If it was all about oil, we’d have boots on the ground in Venezuela…
May 14, 2010 § 3 Comments
Published on Mondoweiss.net
In his response to my criticism Stephen Maher oddly ends up repeating the same leaps of logic that I objected to in the first place. To wit: no one disputes the fact that the US covets Middle Eastern energy resources. The question I asked is how from this fact has he (or the people he is ventriloquising) inferred Israel’s strategic value? He offers the standard response that Israel confronted and defeated Arab nationalism on behalf of the US. This would seem a persuasive argument if one were to pick up history from an arbitrary point somewhere in the early 60s. He seems unaware that Nasser, who was seen as an anti-Communist modernizer, was assisted in his ascent to power by the CIA (specifically by Kermit Roosevelt of Operation Ajax fame); and the Arabs, who saw the US as a non-imperial–indeed anti-imperial power–only turned to the Soviet camp after the Eisenhower administration blocked aid to Egypt for the Aswan dam under pressure from the Israel, China, and cotton lobbies. Maher probably hasn’t heard of the Lavon Affair either. Arabs only turned against the US as a consequence of its support for Israel. If Israel defeated Arab nationalism, then it was merely vanquishing an enemy of its own creation. It was doing the US no favor. Even Nixon understood this, who in ’73 initially refused to support Israel against the Egyptians because he said US was obliged to protect Israel but had no obligation to protect its conquests (the Sinai).
When asked why he misrepresented quotes by Brzezinski and Kennan, Maher says he was merely trying to demonstrate that there is a broad consensus on the strategic importance of Middle East oil to the US (an uncontroversial claim). If there is such a consensus and yet there is none when it comes to how best to secure these resources, it should be obvious that there is no direct correlation between coveting the resources and wanting war. The relevant question then is who pushed for the Iraq war? He does not answer.
Maher’s next accuses me of absurdity, only to follow the accusation with a non sequitur. He assumes what he has to prove. He asserts that wherever there’s a conflict between US and Israeli interests, the former always prevails. By way of evidence he claims US applied ‘severe military sanctions’ against Israel in 2004-2005, and cites the earlier instance where US successfuly pressured Israel against dealing with China. (For some odd reason, Maher leaves out the other instance that Noam Chomsky cites as example of Israeli subservience: the 1982 AWACs sales to Saudi Arabia.) It seems Maher is blind to the irony of his own claim. Isn’t US support for Israel premised on its status as a ‘strategic asset’? For the US to support Israel it isn’t necessary that it serve a strategic interest so long as it is not seen as being openly hostile to the said interests. Did he expect the lobby to argue that selling advanced weapons based on US R&D to its chief rival was somehow serving its interests? The AWACs story is even less convincing. Those who trot it out rarely mention that when the sale was first attempted by Carter it was vetoed by Congress. Reagan succeeded only after the Congress imposed humiliating terms. The AWACs planes would only be flown by US pilots, and the accompanying F-15s will have neither long range fuel pods, nor weapons racks. But the context was even more important. Reagan was only able to justify the sale through Bill Casey’s help who at the time was encouraging the Saudis to underwrite the proxy war in Afghanistan.
People who point to the military-industrial complex as a key determinant of policy do have a point. A state of conflict does aid its profitmaking, even if war itself is not always necessary. It was the alarm over detente that led to the rise of the neoconservatives as a nexus between the Israel lobby and the MIC in the early ’70s. And through thinktanks like JINSA and CSP the alliance has since been solidified. However, when their interests come into conflict, once again, the lobby triumphs. In the mid-80s the US lost the biggest arms contract of history — the Yamamah deal – when Reagan personally encouraged King Fahd to turn to the Brits instead since he knew he couldn’t confront the Congress again after the bruising he took over the AWACs sale. Likewise, in 2007 the sale of $20 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia was only approved after the administration promised a similar amount to Israel (except that the Israelis won’t pay, but receive top-drawer weapons). If the ‘service’ Israel renders is to receive free US weaponry, surely there are plenty of other states which could do the same at far less political cost.
