Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi! (And you too, Brutus, my son!)

Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment, 22 April 2016

“Fall, Caesar, fall”. Caesar (Obama) has yet a few months before, finally, he ‘falls’; but the knives are unsheathed, even amongst his own colleagues. In Jeffrey Goldberg’s March Atlantic interview, the US President was cited as being scathing towards the US ‘beltway’ foreign policy establishment, with their Pavlovian compulsion towards militaristic shows of strength. But perhaps that derided constituency of ‘Cold War Warriors’ and neo-cons intends to have the last laugh: They, and their collaborators in the Middle East, are now placing facts on the ground, and raising tensions, that will box-in an incoming President, whomsoever it might be, forcing him or her to respond, and thereby tying him or her to an American ‘21st Century’ project of continued uni-polar dominance – even before assuming office.

We are at a stage in the US Presidential race where it is too late for the President to initiate and carry through new policies; rather Obama must try to ground his existing ones sufficiently to stand as an enduring legacy. The point here is that this also stands as the moment when all Washington ‘eyes’ are swivelling towards the new Administration (with all that means in terms of keeping one’s job, or securing a better one, in whatever may be the next Administration). It is all about anticipating future policy, rather than implementing present policy, from now on.

It is however, Obama’s ‘middle way’ approach toward President Putin and Russia – and towards Iran - that is most in the firing line – a policy that has angered neo-cons both within and without the Administration. These powerful Washington forces are insisting that Obama’s foreign policy ‘weaknesses’ with regard to Russia must be ‘corrected’, (as it were), by showing Mr Putin that the US ‘means business’.

Paul Craig Roberts, who was in the Reagan Administration at the time, argues that the neo-cons never reconciled to Reagan’s negotiated ending of the Cold War with President Gorbachev, and set about undoing his legacy through their influence over the two succeeding Presidents. The neo-cons may be diminished in stature, but their basic tenets have been widely absorbed, both in America, Europe – and in the region.

The ‘middle way’ essentially originated out of Obama’s severe sulk at Medvedev’s displacement by the ‘retrograde’ Putin. The putative ‘reset’ with Russia was set aside, and Obama – rather than seek outright confrontation with Russia (i.e. no cold war) - ruled that America however, would only co-operate with Russia when it suited, but the US would not deign to address Russia’s core issues of its ‘outsider’ status in Europe, or its containment in Asia - or its concerns about a global order that was being used to corner Russia, and to crush dissenter states who refused to enter the global order on America’s terms alone. And Obama did little to drawback the NATO missile-march towards Russia’s borders (ostensibly to save Europe from Iranian missiles).

Jeremy Shapiro, a former special adviser to the US Assistant Secretary for State for Europe and Eurasia, had earlier warned “that the ‘middle way’ could not last (Charap and Shapiro 2015). More recently he has written:

Political and bureaucratic factors on both sides would force ever-greater confrontation. We argued that it will become politically untenable for the United States to maintain cooperation on global issues with Russia while explicitly seeking to counter it in Ukraine. This dual-track approach, condemning Russia as an aggressor one day, [whilst] seeking to work with Moscow the next, creates regular opportunities for Obama’s critics to decry him as weak and feckless. Meanwhile, powerful actors in both governments will continue to link the Ukraine crisis to those aspects of bilateral interaction that continue to function.
“And indeed that dynamic appears to be unfolding both in Syria and in Europe. In Syria, the Russian intervention was in large part aimed at demonstrating to the United States that Russia would no longer tolerate US regime change policies in the Middle East. It is, in this sense, a forward defense against what the Russian establishment tends to see as a global Western effort, running from Tripoli to Kyiv and ultimately to Moscow, to overthrow regimes through externally supported democratic uprisings. Russia took [the decision to intervene in Syria, as it believed the] US will only take its interests into account when it is forced to do so … The United States, recognizing the Russian challenge in a region where it has long been the dominant outside power, began a counterescalation [in Syria] that sought to make Russia pay a price militarily for its intervention.
“[Paradoxically], despite his reticence about greater US military involvement in Syria, Obama may end up taking military action against the Assad regime not to further a particular objective in Syria itself but rather to uphold America’s global reputation. He is under enormous pressure in Washington even from within his own government to demonstrate that the United States is not backing down in the face of Russian military aggression.” (CF emphasis added)

And this exactly is what we are seeing today in Syria: the ceasefire has now effectively ended – ended by the western-supported insurgents who declared its demise on 16 April - and having been initially broken by an An-Nusra (a breach confirmed at the UNSC) in eastern Aleppo. Yet even before its collapse, America was sending thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition to the northern insurgents – including Stinger missiles: Professor Joshua Landis has reported diplomatic sources saying that “Sunni rebels supported by Washington, have been receiving the US-origin Stinger surface-to-air missiles. They said that the Stingers arrived from Turkey over the last month, and were responsible for bringing down at least two warplanes in Syria”.

