SOTU and a Destabilized Middle East

President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address treated the Middle East at several points, underlining the unusual importance of this region to the United States.

Obama began by celebrating the end of the Iraq War and of the presence of US troops in that country. Although Obama might have been open to US forces being stationed in Iraq, as they are in South Korea, the Iraqi refusal to grant them legal immunity made it impossible for the president to keep them there.

Ending the war is indeed a great achievement, but Obama may not get so much credit for it because he is too conflicted over the episode to take strong stances.

He praised this generation of soldiers for having made the US safer. It wasn’t clear to me if he was saying that US military activities in Iraq made the US safer, but if so, this assertion certainly is in error.

The Bush administration destabilized Iraq for the foreseeable future, and with it destabilized both the oil-rich Persian Gulf and the greater Eastern Mediterranean. Iraq under the rule of the Shiite fundamentalist Da’wa (Islamic Mission) Party, which came to power under the American occupation is beset by sectarian faction-fighting, is at daggers drawn with Saudi Arabia, has moved closer to Iran, and is now in a shouting match with Turkey.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the head of the Islamic Mission Party in Iraq, has provoked a new round of sectarian violence by charging his Sunni vice president with involvement in terrorism.

On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, slammed al-Maliki for his anti-Sunni policies, warning in essence that if the Shiite-dominated army represses Iraq’s Sunnis, Turkey (a Sunni-majority country) would feel constrained to intervene. Turkey has already made military incursions into Iraq in hot pursuit of Kudistan Workers’ Party (PKK) guerrillas who have attacked military and civilian targets in eastern Turkey.

Turkey’s embassy in Baghdad was targeted by (inaccurate) rocket fire twice last week.

Turkey’s Erdogan and Iraq’s al-Maliki are also at odds over Syria, with Erdogan calling for Bashar al-Assad to step down and al-Maliki more or less supporting the al-Assad government. (Al-Maliki is said to fear that the secular Baath Party might be overthrown by Sunni radicals who will give aid to Sunni insurgents in Iraq).

If you think an unstable Iraq or severe tensions among it and its neighbors is good for American security, you have another think coming.

Obama also underlined the withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Afghanistan and an expected departure of another 20,000 by June, with the Afghanistan National Army expected to take up the slack. (Many provinces have already been turned over).

The Afghanistan and Iraq withdrawals, and the rolling up of al-Qaeda, were presented by Obama as the “waning of the tides of war.” That is, Obama sees himself as drawing to a close an episode of American militarism and foreign adventurism started by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Why he puts this achievement in a passive mood, almost as though he is not the one ordering it, is mysterious to me.

The problems with this way of seeing things are that

a) The tides of war are still strong in northern Pakistan, where President Obama has ordered many drone strikes; in Yemen; and etc. Obama has bought into Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of the whole world as a perpetual battlefield and the US military as a sort of large special forces unit that goes here, there and everywhere without regard for international law.

and, b) one of the big reasons that the tide of war swelled in the first place has still not been effectively addressed: The Palestinians are still being displaced and stolen from and kept stateless and without basic human rights by their Israeli wardens. Muslim radicals repeatedly cited mistreatment of the Palestinians as among their primary motives for attacking the US, but the Israel lobbies in the US have attempted to deflect attention from the reason for which US interests are attacked in the Middle East.

Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring is cautiously hopeful. But pledge to promote American values of democracy and human rights rings hollow for most Arabs, given the way the US joins in in depriving 11 million Palestinians of their basic human rights. Obama came late to all the Arab parties and hasn’t been seen as forceful, even in Libya, where people have a lot of reasons to be grateful to him. (Why did you have to lead from behind? they ask the US). Obama’s pledge to promote “free market” policies was particularly tone deaf, since it seems pretty clear that Neoliberalism was one of the things the masses were protesting last year this time.

Obama again threatened Iran, but also offered peace if it would cease uranium enrichment (to which it is entitled in the Non-Proliferation Treaty).

