|May the source be with you, but remember the KISS principle ;-)|
|Contents||Bulletin||Scripting in shell and Perl||Network troubleshooting||History||Humor|
|News||See also||Recommended books||Recommended Links||Economic costs of American Exceptionalism||The History of Media-Military-Industrial Complex Concept||What's the Matter with Kansas|
|Andrew Bacevich on the American militarism||Diplomacy by deception||National Security State||The delusions of global hegemony||Neo Trotskyism aka Neoconservatism||Understanding Mayberry Machiavellians (Rovism)||Anti-Americanism|
|National Security State||Neo-fashism||Nation under attack meme||National Socialism and Military Keysianism||Is national security state in the USA gone rogue ?||Corporatism||Authoritarian Corporatism|
|Anatol Leiven on American Messianism||Inside democratization hypocrisy fair||Fighting Neo-Theocracy||American Exceptionalism as Civil Religion||Quotes||Humor||Etc|
Dec 21, 2004
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (2004)
Anatol Lieven is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. A journalist, writer, and historian, Mr Lieven writes on a range of security and international affairs issues. He was previously editor of Strategic Comments published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.
Anatol Lieven’s journalism career includes work as a correspondent for the Times (London) in the former Soviet Union from 1990 to 1996. Prior to 1990, Lieven was correspondent for the Times in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also worked as a freelance journalist in India. Mr Lieven's articles have been published in a number of journals and newspapers, among them The Financial Times, The London Review of Books, The Nation, and The International Herald Tribune.
In this interview with Asia Society, Mr Lieven addresses the urgent foreign policy issues confronting the United States in the theoretical context laid out in his recent book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (New York: Oxford UP, 2004).
You argue in your book, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism that American policies following the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, "divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger." You suggest that this response must be understood in the context of the particular character of American nationalism. What are the features of American nationalism that are important in this respect?
In the book I suggested that there are two principal features of American nationalism, both of which were evident in the response to 9/11. These are, in spirit, to a great extent contradictory but they often run together in American public life. The first is a certain element of American messianism: the belief in America as a "city on the hill," a light to the nations, which usually takes the form of a belief in the force of America's example. But at particular moments, and especially when America is attacked, it moves from a passive to an active form: the desire to go out and actually turn the world into America, as it were, to convert other countries to democracy, to the American way of life.
In principle, the desire to spread democracy in the world is of course not a bad thing. But there are two huge problems with it. One is that because this element of American messianism is so deeply rooted in American civic nationalism, in what has been called the "American Creed", and in fundamental aspects of America's national identity, it can produce - and after 9/11 did produce - an atmosphere of debate in America which is much more dominated by myth than by any serious look at the reality of the outside world. Myths about American benevolence, myths about America spreading freedom, myths about the rest of the world wanting America to spread freedom, as opposed to listening to what the rest of the world really has to say about American policies.
The second feature that cuts across this American messianism, however, is what I have called the "American antithesis", that is to say, those elements in the American nationalist tradition which actually contradict both American civic nationalism and the American Creed. These elements, which are very strong in parts of America, include national chauvinism, hatred of outsiders, and fear and contempt of the outside world. This is particularly true in the case of the Muslim world, both because America has been under attack from Muslim terrorists for almost two generations now, but also because of the relationship with Israel, and the way in which pro-Israeli influences here have contributed to demonizing the Muslim world in general.
This results in an incredible situation: on the one hand - and I am speaking here particularly of the neo-cons - the Bush administration wants to democratize the Muslim world, while on the other, neo-conservatives do not even bother to hide their contempt for Muslims and Arabs. Sometimes you hear, and even read, phrases like, "The only language that Arabs understand is force," "Let them hate us so long as they fear us" and so on. This is utterly contradictory: people saying they want to democratize the Arab world but displaying utter contempt for Arab public opinion. Of course this is not just a moral failing, or a propaganda failing. It also leads to practical disasters, like the extraordinary belief that you could pretend at least to be introducing democracy, and on the other hand, you could somehow impose Ahmed Chalabi on Iraqis as a pro-American strongman, and that somehow the local population would line up to salute you and happily accept this.
So these are very dangerous aspects of American nationalism. And these aspects by the way used to be very sharply and profoundly analyzed by great figures in the American intellectual tradition, conservative as well as liberal: figures like Reinhold Niebuhr, Richard Hoftstadter, Louis Hartz, George Kennan and William Fulbright. Though most of these figures were strong anti-Communists, they directed their critique at the reasons for the particular anti-Communist hysteria of the early 1950s, and at the reasons which led America to become involved in the war in Vietnam. And their arguments and insights are of tremendous importance to America today in understanding American behavior after 9/11.
But one of the striking and tragic things about the debate leading up to the Iraq war - although one can hardly call it a "debate" - was that the vast majority of it, outside certain relatively small left-wing journals, was conducted with almost no reference to the genesis of the Vietnam war, the debates which took place then, and the insights which were generated about aspects of the American tradition. Instead of analyzing what it was about their own system which was pulling them in the direction of war with Iraq, too many members of the American elite, including leading Democrats as well as Republicans, talked only about the Iraqi side.
Even that, of course, they got completely wrong, but they did not even once ask the obvious question: "What is it about our system that may make this a disaster?" After all is this not a general pattern of American behavior in the whole world by now? This business of a Green Zone in Baghdad, American officials bunkered down behind high-protective walls, with no contact with Iraqis, is this not part of a larger trend? Yet somehow it was assumed that in the case of Iraq it would be different, that America would go in, be welcomed with open arms, quickly reshape Iraq in accordance with American norms, and then quickly leave again.
You have said that, "Belief in the spread of democracy through American power is not usually consciously insincere. On the contrary, it is inseparable from American national messianism and the wider 'American Creed'". You have just talked about some of this, but could you elaborate your definition of American national messianism? And what do you think enables such naiveté - or perhaps cynicism?
As the American historian Richard Hofstadter said, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies but to be one." What really marks out America from the other Western democracies is not the content of America's democratic creed - because the basic principles are commonly held in all the democracies. Rather, it is the intensity and conformity with which these beliefs are held. This is because, precisely as Hofstadter said, these principles are or are felt to be essential to holding America together; that is, they are an essential part of the American national identity in a way that they are not to the British or the French or the German national identities.
This difference between the US and Europe may change of course because of the huge immigrant populations in Western Europe now. Western European countries too are having to rethink their identities and emphasize common values rather than common heritage or ancestry. But certainly up to now, America has stood out because of the extent of its commitment to this so-called American Creed. I should say here that the word 'creed' was chosen for this advisedly by a series of American thinkers (though the original phrase was G.K.Chesterton's) as suggesting an almost religious form of belief.
