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DON’T COUNT ON IT
UNLESS THE NEOCONS EXCEED THEIR KNOWN CAPACITY FOR STUPIDITY
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Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.
January 27, 2006 0800 PST (FTW): Sometimes it is a good mental exercise to put oneself in the place of his or her opponent. Imagine an antagonistic scenario from the standpoint of the other side to determine “most likely courses of action.”
It’s a simple exercise on a military battlefield – linear and clear-cut, a simple race to calculate the destruction of an opponent. It is an infinitely more problematic exercise once new layers of complexity are added.
The Haitians have a proverb that goes, “A stupid person is a real thing.”
I say all this as a preface because I am about to outline all the reasons I don’t believe the United States or its proxy Israel will bomb Iran in March – a speculation that’s growing legs in the media, especially the internet, right now.
Plenty of us wrote volumes explaining why the Iraq invasion was and is a disaster – not for the world, but for the carnival barkers of the Bush administration. We practically wrote imperial advice columns.
The administration did it anyway and hasn’t proven capable of getting back on the right foot since. (Except politically, in “winning” the 2004 election of course, but they were ably assisted in that venture by the asinine Democratic Leadership Council.) Don’t get me wrong. The Bush administration failing is probably a good thing in the larger scheme of things, just as was the defeat of the Wehrmacht in Russia, and the annihilation of Custer’s genocidal 7th Cavalry in Montana. The problem, as always, is that when the high muckety-mucks make these bad decisions, it’s the lowly grunts that bleed for them.
So everything I write here about why (from the point of view of the Bush administration itself) the US and/or Israel attacking Iran would, as a dumb-ass decision, rank with winter ground attacks against Russia and taking that shortcut through the Little Bighorn — doesn’t mean they won’t do it anyway.
With that as a huge caveat, let me explain why neither the Bush administration nor the Israelis will attack Iran in March or any other time this year… unless that Haitian proverb goes into effect.
In case it’s gone unnoticed, the ancien political Praetorians assembled at the Bush White House recently to conduct an intervention. Imperial eminence gris Zbigniew Brzezinski has been lobbing salvos of op-ed columns at the stupidity of the decision to invade Iraq. Earlier this month, a Blue-Ribbon panel of Wilsonian Machiavellis met with Bush to “offer advice on the war.” Numbered among these sages were Madeleine Albright, William Perry, William Cohen, James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Colin Powell, and – ominously – Robert McNamara, the Rumsfeldian metrician of the Vietnam quagmire. This, just as Paul Bremer, who made his bones at the knee of the genocidal and charming Henry Kissinger, declares that as the colonial viceroy of Iraq, he was… “a scapegoat.” Coincidence? I think not.
Poor, poor Paul.
On the 11th of January, Brzezinski opined that “Victory or defeat [in Iraq] is, in fact, a false strategic choice.”
In using this formulation, the president would have the American people believe that their only options are either “hang in and win” or “quit and lose.” But the real, practical choice is this: “persist but not win” or “desist but not lose.”
Victory, as defined by the administration and its supporters -- i.e., a stable and secular democracy in a unified Iraqi state, with the insurgency crushed by the American military assisted by a disciplined, U.S.-trained Iraqi national army -- is unlikely. The U.S. force required to achieve it would have to be significantly larger than the present one, and the Iraqi support for a U.S.-led counterinsurgency would have to be more motivated. The current U.S. forces (soon to be reduced) are not large enough to crush the anti-American insurgency or stop the sectarian Sunni-Shiite strife.
Both problems continue to percolate under an inconclusive but increasingly hated foreign occupation.
Moreover, neither the Shiites nor the Kurds are likely to subordinate their specific interests to a unified Iraq with a genuine, single national army. As the haggling over the new government has already shown, the two dominant forces in Iraq -- the religious Shiite alliance and the separatist Kurds -- share a common interest in preventing a restoration of Sunni domination, with each determined to retain a separate military capacity for asserting its own specific interests, largely at the cost of the Sunnis. A truly national army in that context is a delusion. Continuing doggedly to seek "a victory" in that fashion dooms America to rising costs in blood and money, not to mention the intensifying Muslim hostility and massive erosion of America's international legitimacy, credibility and moral reputation.
