Oct 21st 2019

The Middle East’s Dangerous New Hegemonic Confrontation 

by Joschka Fischer

Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Foreign Minister and Vice Chancellor from 1998 until 2005, was a leader in the German Green Party for almost 20 years.

 

BERLIN – In the old Middle East, a single overarching conflict – between Israel and the Arab countries – had many fronts, and it was the West’s prerogative to protect the flow of oil to the global economy. In the new Middle East, the defining conflict is a broader struggle among multiple players seeking regional primacy.

This new struggle began when former US President Barack Obama initiated America’s broader withdrawal from the region, but it has intensified under Donald Trump. Obama, at least, had a political vision for the region. With the 2015 Iran nuclear deal having forestalled a nuclear-arms race, he hoped that an easing of sanctions and faster economic growth would permit Iran’s gradual reintegration into the international community over the following decade. Trump, by contrast, has no strategy, and wants to disguise America’s retreat from the region, currently demonstrated in Syria by the open betrayal of the Kurds, with militant rhetoric and massive arms exports to US partners and allies in the Gulf.

For its part, Saudi Arabia, the region’s wealthy, predominantly Sunni power (if one doesn’t count Turkey), has long harbored ambitions for regional hegemony – at least in the Persian Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula – and views predominantly Shia Iran as its main rival. For the past few years, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been waging a disastrous proxy war in Yemen, resulting in a massive toll of civilian casualties and a humanitarian catastrophe.

But the situation changed last month, when a nighttime attack targeting the heart of the Saudi oil industry sent shockwaves through the global economy. Several drones managed to cross into Saudi airspace undetected, where they launched precise attacks on key oil installations. The Saudi air defenses – if there were any – seem to have been fast asleep, suggesting that the attackers had intimate knowledge of local conditions.

A midnight attack without warning raises obvious questions. Who did it, and how did they pull it off? The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed responsibility, but they are in no position to carry out such an attack. Given the technology used and the logistics involved, the only plausible suspect is Iran, despite the Iranian government’s vehement denials. And in terms of motive and interest, it is clear that Iran has profited the most from the strike.

Saudi Arabia, after all, has been humiliated in the eyes of the world and exposed as a loud-mouthed paper tiger. In addition to the undeniable failure of Saudi counterintelligence to detect or avert the attack is the equally obvious fact that Saudi Arabia will lose the war in Yemen sooner or later. At that point, its hegemonic aspirations will become an even greater source of derision.

And so, in the final analysis, responsibility for the attack on Saudi Arabia almost certainly lies with Qassem Suleimani, the general who commands the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ foreign operations unit. With this attack, Iran has proven itself to be a major regional power with impressive technical and logistical capabilities that cannot be easily thwarted. That could fundamentally change the strategic calculus in the region. All the oil monarchies on the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf are doubtless already reassessing their foreign-policy outlook, interests, and loyalties.

Iran has also left Trump looking weak. Following his refusal to respond militarily to an attack on a cherished regional ally, Trump fired his national security adviser, John Bolton, an archenemy of the Iranian regime. No one should shed any tears for Bolton. But nor can one rule out the possibility that his ouster has invited this attack.

Trump’s foreign-policy dilettantism – his use of militant bombast to mask his lack of plausible options and strategy– seems to have played a crucial role in bringing about the current situation. His decision to abandon the Iran nuclear deal with no thought for what would come afterward has proven to be the height of folly and will be very dangerous.

But there is one other dynamic to consider. Following the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, in late August, there was talk of a possible meeting between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. The attack on Saudi oil facilities came just weeks later, shortly before both leaders were in New York City for the United Nations General Assembly, where they could have met. The question, then, is whether the attack was an outgrowth of a broader internal power struggle between Iranian radicals and moderates.

Whatever the case may be, with Saudi Arabia’s position already eroding, the region’s two real remaining military powers are Israel and Iran. Already, the two countries appear to be moving toward a dangerous confrontation. Israel is deeply worried about Iran’s apparent capacity to launch precise long-distance attacks with drones or ballistic/cruise missiles. And if that were not already a significant threat to Israel’s national security, Iran could try to supply Hezbollah or its other regional proxies with similar capabilities.

Were Israel to be attacked with the same precision and sophistication as the strike on Saudi Arabia, the Middle East would be plunged into war on a scale beyond anything it has experienced so far. Sadly (but happily for Russian President Vladimir Putin), that is the reality of a world in which the US has abandoned any pretense of global leadership.

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Jun 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "For starters, many Americans have accepted that they live in a winner-takes-all society of deepening inequality. While the wealth and incomes of those at the very top continue to grow, tens of millions of Americans struggle to afford health care, childcare, and other basic goods. This story has been told many times over. But what often goes unremarked is that the responsibility for managing the social costs of this system has been offloaded onto the police."
May 27th 2020
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May 23rd 2020
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May 21st 2020
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May 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "In April 2011, Donald Trump, then considering a run for the presidency the following year, said that he had sent investigators to Hawaii to check out rumors that President Barack Obama wasn’t born there, but in Kenya, which would disqualify him for the presidency. His investigators, Trump declared, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” I can find no record of Trump being challenged on this outlandish claim at the time. In the fall of 2016, Trump, now the Republican presidential nominee, was convinced by his staff that he had to abandon this “birther” nonsense. He did so reluctantly, charging – also with no evidence – that such rumors had actually been initiated by his opponent, Hillary Clinton. There, in a nutshell, is Trump’s modus operandi: he’s not just a liar but a fabulist, seemingly unconcerned with whether his fictions will be exposed. If they are, the world simply moves on as he invents fresh distractions."
May 19th 2020
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May 9th 2020
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Apr 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "It should come as no surprise that Trump has abused his power in orchestrating the federal response to the pandemic. For example, he made sure that Colorado received 100 much-needed ventilators, and made sure that Colorado voters knew it, in order to help re-elect troubled incumbent Republican senator Cory Gardner.  More alarming, Trump effectively threatened to wage germ warfare against US Postal Service workers by denying them congressionally approved virus-mitigation aid unless the USPS quadrupled rates on packages. Trump’s actual target was Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post."
Apr 28th 2020
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Apr 26th 2020
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Apr 25th 2020
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Apr 24th 2020
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Apr 20th 2020
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Apr 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "From peddling disinformation about the virus to disbanding the National Security Council directorate overseeing pandemic threats, Trump has squandered multiple opportunities to get ahead of the COVID-19 crisis. The health and economic consequences that we are now experiencing have long been predicted. US intelligence analysts were warning about precisely this scenario for at least 12 years. But even they could not foresee that America would end up with a president willing to sacrifice so many lives on the altar of his ego."
Apr 9th 2020
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Apr 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "A recent study, published in the British Medical Journal, suggested that 78% of people with COVID-19 have no symptoms. The findings are in line with research from an Italian village at the epicentre of the outbreak showing that 50%-75% were asymptomatic, but represented “a formidable source” of contagion. A recent Icelandic study also showed that around 50% of those who tested positive to COVID-19 in a large-scale testing exercise were asymptomatic. Meanwhile, a WHO report found that “80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections and 5% are critical infections................The new BMJ study is seemingly different to the findings of studies from earlier in the pandemic, which suggested that the completely asymptomatic proportion of COVID-19 is small: 17.9% on the Diamond Princess Cruise Ship and 33.3% in Japanese people who were evacuated from Wuhan.”