The extent to which this is fundamental to the American national identity and is widely believed to keep Americans together means that it is very difficult in this country to challenge these myths. They are also remarkably impervious to experience. Vietnam did not fundamentally change them, it only battered them for a while. Endless lessons in the Middle East have failed to change them. Now, despite the lesson of Iraq, there are still leading Democrats writing about the need to create alliances of democracies and spread democracy in the region. Not to ask what the people of the region actually want, not to ask about a sensible diplomatic strategy, but to use democratization as a substitute for any real strategy. This comes again from a central part of the American national and nationalist heritage.
There is some continuity in American foreign policy, as you suggest, from the Bush Sr. administration through Clinton to the present Bush administration. Although you argue that Clinton's multilateralism was more befitting of a stable hegemonic state, is it not the case that as far as policy is concerned, this was only a change in form rather than substance? And if so, what accounts for this extraordinary unanimity in foreign policy between the only two serious political parties in this country (further evidence of which was the Kerry campaign's inability to offer any policy alternatives to the most pressing foreign policy issues presently confronting the US: Iraq and Israel-Palestine)?
On the Middle East, both of the American parties are, frankly, crippled above all by their inability to confront the question of America's relationship with Israel. Indeed not just to confront it, but even to mention it, as we saw in the presidential debate.
On a range of other issues, though, Bush has not actually been as bad as many people think, or at least he has been much closer to Clinton - whatever that means. In the case of China, for example, the Bush administration came in with a very un-Clintonesque policy of confronting China, of containing China - and this could have led to some extremely dangerous results. But then 9/11 came along and ever since, the Bush administration has been pursuing an extremely Clintonesque policy of engaging China, of putting pressure on Taiwan not to declare independence, and so on. There was that moment in the presidential debates when it was Bush who was saying that the US needs a multilateral policy towards the threat of North Korea with a key role for China; a curious irony given the Bush administration's frequent celebration of its own unilateralism, but not actually wrong. Similarly with Russia, while I would not necessarily describe the Bush administration's policy as multilateralist, they have certainly been pursuing a very traditional, pragmatic, realist policy, and not an aggressive one.
The area where the Clinton and Bush administrations have moved farthest apart is in relations with Europe. Clearly the Bush administration is not nearly as interested in Europe as Clinton was,and it is not nearly as interested in NATO. I should emphasize here that it was not interested even in the eight months before 9/11, let alone afterwards. If Gore had won in 2000, there would have been a very real difference: he would have made a much greater effort to engage NATO and to consult with European governments after 9/11.
That does bring out certain key differences between Bush and the Clinton tradition. Of course they are both interested in expanding America's power in the world; they are both imperialists, in a certain sense. They both profess at least their belief in spreading democracy. But Clinton, I think, was much more of a genuine Wilsonian. Bush in many ways is a fake Wilsonian because while he professes this messianic, democratization line, he has completely ignored the other key aspect of Wilson's strategy: international cooperation, international institutions, creating a web of alliances and so forth. Clinton talked about this a great deal and was savagely attacked by the right-wing in this country for doing so. Clinton's idea was to place "America at the center of every world network" - a position which implies influence, leadership, and even hegemony, but also consultation and negotiation.
So when it comes to the differences between Bush and Clinton, and the similarities, one requires a rather nuanced picture in which in some ways they are closer than it appears, but in other ways, they are genuinely quite different.
In several articles and in your book, you point out that unlike in previous empires, the vast majority of ordinary Americans do not think of themselves as imperialist, or as possessing an empire. At the same time, you mention repeatedly the extent to which the American population is unaware of the policies pursued in its name, is indeed alarmingly ignorant of world affairs. Given this, how could they conceive of the United States as an imperial power? And why is the perception of "ordinary" Americans relevant to understanding the place of America in the world today?
If I remember rightly, according to a poll in Britain in the 1930s, a very small proportion of the British population could remember the name of more than two British colonies. They could remember maybe India and Australia, or probably they remembered the white colonies, but most of them could not remember the name of a single African colony. No one would ever have used that as an argument that the British people did not believe in empire; they were just ignorant.
In the book, I quote C. Vann Woodward on this subject, another great American critic of the past, whose insights I wanted to try to revive for contemporary Americans. Woodward talked about the American people as being bellicose but not militarist, and I think it is also true that they are bellicose but not imperialist. That said, this kind of bellicosity, this instinctive reaction to lash out if attacked or even if insulted, has been repeatedly, and by the way quite explicitly on the part of the neo-cons, used as a way of whipping up nationalist anger, and nationalist commitment to what are in fact imperialist projects.
This is a very old tradition in imperialism. In my book, I cite many examples from history to show that in general even at the height of the Western empires, ordinary Western people were not really very interested in great imperial projects if they were going to be expensive. They liked the idea of power and glory but they were very dubious about losing lives and spending large amounts of money to go out and conquer bits of Africa and so forth. If they could be convinced that this was not simply an imperialist project, but rather part of national rivalry with France or Germany, then it was possible to generate much more support.
In some ways, the American people do fit into this tradition. It is quite clear, for example, that even most of the ones who do consider themselves imperialist would be dead against the reintroduction of conscription in America. Even if it were proved to them that conscription was absolutely necessary in order to maintain America's imperial power in the world, they would not be persuaded. Equally the assorted jackasses who bray in the media about the American empire and the need for great sacrifices in its cause have shown no very ardent desire to go and serve themselves in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else.
There is therefore a good deal of lack of underlying commitment to American power on the part of Americans themselves. More commitment certainly than exists almost anywhere else in the world by now but still not enough to generate a really full-scale imperial project. This also explains in part the relative pragmatism of the Bush administration in some areas of the world. After all even this administration recognizes that it cannot simultaneously run its present program in the Middle East and risk war with China and radically alienate Russia. If there were war with China or with North Korea then America would have to reintroduce conscription. Then the end of the American imperial project would be very close indeed.
Another differentiating feature of 19th century empires and the American empire is that the former were characterized by the so-called "civilizing mission" whereas the latter, in its self-conception, is motivated by the purely benevolent aspiration of spreading democracy and freedom. Are these two imperial strategies not more similar than they at first appear?
Well in some ways, yes, of course. The 19th century liberal-imperialist strategy was also enormously benevolent in its own esteem. The European powers conquered most of Africa while assuring their own populations and everybody else who would listen that this was all part of the process of ending slavery, expanding progress, bringing peace, spreading Christianity and so forth. Even the most ghastly European colonial project of all, King Leopold of Belgium's conquest of the Congo, professed benevolent goals: Belgian propaganda was all about bringing progress, railways and peace, and of course, ending slavery. In other words, hypocrisy is completely common to both, as it was to the Soviet or communist imperial project. So in that way they are very close.
