Tag Archives: “the pivot”

The Persian Thread

One thread runs through all the miasma of the tribal and ideological jungle of contemporary Mideast politics. Through it all is interwoven the power and influence of Iran.

With its 80 million people, its vast territory – the world’s 17th largest country, about the size of Alaska – and its abundant resources, Iran towers over all the other Mideastern territories [except Egypt and Turkey]. Despite its sudden cataclysmic downturn in fertility – a drop-off much deeper than Europe, Japan and China are also experiencing – Iran currently still has a young population that will reach 100 million by 2050.

But more than anything, Tehran is heir – unlike Egypt’s largely historical and tourist attractions – to the traditions of the ancient Persian empires dating from 500 years before Christ. Contrary to the primitive intolerance of the current regime, the Persians through the ages built remarkably strong political entities simultaneously using various ethnicities. [Again what a contrast to the neighboring puny Arab sheikhdoms, however endowed with petrodollars.] That thrust toward power is again a central issue in the region.

There is no dearth of evidence for Tehran’s aggressive ambitions beginning with worldwide terrorism that punctuated recent decades. Whether in the Beirut military barracks bombing of Americans and French troops [1983] or the attacks on Jewish targets in Buenos Aires [1994] or the bitter IED offensive against American forces during the Iraq war, Tehran’s gloved hand was there.

However vulnerable the ties, today Tehran has jumped the security fences first set up post-World War I by Britain and France, and then the U.S.. Its alliances extend to the Mediterranean with the Assad regime [if under siege] in Syria, Hezbollah that dominates ethnic-chaotic Lebanon, and even the scion of the bitterly anti-Shia Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas in Gaza.

Moving toward weapons of mass destruction with the help of other rogue states headed by North Korea and greedy merchants in Russia, Germany, Tehran’s mullahs are reaching for great power status. One suspects even their bitterest domestic enemies do not vouchsafe their country this role.

There is, indeed, growing evidence Iran may shortly be a “threshold” nuclear state, that is one able to produce nuclear weapons and their delivery systems in short order. Never mind its oft repeated threat to wipe out Israel, a bomb will give Tehran dominance in the region, possibly setting off a dangerous nuclear weapons race among the region’s inherently unstable regimes.

How is the world to cope with Iran as it again flexes its muscles in an effort to restore its ofttimes regional hegemony?

The U.S. once thought it could live with Iran as a regional super-power; Washington allied with Shah Reza Pahlevi, encouraged his stewardship of the area. He was seen as an important ally during the Cold War, blocking the old, old Russian ambition of reaching the warm waters. The U.S. was even prepared to tolerate Iran as a leader of the cabal to create an OPEC monopoly on world energy at higher prices. But in one of those moralistic flights of fancy. Amb. William Sullivan – who had already made his contribution to the debacle in Southeast Asia – helped pull the rug from under the Shah, buying into the false promises of the Muslim theocrats.

Looking back now, one could make the case that the seizure of Western oil in Iran and the Gulf states was the original sin. Their inability to efficiently absorb enormous wealth which flowed into their coffers was more than “a tax on the world economy” that the then Secretary of Treasury William Simon rationalized. Those dollars became the source of a major destabilization of the world order with huge surpluses in the hands of small backward populations led by tyrannical, shortsighted leaders. [One can only hope this aspect will perhaps to be tempered, finally, by the Americans’ shale revolution which is rapidly bringing down the real price of energy and defanging the Mideast’s hold on world oil and gas.].

But how to deal with this new set of chessmen continues to be a central problem of U.S. efforts to maintain world peace and stability. And perhaps the greatest unknown in the whole equation is trying to deduce what path the Obama Administration thinks it is pursuing.

There apparently is one train of thought with the career diplomats which sees U.S. benign neglect as the best answer to the Mideast problems. That would have been the inspiration for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s announcement of a “pivot” from U.S. concentration on the Mideast to deal with the growing potential threat of a nascent China. That was soon grabbed by the White House speechwriters as an answer to the self-evident failures of Obama’s initial outreach to the Moslem world which elicited only scorn and the false hopes of “the Arab spring”. It soon became all too apparent that the tarbaby with which Washington has been ensnared could not be wished away. [The President has just announced new reinforcements for ground troops in Iraq which he said he wouldn’t commit.]

And so the mystery of what the Obama Administration thinks it is doing in the Middle East continues.

