Thursday, April 25, 2013

Pax Americana and Its Discontents

Current trends in the domestic politics of the United States have implications for the world. On major issues requiring bipartisan consensus for progress – welfare and social security reform, gun control, cutting the deficit and immigration – recalcitrant Republicans and Democrats are locked in an ideological impasse. The only area in which the US president has real latitude is in foreign policy. Presidents shackled by the restrictions of stalemated domestic politics can still look impressive and act imperiously on the world stage. Nowhere is this more evident that in the president’s power to conduct wars.

We may be approaching a time when presidents will orchestrate military engagements abroad in order to shore up their ratings at home. With domestic politics deadlocked, American voters may have no other means for evaluating their leaders than how muscularly they conduct themselves abroad.

In August 1998, President Bill Clinton, while facing intense congressional scrutiny over the Monica Lewinsky affair, ordered cruise missile strikes on terrorist camps in Afghanistan and Sudan in retaliation for earlier attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Some critics thought that Clinton was trying to deflect attention from the tawdry scandal threatening to submerge his presidency by appearing presidential and decisive on the world stage. They cited “Wag the Dog”, a movie in which the White House hires a Hollywood film maker to create a fake war in the media to divert attention from the president’s sexual peccadilloes. Clinton administration spokesmen denied that the president was trying to wag the dog.

The notion that an American president could stage an international incident for domestic political gain is not outlandish. We could yet see the assassinations of foreign nationals whether terrorists, rogue scientists or dissidents strategically timed to provoke an uptick in pre-election polls. This would simply be a logical advancement from the George W. Bush administration’s use of colour-coded terror alerts to frighten the American public into acquiescence.

Foreign wars conducted by special ops units and Predator drones can enable presidents to exorcise the “wimp factor” that comes from being unable to push their agenda through an implacable congress. Bitterly divided at home between Liberal secularists and conservative religionists, war-making may become a logical means by which a president conjures patriotic paroxysms and rallies his people to the Star - Spangled Banner.  

The last decade witnessed an unprecedented expansion of the president’s war powers and their disconnection from congressional oversight and democratic constraints. Liberals had hoped that Barack Obama would reverse the trend which began under Bush. But it has continued largely because politicians are rarely inclined to refuse more power and also because of the sense that an assertive presidency is needed as a counterweight to an intransigent do-nothing congress and to shepherd an evidently “confused” electorate which keeps sending divided governments to Washington. As Peter Beinart wrote recently in Newsweek, “Liberals may not be thrilled about the drone program, but they trust Obama’s judgment in a way they never trusted Bush’s. And… they want a president strong enough to impose his will on a Congress that they consider reactionary, corrupt, and dismissive of the public will.”

During the 2012 elections, Republican efforts to tar Obama as weak on national security as they typically do to liberal presidents simply failed to stick against the man who took out Osama Bin Laden and ordered more drone strikes in his first year than his predecessor did in his entire eight years. With presidents rendered impotent at home but virile abroad, thanks to the exigencies of the “war on terror”, the world has ample reason to fear American militarism. Because drones largely eliminate the need for boots on the ground and therefore the spectacle of flag-draped body bags arriving from foreign lands to public outrage, they offer a politically cost-effective way of waging war and attaining the tough guy image that reassures Americans that the president is keeping them safe. With their disregard for the niceties of sovereignty and international law, drones are the new symbol of US imperial omnipotence.  

It is worth noting that the debate in the US over the drone-assassination of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen, was about whether the president can order the termination of a US citizen. It is taken for granted that he can order the killing of foreign citizens. Indeed, the US can kill foreign citizens in their own countries as drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen indicate. The toll in “collateral damage” – civilians, men, women and children – is deemed an “acceptable loss.”

The international media, so often exercised about Arab terrorists and African warlords, its favourite pantomime villains, has little to say about the serial misdeeds of the biggest war-making power on earth. The very viable case for hauling US officials (Bush and Dick Cheney would be great) before the War Crimes Tribunal is simply laughed off. It is the most pungent indication that the international community is an unfair constellation and that might is still right. While western pundits fulminate over the election of Uhuru Kenyatta who is billed to appear at the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity, they side-step the fact that US and British officials are responsible for far more deaths of innocents in  Afghanistan and Iraq. It seems that wearing a suit and sitting in White Hall or the White House while ordering a war on the basis of fabricated evidence (as in Iraq), confers immunity from justice.

As is so often the case, technology has a way of democratizing power and will do so yet again in this brave new world of imperial presidents and drones. It was when China and Russia joined America in the club of nuclear nations that she began to advocate nuclear arms control treaties. American officials will start preaching restraint in the use of drones once China and Russia carry out drone campaigns of their own. The Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive war undermined America’s customary self-righteous sermonizing to other countries. US officials bleat tamely about the need for dialogue and restraint when China and Russia carry out bloody campaigns in Tibet and Chechnya, because they recognize that it is hypocrital to do so. Vladmir Putin gamely defined Russian operations in Chechnya as a “war on terror”, appropriating Bush’s terminology and implying moral equivalence between the two nations’ militarisms.

The problem with Pax Americana is that its imperial character cannot make the world more peaceful. After witnessing the Euro-American intervention in Libya which ousted Gaddafi, other nations took note. They watched as western nations violated a country’s sovereignty, aided an internal insurrection, bombed the country into submission, and saw to the killing of the country’s leader. They learned that Gaddafi had signed his death warrant when he signed away Libya’s weapons of mass destruction. This is why Iran and North Korea are unlikely to give up their nuclear aspirations; because they fear a power that has arrogated to itself the right to determine who rules other nations. Despite the war weariness in the west stemming from the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, the potential for conflict in the Persian Gulf and the Korean Peninsula is quite high. 

Thus, Pax Americana by default, if not design, can only generate conflict in the world. It will continue to do so until two things happen – until the US resolves the contradictions that have paralyzed its domestic politics which in turn prompts her presidents to play “Captain America” and engage in imperial overreach. More importantly, there has to be a common plumb line for global justice that targets war criminals of every hue…Yes, including those that are to be found in White Hall and the White House.   

All Images Sourced Online.  

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