But there is a critical difference. There was no absolutely intrinsic or self-evident clash between what the 19th century liberal imperialists said that they were going to do - leave aside what they actually did in terms of massacres, land theft, etc. - in terms of bringing progress and the inherent nature of their project, these were not radically incompatible because the 19th century liberal imperialists never talked about quickly bringing democracy to the countries they conquered. To have done so would have been logically completely counter to the assumptions of Western superiority and "native" cultural inferiority and incapacity for self-rule upon which the entire ideology of the "civilizing mission" was based.
When they did talk of bringing democracy, they only did in the context of the far future, something that might come about after several generations; in Africa, they talked about a thousand years of British or French rule eventually leading to self-government and democracy. In other words, they were absolutely clear and logical. These countries would need a long period, centuries literally, of Western authoritarian, imperial rule before they would be capable of self-government, constitutional rule, democracy and so forth. Indeed to an extent this was the way that it actually worked out: the British had ruled India or parts of India for 150 years before they introduced the first very limited local, district elections with fairly circumscribed powers and a franchise of less than 0.5 per cent of the population. They started doing that only from the 1880s on. They and the other liberal imperialists had a policy of what one might call authoritarian progress, not of democratization.
Now, of course, it is completely different. The liberal imperialists of today, because of the completely different ideological era in which we are living, have to say that what they are bringing is democracy. So they conquer a place and then within a year or two, they have to hold elections, they have to claim to be introducing free government and so forth. That is just, once again, absolutely, manifestly contradictory. There would have been nothing contradictory in the 19th century about imposing Ahmed Chalabi on Iraq; the British and French did that kind of thing again and again. They had some client ruler, some dissident prince or whatever, whom they wanted to make emir of Afghanistan or of somewhere in Africa, and they just marched in and imposed him. People may have criticized it, but there was no suggestion that this was incompatible with what they were setting out to do. Of course, if you say that you are bringing democracy, if you preach about democracy, if you say your whole moral position is based on democracy, and then you impose a puppet leader, then frankly you look not just hypocritical but ridiculous, which is essentially how the US appears in much of the Muslim world.
In the wake of nationalist movements in the colonial world, imperial powers - in particular Britain - slowly ceded a variety of powers to local elites, in effect developing sophisticated ways of ruling through them (what Marxists called a "comprador elite"). Is it possible to say that the US empire runs the Third World - of which the Muslim world is an important part - through such a model of what has been called "indirect rule"?
Yes, to a considerable extent this is the case. Of course the comprador model, in the strict Latin American sense, never quite fits because very few governments elsewhere in the world have been so completely subservient as some of the Latin American elites in the past. After all, Egypt still tries to take a different line on Israel; Jordan supported Saddam Hussein in 1991; Saudi Arabia could be seen as a comprador state in that it exists to produce and export oil, but clearly in its internal arrangements, it is not at all responsive to what America would like.
Perhaps it may be more difficult these days to run such manifestly comprador systems given that, as I suggested earlier, there does tend to be more democratic pressure from below than in the 19th century. A good example is Russia, although admittedly Russia also has its tradition of Great Power status and so forth which prevents it from becoming completely subservient to America. As I wrote in a previous book on the reasons for Russia's defeat in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996, there was a real attempt by America in the 1990s, with tremendous help from the Russian elites themselves, to turn Russia into a kind of comprador state, whose elites would be subservient to America in foreign policy and would exist to export raw materials to the West and transfer money to Western bank accounts. In the end, neither the Russian state nor the Russian people would accept that. The Yeltsin order was replaced by a kind of authoritarian, nationalist backlash under Putin. One sees the same thing in a rather different form in Venezuela, for example.
So I think there are strong elements of this comprador tradition in the present American-dominated international system but at the same time it is a troubled and contested setup.
You have said that the era inaugurated by the attacks of September 11th, 2001, brought out into the open "the complete absence of democratic modernization, or indeed any modernization, in all too much of the Muslim world." What do you mean by modernization, and how is its absence related to the professed motivations for earlier imperial conquests?
How many hours do I have! Modernization is after all such a tricky concept. If we take our canonical attitudes to modernization from Max Weber, as most of us do, unconsciously at least, then of course, as I wrote in the book, America itself today does not conform to Eurocentric patterns of modernization!
Certainly much of the Muslim world - not all by any means, there are exceptions, but certainly large parts of the Middle East - does not conform to many of the criteria laid down by Weber for successful modern states. These countries have clearly not been able to imitate some of the East Asian countries in bringing about radical economic growth and reform. Many of these countries remain ruled by what are essentially clans. The famous unkind phrase of Charles Glass of Arab states being "tribes with flags" is, I am afraid, rather accurate. Syria is a monarchy of the Alawite clan. The Ba'ath started very much as a modernizing fascistic movement, like fascists in Italy, but broke down into a kind of monarchical oligarchy. Then there are the formal autocratic monarchies in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco. As East Asia has demonstrated, authoritarian rule as such is not necessarily an obstacle to economic modernization and progress. But then again, this has not worked in the Middle East either.
One of the tragedies is precisely that so many different models have been tried in the region and all in a sense have failed, if not absolutely then certainly to bring the countries concerned up to the economic level of the West or East Asia. The failure to compete successfully with the West has been horribly demoralizing in view of the Muslim world's past cultural and economic superiority, now followed by several hundred years of relative decline. Just as for several centuries Muslim states exploited the relative weakness of the Christian world to expand their power, so later Western states took advantage of Muslim weakness to conquer most of the Muslim world. This was followed by the establishment in the heart of the Muslim world of Israel, a tremendously militarily and economically successful Western surrogate power. Israel's successes, and Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, have underlined various aspects of Arab failure. Israel is in no sense the originator of these historical feelings of resentment and humiliation, but in recent decades has acted as a catalyst and focus for these older and deeper feelings.
If you take the example of Pakistan, the part of the Muslim world that I know best, that country of course is in some ways a vastly more modern society than it was 50 years ago, but then again in some ways it is not. In this context, it is interesting to ask what constitutes "modernity" in the case of political religion. Radical Islam in Pakistan and elsewhere is after all in many ways a modern force. It is not just a reaction to modernity, but also uses modern methods so one certainly cannot say that it is purely reactionary or regressive.