Aside from the Orwellian intro about persisting and desisting – really a suggested rhetorical approach for the administration to bug the fuck out of Iraq, and the sooner the better – the rest of this analysis could have been written by yours truly and a host of other irascibles anytime over the past three years. We may not assign the same plus and minus signs to categories and outcomes, but the fact that we are in accord on these (highly reduced and simplified) basics should be telling us something.
The question is, what?
I propose that it means the empire is in very deep shit.
I’m not, however, going to propose that Wilsonian “realists” like Brzezinski, Powell, and Albright have any better solution than the booger-picking loons in office right now. I think the criticisms of the former of the actions of the latter have the strong, sour scent of panic. These same luminaries paved a direct path to where we are now, and gave us all the old wait-and-see three years ago when Karl Rove’s wet-brained Pinocchio stepped up to this crap table.
Brzezinski can’t say it, so I will.
Behind the whole “stable, secular democracy” smokescreen (which he borrows from the administration) lie the true and original goals of this adventure: to build permanent US military installations in Iraq and take the political pressure off Saudi Arabia; to maintain those installations as “lily pads” from which to launch future military operations throughout Hydrocarbon Asia; to have this military control over the region as a lever to use against various current and future competitors, including Western Europe, Japan, and China… especially China; to compensate for the increasing weakness of the United States as a center of productive capital by militarily securing the global dominance of the US as the center of finance capital; to create a demonstration effect with a decisive and destructive “shock and awe” military assault on Iraq as propaganda-of-the-deed for would-be malcontents.
The fact that none of this has turned out as planned, which I will discuss further along, does not mean that there was ever much choice, at least from the standpoint of the US dominant class… which includes not only Bush but all those nervous Wilsonians who appeared for the intervention.
When the Soviet Union broke up and the Warsaw Pact stood down, an entire globally deployed imperial military apparatus became a doctrinal orphan. The very enemy which was the raison d’etre of the Pentagon, its organization, its composition, its disposition, its “air-land war” doctrine… became an anachronism in less than a year between 1989 and 1990.
The question of how to re-dispose this unwieldy and wildly expensive killing machine was never going to be resolved in a vacuum. The historical tendencies that would contextualize that decision were already in motion, and even with a very high level of complexity, there were trend lines within those tendencies that were already part of the dominant preoccupations within US ruling circles.
They may rule over the people in the bog, but they are still in the same goddamned bog.
The problem was complicated by the vulgar political realities of American society, where an entire worldview had been carefully propagated in conjunction with the Cold War, and upon that worldview rested the very legitimacy of successive governments.
Enemies, of course, are essential to maintain the hegemony of our national rulers, and suddenly we were left floundering without one. The War on Drugs was a bland substitute through the 90’s. Hell, we like drugs. That foolishness was combined with the imperatives of consumer demand production to juice up accumulation through both Clinton terms – so we were encouraged to go on a spending bacchanalia and told more than once that we were at the end of history, that we had arrived at some consumer nirvana atop a jillion miles of fiber optic cable that now lies as unused as the Gold Coast Railroad.
The problem with telling everyone that they’re at the end of history is that it is a lie with a very short half-life. American politics runs in two-to four-year cycles, within which there is a kind of partisan mud-wrestling where there are very few rules. Except to keep the focus off the system itself.
Both parties are constantly offering up the intellectual equivalent of cotton candy for the masses while they compete to see who can shovel the most money into the pockets of their most loyal capitals. The other thing they both do, of course, at the national level, is try to preserve American dominance in the world.
There is no argument about this goal, only about the best method to achieve it.
The problem with an abrupt shift like the end of the Cold War and the resulting disruption of those old categories is that it exposes the American ruling class to a crisis of legitimacy.
