Thursday, June 15, 2006

America's Next Big Foreign Policy Disaster

I wasn't at YearlyKos and even if I had I definitely wouldn't have been invited to address their foreign policy panel. But if I had, I would have warned them that the next truly enormous American foreign policy nightmare is brewing right now. It will happen in the Indian sub-continent and it will affect the whole world. It will be a direct consequence of Bush's policies there but will probably not hit the fan until the next president is in office - and that president, no matter from which party, will do nothing to halt this coming nightmare and will essentially do nothing dissimiliar to what Bush would do in his place.

Why? Because few will notice the impending trainwreck. The way in which this nightmare is being allowed to progress raises a fundemental question about the ability of America to "do" foreign policy successfully. It suggests that all American foreign policy is really about domestic policy and doesn't actually take account of the foreigners much, if at all.

Imagine, if you will, that a regular army unit of a nuclear-armed nation on border patrol shoots at a drugs smuggler. That paramilitary guards on the other side of the border think those soldiers are shooting at them. That the ensuing firefight between army and paramilitaries lasts all night and most of the next morning, with "a heavy exchange" of mortar and machinegun fire and over 10,000 rounds of small arms ammunition expended. That protocols put in place and designed to stop such fighting broke down even before they could be tried.

Imagine that scenario being played out on the Gaza Strip or Iraq's border with Iran or Syria. Every single U.S. media outlet would be all over it. There would be Senatorial and Presidential statements. It would, in short, be huge news. Yet exactly this scenario happened, just as I described it, just last weekend...on the India/Bangladesh border. No-one in America noticed. Just as no-one in America notices the raging, two year old, civil war involving thousands of troops, helicopters, airstrikes and artillery barrages in Pakistan's SouthEastern province of Balochistan.

India and Bangladesh are normally on friendly terms, yet a firefight like the one described can occur even so. How much more likely to spark a major conflict, then, is India's relationship with nuclear-armed neighbour Pakistan? I would wager that few Americans think there is any real problem between those two nations anymore given the fact that both seem to be U.S. allies. (It is, in fact, highly significant that it is almost an axiom of American thinking - on the street or on The Hill - that two American allies will not war with each other. More on this later.) But try this from an op-ed in India's The Asian Age:


There is a reality about India-Pakistan relations that sudden bonhomie cannot wish away. The reality is decades of distrust and suspicion, nurtured and cultivated by vested interests that include governments in Pakistan and political parties in India. The Hindu-Muslim angle remains the cornerstone of this distrust, as does the deeply embedded view that Islamabad and New Delhi can never really wish well for the other. Both governments are willing to lie down and be tickled endlessly by Washington, but when it comes to each other, every word is dissected and every action viewed under the prism of dislike and intolerance.
The author goes on to accuse the current Indian government of being thralls to Washington and promises that the Indian people will not long accept that arrangement. They prefer their independence - after being the engine-room of the British Empire for so long they have no great wish to be the outsourced powerhouse of another Empire now - and look at China as a natural equal, while blaming their government's kowtowing to the U.S. for their failure to attain that equality.

India's current sparse goodwill towards the U.S. is not set in stone and may not last longer than the current Indian government does. Even some U.S. conservatives are worried for the future. Nor are most Indians likely to view their neighbour Pakistan as anything except a problem, now and in the future. The situation is hardly better in Pakistan, where only 27% approve of the U.S. and 10% of Bush - yet half think Iran becoming a nuclear power would be a good thing. The "balancer" in favor of an alliance with America in Pakistan is the historic authority of the military, something General Musharaff is certainly unwilling to change but that democratic reform movements certainly plan to.

Ironically, for all its talk of spreading democracy, the Bush administration's plan for safeguarding American interests in the sub-continent relies on the continued authority of a dictator at the helm of a de facto rogue state who cannot be relied upon to remain an ally in the future. Bush;s reaching out to India virtually guarantees a breakdown somewhere. Musharaff is utterly dependent on his military and security establishment for power, yet those same establishments now feel threatened by Bush's deals with India. Thus, they are reaching out to other nations, notably China, to provide the deals they cannot get from the U.S. - such as nuclear reactors. In time, Musharaff will either buckle to their demands not to befriend any friend of India or be removed by a new military coup. It is as simple as that. The same is true of India, where a friend of Pakistan is automatically distrusted and where democracy has always been a fragile thing that has survived more by luck than intent.