But certainly so far there has been in Pakistan a failure of political modernization in the form of democracy. Pakistan has essentially remained a state that is run by the military and the civil service. The political elites, with the exception of the MQM and to some extent the Islamists, cannot really be described as modern political parties with a serious mass base. The PPP is a cult of personality party presiding over an alliance of big landowners and urban bosses. And while the military and civil service have held the country together, they have obviously failed to develop Pakistan as a successful modern state.
The weakness of political culture, when added to economic and military weakness, lays the Muslim world open to the threat of physical intervention by the new world imperialist power, and it also weakens Muslim states morally and ideologically in terms of resisting such intervention.
You have pointed out several times the authoritarian character of most states in the Arab and Muslim worlds but do not mention the fact that a majority of these regimes depend for their existence on continued American patronage. Is it not the case that a number of these states are viewed as client regimes of the United States and that this is one of the major sources of Muslim resentment against the US? This is particularly true of your comments about Pakistan, where the US supported the Zia regime for over a decade and now supports the military government of General Musharraf.
As I have often said with regard to American and British professed support for democratization: we can all believe in a human capacity for redemption even if we are not born-again Christians, but most of us, not being saints, do not ask reformed burglars to guard our houses! We should not therefore ask Arabs and Muslims, given the British-American record on democracy in the Muslim world, to trust our professions today that we are sincere in our wish to bring democracy.
By contrast, I have always believed and continue to believe in the force of the US and Western example when it comes to spreading democracy. If we can go on demonstrating to the world that our societies are more peaceful, more stable, less oppressive and more economically successful than authoritarian or theocratic states, then there will be a strong tendency for democracy to spread without our having to intervene in other places to bring this about. In this sense, I am a strong believer in the American tradition stretching from President Adams to George Kennan which takes immense and justifiable pride in the American political system, but believes that America spreads democracy best when it maintains the health and strength of its own system. By the way, President Eisenhower said much the same thing at the end of his second term, so this is hardly a radical position, let alone an anti-American one.
As to US (and British) support for dictatorships, and the resentment this has caused, this is true. On the other hand, I think it cuts both ways. Does one believe that if these authoritarian regimes fell then viable democracies would follow? In Pakistan, unfortunately, this did not happen. Of course it is true that the army always stepped in eventually but then again look at the PPP government under Bhutto in the 1970s - certainly not a regime that was strongly supported by Washington - and its extremely brutal treatment of dissent. Look at the fact that when Musharraf took power he was supported by the great majority of the population, because of the outrageous corruption of governments in the 1990s.
I think that is a rather misleading claim. How do we know what proportion of Pakistan's population supported Musharraf's coup?
Quite right. Opinion polls are not necessarily reliable in a country like Pakistan. Let me put it another way: a great majority of the people certainly did not protest against it. If there had been true faith in democracy and its record in Pakistan, they presumably would have done so. My point is that when Musharraf assumed power, he was certainly not acting on behalf of America. Clearly, several of these authoritarian regimes do not stand because of American support but because of local tradition and domestic support: Iran, which is directly opposed to America; Libya; and the House of Saud, which is in some sense America's tool but who also have their own tradition and legitimacy which has nothing to do with American support.
Well the argument could be made that the Americans are only interested in Saudi Arabia's domestic political setup to the extent that it continues to serve their interests: oil, and in the case of the first Gulf war, the provision of military bases. Therefore the present arrangement works rather better for them than any subsequent setup might.
Until 9/11, this was true. But since then, there has been a strong and widespread belief in the US that the Saudi system is incubating terrorism, which of course is a somewhat belated realization. I met Saudi-backed extremists in Afghanistan while I was based in Peshawar in the late-80s and it was already apparent that we were building up a monster for ourselves. Since 9/11 this has been recognized.
I do not believe that America will improve its image in the Muslim world just by abandoning its present allies and preaching democracy, because I do not believe that given its geopolitical and other interests America will ever be truly sincere in this regard. America's professed ideals of democracy and freedom are always likely to come to a screeching halt at Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories but also whenever American ideals seem likely to lead to a result which will be really harmful for American geopolitical interests. One of the images which has been seared into American elite consciousness is what happened to Carter. When Carter tried to pursue a more moral policy, by putting pressure on the Shah over Savak atrocities, by putting pressure on Central American governments, was he thanked for it by the American establishment? No, he was pilloried as naïve, weak, as supporting communism, as giving opportunities to America's enemies, and so forth.
If a US President were to push Saudi Arabia really hard, for example, over democratic reform, and the Saudi regime collapses and there is an Islamist takeover, that American president would simply fall in the next election, as Carter did. Ditto with Pakistan. So America is trapped in this.
Looking beyond the publicly stated goals for the American invasion of Iraq, you said that the neo-conservative nationalists were all more or less unanimous in their agreement on one basic plan: "unilateral world domination through absolute military superiority". To what extent did the Iraq invasion have the intended results and what is the likelihood that such policies will continue to be pursued in the second term of the Bush presidency?
Iraq has been a disaster for their aims. They have gotten away with it of course in that they have been re-elected but it is perfectly obvious that they cannot launch another war of choice, another invasion of Iran, say. They simply do not have the troops. With almost 150,000 men pinned down in Iraq, they could not launch another war on that scale without introducing conscription. That would tear American society apart and for the first time since Vietnam lead to a significant anti-imperialist movement in this country. It would also, for the first time, lead to really serious questions about what America is doing in the Middle East at all.
From that point of view, Iraq really has not worked out as they had anticipated and has greatly reduced their plans. After all, in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, all the neo-cons were going around saying: "Next stop: Iran". Or Syria. This kind of rhetoric has not disappeared completely - they are still refusing to talk to the Iranians - but the agenda on Iran has really narrowed just to the issue of nuclear weapons. So Iraq has had a major effect in this respect .
You suggest that various practices and institutions put into place during the Cold War make the constant threat of war a virtual necessity for the American foreign policymaking and security establishment. This may account in part for why Islam came very quickly to replace communism as the great ideological enemy of the United States. Given that Islam has no locus, that there are a billion Muslims spread out across the world, how is the US security establishment likely to continue to deal with this kind of enemy?
I say in the book that what seems essential is not the imminent threat of war, but rather constant belief in the possibility of war. There are all these institutions and economic interests which were put in place by the Second World War and still more by the Cold War. Eisenhower's original phrase apparently was "military-industrial-academic-complex". There are so many people in my world of think tanks in American universities with a deep stake in all these foreign policy agendas. In the book I also point out that - and this has been mentioned in other forms by people like James Mann, Richard Clarke, Paul O'Neill and others - one of the reasons why 9/11 was able to happen was that the security elites under Clinton, and very much under Bush, were not looking seriously at the terrorist threat because, due to their Cold War backgrounds, they were obsessed with the very much lesser threat from major rival states.