That is where we are now – the ruling class and its dominant faction is trying to build a new worldview to fill the void, in many respect at odds with the old one, when the old one hasn’t faded yet from memory. Combine this with the fact that all the old partisan points of reference have been jumbled apart by this post-Cold War disruption, and we have the weird spectacles we are treated to now – like two Yalie frat brothers running against one another for the presidency, both agreeing with each other on the most important question in the public mind, the war in Iraq, one running as a “war hero” and losing to a more compelling (if utterly ridiculous) image of his fellow multi-millionaire opponent as a Wild West cowboy… an image of a myth.
The reactive mendacity of both parties over the last three years is waking a lot of people up. That is a big political problem… for the bigwigs.
I could say, “Meanwhile, out in the real world,” but I won’t. I said earlier, or at least the Haitian proverb said, “A stupid person is a real thing.” That would mean a lot of stupid people are a lot of real things… or a really big real thing.
So I will say instead that, “Meanwhile… the empire is losing its moorings.”
I’ll begin with Iran. I promised a hypothesis. It is that neither the US nor Israel will attack it.
WHY NO ATTACK ON IRAN
THE US MILITARY WILL BE DEFEATED IN IRAQ
I’ll begin with the increasingly nightmarish military and political fiasco in Iraq.
The legitimation of a SCIRI*-dominated government by an election the US had forced upon them by Grand Ayatollah Sayyid, Ali Husaini Sistani, has effectively created a UN recognized pro-Iranian government in Iraq. There are multiform armed conflicts. The US military occupation force is, with punctuated operational exceptions, effectively confined to its bases. This occupation force exists in an ocean of murderous hostility. Some polls show 87% of the population now wants the US out, and that factors in the 20% of the population that is Kurdish and wants the Americans to remain as a guarantee against war with Turkey.
Oil production, projected before the invasion by the PNAC alumni to jump to 4 million barrels per day, was 2.3 mb/d before the 2003 invasion has not been able to top 2 mb/d since.
Military morale is rock bottom. Six figure reenlistment bonuses are on offer to special operations types to stop them joining Rumsfeld’s shadow contract army of mercenaries. Academic types call these companies PMCs for Private Military Contractors.
Regional Arab and Muslim hostility to the US is at an all time high, creating profound dangers for the US-supported governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Egypt.
The myth of American military invincibility has been incinerated by a lightly armed, urban resistance (so much for the “demonstration effect”).
Oil was central to this whole debacle, though not in the way people thought. There was never a need to steal it. It’s actually cheaper to buy it. Military operations are outrageously expensive, and a recent calculation that takes in the hidden and long term costs of war shows that the Iraq war will likely cost the US $2.65 trillion.
The primary consequence of any attack on Iran will be the decisive military defeat of the United States in Iraq.
An attack on Iran right now would result in an almost instantaneous and generalized southern Shia insurgency directed against the US occupation. That insurgency would, within weeks, bring about tactical alliances between Shia militias in south and central Iraq and Sunni nationalists and Islamists in the north. The occupation would become literally unsupportable.
The Sunday Telegraph (UK) has published a story showing how Israeli jets cannot effectively reach Iran for a preemptive strike against nuclear power facilities (Iran has NO nuclear weapons capability and is years away from it.). The story notes that Israelis can reach their hypothetical targets, however, from Iraqi Kurdistan, where the US oversees airfields for its own increasingly common air strikes against urban targets all over Iraq.
Much is being made of the fact that both Bush and Blair have said that military action against Iran “has not been ruled out.” But they never rule that out. As an indicator of intent, this statement has all the food value of NutraSweet. We take little comfort, however, from the rhetorical escalations against Iran in which the obedience-trained press, as usual, is echoing serial distortions about “Iran’s nuclear program,” even as laptop bombardier William Kristol goes off his Paxil long enough to visualize attacking Iran in his boring-ass Weekly Standard.
Iran’s nuclear program is a nuclear power program. I am on record as one who believes that producing electricity with fission is unspeakably stupid. But the point is that Iran is not producing nuclear weapons. Period! Categorically! Not!
There are already three real nuclear militaries in the region. One of them – Israel – is openly hostile to Iran. Call me simple, but isn’t the best guarantee against nuclear proliferation in the region dismantling Israel’s existing nuclear arsenal?