Its rejection of an alliance of minor powers as a counter to Iran’s growing power based on the bilateral U.S.-Israeli alliance is all too obvious, even before Jerusalem’s latest Hamas engagement. Now, of course, Washington finds a tacit alliance between Israel and Egypt and even the Gulf states against the Muslim Brotherhood with whom so many of Obama’s advisers were infatuated. It has had to double back to try to create an alliance to destroy one of the Brotherhood outgrowths, ISIL, and even toys with unacknowledged cooperation with Tehran to defeat it, if slowly.

Obama’s advisers earlier had rejected the possible option of Iranian regime change in 2009, even when a near revolution erupted after falsified elections brought out the old Persian values and young activists calling for American help. Obama’s much ballyhooed personal relationship with Turkey’s pretended strong man, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Persians’ old, traditional cultural and political competitor, collapsed in the face of Ankara’s pipedream of recreating a version of the old Ottoman Empire’s domination of the Arabs. Even when the Egyptian public turned against an elected Moslem Brotherhood administration, supporting a military coup, Obama found it impossible to abandon support for that Sunni ideological mother of so much Mideast violence.

So the No. 1 mystery of the region is not the constant shifting of loyalties and alliances but the intent of American policy.

Obama has publicly hinted that he could salve the thousand-year-old Sunni-Shia vendetta. That might be an expression of a strategy of building a balance of Shia Persia against the Egyptian-Turkey-Gulf states Sunnis. If that were the intent, the Obama seers have blown it with their naïve expectations of “the Arab spring”, their flirtation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequent antagonism of the Egyptian military and false hopes for Turkish leadership.

There is some circumstantial evidence on the other hand that the Obama Administration is thinking that there is an inevitability about the Iranian hegemony in the area, and that a deal can be struck with it. How else to explain the constant unrequited supplications to the mullahs [including the most recent “secret” personal letter from the President] and the refusal to support Iranian dissidents?

That presumably would be the rationale for what looks like a negotiation to permit Iran to retain a capacity to enrich uranium, ostensibly for a nuclear power industry, but which would make them a “threshold” nuclear weapons state. For any but the most idealistic observer, it is hard to rationalize the past history of this fanatical Muslim regime’s secret nuclear efforts and any hope that it would abide by such an agreement, or, indeed, that UN or other surveillance would be more effective than in the past.

With the outlook for salvaging any of Obama’s domestic agenda poor what with not only a Republican-led Congress but a reinvigorated GOP, it could well be that Obama would turn to foreign policy in his two lame duck years of office. That is why the mystery of the Persian thread as it winds through the Obama Administration is a political conundrum of moment.


East Asian worries

Anonymous leaks from Chinese spokesmen along with mistaken translations of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s private remarks at the gathering of our lords and masters at Davos World Economic Forumn are alarming.

Bombastic comments from the Chinese – including the military as well as the controlled government media – are nothing new. And interpreting the Japanese has always been an art form never developed by the West most especially lacking in American media and by most U.S. politicians.

But if you add to these mutterings to the growing lack of influence of a befuddled Obama foreign policy, it is as some would have it, the makings of new and extremely dangerous possibilities in East Asia. It may not be 1914, 1936 or 1941 but with growing antagonism and friction between the two most important players in the region, it is a worrying moment and needs the required defusing of an incipient crisis.

The background, of course, is that the Chinese Communist regime is in deep do-do. The fantastic growth of the last two decades is now behind them. Rapid economic growth with its enormous rewards for the elite has been the Communists’ answer to their abandonment in all but name of Marxist-Leninist-Maoism. The capitalist formula for a truly great leap forward – the introduction of outside capital and accompanying technology and the enormous expansion of the infrastructure – is coming to a close. Despite propaganda by the regime, too often echoed in the world media, China is in another transition with the outcome very much in doubt.

In fact, it’s been success as so often happens, that has been the death warrant for the strategy of the past three decades. Rapid domestic changes in the leading coastal cities, including a diminishing of what has been until now an unlimited pool of cheap rural labor, are ending. It is one of the results of the one-child birth control policies. A sputtering recovery among its main international customers, particularly the U.S., plus competition for exports is squeezing even the modest profit margins. The lower end of their factory to the world is being drained off to other low-wage economies and the galloping increases in productivity brought on by new technology in the West and Japan limit movement to higher profit products. All this will trim the expansion of exports. Growing anxiety over debt, particularly by local governments that have exhausted their use of land sales to finance often overly ambitious projects, is ending resort to the infrastructure gimmick.

So far the Party’s response has been to talk about “reforms”. But except for minor chipping around the edges, the leadership has not been able to dramatically reverse old policies and their results.

