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     Nov 14, 2012

Screens flicker out across Washington
By Spengler

It seems fitting that the director of Central Intelligence should be the first casualty of an election where both sides had more to lose than to gain by mentioning foreign policy. My admiration for General David Petraeus was grudging, but he was well-qualified

for the job: a general who can manipulate his own masters can jerk the chains of foreign leaders as well.

Whether Petraeus' personal indiscretions required his resignation or President Barack Obama put paid to a Republican holdover is not yet clear. It doesn't matter much, for the screens are going dark in Washington. After four years of American strategic withdrawal, and a vast display of apathy from the voters, America is a diminishing factor in world affairs. Americans will learn of critical developments after the fact if at all, and its intelligence services will continue to devolve into a sort of Work Progress Administration for failed academics.

As I wrote in this space in May 2010, "Petraeus' surge of 2007-2008 drastically reduced the level of violence in Iraq by absorbing most of the available Sunni fighters into an American-financed militia, the 'Sons of Iraq', or Sunni Awakening. With American money, weapons and training, the remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime have turned into a fighting force far more effective than the defunct dictator's state police."

It was a doubly clever stroke, winning with cash what could not be won with bullets. Aligning with the remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime was the right approach (first advocated in 2004 by Marc Ericson on this web site - see Why Saddam's arrest did matter, Asia Times Online, January 24, 2004). Of course, it set the stage for an escalating civil war in the future. That is a defect in the policy only if its author expects something other than another iteration of violence.

Petraeus perpetrated a fraud by elevating this gambit into a counterinsurgency doctrine and accepting the accolades of grateful and relieved Republicans. Applied to Afghanistan, the doctrine failed miserably; the Taliban took the American money, like the Iraqi Sunnis, but - unlike the Iraqis - they continued to kill Americans.

Petraeus became a Republican hero by paying off the Sunni opposition, creating the illusion of stability in Iraq long enough for the outgoing George W Bush administration to claim a victory of sorts. The neo-conservatives clove to Petraeus even when he dutifully repeated in 2010 the Obama administration's view that a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons depended on a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Petraeus cult in the Republican Party was to no avail. The Iraq occupation remains so unpopular that Mitt Romney meticulously avoided proposing any change in foreign policy during his third debate with President Obama. That may not have cost him the election, but it surely did not add to his stature as a prospective leader. The fact that foreign policy barely merited mention in the presidential campaign suggests that the nation-building blunder soured Americans to activist foreign policy altogether. Lack of will has become America's overriding strategic limitation, a fact that its competitors and adversaries will note carefully.

Petraeus' disgrace adds insult to injury. The Republicans must feel like the erstwhile Comintern chief Bela Kun, a protege of the Bolshevik leader Gregory Zinoviev. When Stalin crushed Zinoviev in 1926, Kun complained, "For the past 10 years I've been kissing the wrong ass."

Frauds are just what intelligence agencies are expected to perpetrate, though. Petraeus was just the sort of thief it takes to catch one. No matter that he bungled his personal secrets, apparently using an ordinary webmail account - not disposable cellphones, not even an encryption service like Hushmail - to communicate with Mrs Broadwell of the Dickensian appellation. Like the subject of last year's premiere sex scandal, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the CIA director displayed guilelessness in intimate affairs quite at odds with his professional skills.

No matter. Even in Petraeus' capable hands, American intelligence was hobbled by circumstance. It is a myth that intelligence agencies steal secrets by intercepting communications and suborning spies. On the contrary: they obtain intelligence if and when someone wishes to give them intelligence. Russia spied successfully on the United States and England because Marxists intellectuals thought Russia should have American secrets.

America obtained Russian secrets towards the end of the Cold War because Russian intelligence officers, disillusioned with the evil and incompetent communist system, thought that the United States should have the relevant information. I am reliably informed that the US did not recruit a single Soviet agent of importance during the last dozen years of the Cold War; all of its intelligence coups came from walk-ins. Moral as well as strategic superiority is a magnet for information; little else does much good.

Intelligence services uncover information not by gazing at stars but by stirring up muck. Sometimes the muck is mined. Whatever ultimately comes to light about the death of ambassador Chris Stevens and his guards at Benghazi, it almost certainly will show that the intelligence failure - the failure to anticipate and respond to an organized attack on an American installation - stemmed from a policy failure.

The Obama administration's fixed idea of engaging radical Islamists will have the same result as trying to cuddle with your pet scorpion. Whether ambassador Stevens ran into blowback from a plan to run Libyan weapons to jihadists in Syria, as former CIA officer Clare Lopez conjectures, we may or may not find out. What is clear, though, is that the United States finds itself within stinging range of some nasty creatures in consequences of delusional policy.

