Notebook, 28 May 2011: Great Power Politics In A Multipolar World

One of Solzhenitsyn’s most chilling stories concerned a birthday party for Comrade Stalin, held in a small, out-of-the-way town. Stalin was, of course, no where in sight, but still there were speeches and applause. Without thinking, the mayor of the town rose and exhorted his fellows to one last cheer for the evening to the honor of Stalin.

The applause continued for minutes without stopping and everyone was growing weary, but who would dare to be the first to stop clapping? As the labored applause wore on an old man collapsed. Finally the mayor allowed his arms to drop and the noise died. The next evening the mayor was sentenced to the gulag, and no charges were ever spoken against him. As he stepped into the train, a party official whispered into his ear, “Never be the first one to stop clapping.” — David Sisler

This was not the post I orginally thought to write. It’d be very easy to dump on Congress for their disgraceful looking performance this week during Benjamin Netanyayu’s address to Congress:

and I wouldn’t be the first. Stephen Walt already has, and linked to more (here, here, here and here). None of which I have a problem with. So lets be clear on what happened here: Bibi came to town to reconnect with AIPAC and then press home the threat with Congress, who knew very well what was going on.

Kabuki? No. This is great power politics in action.

For the Israel lobby, the election cycle has already begun. Israeli-American Micheal Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States has been published all over the place both here and in Israel. Not Haaretz, mind you, but the much more hard-line, almost the official government mouthpiece, The Jerusalem Post..

For the US, our ally in the region is practically a pariah state whose main entry into the international community is the United States. Unless somebody like China intends to step in and become a player in the Middle East, replacing the aid which now comes from us, championing Israel’s “cause” in the UN Security Council, et cetera, Israel is the one ally in the region we don’t have to worry about.

The price we pay is Israel’s interference in our domestic politics, the opposition of the Arab world, 9/11, and the wars that followed. Add to this the expanded Global War on Terror and the assault on our civil liberties. Which isn’t Israel’s fault. It’s our fault. If ever the need for sweeping electoral reform was clearly demonstrated, it was congress’ behavior during Bibi’s “Rally for Israel” performance before congress.

So what just happened is Bibi came to the US to collect some markers and to whip up the troops at AIPAC for next year’s election cycle.

This is the world as we know it now, in its entirety. Foreign nations hire lobbyists to plead their cases in back rooms to members of Congress at many levels: from geopolitical conflict resolution to managing legislation affecting sovereign wealth funds. Even China is getting into the act. It is not so different than what characterized diplomacy in Europe for centuries, only the mechanics have changed. One must have diplomatic relations, at least one significant ally in the administration, a significant (and significantly wealthy) expatriate population who identify in some degree (the stronger the better) with the old country, a good working relationship with key senators, having similar relations with the House (anyone not on the committee on foreign affairs, the appropriations committee or in leadership can be safely ignored), a good working relationship with key editorial boards and a good US PR firm to write the spin that those editorial boards will print.

It also helps if you are a regional power. The US loves to build close ties with powerful players, which goes a long way to explaining the vast differences in our responses to Egypt and Libya, or the difference in our relations with India and Sri Lanka, for example.

So Bibi was in town, like any good commander, to get the lead out in the electoral machine, and shake the money tree. It may be one of the greatest crimes of the century thus far, that the Palestinian community in the US, which is sizable, has failed to grasp what they’re up against here and reciprocate. That Bibi feels the need to do so is that it is reported that relations between he and Obama aren’t as good as Bibi would like. Obama has shown, from time to time, a penchant to think for himself, actually want to stand up for the rights and dignity of human beings when he can (to make the official US public diplomacy PR real), and has recently shown (regarding Hosni Mubarak for instance), that he is willing to throw an aging, corrupt dictator and old friend of the US under the bus.

So what does the Israel lobby want? In the short term, a friendly replacement for George Mitchell. Someone of Dennis Ross’ mind who believes that the US should act as Israel’s lawyer/advocate in negotiations with Palestinians. Perhaps, as reported, special assistant to Bill Clinton, former US ambassador to Israel and AIPAC deputy director for research, Martin Indyk. The Israel lobby wants action on Palestine’s UN initiative next September as well, which the president has already hinted that it would veto:

Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state.

This is a huge mistake. Denying honest diplomatic progress leaves Palestinians no options, other than the terrorism we are now in our tenth year of a “global war” against. It goes against US policy in that we already maintain informal ties with the Palestinian Authority (Fatah, an ex-terrorist organization), and against what is demonstrably world opinion:

Countries which recognize a Palestinian state.


The dividends may be more than one might expect. In the midst of Obama’s well hyped European tour, we’re finding that the world’s honeymoon with Obama is over. The signals are weak, but unmistakable.

American foreign policy realists should take a very hard look at the costs of US support for Israel. American Wilsonian idealists have already concluded that both in revenues and in lives, US foreign policy has already wreaked tremendous destruction. The one thing we cannot afford are any more lies like, “they hate us for our freedoms.” We need to get this right:

To the question “Why do the terrorists hate us?” Americans could be pardoned for answering, “Why should we care?” The immediate reaction to the murder of 5,000 innocents is anger, not analysis. Yet anger will not be enough to get us through what is sure to be a long struggle. For that we will need answers. The ones we have heard so far have been comforting but familiar. We stand for freedom and they hate it. We are rich and they envy us. We are strong and they resent this. All of which is true. But there are billions of poor and weak and oppressed people around the world. They don’t turn planes into bombs. They don’t blow themselves up to kill thousands of civilians. If envy were the cause of terrorism, Beverly Hills, Fifth Avenue and Mayfair would have become morgues long ago. There is something stronger at work here than deprivation and jealousy. Something that can move men to kill but also to die.


“They hate us for our freedoms.” What tripe. Some do, but enough to shape the world as we know it today? I highly doubt it. No, it is what we do which fuels the need to fund an over-the-top security infrastructure and undermines our civil rights.

In the realist framework, we’d have abandoned Israel long ago, and those “realists” who insist on blindly supporting Israel do so to the very real detriment of the US. Like I say, a major re-evaluation of US foreign policy is in order, something along the lines of what the QDDR (I won’t link to it, it’s not worth your time) should have been but miserably failed to even attempt. And congress, especially Senator Bob Menendez lately, needs to STFU.

If you want to take this on as a strict realist, you start off by answering what the US interests are, what we need and how to get there. If you’re a Wilsonian idealist, you have to begin thinking about how to transform the world’s diplomatic regimes into one democratic, world order primarily focused on ensuring the basic rights and dignity of human beings everywhere. If you’re like me, a little of both, you see an opportunity to do something right, which should benefit the US in international relations in the long run, like supporting Palestine’s membership in the UN. It won’t solve anything in itself, but it should establish a sane baseline for the discussion in the future, and that’s enough for now. What’s not needed is more AIPAC hysteria gaining sway.


2 thoughts on “Notebook, 28 May 2011: Great Power Politics In A Multipolar World

  1. Democratic trends arising from the Arab Spring protests help define the trend of US foreign relations not only with the Middle East, but with the entire developing world. The map of countries recognizing Palestine already is a leading indicator of countries which do, or will demand something more from the US than good intentions and rousing speeches. The Arab renaissance, messy as it is, will describe a trajectory apparent to all: If these countries decided on another oil boycott, the west would be crippled, and Arab nations could still fulfill China’s needs.

    This is the multipolar world writ large. We helped build it and we’d either deal with it in good faith or devolve into a developing nation ourselves. The pressure is already building.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s