Defense and Defense Mechanisms

If Indians and Japanese, Poles and Latvians, Israelis and Saudis are convinced that the United States damaged its deterrence and invited aggression — and that they must adjust their own policies accordingly — it almost doesn’t matter if Obama is right in insisting that Putin and Xi Jinping took no cues from him. The global conventional wisdom has created its own reality. Recent events have been reinforcing: If the president believes Putin’s recent military adventure in Syria had nothing to do with the 2013 decision, he is virtually alone.

So observes veteran foreign policy pundit Jackson Diehl, who says that at the time of the Syria reversal he was willing to believe the President might have “stumbled into a tactical victory,” but that he now sides with area experts and foreign ministers who hold the opposite view.

Diehl assesses the Obama Doctrine, or Jeffrey Goldberg’s Obama’s Obama Doctrine, as, in a word, neurotic – as much a psychological construct or defense mechanism as a policy – enabling the President to minimize the importance of any setbacks, the alternative being emotionally intolerable:

In fact, despite his protestations, Obama seems to be haunted by his Syrian retreat — so much so that he has concocted a kind of negative doctrine around it. It is, says Goldberg, that the Middle East “is no longer terribly important to American interests”; that even if it is, there is little the United States can do “to make it a better place”; and that any attempt to do so leads only to war and “the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power.”

For Diehl, Obama’s subsequent policy decisions – foremost his “dispatching 4,000 troops and and scores of warplanes … to fight the Islamic State” – contradict the contradiction. The contemporaneous evidence, from the vulgar statement of dismay and surprise by Secretary of State Kerry to the President’s own self-contradictory rhetoric, indicates that, whatever else the Syria reversal was, and however much pride the President now takes in throwing out the “Washington playbook,” the decision, or retraction of decision, was far from any carefully executed implementation of a well-thought out plan.

Aside from having appeared inept at the time, and appearing defensive now, the President complicates his own argument, and the predicaments of his allies and eventually of his successor, in multiple ways. Unlike regime change and its alternatives in Syria, getting to a nuclear deal with Iran was a focus of Obama foreign policy, but it went largely un-discussed in “The Obama Doctrine.” Intervention against Assad, and therefore against Iran’s as well as Russia’s client, was thought likely to imperil the negotiations (in which Russia was also formally a party), and that factor may have explained Obama’s reticence as much as any broad historical-theoretical perspective on the region and its meaning for the U.S. Yet the President cannot expect much credit for or even take much pride in an accomplishment in a region where there is nothing for us to accomplish.

As for U.S. allies in the “no longer terribly important region,” they might be expected to look to their own defenses – and defense mechanisms. The headlines lately, as at many times over the last 50 years at least suggest that this region has a way of becoming very terribly important in an instant, whether by light of one or another pseudo-objective analysis it should be or not. People who get the feeling they are no longer held to be terribly important… can be like that.

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  1. Question of why the west is terribly important to that region & whether that should continue would be welcome. Perhaps even discussion about that history & where things appear headed on this continued course, conducted between the people of that region and of the west, could be of value.

    Pity there’s all those damn gatekeepers & rulers in the way…

    • There is no fortress Saudi Arabia or fortress Egypt or hermetically sealed “Arab World” or “Middle East.” Currently, there is a vast disproportion in wealth and in human or social capital by numerous objective measures, while nature fills that which is empty and empties that which is full. Simply on that level, the West (objectively) is drawn to “fill” the Middle East as inexorably as solid objects in the air are pulled down by gravity. What do you imagine is supposed to occur instead – even before we consider the long history, or virtually the entirety of what we call history, of interpenetration and critical conflict between the regions and their cultures.

      Put differently, the Middle East rests on the “crossroads” of civilization between the two great economic systems of the world: The Asian, land-based system whose backbone was and is the Silk Road, and the maritime system, formerly the Mediterranean, now the global oceanic system (encompassing the Western Hemisphere, which prior to the Age of Discovery was mostly segregated). You can fantasize about everyone leaving everyone else alone, but to make it real you’d have to lower the average temperature of the surface of the Earth to freezing.

      From this perspective, the continually interrupted “Pivot to Asia” is just an attempt to return to the same conflict by a different angle of advance. The problem is that converting the Middle East from central front to rear area will be strategically impractical – and dangerous – as long as that rear area remains unsecured.

        • The Will of God, obviously – mainly as realized in the form of geography and the evolution of the human species. Some have pointed to certain critical inventions, such as the stirrup and the turnplough, or “guns, germs, and steel,” or the rifle, or modern mass governance, and so on, but there are chicken-and-egg problems those, while a geographical determinist can make a case that the general course of development was either set or radically narrowed by at latest around 10,000 years ago.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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