Nor is there much hope of further future implementation of these so-called reforms, all of which have been talked up for years, even in the controlled party organs. For one thing omnipresent corruption – both gross and sophisticated – blocks what all agree ought to be done. For example, the switch to a more balanced economy with a growing consumption sector rather than unlimited investment is easier said than done. Recent shifts are now reversing, if those damned statistics cane be believed. [Again we have that problem, for example, of provincial GDP figures not gibing with the national claims.]  Without expanding the accompanying social services to include millions of temporary workers in the large cities who in effect are there illegally, that kind of consumer market can not exist. But to move on the question of the part-time city dwellers would be to abandon the kinds of population controls which have been basic to the system of political repression by the regime.

By “sophisticated” corruption is meant the built-in interest groups that have developed alongside the hell-for-leather economic expansion. For example, ending at least partially the one-child program, which has now been decreed, however corrupted it has become at the lower echelons, is difficult if not impossible because of a powerful bureaucracy which has developed over several decades to enforce it. The problem of pollution of land, water and air, is so gigantic that under the best of circumstances it could not be solved for decades and it will take enormous investment to do so.

The lament among some Western observers that Chinese nationalism is being purposely stimulated by officialdom as a direct response to these growing economic problems is a misinterpretation. The kind of nationalism that almost destroyed European civilization in two World Wars does not now nor did it ever exist in China. That Chinese world of more than 1.3 billion is so vast with so many ethnic, regional and linguistic  competitions and conflicts, that only a few detribalized students pick up a Westernized nationalist flag.

But there is another very real element that is more dangerous. Chinese military expansion is accelerating. It seems likely that however ambitious it may be, it is not as competent as its announcements suggest. [That’s whether losing a balloon over the contested East Sea/Japan Sea rocky shoals difficulties. The further embarrassment was the chief of Chinese ballooning had to be picked up out of the water by the Japanese Coast Guard who made less of it in propaganda than they might have.]

But there is no doubt that a lot of young and ambitious soldiers and sailors have new toys they would like to play with, many the applications of American technology sold or stolen by Beijing. Nor can military anomalies be excluded by a U.S. military often complacent as its more than half century of total world dominance. [One remembers the stories of how the. Japanese Zero fighter was described as being put together with string and paste in the pre-1941 period, only to turn out to be one of the best fighter planes in World War II.]

It’s a slippery slope, as all characterizations of national character are, but there is another element: the Chinese have a sometimes fatal attraction for gambling. [All you have to do is look at the faces at the Las Vegas tables, or the gambling megametropolis of Macao]. By extension, recent Chinese history is replete with enormous political gambles, often failed ones costing millions of lives in Mao’s time. For an important if unnamed spokesman at Davos to be quoted as saying a Chinese strike at the contested rocky shoals in the East China could be effective before a Japanese [or U.S.] response is just that sort of gamble.

Into this mix comes a new Japanese turn, for the first time in several decades a strong Japanese prime minister would like to restore a modicum of national resolve to a population decreasing at a catastrophic rate but still hanging on to one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated economies That is going to mean, incidentally, throwing off some of the vestiges of the U.S. Occupation which tried to remold a more than usually tradition-bound society. Beijing, using the echo chamber of Western media and some U.S. scholars and politicians recalling the horrors of World War II, is trying to inhibit this resurrection of its old rival. Nor does the possibility even surface of comparing notes on Japanese wartime deprivations and the murder of a hundred million Chinese by the Maoist regime to which the current leadership still pays homage. The fact that China still depends to a considerable extent on imitating “the Japanese model” and the importance of Tokyo’s transfers of technology is another evidence of Beijing’s internal unresolved strategic conflicts.

Add to this the wandering strategies of the Obama Administration and the now challenged “traditional” role of the U.S. Navy to keep the seas open around the whole Eurasian land mass and you get some ugly possibilities. The Obama Administration, rather than playing a more substantial public role as an ally of Japan, has taken it on itself to be the part-time mediator between the two East Asian rivals. That not only befuddles Tokyo but obscures the issues, which at this time and place, is the aggressive Chinese demands. Beijing is being led to believe Washington will eventually accede to the expansion in its vast claims to areas which it believes can be restored to old traditions of East Asian suzerainty to the first centrally governed state in the region [and perhaps the world].

The American ambassador, an inexperienced Kennedy scion despite her attribute of a name that does have panache in Japan, is seemingly spending more time worrying about porpoises. The defense secretary refuses to cope with the anomalies of the troubled Tokyo-Seoul relations which is currently the chief obstacle to any regional stand-up to the Chinese. Washington is therefore counted among the missing. Its attention appears hung up somewhere between its Mideast fiascos, its domestic health care muddles, and a much publicized but unsubstantiated “pivot” to concentration on Asia.