Russian President Vladimir Putin is scheduled to address the UN General Assembly on September 28, on the heels of a shrewdly publicized deployment of new Russian troops and military equipment to Syria. Simultaneously—and not for the first time—the Kremlin has rolled out the prospect of a “Moscow Track” to peace in Syria, marketed as a pragmatic alternative to the failed U.S.-run Geneva Process.
Moscow’s latest moves have begun to shift the ground, and ultimately the United States will have to choose between two different, equally messy courses: standing aside and letting Russia and Iran shape the conflict unimpeded; or making a real diplomatic and military commitment in the hopes of influencing the Syrian civil war’s final disposition.
Already, a chorus of analysts and political actors is advocating a “hold-your-nose-and-make-a-deal with Russia” approach,1 claiming the United States must either sign on to Moscow’s plans against ISIS, or else plead guilty to promoting terrorism through American inaction.
But framing the choice as a binary one plays into the rhetoric of Bashar al-Assad and his sponsors, and ignores the fact that substantial American action can still reshape the dynamics and alter the outcome, just as surely as decisive Russian, Iranian, and Syrian moves could. The more time passes, however, the fewer options remain for the American camp.
Until President Obama decides to invest in a new Syria policy or else completely relinquish any stake in the conflict in the Levant, there’s little to discuss with Putin. Russia comes to the table with clear aims and a plan to achieve them; the United States needs its own goals and strategy before engaging in a conversation.
The most effective approach for the United States right now would be to quickly commit to a program that supports alternatives to Assad and opposes ISIS—while making clear that America would back peace talks that include all foreign sponsors and all domestic players in the conflict, with the exception of ISIS and other jihadis.2
This brief argues that such an approach is an essential precursor to any “Moscow Track” for Syria, and could well render it obsolete. It lays out where American and Russian interests in Syria overlap and where they diverge, and examines the limits of Russia’s going it alone. Finally, it outlines a course of U.S. action that would expand the options for the Syria crisis beyond the limited and troublesome alternative solutions currently under consideration.
Russia’s Interests—and America’s
Syria is Russia’s most solid foothold in the Arab world, and offers a strategic alliance, military contracts, and a critical naval base in Tartus. So, in the short term, Russia’s ramp-up is only an increase in the degree of Moscow’s long-running commitment to the regime of Bashar al-Assad.3 Many foreign and domestic constituencies are also influencing the course of Syria’s war. Arab monarchies in the Gulf, along with Turkey, have kept alive a Sunni-dominated insurgency that has fought the regime and its backers to a stalemate. The fighting has catastrophically crippled the nation’s institutions and infrastructure.
If the United States does not respond to Russia’s latest move with a concrete shift in policy soon, it will effectively cede the theater to Damascus, and its patrons in Iran and Russia. Eventually, momentum could shift in the regime’s favor. If Russia solidifies its presence in Syria further and installs better air defenses, the United States will no longer be able to easily consider pivotal interventions, such as establishing a no-fly zone.
Not all of Russia’s interests and intentions in Syria conflict with those of the United States, however, and in fact several overlap:
- Moscow and Washington abhor jihadi extremists and are obsessed with protecting their homeland from terrorist attacks.
- Both fear “blowback” from movements they have fought abroad.
- Neither power likes a power vacuum in a strategically sensitive Middle East; despite Washington’s looser rhetoric, both powers are fundamentally conservative about regime change.
- Both want to preserve the institutions of the Syrian state and keep its borders intact at the end of the current civil war. In fact, both powers are invested in the existing Arab state system and do not wish to see the emergence of new states or the redrawing of borders.
But a number of crucial differences separate the two powers:
- While Russia sees Bashar al-Assad as a solid partner, the United States sees him as a long-term strategic threat who cynically allowed jihadis to flourish in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and backed militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
- Russia supports the Iran-Syria alliance and an arc of anti-American regimes and non-state actors from Tehran to the Mediterranean. For obvious reasons the United States sees that alliance as a threat to its hegemony in the region and to the rough alliance of U.S.-allied Arab states.
