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Why Chuck Hagel Is Irrelevant

[Senator Chuck Hagel shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, Washington D.C, 9 May 2012. Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Flickr.] [Senator Chuck Hagel shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta at the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, Washington D.C, 9 May 2012. Photo by Glenn Fawcett/Flickr.]

The latest non-scandal scandalizing the American commentariat is whether Barack Obama will be able to nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense. The narrative is that the Zionist lobby is eager to scuttle Hagel’s nomination because he has uttered one too many words “critical” of Israel, and displayed too many sentiments suspected of being contrary to the agenda of the lobby: namely, destroying Iran.

The narrative is true enough.

That the lobby does not want Hagel is clear, and his nomination would be a defeat for the lobby’s right wing.

Still, it is barely a scandal, except in the sense that it is scandalous how narrow the parameters of debate are in this country such that leftists think that an aggressive nationalist like Hagel merits their defense.

There are a few reasons for that.

First, Hagel’s policy prescriptions for dealing with Iran are, in fact, American policy. US policymakers have been huffing and puffing about a US attack on Iran for over a decade – without producing that attack. They are not the only ones. While the Israeli political class itinerantly threatens Iran, its defense intelligentsia warns against it. So does the Pentagon and the US State Department. At the military level, there is no direct war on Iran, and the absence of a military attack against Iran is not a policy secured by the dominance of responsible and beleaguered technocrats fending off the neocons’ pressure.

It is simply the consensual policy amongst most of the Washington elite.

The second element of American policy against Iran is clear, and it is one that Hagel himself has made clear: the slow-motion erosion of the Iranian economy and society. And that policy is going ahead fine. As Hagel has observed, “We do have some rather significant evidence that sanctions are working.”

The “work” that sanctions are doing so well is also clear: hammering the Iranian economy, and crucially, scaring away investment in the oil and gas industries.

Unfortunately undernoticed is the causal relationship between the verbal fervor for war and the continued sanctions regime: the role of the former is to convince those scared of war to accept sanctions, on the premise that anything is better than war.

They forget that sanctions are war by other means.

Over the past year, Iranian oil production has quietly descended from its post-revolution apex of 4.23 million barrels per day. In November, oil production hit 2.7 million daily barrels. In lock-step with declining production, exports too have plummeted, from a peak of 2.2 million barrels per day to less than one million now.

Of course, Hagel has linked the sanctions to Iran’s non-existent nuclear program. But the claims that US-impelled sanctions are linked to Iranian nuclear proliferation are nonsense, as even a conservative commentator like Hillary Mann Leverett makes clear. They are intended to “increase hardship for ordinary Iranians.” As Leverett continues, the “idea [is] that [people] will then rise up and overthrew their government and get rid of a system that Washington does not like.”

So why doesn’t Washington like Iran? Some would have us blame the Israel lobby. There’s some truth to that. But the isolation of Tehran traces back to 1979, and few dispute that even without the lobby, the US would pursue a very similar policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, centered on the need for “containment.” As the two analysts most notorious for introducing discussion of the Israel lobby to American discourse write, the US and the Gulf States “have an independent interest in keeping Iran non-nuclear and preventing it from becoming a regional hegemon.”

While literally true, the goal of preventing Iran from becoming a “regional hegemon” displaces rather than answers the question about the sources of US aggression against Iran. The United States warmly embraced Iran as the “policeman of the Gulf” under the Shah, and in turn shipped over nine billion dollars worth of weapons to it in the 1970s.

Hegemony was not the issue then.

So the question of contesting Iran’s “regional hegemony” must be – at least in part – obfuscation.

Instead, the question, then and now, is not the objective power of Iran but the strategic orientation of that power, and the direction in which the petrodollars upon which that power is based flow.   

Stephen Walt confirms that the point is petroleum and the revenues to be extracted from its sale. He writes that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are “deeply worried about Iran” because of “the Gulf states' interest in keeping oil prices high enough to balance their own budgets, in a period where heightened social spending and other measures are being used to insulate these regimes from the impact of the Arab Spring.”

He then spells out the nexus between high oil prices and Iran: the Gulf Cooperation Council states “have an interest in keeping Iran in the doghouse, so that Iran can't attract foreign companies to refurbish and expand its oil and gas fields and so that it has even more trouble marketing its petroleum on global markets.”

