Page 1 of 2 Life and premature death of Pax Obamicana
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.
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
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:
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.
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.