You’ve seen the headlines in the last weeks and days:
The Arab uprisings, the killing of Osama Bin Laden, Washington’s efforts to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq beyond pullout schedules, Egypt’s reopening of the border with Gaza, Pakistan’s role in the Afghan war, President Barack Obama’s speeches on the Middle East and Israel, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intransigence, the Fatah-Hamas unity moves and plans to gain UN recognition of Palestinian statehood — and that’s not the half of it.
Each event looms large in the mass media and in political discourse, but each is only part of a much larger mosaic that constitutes the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) and Central Asia component of the Obama Administration’s foreign and military strategy.
This component is Washington’s top priority because any significant deterioration of U.S. domination in MENA, and the frustration of its ambitions in Central Asia — especially in combination with weakening economic and political influence in the world — could hasten America’s decline as the unipolar global “leader,” i.e., hegemon.
The U.S. inherited this position two decades ago upon the implosion of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp and is hardly prepared to step aside. The policy Washington adopted at that time, and which remains in force today, is to prevent the emergence of any powerful rival or military force potentially able to undermine American dominion.
No other country is grabbing for the global supremacy, but a number of states with advanced and developing economies think it’s time for a new international construct with multipolar leadership.
The Obama Administration’s sacrosanct mission, as with earlier Washington governments, is to keep the political and geographic ground gained by the U.S. in the 66 years since the end of World War II, when it became leader of the capitalist world’s Cold War contention with communism.
This ground was extended in the post-Cold War period mainly through U.S. control of global economic institutions, the political absorption of the states of Eastern Europe that had been in the Soviet orbit, unequaled military power, and for the last decade the “war on terrorism” launched by former President George W. Bush.
President Barack Obama took over from Bush in Iraq, greatly enlarged the Afghan war and extended fighting to western Pakistan, Yemen and now Libya. In addition, Obama seeks to retain smaller but substantial U.S. military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan years beyond their anticipated pullout dates at a time when public opinion backs a total withdrawal.
Washington has had its eye on dominating MENA for its energy resources for over 70 years and attracted several key regional nations such as Saudi Arabia to its orbit many decades ago. In more recent years, U.S. hegemony has been extended throughout the entire region with the exception of Iran, the acquisition of which was postponed because of the military-political debacle caused by the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
In the decade since 9/11, Washington lengthened its imperial reach into Central Asia by projecting its formidable military power into Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries on Earth. The ostensible purpose was to capture bin Laden and defeat al Qaeda, the organization he founded in the 1980s with support from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. during the civil war against a progressive government in Kabul and its Soviet military protectors.
Washington’s $10-billion-a-month Afghan foray has become a military stalemate, but the adventure also allowed the U.S. to plant its flag for the first time in Central Asia — a major geopolitical advance, as we will explain. The Bush Administration was hardly unaware of this fact when it chose to wage war in Afghanistan instead of mounting an international police effort to apprehend bin Laden.
It is within this context of MENA/Central Asia strategy that the May 2 slaying of bin Laden by a Navy SEALS killer-team in Pakistan fits into the broader picture, as do the Iraq and Afghan wars, settling the Israel-Palestine conflict, the U.S. attitude toward the Arab uprisings and the other recent headlines regarding this region.
In domestic U.S. politics, the eradication of bin Laden has generated a brief renewal of national self-confidence, and the strengthening of Obama’s “national security” credentials, leading to elevated opinion poll ratings which the White House hopes will contribute to his reelection victory next year.
Internationally, the removal of bin Laden will only touch lightly upon most of the Obama Administration’s immediate foreign/military objectives. We will discuss some of these objectives under these subheadings: The Arab Uprisings, Keeping the Troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and The Importance of Palestine.
THE ARAB UPRISINGS
First and foremost, the White House is dedicated to co-opting, neutralizing or ending the progressive uprisings taking place these last months against dictatorships and oppressive monarchies throughout the Arab world.
Washington has extended its support to nearly all these reactionary regimes for many decades, in return for which they contentedly spin in America’s hegemonic orbit. President Obama has extended his belated rhetorical blessings upon the democratic trend, but in actual practice all the White House has done is lead NATO into an unjust war for regime change in Libya.
The U.S. government supports democracy except when it produces a government not to its liking or when a subject country renounces Uncle Sam’s jurisdiction or expresses opposition to America’s policies. President Obama does not want another Venezuela or Bolivia or Brazil to take root in MENA and is working to insure that does not happen, even though all were the products of democratic elections.
The Obama Administration seems no longer worried about the successful popular Egyptian uprising because it brought about a regime change that may only produce the form of democracy, but not its full content. The U.S. government, which supported and helped finance the Mubarak dictatorship for over 30 years, is breathing easily because its continuing relations with the powerful armed forces and the ruling elite evidently ensures that a democratic Egypt will remain within the imperial fold. Tunisia, which initiated the popular struggle against tyrants, also seems to have remained in Washington’s camp even though the long-term dictator they sent packing to Saudi Arabia was backed by the U.S. to the end.
KEEPING TROOPS IN IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN
The Obama Administration is anxious to retain military bases and thousands of troops in Iraq, which it is supposed to leave entirely at the end of this year, and in Afghanistan as well, when the U.S. is scheduled to depart at the end of 2014. President Obama is applying heavy pressure to Baghdad and Kabul to “request” the long-term presence of U.S. troops and “contractors” after the bulk of the occupation force withdraws.
Why keep troops in Iraq? The neoconservative Bush White House invaded Iraq, which was considered a pushover after 12 years of U.S.-British-UN killer sanctions, not only to control its oil, but as a prelude to bringing about regime change in neighboring Iran, thus providing Washington with total control of the immense resources of the Persian Gulf. The Iraqi guerrilla resistance destroyed the plan, for now.
Thus, the upshot of the war — in addition to costing American taxpayers several trillion dollars over the next few decades in principal and interest — is that Shi’ite Iran’s main enemy, which was the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad until 2003, has been replaced by the Shi’ite government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a politician who usually bends the knee to Washington but is quite friendly to Tehran, as are many Iraqi politicians. (The Shia are nearly 65% of the population; the Sunnis, nearly 35%.)
On May 16 Maliki declared that “Security, military and political cooperation between Iran and Iraq is essential, and we will certainly see the expansion of relations in these areas in the future.” Washington’s big fear is that Maliki may eventually thumb his nose at Uncle Sam, and that in time, Iraq and Iran will draw much closer together — a prospect deeply opposed by the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia.
According to Stratfor, the private intelligence resource, on April 26: “[T]he U.S. has reportedly offered to leave as many as 20,000 troops in the country” after its “pullout” at the end of this year. In addition, a large but undetermined number of “contractors” — often paramilitary hirelings — are to remain.
Further, according to an Inter Press Service report May 9, the State Department “intends to double its staff in Iraq to nearly 16,000 and rely entirely on private contractors for security.” So large a staff is almost unbelievable, but so is the immense size of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone — the largest such facility in the world.
Perhaps the most important obstacle to retaining troops isn’t Maliki , who may cave in to domestic or American pressure, but the fighting cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which once fought U.S. troops but has been quiet in recent years. Sadr threatens to unleash the army to fight any occupation forces left behind. In making his decision Maliki must keep in mind that it was the votes of the Sadr forces that assured his election victory. The U.S. suggests Sadr is doing Iran’s bidding.
Washington has told Maliki he must make his decision by August. There’s lots of maneuvering going on, and which way he will decide is unknown.