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    Central Asia
     Dec 24, 2009
Page 1 of 2
Life and premature death of Pax Obamicana
By Spengler

History speaks of a Pax Romana, a Pax Britannica, and a Pax Americana - but no other namable eras of sustained peace, for the simple reason cited by Henry Kissinger: nothing maintains peace except hegemony and the balance of power. The balancing act always fails, though, as it did in Europe in 1914, and as it will in Central and South Asia precisely a century later. The result will be suppurating instability in the region during the next two years and a slow but deadly drift toward great-power animosity. Those who wanted an end to US hegemony will get what they wished for. But they won't like it.

"No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation," US President Barack Obama told the United Nations on September 23. "No world order that elevates one nation or group of people

  

over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold." Having renounced hegemony as well as the balance of power, Obama by year-end chose to prop up the power balance in the region with additional American and allied soldiers in Afghanistan. Obama chose the least popular as well as the least effective alternative. The US president's apparent fecklessness reflects the gravity of the strategic problems in the region.

There is one great parallel, but also one great difference, between the Balkans on the eve of World War I and the witch's cauldron comprising Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and contiguous territory. The failure of the region's most populous state - in that case the Ottoman Empire, in this case Pakistan - makes shambles out of the power balance, leaving the initiative in the hands of irredentist radicals who threaten to tug their sponsors among the great powers along behind them. But in 1914, both France and Germany thought it more advantageous to fight sooner rather than later. No matter how great the provocation, both India and China want to postpone any major conflict. The problem is that they may promote minor ones.

Western analysts are unanimous that Pakistan must not be allowed to become a failed state, for example, through a seizure of power on the part of Islamist elements in the military allied to the Taliban. Enlisting Pakistan in counter-insurgency against Pashtun rebels in Afghanistan, though, ensures this outcome. US policy, wrote Syed Saleem Shahzad on this site on October 23 (Where Pakistanís militants go to ground ), "draws Pakistan, already mired in political and economic crises, into an ever-deepening quagmire. The country has become a playing field for operators of all shades. These include Iranian Balochi insurgents, over a dozen Pakistani militant groups linked with the Taliban or al-Qaeda, the US Central Intelligence Agency's network, security contractors associated with the American establishment, and last but not least, agents provocateurs. Pakistan, one of the booming economies of Asia just two years ago, seriously risks becoming a failed state."

The US-sponsored frontier war amounts to Punjabis - traditionally the core of the country's military - killing Pashtuns. The default view of area defense analysts has been that army operations against the Taliban may turn into a Punjabi-Pashtun ethnic conflict. But the cracks in the Pakistani state run in several directions. Punjabi Islamists allied to the Taliban, meanwhile, are in open revolt; Punjabi terrorists took part in the October siege of Pakistan's army headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Pakistan is being ground between two millstones: the Afghan war and the global economic crisis. Half the country is illiterate, and half of Pakistanis live on less than US$1 a day. The country's respectable economic growth rate of 5% per annum during the late 2000s was fed by foreign credit, which allowed it to run a current-account deficit of 8.3% as of 2008. The country's finances collapsed in late 2008, forcing Islamabad to adopt an austerity program under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. "Pakistan is not yet a failed economy," wrote Santosh Kumar in The Hindu on November 24. "But it can happen. This is not a prospect the world, especially India, can view with equanimity, since the spillover will impact us badly."

The credibility of secular government - with its promise of economic improvement - is threadbare. The alternative is an Islamist regime committed to confronting India over Kashmir and suppressing the Shi'ite minority that comprises 30% of Pakistan's population. The Islamist alternative has such appeal that Punjabi terrorists, as noted, are conducting suicide attacks against the Punjabi-dominated army.

India might be compelled to respond to the victory of Islamist radicals in its nuclear-armed neighbor. Iran, for that matter, cannot maintain its credibility with its Shi'ite allies around the region if it sits on its hands while Pakistan crushes its co-confessionalists. Iran's interest in obtaining nuclear weapons has several motivations. One is to establish a screen of deterrence behind which it can grab its neighbors' oil, as it proposed to do by sending a division of the Iranian army to surround an Iraqi oilfield last week. Another is to prepare for prospective conflict with Pakistan; if Pakistan fails, Iran will have a strong interest in interfering in Pakistan on behalf of the Shi'ite minority.

The Obama administration's response to the threat of Islamist takeover has been "to pick a new fight with India on Kashmir", as Indian analyst C Raja Mohan complained in the online edition of Forbes magazine on November 8:
Obama has also sensed, rightly, that the US cannot stabilize Afghanistan unless it fixes Pakistan's profound insecurities and gets its army to level with the US and stop supporting America's enemies in Afghanistan. Few Indians disagree with Obama's reasoning that the threats to Pakistan's security are internal and do not come from India. But many are beginning to get anxious about the third step in Obama's logic: to get Pakistan to cooperate with the US in Afghanistan, Washington must actively seek to resolve Islamabad's problem with New Delhi over Kashmir. Put simply, the Indian fear is that they are being asked to pick up the political tab for America's failed policy in Afghanistan, and for the Pakistan Army's deliberate betrayal of US interests there.
The Obama administration has antagonized India in the hope of mollifying Pakistani irredentism, just as it has antagonized Israel with the dubious argument that if Israel makes concessions to the divided, ineffectual Palestine Authority, it will be able to mollify Iran. Nothing will assuage the Palestinians, who are failed before coming a state, nor the Pakistanis, whose failure is ineluctable.

As I argued in Asia Times Online on October 20 (When the cat's away, the mice kill each other), the net effect of America's fecklessness is to give the Russian Empire an opportunity to stretch a hand out of the geopolitical grave and grasp a last, great opportunity. Russia faces a slow demographic death, but it remains a great power in terms of military technology: its surface-to-air missile systems are as good as anything American can field, and its newest system, the as yet undeployed S-500, may be better, according to a senior American aviation executive.

Compared with the airframe and avionics technology now in development phase in the Unites States, Russia remains a second-best producer of warplanes. But Obama's budget cuts have hit military aviation hard, leaving its closest allies - including Israel and Australia - without a clear alternative to the aging F-16 force. Russia and India, meanwhile, are developing a "fifth generation" fighter, with some inputs from France and Israel. There is widespread speculation that Russia's decision to cancel deliveries of its S-300 anti-missile system to Iran carried a price tag for the Israelis: order the latest Russian systems for their own use, and make available the entire package of Israeli avionics.

In short, Washington appears to have driven its two closest allies in Asia - Israel and India - into a technology alliance with Russia that may have enormous long-term consequences. It is not only that the US has renounced its intention to act as a hegemon; a few years from now, it no longer may have the technological ability to act as a hegemon. This threatens to close off what may become the best chance to maintain peace in the region.

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