In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game
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In Syria, Obama is Playing a Losing Game

by Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

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Stereotypes are on full display in the diplomacy around Syria: Arabs and Turks seem duplicitous and cruel; the Brits are supercilious junior partners; the French don’t do much except strike out on their own with aplomb; the Chinese are inscrutable; and the Russians play the world like a chess board.

Meanwhile, we Americans are dumb but lucky. We trod about like the proverbial bull in the china shop, but no matter what we do — no matter how much of the world we wreck, or how many people we and our proxies kill — we somehow come out all right.

We cannot resist sticking it to the Ruskies too. A Martian, listening to National Public Radio from outer space, might well conclude that Russia-baiting is our national pastime.

When the Russians were down and out, after giving up on Communism and succumbing to the lures of market theology, triumphalist politicians and pundits in the United States pulled their punches a little; there was enough Schadenfreude in the air to sustain them.  But now that the Russians have built themselves back up enough to be a force in world politics again, our unreconstructed Cold Warriors are back at it — full steam ahead.

With all the nuclear weapons on both sides, it doesn’t get any dumber than that — except perhaps in our domestic politics, where Republicans operate on the principle that if Barack Obama is for it, they must fight it tooth and nail.

Where Vladimir Putin is concerned the White House and the State Department are the Republican Party writ large. They oppose him come what may. Whether or not he is right about Syria is therefore irrelevant, in just the way that the merits of Obama’s policies are irrelevant to Republicans.

On Syria, Putin obviously is right. If fighting the Islamic State is the first order of business, as it should be and as even the most dunderheaded diplomats and mainstream media commentators concede, then of course the United States should coordinate with the Russians — and with Iran and with what remains of the Iraqi state as well. It should also work with, not against, the Syrian government.

In World War II, the United States didn’t fight the Nazis by supplying “moderate” fascists with guns and money; it joined forces with the Soviet Union.

The Soviet contribution was indispensable; it was Soviet resistance, more than anything that the United States or Great Britain did, that brought Nazism down. Stalin was a more execrable figure than Bashar Al-Assad, but there was no other way.

Despite this precedent, the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department couldn’t quite figure out that their least bad option for cleaning up or at least containing the mess they had made in Iraq and Syria was again to make a pact with a devil.

The dunces calling the shots in Washington today still don’t get it. The murder and mayhem therefore continues.

And the Middle East is now full of displaced persons, and Europe is awash with refugees and asylum seekers.

There is another major problem in the offing too; before long, hordes of jihadis will be finding their ways back to their countries of origin – in the West, in Russia, and around the world.

The catastrophic consequences of what George Bush and Dick Cheney started, and what Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton made worse, just keep on coming.

The peoples of the Middle East can do little, at this point, to set the situation right; and Europe is hopeless. The world should therefore be grateful for whatever help Russia can provide.

It is far from clear what the outcome of direct Russian intervention in the Syrian civil war will be. But there is nothing else in the works now that stands a chance of cutting the Islamic State and other jihadi groups down to size. Everything the United States and its allies have done has made the problem worse.

Mainstream media are at a loss; having become deeply invested in villainizing Putin, they cannot or will not process what is going on. They are more comfortable Russia-bashing. This makes them ludicrous, and it makes reading what they write and listening to what they say even onerous than usual. But they don’t care; they are too busy “manufacturing consent.”

Obama’s humanitarian interveners are even less equipped to face reality.

They just don’t get it: that 2011 is over, and that muddling along aimlessly, without even a semblance of a strategy, is no longer a viable option, even in the short run. Obama and Company aren’t quite checkmated yet, but the end-game is underway.

No doubt, Putin and the people around him are interested in more than just smashing the Islamic State. They also want to make Russia a player in the Middle East again.

This is something that the world’s only superpower desperately wants to avoid. America’s dependents in the region — the Saudis, the other Gulf oil states, and Israel – want to avoid it too.

A world in which Russia throws its weight around in the Middle East, would be a mixed blessing at best. It would be better than the situation now, however. Insofar as peace and stability are goals, two superpowers are better than one – at least if they are not too much at each other’s throats, and insofar as they remain generally rational.

The chances of that are much improved when the contending parties are secular; unlike most of the players in Syria and Iraq today, the United States and Russia still are.

