US Foreign Policy: Paradigm Change and its Antagonisms

Comment, Conflicts Forum, 25 Nov 2016

America is entering a period of internal political warfare. If leading the country was difficult before (due to dissent within the Obama Administration), it will be worse now.  The new President-Elect may hold both Houses of Congress, but there are other powerful power centres in the US that can, and will try to obstruct him. This situation is not surprising.  We are witnessing the intent to overturn a long standing paradigm, and the political élites who upheld it.  Steen Jakobsen of Saxo Bank, who called the election correctly, describes it succinctly:

“… the world has become elitist in every way … [simply put], I think in the greater socioeconomic context, élitism refers to the idea that there is only one model … So intellectually-speaking, elitism means that we have very little room for discussion about our societal consensus and whether it is working, whether it is right. Take, for example, quantitative easing and monetary policy in general … everyone told us we had no alternative (TINA), but where did that idea come from? Where was the honest conversation about that? … Elitism also means that there is no room for smaller voices, no room for the discontent of the average person who may not have the most profound insight into politics or economics but who nonetheless desires to take his own stance on things … So who or what is his interpreter? A political system driven by household names like Blair and Clinton, all of these voices that have offered their “Third Way” consensus, which is of course no way at all … except one that is heading directly for a brick wall … What we are now seeing is these old names going down in flames because their model is a non-functioning programme reliant on globalisation.”

For those who have become comfortable with ‘there is only one [rational, technologically correct] model’, the founder of Italy’s 5 Star Movement, showing off his growing confidence in a video posted ahead of Sunday’s pivotal national referendum, will have confirmed their worst fears: “An era is going up in flames,” Beppe Grillo said as Donald Trump’s Election Night acceptance speech played in the background. “It’s the risk-takers, the stubborn, the barbarians who will carry the world forward … We will end up in government, and they will be asking, ‘How did they do it?’”. 

And how far does the contagion spread? Is bloodshed within the realm of possibilities? Has it really come to that? (hopefully not). But ‘monkey wrenching’ has already begun. The keystone to Trump’s foreign policy (so far as it has been elucidated) is to seek a détente with President Putin. But, as Professor Stephen Cohen has noted:  

“the pro–Cold War opposition has quickly manifested itself … led by bipartisan Senators McCain, Graham, and Cardin and in the media by The New York Times and the Washington Post … their thinking and goals are expressed by their Washington Post stenographer Josh Rogin, who tells readers that détente is both impermissible, and unattainable, because of Putin’s “long-term strategy to undermine the stability and confidence of liberal Western democracies.” There is, of course, no evidence whatsoever that this is Putin’s goal, merely vilifying allegations, but the accusation recapitulates the existential language of the preceding 40-year Cold War”.

No, it is worse. It brands Putin as an existential threat to America and Europe: Rogin ends, Cohen says, by telling readers that these American foes of détente are readying a campaign here and abroad in order to “stop the next Russian reset [the term Obama used for détente] before it even begins … [Plainly then] Trump will require determination, leadership skills, advisers, and domestic allies to offset what is certain to be ferocious opposition to any truly reciprocal negotiations with (now) ‘Putin’s Russia’”.

Détente with Russia however, is but the preliminary step to Trump’s yet more ambitious project to wage a war against radical Islam. Although the details of what this might entail are scant, it has been couched by Trump lieutenants (such as Steve Bannon) as a Bernard Lewis-ian ‘clash of civilisations’. As illustrated in this compilation of sound-bites by members of Trump’s team by the US magazine, Mother Jones:

“ I think Islam hates us”, Trump said earlier this year. Asked if he was referring to “radical Islam,” he responded, “It’s radical, but it’s very hard to define. It’s very hard to separate. Because you don’t know who’s who.”

“Several members of Trump’s emerging team have described the threat in similarly stark and broad ways. “We’re in a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people, most of them inspired by a totalitarian ideology: Radical Islam. But we are not permitted to speak or write those two words, which is potentially fatal to our culture,” writes Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national-security adviser, in a book he published this summer with the conservative writer Michael Ledeen.

“I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral, than the system our main enemies want to impose on us,” Flynn adds.

