May 3, 2007

The New Excuse: Middle East Is "Irrelevant"/ "Doesn't Matter"

The ever-expanding throng of those who want to "get out now even if we have to come back later" seem to be trial-balooning a new Middle East meme. To wit, "That troublesome region? Hah, it isn't really important. Just a bunch of Arabs and Jews bopping about. Who cares?"

The American Interest showcases this devil-may-care attitude with The Irrelevance of the Middle East by Philip Auerswald: "As the 21st century unfolds, the Middle East (leaving Israel aside for the moment) will matter less and less to the United States and to most of the rest of the world." You've got to love that aside about leaving Israel aside.

Not to be outdone in the historical revisionism sweepstakes, Edward Luttwak at The American Spectator is out of the blocks and sprinting towards the exit with: "Arab-Israeli catastrophism is wrong twice over, first because the conflict is contained within rather narrow boundaries, and second because the Levant is just not that important any more."

The obvious rejoinders of "global oil shocks tilting globalized world into massive depression, Iran, nuclear/chemical/biological Arab-Israeli showdown, and paying for same real estate twice in blood and treasure" suggest themselves quicker than a knee can jerk. But what's really going on in this new "intellectual" offer is more psychotic than that. Whenever somebody is working themselves up to do something they know is really evil (consign millions in the Middle East to civil war and genocide) they don't often do it right out of the box, but have to go through a process called cognitive dissonance... or to be a little less intellectual about it, pure rationalization.

Will this new and improved winged porcine of a concept really fly? It could. Watch for the cry to be taken up with the same hue as the lipstick put on this pig. At bottom, the Auerswald and Luttwak propositions are just stealing a page from one of the lowest moments of The Godfather. It's the scene where the Don's are discussing the Heroin trade: "They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls."

Translation: "Sunni... Shitte, they're animals anyway, so let them kill each other. Maybe get rid of that Arab-Israel problem too. We're outa here. They're irrelevant."

Posted by Vanderleun at May 3, 2007 3:41 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

I am guessing from your post that your deep thinking about my own contribution to this topic extended to scanning the two paragraphs of my paper that the American Interest posted up as a teaser. Before you work yourself into an even greater fact-free frenzy, just a couple of questions for you to consider:
* You refer to "global oil shocks tilting globalized world into massive depression." In the last five years oil prices nearly tripled. During the same interval, despite 17 straight interest rate increases by the Fed, economic growth in the U.S. has been steady; in other places it has been double-digit. Where is the evidence of a global vulnerability to oil price shocks?
* When did life in Southeast Asia improve, while the French and the U.S. "cared" about Southeast Asians (1945-1975), or after we stopped caring (1975-present)?
Anyhow, thanks for the mention. When/if you get a chance to read the rest of my paper, I would be interested to know what you think.

Posted by: Philip Auerswald at May 3, 2007 9:26 PM

Let me just make a wild guess that Vietnamese immigrants from the 1970s are rather thin on the ground at George Mason; otherwise, perhaps they could discuss with you what life was like in Vietnam not long after "we stopped caring" about it. There was also a bit of unpleasantness in Cambodia after we "stopped caring" about Southeast Asia. And...

...oh, what's the use. Someone capable of asking that rhetorical question, and expecting anyone with a functioning forebrain and a passing knowledge of recent history (to say nothing of a heart) to answer that life in Southeast Asia was better after 1975, is not someone who it likely to be usefully engageable on these topics.

(I could also mention that "global oil shocks" does not mean "a gradual price increase", but then a writer who doesn't remember 1975 probably can't recall 1973 too well either. So no matter.)

Posted by: jaed at May 5, 2007 11:28 PM

On history, you might take a look at "Iraq's Civil War," by Jim Fearon, in the March/April 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. No, Fearon doesn't stand up for the Khmer Rouge, so presumably passes your forebrain test. But he does offer some insights as to the futility and waste of perpetuating civil wars.

But you are certainly right about the error in my choice of dates with regard to Cambodia, and possibly Vietnam as well. The implication in my post that 1975-1979 represented part of a positive process of change in Cambodia is deeply insensitive and flat out wrong. Genocide is not acceptable social transition. So I consider myself fairly corrected.

As for 1973, something called "price controls" contributed significantly to the observed advserse effects of the Arab oil embargo. Other monetary policies played a critical role also. For further reading, see a paper by current Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and co-authors cited below.


