Thank you, neoisolationists and peaceniks. It looks like you have accomplished the seemingly impossible: get Obama to tacitly support a brutal dictator against both a popular uprising and US interests.
A lot of realist commentators, most notably, Stephen Walt at Harvard, claim that the United States has no “vital interest” at stake in Syria. This is true: no matter how the conflict turns out, the US’ power position will remain essentially unchanged. So what are these ‘US interests’ that are supposed to guide a realist policy for the unipole? In what follows, we examine this question in light of centered geopolitical realism and its implications for Syria.
There are only three regions in the world outside North America that impinge on the strategic interests of the United States. That is, issues that impinge directly on great power competition. The three regions are Western Europe, Northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf. Other regions, including the Levant, can be safely ignored as far as the realist calculus goes.1 The most stripped down version of the ‘off-shore balancing’ grand-strategy advocated by prominent scholars would have the US prepositioning assets in these three regions where all the war potential resides, while all other regions can be studiously ignored. This would be the cheapest way to prevent the emergence of a peer competitor.
Moreover, realist scholars have argued that US military presence ought to be located ‘over the horizon’ as much as possible to avoid unnecessarily enraging the populations of US protectorates like the states of the Arabian peninsula. This is a more ‘realistic’ grand-strategy compared to neoisolationism which starts from the same premise. Namely, that the US is supremely secure behind the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Neoisolationists argue that the US can stay in ‘splendid isolation,’ and that irrespective of what happens on Eurasia, ‘fortress America’ will remain impregnable as long as the US remains militarily stronger than all the other great powers.
During the Second World War, when Washington was debating its level of engagement in the war effort, Nicholas J. Spykman argued that a ‘hemispheric defense’ is no defense at all. The reason is simple. Eurasia is a seat of a world state: it has twice as much war potential as the rest of the world combined. If Eurasia was to come under the hegemony of a single state, or a single military alliance, it would have the wherewithal to achieve world domination. The Western Hemisphere would be ‘encircled’ by a much stronger power and it would only be a matter of time before it too succumbed.
In 1942, before the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, it looked likely that Eurasia would indeed come under the domination of a German-Japanese condominium. Once the Soviet steamroller started pushing the Nazis back in earnest, and it was clear that the US would prevail in the Pacific, the Soviet Union emerged as a potential hegemon in Eurasia. This development immediately prompted a major reversal in US policy. After delaying for years, the US decided to open a second front in Europe, whose real objective was to contain the Soviet Union.2 This was consistent with long-standing US policy of appeasing Hitler, and directing him against the Soviet Union, which was seen as a bigger threat. Indeed, until the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact, and even after, British and US decision-makers were convinced that German aggression could be channeled eastward.
This was not altogether unwise. Hitler also saw Soviet power as the greatest long-term threat to Germany’s survival. However, just like the First World War, military logic dictated that the campaign in the West take to take place first due to near infinite ability of the Russian army to withdraw into the vastness of Russia and evade battle. France would’ve joined the Soviet Union to defeat Hitler since it would be defenseless if Germany put the Russian army out of business. This meant that France had to be knocked out of the war before the campaign on the East could even begin in earnest, for otherwise, Germany would have to simultaneously fight on two fronts.
The Fall of France in 1940 enabled Hitler to turn his attention to the East, even as he offered to strike a deal with Great Britain. The deal he offered to the British was that he would let Britain keep her empire if it stayed out of the fight against Germany. Churchill did not buy it for a very good reason. If Germany consolidated its supremacy in Western Europe and eliminated the Soviet Union as a great power, it would become preponderant over all of Europe, and would have the wherewithal to raise a battlefleet that could crush the Royal navy with ease. The British empire, which depended critically on Britain’s naval primacy, as indeed Britain itself, would be at the mercy of the Third Reich. Churchill wanted no truck with Hitler and his promises. Great Britain would stand up to Hitler while it could still put up a fight, even if it meant losing the empire anyway. At least, Britain would not become a vassal of a German superstate.