Even beyond the larger geopolitical considerations, however, stopping the IS in its tracks would be a boon to the world. The need is urgent; and the Russians are now the world’s best hope.

There is some reason to think that John Kerry is coming around to this view. Perhaps he, or others in power who still have some of the sense they were born with, can persuade Obama to find a graceful, face-saving way to flip flop on Putin, Assad and the Iranians. It shouldn’t be too hard a sell; Obama’s saving grace is that he is irresolute.

Putin saved Obama from going too far before. Perhaps he can do it again. At least he has a goal, and a strategy. This is more than the United States has had for a very long time.

***

American diplomacy wasn’t always so inept; it got that way because, with Russia out of the picture, the United States had it too easy.

It was during the Clinton administration that America’s leaders came around to the view that Realpolitik was only for little countries, and that all countries are little except the “indispensable” United States.

Clinton got away with it; some mischievous, foul humored demon looks out for that bastard.

It helped, of course, that it was smooth going for America in the Clinton nineties; the world was not exactly at peace, but neither was it falling apart.

The Middle East was downright placid. The “Oslo process” was underway; jihadis were still, for the most part, biding their time; Iran and Iraq were too enfeebled by war and sanctions to cause concern; and Riyadh and the other Gulf capitals were practically giving oil away.

Meanwhile, with Russia’s regression to capitalism going poorly, the country was in shambles. China’s long march down the capitalist road, superintended by its Communist Party, was unfolding less tumultuously, but that country’s economy and military were also still weak. And, with only a few exceptions, the erstwhile Third World was quiescent.

America was therefore – figuratively — on top of the world. It had reliable junior partners in Europe, Asia, Australasia and Canada; and its economy was chugging along comfortably, even picking up steam as the dot-com bubble formed.

It is hard to imagine today, but back then it looked like the American century would never end. The formula for keeping it going was simple: spend more money on “defense” than the rest of the world combined — and voilà.

With the class war going well for the wrong side, there was little domestic opposition to squandering America’s wealth on its military-industrial complex; and so there was no political reason not to keep defense spending high.

This made America brawny, and brawn is all it needed. It didn’t have to be smart.

Clinton could therefore put numbskulls in charge of foreign affairs; so what, if they couldn’t strategize their way out of a paper bag!  He put the State Department in the hands of two of the most hapless Secretaries of State in American history — Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright.

We now know that his wife would one day do the job even more ineptly. But she was still only a First Lady; her time had not yet come.

With no overriding strategic objectives to pursue, foreign policy fell under the sway of domestic politics. The strategizing that went on was therefore geared to the next election, not to geopolitical exigencies, as had been the case during the Cold War – and indeed from the first days of the republic.

It was the same in the Bush years, but with the overlay of an especially aggressive form of neoconservative ideology.

The neocon turn seemed to bring strategizing back in. But it was apparent from Day One that those ill-starred regime changers were cut from a different cloth than Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski and their similarly iniquitous successors in the Reagan and first Bush administrations.

The neocons did imagine a different world. But their “vision” was only nominally based on a conception of the national interest.   It was propelled along by domestic lobbies and other nefarious political forces.

There was the Israel lobby, of course; Israeli diktats were high on the neocons’ to do list. But it wasn’t only them. Political entrepreneurs and opportunists of many stripes also weighed in. Coherence suffered, but it hardly mattered. Being a superpower means never having to say you’re sorry.

Those eight dreadful years between the (Bill) Clinton presidency and the revival of Clintonism under Barack Obama were an interregnum, characterized by the worst of both worlds: aimless, Clinton-style muddling through in response to domestic political pressures, plus crackpot strategizing fatuous enough to make even the Kissinger era look good.

Once Obama became President and Hillary Clinton got the State Department for a consolation prize, the neocons were pushed into the background by their sisters (and a few brothers) under the skin: the humanitarian interveners.  The change was mainly cosmetic; any improvement, such as it was, was subtle indeed.

Clinton has been long gone from Foggy Bottom – preparing to do even more harm from an even loftier perch.   But her minions are still calling the shots, abetted by a few newly minted high flyers, like Samantha Power. Bush gets a pass on this; the blame for empowering those miscreants falls squarely on Obama’s shoulders.

Luckily for Obama, America is still strong enough not to have to rely on its wits. But times are changing, and America’s seemingly endless spell of dumb luck may finally be running out.

