replying to a comment on comments – part 2 (us v is)

(continuing reply to jch’s comment, with same proviso as before)

4 – Current Events or: Hegemony, What Is It/Good For?

Now to current events, as we return to the original point of my intervention under the Quiggan post.

jch says:

Whereas ISTM that heedless U.S. doings (and the “Peter principle” governing its supposed elites), have severely undermined its hegemony and its reputation effects. The Mideast is a perfect example, since its actions destabilized the area to the point where neither its ostensible friends or allies, nor its selected enemies show much respect for U.S. interests or objectives

I say:

For me to make sense of the comment I would need to be able to identify and assess the particular “US interests or objectives” jch has in mind, and I would have to know how “respect” for them or “reputation effects” matter – that is, to whom, and to what further effect or effects.

As for the two interests or objectives jch names, I don’t accept as a given that the US seeks or should seek “hegemony,” but I’m not sure what he means, and don’t want to guess. So, I need to know what I am to think US hegemony in the ME would be, and what it would be for. I’ll just note that a global hegemony or quasi-hegemony might exist or perhaps would naturally have to exist under widely varying degrees of elaboration – perhaps much more intensive near the “center” or at critical “nodes,” much less so at the “periphery.” So we could still reasonably speak of a globally hegemonic power without presuming the actuality or necessity of active control or dominance over every speck, or even every region, of land, sea, air, orbit, and adjacent space.

In any event, it doesn’t seem to me that jch sees regional hegemony, whatever it would be, as an authentic interest either. I think the US seeks something much easier: It wants to spoil anyone else’s hegemonic ambitions before they create too much trouble. Because that objective is somewhat satisfied by chaos – as long as it’s sufficiently contained – and because a fully congenial regional order or regional stability may not be attainable, there are many who suspect chaos is in fact the true US objective, even all along the true US objective if never openly and for some unconsciously. If, alternatively, regional chaos is the perverse and unsought result of an attempt to enforce a scheme for regional stability (Bacevich), or the inevitable result of an historical process not finally subject to merely political decision, the effect might be or seem sub-optimal, yet remain net positive for the US.

Something similar goes for “reputation effects.” Employing the framework for speculation mentioned in #1 in this series of comments in relation to a comment on a post of comments, if the main US interests in this “technomic” era (a Russian neologism that never caught on), or during this phase of the long age of ocean-faring, or of technologism, or the modern era, are 1) free navigation of the Persian Gulf as element of the international (crucially ocean-borne and still fossil fuels-dependent) economy; 2) prevention of anyone else achieving hegemony either over the Eurasian landmass or within a global region in such a way as to impinge upon an international political-economic system favorable to the US; 3) preservation of general system stability via continued acceptance of American prerogatives as final security guarantor, then “reputation effects” have to develop negatively to a very great extent before they truly require attention – that is, independently represent or prepare or advance a strategic threat. Before such a point is reached, to attend to them will appear optional for us: All things being equal, it pleases us to think others think well of us, and, all the more, to think well of ourselves, but we may believe that, at the end of the day, we can live without the good opinion of the people of the Middle East (who might have some reputational problems of their own).

I also don’t see much reason to believe, returning in this connection to a prior topic, that jch’s proposal of an active alliance with Assad will be helpful to our reputation, esp among ourselves. I suspect that reputation gets graded on a curve, and that Iran, Russia, Turkey, and other potential regional competitors have not necessarily done themselves a great deal of good in recent years. There are also multiple components in a reputation or different types of reputation: So, what’s the reputational bottom line to disturb the thoughtful American’s Sunday afternoon?

5 – Clash of Civilizations

jch says:

And I don’t think your reading of Daesh/Al Qaeda, in terms of a supposed “clash of civilizations” and “transcendent values” is remotely plausible. Like Ebola, they are malignant and dangerous, but far more a threat over there than here, and the hysteria is rather misplaced, insofar as it ignores the contributions of “our ” mistakes, which have undermined credibility and legitimacy in the region. But as I think I’ve remarked before here, Daesh/Al Qaeda are just a species of religious nihilism, generated from the shocks of the modern world, (rather in the manner of Arendt’s take on Nazism, as a wildly slap-dash and incoherent ideology, hollow at its core, and thus self-consuming), rather than any enduring opponent, “justifying” the over-extension of the national-security state, when no such “security” is at issue and no such means are appropriate, relevant or effective.

