Friday, February 19, 2010

Tariq Ali on Obama's foreign policy

The current issue of New Left Review carries a piece by Tariq Ali (available on the NLR website) that purports to be an analysis of Obama's foreign policy. I say "purports" because even a quick look at the piece -- and that is all I have given it (though I have saved a copy for more careful reading later) -- reveals that Ali's fundamental assumption clouds whatever analytical acumen he might otherwise have been able to bring to bear.

Ali's fundamental assumption is that the U.S. is an aggressive imperialist state and that every president since at least Jimmy Carter has used the Middle East as the fulcrum from which to extend the malign hand of American power across the globe. Ali calls U.S. actions in Afghanistan imperialist aggression, he calls the actions of Pakistan in South Waziristan, Swat, and Bajaur "domestic ethnic cleasing," he labels Judge Richard Goldstone a "notorious time-server of 'international justice'" -- note by the way the quotation marks around "international justice" -- and he depicts Mahmoud Abbas as a servile client of the U.S.

Ali labels Obama's speeches in Cairo, Oslo and elsewhere as cant, hypocritical and emollient "homilies" designed to cover the fact of imperialist aggression with a tissue of banalities. Ali of course omits to note that these speeches contained a certain amount of self-criticism -- God forbid that anything should be permitted to disturb the picture of the U.S. as an unrelievedly malign hegemon.

Now, I have long had some sympathy for aspects of the left-wing critiques of U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. has tended to define its geopolitical interests much too expansively, so that even in periods of relative strategic retrenchment the long hand of American power can be seen in hundreds of military bases that ring the globe. And the U.S. has been far too uncritically supportive of whatever the Israeli government of any given moment chooses to do vis-a-vis the Palestinians. The U.S. should long ago have brought real pressure -- i.e., monetary and aid pressure -- to bear on Israel to change its stance on settlements, boundaries, and the other issues that will need to be resolved in any final Mideast settlement. The U.S. should realize that a clearer focus on Palestinian concerns and historical and contemporary grievances would ultimately benefit not only the Palestinians but Israel as well, by assuring the Iatter of a Palestinian neighbor that has an incentive to observe and implement any peace settlement. (In this respect, W.R. Mead's call for a "Copernican shift" in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have fallen largely on deaf ears in Washington.)

Having said that, I find Ali's piece to be a polemic masquerading as analysis. Starting from the assumption that the U.S. is by definition incapable of doing anything right, that it operates through a network of uniformly bloody, crooked and despotic puppets, and that virtually any entity that violently resists the American "empire" cannot be too misguided and indeed is probably praiseworthy simply by virtue of that resistance, Ali naturally comes to the conclusion that there is continuity between Bush I, Clinton, Bush II, and Obama -- they are all stewards of empire, he says, and all that has changed from Bush II to Obama is the "diplomatic mood music." Obama cannot be much different from Bush, in this perspective, because the structural imperatives of "empire" are what dictate policy, and rhetoric is conceived as simply a gossamer blanket thrown over a bloody fist.

But rhetoric and policy are not two hermetically separate compartments. The 'real world' of international politics does not consist only of the use of force, whether military or economic, and the cutting of deals of one sort or another. You don't have to be an IR scholar -- all you have to do is follow the news semi-attentively -- to realize that much of what goes in international relations is talk, and to that extent rhetoric is not separate from policy; it is policy. To dismiss Obama, as Ali does, as a "president of cant" is to ignore this point, among others. As for the rest, you can read the piece and judge its merits for yourselves.

P.s. In the section of his piece on Iraq, Ali refers to "Eastern European prostitutes" who service the large American military base at Balad. However, the New York Times article he cites in a footnote refers to "Mila from Kyrgyzstan" as a masseuse not a prostitute. I leave it to readers to determine whether this apparent inability to distinguish between f***ing and getting a massage says anything about Ali's perspicacity in general. (Also, Kyrgyzstan is not in Eastern Europe.)


Anonymous said...

Tariq Ali regards the masseuse as one of the staff alongside the mentioned Subway personnel. However, prostitutes are local. ─░mporting of foreign prostitutes is not the case.

LFC said...

Well, I probably shouldn't have put in that somewhat snarky postscript about the masseuse at all, but your comment did serve to remind me of this post, which I had largely forgotten, so thanks.