Still, no speech in which the definitive end of the US military presence in Iraq is announced can be seen as anything other than a success.

28 Responses

  1. It was a great speech and well delivered. Obama is misguided on foreign policy, but he represents the American people in that and is far more knowledgeable and rational than his predecessor in the Oval Office.

    • I am sure Obama would be delighted to hear that you think he is better than the worst president this country has ever had! As for representing the American people’s view of foreign affairs, gee, I personally (as one of the American people) would in theory prefer a leader on foreign policy rather than a follower, given the pathetic ignorance of foreign affairs in this country. Of course, considering where his predecessor led us, maybe a follower is better after all.

  2. Obama “puts this achievement in a passive mood, almost as though he is not the one ordering it” because he doesn’t want too much credit for it. In this country, ending wars is dangerous political ground, and will lose more votes than it gains.

    An additional problem with “seeing things this way,” that is as “the waning tides of war,” is his rhetoric regarding military buildup in the Pacific and confrontation with China.

    • “his rhetoric regarding military buildup in the Pacific and confrontation with China.”

      The U.S. pivot toward Asia is not to engage in a “confrontation with China,” Bill H. Rather, it is to provide a balancing force in the region, a force that most countries in Asia Welcome. Among other things, China claims the entire South China Sea, a claim that has no basis in international law, and one that has Southeast Asian countries nervous.

      • Is that an unsupported assertion, on a really breathtaking scale, straight out of the dead end that is the Great Game of Risk!?

        China claims the entire South China Sea? Which part of “China?”

        And with 11 carrier groups, and all the SLBMs and ICBMs and B-2 and F-Whatever-deliverable nukes, and Littoral Warfighting Capacity, and soon Scramjets able to hit and “Hellfire” the heck out of tall buildings half way around the world, and over 500 “US bases,” and spending nearly half of all the real wealth in the world that gets put into that Advanced Interoperable Networked Battlespace thing, Bill’s old buddies in the Great Game are now about “pivoting toward Asia” as a way of providing a “balancing force in the region”? Got nothing to do with neocon wet dreams of perpetual hegemony? Or the apparently unstoppable growing momentum of the grand militarization of everything?

        How does “US behavior” stack up against that comfortable fiction, raised pretty much only as a curtain of convenient concealment or flag of convenience when it suits some geopolitical jerkery, called “international law?”

        • “Is that an unsupported assertion, on a really breathtaking scale, straight out of the dead end that is the Great Game of Risk!?

          China claims the entire South China Sea? Which part of “China?”

          If you had any knowledge of China and Southeast Asia, JTMcPhee, you would know that it is not “an unsupported assertion.” Chinese maps show a dotted line encompassing the entire South China Sea, and a recent Chinese statement listed the Southe China Sea as a “core interest,” putting it in the same category as Taiwan.

          Of course, I wouldn’t expect a sophisticated analysis of the situation from one who obviously ignores the old adage: “It is better to keep one’s mouth shut and have people think one ignorant, than to open it and remove all doubt.”

        • Wow, a careful parsing of “the record” can be made to show a dotted line on some maps (got a link, or is that “secret?”,) and the kind of “analysis” of a few “words of diplomacy” that is of the order that used to be applied to analysis of apparatchikia, collected or overheard or simply made up, with respect to the former Soviet Union under the deep, mysterious, faintly fearful heading “Sovietology,” in all the skulduggery that led to the militarization and imperialization of America The Beautiful?

          “Core interest:” how very “threatening.” And what do the Intelligence Estimates make of that? Something that can be best addressed by the other kind of thinking that leads to little snippets like this?

          American Navy officers have a line they repeat passionately and often: A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is an imposing and versatile manifestation of the United States’ power. A ship like the Stennis, they say, which was sending aircraft on missions over Iraq one day and over Afghanistan 36 hours later, allows Washington to project influence, unrestricted by borders or basing rights.

          link to nytimes.com

          “Influence.” Bomb-bomb-bomb, bomb-bomb Iran. Or wherever. Whenever. Whatever.