When the Bush administration came to power, they had radical anti-Chinese agendas of containing China, of rolling back China, of creating a new Cold War with China. On the other hand, now there is this tremendous effort, certainly among the neo-cons, to present Islam or the Muslim world as the new Cold War enemy. You see all this nonsense by people like Norman Podhoretz about the Fourth World War. The interesting thing is precisely because, as you say, Islam is not a superpower like the Soviet Union, nor does it represent a relatively clear set of social, economic, and political principles like communism. One is dealing with an extremely diverse world with different cultures and societies and multiple motivations.
Even if you narrow the war on terror down to Al Qaeda and its allies, which of course the Bush administration and Israeli lobby have deliberately and manifestly failed to do, even then one is speaking of a web, a network of many, many different groups and nodes in this web which sometimes cooperate, sometimes act independently, with varying degrees of relative importance. Zarqawi's group in Iraq, like the international forces fighting in Chechnya, are in no sense subordinate to Al Qaeda.
To combat these groups requires a really detailed and acute knowledge of the societies concerned. Something once again that America failed to generate in the case of Vietnam before going to war there, failed to generate about Iraq before going to war there, and is indeed failing to generate in the case of large parts of the Muslim world. It does seem that there is a natural pull towards concentration on alleged threats from states. This was especially clear after 9/11: the astonishing speed with which the Bush administration turned its attention from the actual terrorist perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks to confront the "axis of evil" states and draw up plans for war with Iraq.
It is clearly much easier to threaten and invade Iraq than to think seriously about how to combat the appeal of groups like Al Qaeda and its allies in the Muslim world. Similarly it is much easier to concentrate on preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons than having to think seriously about the Shia-Sunni relationship, or what to do about the Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is part of the built-in bias of military bureaucracies, but also owes much to the effects of the Cold War and the present intellectual configuration of American academia.
You explain in your book why the Cold War legacy has made it difficult for US policymakers, trained for the most part in the so-called "Realist" tradition, to conceive of a security threat as emanating from somewhere other than a nation-state, an assumption that is rather inadequate for addressing the threat of terrorism, as you just pointed out (and may account in part for why, as you say, quoting Bob Woodward, the Bush administration seemed incapable of staying focused on a terrorist threat, before and after the attacks on the US, and started planning for war on Iraq on November 21st, 2001; that is, 72 days after 9/11). Yet you supported the American invasion of Afghanistan when it seemed clear that Al Qaeda was a diffuse, dynamic network, with no state to claim as its own. Why was Afghanistan, then, a legitimate - morally, but also pragmatically - target for military strike?
The invasion of Afghanistan was justified by absolutely traditional and universally accepted traditions of self-defense. Al Qaeda had launched this attack; this was generally accepted by every rational person in the world. Al Qaeda were quickly and clearly identified as the perpetrators, and indeed subsequently made no real attempt to deny it. When it comes to the responsibility of the Taliban, Al Qaeda after all was functioning very much as part of the Afghan state under the Taliban, and provided the Taliban's praetorian guard.
It is true that, had I been in a position of authority, I would have made a greater effort to get the Taliban to extradite the Al Qaeda leadership if not directly to America then to somewhere else in the Muslim world from where they could be passed on to America. This was partly because I was afraid of what to some extent has in fact happened which is that by going in to Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance, America would alienate the Pashtuns.
Nonetheless, I thought the invasion of Afghanistan was covered by self-defense. Al Qaeda launched this attack, Al Qaeda was functioning as part of the Taliban and was being protected by the Taliban. Al Qaeda had, after all, also launched a series of attacks previously on American targets, which one should not forget: they were responsible for the massacre of very large numbers of Africans and others. I also regarded their Taliban protectors as a genuine "rogue" regime in a way that Iran certainly is not. They really were in the business of spreading instability, radicalism and terrorism (especially of course anti-Shia terrorism) in their area.
On a personal note, I detested what the Taliban stood for, and the damage that they and their allies were doing to Pakistan. Above all, I supported the US invasion of Afghanistan as legitimate self-defense and because of genuine shock at 9/11, shock at the idea that this could happen to a great modern city, and the belief that forces like Al Qaeda are a real threat to modern civilization - Muslim as well as Western. America did also enjoy a general international consensus behind its invasion of Afghanistan. To some extent the US even managed to gain some support in the Muslim world for the invasion, at least as far as states and elites are concerned. This is largely because the Sunni revolutionary element represented by Al Qaeda and the Taliban is of course a threat to every organized Muslim state as well.
So I felt that both on what Kerry called the "global test" and on the traditional test of self-defense, Afghanistan passed. Iraq did not.
You have suggested that radical American nationalists - many of who will continue in the present Bush administration - either wish to 'contain' China by overwhelming military force and the creation of a ring of American allies, or "in the case of the real radicals, to destroy the Chinese Communist state as the Soviet Union was destroyed." Have these radical elements in the present administration been sufficiently chastened by their experience in Iraq to relinquish such aspirations?
Yes, I believe so. Not to permanently relinquish their aspirations in principle: obviously they would still very much like to destroy China if they could, or at least destroy China as a potential future threat to American hegemony. But as long as they are tied down in the Middle East in the way they are, they will not have the military forces to do so.
Therefore, I believe that the Bush administration and future Democrat administrations will continue the existing line. That said of course there is always room for mistakes either on the part of Washington or of Beijing or of Taipei or most likely of all three simultaneously. The Taiwanese can go too far, and the Chinese can overreact, not because the Chinese want war but because they would trap themselves into a position where they would have to do something. If they were sensible of course the Chinese leadership would not react militarily, they would just tell any power that recognized Taiwan that China would break off diplomatic and trade relations the next day. Nobody would in fact recognize Taiwanese independence and then the Chinese could simply declare that these people have declared independence but no one recognizes them so why does it matter. This is by the way what Russia should have done in the case of Chechnya before 1994. But the Chinese could of course miscalculate and use force, and then the US, and particularly the American Congress, have put themselves in such a position that they would be forced to fight as well.
So I certainly do not rule out some kind of stumbling towards conflict. If that happens, of course, then all the old agendas would come back. Then the anti-Chinese hardliners in the bureaucracy, the think tanks and Congress would start roaring again about Communist aggression, they would gain greater influence and the Cold War agenda vis-à-vis China would be re-established. But I do not believe that any really powerful forces in Washington today actually want that.
In a recent article, you say that, "The Bush administration may be stumbling toward an attack on Iran's nuclear program that could have the most disastrous consequences for Iraq, Afghanistan and the entire American position in the Middle East." What is the likelihood of such an attack being carried out in the near future either by the Americans or the Israelis?
