Clueless Empires

Wisdom can be very powerful, but the powerful are rarely very wise. The United States is currently going down a well-worn path with its foreign policy. Previous empires have passed this way before, and their wreckage should be visible to the observant. James Fallows titled his book on the Iraq escapade Blind into Baghdad. But the Bush administration has a more global problem with its vision.

FPIF columnist Michael Klare this week diagnoses the Bush administration’s myopic policy toward Iran. Conventional wisdom has it that military overstretch, a well-grounded fear of consequences, and a “realist” turn among the Washington foreign policy elite have all converged to a single point: no attack on Iran. But Klare believes that empires in decline are like old elephants in pain. They run amok. Washington may well make the same mistake that Britain and France did over the Suez Canal in 1956 when they overestimated their own power and underestimated their adversaries’ strength.

Last week marked the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, but there wasn’t much celebrating. The war continues in this woefully impoverished country, and the Taliban are back, feeding on popular resentment against outside meddling and inside corruption. FPIF’s Middle East editor Stephen Zunes assesses the state of Afghanistan today (available in a 60-Second Expert version as well). The military assault didn’t accomplish its objective of destroying al-Qaida or capturing Osama bin Laden, nor has it eliminated the Taliban. And because the United States has poured money and military equipment into Iraq, the promised economic development of Afghanistan hasn’t happened either.

Did Washington really believe that talk of “democracy promotion” and “free markets,” combined with substantial military firepower, would solve the Great Game that had undone several empires already, including the Soviet Union in the 1980s? The British and the Russians handed their flawed legacy in Afghanistan to the Bush administration.

And who will the Bush administration pass the buck to? The Democrats.

The November Elections

The upcoming midterm elections in the United States will be decided in part by oil or atoms, argues regular FPIF contributor Dan Smith. American voters will either vote their pocketbooks—the price of gas at the pump—or on the basis of how Washington handles the nuclear crisis with Iran. So far, the Bush administration is negotiating with the Saudis to keep the price of gas low. It isn’t doing much about negotiating with the Iranians, however. This failure to talk may prove far more disastrous, and not just for the price of oil.

The “axis of evil” has proven to be a real liability for the Bush administration as we head into the elections. Iraq is a disaster. Iran is defiant.

And North Korea exploded a bomb. Or, at least, it said it did. The UN has pushed through unanimous sanctions, prodded in large part by the United States. But the Chinese have borrowed a page from the Bush administration’s book: the infamous signing statements. The Chinese are planning to interpret the sanctions far more loosely than Washington will. Forget about boarding North Korean ships, squeezing Pyongyang until it screams, or otherwise provoking a conflict or regime collapse. China doesn’t want to clean up after the messes that Washington causes. For more on North Korea’s move and the international response, see my commentary “Pyongyang 1, Bush 0.”

Elsewhere in FPIF

The Irish peace process took a step forward last week as firebrand Ian Paisley finally took a more conciliatory attitude toward Sinn Fein. For background on what’s been at stake in the powersharing agreement in Northern Ireland, check out FPIF contributor Jim Dee’s thoughtful analysis, “Securing the Irish Peace.”

Also, Adil E. Shamoo and Bonnie Bricker point to economic and political disparities in the Middle East as the root of the current crises. Ruth Greenspan Bell contributes to our strategic dialogue on climate change by taking a second look at performance standards. Miriam Pemberton of IPS unpacks the U.S. military’s involvement in militarizing the border in an op-ed for the San Diego Union Tribune. And the IRC’s Tom Barry comments on the way the administration has shifted blame for its failures onto the shoulders of its predecessors.