Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Israel is not Taiwan: Why the US cannot tolerate a powerful Iran the way it accepts China

Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser, while he didn’t leave the throne to his son, (and that by itself puts him into a class above most Arab leaders of his time and now) did not establish for Egypt a competitive political process essentially independent of foreign influence the way Khomeini and Mao did.

The absence of such a process created room for a later dictator to attain power in Egypt who need not be aligned with Egyptian nationalism or any other ideology. The later dictators Sadat and Mubarak, who sold their position in Egypt's political system to the United States in exchange for personal favors, are in an important way a result of this failure of Nasser.

The foreign policy community in the United States has become very comfortable with the products of that failure. So much so that they hope it can be replicated in Iran. We see this most recently in Hillary Mann Leverett's piece where, as her husband did last year, she sings the praises of Sadat and imagines how wonderful it would be for the US and Israel if the same process occurs with respect to Iran.

But Khomeini did something the Nasser did not. Something Mao did. Something that apparently and unfortunately Fidel Castro has not. Khomeini created a political system that can produce leaders based on their political talent and that is insulated from foreign interference. The gap that the Leveretts congratulate the United States and Israel for exploiting in post-Nasser Egypt and hope to exploit regarding Iran, does not exist. So even if Rafsanjani or Mousavi would be willing to be Iranian Sadats and Mubaraks, Iran is just not in that position.

The Leveretts and the American foreign policy community think Sadat and Mubarak are normal. They, like many Americans, seem to have convinced themselves that the reason Mubarak assists the blockade of Gaza is not because the US threatens to withdraw support in the form of direct payments and US hostility to Egyptian democratic impulses. Any efforts to extend that model to Iran, which does not need a US Congressional allowance for its leader and can withstand US “democracy promotion”, will fail.

I've written about this before, but the Leveretts also present China as a model. The United States resolved its differences with China and formed an informal and rough alliance with China to contain the USSR under Mao and Nixon. This rapprochement also opened China's economy to US participation and marked the end to US hostility and opposition to Chinese technological and strategic advances.

In some ways, China is a better model for US relations with Iran than Egypt. China is independent of the US in a way that Egypt and Jordan are not – even if China is not a participatory democracy. If we draw an analogue between Iran and China, Taiwan provides a useful stand-in for Israel, as a country in the region whose legitimacy is the basis of a profound disagreement with the US.

But Taiwan has the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan is defensible and will be for the foreseeable future because the defensive side has such a huge advantage in operations across significant bodies of water and the US has a large lead in naval forces. Even if China was to become as powerful as the United States, Russia was able to make a US military conquest of Cuba infeasible from a far weaker position. Defended islands are difficult to disrupt severely enough to threaten their political systems.

For this reason, Taiwan has an important difference with Israel, one that is ultimately fatal to the hopes of the Leveretts that the US can ally with Iran while it remains committed to Israel's five million or so Jewish people having a political majority state.

Because Israel does not have the Taiwan strait. Israel requires that no power be both interested and able to disrupt the colonial structure the US maintains among Israel's neighbors. Saudi Arabia’s king has to fear the CIA, and worry that US doubts of his usefulness could cost him his throne, but cannot fear anyone else. If not, Saudi Arabia, which has more money to spend on arms than Iran does, and is geographically in a more crucial position would be far more of a threat to Israel than Iran is today.

Egypt and Jordan are similar. Their leaders have to fear Israel and/or the US and nobody else. Not their own people, but also not any alternative regional power. If Egypt and Jordan leave the US colonial structure Israel again becomes strategically vulnerable. And it is not like an alternative power would have to recruit a stooge dictator as the US or its imperial predecessor Britain did. One person one vote is enough to turn any of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia or the other colonies into reliable members of the “resistance” faction. (As we’re seeing in Iraq.)

Hostile combinations of Egypt, Jordan and/or Arabia, combined with at least factions and probably a majority of Palestinians, are a true strategic threat to Israel. Far more than China is a threat to Taiwan. The Palestinians combined with the resources of their neighbors could disrupt national life in Israel in many ways to the extent that it would not remain viable as a Jewish state. China, across water, cannot do that to Taiwan.

China, even as it acquires a world-class economy and a modern industrial and technological base, cannot threaten Taiwan as long as the US offers a modicum of support. As Iran modernizes and makes industrial and technological advances, it gains the capability to disrupt the US colonial structure that is necessary for Israel's continued existence as a majority Jewish state. Taiwan does have a comparable need.

If China could relatively easily render Taiwan non-viable as a separate and independent state, it would. If Taiwan did not have this natural defense and the US was committed to Taiwan being viable and independent contrary to the sensibilities of China's society and leadership, then the United States would be forced to oppose, by any means possible, China's acquisition of resources and strategic advantages. That is an important difference between the situation that prevailed when the US mended relations with China in the 1970s and US relations with Iran today.

So what this means is that finding an Iranian Sadat won’t work. Rapprochement with an Iranian Mao won’t work. If the US wants to remain committed to there being a Jewish state, it has no better choice than to try to prolong the status quo.

If that is the decision the US is to make, I'll continue to point out aspects of the cost of that commitment that are not widely acknowledged in the United States.


Arnold Evans said...

Sorry everyone for being away for so long. I haven't felt like there was anything that needed to be written.

If anyone ever would like to suggest a topic for a blog post, please just leave a comment in any post that is already here.

lidia said...

Hi, Arnold, glad you are OK. What do you think about Reza Kahlili charade? Israel media were ecstatic with this dangerous clown.

Edward said...

There was an article in the Middle East Report, circa 1990-1991, which described how U.S. "aide" to Egypt had changed that country's agriculture system to make it dependent on the "aide". This must have been an example of the strategies described in "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.