It is still a possibility. Not I believe such a strong possibility now because apart from everything else the Iranians do seem very anxious to play along with Europe, and are willing at least to suspend their nuclear weapons plans in response to a mixture of European pressure and incentives with American threats. But if America were to attack Iran, it would be a catastrophe. Poor old Tony Blair has accepted so many shattering blows already maybe nothing will finish him, but having invested so much in this process with Iran, if it were to end in an American attack, it seems likely that there would be a serious revolt within his government and party and he would have to resign. There are leading members of the British government briefing in private that whatever Tony Blair says, if America attacks Iran, that is the end. They will resign. This would almost certainly be the end of Blair's tenure as prime minister. It would also create a massive crisis with the Europeans. Moreover, given the fact that Iran's nuclear sites are dispersed and buried, America would very likely miss, at which point we will have the worst of all possible worlds. As the American military know very well, Iran in these circumstances would have numerous means of retaliation against American forces and plans in Iraq - whereas an American invasion of Iran looks impossible because of America's lack of troops.
So I am less worried on that score than I have been in the past. There is however a wild card involved: this is that the Israeli government appears implacably determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, without themselves offering any concessions in return; and may either attack itself or exert irresistible pressure on the US to reject a deal with the Iranians. The present deal between Iran and the West Europeans could also break down for a number of other reasons. It is not inconceivable that there could emerge some disastrous quid pro quo whereby Israel will make certain concessions towards the Palestinians and in return America go after Iran's nuclear weapons. But of course the consequences might be frightful because of course Iran would then have every incentive to try to really destabilize Iraq. Hezbollah could be reactivated as an international terrorist force. Iran would set out to destabilize Afghanistan, and so forth and so on.
All this is known to the American security elites. The uniformed military is certainly extremely opposed to anything like this. Of course they were also opposed to Iraq, but it still happened.
Could you elaborate on your argument regarding what accounts for the special relationship between Israel and America: namely the parallel between the situation of Palestinians and Native Americans?
This is not the core either of my argument or of the relationship itself, but only a subsidiary factor. At the core of the relationship lie completely legitimate sympathies and identifications between a majority of Americans and the state of Israel. These are rooted in old features of religion and culture, and more recent admiration for the achievements of the Israeli state. I should say by the way that I believe strongly in US support for Israel within the borders of 1967. in my book I express a number of positions which are certainly extremely unpopular in the Muslim world, and on the Left in Europe: support for the Jewish character of the Israeli state, opposition to all but the most limited Palestinian refugee return, and opposition to ideas of a binational state. I also accept that given the tragic circumstances of 1948, and the imperatives created by the Holocaust, a measure of ethnic cleansing was probably inevitable and would also undoubtedly have been carried out in the other direction if the Arab side had won.
So I am not arguing against sympathy for Israel as such, but only against certain forms of this identification. Sympathy rooted in comparisons between the American and Israeli settlement processes are generally confined to the American Right. Leo Strauss made land-theft the founding principle of every state, which, it must be said, if you go back far enough historically, is actually true to a considerable extent. Admittedly you have to go back in Britain 1,500 years. Certainly in the US there is a very interesting contrast in attitudes to this issue between Americans on the East Coast and in the South or the West of the country. East Coast Americans are either embarrassed about the dispossession of the Indians or have simply forgotten it. For most it is totally irrelevant, since they never encounter any Native Americans and since their ancestors in many or even most cases arrived in the US long after the East Coast Indians were dispossessed. In the South and the West, however, the frontier tradition is so much stronger. There is no real embarrassment over the dispossession; there is basically a celebration of the fact that their ancestors conquered this land and turned it, as the phrase used to be, into a "white man's country".
It does seem to me - and I am not original in pointing this out; there have been leading Israelis like Amos Elon who have done so - that this began by creating a certain community of sentiment between sections of the conservative Christian heartland in America and the rightwing in Israel, or Israel in general. In other words, it is a mistake when looking at this community of sentiment just to look at the apocalyptic element: millenarian religion. This is present but it would not have nearly the resonance that it does if it were not set in a wider context.
Now of course here I am talking about the conservative tradition in the American heartland, the Christian tradition, but of course sympathy with Israel is much broader: it has a great deal to do with the Holocaust, it has to do with the perception of Israel as a modern, democratic society, as a very successful society. This goes together, obviously, with tremendous support from the Jewish community for Israel on the whole. So all these factors work in concert.
There is nothing at all in principle wrong with people here supporting Israel as such, or admiring Israel for its tremendous success as a society. But on the American Right there are very much darker elements to this affinity, one of which is precisely the radical religious one but the other is a kind of sublimated racism.
You have also argued that American nationalism has become increasingly entwined with the nationalism of the Israeli Right. What are the historical reasons for the alliance between Christian fundamentalists in this country and Zionists? In other words, how should we understand the words of Jerry Falwell when he says, "The Bible belt of the United States is the security belt of Israel"?
If one just looks at the Christian fundamentalist issue, leaving the millenarian question aside, American evangelical Protestantism is Old Testament Protestantism - just as its forbearers in English radical Protestantism and Scottish radical Protestantism were in the 16th and 17th centuries. This creates a natural affinity with the Jewish religious tradition. When evangelical Christian Lieutenant-General William Boykin was quoted last year as saying, "My God is bigger than his," in reference to a Muslim, he was directly citing from Isaiah and this is obviously a man who spends a lot of his time in the Old Testament.
It is fascinating the degree to which the Old Testament eclipses the New Testament in the thought of evangelical Christians and this automatically leads one to a sympathy with Israel. Cromwell was the first ruler of England who allowed Jews to settle again in England after the Middle Ages. He was very much influenced in this by his Old Testament-based Christianity. But also it seems, from the time of Cromwell on, there has been this millenarian idea as well: the restoration of Israel is essential to bringing about the Apocalypse. Given the influence of millenarian thought on a minority of Evangelicals, but a very significant minority, one cannot deny this influence. Look at the immense popularity of the "Left Behind" series, for example.
Finally, there is also a considerable element of straight political opportunism. The Republicans are already well on their way to putting the Democrats in a very difficult position from the point of view of political demographics. The Republicans have this tremendously solid base. Mostly white, not just Protestant anymore but Protestant and Catholic conservative, including many Latinos. Unlike the deeply fractured Democrat base, the Republican base agrees on a majority of important issues. The Democrats by contrast are trying to tie together the remnants of the white working classes in the northern cities, the blacks, the Latinos, more progressive women and the various cultural liberals - groups which often detest each other.
