President Barack Obama has told the United States, and in particular its Congress, that it must do something very major in the Middle East to stop disaster. The analysis of the presumed problem is extremely murky, but the patriotic drums are being turned to high pitch and almost everyone is for the moment going along. A cooler head might say that they are all flailing around in desperation about a situation that the United States has the major responsibility for creating. They don’t know what to do, so they act in panic.
The explanation is simple. The United States is in serious decline. Everything is going wrong. And in the panic, they are like a driver of a powerful automobile who has lost control of it, and doesn’t know how to slow it down. So instead it is speeding it up and heading towards a major crash. The car is turning in all directions and skidding. It is self-destructive for the driver but the crash can bring disaster to the rest of the world as well.
A lot of attention is focused on what Obama has and hasn’t done. Even his closest defenders seem to doubt him. An Australian commentator, writing in the Financial Times, summed it up in one sentence: “In 2014 the world has grown suddenly weary of Barack Obama.” I wonder if Obama has not grown weary of Obama. But it’s a mistake to pin the blame just on him. Virtually no one among U.S. leaders has been making alternative proposals that are more sensible. Quite the contrary. There are the warmongers who want him to bomb everybody and right away. There are the politicians who really think it will make a lot of difference who will win the next elections in the United States.
A rare voice of sanity came in an interview in the New York Times with Daniel Benjamin, who had been the U.S. State Department’s top antiterrorism advisor during Obama’s first term. He called the so-called ISIS threat a “farce” with “members of the cabinet and top military officers all over the place describing the threat in lurid terms that are not justified.” He says that what they have been saying is without any “corroborated evidence” and just demonstrates how easy it is for officials and the media to “spin the public into a panic.” But who is listening to Mr. Benjamin?
At the moment, and with the help of gruesome photos showing the beheading of two American journalists by the caliphate, the polls show enormous support in the United States for military action. But how long will this last? The support is there as long as it seems there are concrete results. Even Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey in advocating military action says it will take at least three years. Multiply three by five and one might come nearer to how long this will go on. And the U.S. public is sure to become quickly disenchanted.
For the moment, what Obama is proposing is some bombing in Syria, no U.S. troops “on the ground” but increased special troops (up to about 2000 now) as trainers in Iraq (and probably elsewhere). When Obama was running for president in 2008, he made many promises, as is normal for a politician. But his signature promise was to get out of Iraq, and of Afghanistan. He is not going to keep it. Indeed, he is getting the United States into more countries.
Obama’s coalition is going to offer “training” to those they define as “good guys.” And it seems this training is to take place in Saudi Arabia. Good for Saudi Arabia. They can vet all the trainees, and judge which they can trust and which they can’t. This may make it possible for the Saudi regime (at least as confused as the U.S. regime) to appear to be doing something, and help them survive a little longer.
There are ways of tamping down this catastrophic scenario. They involve however a decision to shift from warfare to political deals between all sorts of groups who don’t like each other and don’t trust each other. Such political deals are not unknown, but they are very difficult to arrange, and fragile when first made, until they solidify. One major element in such deals coming to fruition in the Middle East is less involvement of the United States, not more. Nobody trusts the United States, even when they momentarily call for U.S. assistance in doing this or that. The New York Times notes that, at the meeting Obama convened to pursue his new coalition, support from the Middle East countries present was “tepid” and “reluctant” because there is “increased mistrust of the United States on all sides.” So even if they go along in some limited fashion, nobody is going to show gratitude for any U.S. assistance. The bottom line is that the people of the Middle East want to run their own show, not fulfill a U.S. vision of what’s said to be good for them.
Immanuel Wallerstein, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World (New Press).