Weekly Comment: The Juggler’s Plate

Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment, 25 May – 5 June 2015

The ‘plate’ that fell and broke is Ramadi. And the juggler, of course is President Obama, who has been attempting to juggle a ‘balance of powers’ in the Middle East using from deliberate choice ‘soft-power’, rather than hard power, to ‘manage’ the Middle East – in order to fend off events that are somehow drawing America into a major new commitment of American forces.  This essentially exemplifies the Obama ‘doctrine’. But there is a separate ‘balance of power’ that Obama is also juggling – and both impinge on each other.  This other juggling act is that of  Washington power-plays.  On the one hand, Obama can use American soft power against particular states or their leaderships in the region to further his aims, but equally, some Middle East states (other than Israel) have been developing their own soft power potential to use against him in Washington.  Israel is one that plainly has that capacity, and there are reports (see here) that Saudi Arabia – with its big money investment in DC think-tanks and PR firms – has managed to buy into Israel’s formidable Capitol Hill political machine. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia, of course, share a joint interest in having Iran remain under sanction – and combined, the two states present a formidable front.

Foreign soft (and hard) powerplays once were pretty much the prerogative of the West. This is no longer so.  The non-West is no longer a passive spectator, left dazed as the soft power toolbox is deployed against them. Increasingly variants of these tools (such as info and cyber warfare) are being turned back, and used against the West. (Is not the ‘hybrid’ warfare that so worries NATO members anything other than the West’s own COIN ‘turned’, and used against it?)

The breakage of the Ramadi ‘plate’ however threatens Obama’s entire balancing act — and therefore Obama’s putative foreign policy doctrine, namely that force should be the resort of last choice; that pure military action has mostly failed to bring its foretold political dividend; and that American ‘soft power’ (especially geo-financial war and US jurisdiction proliferation) is the more effective tool by which America can ‘tip’ the global balance of power, this way or that, in order to maintain equilibrium (or more accurately, preserve the present privileged status quo). And bringing Iran into this ‘balance’ (and into the soft power reach of America’s control of the global financial and trading system) is intended to define the Obama doctrine and demonstrate the merits of well-directed soft power.  It carries all the qualities to define his hoped-for legacy.

Obama, above all, wants the Iran accord. And to achieve it, the President has quietly been lessening the soft power reach of the Israel lobby to disrupt his ambition (through getting the GCC to say that an Iran deal is in their security interest – and thus paint Netanyahu to the US Congress as a rogue ‘outlier’, with whom no responsible Congressman can ally him, or herself, on the Iranian negotiations).  Isolating Netanyahu also weakens Saudi Arabia, which indirectly benefited when, for example last March, the Israeli PM bitterly denounced Iran before hundreds of transfixed American lawmakers.  Obama has now answered back, by going over the head of the Israeli PM, to appeal to the Israeli people directly in an interview aired this week on Israeli Chanel Two, advocating support for his Iran policy.

The US President has tried (with some success) to circumscribe the ability of opponents to disrupt the Iran negotiations in his domestic sphere — Congress.  But Obama, it seems, still is very wary of the power and money behind this Saudi-Israeli coalition: He has not provoked them; indeed he continues to be emollient.  In his Channel Two interview, Obama gently explains why the ‘military option’ in respect to Iran is in fact no option:  “A military solution will not fix it [the Iranian nuclear issue]. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.”  But he is sweetening his spoonful of realism with a 15% hike in military assistance to Israel, and with no let up in protecting Israel at the UN (i.e. over naming Israel as abusing children’s human rights in Gaza). He treads on eggshells: giving a little here,  undermining a little, there.

Ditto with the GCC: Obama gets what he wants from the GCC (the means to mitigate Netanyahu’s influence over the Iranian deal), but is emollient too: He ‘gives’ a little. He mollifies the new monarch in Riyadh’s ambitions to crush the Houthis in Yemen; he is emollient in acceding to Saudi and Sunni demands that Iran’s involvement in fighting ISIS in Iraq be severely curtailed (though these forces are acknowledged to be the only effective force fighting ISIS), and he turns a blind eye to the Saudi-Turkish assembly of a new al-Qaida-led army in Syria (‘the Army of Conquest’).

Then comes the fall of Ramadi to ISIS, and, at the same time, to make matters worse, the Saudi-Turkish axis launches – not just a new ‘push’ in Syria, but brings thousands of jihadis gathered from as far away as Turkmenistan and Chechnya to ‘frack’ Syria (see last weeks’ Weekly Comment).  America is shocked.  Suddenly the Administration’s whole policy toward ISIS becomes suspect:  Why did the US turn a blind eye to the jihadist massing in Syria and ISIS’ march on Ramadi?

