But in some ways a threat from the European Union to take away Israel’s favoured status would be almost as effective, not to mention if China or Russia really decided to re-enter the Great Game in the region 20 years after they walked off the pitch. The US is no longer the global arbiter, even though it remains the most important power in the world.
What all this points to is that those far-sighted people who gave us the invasion of Iraq were, like the proverbial stopped clock, occasionally right. Their prescient premise, as outlined in the Project for a New American Century, foresaw the impending end of American global economic dominance, and their solution was to lock in overwhelming military and security superiority.
It is ironic, but also predictable, that their policies have had the opposite effect. In the end, you need an economy that can pay for the military, and the two-war scenario in which they embroiled the US is an outstanding example of imperial overstretch. As the world’s mightiest power struggles in expensive wars of attrition against poorly financed and poorly armed opponents, it does not send a message of strength to the world.
The conservatives were as aggressive in cutting tax for their affluent friends as they were in spending money on wars abroad, so the military efforts have been fought on borrowed money. Bush tried the shock, but as the troops got bogged down, the awe was much less palpable – not least since the world is conscious that to pay the bills, the Pentagon has effectively to borrow money from the Chinese, the Gulf states, and even the Russians, about whose motives the conservatives tend to be highly suspicious.
Current overseas holdings of US government-backed bonds exceed $5 trillion. Interestingly, ‘oil exporters’, including the Gulf states, account for only about $200 billion of that, which suggests that many of them might have been scared off by the decline in the dollar and the increase in politically motivated boycotts and sanctions from Congress, much of it from people close to the Israel lobby.
For the numerologists among us, the foreign holdings of US Treasury bonds pretty much equal the Congressional Budget Office estimate of over $2 trillion for the cost of the Iraq war – Obama’s “war of choice” – and the Afghan war. Economist Joseph Stiglitz puts it at over $3 trillion for Iraq alone.
Indeed, the conservatives’ preoccupation with deregulation and the fetish for free trade have also done much to destroy the economic and fiscal base on which military might depends. While other countries were making cars and computers, the US was making weapons and exporting dodgy financial instruments. Even now, with Obama cutbacks, the Star Wars/Strategic Defence/Missile Defence boondoggle consumes two or three times as much cash as energy research. This is emblematic of the US’ existential problem. The nexus of paranoia, the aerospace lobbies and the neo-cons, force the expenditure of huge amounts on an unproved solution to a dubious threat, which diverts funds from coping with the very real likelihoods of peak oil and global warming.
It is possible that this administration can turn the US economy around, certainly more so than any predecessor or likely successor. But it has to do that with the burden of the bank bailout cash, and in the teeth of a business lobby that wants to keep looting-as-usual on the agenda. Short of a miracle, this is not going to be the American Century.
So where does all this fit into the Middle East? Obama, by temperament and force of circumstance, has realised that American diplomacy can no longer afford to be an oxymoron. But in the case of Netanyahu, to take the Teddy Roosevelt stance of soft talking with a big stick behind the back is difficult when Congress keeps the big stick locked up. The next phase in dealing with the recalcitrant Netanyahu is to send unmistakable signals to the Israeli electorate that their government is about to forfeit the support of its one reliable ally. A big and telling step would be an American abstention, or even a vote for, a resolution in the UN Security Council condemning settlement building.
But if Obama really wants to play hardball, he can make the US’ current economic weakness a strength and confront Republicans and AIPAC Democrats in front of the electorate. As AIPAC’s Steve Rosen once said: “A lobby is like a night flower: it thrives in the dark and dies in the sun.”
In the face of soaring national debt, unemployment and government cutbacks at home, just how supportive would the mass of American voters be to legislators who want to continue sending their hard-earned and hard-taxed money to a wealthy and ungrateful nation on the other side of the world? Somehow, I cannot see ‘Send More Money to Israel’ ever being on Tea Party placards.