As Walt obliquely admits, the economics of oil have nothing to do with securing a “free flow.” Oil is an incredibly cheap commodity to produce, nowhere more so than the Middle East, and the economics of oil – from the perspective of oil companies, both corporate and national – is maximizing the rent they receive. Maximizing that rent entails engineering the largest possible difference between the price of gas and other petroleum derivatives and the price of production and extraction. But the price of derivatives and gas is not a “market” phenomenon, at least as vernacularly understood. It is a political arrangement, the outcome of a multi-partner dance in which the choreography is broadly known but the dancers occasionally stutter and misstep, as national oil companies and foreign oil majors jockey for their chunk of the profits and investors in commodity index funds elbow in for their share of the revenues from the black gold.

Most centrally, managing the price of oil means managing the supply of oil, and one manages the supply of oil by keeping some oil off the market. One does this by preventing the development of some oil fields – especially those of an Iran that has broken free of the American orbit – and maintaining the capacity of others, especially those of the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia.

Once it is clear that the “market,” far from the equilibrium model of equally-informed and equally-empowered participants beloved of neo-classical economics, is actually a carefully constructed and politically instituted phenomenon through which power flows in the form of capital to various players, institutions like “the economy” and “the state” look markedly different, as does the language used to describe them.

In particular, the rhetoric of statesman has to be inspected and dissected as the way bureaucrats repackage the interests of private monopolies, and cast policies pursued for quite other reasons as ones pursued for reasons of state.

Thus the US and the Gulf states' fear of Iranian “regional hegemony” means a fear of an Iran diverting the proceeds from petroleum away from US armaments – and potentially, treasuries –to internal development, such as health care and education.

And “stability” doesn’t mean the absence of armed conflict, but the stability of the triangular relationship between the social structures of accumulation in the Gulf States, their external patrons, and the oil companies which profit from selling and refining the raw petroleum which is pumped in its millions of barrels out of the Gulf daily.

For that reason, the tacit collusion between the Gulf States, the United States, and the transnational oil companies is generally at the core of decision-making when it comes to plotting aggression against the Islamic Republic of Iran and staving off its threats to “destabilize” the region.

Walt makes that clear as he writes that keeping Iran and Iranian oil production down is “also about enabling certain ruling families to keep writing checks,” and that we ought to “keep that in mind the next time you fill your gas tank or pay your home heating bill.” To which one might add, keeping the share prices and profits of the international petroleum corporations elevated – it is after all the latter determining prices at the pump, not Saudi Aramco.

This is something that ought be kept in mind by those over-eager to defend Hagel from the neocons who are supposedly sabotaging American foreign policy: the sanctions regime benefits not just the Gulf regimes but also the United States, no matter some may prefer to cast this regime as originating from the malefactions of Arab sheikhdoms messing up American foreign policy or the influence of Israel’s domestic partners in the United States.

Furthermore, since belligerence against Iran has institutional rather than personalistic roots, a changing of the personnel up top will produce only a slight change in strategy.

The goal – a hobbled Iran – will remain unchanged.

Still others defend the Hagel nomination through a fixation on his openness to discussions with Hamas. What this perspective misses is that a push for dialogue with Hamas has been the position of “liberal” Beltway think-tanks for some time. It is premised on the assumption that through dialogue, the US will be able to tame, contain, and turn Hamas, either making it serve a similar function as the Egyptian or Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods, enfolded into a Gulf-supported Sunni crescent, or pushing it into “national reconciliation” with Fateh.

Little good will come of this nomination.

And without question, sanctions and occupation will continue apace.

This makes it unfortunate that the campaign to defend Hagel has gathered support not merely from realist analysts like Walt, but by many of a more progressive bent, some of whom are happy that the J Street lobby group – nearly indistinguishable from AIPAC – is defending Hagel’s candidacy.

Indeed, the support of J Street ought to be a red flare clarifying Hagel’s projected role.

Instead, it has somehow convinced some that he will tamp down the imperial role in the region, or that his appointment will move US foreign policy to the left. That seems unlikely, if not delusory. The question is minute divergences of strategy within a broader vision of domination of the region – a reflection of inter-elite bickering over the best way to cripple Iran and impose surrender terms on the Palestinian people.

The potential nomination of Hagel is meaningful only if one naturalizes the social and political landscape and assumes that the best which can be hoped for is an ever-so-slightly gentler empire.

And so the hubbub over Hagel is a squabble which tells us only a little about internal disagreements within foreign policy circles, but much about the widespread tendency not merely to confuse the spectacle of politics for politics itself, but also to foreclose entirely the possibility of meaningful change.




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