Pankaj Mishra on the Supposedly ‘Inevitable’ American ‘Retreat’ from the Middle East

Pankaj Mishra suggests America’s ‘retreat’ from the Middle East is ‘inevitable’ as its ‘financial clout’ diminishes and with it, its ability to control the ‘bewilderingly diverse and ferocious energies unleashed by the Arab Spring.’  Now, the language of inevitability in a domain as complex as geopolitics generally signposts intellectual arrogance: Can the interactions of people, power, money, religion, really give rise to anything subject to such a facile description? One would think not, but admitting this would presumably lead to a less provocative headline.  Mishra is, of course, on to something, given the diminishing ability of the US to influence world affairs and recent events in the Middle East but he doesn’t help his case by arguing his point with his usual penchant for looseness and the throw-away line. (Such as, for instance, dismissing Franklin D. Roosevelt’s interesting role in Indian independence struggles with a casual note that runs him together along with Woodrow Wilson’s rejection of Ho Chin Minh’s overtures for IndoChinese independence, all on the basis of one–admittedly crude–remark about the Palestinians. Roosevelt’s extended correspondence with Churchill on this matter is seemingly of no interest to Mishra, an astonishing omission for someone appointed the Modern Voice of India. )

The central elision in Mishra’s analysis occurs early where he suggests that recent events in the Middle East–‘the murder of four Americans in Libya and mob assaults on the United States’ embassies’–should not be analogized with the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran but rather with America’s helicopter-borne departure from Saigon as ‘North Vietnamese tanks rolled into the city.’ But soon after offering this putative analogy, Mishra offers a quick disclaimer, which is not revisited again for the length of his Op-Ed:

Of course, Southeast Asia had no natural resources to tempt the United States and no ally like Israel to defend.

The reason the analogy with South East Asia might not be made then, is because, bizarrely enough, Southeast Asia is not like the Middle East for the two reasons adduced above. If A is to be analogized to B, then it must be because A is relevantly similar to B. But the presence of gigantic energy resources–already the cause of several expensive military involvements in the Middle East–and of an ally that has a significant lobbyist-fueled presence in American domestic politics, render  the modern Middle East rather, relevantly dissimilar to the Southeast Asia of the 1960s and 1970s.

Mishra attempts to paper over this weakness in his analogy by noting that Southeast Asia like the Middle East,

[A]ppeared to be at the front line of the worldwide battle against Communism, and American policy makers had unsuccessfully tried both proxy despots and military firepower to make the locals advance their strategic interests.

But this seems common to Latin America, Middle East and Southeast Asia. Has the US faced a ‘strategic retrenchment’ in Latin America in the face of the many struggles for self-determination in that continent? Not really, because Latin America is sufficiently dissimilar from Southeast Asia–in geographical proximity for instance–to bring about a different orientation on the part of US policy makers.

Mishra overlooks other factors that weaken his analogy. The hasty departure from the rooftops of the American Embassy came at the end of a long, expensive, and bloody war that graphically demonstrated the limits of US military might, a war front and center in the American imagination because of its extensive reach, across the oceans and back into daily life–thanks to the draft–in the ‘homeland.’ The current involvement in Afghanistan does not compare in terms of its visible presence in American political conversation: it is yet another forgotten war. The ability of this war to force American ‘strategic retrenchment’ is crucially limited.

Yes, America faces resurgent nationalist movements and uprisings against dominant, US-supported regimes in the Middle East; yes, its economic power is waning. And yes, the US remains oblivious to, and misreads, Middle Eastern sensibilities. But there is oil in them thar sands, and those who sit on top of it can still be talked into backroom deals that ignore local sensitivities, and there remains an ally of the US that is capable, unlike any other, of skewing US foreign policy in directions of its choosing.

One thought on “Pankaj Mishra on the Supposedly ‘Inevitable’ American ‘Retreat’ from the Middle East

  1. Pankaj Mishra’s essay is a bit half-baked, I agree. But you know, half-baked is like glass-half-full: better than nothing. His basic premises are accurate enough. He notes that the US missed the bus on decolonization, that American foreign policy has increasingly failed to achieve even its own misguided objectives, that American influence in the Middle East is probably at an all-time low, and that Israel is a strategic liability and a weird distortion of diplomatic priorities. All correct, hence the baked half.

    The unbaked half is mostly oil, of course. But it’s also what goes with the oil: the massive American military presence in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates, which has expanded, not contracted, since 1991. It shows no sign of abating, and will not abate without a wave of Egyptian-type popular rebellions. Even if an Arab Spring happened in Saudi Arabia or Dubai or Kuwait, the emirs would crush it with tanks (like they did in Bahrain), with Washington’s quiet approval.

    Mishra’s article would have been more interesting if he had opened up the question of whether imperial control over the Middle Eastern oil kingdoms is actually necessary to ensure the supply of oil to the US. At one time, Japan also feared constantly for its oil supply; after the War, the markets took care of it, and probably would have taken care of it even without the US Navy. It could be argued that even if the US withdrew militarily from the Middle East, the global market (which includes Norwegian, Russian and Venezuelan supply) would forestall any nightmare scenarios. Saudi oil is useful to the Saudi regime only if they can keep it flowing.

    That calculation may be rational, but foreign policy is not based on rationality and declared principles alone. Mishra knows that very well, and he ought to have pointed out how important the undeclared factors are: the psychological significance of being an imperial power, the inflated power of the Israel lobby, and of course the military-industrial complex that feeds on defense spending.

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