Ben S. Bernanke, Mark Gertler, and Mark Watson, “Systematic Monetary Policy and the Effects of Oil Price Shocks.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1, 91–142 (1997).

Posted by: Philip Auerswald at May 7, 2007 5:29 AM

As for 1973, something called "price controls" contributed significantly to the observed advserse effects of the Arab oil embargo.

Point well taken. However, this doesn't get back to the original problem; the effects of the cutoff of Middle Eastern oil were what caused sufficient panic among policymakers to cause them to do something so unwise as impose a wage/price freeze. The price controls certainly made matters worse, but I don't believe they created the crisis.

(Also, as I mentioned, a gradual price rise doesn't have the same effects as a sudden cutoff of supply, which is what I believe Gerard is contemplating here. We're a bit less vulnerable these days, since we import a smaller percentage of oil from the Persian Gulf... but Europe is more vulnerable and so is Japan, and our oil supply can't be insulated from that any more than our overall economy can be.)

Fearon's article is interesting but in my view he fails to prove his case - indeed, he doesn't even appear to try to prove his case. He assumes that the combatants, and more to the point their C&C, in Iraq are Iraqi, and takes his argument from there. The complete obliviousness to foreign influence, foreign money, foreign command and control structures, and foreign combatants in Iraq is striking, particularly as it is fairly well known. Iran's involvement with Moqtada al-Sadr is not a secret, nor are the attacks perpetrated by AQIM and allied groups against Iraqis, nor are the latter's doctrine and goals. (I might note preemptively that hiring some local muscle does not make an attack locally controlled.)

And parts of the article strike me as simply phoned in. A military coup likely? Really? I know that "military coup" is part of the standard Third-World-conflict template, but Iraq's military is hardly in the standard situation. Imposition of a military dictatorship as the best outcome for most Iraqis? ("At least," I sigh to myself, "he doesn't defend the Khmer Rouge.") Fearon offers many insights into past conflicts, but the actual material on Iraq is...thin. Badly-sourced or unsourced assertions run throughout, and the elephant in the living room goes unremarked.

No, I have been and remain of the opinion that the attacks on Iraqis are more realistically recognized as just that...primarily a set of attacks against Iraq from outside the country. I remarked a few years ago, and it may even have been around here somewhere, that to whatever extent we succeeded in Iraq, it would become an ally...and to whatever extent it became an ally, it would become a target. We have seen this happening since mid-2004.

It is politically convenient to frame the current warfare against Iraq as "civil war", internecine conflict between incomprehensible savages which we are better out of, as it was earlier convenient to frame al Qaeda as the "Iraqi insurgency" of such brave Iraqi Minutemen as al-Zarqawi. But it is not honest and it is not wise.

Posted by: jaed at May 8, 2007 2:13 AM

1) Easy one first: Nixon imposed price controls in August, 1971. Nothing to do with Arabs or oil. Much more to do with an embattled wartime President doing whatever he could to get re-elected. See

2) My only source of information on Iranians in Iraq is what I read in the papers. (You may have a better source.) Yes, seems like they're there. Stands to reason; would be somewhat astounding if they weren't. Furthermore, I expect the Iran-Iraq war could be invoked to support your set of claims that events in Iraq represent a larger conflict. But, on the level of common sense and not insider intelligence, I think you'll agree that there are more Iraqis in Iraq than Iranians. And there's a lot of violence going on there. To me looks like civil war. But I am glad to let you and Jim sort it out.

[An aside: I am not sure what to think about

"... to whatever extent we succeeded in Iraq, it would become an ally...and to whatever extent it became an ally, it would become a target... "

This sounds a lot like you are saying that we are failing in Iraq because we are succeeding (or maybe vice versa). I know there is a more subtle point here, but setting it up this way I am not sure what sort of outcome would qualify as failure (or success, for that matter).]

3) Since this started with a reference to my article in the American Interest, perhaps I just quickly point out why I wrote the piece. The issue isn't only about what we're doing in the Middle East. More importantly, it is about what we're not doing everywhere else, including at home. Even if there was some benefit derived from past and current pre-occupation with the Middle East, it has not been adequate to justify the cost.

If you are interested in a list of the other ways in which I am persuaded we could be utilizing our resources in the national interest, and the interest of people elsewhere in the world, I would be glad to offer one. (A start would be )

But it really doesn't require such a list to make the point that waging war for humanitarian reasons is, generally speaking, a very bad idea … with cases of genocide being the exception.

Posted by: Philip Auerswald at May 8, 2007 8:07 PM