Status anxieties at home and abroad – I
by Michael Brenner on 27 Aug 2021 1 Comment

Foreign policy without strategy is like trying to make bricks without straw. It crumbles into fragments none of which serve any useful purpose. This is especially true for a great power – one that presumes to master the affairs of the globe. Yet, this is exactly the state-of-affairs which the United States has created for itself. Disjointed and incoherent are apt description of the American floundering efforts to impress its will on the world. Our rulers possess neither an accurate intellectual map of today’s international system nor a well delineated set of goals or methods for achieving even tactical successes.  Witness the Afghan debacle.


This commentary examines the underlying causes and the practical implications of this lamentable state of affairs. It is quite long. Hence, suitable for reading at the beach, on a sailboat in the doldrums, in a mountain cabin on a rainy day, in a lock-downed, cramped Manhattan apartment, in a Sochi dacha or in the Haidian Summer Palace.



Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head.

A man must become wise at his own expense. - Michel de Montaigne




The United States’ engagement in world affairs presents to us the image of a mosaic. Many pieces of different hues that are all related to each other yet lack composition. Consider the following. Washington is preparing for war with China whom we have designated as our primary security threat and a challenger for the position of global supremo. The Pentagon was shocked when its elaborate war game over the Taiwan Straits concluded with a clear victory for the Chinese enemy.


Our military have reacted by committing itself to strategic adjustments, including the ringing of China with hypersonic missiles deployed from Vietnam to Japan. That scheme had General Austin flying to Hanoi to enlist them in the scheme. The predictable Vietnamese response: thank you for thinking of us, but a war with China is not in our plans.


In the meantime, the Biden administration flaunts its resolve by amassing a huge naval flotilla for exercises in the Western Pacific off China’s coast. Meanwhile, we steadily impose new sanctions on the country in the dubious belief that we have the economic upper-hand, and send envoys to read Beijing the riot act to which the Chinese respond with truculence and indictments of their own. Both sides have thrown down the gauntlet.


Nobody in Washington explains persuasively why this dangerous confrontation is necessary or what tangible threat the PRC poses to American security or its core interest. The proximate purpose is the increasingly self-evident objective of securing for Taiwan an independent status that we formally renounced in 1972. Obvious, alternative strategies for addressing China’s rising strength are discounted automatically with no evidence that they even have been reviewed.


In Europe, analogously, we pursue relentlessly an anti-Russian campaign designed to isolate it, to enfeeble it, and to negate any influence that it may seek to exercise either there or in the Middle East. We go so far as to presume to dictate to Germany an eleventh-hour shutdown of the Nordstrom gas pipeline vital to its economy despite the fact that we have no justification for such blatant interference in the commercial dealings between two sovereign states. All of this is overlaid with a rich assortment of alleged Russian misbehavior ranging from the evidence-free charge of interference in American electoral politics (now accepted as an article of faith across the political spectrum), to a spate of assassination attempts by the FBS’ ace ‘Ancient Mariner’ killers who ‘stop’ only 1 in 6, to insidious hacking plots (even though the largest portion of such actions worldwide originate from the US), to imprisoning regime opponents (quite unlike our criminal pursuit of Manning, Hale, Assange and the incarceration of more people per capita than any other country in the world).


The Russians retort that they will not bow to American attempts at intimidation. Putin, along with his Kremlin colleagues, instead have built up formidable military capabilities more than sufficient to ignore any American-led acts of intimidation and they clearly have the will to use them – as witness events in the Black Sea around Crimea, and the intervention in Syria.


Moreover, they have formed a strategic partnership with China which not only constitutes a de facto military alliance but goes far beyond an alliance in the stated ambition to forge a power bloc to contest the West in every sphere: commercial, financial/monetary, political, high technology and diplomacy as well as military. That is the outstanding – indeed, historic – achievement of the United States’ quest for permanent, unchallenged global dominance 


Elsewhere we continue our habitual practice of trying to overthrow any government we dislike – from Venezuela, to Syria, to Belarus, to Nicaragua, to Cuba in the manner of the Ukrainian coup organized from Washington. As to Iran, Biden has gone back on his solemn campaign pledge to return to the nuclear accord negotiated under Obama which is the only way to safeguard against Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons other than all-out war and occupation of a country of 65 million people.


Upon entering the White House, Biden quickly reversed himself. The United States did enter into new negotiations but with no intention of returning to the JCPOA. It laid down a fresh set of onerous conditions while rejecting any idea of lifting sanctions until those conditions were met. Indeed, even then Washington would hold hostage certain key economic concessions lest Iran cheat in implementing all provisions of the greatly expanded commitments it was expected to accept.


They include: a halt to all missile programs and restriction on those extant; the withdrawal of physical assets and political support to Shi’ite militias (whether composed of Iranians or locals) in Syria, Iran, Lebanon, plus Hamas in Palestine. In effect, the US aims at reducing Iran to a waifish ward of an American-led coalition that would be a non-player in the Middle East. Consequently, revival of the JCPOA now looks to be a dead letter. The next step? The Biden people have no idea.


Then there is Afghanistan – the tragic debacle of Afghanistan. From the outset, our perception of the country and our place in its affairs was fanciful. It was a chimera – a mirage so flimsy that it dissolved in a matter of days.