I say:

Though I didn’t use the term “clash of civilizations,” I think that there is arguably a clash of civilizations or civilizational projects going on, in a format already established in a pre-globalized form thousands of years ago or prior to the arrival of the Prophet – prior to practical ocean-faring: the land civilization loosely defined by the Silk Road vs the sea civilization loosely defined by the Mediterranean – and, if so, the “Islamic State” would be one manifestation of it, not likely the final truth of it, possibly a crystallization of it for our moment, as Nazism (as Heidegger eventually seemed to recognize late, when he wrote on Nietzsche and nihilism) could be even in its hollowness or incoherence a crystallization of pre-existing and very actual and cohering tendencies.

Returning to the here and now restrictively, I don’t see IS “hysteria” – except from a few very excitable types. Islamist radicalism has in my view fairly earned its own “enduring” reputation as a threat to be fought: We quite arguably neither can nor should, and anyway simply and observably will not, let the political murders of our fellow citizens go unpunished, whether it’s 3,000 or just two of them, and a response seen as disproportionate relative to actuals may seem perfectly proportionate, or even disproportionately small, relative to potentials. Similarly, if we can rescue a people in imminent danger of destruction, we may find it unacceptably cowardly to refuse to do so out of fear of minor risks to ourselves – including whatever risk of “over-extension of the national-security state.” Those imagining something else, or diminishing the murders of Foley, Sotloff, and other hostages or the rescue of the Yazidis, Amerlis, or, possibly, the Rojavan Kurds, as mere theater indulge in fantasy often under the name of realism, and diminish their own humanity even as they indict others on the same basis.

6 – American Centuries

jch says:

the decline of the “American century” is as inevitable as a self-inflicted wound

So, I’ll close with gratitude to Mr. Halasz for his challenging ideas, and, in relation to the above, offer this last concession: The “American Century” is a bit more than 70 years old by now, or perhaps older if we pre-date the phenomenon to a point prior to the 1941 coinage. Maybe it will end a bit ahead of the implied schedule. Maybe it’ll last longer. Notwithstanding jch’s opinion of me as a between-the-lines aggressive Americanist, I’m quite willing to consider the possibility that the American wad is shot or mostly shot, and that, as far as the American nation goes if not necessarily also for the American Idea, it’ll be mostly defense and decline-management from here on out – and maybe in fact has been mainly defense and decline-management for a much longer time. Maybe the entire “American Century” has been essentially nothing else.

Perhaps jch will concede that, even if the United States, despite those oceans, finally suffers the same humiliations as other once great powers, the welfare and even the lives of billions of people, without exaggeration at all the very fate of this world, may still depend on how the breakdown and break-up of the American neo-empire is handled. Wars of re-division are especially not healthy for children etc.

7 – PS:

jch says:

Bottom line: reality is not a TV show.

I think reality is also a TV show.

2 comments on “replying to a comment on comments – part 2 (us v is)

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  1. Again, this is all too screwy to respond to in detail. But, I didn’t advocate an “alliance” with the Assad regime, (which is too late), but simply an acknowledgement, as part of, which should have been the case all along, a political-diplomatic containment of the conflicts in the region and ISIS in particular. There is no military “solution”, since ISIS would have to be replaced with another Sunni force, which the U.S. lacks the “legitimacy” to install.


    The invasion of Iraq, without due cause, was a cluster-f*ck, which shouldn’t be rationalized away. To me, the biggest shock wasn’t just the attempt to convert the country, after its sovereignty had been collapsed and assumed by the U.S., into a Cato Institute wet dream, staffed by College Republicans, but, after that was an obvious failure, with the outbreak of civil war, Gen, Petraeus being assigned the task of drafting a counter-insurgency manual. You mean, after the Vietnam debacle, the U.S. military had completely ignored the issue of counter-insurgency? And the recent collapse of the Iraqi army is just ARVN all over again. This isn’t grand strategy; it’s repetition compulsion.


    Terrorism, in the relevant sense, isn’t all that you crack it up to be, and afflicts the people over there far more that over here. But the deepest flaw in U.S. Mideast policy over the years isn’t the alliance with Israel, but that with Saudi Arabia, which has used its oil wealth to export what otherwise would be a minor, deviant form of Islam. None of that was either prudent or “necessary”.

    Rooting matters in events thousands of years before the existence, let alone the ascendency, of Western Europe and its off-shoots, is an evident absurdity.

    The U.S. has an opportunity to manage its declining hegemony, but whether its elites will see fit to do so, rather than exacerbate the conditions of the world through short-sighted and selfish over-reach is doubtful.

    The U.S. achieved global hegemony as still a young and rather adolescent nation. And so it remains. As a French wag once put it, the U.S. is the only great nation to have gone from innocence to decadence without passing through the stage of civilization.

  2. You’ve said already, jch, that you have other matters taking up your time, and you do seem to me to be writing and thinking distractedly both in the above comment and in your most recent comment on the other thread. I remain grateful for your previous contributions, but at this moment I see no reason to continue this discussion, and ample reason not to.

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