Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 6 ­- 13 September 2013

Conflicts Forum

Syria:  Analyst Philippe Grasset surely has it right when he suggests that the Syria situation has been stabilized by the initiative to place Syria¹s chemical stocks under supervision, ­ but yet is far from stable.  In CF’s own experience, such stand-offs invariably are a roller-coaster: one moment up; the next moment down. It would take only the flimsiest claim of a fresh chemical attack (or massacre) to send events spinning away in a different direction. The defining characteristic of this Syrian crisis to date, indeed, has been its complete susceptibility to direction by events.  In its middling period, which saw the takfiri jihadist elements rise to preponderance, it was events – assassinations and suicide bombings ­ which then so completely defined the moment and the political tenor of that period. This course of events squeezed ‘moderate’ opposition elements out of the equation in terms of having any consequence. Now at the international level, this new initiative may offer a moment of stabilization, but there remain many hands wishing still to explode Syria in the face of their strategic enemies. Events will probably dictate at the international level too: how will the various ‘war parties’ respond to Obama’s conditional stand-down of war?

 The point that Grasset makes is that whilst the Syrian crisis per se (attack or not) may have subsided, the internal Washington (and European crisis) may be worsening and deepening into a much more substantive political crisis.  And though it is ostensibly a foreign policy crisis, it is much more than this: it is about faltering American identity and about who Americans (and westerners generally) believe themselves to be. Hence, in their own internal moral self-questioning and disarray, the case for war in Syria has been almost exclusively mounted in terms of the need for western civilization, for its own sake, to stage a “moral show-down with ‘evil‘ in a far-off field”.  There is no doubt that Obama was in a corner (partly of his own making), a ‘corner’ from which, if he were unable to find an exit, his Presidency might lie ruined. Paradoxically, it was because the ’cause’ of Syria in the West was so deeply rooted in psychological vulnerabilities that Obama was in a corner:  the framing of this far-away war as if it were a mirror held to reflect ‘our’ values, precisely precluded any serious prior analysis or consideration of its possible consequences in the region. It was all about ‘us’, but as these subsequently other consequences became glaringly evident,­ the danger of a major defeat delivered by Congress or a regional war, or both , Obama understandably has grabbed at the chance to find an exit.

But a wider political crisis has been unexpectedly unveiled in this episode of Obama’s ‘cornering’.  The opposition to a strike amongst the American electorate and in Congress was not simply focused to the issue of whether or not to strike Syria.  It also reflected however, as Grasset notes, a deep and powerful trend of questioning of the capacity of US leadership itself.  McClatchy on 9 September noted, “When President Barack Obama addresses the nation Tuesday in his bid for airstrikes against Syria, he will confront the most unfriendly political landscape of his presidency, one where opposition knows no boundaries and Democrats, Republicans, whites, blacks, Hispanics, old, young, men and women all are deeply skeptical of the mission. A solid majority of voters opposes airstrikes and wants Congress to reject Obama’s request for approval, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.  A majority thinks he does not have a clear idea of what he’s doing with Syria. The ranks of Americans who approve of the way he’s handling foreign policy has dropped to the lowest level since he assumed office. And an overwhelming majority insists he stand down – should Congress vote ‘no’. “Clearly this president needs to be very persuasive Tuesday,” said Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in New York, which conducted the poll”.

A Pew poll makes the point more forcefully, “As President Obama prepares to address the nation Tuesday, he can see the damage [which] the issue is doing to his own standing. He gets the lowest ratings of his presidency on handling foreign policy, and Americans by 2-1 disapprove of his handling of the situation in Syria. His overall approval rating has sagged to 44%-49%, the first time it has fallen into negative territory in well over a year. “This is a signal moment,” says political scientist Larry Jacobs of the University of Minnesota. On the one side is the kind of leadership of an historic order. On the other side is a fairly deep doubting about American power – and the power of this president”.

What we seem to be seeing here, the polls suggest, is that politics in the US is being overtaken by a fast-flowing current (rather than some ephemeral reaction to television presentations): McClatchy again (9 Sept),  “The Republican Party may be turning anti-war! – Some of the shift is driven by visceral distrust of President Barack Obama, who is the one proposing military strikes against Syria. Some is driven by remorse and lessons learned from the Iraq war. And some is fed by the isolationist and libertarian strains of the grassroots Tea Party movement. Plenty of Republicans, including key congressional leaders, support Obama’s push for military action against the Syrian regime for allegedly using chemical weapons. But among constituents, rank-and-file members of Congress and many influential voices in the party’s echo chamber, the trend is decidedly anti-war: “There is a growing isolationist movement within our own party,” said John Weaver, an Austin, Texas-based Republican consultant. “The party’s popularity surged in the late 1940s partly because of its unrelenting stance against communism. Republicans nominated World War II hero Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower as its 1952 presidential candidate and he won two terms. Ronald Reagan’s presidency is still revered by supporters for his tough talk against the Soviet Union, and in his 2005 inaugural address, President George W. Bush redefined America’s international mission.  Now, that’s changing”.