          Whatever anyone thinks of air power, without munitions and the people who know them, she said, “this ship would just be a floating airport.”

          There was something to this. At the end of the long chain of events that puts a carrier near a coastline and Navy strike fighters within range of a ground target, beyond the release point where the aircraft lets go of its ordnance, the final act lies with each missile or bomb descending through the air — which depends on the sailors who assembled it here.

          Now the trick is to sell the notion that the Chinese military and civilian rulers are seeking some kind of presence and parity with the US Networked Battlespace, right? Where are the US “core interests?”

          The scary part is that people who think this way end up, by preference and application and tendentiousness and persistence, driving the gross behaviors of nations. “Everybody who knows anything, knows that what you say is the reality, and any dissenting or questioning voice is just unsophisticated” is still an unsupported and, looking to species survival rather than short-term hegemony, insupportable assertion.

          By the way, one meaning of “sophisticated” is “unduly refined,” another is “pretentiously or superficially wise,” and in older times (and in a faint, slightly distasteful echo, in the more recent usages) it meant “spoiled or debased,” as in “the vintner sophisticated his wine with sugar of lead to make it seem sweeter.”

        • You know, rather than behaving like George Bush and merely checking your gut to see whether the statement “China claims the South China Sea,” is ideologically acceptable and consistent with your pre-packaged rant, you could have done the reality-based thing and done some research on the matter.

          link to en.wikipedia.org

          No, Mr. McPhee, it is not an unsupported assertion, it’s not a breath-taking scale, and it has nothing to do with Risk.

          It’s a well-established, well-known fact, which doesn’t disappear because you find it politically inconvenient.

        • I read the “Nine Dot” wiki article, and a few of the few other articles googled up under the main headings. It sure seems like the “well-established, well-known fact” might best be characterized as the same kind of broad, even more ambiguous claim of hegemony that I referred to the US geopoliticians making toward the whole world.

          Even the wiki article makes it pretty clear that no one seems to know what a set of dashed on a map first put out by Chiang Kai-Shek’s notably democratic Kuomintang in 1947 or thereabouts might actually mean or portend. The “security” reflex is of course to assume this is all about “taking over,” and to throw a few hundred billion in new hair-trigger warfighting resources into the area. On the assumption that Chinese generals and leaders are just as arrogant and grasping, if maybe, as heirs to Sun Tzu, more subtle and crafty than our own. All of them contributing their little bit to the global game of Risk!, at a rather large cost to the whole planet.

          So let’s all do like some of the “experts” in the Game have done, and look around for any evidence that “they” are trying to encroach on “our” claims of hegemony. Eleven-dot? Nine-dot? Claims of sovereignty or economic interest, or just certain kinds of humans doing what they do, “perceiving threats” or imagining threats, or issuing dire warnings about dark plots they just know are hatching over the horizon? What, other than “good reasons” to fill the Area of Operation that includes the South China Sea with US “assets,” is the substance of that set of dashes on a map? Other than to the suspicions and aspirations of people like the Committee on the Present Danger, which is all about making sure the US does first, fastest and biggest what the Committee is just sure that “terrorists” and now ChiComs are up to? How does bankrupting our economy and culture, fiscally and morally, to “protect the US sphere of influence,” get the most of us anywhere good?

          First, the Rooskies were gonna try to take us over, and then the Chinese… Gotta be ready. And if that means huge costs to set up the conditions that result in a global conflict, and then the ignition of that conflict, well hey, it was all done with the best patriotic intentions. No profit motive or ego-stoking at all.

