The Washington curse

Dec 4, 2023
US flag outside the White House, Washington DC . Image: iStock/Bill Chizek

America’s huge role in international affairs is undisputed but one aspect that tends to get overlooked is the way its support of local actors tends to inflame the situation. Indigenous political forces, be they governments or regimes in power, or movements or individuals seeking power, have their own agendas and motivations. If these objectives are compatible with American strategy a relationship can appear advantageous to both sides. Proxy relationships are not confined to the US of course, but America is by far the largest and most aggressive power in the world – who else even contemplates fighting a war on two, three or more fronts?

The problem arises that the lure of American support, and the belief, often illusionary, in its permanence, magnifies the ambitions of the proxies. Instead of accepting the limitations of their capabilities, agreeing, albeit reluctantly, to compromise they aim too high and too far. This either triggers or exacerbates conflict, producing calamity not merely for their adversaries but ultimately for themselves as American power is insufficient to achieve objectives, or America becomes fatigued with their struggle and abandons them. Objectives may be temporarily compatible but they are not identical. They are victims of the Washington Curse, where unrealistic expectations and intemperate ambition are dashed against the rocks of reality. Three current situations illustrate this – Taiwan, Ukraine and Israel

The island province of Taiwan had for centuries been part of China before it was seized by Japan in 1895. With defeat in 1945 it was returned to China – then the Republic of China (ROC) under Chiang Kai-shek. In 1949, facing defeat in the Chinese Civil War, Chiang relocated the capital of the ROC to Taiwan, where it remains today. When the US ‘lost China’ with the establishment of the People’s Republic (PRC) in 1949 it also lost its former strong commitment to China’s territorial integrity. At first it toyed with the idea of helping Chiang recover the Mainland (of China) but that fantasy soon evaporated. In the 1970s the US came to terms with the PRC but was not willing to relinquish its protectorate over the ROC on Taiwan. With the passage of time, Chinese of Taiwan birth, and often descent (Tsai Ing-wen for instance), gained ascendancy and a sense of a separate Taiwan identity grew. For some, perhaps many, this has developed into a yearning for independence. However for reasons both historical and strategic no Chinese national government would willingly tolerate Taiwan independence. This is by no means specific to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is an imperative of the Chinese state; a degree of local autonomy is negotiable, but not independence. It is unlikely that any sane Taiwan politician would contemplate independence were it not for a belief in US support. A war of independence would be disastrous for Taiwan. It might well be devastated and many American strategists concede that the US would not prevail and would probably fall back to its next line of Pacific bases, abandoning Taiwan.

With Ukraine the devastation is well underway. The economy and military effort only just survives on Western life-support. It has lost a huge proportion of its population through emigration and battlefield casualties and the territory under its control is daily shrinking. Dissension within the leadership, especially between Zelensky and Zaluzhny, is escalating. The war between Israel and Palestine is leaching support and many observers think that the US is pressing for face-saving negotiations and is preparing to dump Zelensky who is adamantly rejecting talks with Russia and refusing to go peacefully by cancelling the scheduled presidential election. Time Magazine carried a damning report on 1 November 2023. Zelensky is increasingly withdrawn and delusional, we are told, casualties are so huge that there is a shortage of troops, as well as ammunition and munitions, front-line officers are refusing to attempt to advance, and corruption is burgeoning- “People are stealing like there’s no tomorrow.” Indeed, for the Kyiv regime there may be no tomorrow. If so, the destruction is largely self-inflicted.

The sensible road for post-1991 Ukraine to have taken is quite evident. Internationally to seek neutrality between Russia and the West, playing one off against the other and not becoming a pawn of either. Internally the ethnic composition, particularly the 17% ‘Russian’ minority, necessitated a commitment to a multiethnic state. What happened, especially after the 2014 coup, was very, and disastrously different. The embrace of NATO expansion and the adoption of ‘Ukrainization’ with discriminatory policies towards minorities predictably led to the present catastrophe. Again it was American encouragement, exemplified by Victoria Nuland and the belief in effective and unwavering US support that undergirded these foolishly unrealistic policies.

Israel’s version of the Washington Curse differs in two important respects from that of the other two. Although the ‘China Lobby’ was a potent force in US China policies in the 1950s, neither the ROC or Ukraine have any foothold within the American political system comparable to the Israel Lobby. This, operating through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), has an influence on US foreign policy unparalleled for what is essentially an agent of a foreign country. This magnifies the Curse because it makes unconditional and unwavering US support much more credible. This commitment is exemplified by President Biden’s long record of enthusiastically promoting Israel as an enforcer and a base for a forward military position in the Middle East – ‘It is the best $3 billion investment we make’. Taiwan may pull back from the brink, especially if the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) loses the January 2024 presidential election. A negotiated settlement in Ukraine could leave a rump state, much diminished from its 1991 beginnings, but surviving. The long-term prospects for Israel are less sanguine precisely because American support is less opportunistic and more deeply committed. It may be based on self-interest – Biden’s ‘investment’ and AIPAC funds flooding the war chests of Congressional candidates – but it has a sense of permanency and that encourages wilder dreams and bolder, bloodier actions.

Christian Zionists add a second pillar to US support for Israel, and a bizarre twist to this version of the Washington Curse. They believe that the expansion of Israel will bring about the Rapture when they will go off to meet Jesus and the Jews will either be converted or killed; in either case it will be the end of Judaism, and the Jewish State of Israel.

Without attempting to go into details it seems likely that without the intense American relationship Israel would have come to terms of some sort with the Palestinians and the region. Although some Israeli politicians have made efforts for peace the general policy has ultimately been one of intransigence. At the time of writing the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) campaign in Gaza has blatantly killed over 11,000 civilians, some half of them children, with casualties mounting so fast that health authorities are unable to keep count. This goes far beyond collateral damage towards the genocidal, and genocide can lead to genocide if the balance of forces permits. Jews, who were victims of Nazi genocide, have subsequently followed the same course and may become victims again.

These three cases of the Washington Curse have considerable differences but they share the same ultimately disastrous characteristic. Ambitions are grotesquely magnified and compromise is eschewed as unnecessary. In time, in various ways, reality takes its revenge.

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