Bush and Blair are pretending to try to force the UN into taking action against Iran. Yet the biggest violator in the world of UN resolutions – Israel – is armed to the teeth, illegally occupying another nation, and has a consistent history of violent provocation.
It would be imprudent to ignore the possibility of an attack on Iran, when only three years ago we were hearing Condoleezza Rice warning us that we didn’t want to find out “the smoking gun is a mushroom cloud,” as part of the fabricated hysteria to promote an invasion. Saddam… Saddam… Saddam… 9-11… 9-11… 9-11… mushroom clouds… mushroom clouds… mushroom clouds.
I don’t even doubt that there are members of this administration who might argue for striking Iran. A stupid person is a real thing.
END OF EMPIRE – Fast Crash or Slow Burn
But the reason for the recent “interventions” by the Old Guard are clear. They are concerned that George W. Bush’s administration might not note the signposts along this road that say, End of Empire.
We are not an empire that exists through force of arms, except in very limited spatio-temporal ways. That is why I say that this is not now nor has it ever been a Bush war. Democrats, who would have likely created their own pretext to try the same thing, albeit in more “multilateral” fashion, were as obliged by the imperatives of American power as any Republican to conduct a redisposition of American military forces out of their Cold War posture and into roughly the same arrangement being attempted now by Bush’s band of narcissists.
The difference between the administration and these cynical Wilsonians is that the latter recognize a disaster when they see it. They are simply in the best position to name what they see now – within acceptable limits, of course – without any damage to their own political careers and legacies.
George W. Bush did not invent the international system this administration has deployed its military to protect. George W. Bush did not create the emerging conflict with China that now has Iran in sharp focus. George W. Bush did not create Peak Oil as an inevitability within the material substrates of late imperialism. He is simply the latest and perhaps most buffoonish in a string of heads of state who have been scrambling to save not just capitalism – it’s more complicated than that – but American dominance within the world capitalist system, ever since the last half of the US disaster in Vietnam.
George W. Bush couldn’t find his ass with a hand-held radar. He, and no less all the imperial wizards around Brzezinski, are being carried along by tendencies they must both fight to preserve, but which hold within them the seeds of their very undoing.
To explain why, I have to refer back to the Edward Abbey quote at the beginning of this commentary.
“Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”
It is also the imperative within capitalism, and like cancer, it is metastatic. When growth exceeds its national, regional, and material limits, it has to reach beyond itself into those places, both physical and cultural, that have so far escaped commodification, to engage in what Luxemburg called “primitive accumulation”; that is, theft, fraud, dispossession, and looting.
Sometimes, these activities are very contingent and opportunistic, e.g., the land grab taking place right now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (dispossession). Other times, these methods are highly organized, and there is a name for that also: war.
Many grasp the essence of Peak Oil which is not a claim that oil will “run out,” but that it will inevitably reach a point of no return in extraction. Oil is an irreplaceable material substrate of society as it is presently organized.
Oil is necessary for continued accumulation (growth). American capital cannot afford oil. If they paid its real value, there would be a deep accumulation crisis. They shift the costs onto the public in the form of taxpayer-financed infrastructure provision for the private sector and military spending, then write it off as a War on Terror.
No, children, there is no substitute for oil… and there never will be.
The pain of accumulation crises from the US war against Vietnam has been shifted ever more heavily onto peoples and nations far, far outside the view of the American suburbs. The decline of world oil production will not affect all equally. The US state will deepen its exploitation and even destruction of the world’s most vulnerable actors for as long as possible to fend off a political crisis at home.
The problem is that exterminist imperialism is so far advanced already that one can do some fairly simple and accurate calculations now about increasing Chinese (and now more and more Indian) oil demand and import-dependency, and see that the confrontation between the US and China over this strategic commodity is already in motion, though the conflict is not yet open and direct.
China’s breakneck plunge into industrialization combined with its past-peak domestic oil pools (China became a net importer in 1993) created a demand for oil imports that in 2004 pushed China past Japan for gross petroleum imports – second only to the United States.