It seems that the President had his eye firmly focussed on keeping the domestic plates in the air – only to find that he had taken his eye off the region, where now the plates have been slipping from his grasp, and crashing to the ground.

Just to be clear: What Saudi Arabia and Turkey have done in Syria with their massing of jihadists is to break Obama’s fragile equilibrium, and to put any Syrian political solution beyond reach, until at least this new trial of strength is concluded.  President Assad (and the majority of the Syrian people) will never agree to negotiate with either of these existential enemies – al-Qaida or ISIS.  Saudi and Turkey may have hoped that its proxies would stage a blitzkrieg on Aleppo that would ‘frack’ Syria for good, but in so attempting, they have brought only escalation – as neither Russia, nor Iran, (nor China) will accept for Syria to fall to the takfiris.  The consequences for these states’ own domestic security are in play, no less.  We may see greater direct intervention by Syria’s friends – the effect of which will be to solidify Syria as the locus of conflict between external powers.

It seems that the US President may have been too sanguine about the nature of the forces being unleashed in Syria and Iraq, and did not foresee the consequences of his conciliatory approach towards the Gulf — the latter effectively having kneed him in the crotch.  When asked about American forces’ passivity in the face of ISIS’ taking of Ramadi, “privately, officials say they don’t want to be seen hammering Sunni strongholds in a sectarian war, and risk upsetting their Sunni allies in the Gulf”.  Oh yes? In short, appeasing the Gulf has trumped common sense, and landed Washington, as one insider noted, with a major headache:

“…the touchstone for the US policy [now] is what happens at Ramadi. If, as seems possible, Iraqi militia forces [i.e. precisely the forces which the US had been trying to exclude] succeed in retaking the city, then US officials will breathe a sigh of relief and will feel it less necessary to adjust its approach focused on air strikes and a moderately paced training schedule. By contrast, if the IS holds out in Ramadi, then the pressure to insert additional US troops alongside their Iraqi counterparts will increase. In the Pentagon, there is already a rising inclination to do this; whereas the White House is much less accepting.  An underlying – and as yet unresolved – dilemma for the US is how far to coordinate action in Iraq with Iran. In his latest meeting with his Iranian counterpart in the context of the P5+1 negotiations on the nuclear issue, the subject did not arise. However, we understand from private conversations with senior officials that they see a deal with Iran as setting the stage for progress on the regional conflicts, including Syria and Yemen. They are insistent that they are not “pivoting” toward Tehran, but they believe that a nuclear deal will deliver results beyond its immediate context. This “cause and effect” thesis, however, continues to be viewed with deep scepticism on Capitol Hill.” 

In fact, there is not much else that Obama can do, other than to try to pivot towards Moscow and Tehran in the hope of finding a counterbalance that might help reverse gains by ISIS in Iraq, and help curb al-Qaida (Jabat al-Nusrah) and ISIS in their offensives in Syria.

And it seems that this ‘pivot’ is already underway:  Kerry went to Sochi to speak to President Putin – not just about Ukraine – but with awider agenda.  There is too, growing appreciation in DC – at least in ‘realist’ circles, if not in the powerful neo-con contingent – that in respect to Ukraine, most of the cards are in Moscow’s hand.  There is no softening of the ‘Anglo’ animus towards President Putin, but at the same time, Ukraine has become the elephant totally blocking the road towards the achievement of Obama’s other aims in other theatres – which inevitably require Russian collaboration or acquiescence. 

In Sochi too, there was a US softening towards the Minsk 2 principles as the path towards a confederal Ukraine too. (A non-NATO confederal solution has always been President Putin’s preference). When Kerry was asked in Sochi by journalists about recent statements by President Poroshenko about the need to resume fighting around the rebel-held city of Donetsk – Kerry responded: “I have not read the speech. I haven’t seen any context. I have simply heard about it in the course of today. But if indeed President Poroshenko is advocating an engagement in a forceful effort at this time, we would strongly urge him to think twice not to engage in that kind of activity, that that would put Minsk in serious jeopardy. And we would be very, very concerned about what the consequences of that kind of action at this time may be.”  These words represent a very different US tone.

The question of course, is whether President Obama or Mr Kerry can convince – against deep scepticism – both Iran and Mr Putin that America is indeed serious in its declared intent to defeat ISIS in the region.  Both are convinced that America still views the takfiris as somehow an American ‘asset’.  This will be a heavy lift:  But first of all, America has to seal an agreement with Iran (for without it, the Obama legacy may appear somewhat thin).  And a comprehensive solution with Iran should not be taken for granted.


Leave a Reply