Elephants Trapped in Quicksand

Timidity is expressed in curious ways. Toward colleagues, timidity may take the form of subservience; toward antagonists, the same feeling of inadequacy may take the opposite form – bullying. While the timid elephant in the global political system bows obsequiously before the tiny Israeli right wing faction, it struts and bullies a weak but confident Tehran. Rewarding expansionists in Tel Aviv for each act of violence they commit merely whets their appetites; bullying the hardliners in Tehran with economic warfare and a ring of military bases merely consolidates their hold on power. In each case, the U.S. needlessly comes out the loser.

What exactly are American politicians who do everything in their power to avoid serious face-to-face negotiations with Tehran afraid of? Welcoming negotiations not only enables one to seize the high moral ground (“We will do everything for peace!”) but is an ideal venue for finding cracks in the adversary’s armor – logical errors, misconceptions, and signs of internal discord. Regarding Tehran, the latter is critical. Not only do Iranian decision-makers have every reason to consider alternate policy options, given the extreme danger of calling Tel Aviv’s bluff, but the severity of the political divisions within the Tehran regime are well known. What is not so well known on this side of the Atlantic is the precise nature of those divisions, with the status of domestic Iranian political discord between clerics (themselves seriously divided) and the “neo-con” war generation that fought Saddam to a very hard-earned draw in the 80’s constantly in flux. For Washington to avoid contacts with Tehran is a form of cutting the U.S. national security nose off to spite its face that the U.S. can ill afford.

Exactly what U.S. decision-makers so profoundly fear is unclear but that they lack the courage to meet the wily Iranians face-to-face at a table without weapons of mass destruction or preconditions is clear. The elephant in the global political room, for some reason, lacks confidence.

Certain contributing factors are easy to name: the string of foreign policy failures since the collapse of our favorite enemy now unbelievably a whole generation ago, our utter national bewilderment over politically active Islam, the complete loss of national direction since the first Bush so pathetically sneered at “the vision thing.” The latter point—the “vision” thing—may be the key. For the complete adult lifetimes of every living American, our primary goal was the avoidance of nuclear war. We succeeded but at the cost of committing ourselves psychologically to that bizarrely distorted struggle, to the degree that we seem incapable now of any national political flexibility and open-mindedness whatsoever. New challenges from Islamic political activism to global warming to the rise of the monster of uncontrolled global finance abound; no shred of creativity in response has been seen from anyone in Washington, with the exception of a handful of actors such as Bernie Sanders, Dennis Kucinich, Sheila Bair, and Elizabeth Warren whom the “big boys” have rushed to marginalize.

Tough, crafty foxes may not be kings of the jungle but at least they earn well deserved respect. Overaged, loudly trumpeting but stumbling and confused elephants earn only derision…and it’s even worse when they turn timid the instant they are confronted. The U.S. for better or worse is in everyone’s face: our military is in every global backyard, our companies rule the global economy and wreck havoc in its most pristine regions; we express opinions on every breath anyone else takes. This may, on balance, make the world a better or a worse place, but regardless, it makes the U.S. the big target. A confident and wise superpower can take its shots, but a timid elephant stumbling backwards whenever a pigmy adversary scowls becomes an irresistible target, and that constitutes a real national security problem for Washington.

The world is full of potential trouble-makers. These individuals and groups may be bad, desperate, or just dreamers, but for a ponderous, somewhat over-weight elephant, a swarm of bloodthirsty flies can be fatal. Specifically, U.S. decision-makers simply cannot manage endless micro-crises, particularly in an age when almost no crisis is independent. The more crises there are and the longer each exists, the greater the likelihood that Crisis X will bleed into Crisis Y, and this process will happen faster than Washington can detect the evolutionary path.

The rising involvement of Sunni extremists in Syria is an obvious example. The derailment of Turkey’s innovative diplomacy of good-neighborliness as a result of the Syrian crisis is another. By the time Washington figures out that the landscape has shifted, it shifts again; U.S. foreign policy remains constantly one step behind. Partly, this is the unavoidable consequence of living in an increasingly complex (i.e., interdependent, reactive) world, but the visible timidity of Washington toward both rebellious allies and independence-minded antagonists makes the U.S. position far more tenuous than it should be, given relative U.S. superiority in terms of resources, economic power (even now), and military force.The agonizing, bloody collapse of U.S. influence over Afghanistan constitutes a far more embarrassing example, sending the world the clear picture of an elephant trapped in quicksand: up close, the elephant’s powerful thrashing inspires terror but then one realizes that one need only step back and wait.

No elephant can fight quicksand forever. Either it must use its brain and figure out a way to escape or it will waste all its strength and drown. No elephant is stronger than sand. Violence is not the answer. Violence is the tool of the bully. But it takes real self-control to stop, neck-deep in quicksand, and think. It takes courage to lie still, and it takes even more courage–for a bully–to ask his former victims for help or to take a chance on a strange new problem-solving method like “positive-sum outcomes” when one is accustomed to winning through brute force.

If Washington decision-makers want to maintain the privileges of superpower status (and few question this arbitrary decision, aside from retiring Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich), they will need to learn quickly not to fear saying “No” to friends or sitting across the table from enemies.



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