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Stabilizing the Middle East: lessons from U.S. rapprochement with China

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Stabilizing the Middle East: lessons from U.S. rapprochement with China

Barry Naughten

Naughten, B., 2012, Stabilising the Middle East: lessons from the US rapprochement with China, 2012, The Conversation, 7 August.

The mismatch between continued U.S. pursuit of a global primacy role and the changing terms of its own national self-interest is increasingly evident. This is so in the light of developments such as the dramatic and costly failures of its foreign policies in the Middle East and Western Asia, its role in causing the GFC and the continued and rapid rise of new great powers, as well as ongoing social and political decay at home.

One major index of this multiple failure has been U.S. inability to develop a policy toward Iran independent of Israeli veto power. As discussed below, this failure is of great concern because it leads to a more dangerous and unstable Middle East. In addition, there are multiple positive reasons for U.S. foreign policy cooperation with Iran, not least in retrieving dangerous situations in Afghanistan and Iraq as the U.S. continues to withdraw as rapidly as its declining prestige will allow. These reasons have been spelt out by Stephen Kinzer (2010).

Nixon-Kissinger’s ‘China card’

Some historical lessons can be drawn from the U.S. position and response to the economic crisis of 1971, caused as it was in large part by the costs of its ill-conceived Vietnam involvement. While still embroiled in Vietnam, the then U.S. leadership was beginning to sense this reality of changed circumstances. One crucial response was Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972. Supported by Kissinger’s advice, Nixon had decided to form an alliance of convenience with China against the U.S.S.R, while also accepting the opening up of China to the rest of the world.

Less than ten years earlier, foreign policy-makers and hawks in the U.S., and U.S.S.R (and Australia) had been calling for ‘surgical denuclearization’ of an isolated China that had seen itself, with good reason, as existentially threatened by both of the nuclear super-powers.

The rapprochement initiated by Nixon and warmly received by China meant that the latter could then be ‘contained’, in large part through its inexorably increasing international economic interdependence. It meant a firm rejection of the failed U.S. policy of China’s enforced isolation.

Nixon’s balance-of-power policy with respect to China in the context of the U.S.S.R could thus be viewed as a rational response to a setback to U.S. global primacy aspirations, subject first to Paul Kennedy’s ‘imperial over-stretch’ as a consequence of the Vietnam debacle, and second to its relative decline consequent on the economic rise of Europe and Japan over the 25 years following WWII (and not much later, the definitive rise of OPEC’s influence).

For and against ‘preventive war’ on Iran

Some U.S. foreign policy hawks now advocate wars of ‘regime change’ or ‘surgical de-nuclearization’ on Iran. They are supposedly prompted by the latter’s alleged (but as yet unconsummated) nuclear weapons aspirations. They join the urgings of the Israeli leadership. The calls echo those just described regarding China (1950s & 1960s) but rejected ─ and also those regarding Iraq, which of course actually suffered such a war in 2003, with no nuclear weapons capability found to exist.

One such strident voice has recently been from Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the Presidential elections who has surrounded himself with neoconservative advisers. As to the Obama Administration, like its GW Bush predecessor, it continually claims that it will ‘use all elements of American power to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon’. ‘Bunker-busters’ are threatened.

Many other commentators oppose such calls for preventive war on Iran. One such powerful critique has been from Stephen Walt (2012). Taking a slightly different tack, the leading foreign policy realist Kenneth Waltz has recently (2012) argued that, as in the case of China, Iran’s aspirations toward a nuclear deterrent are perfectly rational and reasonable in terms of its own national security. This is especially so in the light of very real threats from Israel and the U.S. He also notes that once China actually acquired its own international nuclear deterrent in the early 1960s it necessarily became a more responsible international citizen.

This does not mean that we need to go all the way with Waltz’s severely parsimonious rationalism. The U.S. could hardly be expected to accept a nuclear Iran as a totally desirable outcome. However, what makes sense is to accept that Iran’s aspirations toward a level of capability (perhaps like Japan’s) would allow mechanisms of a stabilizing mutual deterrence to emerge vis-à-vis both Israel and the Arab Middle East in particular.

