Editors representing many Asian newspapers stood in a perfect line. They were nervous and giddy at the prospect of meeting Li Changchun, China’s powerful member of the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Personally, the Great Hall of the People and the fortitude of Chinese society mesmerized me. Despite its challenges and repeated accusations of corruption and power struggles, China appeared composed while an unwavering forward movement was propelling it. As for the country’s foreign policy, it is governed by a cautious slowly churning agenda, which is unambiguously clear in its long-term objectives.
On that day, nearly two years ago, we knew that Li was awaiting our arrival, for a solitary old jacket, which bore his name with a sticker fastened on the hanger, hung in a closet in the hallway leading to the room where the meeting took place. Li Changchun spoke frustratingly slow as if he were a Hollywood stereotype of a Chinese emperor. Self-assertive and unperturbed by our presence and the many probing questions, Li’s perception of history was much more far-reaching than one expected from the chief of propaganda. There was not much to quote in terms of sound bites, buzzwords or catch phrases. Li clearly saw his country’s foreign policy in light of US global military adventures, geopolitical advances and setbacks. No other country seemed to matter. It was a competition and China was determined to win.
A few months later, upheaval struck the Middle East. Its manifestations – revolutions, civil wars, regional mayhem and conflicts of all sorts – reverberated beyond the Middle East. Shrinking and rising empires alike took notice. Fault lines were quickly determined and exploited and players changed positions or jockeyed for advanced ones, as a new Great Game in the resource and strategic rich region was about to begin. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ was rapidly becoming a game-changer in a region that seemed resistant to transformations of any kind. China was wary of its existing investment in the region – literarily, as was in the case of Libya, and figuratively, in its long-term relations with Arab and Muslim countries. So they moved with predictable caution: Wobbled at times, as in Libya, appearing firmer in Syria, and almost entirely aloof in Bahrain.
For China however, the space for future political movement is boundless. Unlike the United States, a ‘new’ or stagnant Middle East will not change the fact that China is barely associated with an atrocious history of military onslaughts or economic exploitation, with which western powers are undeniably associated. The speed of the political transition underway in the Middle East may require Li Changchun to speak a bit faster, a tad louder and with greater clarity, but it will hardly demand a complete shift in China’s policies. It is the interests and rank of the US as the dominant foreign power in the region that will consequently suffer irreparable damage.
When discussed through the prism of sheer political analysis, history can be narrow, selective, broken-down and problematically short. But based on a methodical historical investigation, reality is much less confusing, and the future is far less unpredictable. The seemingly unbridled conflict in the Middle East is no exception.
In his review of Fredrik Logevall’s recently published book: “Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam,” Gordon Goldstein wrote, “Over the centuries, strategic overextension by great powers acting on the periphery of their national interests has hobbled ancient empires and modern states” (Washington Post, September 28). Goldstein was referring to US conduct in Southeast Asia, where the US adopted as its own, the disastrous legacy of French colonialism in Indochina (Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Both powers were squarely and humiliatingly defeated.
Empires don’t crumble overnight, however. A fall of an empire can be as agonizingly long as its rise. Signs of that collapse are oftentimes subtle and might not be followed by a big boom of any sort, but can be unambiguous and definite.
Since the Second World War, US foreign policy has been largely predicated on military adventures, by severely punishing enemies and controlling ‘friends’. Diplomacy was often the icing on the cake of war, wars that seemed to follow similar patterns such as targeting powerless, economically browbeaten and isolated countries. It was a successful brand while it lasted. It allowed the generals to speak of the invincibility of their military might, the politicians to boast of their global responsibilities and the media to tirelessly promote American values. Few seemed to care much for the millions of innocent people who bore the brunt of that supposed quest for democratization of the Third World – the American equivalent of France’s Mission Civilisatrice or ‘civilizing mission’ of the ‘barbarian’ others.
Few US foreign policy disasters can be compared to that of the Middle East. Similar to its Southeast Asia inheritance from the French, the US ‘inherited’ the Middle East from fading British and French empires. (For example, such recurring media questions as ‘who lost Egypt?’ is indicative of that perception.) Unlike European imperial powers, US early contacts with the region were marred with violence, whether through its support of local dictatorships, financing and arming Israel at the expense of Palestinians and other Arab nations, or finally by getting involved – some say, entangled – in lethal wars. The memory of Iraq’s destruction will never fade away from the annals of Arab history. It is a major dark spot close to that of US support for Israel. In fact, as it stands, the chapter of US-Arab relations is tainted beyond any comprehension.
The US does not lack bright historians and sharp analysts capable of helping devise an alternative foreign policy. But the problem of ‘great’ empires is that their ability to maneuver is oftentimes restricted by their sheer size and the habitual nature of their conduct. They can only move forward and when that is no longer possible, they must retreat, ushering in their demise. US foreign policy is almost stuck when it is required to be most agile. While the Middle East is finally breaking away from a once impenetrable cocoon, and China – and Russia, among others – is attempting to negotiate a new political stance, the US is frozen. It took part in the bombing of Libya because it knows of no other alternative to achieving quick goals without summoning violence. In Syria, it refuses to be a positive conduit for a peaceful transition because it is paralyzed by its military failure in Iraq and fearful over the fate of Israel, should Syria lose its political centrality.
Even if the US opts to stave off a catastrophic decline in the region, it is shackled by the invasive tentacles of Israel, the pro-Israel lobby and their massive and permeating network, which crosses over competing media, political parties and ideological agendas. The US is now destined to live by the rules – and redlines – determined by Israel, whose national interests are barely concerned with the rise or demise of America. Israel only wants to ensure its supremacy in the ‘new’ Middle East. With the rise of post-revolutionary Egypt, Israel’s challenges are growing. It fears that a nuclear Iran would deprive it from its only unique edge – its nuclear technology and massive nuclear arsenal. If Iran obtains nuclear technology, Israel might have to negotiate in good faith as an equal partner to its neighbors, a circumstance that Israel abhors. Between the Israeli hammer and the anvil of the imminent decline of all empires, the US, which has held the Middle East hostage to its foreign policy for nearly six decades, is now hostage to the limitations of that very foreign policy. The irony is an escapable.
Listening to the monotonous voice of Li Changchun, it was clear that China was in no great hurry. Nor are the other powers now eyeing with great anticipation, the endgame of the Middle East upheaval.
Listening to US President Barack Obama’s lecture to the UN’s General Assembly on September 25, as he spoke of democracy, values and the predictable and self-negating language, it seems that there is no intention in changing course or maneuvering or retreating or simply going away altogether. The empire is entangled in its own self-defeating legacy. This is to the satisfaction of its many contenders, China notwithstanding.