- Russia and the United States are at loggerheads elsewhere: over the Ukraine, energy supplies to Europe, and the Iranian nuclear program.
- The two powers exhibit vastly different levels of willingness and capacity to fight ISIS.
- Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Russia has much more narrow and easier to fulfill strategic aims: shore up a local client dictator, preserve a military foothold, and dent jihadist capabilities. The United States on the other hand has a wide range of hard-to-reconcile regional aims; and for all its equivocation, Washington’s aim is to stabilize the region. It does not have the luxury and clarity of a spoiler’s agenda.
What Can Russia Actually Achieve?
Much of Washington’s reaction to Russia’s surge has been devoid of context and long-term perspective. Of course, an injection of Russian fighters and equipment will change the dynamics of the fight; but there is no evidence that Russian intervention will have a conclusive impact. By way of comparison, a considerably larger U.S. occupation force in Iraq was unable to eliminate Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s precursor. And the Soviet Union’s attempt to decisively shore up a local partner against jihadi rebels—in Afghanistan in the 1980s—failed mightily.
Russia and Iran both benefit from an inflated reputation in Syria. Both powers have spent considerable funds and manpower to prop up a regime that has steadily lost ground during four years of war. Betting on the regime has been costly, and Russia’s decision to double down exposes it to still greater risks and costs. It will take time to see whether Russia is engaging in a limited and achievable intervention—striking ISIS while shoring up the regime’s heartland—or a more far-fetched all-out venture to win the war outright for Assad.
Syria’s dynamics are unique, of course, but there is no sound reason to predict Russia can wipe out the anti-Assad rebellion as it now stands. Foreign influence has shaped the Syrian war for years—through the limited impact of previous gambits in Syria by the United States, Iran, and the Arab Gulf monarchies—but has not been able to decide its outcome, underscoring the need for modest Russian expectations.
Russia and Iran together can probably assure that their local partner in Damascus remains in power over some portion of Syria, but it is less clear whether they can re-extend Assad’s ambit beyond the rump state he controls today. It is even less clear what will survive of Syria’s national institutions. And there will surely be blowback. Fighters from Chechnya and other former Soviet republics already are fighting with the Syrian rebels. Their ranks are almost guaranteed to swell now that Russia has publicly upped its ante in Syria.
How Should the United States Respond?
Until now the United States followed a wishy-washy course, typified by the “non-strike event” in the summer of 2013,4 when Washington backed down from its threat to intervene against Assad’s use of chemical weapons.5 Once America abandoned its fixed red lines,6Washington downgraded its already limited leverage over the conflict, while remaining vulnerable to its consequences. Ever since, the major players in Syria have vastly lowered their expectation of any U.S. involvement whatsoever, whether political, economic, or military.
The United States wants Assad gone, but has done little to hasten his fall because the available options to replace him are poor. Washington wants “moderate” rebels, but also does not want to get dragged into a civil war. As a result, it has not given any meaningful support to any militia that has a serious combat presence, and it has not exercised any political or military muscle that would change the balance of power on the ground.
At times, Washington has even appeared to believe that a quagmire in Syria would somehow serve U.S. interests by draining the resources of a gang of bad actors: Iran, Hezbollah, Assad, Russia, the money men in the Arabian peninsula, ISIS, and Al Qaeda.7Counterterrorism officials seemed to believe that the threat from ISIS was local, and could be bottled up in the Levant without any blowback beyond Syria’s borders.
All the assumptions underlying American inaction, however, were blown apart by a series of cataclysmic events: the concurrent implosion of Syria and Iraq in 2014 at the hands of ISIS, followed by the entrenchment of a sustainable jihadist empire headquartered in Mosul, and finally a human wave of displaced people remaking the demographics of Syria’s neighbors and flowing through Europe. No matter how hard the U.S. government has tried to contain, cauterize, or ignore the Syria war, its strategic ramifications continue to demand notice.