“Not all the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims are extremists or terrorists. Not by a long shot,” wrote Flynn’s incoming deputy, K.T. McFarland, in March. “But even if just 10 percent of 1 percent are radicalized, that’s a staggering 1.6 million people bent on destroying Western civilization and the values we hold dear.”

… Mike Pompeo [however], the Kansas congressman who Trump has tapped as his CIA director, has described the clash in more nuanced terms, stressing that Islam should not be equated with extremism. But he [Pompeo] nevertheless claims that Obama has grossly underestimated the danger of jihadism.”

It is hard to say how much of this language (plainly it was uttered before anyone was offered office) we should take literally, but Obama’s policy of strategic ambiguity towards jihadism – both using radical Islam on the one hand, and half-heartedly fighting it (i.e. being used by it) on the other – together with his highly-forced distinction between moderate jihadists and global jihadists – has produced a major backlash in America: one that is likely to shape the next Administration’s foreign policy.

It is too early to say how the new ‘war’ will play out in practice, but the Mother Jones’ compilation indicates strong hostility (Bannon) towards Saudi Arabia and “its penetration of the Obama Administration” through such figures as John Brenner (the CIA head) and Huma Abedin (Mrs Clinton’s closest aide), who is additionally accused of being allied to the Muslim Brotherhood. If these soundbites are anything to go by (and we should treat them, at least in part, as polemical), it seems that the Muslim Brotherhood are ‘in the war frame’ – as well as Iran. Bannon and Pompeo too, seem to make little distinction between Sunni Islam and Shi’a Islam (see here and here).

Has this new proposed civilizational ‘war’ the propensity to escalate over-the-top?  Certainly that is possible, but equally, much of its more quixotic threatenings are likely to come out in the wash – either in DC or in Moscow. Iran at least seems sanguine: Ali Larijani is quoted (in an interview with a Chinese TV network) as “displaying a quiet confidence that Trump’s campaign speeches regarding Iran will not translate as policies”. (“Tehran indeed should know. Ronald Reagan’s campaign speeches in 1980 in the middle of the hostage crisis were much more threatening than Trump’s”, notes former Indian Ambassador Bhadrakumar)

What does seem to be clear is that traditional U.S. Middle East alliances are liable to be reshuffled. Both Flynn and Pompeo have praised Egypt’s leader, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi: “I’ve met President Sisi,” Pompeo said during his 2015 speech: “I’ll say it this way: You don’t find many Thomas Jeffersons over there. Once you accept that … the line needs to be drawn [between] those who are on the side of extremism and those who are fighting against it, of whatever faith we may find them.” Clearly the Gulf States collectively placed their shirts on Hillary Clinton to win the Presidential election.  Their partisanship could not have been more blatant.  They have made a mistake (and may pay the price), but they are not alone.  Some European states, too, got it so wrong that they were caught scrambling to find a phone number by which Trump’s team could be reached – but only after the election results had been announced.

Europeans too, are divided on Trump’s détente plan with Putin, and will be particularly concerned at the prospect of any civilisation war with radical Islam (they are vulnerable to any Muslim backlash). But Europe already has begun to slide in Trump’s direction (i.e Fillon). Significantly, the Europeans have received a very plain push in that direction – from their former mentor, Mr Obama himself: “Recently Obama stopped referring to the United States as “the indispensable nation” in world affairs and called it “an indispensable nation,” suggesting it might have equal partners. And whereas he once dismissed Russia as a weak “regional power,” he has revised that formulation considerably. Now, according to Obama [speaking in Berlin on 18 November], “Russia is an important country. It is a military superpower …. It has influence around the world. And in order for us to solve many big problems around the world, it is in our interest to work with Russia and obtain their cooperation.”

This, Cohen emphasizes, constitutes the traditional language of détente.  And in the context of Grillo’s fiery oration, we might well recall the end to C. P. Cafavy’s poem Waiting for the Barbarians. It starts:

What are we waiting for, assembled in the forum?

The barbarians are due here today.

Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?

Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?

 Because the barbarians are coming today.

 What’s the point of senators making laws now?

  Once the barbarians are here, they’ll do the legislating.

And it ends…

 Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

 And some of our men just in from the border say

 there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

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