If on top of this advantage the Republicans can take away a majority of the Jewish vote and campaign financing from the Democrats, they stand a chance of actually destroying the Democratic Party's chances of power for a generation to come. This hope is not a secret. It has been written about quite openly by conservative commentator Robert Novak and others. If the Republicans can conclusively seize the issue of support for Israel from the Democrats, then they can rule for the foreseeable future. Rightly or wrongly, that at least is the calculation the Republicans are making.
You point out the complicity of the American media in both supporting the government in various foreign policy adventures - you say in fact that the "propaganda program" in the wake of the Iraq war has few parallels in peacetime democracies for the systematic mendacity of its reportage - and for the most part, keeping silent on the excesses of the Israeli state. What accounts for this blindness in the context of a free press in a democratic country?
This is a little stronger than what I actually said. What I said was that the Bush administration's propaganda program had few parallels in peacetime democracies and that the American media had not criticized this. I did not mean to suggest that the American media as a whole were all part of the same propaganda machine. Even in some of the papers which supported the war, dissenting voices appeared.
When it comes to keeping silent on the excesses of the Israeli state, the reporting as such has not been very unfair or inaccurate - certainly if you look at the respectable media: the serious newspapers and some of the serious television channels. Israeli bombing raids are reported, shooting of Palestinian civilians is reported, and the issue of settlements too is reported to an extent. There are two things which are completely missing, as Michael Lind pointed out in Prospect magazine in England last year. The first is historical context and the second is the almost complete absence of analysis or critique. One of the questions I raise in my book has to do with why Palestinians were expected to have peacefully acquiesced to what was being done to them in the 1940s. According to any historical precedent, this would have been absurd. No other people would have ever accepted this. Are we suggesting that the Palestinians should have been insane? This is ridiculous. So that is the context. Secondly, as Michael also pointed out, in terms of analysis, the violence and its causes are always presented as Palestinian "terrorism", not Israeli occupation. Finally the number of opinion pieces seriously criticizing Israeli policies are simply heavily outnumbered, even in the mainstream and liberal media, by expressions of support.
On Iraq, why did the media not stand out against the war? It was partly because of the role of the Israel lobby. It is very difficult to conduct a truly searching analysis of the underlying reasons for American policy in the Middle East, and very difficult to draw up really serious alternatives to existing policies, if you are not prepared to address the question of Israeli policies and the part they play in damaging American interests in the Middle East. This does not mean that Israel must be at the heart of the argument but its influence cannot be denied: it is there not just in the form of the effects of the struggle with the Palestinians but in relations with Iran, Syria and the Muslim world in general. If this is to be swept aside, as it so often is by the accusation of anti-Semitism, it just makes the entire debate here much, much more difficult. You could as well ask why there was no really serious debate in the presidential campaign over the "War on Terror" as a concept. The Israel factor is a part of that too.
I should say by the way that I never wrote about this issue before 9/11. I have no history whatsoever of attacking Israel. But after the terrorist attacks on America, the Carnegie Endowment asked me to concentrate on the war on terror and on aspects of the situation in the Muslim world. After that, it would have been intellectually dishonest and morally cowardly not to discuss this critical issue. I may add, as a British citizen, that it would have been unpatriotic, since my country is fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan alongside America and is running the same risks of terrorist attack. British citizens therefore have both a right and a duty to speak out against policies and attitudes which are undermining the war on terror and endangering British security.
Concerning the behavior of the media and intelligentsia in the US, the second point is that after 9/11 people were clearly running scared. There was this tremendous militant nationalist wave sweeping the country. This is not unique to America - the same would have been true in most countries which suffered an attack of this kind. However, in the US the response took certain forms which have precedents in US history. The silencing effects of such a wave have been seen before: McCarthyism most recently, and the anti-German, then the anti-communist hysteria in the First World War and the 1920s. People were to a considerable degree intimidated into silence.
Finally, there was a very good piece by Russell Baker about AJ Liebling in the November 18th issue of the New York Review of Books in which Baker was talking about how journalists used to regard themselves as just hacks. I used to be a journalist myself, essentially writing for money, trying to be accurate in my reporting and as amusing and intelligent as possible. Now there is this ghastly tendency of journalists, particularly those who get to the top of the US media, to regard themselves not as hacks but as pillars of the state. So they begin to behave almost as if they were senior officials not hacks like the rest of us; and not just that, but as if they had occupied a great office of state during some great crisis in American affairs, as if they had been Acheson during the Second World War or the Korean War. So many of these columnists and television journalists are like that now.
One last point, and this may appear at first sight contradictory: the figure of Bob Woodward bridges these two things. After Watergate, on the one hand journalists got an exaggerated sense of their own importance as the Fourth Estate, a political force which makes and breaks administrations. On the other hand, they became more and more addicted to being given enormous dollops of constructed information and "spin" on a plate - instead of doing real fieldwork and investigative reporting like Woodward did. So Woodward is turned from an investigative reporter into a court chronicler. He has fascinating information and very good insights but is nonetheless essentially a praise-singer of the American system. I think a lot of American journalists are like that now. When they depend for leaks and for information on either the government in power or the opposition they are clearly not going to say anything that will wreck their chances of getting what they regard as scoops.
You have said that, "The younger intelligentsia [in the United States] has also been stripped of any real knowledge of the outside world by academic neglect of history and regional studies in favour of disciplines which are often no more than a crass projection of American assumptions and prejudices…. This has reduced still further their capacity for serious analysis of their own country and its actions." In addition, you point out the very close links that exist between relevant university departments and government institutions. What are the implications of this?
Well it contributes enormously to the conformism when it comes to debates like that about the Iraq war or about Israel. As Henry Kissinger pointed out almost thirty years ago, too many people in the academic world are either defending previous records when in government or aiming to be in the next administration. This is not a situation likely to produce radical critiques or really strong alternative policies. These people are not at all anxious to say something which will either lead to them not being selected or to their being vetoed by a Senate committee.
I used to think that it is wonderful that the American state can recruit from people in academia but I have come to find it deeply corrupting. I almost prefer the British system now, of career civil servants who serve one administration after another. But one needs a strong ethos of the independence of the civil service and a very strong ethos that people cannot be sacked or penalized for political views as long as they maintain the discipline of their service. This actually leaves the public debate in the UK freer than in the US, particularly in the strange, solipsistic world of Washington DC. It is amazing in a republic with a strong tradition of individualism and cultural egalitarianism, that in DC the sense of hierarchy, of sometimes obsequious deference, of the court game, who is in, who out, dominates everything just as much as it did in an early medieval court. It does contribute to this lack of debate in America.