Putin’s showmanship has once again created a sense of urgency, just as the refugee crisis, the emergence of ISIS, and the use of chemical weapons did in early periods of the war. In response, some analysts and politicians in the United States have focused on the public relations fallout from Russia outmaneuvering Washington.8 In the case of Syria, that image reflects reality. Russia is achieving its admittedly simpler, Machiavellian goals far more successfully than the United States because Russia is far more committed, has dedicated far greater resources, and has a solid ally in power in Damascus.
If, after all the political calculations are made, the United States is unwilling to shoulder the risks of a heavier involvement in Syria, then it must make a clear case that inaction is a safer, smarter, and more responsible course than intervention. It must argue that any greater military involvement would make the human toll worse. And if it decides to pursue inaction and still wants to maintain some semblance of its role as a humanitarian world leader, the United States must also make a serious production of spending money and resources to contain the wider fallout of the conflict in terms of contagion and refugees. Washington has led international donations to the Syrian refugee response and insists it is a priority, but American contributions have been inadequate to address the crisis. United Nations appeals remain massively underfunded, and millions of refugees live without any secure status in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. If the United States decides to limit itself to addressing the humanitarian needs, it must immediately commit to resettling a number of refugees in the six figures, and ought to commit enough money to fully fund the UN’s Syrian refugee appeals.
A better course of action would be to get off the fence and aggressively pursue a plan that promotes an inclusive national solution to the Syrian conflict, one that would address core concerns about governance, corruption, and the disenfranchisement of many Sunnis.
Such a course would be fragile and full of risks, but the alternative is worse: a de facto alliance with Putin, Assad, and Tehran in shaping the future of Syria. In that scenario, the very same parties that drove Syria to collapse and green-lit the unfurling of a massive international jihadi wave would dictate the terms of a counter-jihad, with the United States playing a supporting role. An American junior partnership with Assad and Putin would be bad geopolitics for the United States—and it also would be unlikely to bring peace to Syria.
What would a more effective solution look like? The United States cannot wisely sign onto an anti-ISIS alliance composed solely of Assad, Russia, and Tehran. A genuine anti-ISIS campaign must have support from Syrian Sunnis if it is to have any chance of success. A national coalition backed by all the major non-jihadi players would be the only viable vehicle for fighting ISIS and stabilizing Syria as a whole. It would be a long shot—and it would become a possibility only if the United States decided to provide a significant counterweight to the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran alliance.
That position would entail a serious and major U.S. commitment, including a no-fly zone and safe havens, and partnerships with any non-jihadi militias willing to rhetorically embrace basic values of pluralism and shared governance.
Crucially, this American involvement must be accompanied by a new diplomatic initiative from Washington, inviting all the conflict’s foreign sponsors and all its domestic stakeholders—except for the jihadis—to take part in designing and supporting a transitional government. Assad and his circle would have to be part of that negotiation.
Talking to Putin about Syria will not make America look more ineffectual and disconnected than it already does. On the other hand, there is no reason to start a dialogue unless the White House has something to say. Articulating and putting resources behind a regional strategy to resolve the Syrian problem would be a good opening statement in any conversation with Russia.
1. Dmitri Trenin, “Like It or Not, America and Russia Need to Cooperate in Syria,” Carnegie Moscow Center, September 17, 2015,http://carnegie.ru/2015/09/17/like-it-or-not-america-and-russia-need-to-cooperate-in-syria/ihuf.
2. Thanassis Cambanis, “A Plan for Syria,” The Century Foundation. July 28, 2015, http://tcf.org/work/foreign_policy/detail/a-plan-for-syria.
3. Borzou Daragahi and Max Seddon, “This Is What’s Behind Russia’s Push Into Syria,” BuzzFeed News. September 16, 2015,http://buzzfeed.com/borzoudaragahi/this-is-whats-behind-russias-push-into-syria?utm_term=.hxEzEKAKj5#.am50r2PlPE.