The next claim which is often put forth is that in advancing its interests through a regional proxy the US behavior is no different than it has been elsewhere in the world, such as in Indonesia. But for this argument to be valid, one would have to show that the US behaves in exactly the same manner all over the world where its interests are at stake. Yet we know this is not true. What about states like Oman or Qatar, which actually invited the US to open bases on their soil? What about a state like Uzbekistan, where it did have a base yet left when it was told to? What about a state like Venezuela, where it has none? If there is variance in its behavior, then that means it could be different in I-P too. It becomes pertinent then to ask why US behavior is the way it is in I-P and not the way it is elsewhere. Since US behaves imperially in other places, does that mean we can’t say United Fruit pushed for the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala? After all, no leftist shies away from pointing out that the US overthrow of Arbenz was instigated by a powerful non-state actor. But somehow by blaming Middle East policy on the lobby you are giving imperialism a free pass. (It is like saying that by blaming the driver for a hit-and-run you exonerate the car.) Yes, the US has a horrendous imperial record around the world, including invasions, overthrows, destabilization and proxy wars. It backs many authoritarian regimes. However, this does not mean that US policy around the world is uniform. In some places it is imperial without being destructive, in others it is destructive without being imperial. In some places it is neither. The difference is not insignificant. Had the realists had their way, there would be 1.2 million fewer dead people in Iraq. The US covets resources in many places but that does not automatically translate into imperial aggression. Otherwise won’t we have boots on Venezuelan ground by now? No one has challenged US authority and prestige more strongly and more consistently than Hugo Chavez.
A more ludicrous version of these arguments attributes policies in the Middle East to some unitary, coherent entity called ‘capital’. One could of course think of ‘capital’ as a metaphysical concept, which, like God, works in mysterious ways leaving no evidentiary trail. This kind of faith based analysis, removed from politics, history and experience, has the advantage of freeing us from the burden of evidence. One would have thought this subjectless, structuralist approach would have expired with Louis Althusser’s strangled wife. Yet it persists in ever more ridiculous forms, mainly, as Tony Judt put it, because it renders their argument ‘invulnerable to any criticism of the empirical sort’. In this instrumentalist approach the state has no autonomy whatsoever; it is merely a pliant expression of ‘capital’. Of course, no one who has read Marx’s astute political analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire, or is familiar with his concept of Bonapartism (or Gramsci’s Caesarism, or Mills’s relative autonomy of states), could make such laughable assumptions. Capital of course manifests itself in more tangible forms, such as, say, the Fortune 500. And the interests of the Fortune 500 have been repeatedly thwarted by the lobby, beginning with the passage of the US Israel Free Trade Agreement (which foreshadowed NAFTA). ‘Capital’ has since lost in excess of $80 billion, and its interests were again frustrated in the confrontation over the Iran Libya Sanctions Act.
Decisions of war and peace are never monocausal. They inevitably involve multiple variables, convergence of interests, and contingent factors. One could therefore say that the Israel lobby is one factor among others. One could however also say that Mt. Everest is one mountain among others.
Debating the lobby-deniers is of course no more edifying than debating the flat earth society. Both show a scrupulous aversion to facts. But this is not a matter of opinion. All these claims are subject to empirical tests. Instead of making insupportable claims, I’d encourage those who deny or downplay the lobby’s influence to present facts, offer constative statements, not metaphysical generalizations. Their frequent recourse to straw-man arguments and red herrings leads me to doubt their honesty. Perhaps there’s an agenda we should know about? Is it not curious that these supposed defenders of Palestinian rights should insist on seeing Israel as a ‘strategic asset’ when there are few in US government who share this view (not to mention the millions the lobby has invested since the early ’50s trying to promote this view). From George Marshall to Colin Powell, from the Joint Chiefs in 1948 to Gen. Petraeus in 2010: all have agreed that Israel is a strategic liability. Yet these true believers tell us otherwise. Let me ask: if oil is the end, and Israel a mere tool, how is it that every politician is able to rail against ‘our dependence on foreign oil’, when with a couple of truly honorable exceptions, no one is able to say a critical word about Israel?
Remember the old barstool joke about the ’lyin’ eyes’? Well, given a choice between blind dogma and my lyin eyes, I choose the latter.