In my last column, I brought you up to speed on the deeper issues impacting our energy challenges, which has become a major component of the 2012 presidential election. However, Tuesday night's third and final debate was primarily focused on foreign policy, another area where the candidates have thrown plenty of red meat, but precious little in the way of cohesive strategy. Let's take a look at some of the deeper issues in this arena as well.
First, I'd note that it is somewhat striking that even in the post-Iraq War, post-Osama bin Laden world, foreign policy is discussed almost exclusively in terms of armed conflict in or near the region of the world that produces most of its oil. There's very little discussion about our closer neighbors in Central and South America and ways in which we can engage and strategically partner with rising economies in other nations, or the cartel war that has killed more than 50,000 people in Mexico. When we do talk about anything other than the Middle East and North Africa, it's usually to make foolish threats of trade protectionism against our largest trading partner, that again oversimplify challenges through implausible solutions.
The Bush era seems to have left the American public war-weary with little appetite for the sort of debt-financed military adventurism that so poorly served our interests through the first decade of this century. Yet still, politicians refuse to address foreign policy in anything other than Bush-era terms. The hawkish side of the American political spectrum boldly calls for regime change in places like Syria, despite the striking similarity to other recent conflicts, in terms of the power vacuum it seems likely to create. If America has learned one thing in the last 10 years, it should be that helping to remove a ruling faction from power does not always turn out as intended, and it very often turns out worse than before our meddling.
It seems clear that our concern with Syria revolves around their alliance with Iran, an ally nation with whom they share defense compacts. Destabilizing them might seem like a way to deal Iran a proxy blow, though like I've said, our efforts to use the broad sword of the U.S. military in situations where a scalpel is called for, has not yielded promising results. There's also the 800-pound elephant in the room that is our history with Iran. To hear either candidate speak of the current dilemma, you'd never guess that it was the United States that had the biggest hand in taking down their democratically-elected government to install a brutal and corrupt dictator who was more sensitive to the desires of our multi-national oil companies, ultimately leading to his overthrow by the extremist theocracy that rules today.
Imagine how it feels to be a moderate Iranian, who opposes this regime – the exact sort of person with whom we would want to engender with a positive view of the United States – who hears both the so-called liberal and conservative candidates for American President routinely speak as if that affront to democracy had never even occurred. The statement made by both candidates that an Iran that were to secure a nuclear weapon is the greatest potential threat we face is absurd. If the U.S. were to stop its nuclear program today and maintain only its current stockpile, it would take Iran decades to assemble a nuclear force capable of posing even a modest threat. With the sanctions currently in place, they'd go broke long before that ever happened, and no one's imagining the U.S. halting its nuclear expansion anyway.
China has nuclear weapons. India has nuclear weapons. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. North Korea has nuclear weapons. Russia has an enormous nuclear stockpile and it is suspected that many of the former Soviet States hold nuclear weapons that are still unaccounted for since its fall. How would Iran, a nation more than 5,000 miles away that only recently celebrated the successful test of a missile capable of hitting targets 185 miles away (or less than a third the distance to Israel's closest border) be a bigger threat than any of those nations? How in the world can we as a nation take such a statement seriously?
Tough talk about Iran inevitably leads to Israel. Both candidates have made the common assertion that Iran cannot be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon under any circumstances because it has already “threatened to wipe Israel off the map.” This is a complete distortion. First, understand that supreme power in Iran rests ultimately with the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, its Supreme Leader. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to whom the quote is attributed, answers to the Ayatollah, who has never indicated a desire to execute such an attack.
Also, the quote itself is inaccurate. Ahmadinejad, who to be fair, seems undoubtedly to be a somewhat backward, rabid anti-semitic, actually said, in Persian, what can be most accurately be translated to, “This regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the sands of time" (sort of like the U.S. overthrow of their last democratic regime has). He didn't say it while talking about military options or follow it up with any such suggestion. It was made in a political context. We can quibble over what he meant by that, but to make the leap to, If we get a nuclear weapon and missiles capable of traveling three times further than our current ones, our first order of business will be a nuclear attack on Israel, damn whatever the Ayotollah and his mullahs say about it, or what Israel and their allies do in response, is a reach to say the very least.
Iran knows that the United States and its allies are indeed capable of wiping them off the so-called map (after all it's an English idiom that doesn't even translate to or from Persian). Launching a nuclear weapon at one of our allies (and perhaps our most-strategically important one at that) would clearly be suicide, and launching it at us would be impossible. If Iran wants a nuclear weapon, and they probably do, it's likely because resource-rich nations like Libya and Iraq who did not have them, tended to fare poorly when they stood up to imperial Western powers and tried to exercise more control over those resources, while the nuclear nations named above have managed to enjoy a more hands-off approach.
The greatest threat Saddam Hussein posed to the United States was his desire to cut side deals on oil with the Chinese and Russians that would have set a precedent of pegging the barrel price to something other than the American dollar, an economic catastrophe we would not allow. The biggest threat Iran's democratically-elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh posed before British MI6 and American CIA forces facilitated his overthrow in 1953, was kicking the Western oil companies out so that Iran could control their own resources. We weren't having that either. An economic collapse caused by the immediate inability to finance our deficit economy that would almost certainly follow a collapse of the petrodollar, might be something the U.S. would be forced to take military action to prevent. But that is the debate we should be having and the prism through which we should be viewing our current diplomacy with the nations involved – in an effort to avoid rather than provoke such conflict.
So, here we are talking about foreign policy, yet we're right back to the subject of my last column – oil. Funny how that works, eh? There was a time when the U.S. State Department was an agency of true diplomacy, back when it was much more influential than the Pentagon. In those days, foreign policy referred to the big picture. Technology, trade and human rights were cornerstone issues, and while oil was always a matter of concern, it was never the epicenter of the concept. Sadly, those days are clearly over.
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