          A cop stops a guy walking around downtown L.A. with an elephant gun on his shoulder. “What the heck do you think you are doing with that big rifle?” “Keeping the wild elephants away,” says the guy. Cop says “There’s no wild elephants within 10,000 miles of here, bub!” Says the guy with the big gun, with a smug little smile, “See? It works! Now let me go on about my business.”

          Not to worry, though — you guys have the momentum, and all the big guns, and your hands deep in the public pocketbook.

  3. The end of the Iraq war can be seen as a success — if “success” is defined as “trying to continue the war but failing because the Iraqi government wouldn’t grant US forces immunity.”

    • Remind me, Jonathan, who was it that made immunity a non-negotiable demand in the first place, when Malaki approached him about having a continuing mission in Iraq?

      Oh, that’s right: Barack Obama.

      Boy, he was really pulling out all the stops while “trying to continue the war,” wasn’t he?

    • It has been suggested that Obama made the intrasigent demand for immunity deliberately to sabotage the negotiations. He did not really want to “extend the mission” but wanted to conceal his motives. So, while openly negotiating to stay, satisfying those voters who wanted ongoing hegemony, he trashed the negotiations with this demand, thereby getting what he really wanted, which was all troops out, and still looking strong and maintaining an appearance of not having been “bested” by Maliki.

      That would imply a pretty steely set of nerves and some high level stragegic intelligence, and I would suspect Obama has both capabilities. I don’t know if the theory is true, but it certainly is possible.

  4. “Why did you have to lead from behind [in Libya]? they ask the US.”
    Isn’t this a double standard? “They” (Arabs) condemn American participation in overthrowing Saddam–surely as brutal a dictator as Ghadaffi–but say we did too little in Libya. What is the right amount of intervention? And what would “they” like us to do about Syria?

    • Libya had a genuine uprising, which we supported. There was no popular movement in Iraq in 2003 (unlike in 1990 in the south). We invaded Iraq for our reasons.

    • Now that you mention that:

      Obama’s reaction to the Arab Spring is cautiously hopeful. But pledge to promote American values of democracy and human rights rings hollow for most Arabs, given the way the US joins in in depriving 11 million Palestinians of their basic human rights.

      Also the way the US supported Mubarak for 30 years and supports dictators in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Kuwait today, and supports efforts today for Egypt’s military dictatorship to maintain hold of power.

      Obama came late to all the Arab parties and hasn’t been seen as forceful, even in Libya, where people have a lot of reasons to be grateful to him. (Why did you have to lead from behind? they ask the US).

      I haven’t seen a quotation of any Libyan asking the US that.

  5. And Newt just got another $5,000,000 from Israeli duel citzens Adelson and his wife to keep up the pressure for bombing Iran.

    Over at Anti-War.com Justin R. thinks Israel will be a wedge issue in the upcoming campaign, with someone like Newt proclaiming…You’re either for Israel or you’re for Iran kind of rhetoric. The game plan would be to box Obama into attacking Iran to save his re-election bid.

    Of course, it wouldn’t be the first time a sitting president gave orders to attack a country that didn’t have nuclear weapons.

  6. I was also depressed by his (admittedly obligatory) pledge of unconditional support for the extremist government of Israel, and his touting the US’s close military ties to the Israeli army.

    I realize that during an election year, the successful candidate must pander slavishly to the AIPAC lobby. It’s much less the money than the attack barrage that WILL be unleashed if the pander is inadequate, or worse.

    But I still feel that the President – or someone – really needs to start America’s re-education process as to what’s been going on in Palestine. The facts should trigger Americans’ sense of justice, sympathy for the underdog, and even inspire a backlash against the decades of lies.

    … oh, that might explain why no “responsible” pol does it.

  7. The USA can intervene in an area to stabilize, or to destabilize, and will do whichever one is in the political and economic interests of the decision makers.