A first practical step would be to withdraw punitive economic sanctions now in place on Iran. Such harsh measures are more likely to harden Iran’s resolve, an unintended consequence pointed out by Ned Lebow in a general context.

Another step toward such a rational and prudent strategy would be to decisively take ‘off the table’ the option of ‘preventive war’ on Iran ─ that is, aggressive war. As in the case of the war on Iraq (2003), this option is illegal under the UN Charter, and for good reason.

The path of U.S.-Iran engagement in the above terms would of course by no means remove the option of future defensive war on Iran should it plausibly threaten to use such weapons unprovoked, or indeed to wage aggressive war against its neighbours. However, even such a graduated and ‘defensive war’ option would need to be weighed carefully in the light of prevailing circumstances.

Israel’s veto on the U.S. seeking to normalize its relationship with the Iran

Israel would be one of the main losers if the Middle East were to descend into greater chaos as a result of military strikes on Iran. Yet, as already noted, Israel’s hawkish leadership has been shrill in threatening its own ‘preventive war’ on that country.

Unfortunately, Israel’s foreign policy hawks have been dangerously emboldened by several factors. The first is the forty years or so in which Israel has possessed the only (albeit ‘ambiguously’ denied) nuclear weapons capacity in the region, not to speak of its being at a comparable level to China, France and the UK in terms of delivery and ‘second strike’ capabilities. This unchecked power has not been a stabilizing force in the region, especially given that this has been heavily supported by U.S. military aid over the same period.

A second source of unreality in the Israeli leadership’s thinking has been its faith in the continued influence of a so-called (but misnamed) ‘Israel Lobby’ well connected within the U.S. foreign policy establishment. This lobby is intermeshed with the same neoconservative and bellicose Wilsonian liberal influences that have brought U.S. foreign policy failure over the past decade, and indeed as far back as Vietnam. Hawkish republicanism and Christian Zionism are also influential. The Lobby is far from reflective of Jewish public opinion in the U.S. Indeed, some of its main critics are of Jewish origin (for example, J-Street, the above-noted commentator, Stephen Kinzer).

The fact that Israel seems able to exert a veto power over U.S. policy in the Middle East (not so evident 20 years ago) is unduly exhilarating for Israeli leaders. But for the U.S., such a constraint can be viewed as one more index of U.S. relative decline at a time when its own security is increasingly dependent on more rational foreign policy-making, for example in its avoidance of both ‘imperial’ and fiscal ‘over-stretch’ in the Middle East and elsewhere.

A third factor has been crisis in Israel’s domestic politics, which has entailed the rise of more right-wing, bellicose and often corrupt elements. A fourth and closely related difficulty is the continued U.S. and Israeli failure to address the Palestinian question, and to move toward its equitable and secure resolution.

Australia’s role then and now

The U.S. has the power to address the central issues constructively but is unlikely to do so without effective argument and pressure domestically and from the rest of the world, including from such allies as Australia, a country with a history of opposition to even-handedness on the Palestine question.

That Australia can play either positive or negative roles is well demonstrated by the related histories of our relations with China (and Vietnam). Then Opposition leader Gough Whitlam’s coinciding visit to China in 1971 indicated a degree of international awareness. This initiative was a corrective to the then Coalition Government’s pressure in support of hawkish U.S. policy directions evident in both its ill-conceived commitment to land-war in Asia and its ideologically-based opposition to normalizing relations with China.

That pressure from the then Coalition Government did the U.S. no favours and did nothing to advance Australia’s own security.

As indicated in recent contributions by Hugh White (and here) and James Curran, these lessons remain relevant today for Australia’s foreign policies with respect not only to Asia and the U.S. but to the continued over-interventionist role of the U.S. and other Western powers in the Middle East region.

Barry Naughten bio

Barry Naughten, PhD, MAIR, MEc, BSc is a Departmental Visitor in the Centre of Arab and Islamic Studies (CAIS), ANU, where he is completing a book on U.S. foreign energy policy in the Middle East. He was formerly a Senior Economist in ABARE, the Commonwealth Government economic research agency, where he specialised in energy economics. He has published journal articles and book-chapters in these and related fields.

He is contactable on and on



Written by Barry Naughten

August 23, 2012 at 1:25 am

One Response

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