The World’s Most Serious Threat

AT A CALGARY, Alberta radio station, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper asserted that Iran is today “the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security.” This judgement could well be justified — but as reported it side-steps the necessary background, deliberations, and alternative viewpoints of a proper verdict. With so much plump fruit at the point of ready picking, I am left wondering not only about the alternative prospects but of the hopes bound up in the keeping of 2012 as civilized as humanly possible.

I begin by wondering if anyone at the curtain-raising of 1914 guessed, or even might have guessed, that Serbian nationalism was a foremost threat to world peace. Or rather, that the diplomatic world had surrendered itself to a geopolitical rigor mortis which would turn a localized event into a worldwide casus belli. Even from the vantage point of history’s front row seat, many failed to note in the years that followed the strategic importance of the Ottoman Empire and the longer term implications of the Balfour Declaration and Britain’s sundry Great Game gambits. Today the leaders of Western powers wring their hands over the geopolitical dangers posed by nations which a century ago did not exist, and which in some cases were brought about as a consequence of their own machinations. The question which one might infer is Who knows what we’re in for? — and you can well guess the implicit answer from what has preceded.

In the news we are informed that the United States is turning from a decade of war to focus on the threat established by the regional ambitions of China. With American combat troops scheduled to depart from Afghanistan, the country will be left in the near future to its historical role as the battleground of outside powers, in this case Sunni and Shi’i proxy wars. Here Iran is certain to continue its work of extending regional influence into the Tajik domains, such as Herat. The once universally despised Taliban is undergoing a political reconstitution, in which the strategic and antithetical interests of Tehran and Washington are deeply intertwined.

It turns out that the decade-long War on Terrorism has yielded a compromise in which Iran has learned to love the Taliban enemy of its Great Satan Enemy, while the United States hopes only to have the saving of face granted by peace and a measure of diplomatic influence. In the middle of this hasty arrangement one discerns the Karzai government, suspicious of its many cynical allies but nonetheless wholly dependant upon them for its existence. At the apex of political cynicism one discovers Pakistan, whose ISI and generals and military together constitute a parallel regime, fattened on the subsidies of their American ally but by no means committed to anything beyond their sordid proxy outfits. It is difficult to determine who is the bigger threat to peace at the moment, friend or enemy.

The unfinished Afghanistan mission, having yielded to domestic American political pressures, leaves intact regional ethnic and tribal rivalries that go well beyond the borders of neighbouring countries. It is no secret for example that Afghanistan, having initially become the base for the Mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union, was in time yielded by a reluctant Taliban to the larger and longer-term aims of diverse terrorist organizations throughout Central Asia and Kashmir and the Middle East. One need only know that al Qaeda is Arabic for “The Base,” and that the base is Afghanistan, to get at the essential geopolitical point. Furthermore, this business of taking advantage is a two-way street: just as in the 1990s ad-hoc terrorist organizations cajoled and sweet-talked and finagled their way into Afghanistan, so too have countries — bags of cash in hand — with their own strategic interests.

If Fareed Zakaria is correct, Iran is less a threat to global peace than most suppose. Perhaps, then, the chief source of danger is North Korea, that other failed state with nuclear ambitions whose regime’s legitimacy requires a permanent and implacable imperialist American enemy. Over the past few weeks some observers have welcomed the Pyongyang regime change as an opportunity for improved relations, as if Kim Jong-un were an unfettered spirit and the Songun (Military First) policy was an afterthought or a stop-gap, rather than the very foundation of North Korea’s class system and the means by which it forestalls the inevitable implosion. Iran and North Korea and so many other dangerous regimes are dangerous precisely because they have backed themselves into impossible but also indispensable corners, doomed ultimately to become victims of their own zero sum narratives. Aware of the political realities which thereby follow, the world’s more flexible regimes bear a moral onus to proceed wisely and not to fall similarly victim to hysteria, rigidity, and short-sighted manoeuvres which come up against the unyielding walls of history’s bloodied room corners.

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