The present is no different. The United States cannot live in ‘splendid isolation’ anymore than it could do so during the Second World War. The pure neoisolationists are flat-out wrong. An American withdrawal from Western Europe and Northeast Asia would be followed by the emergence of potential regional hegemons that, if they succeeded in achieving regional hegemony, would be as, if not more, powerful than the United States.3 If it withdraws from Western Europe, Germany would immediately become a potential regional hegemon and prompt balancing from France and Russia. Would the US be able to stay out if Germany came close to achieving military hegemony in Europe? If it withdraws from Northeast Asia, South Korea would be immediately exposed to Chinese domination, and Japan would have to militarize and balance China.4 There is no getting away from this: neoisolationism guarantees that we will eventually be back to 1942, and Spykman will have his revenge.
The realist grand-strategy of ‘offshore balancing’ is much more convincing. The US does not need to impose itself everywhere on the globe. Due to the highly uneven distribution of war potential on the globe, the United States does not have strategic interests in most places. For instance, there is a distinct possibility that South Asia and Southern Africa may evolve into centered RSCs. That is, India may become preponderant in the former and South Africa in the latter. This would not be a threat to the US: it would be happy to see these regions stabilized and ripe for Western capital.
During the sixties, this was also true of Indochina.5 The hubris of policymakers and the fallacy of the ‘domino theory,’ embroiled the US in a quagmire. Cold War ideology had served as the organizing principle of US foreign policy for two decades by the mid-sixties. It required the US to contain communism in every irrelevant corner of the world. This ideology was useful in maintaining the domestic consensus on a muscular foreign policy. However, not only was it of dubious strategic value, it was overly ambitious, being a constant drain on American resources. Cold war hawks wanted the equivalent of the colossus constantly patrolling the marshes, swatting every red fly in the muck.
In the aftermath of the debacle in Indochina, US policy took a turn towards pragmatism. Henry Kissinger engineered a split in the communist world, obtaining China as an extremely useful geopolitical ally. Similarly, he was responsible for ending the Arab-Israeli inter-state conflict and stealing Egypt from the Soviet camp. Having lost major allies in China and Egypt, the Soviet Union embarked on its own misguided war in Afghanistan, in a bid to impose the rule of its client, as if keeping Afghanistan under its tutelage could stem the decline of Soviet power.
The Iraq war was even more misguided than the debacle in Vietnam. Whatever it’s flaws, Iraq played a key role in balancing Iran in the Persian Gulf complex. Which is why Senior Bush let Saddam crush the rebellion and retain power after kicking him out of Kuwait. It is still a mystery to me why the Bush administration decided to undertake such an adventure. F. Gregory Gause III, the scholar of the international relations of the Persian Gulf that the present writer admires the most, claimed that the events of September 11, 2001 changed the risk calculus of US decision-makers.6 Principals in the Bush administration knew that Saddam had chemical weapons. They reckoned that Saddam could retaliate against US’ economic warfare against Iraq by supplying chemical weapons to terrorist groups that had just demonstrated the capacity to reach the US homeland.7
This was patently not true. Saddam saw Islamist militants as a significant threat to his regime. He was not about to arm them with chemical weapons, lest they turn against their own patron, as they had against the Saudis and the Americans.8 Moreover, the Clinton-era US policy of ‘dual containment’ that was still in place, whereby the US contained both Iran and Iraq, was itself flawed. The net effect of ‘dual containment’ was to increase Iranian influence in the region. All potential threats emanating from Saddam – in as much as they could be said to exist at all – could’ve been eliminated simply by accepting Saddam back into the fold, and restoring the US ‘tilt’ towards Iraq that had been in place in the 1980s. Having just mobilized domestically and internationally against Saddam, the United States was not ready to ease up.
The shift of power to Iran due to the collapse of the third pole in the Gulf security complex has narrowed US policy options. Washington has no option but to increase its military commitment and deployment in the Persian Gulf. With Iraq out of action as a result of the neoconservative debacle, Iran’s position bolstered, and Saudi Arabia too weak to counter Iranian influence, Washington has stepped in to play the role of protector of the region. This role does not require major US military presence on land. The US can play that role equally well by positioning its forces ‘beyond the horizon,’ emerging only to reestablish the status quo as it did in 1991.
Note that positioning US forces ‘beyond the horizon’ is only an option for the Persian Gulf region. This is because there are no great powers located here. In Western Europe and Northeast Asia, this is simply not possible due to the ‘stopping power of water’: it is well-nigh impossible to carry out a sea-borne invasion of a territory well-defended by a great power. US forces have therefore been stationed permanently in these two regions. During the Cold War, the US could point to the threat from the Soviet Union. But that threat disappeared a quarter century ago. US forces are still there, as indeed they will remain for the foreseeable future.