This is compounded by the tremendously strong power of American national myths. As previous American authors like Loren Baritz pointed out, Vietnam knocked these myths off their pedestal, but many Americans spent a whole generation resuscitating them. Reagan was elected very much to do just that, to restore America's image of itself. It would seem that these myths are so important to America's national identity and image of itself that the American political and intellectual establishment is simply incapable in the end of seriously examining them and asking what flaws they may embody. Of course, there are dissidents - even some very senior ones like Senator Fulbright; but it is striking how little influence they seem to have had in the long run.
In consequence, there are all these people running around Washington - very much among the Democratic intellectual elites as well as the Republicans - who really believe that all America has to do is try harder to generate and display a sense of will. If only America wants something badly enough, anything can be achieved. Any society in the world can be transformed, irrespective of the wishes and traditions of its people. Any country can become not just a democracy, but a pro-American democracy, irrespective of its own national interests or ideals.
This is part of a deep inability to see America as others see it. It is incredible but again and again I have found myself at meetings discussing Russia and China in Washington at which I have been the only person to point out that America does after all have its own sphere of influence in Central America and the Caribbean. Not just that, but a sphere of influence which is not doing very well either economically, or to a great extent, in terms of real democracy either. The rest of the world sees this perfectly well, and as a result, develops a belief in American hypocrisy which is itself very bad for American prestige and influence.
After all, how much did Haiti get after floods which killed thousands of people and devastated the country? Peanuts. A mere fifty million dollars or so from America. And Haiti is only a few hundred miles from America's own shores. Haiti also has a very large population here in the US and they got virtually nothing. Yet when I point this out to people in DC, and suggest that pouring money into the Middle East when countries close to America's shores and within America's old sphere of influence are suffering so badly, they often become furious. There is this strange moral bubble, it seems, and of course it is particularly bad in Washington, but then again, outside Washington and the universities, nobody thinks about these issues at all!
You end your recent article in The Nation with the following quote from Arnold Toynbee: "Great empires do not die by murder, but suicide." Is that the present trajectory of the United States?
I must state very strongly that in principle, and when thinking of the historical alternatives, I do not want the American empire to end. I have never been against a moderate, civilized and rational version of American hegemony. I certainly would not want to replace it with Chinese hegemony!
But it is easy to see how a combination of different events could bring American hegemony down over the next generation. America at present has no serious strategy for the Middle East. It has a series of ad hoc strategies for dealing with bits of the terrorist threat, and for trying to contain Iran, and manage Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It does not however have anything approaching a general strategy. If America continues to infuriate more and more Muslims, if then there is either a revolution elsewhere in the Middle East or a terrorist attack on the American mainland again, then it is very easy to see America lashing out in a way which will not only spread chaos and instability still further, but will lead to a complete breakdown of the alliance with Europe.
If America gets involved in another major war of occupation, then conscription will be back. When conscription comes back, Americans will come out on to the streets and start demanding answers: maybe even about energy saving and about the relationship with Israel.
Even given the profound weaknesses of America's strategy and position in the Middle East, however, the American empire has immense underlying strengths. In the Far East, for example, as long as the US does not grossly overplay its hand, most of the East Asian states actually want America to stay there as a balancer against China. In Europe, East Europeans in particular are anxious for the US to remain strongly present, whether out of continued fear of Russia or resentment at French and German domination. In Central America and the Caribbean, the US will always be predominant through sheer force of economic and military might.
But if the Bush administration were feeling suicidal, and were actually in the mood to throw itself over a cliff, like the Hapsburgs in 1914, there are a number of ways it could do that. It could invade Iran, that would do it very quickly. Or it could invade Saudi Arabia. Or it could support Taiwanese independence. I don't believe they will actually do any of those things. Unfortunately, one can much more easily imagine the Bush administration doing something like bombing Iran, which would not lead to immediate disaster but which could begin a spiral of retaliation leading ultimately to catastrophic conflict.
It has become increasingly clear that world oil reserves are depleting and their exhaustion is within sight. In addition, global oil and energy resources have formally been a "national-security" concern of the United States since Carter. How, and to what extent, will the geopolitics of oil determine US foreign policy in the coming decade?
To a great extent, they already do. One has seen the tremendous attempt to build up the Caspian as an alternative to the Persian Gulf as a source of oil. But the striking thing is that this has to a great extent failed. It has failed both because there is not enough oil in the Caspian really to compete with the Persian Gulf but also because there are other buyers: a great deal of that oil will go east to China and even to Japan. If the Chinese economy continues to grow, it is likely that oil prices will rise and rise - until, perhaps, environmental disaster destroys the present world economy and forces the world to limit its consumption.
So America's presence in the Middle East is of course not just about Israel. A tremendous amount of it is about oil - and not just the interests of the oil companies, but genuinely, in the view of many Americans, the preservation of the American way of life. It will be interesting if one sees serious instability in several of the major oil-producers simultaneously. If there were major instability in the Persian Gulf and some kind of meltdown in Nigeria, which is entirely possible, and in a very different way of course serious instability in Venezuela, then there is the possibility that somewhere at least America would intervene with its own troops on the ground to guarantee its oil supplies. Then once again we will be confronted with the whole question of whether America has enough troops, what this will lead to, etc. In some places in Africa American intervention could be presented as a peacekeeping operation, and indeed could even have genuine elements of that.
I am not saying that any of this will happen, but the geopolitics of oil will be absolutely central to America's global strategy in the years to come. Of course what I would like to see would be an approach to the same issue from the other end which is simply to reduce America's dependence on oil. This has been one of the very worst things that Bush has done, or rather not done: his complete failure to use 9/11 to make an argument for decreasing America's reliance on oil. Instead we have just seen American consumption going up and up. There is a strong possibility in future that just as in Iraq, America could again be drawn into occupying a country (or countries) in a way that would be perceived by the rest of the world as just about keeping its grip on oil supplies. The thing that might discourage a US administration from this however is that as Iraq has demonstrated, there is nothing easier to blow up than an oil pipeline.
Such a contingency has been widely discussed in the case of Saudi Arabia. If the US were to occupy other countries in order to secure its oil supplies, then every suspicion of the rest of the world concerning the US and its motives for the invasion of Iraq would essentially be confirmed. The US would begin to shed its last elements of true international idealism. It would become much more like a classical empire preoccupied with seizing raw materials and controlling them, irrespective of the wishes or the well-being of the populations concerned. In this case, America's ancient and very positive role as a beacon of democracy and progress for mankind would be destroyed. We should all pray, therefore, that this does not happen.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of Asia Society.
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Last modified: September, 17, 2017