150211 – Three (Encouraging) Cases of Disastrous Political Overreach
There is a saying in classical Chinese: wu ji bi fan: When things reach extremes they must reverse course. That isn’t always true of course. But every once in a while, just when things seem to be getting really dark—and it especially happens in the Middle East—encouraging signs can appear that radicals may have overreached, may now reap what they have sowed, and the situation may move back in the direction of more promising policies.
There are at least three current political cases in which such heartening signs of a tipping point seem to be on the horizon after some very dark moments of adventurism. The three cases are all quite different; I do not attempt to equate them in the least.
- ISIS (The “Islamic State” of Iraq and Syria). As I have written in previous commentaries, ISIS started out invoking a number of powerful and evocative Islamic symbols: the call for Islamic unity; restoration of some kind of centralized Islamic authority (Caliphate); the physical eradication of colonially-imposed borders, especially in the Arab World; and the overthrow of corrupt western-supported Arab autocracies in order to establish genuine regional sovereignty. The initial appeal to alienated Muslim youth, even in the West, was strong. But ISIS quickly began to show signs of overreach in its brutal policies: in its slaughter of thousands of Muslims (including Sunnis), and its ultra-radical (reactionary) governing and social policies. The ISIS hallmark—horrific executions of single, known individuals on screen—while providing powerful political theater, has offended world sensibilities more than, say, the mass execution of one thousand Shi’ites in the desert would ever have provoked. One senses that ISIS may now be approaching a tipping point, a reversal of fortune in terms of its appeal to any audience including in the Muslim world. But that doesn’t mean they can’t cling on to power for a while, using negative incentives.
Such a reversal of its image is of course, deeply welcome. It is not all bad that the spectacle of selected Islamic values, driven to an absolute extreme on the ground, may now demonstrate to everyone what the ultimate consequences of extremist thinking can become—that everything has limits. It’s like the case of Russian communism: socialism, in a failing society like Tsarist Russia, had appeal for many. Yet Stalin’s later policies and purges, leading to the death of perhaps some 20 million Russians, left little doubt in the end about the implications of socialist/communist ideas driven to the extreme. One might even see such lessons –as the Pope does, for instance—of the values of capitalism being driven to such unfettered extremes that it creates dangerous social discontents and political polarization, starting in the US.
But if the ultra-radical views of ISIS are to be delegitimized, that process must come at the hands of Muslims and the people of the region. ISIS’ destruction at the hands of western military power will not represent the collapse of its ideologies and practices on its own terms; on the contrary, such western-backed defeat can only serve to revivify the movement, blur the clear lines of what Muslims themselves want and don’t want, and to partially vindicate ISIS in its struggle against “western imperialism.”
- The overreach of the Israel’s US Lobby and its attempted imposition of the Israeli/ Likud agenda on US policies. The power and techniques of the Israeli lobby in Washington have long been evident to observers, but few dared to speak of it. That situation has been changing over the past five to ten years as Israel’s policies have grown more obdurate and extreme in rejecting a just two-state settlement in favor of Israel’s de facto retention of the Palestinian West Bank forever. Europe’s irritation with Israel has grown more evident over that time, even impacting Washington. Such irritation is not new, but willingness to talk about it, in the US, is. In this context, the Republican-engineered visit of Netanyahu (as part of his own electoral campaign) to address the US Congress in order to undermine President Obama’s policies towards Iran and even on Palestine—all represents the culmination of overreach. The magnitude of this incredible political blunder is clearer with each passing day, in which Israel and its lobby have now managed to create what was once an impossible eventuality—turning unqualified Congressional support for Israel’s policies into a partisan issue and exposing the issue to unprecedented public discussion. Such overreach may now serve to diminish the strangle-hold—near veto—that Israel and its lobby so long enjoyed over US policies in the Middle East.
- The restoration of rationality to US Policies towards the Ukraine: To most observers in the world—the US largely excepted—Washington has been playing a dangerous game of chicken with Russia in the Ukraine. A small but growing number of US commentators, most recently Stephen Walt –see http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/02/09/how-not-to-save-ukraine-arming-kiev-is-a-bad-idea/ –have articulated their serious misgivings about Washington’s virtually unilateral ideological efforts to rejuvenate the Cold War with Russia. This was most recently crystallized in a bid to send weapons to the Ukrainian government in its struggle to crush a disaffected Russian minority in eastern Ukraine. The last two decades clearly show a determined US effort to weaken the new Russia at nearly every turn starting from the collapse of the Soviet Union, just when it looked like the region might have been ready to create a “new European space” of which the new Russia spoke.
The issue is no doubt complex and must be subject to serious processes of political negotiation; this entails far more than just the future of Ukraine, but of the entire nature of European-Russian relations in the former Soviet space. However, the determination of Washington’s neocons, who seem to dominate US policies on the Ukraine, to push a western military alliance—NATO—up to the very gates of Moscow is an extremist position from which extremely serious consequences could flow, conceivably even nuclear confrontation, in the sorting out of Russian post-Soviet space.
It seems that as this threat of confrontation has grown, wiser heads have begun to prevail—especially in the figure of Angela Merkel—to reverse the dangerous—indeed radical course of US policies. Suffice it to say, how would Washington react if Russia (or China) were to supply weapons and training to Mexico on issues of US-Mexican tensions? It’s too early to know if this serious deterioration of US-Russian relations—with major global implications—has once and for all been truly averted, but one can only hope the extremity of the US position may now have overreached, peaked, now requiring a return to a wiser and more balanced vision in Washington.
These three issues indeed are not parallel in nature. Nor do they represent the only serious issues in the world. But every so often it is encouraging to see that continuing radicalization in deteriorating situations may sometimes reach a peak—when radical ideologues find their star fading and are forced to reverse course. Let’s hope that’s what we are witnessing now, in at least these three cases today.