So, the United States has no ‘strategic interests’ in the Levant. But the US is not just a great power looking to extend its primacy. It is also the dominant state of the international order, with its attendant governance role. More importantly, it is a ‘organizing center’ of global capitalism.9 As the ‘center country,’ the United States protects the ‘plumbing of the world economy’ – the interconnected sea-lanes through which global energy and commerce flow – through its ‘command of the global commons.’10 Furthermore, it seeks to forge open markets and access to resources. In other words, it plays the role of the protector of global capitalism.
In the Age of Sail, capitalism carried its own sticks. European companies like the VOC and the East India Company were heavily armed, maintaining their own battle-fleets and standing armies. We have come a long way since then. Already by the mid-nineteenth century, Great Britain had moved the burden of shouldering the ‘protection costs’ to the state apparatus. In the American century, protection costs are borne by the US state, which presides over an enormous multilateral apparatus to govern the world economy. The instruments of control have become considerably subtle and ‘automatic.’ Debtor states have to worry more about the bond market than gunboats from the Metropole, the US uses access to its product market as leverage to get competitors to open up their economies to penetration by US firms, its deep financial markets reinforce the role of the US dollar as the hard currency for international transactions, and so on and so forth.
So, does the US have ‘interests’ in Syria emanating from its governance role in the international order? The honest answer is no. The Syrian economy is roughly the size of Idaho’s economy. It is an insignificant oil producer, and is not the source of any other critical resources. The Syrian conflict does have the potential to destabilize a lot of countries in the region: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. These are all either US allies or dependencies, and instability in any will be a small to medium headache for US policymakers. The US need not worry about the security of its principal client, Israel is too powerful to be threatened by any of these. No matter who wins in Syria, Israel can defend itself against all its neighbors.
The United States does have two non-strategic ‘national security interests’ in the Levant. The first stems from the fact that Syria is the land-bridge between Iran and Hezbollah. Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite Islamist party-cum-militia, which was formed in response to Israeli invasion in 1982, depends quite critically on the supply of arms from Iran, which can only come overland through Syria. The other is that Islamist militants have gained a lot of territory, strength, influence, and a safe haven in Syria. The solution proposed by the Policy Tensor solves both simultaneously while minimizing the humanitarian impact of the conflict. It is, in fact, the only way to obtain a political resolution in the Syrian conflict any time soon.
US national security interests trump the interest in undermining Hezbollah and rolling back Iranian influence. General Idris cannot persuade the FSA to fight on two fronts. Idris may not even be able to get his militias to stop tactical coordination with the Islamist militants. So, if the US does not do the job itself as I advocated, Assad is the best man for the job. Indeed, he is the only man for the job.
Obama needs Assad to be strong, so that he can crush the Islamist militants. If the US were to supply heavy weapons to the moderate militias, Assad will be weakened by them, and the Islamist militants will gain ground alongside the moderates. This means that the Obama administration just threw the entire rebellion under the bus. The ‘tilt’ away from the Assad regime that has so far characterized US policy, is going to be replaced by a ‘tilt’ towards it. This does not mean that the Obama administration will openly support Assad. The ‘tilt’ will remain behind the scenes, even as it ostensibly remains committed to confronting Assad.
The Obama White House chose not to supply weapons to the moderate rebels two years ago as recommended by the State department, the CIA, and the Pentagon. It outsourced the supply to the oil monarchies and Turkey. Assad’s intransigence and the jockeying of regional powers resulted in a major ratcheting up of sectarian tensions. Along with the increasingly brutality of the conflict, which never fails to enhance the strength of the extremists, these two factors greatly increased the strength and influence of Islamist extremists. After being almost cornered into taking military action by his own unprepared remarks on chemical weapons use, the Obama administration manipulated its way out of it by carefully planting a diplomatic proposal that effectively lets Assad off the hook.
The regional contest
The Middle East regional security complex has become very hot. Three regional powers have been destabilized: Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. The surviving strong states – Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran – are jockeying for influence. Turkey supported the Muslim Brotherhood and opposed the counter-revolution in Egypt, while Saudi Arabia cheered on as the generals consolidated the coup d’état, promising billions of dollars in aid. However, Turkey and Saudi Arabia are cooperating in Syria where they face Iranian proxies.