Here is a small illustration of how the Pakistan-India feud is actually being fuelled by Bush policy, even if the feud is not as open as it was a decade ago. It has gotten to the point already where Pakistan has told the U.S. it must limit the number of Indian troops, part of the UN force fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, after Bush asked for a promise of more Indian troops in the theatre. India has said it is fine with that because Pakistani intelligence agents would simply use their Taliban puppets to make the Indians targets if they sent more! Recent Bush plans to sell Pakistan maritime Harpoon missiles that could only be used to sink Indian naval vessels likewise created a wave of distrust all round, as did plans to sell both sides advanced fighters, anti-missile defenses and AWACS technology. The flashpoint remains the Kashmir region amidst accusations from both Pakistan and India of the other's training and equipping terorists, the expected battlefield remains the border between the two nations, but the fuze is the burgeoning arms race catalyzed by Bush's nuclear deal with India and predicted by many at the time.

The arms race is no longer local, either. Japanese analysts have watched and worried as the rush to arm has spread to other countries in the region and are considering whether Japan should abandon it's policy of pure defense and instead become more interested in power projection and its own arms build-up and even possibly selling its own arms abroad for the first time. Likewise, Japanese opinion is split over the U.S./India nuclear deal - some feeling it is a reason to distrust the integrity of American policymakers while others see it as a reason to abandon Japan's policy of not selling its own nuclear technology abroad. American foreign policy - which has been to start an arms race and then sell gleefully to everyone involved - is having a direct destabilizing effect on the entire region and no-one in the U.S. seems to know or care.

Eventually that destabilization will turn into a shooting war somewhere in the region - and the biggest danger of all is a nuclear conflict between the main players, India and Pakistan, that then embroils China and the U.S. - and everyone in America will be surprised that it could happen without a decade's worth of warning!

That's because American foreign policy is always driven by short term domestic policy. The opportunity to make a few billion and so bolster the domestic economy is almost always a primary factor in U.S. thinking when danger seems far off and not "right now". That's why 60% by value of all arms exports come from America and it is true no matter who sits in the White House. Its why even though the Pentagon touts China as a real and present danger and uses that fear to sell its newest fighter planes to Europe...well....Boeing and dozens of others have security-sensitive plant and technology in China right now and China is the only source of rare earths for missile guidance chips available to the U.S. military.

Americans don't actually "do" foreign policy - what they do is policy for foreigners that effects the domestic bottom line. It is always about the short term gain for America right up until the fecal matter hits the fan - and then America reaches for the bombs. And the fecal matter hits the fan more often than not. I mentioned before the American faith that two of its allies will never ever have a war between themselves. Only Americans could ever believe this bit of naivete (the rest of the world has gotten cynical after so much history America missed) but it has become an integral part of the rhetoric about exporting "democracy and the American dream".

Many Americans are OK with this - why shouldn't American policy safeguard American interests (and pocketbooks) first? But the rest of the world has a real problem with it. Whether we non-Americans like it or not, America has become the single "big kid" on the block and established an effective global hegemon whereby no other nation can measure up to Americas might - economic or military. In that, the PNACers were always glaringly right. However, if America is not to be simply the big bully on the block, but instead the Mentor to the smaller kids, then it must put aside its self interest and actually act in a way that will sometimes have to be self-sacrificing for the greater good of the greater number. That part, the PNACers got all twisted up...which wasn't all that amazing considering that America is one of the more militaristic of the democracies. Only Israel perhaps exceeds the American propensity to reach for a military option early and often, to idolize the military and its way of life in public rhetoric and holidays, to afford the military such thorough access to every part of non-military life. American culture actively works against America having a foreign policy that isn't essentially self-centered and reliant on force to solve problems.

Kevin Drum recently tried to tackle the more superficial differences between liberal and conservative foreign policy and one of his commenters made the following observation:
Liberals are in a real Catch-22, because the American mindset is generally pro-war (or at lest depressingly easily duped into supporting war). Yet our beliefs require us to use all options short of military action to solve conflicts.

Until we can convince the American public that war is as destructive to the fabric of life here as it is abroad, and that it simply costs too much in blood and treasure for us as a country to be reflexively in favor of the military option, it will be easy for us to be demagogued on this issue.

Right now, the only solution I can see is to take our lumps, continue stating our case, and fight back against charges of weakness and disloyalty. Maybe the public will come around. The other direction leads to some version of imperialism or outright fascism.

If anyone has a better solution to an admittedly thorny problem, I'm all ears. It's very frustrating to know you are right, yet the public discourse rejects the best arguments (i.e., a de-emphasis of the military role in foreign policy) seemingly out of hand.
The trouble is, the Democrats too have a short-term domestic and militaristic bias inbuilt to their foreign policy planning. To do otherwise is domestic political suicide.

So the potential for this and other new nightmares will continue to grow right up until Americans realise that a long-term and ethical foreign policy, based on the good of the whole globe, is the only sensible policy for a de facto World Empire to follow. How's that for a mission statement for a new Progressive Project For A New American Century given that the old PNAC is now history?