The Empire Shrugs

by , January 06, 2009

My early reaction to the Israeli ground invasion of the Gaza Strip is perhaps more U.S.-centered than some others’. But the most significant aspect of the U.S. response, implicitly acknowledged in most news reports and commentary, is precisely that nobody really expects the U.S. to respond in anything other than a ritualistic fashion. The world and, at some level, most American leaders recognize that the U.S. can do little or nothing to affect the situation on the ground.

If there is a truce or a new territorial dispensation following the invasion (depending on its outcome, which is more likely to be mixed than decisive), the U.S. may bless it by holding a meeting in the Imperial City on the Potomac. But the capacity of the U.S. to influence the outcome of the conflict turns out to be marginal at best. And there is little stomach in the U.S. to insert the country into that conflict just now.

Thus, we have had ritualistic statements from the Bush administration blaming it all on Hamas. And of course Condoleezza Rice had to visit and wring her hands in public. This was predictable for an administration that has for the most part been a knee-jerk defender of anything and everything Israel has chosen to do during the past seven-plus years. There’s a slight wrinkle here, however. The administration has focused on criticizing Hamas while not quite endorsing the Israeli attacks unreservedly. And there has been no hint of eagerness to get involved directly, either through hosting mediation meetings, putting U.S. forces on the ground (even as "peacekeepers"), or resupplying Israel’s military (although it would not be surprising if discussions about the latter have taken place quietly). There seems to be a distinct lack of eagerness to be directly involved.

As for Barack Obama, he still has the one-president-at-a-time dodge available to him for a couple more weeks, and he is taking full advantage of it. No comment, no recommendation, no attributable suggestion of how an Obama administration might tilt in this nasty skirmish. Again, the impression can hardly be avoided that the Obama people have no strong desire to get the U.S. more directly involved in the Gaza battles, and would just as soon that it had never happened.

Does all this mean that the U.S. imperial era is passing, and that we are witnessing imperial decline before our eyes? Perhaps, at least in some ways. At the theoretical level the conviction that the U.S. is the "indispensable nation" that has an obligation to intervene when and where it can do so without too wrenching an impact on our consumer culture still holds significant sway among power players. But reality and memory have limited the imperial options, and whether those limitations are acknowledged openly or not, they have an impact on what U.S. leaders are willing to consider.

The most obvious limitation, of course, is that because of the influence of neocon war fantasists on previous decisions, U.S. military forces are effectively tied down and unavailable for deployment elsewhere – not that it is easy to imagine a way that U.S. troops could contribute anything remotely constructive in the current conflict. Those who are being drawn down from Iraq are committed to the Afghanistan conflict (a war perhaps less winnable than Iraq, though Obama still seems committed to it). Even if one could imagine a constructive role for U.S. troops, perhaps as part of a UN-authorized "peacekeeping" force, it’s hard to see where they would come from. Surely not from such deployments as Korea or Germany.

There’s also the little matter of recent history souring U.S. elites on the idea of having a decisive influence in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Democrats will remember that former President Clinton put himself way out there, even getting various parties to Camp David of blessed (if somewhat fuzzy) memory, an effort that fizzled spectacularly. If there are any Republicans thinking about anything other than finding ways to blame someone other than themselves for their present position of relative political impotence, they might remember that just over a year ago the Bush administration announced a year-long (though low-key) effort to make progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace before the Bushlet left office. That effort does not look like a spectacular success just now.

So Americans of both branches of the Government Party have reason to remember that words and even fairly dramatic action by the U.S. have not been all that successful in resolving Israeli-Palestinian problems. The chances of success in the near future are such that most U.S. leaders are content to steer clear of a conflict in which meddling is much more likely to produce clear-cut failure than an outcome that can even be spun as a modicum of success.

Does this mean that the U.S. has reached the status of an impotent empire, so tied down by current and previous commitments that it is unable to exert its influence in intertribal conflicts (which is what the Israeli-Palestinian conflict strikingly resembles)? Not quite. Although the U.S. military can be hidebound and muscle-bound, it is still the largest, best-equipped, and in some respects most competent military on the planet. Recognition that some problems are not conducive to military "solutions" imposed from outside might even make the U.S. military more influential than it is now over the long haul – if it is used, as unlikely as this might seem, only in situations where a military push could be decisive and where core interests of the U.S. are clearly at stake.

Also, while there may be a growing recognition that the U.S. cannot dictate the outcome of every conflict on earth and probably shouldn’t try to, there doesn’t yet seem to be a widespread demand for a new foreign policy or a consensus as to what that policy might look like. There haven’t even been strong suggestions yet that the U.S. should cease subsidizing Israeli military spending so heavily, which might just have an appreciable long-term impact on the ongoing disputes.

Still, the rough consensus among U.S. policy elites that a conflict in an area where the U.S. has a long history of intimate interest and quasi-tribal connections and sympathies with the factions (well, mostly one faction, but empathy for the Palestinians is hardly nonexistent) is one that the U.S. should avoid trying to settle, at least for now, may suggest a potential consensus on the limits of imperial power. One would like to see a more radical reassessment of U.S. policy emerge, but perhaps seeds are being planted.

Read more by Alan Bock