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There is no master plan

July 15, 2011

One of the most depressing and frustrating things about foreign policy is that there are a lot of people who think this is how US foreign policy works. It really is upsetting to think that so many people believe the US has some kind of grand scheme for world domination and its every activity is, regardless of what it says, part of a master plan to dominate the world. The truth is more banal: we often do not have much of a clue what we are doing at all.

There is a certain aesthetic appeal to throwing up multicolored maps with US military bases superimposed on energy routes and sea lines of communication and attempting to divine superpower intentions. Unfortunately, this is an utterly misleading way of looking at the world, and it is a far cry from how policy is actually made. People such as Oliver Stone think that this is how US policy must have been justified, and the US could not have invaded a country such as Iraq because a bunch of Iraqi opposition figures said the US would be greeted as liberators, or they really thought Saddam was secretly helping al Qaeda and making WMDs, or that some Americans convinced overthrowing Iraq would advance the cause of freedom and democracy. To say that the US has been following a geopolitical strategy for dominating Eurasia is, essentially, to give it far too much credit.

Take this column by Pepe Escobar at Al Jazeera English. Now, leaving aside the totally crazy reduction of the Taliban to a Pashtun nationalist movement or the offhand reference to bin Laden which I’m pretty sure was tongue in cheek, this column is emblematic of how a lot of radical types, and many foreign commentators, view US foreign policy.

So what’s the endgame for these trillions of dollars?

The Pentagon’s Full Spectrum Dominance doctrine implies a global network of military bases – with particular importance to those surrounding, bordering and keeping in check key competitors Russia and China.

This superpower projection – of which Afghanistan was, and remains, a key node, in the intersection of South and Central Asia – led, and may still lead, to other wars in Iraq, Iran and Syria.

The network of US military bases in the Pentagon-coined “arc of instability” that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and South/Central Asia is a key reason for remaining in Afghanistan forever.

But it’s not the only reason.

First off, somebody needs to teach these folks how to read Pentagon documents, because there’s a huge difference between Full Spectrum Dominance and an actual grand strategy. Apparently if the US thinks it should dominate all geographic theaters (land, sea, and air) along with information, cyberspace, and other non-geographic fields, during a conflict, this somehow implies a nefarious plot to take over the world. The ability to project power globally and the actual decision to maintain bases everywhere are very different decisions, but let’s not confuse anybody by actually reading Joint Vision 2020.

The US is building bases to encircle Russia and China? What, are you kidding? The expansion of NATO was not about encircling Russia, it was about spreading democracy into Eastern Europe. In fact, the total blindness of NATO as to how its expansion was viewed in Moscow was a critical error in the 1990s. Particularly since the Russo-Georgian War, NATO has been reluctant to try to do anything hinting of encircling Russia – it is more concerned with justifying its own existence through operations such as Libya and Afghanistan than participating in any sort of clash of great powers.

I am not sure how controlling Afghanistan is now critical to encircling Russia, considering that the war itself has made the US partially reliant on Russian cooperation for the Northern Distribution Network. If anybody had not noticed, Moscow’s borders are a wee bit further away from Afghanistan than they were in 1989. If the US wanted to encircle Russia, it would be pushing for bases in the Caucasus, instead of deciding to relocate them in Turkey – and what it did mull putting in the Caucasus it would not be targeting at Iran.

As for China, I am not really sure what strategic value Afghanistan has for countering its intentions there. Certainly we are not going to be fighting a land war in the Wakhan Corridor. Maybe we want Afghanistan for air bases? What, to strike all the valuable Chinese targets in Xinjiang and Tibet? Strategic bombers can operate from much further away at existing bases, and there’s nothing within the limited range of a fighter or attack aircraft worth hitting in China. But hey, one little American flag on the map looks just as potent as the other ones, even if it’s in a base that can only be supplied by China’s ally in South Asia, Russia and its former colonial dominion, and Iran. It’s a base to encircle Russia and China that’s, well, encircled by pro-Russian and Chinese states.

So, if the brilliant strategy to encircle our rivals by building bases in a landlocked country is not working out, what’s the real reason – because those Machiavellian geniuses must have one, right – we’re in Afghanistan? I’ll give you one guess.

It all comes back, once again, to Pipelineistan – and one of its outstanding chimeras; the Turkmenistan/Afghanistan/Pakistan (TAP) gas pipeline, also known once as the Trans-Afghan Pipeline, which might one day become TAPI if India decides to be on board.

