering an acute loss of grip on global affairs. America today exudes not power and authority but impotence and uncertainty. And the harder it tries to reassert its authority through the ‘war on terror’, the more it risks seeing things blow up in its face.

It is not in America’s strategic interests to back the Israeli offensive. The Cold War years, when the USA needed Israel to act as its local gendarme against Soviet-sponsored Arab nationalism, have long been consigned to history. America’s close ties with Israel have loosened somewhat over the past 15 years, as Washington administrations have sought to build better relations with Arab regimes. Against this background, it makes little strategic sense for America to encourage an Israeli offensive that threatens to destroy the Lebanese state, which Washington has been trying to stabilise, and to polarise opinion across the region.

However, American foreign policy today rarely seems to be formulated on clear, rational strategic grounds. Instead everything is organised around the war on terror. As we have argued many times on spiked since 9/11, this war – fought against an abstract noun rather than an identifiable enemy – is less about achieving specific military goals than about reasserting America’s moral authority at home and abroad, giving the USA some ersatz sense of mission and purpose. These political factors would make it impossible for Washington to condemn an Israeli attack launched in the name of the war on terror, even if Rice wanted to, despite the damage being done in the Middle East. The same one-eyed focus on the war on terror has already damaged America’s strategic interests in the region, as when President Bush suddenly and irrationally declared Iran to be part of his ‘axis of evil’, thus wrecking an important strand of US diplomacy (see Stop fighting a fantasy war over Iran, by Brendan O’Neill).

There are clear parallels here between the crisis in Lebanon and the deteriorating situation in Iraq. The USA now has no strategic interest in continuing its occupation of Iraq, another supposed ‘anti-terrorist’ operation that has done incalculable damage to America’s standing. Contrary to all the claims made by oil-obsessed conspiracy theorists, the Bush administration would love to wash its hands of the Iraqi mess it did so much to create. Yet it cannot simply let go, because of its fears about what impact admitting defeat on any front in the war on terror would have on America’s prestige.

Vice president Dick Cheney put it with characteristic bluntness this week, when he told CNN that the Democrats’ plan for the ‘redeployment’ of US forces in Iraq and the start of withdrawal would signal to the world that America lacks the ‘stomach’ and the ‘will’ for the war on terror: ‘[B]asically it is packing it in, going home, persuading and convincing and validating the theory that the Americans don’t have the stomach for this fight…. You got to remember that the Osama bin Laden types, the Zarqawi types that have been active in Iraq are betting that ultimately they can break the United States’ will.’

So the Bush administration believes that America has to stand firm and fight in the Middle East, not for any particular aim, but to show that it can, well, stand firm and fight.

The trouble is that, behind the hardline rhetoric about terrorism, America’s actions in the region already reveal that it does indeed lack the stomach or will for an all-out war. In Iraq, the US military is largely confined to sheltering in its bunkers within the militarised Green Zone of central Baghdad, waiting for the signal to pack it in and go home. During the current Middle East crisis, the USA has also been sending out mixed messages that spread more confusion than confidence.

Thus Rice refused to call on Israel to desist from attacking targets in Lebanon. Yet she insisted that the Israelis do their bombing in a ‘proportionate’ and humanitarian fashion, and went to both Lebanon and the Palestinian territories to express America’s ‘great concerns about the suffering of innocent peoples throughout the region’. While the Israelis deploy US military hardware, the Americans seek to big-up their sending of humanitarian aid to Lebanon. These mixed messages are reminiscent of the scenes during the post-9/11 attack on Afghanistan in 2001, when US planes dropped peanut butter and marshmallows on Afghan villages as well as high explosives. They symbolise the incoherence and ineffectiveness of an American foreign policy which, far from being a premeditated plot to control everything, appears to be out-of-control and made up in response to events.

Even among its allies within the international community, the USA appears more isolated and ineffective than ever. It remains by far the most important Western power. Yet as the fissures within the Western alliance over the Iraq war have demonstrated, it cannot simply call the shots as it could during the Cold War, when the spectre of the Soviet Union helped to keep the rest of the West in line.

Many have sought to make comparisons between the international response to the current Middle East crisis and what happened during the Suez crisis of 1956. Yet the contrast is surely far more striking. Back then, US president Dwight Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles had the authority to tell Israel, Britain and France in no uncertain terms that they must abandon their military attacks on Nasser’s Egypt. America’s decisive strategy and command were both clear for all to see. Today, there is little evidence of either.

Since these problems are to do with America’s own loss of international standing and national certainty rather than regional issues, they are not confined to the Middle East. On every front where America is fighting its obsessive war on terror, Washington’s desperate efforts to assert its authority seem to backfire badly. For example, we have noted before how, in Somalia, the USA’s search for a bulwark against the advance of militant Islam led Washington to support the ragbag of warlords which had earlier driven American forces out of the country. The result has been to build support for the Islamic forces, which have now overthrown the warlords and effectively set up an Islamic regime that was created by American intervention. The latest American response to this setback? To give the green light to the Ethiopian military to invade Somalia in the hope of holding back the Islamic forces. (See The war on terror self-destructs, by Mick Hume; Somalia: killed by ‘kindness’, by Brendan O’Neill.)

The result of US intervention in the name of the war on terror is to stir up further conflict, and to accelerate the unravelling of Somalia – a process of Balkanisation that also now threatens to destroy Lebanon, Iraq and who knows where else. For what? The war on terror has become an all-purpose justification for a foreign policy lacking any real purpose at all. Its indecisive interventions can only make matters worse for those on the receiving end – and continually threaten to blow up in America’s face.

The USA, and by extension the Western alliance, is suffering from a severe case of imperial impotence. Where once America believed in its Manifest Destiny to lead the world, now it lacks the sense of mission even to tell little Israel what to do. As the new Superman Returns movie has it, the fight for Truth, Justice and the American Way has been replaced by ‘Truth, Justice, and all that stuff’. Or perhaps the war for ‘whatever’, as President Bush might have said in his overheard bumbling conversation with Prime Minister Yo-ny Blair.

Mick Hume is editor of spiked.

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