    Although US involvement in the Middle East is comparatively recent, compared to its long history in Latin America, since the end of WW2 the US has almost constantly been involved in conflicts in this region. One of the first was the regime change in Iran in the early 50s, which stabilized that nation and its oil output for almost 25 years. The US also intervened in Iraq (several times), Libya, Lebanon, Somalia, Kuwait, Sudan, Yemen, Syria and the Suez, with varying levels of success.

  8. Although Obama might have been open to US forces being stationed in Iraq, as they are in South Korea, the Iraqi refusal to grant them legal immunity made it impossible for the president to keep them there.

    Pray tell, Professor, who was it that decided that it was impossible to keep American troops in Iraq unless they had legal immunity? Oh, that’s right – President Barack Obama.

    Apparently, he was so “open” to keeping American troops in Iraq that he, himself, made it impossible to keep them there.

    You knew the Iraqi parliament would never grant that immunity. I knew it. Malaki knew it. My cat knew it. But we’re talking as if Barack Obama didn’t know it when he made that immunity a non-negotiable demand?

    Perhaps there’s some other reason why, instead of giving a wavering ally a straight-up “No” to his request, he gave an answer that amounted to “No” but put the blame for the “failure” on the ally himself.

  9. Regarding Obama’s support for democracy in the ME: he just approved the sale of 60 billion dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. This means the US will have to support the Saudi regime for years so that they can pay their bill to Boeing.

  10. I’ve never seen even this strong an indication that the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program might have a resolution:

    link to nytimes.com

    In other words, Iran would have to become a country like Japan, which has the capability to become an atomic power virtually overnight, if need be, but has rejected taking the final steps to possessing nuclear weapons. “If you’re asking whether we would be satisfied with Iran becoming Japan, then the answer is a qualified yes,” a senior European diplomat said. “But it would have to be verifiable, and we are a long ways away from trusting the regime.”

    If Obama had said this, or ever says this, the dispute over Iran’s nuclear issue is over.

    What Obama said in the State of the Union, that Iran could avoid war only by accepting its obligations, meaning the UNSC resolutions that demand an indefinite (permanent if the US chooses) suspension, was not progress at all.

  11. The tides of war are still strong in northern Pakistan, where President Obama has ordered many drone strikes; in Yemen; and etc. Obama has bought into Donald Rumsfeld’s vision of the whole world as a perpetual battlefield and the US military as a sort of large special forces unit that goes here, there and everywhere without regard for international law.

    International law quite explicitly authorizes actions against hostile forces in locations where the local government cannot or will not take action against them themselves. Rather than “the whole world,” it is only certain specific locations where this situation obtains where the United States is taking military action. There are, no doubt, al Qaeda in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Europe, but we aren’t using military means in those places.

    But in a larger sense, the tide of war is receding in those places, too. The Obama administration does not view the war against al Qaeda a perpetual war, like Rumsfeld’s War on Terror, but as a discreet one that can be ended with the destruction of al Qaeda’s command structure, and one which we are quite close to accomplishing.

    I think Obama’s plan is to declare that war over before the end of his second term.

  12. “The Palestinians are still being displaced and stolen from and kept stateless and without basic human rights by their Israeli wardens. Muslim radicals repeatedly cited mistreatment of the Palestinians as among their primary motives for attacking the US,”

    This will be the primary motive until the world wakes up as to just how dangerous Netanyahu and his thugs are. Zionist influence through AIPAC in the US and ‘fiends of Israel’ in the UK is blatant and rampant, they are effectively manipulating foreign policy in both those countries to achieve their eventual goal of a casualty free expansion of their territory.

      • You’re probably thinking of either President Obama’s executive order to close it down, or of Congress’s bill forbidding him from spending any money to do so, or to house prisoners from there in American prisons.

  13. Considering that the Syrian regime was the primary supporter and facilitator of the Iraqi “insurgency,” your oft-repeated characterization of Maliki’s motives ismost unconvincing. Maliki is simply following the orders of his Iranian benefactors, just as Bashar was coordinating with them to support the Iraqi resistance/insurgency.

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