The US corporate media simply refuses to cover what is one of the most important stories of the early 21st century.

Ah yes, the gas pipeline to nowhere. One would actually think that if the US corporate media really wanted to boost the prospects of the pipeline, it would be working harder to counteract the growing public frustration with the Afghan campaign, and explaining the economic value of a place that generally is described as a poor medieval quagmire with no economic value except for opium. Maybe this is all part of some ploy by the corporate media to boost support for the war by making people that instead of a genius plan to capture oil, it is a vain and futile attempt to turn an “unconquerable” country into a pro-Western state, which seems to really be keeping the war effort strong, doesn’t it?

Washington has badly wanted TAP since the mid-1990s, when the Clinton administration was negotiating with the Taliban; the talks broke down because of transit fees, even before 9/11, when the Bush administration decided to change the rhetoric from “a carpet of gold” to “a carpet of bombs”.

Maybe Unocal badly wanted TAP in the mid-1990s, it would be hard to say anybody in the US government was really pushing for the idea. Apparently everything bad that happened was over transit fees. Surely, nothing that influenced Washington’s hostility to Afghanistan could have involved the 1998 Embassy bombings or the attack on the USS Cole. Too good of a coincidence, right? For all we know cause-and-effect could have been invented by MKULTRA or something. Can’t trust it.

TAP is a classic Pipelineistan gambit; the US supporting the flow of gas from Central Asia to global markets, bypassing both Iran and Russia. If it ever gets built, it will cost over $10 billion.

Never mind that there are much easier and much more feasible ways to bypass Russia and Iran by building through the Caspian and Nabucco. Or that TAPI would basically end up fueling China and East Asia and not the United States. If we don’t have troops in Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, or Nigeria, we can’t be relying on them for oil, right?

It needs a totally pacified Afghanistan – still another chimera – and a Pakistani government totally implicated in Afghanistan’s security, still a no-no as long as Islamabad’s policy is to have Afghanistan as its “strategic depth”, a vassal state, in a long-term confrontation mindset against India.

So, if it needs a totally pacified Afghanistan, why doesn’t the US just have the Pakistanis install Taliban? Answering this question requires recognizing that the US actually does not care much about pipelines or any of that foolish business. For all its investments in Afghanistan, the US really does believe that promoting economic development and governance is important, even if it is utterly awful at doing it. As for the major investments in resources, those are coming from China, which is the obvious beneficiary of Afghan resource extraction. Which the US is not locking out, because I suppose the corporate media forgot to tell everybody in Afghanistan that they’re really on a super secret mission to contain China.

It’s no surprise the Pentagon and the Pakistani Army enjoy such a close working relationship. Both Washington and Islamabad regard Pashtun nationalism as an existential threat.

Apparently the term to describe a decade-long deep freeze and a totally dysfunctional lack of cooperation on Afghanistan and al Qaeda is “close working relationship.” As for the “existential threat” of Pashtun nationalism, somehow I am not afraid of the Taliban seizing control of America’s industrial centers and occupying it. Nor does Pakistan seem to think that Pashtun nationalism is an existential threat, unless the Pashtuns have somehow taken control of India.

Given the enormous scale of US foreign policy and military operations, there is always a tendency to look for the “real cause.” How could the US spend trillions trying to kill al Qaeda and build stable governments from the ruins of regimes it destroyed? Well, very easily, by ignoring the sort of crass material considerations conspiracy theorists expect of it. However, when the critics of US policymakers analyze these decisions and attempt to reverse engineer the reasons of state behind them, through analytic alchemy ideas which have never made it far off paper, such as TAP, become major geopolitical issues. The combined effect is that far too much foreign policy debate and analysis becomes a choice of idealist and materialist fantasies.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 17, 2011 8:49 pm

    I strongly suspect there are some radical critiques of US f.p. worth taking seriously, but Pepe Escobar’s piece sounds like it is definitely not one of them.

    • July 18, 2011 12:01 am

      I agree – and I’m sympathetic to a fair number of them. That said, I think a lot of the materialist, reductionist accounts of US foreign policy are downright misleading – you can get to the point where extremely respected intellectuals start making hokey statements about how the war in Bosnia or some other humanitarian intervention was “really” about oil, or minerals, or something like that…

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