The USA’s dangerous allies

draft of new contribution to openDemocracy

Many on the left think of the United States as a dangerous force in world politics, a view encouraged by the aggressive interventionism of the Bush administration. Yet the juggernaut of US military power usually moves slowly, and after the disasters of Iraq and Afghanistan, probably with some caution. At the present time, a greater danger than US intervention on its own account is its pattern of alliances with lesser powers whose provocative actions threaten to involve the USA in regional wars, with potentially profound consequences for the whole world.

This is the real lesson of the crisis in Korea. Coverage has focused on the instability and unpredictability of the North Korean regime, and the Wikileaks cables have deepened this impression by showing that even some Chinese officials are pricing in its collapse. Yet there has been little scrutiny of South Korea’s role, even though the South’s current government has abandoned the policy of constructive engagement with the North pursued by its predecessors.

Crucially, the South Korean decision to hold extensive military exercises on Yeonpyeong island, in maritime waters disputed with the North, may not have been mere ‘pretext’ for North Korean ‘madness’, but a real provocation to the North. As Kevin Gray notes, even the earlier sinking of a South Korean military vessel, widely blamed on the North, could have been caused by a mine rather than a torpedo. The South’s subsequent cancellation of further exercises on Yeonpyeong island suggests a recognition of the provocation it had offered, but the following announcement of new artillery drills near the border does not suggest a consistent policy of de-escalation. On the contrary, given civilian as well as military deaths, the Southern government, hostage to some extent to enraged public opinion, is matching assertive rhetoric with threats of air strikes.

Yet if the assumptions of near-terminal weakness, volatility and unpredictability in the Northern regime are even half-correct, there is surely a need for exceptional restraint. Can we really be sure that President Obama will really be able to deter his South Korean allies from action that will turn out to be a disastrous new provocation? If conflict escalates, will the USA be able to avoid being drawn in by its allies? The fallout will affect not just East Asia but the world.

If the Korean question is the most urgent, South Korea has hardly been, historically, the most militarily provocative of American allies. That title belongs to over-indulged Israel, which has an extensive history of military adventurism and now threatens war with Iran. Furthermore the Wikileaks revelations have underlined the extent to which conservative Arab allies, particularly the Saudi monarchy, have been egging on Obama to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities himself, and so can be presumed to condone an Israeli attack.

Arab-Israeli collusion vis-a-vis Iran is hardly a new phenomenon. As Fred Halliday pointed out over 25 years ago in Iran: Dictatorship and Development, Iran (then as now the most populous Middle Eastern state) was developing as a regional ‘sub-imperialism’. The Shah, spending oil revenues on US and British weaponry for his expanding armed forces, made Iran a force to be feared by (Sunni) Arab regimes of all kinds as well as by Israel. Not only Arab states but the USA and the USSR tacitly backed Saddam Hussein’s attack on Iran, partly in order to cripple revolutionary Shi’a Islamism, but above all to weaken the potentially dominant regional power.

It is hardly surprising therefore that Iran’s Islamic regime – whose currently brutality owes much to the subsequent eight years of the Iran-Iraq war – now seeks nuclear weapons as the ultimate form of security. As much threatened by the existing Israeli bomb as Israel believes itself to be by Iran’s future weapons, and having seen what happened to Saddam at American hands, Iran’s nuclear ambitions are easily seen as defensive. In the politically beleaguered and economically crisis-ridden state of the regime, it is difficult to seriously interpret them as a prequel to armed expansionism.

Indeed the only circumstances in which it is easy to imagine Iranian military action is under the kind of provocation currently offered by Israel’s aggressive plans. President Ahmadinejad may publicly dismiss the Wikileaks revelations as US propaganda (thus forming an unholy alliance with its enemies on the issue, which would be funny if the whole business was not so serious), but they can only add to the sense of encirclement in Tehran. Yet how seriously are Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton working to defuse the Israeli threat? Since a Middle Eastern war could bring enormous harm to us all, the global public interest demands open diplomacy, in the spirit of Wikileaks, as well as private warnings to Benyamin Netanyahu’s Israeli government.

Our confidence cannot be increased by the new information the leaks have given us about the 2008 Georgian war. Bush, it will be remembered, had encouraged US ally Georgia to defy Russia and seek Nato membership; the Georgian presidency of Mikheil Saakashvili took this backing as a licence to attack the Russian-backed separatist enclave of South Ossetia. I asked at the time about the US role: ‘did it not know (a very surprising failure of intelligence), or did it not want to (a shockingly irresponsible and reckless position)? Or was there a moment equivalent to the mixed message given to Saddam Hussein by April Glaspie, Washington’s ambassador to Iraq in 1990, that allowed the Iraqi leader to think he had a green light from the US to invade Kuwait?’

While providing new information on Russia’s own provocations, the Wikileaks cables suggest a mixture of the first and second explanations: ‘ambassador John F. Tefft was assuring his employers only hours before the bombardment of Tskhinvali [the South Ossetian capital] that nothing of the sort could happen: that was what they wanted to hear.’ Given what we now know, subsequent anti-Russian bluster by US and other Western politicians appears as cover for their incompetence in managing a minor ally and even ignorance about its intentions.

Washington’s and Nato’s general backing for Georgia dragged them into a potentially grave crisis with Russia, even if not one deep enough to lead to war. In Korea and the Middle East, the consequences of the USA’s dubious and ill-managed alliances could be much more disastrous, even more so than in Afghanistan, where yet more allies pose intractable problems. For as John Naughton points out, ‘The leaked dispatches from the US ambassador to Afghanistan provide vivid confirmation that the Karzai regime is as corrupt and incompetent as the South Vietnamese regime in Saigon was when the US was propping it up in the 1970s. And they also make it clear that the US is as much a captive of that regime as it was in Vietnam.’ With friends like these, who needs enemies?

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