The ‘Superpower’ Conceit
It's nothing but trouble
The great foreign policy initiative unleashed by the Obama administration, the one that is supposed to earn our new president a place on Mount Rushmore, is a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian question. This issue has bedeviled American presidents starting with Jimmy Carter and continuing through Bill Clinton, with interregnums marked by Republicans in the White House. Reagan never pushed the issue, having enough on his plate with the Cold War, and as for George W. Bush – well, I don’t want to go there. His father was the last U.S. president to exhibit even a modicum of evenhandedness in the matter. In any case, Obama has taken it upon himself to pursue greatness by trying to untie this Gordian Knot of international affairs and, predictably, has run up against a brick wall.
The Palestinians are ready to negotiate, or, at least, their alleged leadership has taken this stance, but since we have ruled out even talking to the only democratically elected leadership they have, i.e., Hamas, the peace overtures of the Palestinian Authority, presided over by "President" Mahmoud Abbas, are for the most part irrelevant.
The Israelis, on the other hand, show no signs of favoring a compromise. Quite the contrary. Their stance has hardened with the victory of an ultra-rightist coalition in February’s elections. The collapse of the Labor Party, the marginalization of the Israeli peace movement, and the rise of an outright racist and fascist party, Israel Beiteinu, has moved the Israelis into some pretty dangerous territory, which seems to prefigure a radicalization of the general population that augurs ill for the cause of peace.
Heedless of the enormous obstacles strewn in his path, however, Barack Obama is wading into these treacherous waters and has reportedly laid down the law to the Israelis, demanding that they stop expanding the "settlements," and otherwise shifted the inordinately pro-Israel bias of U.S. policy toward a more "evenhanded" approach. The United States, this administration promises, is going to be an "honest broker."
But why, oh, why should we be in the business of "brokering" a compromise over a conflict that has persisted for decades and shows every sign of defying the best intentions? What’s in it for us?
According to the logic of the pro-broker camp, the U.S. has been hampered in its efforts to fight the terrorist threat – al-Qaeda and its allies – by the ridiculously skewed policies of our government in the region. We have supported Israel unconditionally, especially during the eight years of the Bush regime, ignoring the national aspirations of the Palestinian people, and earning the enmity of Muslims everywhere, who identify with their plight. By becoming more evenhanded – i.e., by recognizing the Palestinians’ complaints as being based on legitimate concerns, and not just dismissing them out of hand as "terrorists" – we gain brownie points in the Middle East and help marginalize the extremists who will hate us in any event.
Another argument is that the Israelis are not the best judges of their own national interests. Israeli intransigence, according to this argument, is not only bad for the Palestinians and the U.S., it is also harming Israel, which will eventually be overcome by demographic realities – ruling over occupied territories that harbor Arabs who are fast out-reproducing their Israeli occupiers, so that the Jewish state will one day be overwhelmed.
These arguments – on the surface quite plausible – fall apart when examined up close.
To begin with, the idea that the major complaint of the Arab and Muslim worlds against America has to do with our preferential treatment of the Israelis is largely a myth. Our support for Arab tyrannies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, is far more of a factor, one that impacts the peoples of those countries in a way that the largely abstract Palestinian problem (abstract, that is, to ordinary people on the Arab "street") does not. Sure, Osama bin Laden & Co. score plenty of propaganda points on this question, but to believe that the influence of these groups will be neutralized if Obama wins a Nobel for "solving" the Palestinian question is naïve, at best.
Secondly, the creation of a Palestinian state, far from solving this troublesome question, will no doubt create a whole new set of problems for us and for the Israelis – as the latter recognize all too well. So far, the American conception of this state envisions a government that has no army, no means of defense, and no viable foreign policy options – a government that is not, in fact, a government in any meaningful sense of the word. It will not have a monopoly on the use of force in its given geographical domain, because presumably the Israelis will retain the "right" to launch one of their infamous incursions in the event things get out of hand.
The Israelis rightly ask: What guarantees do we have that this Palestinian state won’t turn into just another terrorist entity, one that will wage a relentless war against Israel and launch attacks of the sort carried out by Hamas on a regular basis? The answer is: there is and can be no such guarantee. So why should they agree to preside over the creation of what promises to be their undoing?
On the Palestinian side of the equation, the objections are even more trenchant: the state we propose can offer them no protection and no means of asserting their national identity in a way that guarantees their security. Nor does it promise the triumph of democracy, or, indeed, any sort of change for the better. They are more than likely to be ruled over by the same gang of kleptocrats and thugs who have stood at the helm of the Palestinian Authority since the time of Yasser Arafat. The one election they were permitted to hold resulted in the victory of a party deemed unacceptable by both Israel and the U.S. – this in spite of the fact that it was George W. Bush’s idea to hold the election in the first place! Palestinians understandably ask, "What’s in it for us?" The answer, unfortunately, is virtually nothing.
