Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 21 – 28 March 2014

Conflicts Forum

It has been a week in which President Obama’s foreign policy initiatives have turned sour; and to make it worse, they seem all to have turned sour together. It is not easy to say why this constellation of events should have occurred with some sort of synchronicity, but there can be little doubt that President Obama faces something of a wall of truculence emanating out from the region. Whether it be from the Saudis over virtually everything; from Abu Mazen and the Arab League on recognising Israel as a Jewish state and prisoner releases; or Moshe Yaalon’s contempt for the US ‘gadget’ security plan; or Egyptian disdain for American squeamishness for killing and mass sentencing of the Muslim Brothers; or from President Assad’s success in creating game-changing military facts on the ground; or from the pendulum swing of mood in Iran that sees P5+1 prospects through a glass more darkly now; or from a wounded bull, blood in its eyes,tearing around in Ankara — all in all, President Obama faces a far from easy foreign policy time – and all this in the crucial run-up period to mid-term Congressional elections.

Just to make it clear, the Saudis have said bluntly that Obama should not expect an easy ride in Riyadh – unless he is prepared to change course on Iran, be militarily pro-active in Syria, and lend support to Sisi’s crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood. In case the message was not heard, it was further announced on the eve of Obama’s visit that Prince Muqrin would be next in line for the succession after the present Crown Prince: in other words, the Kingdom is saying “America, do not think to interfere in the succession with your American favourite, Prince Mohammad bin Naif”. And to make it clear to the President that there would be no easy ride either in the Israeli-Palestinian talks too, the Arab League lined up – with Abu Mazen – to make declarations supposedly binding on Arab League members of the “absolute rejection” of any recognition of Israel as a Jewish state – a rebuff sufficient to have Secretary of State Kerry abandoning Rome to rush directly to Amman to try to salvage at least an extension to the talks beyond end-April, and some sort of watered-down ‘roadmap’. And in Egypt, on the day before President Obama’s visit, Sisi announced his long expected candidature for the presidency.  In short, he was saying to the US “I am here to stay. You have no option, but to work with me, like it or not”.

And overarching all these topics, stands the US’ relationship with Russia. We have argued in earlier Weekly Comments that Obama’s Middle Eastern foreign policy, in practice, has been heavily dependent on an unacknowledged and necessarily private working relationship with President Putin. It was necessary to play it this way – unacknowledged and quiet, close to the Presidential chest – because of residual Cold War animosities that linger, not least within Obama’s own ‘team of rivals’ Administration who are angry about Syria, angry about the Iran negotiations, and deeply resentful at seeing Russia resurge.

It seems that cornered by neo-conservative members of his Administration into confrontation with President Putin over the most unlikely of bones of contention (except, that is, to the anti-Russian, neo-conservative contingent within his Administration), President Obama has had little choice but to recognise that Ukraine, above all, to many Americans, is a psychological symbol. Why else would the political complexion of a remote, minor, failed state, assume such significance and arouse such passionate emotions amongst the political élites? 

eeply disturbing, and arouses a partly sublimated anger that the world is not ascending through linear history as ‘it should’. President Putin effectively is denying the narrative of an ‘end of history’ where we all will converge around American liberal globalisation and its accompanying, self-perpetuating “rule sets”. And in so doing, Russians are calling into question something very fundamental about how some Americans and Europeans see and define themselves. 

It seems that Obama sees this, and understands that unless he responds to the psychology of the moment, the sublimated anger directed against Russia will be turned on him. In Brussels this week, he therefore recast the issue of Ukraine along a simple line of narrative:  in challenging President Putin, Obama’s claim is that events in Ukraine have nothing to do with the western alliance exploiting Russia’s soft security underbelly, but should be properly understood to be nothing more than a civilised western stand – a stand in support of the linear, progressive sweep towards freedom, individualism and democracy. And as we all progress and ascend along this trajectory, we are naturally drawn towards acceptance of the ‘rule sets’ that govern and spread that connected, globalised world. There is no room for those who refuse the international order, or who undermine the rule-sets, which underpin and spread liberal, global connectedness.

President Obama probably had little option but to deliver this unqualified stand in support of linear history – if only to inoculate himself against taunts of having colluded in allowing American exceptional leadership to wither and wane. Linear history is, after all, American exceptionalism’s main justification.  But this approach – though perhaps mandatory in terms of Obama’s domestic constituency – will hobble him in his Middle Eastern policy. In denying the Russian Federation, Iran or Syria the courtesy of allowing them a coherent alternative vision of the future, the US is attempting to claw back the narrative of its global leadership – and its role as chief moralizer and arbiter of what counts as normal and abnormal in thought and behaviour. This claim inevitably will taint and complicate any foreign policy negotiations, and make them much more difficult. It is already dividing Europe (see below); it will repel the Russians and Chinese, and will further stiffen opposition in Iran to American demands of them.

In practical terms, Obama – facing such a truculent Middle East – must hope that the tensions with Russia can be quietly de-escalated (despite his Brussels speech), and that some form of working relationship with President Putin be resumed. In this way, he might hope to rescue something of his foreign policy from the assault by his ideological political opponents. This may just be possible: although Russia will undoubtedly reorient its foreign policy differently in the light of events in Ukraine, President Putin nonetheless has always proved able to differentiate between ‘the files’: he can allow himself to be at odds on some key files, but still co-operate on others. 

Obama’s ‘best friend’ in recovering something from the Ukraine imbroglio will most likely be Angela Merkel. The German Chancellor has said she is “not interested in escalation” of tensions with Russia. “On the Contrary”, she said, “I am working on de-escalation of the situation”. She said that the West “has not reached a stage that implies the imposition of economic sanctions” against Russia. “And I hope we will be able to avoid it,” she added.

Another German politician, and former Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, who writes a regular column in Die Zeit, commentedthat the approach of Putin on the Crimean issue is “completely understandable”. The first Western sanctions (against individuals) were “completely stupid”, he argued, and that “more serious economic sanctions will hurt the West as much as the East”. The decision to reduce the G8 to a G7 in order to “punish Russia” is a grave error, Schmidt warned: “It would have been good to have all been able to meet together now [at this point in time]. It would certainly have done more for peace, than the threat of sanctions”.

But this hope too, President Obama must keep close to his chest: there are many old (and new generation) Cold Warriors, both in the US and Europe, who fear, more than anything, a Russo-German axis emerging in Europe.  Already the Ukraine affair has opened rifts between the US and the EU, when, as we may recall, the original aim (stated at the Munich Security Conference by John Kerry) for the push on Ukraine was to unite Europe again behind US and NATO’s reinvigorated leadership.

NATO currently lacks a credible ‘mission’ (and therefore a justification for defence expenditures). Ukraine has just provided NATO with an ostensible cause to strengthen the Estonia to Azerbaijan ‘Maginot’ line, and so to reformulate its mission. Unlike the German Chancellor, the ‘defense industry’s’ interest is to keep tensions with Russia rising.

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