If you extend the Persian Gulf axis to the Mediterranean Sea, that is the ‘arc of instability,’ the battlefront in the regional contest between Iran and Saudi Arabia that has now morphed into a Shi’ite vs. Sunni war. The fires are not burning as fiercely yet in Iraq because Maliki is a US client and Iraqi airspace is controlled by the United States. In Syria, Turkey was the first regional actor to move against Assad. The administration forbid Turkey from supplying heavy weapons to the moderate rebels. In fact, the Turks sought US support for an intervention, which was refused.
After Iran, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar jumped in the fray, the Syrian conflict became increasingly sectarian. Turkey was the only player in the region that not only could have invaded Syria to create a safe zone for opposition fighters to regroup, it was also the only regional power not already in a rivalry with a strong neighbor. When the present writer recommended a Turkish solution early in the conflict, along with arming the rebels under US auspices, it was the right strategy.
Now, it has become too big and multi-faceted for any actor besides the US to bring the Syrian war to a decision. Which is why the Policy Tensor laid out an intervention strategy that would deal with the cancer directly and bring about a political resolution to the conflict without putting US boots on the ground. Instead of supporting a popular uprising against a brutal dictator and rolling back Iranian influence, the administration is moving to throw the entire rebellion under the bus. The problem is that it not going to work.
Turkey and Saudi Arabia are not going to sign on to a deal that lets Assad crush their proxies in what is now a major sectarian struggle. They will keep supplying arms with or without US approval. This means that it would be awhile before Assad succeeds in crushing the rebellion, and also that he will be ineffective in stamping out the Islamist militants fighting against his rule. As the pendulum swings against the Saudis, they would be tempted to respond by escalating support for Sunni fighters in Iraq. Obama’s refusal to be pulled in by his clients, prolongs the conflict. While a strategy of fanning the conflict may seem attractive – after all, lots of bad guys are chopping each others heads off – it is actually a recipe for escalating regional instability.
I said that a regional conflagration is unlikely in the event of a US intervention. The converse is also true. Minus a decisive US intervention on either side, a prolonged sectarian proxy war across this ‘arc of instability’ is the baseline scenario. In particular, a political solution is impossible to obtain without a credible threat that US power would be brought to bear on the equation.
1 Indeed, Israel was not to become a junior geopolitical ally till 1967, when it became clear that it was a natural hegemon of the Levant; moreover, one which could be relied upon to secure US interests in the region.
2 This was the content of the present writer’s first essay, written at the age of twelve for the school magazine.
3 What has gone relatively under-appreciated is that if the EU emerges as an autonomous, unitary security actor, it would immediately be a superpower. Moreover, it would be stronger than the US. Europe has more war potential than any other region in the world. It is not a coincidence that, in the past five centuries, most great powers have hailed from Europe.
4 According to the Correlates of War index of overall power capabilities, China is already more powerful than the United States.
5 This is soon to change as Indochina emerges as a major front in the cold war with China. The jockeying has already begun. The thaw with Vietnam and Burma, and closer cooperation with Thailand, is aimed precisely at containing rising Chinese influence. If Indochina were to come under the Chinese sphere of influence, China would solve its ‘Malacca dilemma’: the US can cut off Chinese access to world markets and Gulf energy by closing off the Strait of Malacca to Chinese shipping.
6 Gause, F. Gregory. The International Relations of the Persian Gulf. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.
7 In the aftermath of the First Gulf War, the US was imposing a no-fly zone over Iraq and subjecting it to stringent economic sanctions that were steadily depleting the strength of the Iraqi state.
8 Islamist militancy was born in the Afghan war. In the first half, the Mujahedeen were on the US payroll. As the war progressed, US patronage was replaced by funds from narcotrafficking and Saudi Arabia. In the aftermath of the Russian occupation, Islamist militants, including al Qaeda, did not take aim at either Saudi Arabia or the US. It was only after the Saudis invited US troops into the country after Saddam occupied Kuwait, that the snake turned on its patrons.
9 Braudel, Fernand. The Perspective of the World. New York: Harper & Row, 1984. Print.
10 Posen, Barry R. “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony.” International Security 28.1 (2003): 5-46. Print.