Putin is hardly a Grand Master, but he is a decent enough chess player. This more than makes up for a lot less brawn. Playing against Team Obama is like playing against a four year old.

***

Russia and Iran want to destroy the IS by any means necessary. They have other objectives too, mostly having to do with prosperity and respect or, what comes to the same thing in the world these days, with kicking the United States off its high horse.

The British and the French want the IS gone too; even more, they want to be relevant. The Chinese can afford to wait until their time comes; in the meantime, though, when it suits them, they surreptitiously do what Republicans say Obama does – “lead from behind.”

Turkey and the Arab states have a host of sometimes conflicting and frequently changing motivations that may never become entirely clear, even in retrospect. Intervening constructively into their quarrels would be a challenge even for masterful diplomats. America’s diplomats don’t stand a chance.

Not since the Thirty Years War have so many conflicting parties been at each other’s throats for so many divergent reasons. Then too there was a religious overlay making everything worse; with Catholics and Protestants as the functional equivalents of Sunnis and Shi’as (and other non-Sunni sects).

But in seventeenth century Europe, there was nothing like the United States. There were no bulls in china shops.

What do our diplomats think they are doing? Their only overriding goal, it seems, is to keep America Number One. Beyond that, they take it one day at a time.

What a sad state of affairs! Now, more than ever, the United States needs leaders who understand that the days when America could get its way in the world with impunity are coming to an end; leaders whose overriding goal is to engineer a soft landing.   Needless to say, this isn’t happening. The United States has not had even barely competent leaders in decades.

And so, in Syria, America has no goal at all, except to keep Russia and Iran down; and there isn’t even a workable strategy for that.

In practice, this puts the United States and Israel on the same page, except that the Israelis do have some idea of what they want, and how to get it.

The Israelis had been fine with the Assads, father and son. Despite their on-again off-again support for Lebanese Shi’ite militias, the Assads kept Israel’s northern frontier quiet.

But Israeli-Syrian coexistence had always been an unstable modus vivendi, with no love lost on either side. And so, when the clueless Clinton State Department decided that, like Muammar Gaddafi, Bashar Al Assad had to go, the Israelis didn’t mind.

It seemed like a reasonable tradeoff, after all: some temporary instability in exchange for helping the humanitarian interveners have their way.

Perhaps the Israelis were clueless about the Arab Spring too. In any case, once it became clear that a stable Syria was not to be, they decided that the best they could hope for would be for all the warring parties to fight each other to exhaustion, killing off as many of each other as possible in the process.

And if hostile Lebanese forces, Hezbollah especially, were to be drawn in, as seemed likely, then so much the better from the Israeli point of view; provided they too were beaten down. Of all Benjamin Netanyahu’s “existential threats,” Hezbollah is the only one that has actually beaten back the mighty IDF, the Israel Defense Forces. This must rankle.

There is, of course, a precedent for what America and Israel are up to; the one by default, the other by design. During the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the United States and its sidekick – it is not for nothing that the Iranians call Israel “the Little Satan” — encouraged Iran and Iraq to do each other in.

For the most part, the US tilted towards Iraq; despite the virulent anti-Israeli rhetoric emanating out of Tehran, the Israelis sided with the Ayatollahs. But tilting one way or the other was mainly a matter of looking the other way. When it became expedient, the US turned on Saddam Hussein while the Israelis discovered the mother of all existential threats in Iran. The main thing, after all, was not to strengthen one or the other side, but for them both to knock each other off.

This, no doubt, is what Israel is hoping all the warring parties in Syria will do; and it is, for all practical purposes and for want of a better idea, what the Obama administration is working towards too, probably without being fully aware.

So much for the superior morality of the world’s two “exceptional” nations! But, for Israel, encouraging goyim to kill goyim – Muslims especially — is par for the course.

Shame on the United States government, however! Even in the Age of Obama, it should be able to do better – morally, of course, and geopolitically as well.

Because it resolutely will not, mainstream media’s arch-foe, Vladimir Putin, is now poised to wipe the floor with America’s “moderate” anti-Assad insurgents, and to make Obama et. al. look like fools.

Bumbling along just doesn’t cut it any more, no matter how grotesquely wasteful our defense budgets are. For a soft landing, or any tolerable landing at all, the US will have to get smart fast.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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