by Avram Lytton
Whether we like it or not, we live in a relatively stable time thanks to the presence of a single hegemonic super-power – the United States. Its political, military and economic power (current political dysfunction aside) remains unrivalled in its totality. It is therefore disheartening to see this power and clout squandered by the current administration in its failures and capitulations over Syria and Iran.
In Syria, what started as a protest movement against the corrupt and oppressive Assad regime has escalated into a chaotic civil war. Rather than attempt to support moderate rebel factions, the Obama administration dithered and misrepresented the extent of aid it was providing. Even worse, it effectively vetoed additional aid from regional powers who, in the absence of a more concerted effort, have had great difficulty coordinating actions or even agreeing on a strategy. The result has been an ever worsening, and widening war that has not only devastated the Syrian state, but has also radicalised the opposition to an alarming degree and provided safe havens for jihadist groups. The Assad regime, with substantial aid from its ally, Iran, has even regained the momentum it was once thought to have lost.
When the Assad regime began using chemical weapons on a small scale, the Obama administration did nothing. When it deployed those weapons on a larger scale on August 21, it seemed that, at last, the President would respond to the crossing of his ‘red line’. Instead, the world was treated to a darkly comic series of missteps and blunders. When it appeared that no action would be taken, a deal was brokered by Russia. This deal, however, is not the happy ending it appears for two key reasons. First, as it relies on the Syrians to do most of the work, overseen by personnel from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), it is predicated on the survival of the Assad regime for however long it takes to complete. Secondly, because of the nature of the agreement, it will be relatively easy for the regime to retain some of its CW deterrent through deception. Thus, the United States has been removed as a player in Syria, split from its allies and discredited. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s leading statesman.
On the Iran front, the United States looks poised (at the time of writing) to strike a bad deal that could see Iran given an economic lifeline while the international community receives nothing meaningful in return. The heart of the problem is that diplomacy relies on there being room for a deal to be made that is acceptable to both sides. The ultimate objective of the international community, in particular Israel and Saudi Arabia, is the cessation and rolling back of the Iranian nuclear program. However, the Iranian regime has made it clear that it will never cease enriching uranium, even if its people suffer for it under sanctions. Negotiations for the sake of negotiations simply obfuscate the issue.
Yet, in all this, it is the Americans who seem the most keen to reach a deal, any kind of deal, as quickly as possible. Sanctions are hurting the regime and, if drawn tighter, may lead to its collapse. The White House, however, seems more interested in removing itself from the region than in regime change and is even opposed to tighter sanctions, lest they hurt diplomacy. To the United States, Iran is a distant and theoretical threat, but to countries in the Middle East it is a very real menace. No wonder then that the Israelis are furious; no wonder that the Saudis, already angered over American inaction in Syria, are threatening to break ties with the United States.
Unending war in Syria and a massive regional mobilisation of radical elements is in no one’s interest. Also unappetising is an advancing Iranian nuclear program, bolstered by better and more numerous centrifuges while the regime is strengthened by weakened sanctions. Let us not forget, that not only does this regime have a long history of sponsoring terrorism in other countries, but it also relies on its hostility to Israel and the West to legitimise its governance. The United States, by negotiating for a compromise with Iran and avoiding influencing the proxy war in Syria, is simply punting these security issues to the next administration.
None of the above is leadership; it is risk avoidance. War is a last resort, to be sure; it is a last resort in Syria, not least because of the greatly uncertain outcome, and it is a last resort with regards to the Iranian nuclear program. However, broadcasting one’s lack of seriousness about the use of force, whether through an evaporating red line or through a rushed and dubious deal with the untrustworthy Iranian regime, does not avoid war. Indeed, by horse trading with Iran rather than dictating, the international community has given the regime in Tehran a legitimacy it does not deserve and a sense of power it has not earned. It has also left the final say to a number of regional powers who feel far more threatened than Washington does, and may not feel as restrained when they react to that threat.
Approaching the 100th anniversary of an infamous act of terrorism in the Balkans, one should reflect on what events a small power can set in motion when tensions are left to simmer in a multi-polar environment. It is the power of the United States that underwrites and maintains the current international system and restrains the behaviour of the smaller powers. If the US is retreating from its position as de facto world policeman, then I fear that the peace we enjoy may soon disappear with it.