The attempt by the U.S. to impose an "honest" brokership is doomed to failure for these reasons and more, yet the Obama administration is determined to move ahead, provoking a reaction inside Israel that is stoking a radical anti-Americanism, the likes of which we haven’t seen or heard since… well, since Osama bin Laden’s latest missive. At a recent demonstration held by right-wing Israeli "settlers" and their supporters, Obama was denounced as a "racist" and an "anti-Semite," while one orator limned al-Qaeda’s favorite line that the U.S. would be "destroyed" and the American empire brought down by Obama’s alleged hostility to Israel.
The worst outcome of Obama’s Middle Eastern "peace" project would be for it to succeed, because, in that event, we would engender growing hostility from both sides, as the impracticality of the arrangements caused the Grand Accord to fall apart at the seams.
The desire by the U.S. to take on this thankless task is based in the same sort of hubris that drove us to invade Iraq (twice). It continues to burden the rest of the region – and the world – with the costs of a seemingly endless war. Who are we, anyway, to be "brokering" anything?
Now we’re getting at the core of the folly that drives U.S. presidents to attempt the impossible, all without a thought for the costs. The "superpower" conceit is one that will die a hard death, but die it must if we are to avoid national bankruptcy and the ruination of the republic. Because, you see, this delusion is unsustainable: we’re bankrupt, and our economy is a shambles on account of our inability to recognize this simple and increasingly unavoidable fact. We cannot continue in this vein for much longer, yet we – in the person of our president – persist, defying the gods and ordinary common sense in pursuit of Nobel prizes and the favor of future historians.
Are we really a "superpower," the world’s last remaining example of this legendary species, the Overman of international politics? The very concept of a "superpower" implies that this is not just some ordinary major power we’re talking about, but one that can successfully defy the odds and reality itself in successful pursuit of its goals. One that stands above history, instead of being ruled by it, and somehow avoids the fate of all previous empires: inevitable decline and fall.
The term "superpower" began to gain currency in the Cold War era, when it was used to define the two nations that faced off in a worldwide struggle for dominance: the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Both nations had nuclear weapons, and in such number that any conflict started by the other would soon result in mutual annihilation. This seemed to define what it meant to achieve superpowerdom. In any case, it was unimaginable that either of these two superpowers would ever fall. They seemed to represent two eternal principles, two immortal forces in perpetual conflict, the yin and yang of international politics.
Which is no doubt why almost no one predicted the end of the Soviet Union – certainly not the CIA, which was caught flat-footed as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. So much for the Soviet "superpower."
Drained by the Afghan war and the continuing costs of subsidizing their Eastern European and Central Asian empire – and finally defeated, I would argue, by the impossibility of economic calculation in a socialist system – the mighty Soviet Union fell victim to what might be seen as a massive heart attack, its vital arteries blocked by clots of hubris that had built up since 1917.
Will America suffer a similar fate?
In essence, the answer to that question is yes. I would qualify that, however, by adding that our own agony is sure to be more drawn out – and, as a result, more painful. The economic powerhouse created by the exertions of an earlier time should not be underestimated: the productive capacity and will to innovate represented by American industry launched a period of unprecedented prosperity, one that, in retrospect, will be looked at by future historians as a golden age. We are still coasting along on the momentum of that great leap forward, but there are many indications that we’re slowing down considerably – and, worse, there are intimations of a coming crash.
The Soviet Union dissolved like a particularly scary nightmare at dawn. Our own demise may be similarly swift, albeit far more nightmarish. If and when it comes, it will have been brought about by the same inability to recognize limitations that laid the Kremlin low. This is how the superpower conceit ends – not in defeat by a better-armed enemy, but on account of its own bloated self-conception.
Forget the Israeli-Palestinian problem. We have problems of our own. If we want to end Arab-Muslim enmity that results from our unthinking and immoral support for Israeli aggression, then there’s a very simple way to achieve this noble aim: cut off all aid to Tel Aviv. Once the $3 billion-plus subsidy is ended, the link between the U.S. and Israel’s racist policies in the occupied territories will end, too. That the Obama administration would never even consider such a "radical" proposal as asking the Israelis to stand on their own feet is all we need to know about the future of our career as an honest Mideast broker. With all this talk of Obama cracking down on the settlement question and demanding "concessions" from the Israelis, when it gets right down to it the president has no real bargaining power. Since Obama can’t, or won’t, threaten Tel Aviv with a withdrawal of funding, Netanyahu and his government can hold out indefinitely, effectively blocking any real progress toward a settlement.
The reason, as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have tirelessly pointed out, is the inordinate power of the Israel lobby to dominate the policymaking process, and specifically the legislative process. The Democratic Party’s fundraising apparatus would suffer a near-fatal blow if the lobby’s wealthy friends decided to withhold their support. Obama may have to choose between a Nobel prize and his party’s political fortunes. And we know which option he’ll choose.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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