Step 1: Washington negotiates a set of understandings with the Taliban in Doha without the involvement of the feeble Ghani government in Kabul. In reciprocation to American withdrawal of its ground troops, the Taliban commit to talks with Kabul about some sort of transitional political arrangement. The insurgents also agree not to attack American troops as they exit while the US will cease military operations on their part – no general cease-fire.


Step 2: Ghani, Abdullah drag their heels knowing that their goose is cooked if the Americans leave. The Taliban expand their operations.


Step 3: The Taliban gradually intensify the pressure on the battlefields, Washington breaks its commitment not to intervene with airpower.


Step 4: An expanding insurgent offensive has the government reeling, in danger of collapsing. Biden demands that the Taliban cease their offensive, lay down their arms and negotiate with Kabul. He punctuates his demands by sending B-52s to drop tons of bombs on Taliban positions. Why? “To buy time.” For what?” No comment.


Step 5: Putin convenes a meeting in Moscow where a top-level Taliban, Chinese, Pakistani and Russian officials (with Iran in the wings) thrash out a set of understandings that lay down terms and conditions for the now inevitable Taliban regime in Kabul being accepted as a legitimate homeowner in the neighborhood.


Step 6: Shut the lights, the party’s over. The Pentagon’s papier-mâché army folds in days – mimicking Petraeus’ papier-mâché Iraqi army at Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah in 2014. Afghanistan is back to where it would have been in 2002 had we left the country after dislodging al-Qaeda – with the cardinal difference that the Taliban exist not as scattered remnants in hiding but as the masters of Afghanistan. What begins with B-52s in October 2001 ends with B-52s in August 2021; only this time the fireworks are part of the closing ceremony.


The critical error was made in 2001-2002 when the Bush administration made the fateful decision not to rest content with eliminating al-Qaeda and chose instead to reconstruct Afghanistan according to American specifications. Behind the facade of nation-building, they sought to establish strategic dominance in Central Asia by implanting ourselves militarily and politically in Afghanistan – a plan that conformed to the Pentagon goal of strategic dominance in every region of the world. It was the same audacious thinking that led to the disastrous venture in Iraq a year later. 


The other primary factor was the thirst for revenge for 9/11. Finding few actual al-Qaeda people to kill or imprison, Washington focused on the Taliban – accessories before the heinous act.


Problem: they had scattered back to their towns and villages while the leadership took refuge at Quetta across the border in Pakistan. Nonetheless, we began an unrelenting search for any accessible. That was done largely by advertising our readiness to reward anyone who could identify the bad guys. The response was swift and overwhelming. Self-serving, ambitious hucksters of every stripe came forward to curry favor with the Americans – warlords, local would-be headmen, hucksters and everyone with a grievance against a neighbor. The result was massive abuses, a strengthening of the power wielded by warlords and adventurers around the country, and an estrangement of the population. The last also suffered from misdirected American military actions – search-and-destroy, aerial bombing. It was that combination of half-witted tactics that resurrected the Taliban.


The American-Taliban relationship was a strange sort of symbiosis. They needed each other. Washington had to have a justification for occupying the country and discharging its post-9/11 fury. The exiled Taliban leadership needed American abuses to revive its followers fighting spirit. So, the great reversal of fortune in Afghanistan? We did it to ourselves. Hence, the dismal outcome was inevitable from 2003 onward. It was just a matter of time.


Now, the midnight hour has struck. That icy shower, though, has not brought sobriety. The American foreign policy establishment and Washington politicos instead are on the hunt for scapegoats. At the level of strategic thinking, the minds of the allegedly brightest are now fixated on the question of “credibility.” How much “credibility” has the US lost with what dire consequences? This is but the latest act in an interminable psych-drama. Credibility to do what - jump off another 100-foot cliff tied to a 105-foot bungie rope? Credibility in whose eyes? About what commitments? To whom? Based on what hard American interests? 


The reality is far from ominous. None of our allies are threatened militarily by any enemy. Not by Russia, not by China. Unless we consider Taiwan to which we have no defense commitment and, indeed, withdrew recognition of its sovereignty in 1972. Credibility to unconditional support of Israel if it launches an air campaign against Iran? Loss of that credibility would be a blessing. 


Most troubling is the prospect of the United States’ seeking to restore its sudden loss of prowess and face, by taking reckless actions aimed at bringing reality back into conformity with exalted self-image. That could take the form of even greater belligerence in dealing with Iran, growling more loudly about Taiwan, or setting in place fresh plans to overthrow some recalcitrant regime or other – if there are still candidates available.


There is one, far deeper, credibility issue. It centers on the warped thinking of the Pentagon, the neo-Cons, the rote think tank ‘intellectuals’ who regurgitate whatever is watchword of the moment with an eye on promotion to the big time, the R2P crusaders, a lazy and irresponsible media, and – above all – a disengaged public ready to accept whatever comforting tales reinforce their identity with America’s greatness. 


So comprehensive is our self-issued license to run the affairs of the world that Washington has imposed a sanction on the Cuban policeman who, we claim, committed the atrocity of using excessive force against demonstrators in Havana, i.e. a ban on his visiting Little Havana or Disney World. Do the plotters in D.C. hope that this will be the straw that breaks the regime’s back? Or, is the White House focus on Florida’s electoral votes? Likewise, we have imposed similar sanctions on persons we accuse of misbehavior in a score of other countries.


(To be concluded…) 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top