There simply isn't any reason to bring information to Washington these days. The Obama administration cannot be argued out of a failing policy, and the path of least resistance for America's allies and adversaries alike is to humor the obsessives on the Potomac and work around them.

After four years of strategic withdrawal, and the prospect of another four with the new "flexibility" that President Obama promised then Russian president Dmitry Medvedev over a mike accidentally left open last March, the world's secondary powers are left to their own devices. Every one of them will play a double game.
  • Israel will make its own decision as to whether to attack Iran's nuclear capacity, on the strength of military criteria that outsiders are poorly prepared to judge;
  • Russia will threaten to arm Iran with its best surface-to-air missiles while negotiating with Israel;
  • China will maintain its alliance with Pakistan but deal ruthlessly with Pakistani-supported Muslim separatists in Xinjiang, the so-called East Turkistan;
  • Turkey will threaten Iran over its intervention with Syria while bartering billions of dollars in gold to the Islamic Republic each month to help it beat the boycott;
  • Saudi Arabia will continue to fund Turkey as a bulwark against Iran while sabotaging Turkey's efforts to put the Muslim Brotherhood in power in Syria; and
  • Germany will affirm its commitments to Europe and North Atlantic Treaty Organization while quietly diversifying its energy sources towards Russia. With the attenuation of American power, the era of transparency in world affairs is coming to an end. Because America is a democracy and even covert actions must be explained to an elected Congress, it is difficult to hide most of America's actions. When American action is dominant, the rest of the world spends most of its time responding to American action, such that careful examination of public sources puts leading events in relief.

    The rest of the world is governed to a greater or lesser extent by elites who are accountable only to themselves. America no longer has a veto on major events, because it no longer cares to intervene in most theaters of world policy, and the secondary powers therefore have no incentive to inform Washington of what they intend.

    The screens are slowly going dark. We will look back at the first decade of the new millennium with nostalgia, for the worst sort of American blundering will seem benign in retrospect compared with the cynical double-dealing of second-rate powers. The soldier's chorus that concludes Schiller's play Wallenstein's Camp comes to mind:
    Aus der Welt die Freiheit verschwunden ist,
    Man sieht nur Herren und Knechte,
    Die Falschheit herrschet, die Hinterlist,
    Beidem feigen Menschengeschlechte.

    (Freedom has disappeared from the world/And perfidy rules in its place/And there's nothing left but masters and slaves/Of the cowardly human race).
    Other powers are taking over military and police roles that once fell to Washington by default.

    A minor example is worth citing: the International Maritime Bureau last month reported that pirate attacks on commercial shipping had fallen to just 70 during the first nine months of 2012, compared to 199 in the same period of 2011. The Maritime Security Review reported on September 24, "International navies have stepped up pre-emptive action against pirates, including strikes on their bases on the Somali coast."

    I am informed that Chinese naval vessels have sent landing parties of marines on shore to retaliate against the pirates' villages. Unlike the Obama administration, China has little concern for Muslim sensibilities. A significant strategic problem (and an important source of terrorist funding) is coming under control because of China's willingness to deal harshly with the locals.

    Nor does America's technological prowess ensure continued influence.

    American military technology is slowly falling behind the curve. Former Pentagon official Jack David and retired Air Force General Michael Dunn wrote in the Wall Street Journal on November 6, "Russian and Chinese aircraft, flown by Indian pilots in exercises, have already bested the US Air Force's fourth-generation aircraft, F-15s and F-16s. Both Russia and China have developed fifth-generation fighters similar to the Air Force's F-22 and F-35." Meanwhile the air force's inventory of planes is dwindling and aging rapidly.

    It is a good time for General Petraeus to leave. His greatest success in the mirror-world of intelligence was deluding his own masters into believing that they were in control of events in Iraq. He was unsuccessful in Afghanistan; it may emerge that he failed catastrophically in Libya.

    Before America can restore the functioning of its intelligence services, it must have a strategy in furtherance of which intelligence is sought. Such a strategy requires leaders who are more concerned about American interests than about the reputations of their employers.

    Spengler is channeled by David P Goldman. His book How Civilizations Die (and why Islam is Dying, Too) was published by Regnery Press in September 2011. A volume of his essays on culture, religion and economics, It's Not the End of the World - It's Just the End of You, also appeared last fall, from Van Praag Press.

    (Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

  • Petraeus burnishes Afghan legacy (Jul 7, '11)

    Petraeus spin on roadside bombs belied (Sep '11, '10)

    'Surge'' smoke follows Petraeus to Afpak (Jul 3, '10)



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