22 Aug 2014

Why US foreign policy is like ‘smoking without inhaling’

Almost exactly one year ago President Obama and Prime Minister Cameron were contemplating the bombing of the Assad regime from the air after a particularly nasty chemical attack had pushed Damascus on the wrong side of Washington’s red line.

The military intervention failed, of course, after parliament in the UK voted against it and Moscow rode to the rescue with a face-saving plan to requisition all of Syria’s chemical weapons.


Twelve months later Washington is once again contemplating airstrikes against Syrian targets. But this time it’s not the Assad regime in the cross hairs but its enemy, the so called Islamic State.

In Damascus they probably can’t believe their luck. In one year America has gone from threatening the regime’s survival to ensuring it. While waging all-out war against his own people, Assad has always claimed that the real enemy were jihadi extremists. It seemed like an excuse at first. Now it has become another one of the region’s many self-fulfilling prophecies.

Supporters of President Obama’s caution over air strikes last year will say that his instincts were right: even if Assad was a monster, he is not as bad as the Islamic extremists and will eventually try to prevent Syria from becoming a failed fragmented state.

Opponents of President Obama will say we are reaping the consequences of a weak American policy.  It attacked Assad from the sidelines but left him in power while refusing to arm the “moderate” civic opposition that sought better governance and rather than an anti-western Islamic caliphate.

Cowed by its bitter experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and a waning public appetite for any intervention, Washington, to borrow a phrase from the Clinton era, resorted to smoking without inhaling. The result was a vacuum which has now been filled by IS, described by the secretary of defence as a far bigger threat to America than al-Qaeda. It’s enough to make you weep.

The words of Colin Powell, the former secretary of state and decorated soldier, about Iraq come to mind. Echoing the warning from one of America’s best-known interior design chains about its products, he famously once said: “You break it. you own it!” This is still true today three years after President Obama came good on his first election pledge to withdraw all American troops from Iraq.

America has entangled itself in a web of its own weaving. It has yet to make sense of a policy that is dictated by conflicting instincts: a desire to do good and promote democracy, a need for regional security, which has on the past relied on the enemies of freedom, and a public that can’t see the point and has lost its tolerance for casualties.

The result of this noxious triangle are unpleasant choices. America, for instance, may end up having to do deals with Assad to contain IS. A positive unintended consequence may be another deal with Shia regional power Iran. The unintended consequence of that could be upsetting old ally the Sunni power Saudi Arabia, who could help to fund or even arm the caliphate. We can guess but we don’t know for sure.

The growing Sunni/Shia divide has become another level of complexity in the region’s game of deadly three- dimensional chess. Or to put it simply: to America the Middle East is like a balloon. If you squeeze it in one corner it will bulge in another. You just can’t be sure where.

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