I woke up late on Friday, so missed the livestreamed assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the rolling barrage of tweet-commentary about the super-judicial martyrdom of Hassan Thingy and the start of World War Three. It was all over by lunchtime, bar the shooting, because there could only be one winner. Or was that two?
The first winner, as always when it comes to American foreign policy, is Xi’s China. Anything that ties the United States into the open-ended shambles of the Middle East distracts the energies of the United States, and the eyes of America’s allies and clients, from China’s surreptitious campaigns to replace the United States as global patron. In war as in online shopping, China emerges as hegemon not despite American efforts, but because of them.
The killing of Qasem Soleimani elicited a classic of straight-faced, parallel-universe moralizing from the Chinese foreign ministry: an appeal that the US and Iran observe the international law that the Chinese regime despises. This moral victory, though, is a minor dividend for China: few 21st-century dividends are smaller than flattering the Europeans that their Kantian fantasies have any real-world purchase at all, let alone in the state from which they purchase so much cheap stuff. The same goes for allowing the Chinese government, which is deliberately annihilating the faith of its Uighur Muslims, to pose as the voice of reason and restraint when the United States casually annihilates one of Iran’s top killers.
The real win for China is that Donald Trump, who promised to extricate the United States from the Middle East, is sinking further into the sand — and in the least propitious place. The assault on the American embassy in Baghdad by Iran-sponsored militias was a calculated insult to custom and law. The fact that the Baghdad embassy is America’s largest, and was built to supervise a country that barely existed before the invasion of 2003 and certainly didn’t exist afterwards, is an insult to the intelligence of the American public, thousands of whose sons and daughters died for the construction of that dumb white elephant.
It is also a monument to the institutional cretinism and strategic frivolity that has been the hallmark of America’s elites since the end of the Cold War. Today, we are told that Qasem Soleimani was an architect of evil. But only the day before yesterday, in 2015, the Obama administration agreed in principle to lift sanctions against Soleimani as a sweetener in the Iran Deal. And only the day before that, in the second George W. Bush term, official America pretended not to see as Soleimani trained the Iranian-funded Shia militias who, the State Department only now say, killed over 600 American soldiers in Iraq.
The question is not the wisdom of killing Soleimani, but the overarching incoherence of the strategy and the risk of further American lives being wasted. Is Donald Trump now committed to regime change in Iran, or to containment? Why is the United States still in Iraq at all? How does killing Soleimani connect to America’s Syria policy, if there is one?
The second winner here is Russia. Since 2003, Vladimir Putin has exploited America’s Middle Eastern follies and largely recovered a regional position that had collapsed with the Soviet Union. Russia has also supplied the reactors, engineers and diplomatic coverage for Iran’s nuclear program. Putin uses Iran and its proxy armies as a counterbalance against Sunni extremism, Turkish neo-imperialism, Israeli military power and American meddling. The Iranians and their allies are expendable, at least to a degree: Assad can be weakened, hundreds of thousands killed and Syria demolished, so long as Russian vessels can dock at Latakia.
Russia and China share a strategic objective, to displace the United States from Eurasia. Iran and its agents are merely a means to this end and, as in the recent Chinese-Russian-Iranian naval maneuvers in the Gulf, a pretext for Chinese and Russian expansion.
This objective is logical within the traditional model of sphere-of-influence politics, and it is shared by Turkey, which also wants the US out of its historic sphere of influence. It is the American faith in forcibly straightening the crooked timber of humanity that is illogical in the current world system, or indeed at any time.
That faith has driven the United States to dangerously undermine its strategic position abroad and to discredit its government at home. As faith is immune to reason, so no American president, Republican or Democrat, can refuse the mission: the pacific homilies of Obama were merely the obverse face of the coin of, as the mullahs say, ‘global arrogance’. But the arrogance of power always over-extends its forces and underrates everyone else.
In 1956, Britain and France overplayed their hand in Egypt and underrated their American friends and rivals. The United States may now be marching determinedly and foolishly toward its equivalent of the Suez Crisis — except this time, it will be America’s enemies who expose the hollowness of failed empire. For what will Donald Trump do if Putin does in Iraq what he did in Syria, and aligns with Iran?
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday / Is one with Nineveh and Tyre.