It seems that the CIA wants to re-start the war in Syria – not so much perhaps to weaken President Assad – but to show President Putin that, for the future, ‘America means business’ again. In short, what is happening today in Syria with CIA and Turkish escalation, and the US hard-nosed response to Iranian claims that the JCPOA is being frustrated, is the signal that key constituencies in the US are already pivoting the policy towards a more ‘hawkish’ stance. (Caesar may already be discerning the glint of daggers, barely concealed in the folds of certain tunics.)

And just to ensure that Russia’s other ally in Syria - Iran - also fully understands that ‘the weak foreign policy era is coming to its end’, Secretary Kerry (who Obama named – in the Atlantic interview - as continually pestering him to launch missiles at Syria) has been boasting to the ‘J–Street’ Israeli lobby that Iran has only managed to obtain a fraction of the frozen Iranian assets that were supposed to have been restituted under the terms of the JCPOA:

“Do you remember the debate over how much money Iran was going to get?” Kerry asked the crowd. “Sometimes you heard some of the Presidential candidates putting a mistaken figure out of $155 billion. We never thought it would be that. Others thought it would be about a $100 billion because there was supposedly $100 billion that was owed and so forth. We calculated it to be about $55 billion when you really take a hard look at the economy and what is happening. Guess what, folks. You know how much they have received to date, as I stand here tonight? About three billion”.

In short, Secretary Kerry seems rather pleased with himself: Yes, Iranian assets were formally unfrozen, and European sanctions lifted, but ‘guess what, folks’, the US treasury has been quietly letting it be known to European banks that it might be ‘unwise’ to finance trade, or infrastructure projects in Iran – and by the way ‘folks’, it just seems, that Iran just can’t seem to hire those supertankers to transport their increased crude production, and the insurance companies just don’t seem to want to insure those supertankers, either. (To be fair, the Saudis have a fat finger in the lack of tanker hirings too.)

The writing on the wall has been seen and understood by Turkey and Saudi Arabia too. Serious US interests (CIA and the Pentagon) are contemplating the future as a return to “Great Power competition and Cold War deterrence” – as Ashton Carter outlined in an interview with Vox (see here). But if this be the future, Saudi Arabia and Turkey may well be sensing the opportunity to help their friends in America bring it to birth: ramp up Sunni nationalist rhetoric and tensions with Iran sufficiently, re-start the war in Syria - and any incoming US President may find him/herself compelled to intervene in these growing ‘crises’ -- pile weapons and jihadist into Syria; have the OIC condemn Iran as a Terrorist State and all Shi’i militia labelled as terrorists; collapse the Geneva Process -- and blame Russia.

The best part is that if America is intent on giving Putin a bloody nose in Syria, then the Gulf states, ipso facto, must remain as American allies, and it is Russia’s allies who will be ostracized. See here for the former Deputy EUCOM (the US' European command) arguing the indispensability of the Saudi alliance. The interviewer, Max Fisher, who spoke at length with Ashton Carter subsequently (13 April) offered some very pertinent observations precisely on the nature of the pivot already under way from within the Defence and Intelligence arms of Obama’s own Administration:

“When Ashton Carter began his career at the Pentagon, in 1993, geopolitics was changing more rapidly than it had at any point since the Second World War. As the Cold War ended, a new world was taking its place, one dominated by American power … In a lengthy and wide-ranging conversation, Carter expounded at length on those challenges…
But I was struck, in our conversation, by the frequency with which Carter framed today's world within those same dynamics that had preoccupied his early career: great power rivalries, nuclear weapons, and the power of deterrence to keep the world in line.
It's not that he's unconcerned with terrorism or rogue states, both of which he discussed at length. But he clearly drew from his experiences in the 1980s and '90s an acute sensitivity to the world-shaking stakes of great power rivalries, and a firm belief in the role that deterrence and nuclear weapons still play … He returned over and over to the same answer to this problem: the power of deterrence, backed up by overwhelming American superiority and, ultimately, by nuclear weapons. And Carter, in writing and selling the final Pentagon budget of the Obama era, has said he is trying to prepare the United States for "a return to great power competition." (CF emphasis added)
That is a world, he has said, in which Russia and China, while still not America's military equals, can nonetheless challenge the American-led post–Cold War order. It's a problem "we haven't had to worry about ... for 25 years" but that is becoming increasingly real in Europe and in the Pacific.
I asked Carter why he believed this was happening — what is driving the problem, and thus, by extension, what is the appropriate response?
In answering, he characterized Russia and China as driven not by cold, hard power politics — which would thus suggest the US could negotiate a mutually beneficial resolution to any disagreement — but rather by the ideologies of their governments.
Vladimir Putin's Russia, he suggested, is "trying to justify itself to its people on how much it can stand against the West." This has led it to "emphasize military confrontation with the West, anti-Western propaganda, and especially the nuclear dimension of that."
As for China, he described that country's recent military expansionism as less cynical than Russia's, instead rooted in historical grievances and suspicion of American power.
While Carter insisted the US has no problem with China's power growing commensurate to its economy, he suggested that the country is also driven by "the idea [in China] that we need to right the wrongs of the past and dominate our region, and reject the system of rules-based order that we associate with the United States." While the American-led order serves China, he argued, "There's a part of the Chinese mind that thinks that's an American creation, rather than a good in itself”…"In China, it's a feeling of destiny about dominating a region rather than participating in a region."
While Carter was careful not to call the Chinese leadership irrational, he clearly sees Beijing as acting against its own interests. He had hoped, he said, that "the logic of the situation would ultimately prevail over the emotion of history." Until it does, "we have to understand that China is building up its military, it's trying to intimidate many of its neighbors."
In response to Russian and Chinese actions, he said, "I am making investments in high-end capabilities of a kind we might not have thought 10 years ago we'd need to make. We're trying to catch up in some areas, advanced technology areas, with respect to China."
This is a somewhat different attitude from what you hear in, say, the State Department … Carter seems to take a harder line, seeking primarily to deter Russia and China rather than negotiate with them: "Negotiating with other great powers about how we can together help the world progress to mutual benefit, all of that is fine," he said. "But if you have the attitude that you're aggrieved, and pressing your grievance rather than negotiating the future is what it's about, that makes it very difficult for us."
I suspect this is less a function of Carter's personal views than it is of the Pentagon's traditional role in US foreign policy, which has been one of upholding and defending the international order against other powers — an approach that is more zero-sum.
There is a long-held worldview in the US military that sees American military dominance as providing stability, and this stability as enabling much of the peace and prosperity of the postwar era. In that view, any challenge to American dominance is a challenge to global peace and prosperity itself.
"What's kept the peace in that region all those many decades," Carter said of Asia-Pacific, "was the system of rules-based order and the pivotal role of the American military in the region." Carter also seems to see renewed great power competition as a dynamic that China and Russia have forced onto the US — meaning, in his view, that it is on them to end it.
When I pointed out that Moscow and Beijing see themselves as merely seeking a larger role in the world commensurate to their growing power, he responded, "In Vladimir Putin's Russia, you have a deliberate tinge of thwarting America as an end in itself, not a, 'Hey, look, we need to sit down together and accommodate one another.'"

This is clearly not Obama’s ‘middle way’, and it is not just ‘zero sum’ military speak, as it were. Max Fisher, the interviewer, observed how the US Defence Secretary “framed today's world within those same dynamics that had preoccupied his early career”. Carter began his career at the Pentagon in 1993, and in 1992 Zalmay Khalizad, a founder member of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), drafted the Pentagon’s DPG (Defence Policy Guidance), which later, was to be more fully and officially articulated in the 2002 National Security Strategy of the U.S.

Although the DPG remains a classified document, its drafter, Khalizad has written how he saw the DPG as “an opportunity to outline a grand strategy for the post-Cold War world, that would guide our force structure well beyond 1999”. He notes that when Dick Cheney read it, he uttered only one word: “Brilliant”.

“The most important idea in the document,” Khalizad writes, “while pertinent to Iraq, was most obviously concerned with Russia. It argued that the United States must prevent the rise of a peer competitor: “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere, that poses a threat on the order of that posed formerly by the Soviet Union”. The DPG wanted to preclude the emergence of bipolarity, another global rivalry like the Cold War, or multipolarity, a world of many great powers, as existed before the two world wars. To do so, the key was to prevent a hostile power from dominating a ‘critical region’, defined as having the resources, industrial capabilities, and population that, if controlled by a hostile power, would pose a global challenge.”

Ashton Carter’s zeitgeist is not that of his leader’s ‘middle way’, nor ‘zero sum’ military think: but rather harks back to the DPG of 1992 – or neo-Zalmayism, if you like.