ATTACKING IRAN IS ATTACKING CHINA – UN VETOES
China now imports 13% of its oil from Iran. China hasn’t a single motive for antagonizing Iran. China’s seat on the UN Security Council, and Russia’s too for that matter (Russia has strong trade relations with Iran, sharing nuclear technology), are a virtual assurance that US posturing about UN sanctions is pure diplomatic psychobabble.
The Unites States will not get the UN Security Council to censure Iran.
It is in this international context that we can appreciate how significant the consequences are likely to be of a US-sanctioned Israeli attack against Iran. Any attack by Israel on Iran will be perceived (probably rightly) as having been sanctioned by the United States. Such sanction would be undeniable should Israeli planes fly through US-controlled airspace. Those consequences are precisely why Russia and China, as UNSC members, can rest assured that their veto power will have the force of a final say. Bill Kristol will just have to go home and suck his thumb.
UNINTENTIONALLY UNITING THE MIDDLE EAST
A secondary consequence, not as certain but certainly possible, would be the sympathetic detonation of popular anti-government rebellions in places like Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The very perception of a joint US-Israeli strike against a Muslim nation would advance Muslim unity across all of Southwest Asia more quickly than twenty Arab League conferences.
From the region, we now have to return to an international context, and here is where the cancer-cell ideology of “growth” is significant again.
While touted as the application of the principles of “free enterprise” around the world, growth is actually the still-evolving attempt of global capital to outrun its own crises. For the moment, it involves the draining of value from developed countries via dollar hegemony (what Gowan called the Dollar-Wall Street Regime, and the draining of value from peripheral nations through debt leverage (International Monetary Fund loan-sharking) combined with dollar hegemony.
The security of US power in peripheral nations, for instance throughout most of Latin America, is based most directly on the higher profits that can be extracted from them. These higher rates of profit are available precisely because of underdeveloped, non-capitalist sectors of the reproductive economy; that is, the extremely low cost of living in places where there is no well-developed social infrastructure. One very reliable measure of that underdevelopment is per capita energy consumption. It is to these areas that crisis-wracked capitalists (i.e., movements of capital) flee, accelerated in this flight by competitive pressure with one another, as they have done during the deindustrialization of many US urban cores – sending commodity assembly platforms abroad. These peripheral nations are also available for plain plunder in many cases.
The people in these countries, however, grow increasingly resistant as their resources are plundered and their labor exploited. Moreover, the incessant tendency of capitalism to commodify every cranny of social life transforms non-capitalist (primitive accumulation) sectors into capitalist sectors, and the inhering problems with falling profit rates recur, and over-accumulation becomes a crisis, forcing capital to flee once again. Patrick Bond has an excellent tutorial on overaccumulation, sometimes called overproduction.
Given that dollar hegemony, which is the basis of US financial domination of the world system, is also utterly reliant on the US’s status as the premier world military power, and the corresponding fact that inhering social and material limits to growth will inevitably be encountered, a military crisis will quickly be translated into a more general political, then economic crisis.
The contemporary Leftward continental drift of Latin America has been empowered by the quagmire in Iraq and by the reverse demonstration effect, that is, the failure of the US in Iraq to support its own mystique as invincible. Interestingly enough, the leadership being provided to Latin Americans who are rapidly mobilizing in popular movement toward anti-neoliberalism (read: independence) is from Venezuela, an oil-producing nation that is building a relationship with China, and underwriting the near-term plans of two nations, Brazil and Argentina, to pay down the interest on their external debt and free themselves from the IMF.
This is an indicator, I think, of the deeper significance of the grinding military failure in Iraq – which is the most precarious moment the American empire has seen since the US war against Vietnam. The very fabric of the empire could unravel, and this is why the Wilsonian section of the ruling class’ political factions is closing in on George W. Bush.
There is probably no action, short of a nuclear attack, that the United States could approve or conduct that would worsen that crisis more decisively than an attack on Iran.
So there is my argument for why Iran can rest easy for now. But…
A stupid person is a real thing.