A Russian general has threatened military action if the US and its NATO allies go ahead and build a “missile shield” in Eastern Europe: “A decision to use destructive force preemptively will be taken if the situation worsens,” say Russian chief of staff Nikolai Makarov. That the “shield” is of dubious effectiveness, and is mainly a cash cow for US defense companies, are not factors the Russkies are willing to take into consideration: their main beef seems to be the implied insult of Washington claiming the shield isn’t designed to protect against future aggression emanating from Moscow, but against an alleged Iranian missile threat to Europe. Hey, they seem to be saying: what about us? Aren’t we a threat, too?
Well, no – they aren’t. Russia’s population is falling rapidly, and their economy isn’t doing too hot, either. What the oligarchs didn’t loot and spirit out of the country has been either seized and mismanaged by the state, or else is part of the burgeoning black market. The last thing Moscow needs is an empire: they can barely manage what they already have. That hasn’t stopped Washington from manufacturing a phony narrative that imagines a “resurgent Russia” motivated by revanchism and a desire to refight the cold war.
So here we have the spectacle of a phony threat being uttered as a response to yet another phony threat: the Russians aren’t going to preemptively attack Poland, and neither they nor the Iranians represent a real danger to the West. Yet the actors in this little drama are intent on playing out their roles to the end, no matter how disconnected from reality their actions and pronouncements may seem.
Welcome to the foreign policy Theater of the Absurd.
While this absurdist trend has long dominated our domestic politics, it is lately taking over the foreign policy realm: just look at the machinations over Chen Guangchen, the blind Chinese dissident who can’t seem to make up his mind about where he wants to live. First he escapes from house arrest and travels hundreds of miles to the US embassy in Beijing, where he claims asylum. Then he leaves the embassy, saying he doesn’t want to live in exile – but changes his mind almost as soon as he’s out the door, demanding from his hospital bed to be flown “in Hillary Clinton’s plane” to the US with his family. His latest stunt: phoning his demands in to US congressional hearings, with Republican legislators at the other end of the line. This has our State Department in the uncomfortable position of negotiating not only with the Chinese authorities but also with Chen, hoping he will shut up long enough for the public to forget how they allowed themselves to become his captive.
In Syria, Damascus has responded to the international outcry over thousands of deaths reported in the government’s crackdown on armed rebel groups by calling parliamentary elections: over 20 parties, half of them pro-government, are fielding candidates. The opposition has responded with more violence, fueled by arms coming to the rebels from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf sheikdoms, and the US has preemptively declared the UN-brokered peace talks a “failure” even before the elections are held.
Intent on “regime change,” Washington will not be satisfied with anything short of ousting dictator Bashar al-Assad and his Baath Party. The Syrians realize this, of course, but are pretending to go along with their “reform” program for the sake of delaying an all-out military effort by the US and its allies. Both sides claim to want “peace” – and are preparing for war.
Meanwhile, in an election year trip to Kabul, President Obama had his “mission accomplished” moment, minus the banner in the background, declaring the Taliban all but defeated and the Afghans ready to “step up” and take the burden off our shoulders. He did this after having negotiated a preliminary agreement with the government of Hamid Karzai that would bind the US to Afghanistan’s defense for the next 12 years. As Antiwar.com’s John Glaser pointed out, the Taliban, far from being defeated, has effective control of most of the country outside the capital city of Kabul. As for the Afghan security forces: when they aren’t cutting and running, they are shooting at us.
Here at home, discussion of foreign policy in an election year faithfully reflects this absurdist leitmotif: all but certain GOP candidate Mitt Romney criticizes the regime-changing drone-launching Obama for not being aggressive enough, albeit without coming through with any policy recommendations of his own. After a decade of war, the American people are opposed to more military adventurism, but neither of the major candidates embraces this reluctance: instead, they are competing with each other to see who is the most war-like.
Isn’t “democracy” wonderful?
Over in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is gearing up for early elections in September, which (he hopes) will give him a mandate to provoke a war with Iran just before Americans go to the polls. However, anyone who so much as suggests the Israelis and their energetic amen corner in the US are trying to get Uncle Sam to fight their battles for them is promptly labeled an “anti-Semite,” and marginalized. An absurdist foreign policy requires absurdist domination of domestic politics.
The US has been inveighing for years against Iranian unwillingness to negotiate over its nuclear program: however, now that Tehran had taken the plunge it’s the Americans who seem downright cranky, while the Iranian perspective is described as “sunny.” The formerly glowering ayatollahs, who once reveled in their intransigence against the “Great Satan,” are now issuing fatwas against nukes and declaring their willingness to suspend uranium enrichment, while the Americans are refusing to consider lifting sanctions and are darkly pessimistic in their public comments.
The whole issue is moot, in any case, since there is absolutely no evidence Tehran is pursuing the acquisition of a nuclear weapons arsenal, an effort our own intelligence agencies are telling us was abandoned in 2003 and not restarted. Obama campaigned for the presidency on the basis of his willingness to meet with the Iranian leaders and negotiate an end to the crisis, but now that they have taken him up on his pledge Washington is suddenly playing hard to get.
Inexplicable, eh? When you think about it, however, it makes a kind of Bizarro World “sense”: after all, it’s only appropriate that the central ring of our multi-ring circus foreign policy features a nonexistent effort at “engaging” the Iranians over their nonexistent nukes.
The ultimate absurdity, of course, is the spectacle of a bankrupt “superpower” trying to lord it over the rest of the world, while their creditors close in for the kill. With the workforce rapidly shrinking, and the national debt expanding at an exponential rate, foreclosures are once again on the upswing, the housing market may be doomed to sink for the next decade or so, and the American middle class is disappearing. Perhaps another war will distract most people from noticing their descent into penury, but one wonders how long that old trick will work.