 That post-Cold War ‘international mission’ to which Weaver refers began rather as the ‘Carter doctrine‘ of 1980 which committed the US to employ any means necessary to prevent a hostile state from gaining control of the Persian Gulf.  “In retrospect”, as Professor Andrew Bracevich notes, “it’s clear enough that the promulgation of the so-called Carter Doctrine amounted to a de facto presidential ‘declaration’ of war (even if Carter himself did not consciously intend to commit the United States to perpetual armed conflict in the region). Certainly, what followed was a never-ending sequence of wars and war-like episodes. Relatively modest in its initial formulation, the Carter Doctrine quickly metastasized.  Geographically, it grew far beyond the bounds of the Persian Gulf, eventually encompassing virtually all of the Islamic world.  Washington’s own ambitions in the region also soared.  Rather than merely preventing a hostile power from achieving dominance in the Gulf, the United States was soon seeking to achieve dominance itself.  Dominance — that is, in shaping the course of events to Washington’s liking — was said to hold the key to maintaining stability, ensuring access to the world¹s most important energy reserves, checking the spread of Islamic radicalism, combating terrorism, fostering Israel¹s security, and promoting American values.  Through the adroit use of military might, dominance actually seemed plausible.  (So at least Washington persuaded itself)”.

 What seems to be occurring – these poll commentaries suggest -­ is that we are witnessing the breakdown and collapse of the ‘Carter-Reagan doctrine’. After all the lost wars, ordinary Americans are being shown overwhelmingly to have lost faith in it.  It has become a ‘bad movie’.  If this is so, there will be some profound consequences that flow from this shift:  If the American voter is so emphatically disenchanted on Syria – (and in the UK the overwhelming majority there too opposes any attack, irrespective of whether Assad were conclusively to be proved to have ordered the 21 August event) -­ will then the ordinary American be any more enthusiastic to start a war over Iran?  The polls say not: the recent events suggest that the US has no option, but to re-think its Iran strategy, and therefore its Gulf strategy.  If Saudi Arabia reads the tea leaves in the same manner, it too must re-think its approach to Iran.  It can hardly overturn Iranian influence,­ absent the West.

 Interestingly, the American historian (and critic of American foreign policy),  Wester Griffin Tarpley argues that “I think we’re going to find that [the AIPAC] influence has fallen fast, and that they’ve chosen a battle that they’re destined to lose. They are trading on the basis of victories that are now several decades in the past. No matter what their power might be, they are running into a buzz saw. That buzz saw is the fact that the American people are not just sick of war, but disgusted by war.” 

 President Putin has understood for sometime (since 2003) this American lurch toward (what the Russians term) “strategic incoherence” (unwillingness to calculate the consequences of military ventures), and its corollary risks (to Russia as well as America) of volatility and instability.  Mindful of this, and in classic Russian style, Putin has stretched out a hand to Obama to help him out from his ‘corner’.  In so doing, as ex-Mossad director Ephraim Halevy ruefully writes today in the Hebrew Language newspaper, Yedioth Aronoth, “Russia has returned to center stage in the Middle East as a world power that has the ability to effect strategic changes.  In doing so, it is beginning to wipe out 40 years of absence from our region‹since its protégés, Egypt and Syria, failed in the Yom Kippur War exactly 40 years ago”.

 As for Syria, she looses little , as matters stand (which might not be for long). The chemical stores effectively were already under Russian (and Iranian) monitoring.  They had become a strategic liability, rather than an asset,­ and Syria’s allies, particularly in Iran, are extremely hostile to any use of chemical weapons. This stems from the many in the Iranian leadership who still bear the effects of themselves having been gassed (in the Iraq – Iran War). Increasingly, the balance of deterrence in the Middle East is being defined not by WMD, which have little operational value when allies and foes are so geographically intermixed, but by conventional weapons ­- and here western dominance has eroded, not just from a process of catch up,­ but from the changing nature of what some call ‘fourth generational warfare’.  In this sphere, western structures of large-scale military action have proved much less effective.



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One Comment

  1. Eric Green wrote:

    Thanks again for this extremely useful summary and wider perspective. I hope it receives wide readership, although comments seem petty sparse? When George Galloway commented in the UK Parliament last week about the wisdom of the vote which said no to military strike in Syria, once again he was rather contemptuously dismissed by David Cameron as a “dictator appeaser”, which triggered in my mind the photo of David Cameron bowing to receive a medal last year from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, even as he was busy selling the next lot of arms to the Saudis….knowing full well that Sunni terrorist groups around the world are largely funded from Saudi Arabia and a very powerful strain of virus producing grotesque intolerance and violence now infecting many parts of the world also stems from the same place. In the recent historic debate and vote in the UK Parliament already referred to, I don’t think anyone dared raise the role of Saudi Arabia in arming and financing the Al Qaeda types in Syria. There seems to be a strong ” You don’t offend(can’t afford to) the Saudis” in UK politics(since the Al Yamuma fiasco?)

    It would be helpful for CF to discuss the evidence for the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime(the Western view) or the rebels(Russian view)?

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