4. Patrice Taddonio, “‘The President Blinked’: Why Obama Changed Course on the ‘Red Line’ in Syria,” Frontline, May 25, 2015,http://pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/obama-at-war/the-president-blinked-why-obama-changed-course-on-the-red-line-in-syria/.
5. Mark Landler and Jonathan Weisman, “Obama Delays Syria Strike to Focus on a Russian Plan,” New York Times, September 10, 2013, http://nytimes.com/2013/09/11/world/middleeast/syrian-chemical-arsenal.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0.
6. Josh Rogin, “Syria Crosses Obama’s New Red Line,” Bloomberg View, March 19, 2015,http://bloombergview.com/articles/2015-03-19/syria-s-chemical-attacks-cross-obama-s-new-red-line.
7. Thanassis Cambanis, “How Do You Say ‘Quagmire’ in Farsi?” Foreign Policy, May 13, 2015,http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/05/13/how-do-you-say-quagmire-in-farsi; and Thanassis Cambanis, “Should America let Syria fight on?” Boston Globe, April 7, 2013, https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2013/04/06/should-america-let-syria-fight/UUtDpctZYyeymgSjgRSBWK/story.html.
8. Jonathan Broder, “Can Putin Save Assad in Syria?” Newsweek, September 16, 2015, http://newsweek.com/russia-syria-isis-putin-obama-assad-372864.
GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
Published in The Boston Globe Ideas.
LAST MONTH, in a pre-Christmas surprise, the White House announced a major foreign policy breakthrough on a front that almost nobody was watching: Cuba and the United States were ending nearly a half century of hostility, after secret negotiations authorized by the president and undertaken with help from the pope. Lately, America’s zigzagging on the grinding war in Syria and Iraq has attracted the most attention, but President Obama has punctuated his six years in power with a series of foreign policy flourishes, among them ending the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; launching an international military intervention in Libya; and a “reset” with Russia, which ultimately failed.
Time is running short. Obama has only two more years in office, and an oppositional Congress that will likely block any major domestic policy initiatives. But the president’s opening with Cuba raises a question. What other foreign-policy rabbits might this lame-duck president try to pull out of his hat?
Obama often talks about the arc of his history and his legacy. And we know from history that presidents in the sunset of their terms often turn their focus to foreign policy, where they have a freer hand. The presidential drift abroad has been even more pronounced in administrations that face an opposition Congress and limited support for any ambitious domestic agenda items.
Despite keeping his promises to end two wars and to reestablish America’s power to persuade, not just coerce, Obama has drawn some scorn as a foreign policy president. Poobahs across the spectrum from right to left have derided him for not having a policy (drifting on Syria, passively responding to the Arab Spring), for naively pursuing diplomacy (the reset with Russia, the pivot to Asia), for adopting his predecessor’s militarism (the surge in Afghanistan, the war on ISIS).
But, free from any future elections, the president may finally be at liberty to engineer bigger symbolic moves, like the recent rapprochement with Cuba. He can even try for politically unpopular policy realignments that would ultimately benefit his successor.
So what bold gambits might Obama reach for in his final two years? We’re talking here about unlikely developments, but ones that, with a push from a willing White House, could actually happen. Here’s a look at what might be on Obama’s wish list, and his real chances of grabbing any of these wonky Holy Grails.
A stand on torture
IN ITS WAR ON TERROR, America adopted a number of tactics that its leaders used to call un-American. Some of them appear here to stay, like remote-control bombing runs by robot planes (known by the anodyne moniker “drone strikes”), which have killed more than 2,400 people and have become the most common way Obama pursues suspected militants in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
But other tactics have lingered long after the White House has concluded they are counterproductive: most notably the use of torture, and the indefinite detention of enemies without charge or trial in the limbo prison at Guantanamo Bay. President George W. Bush, toward the end of his term, backtracked on both policies, quietly roping in the use of torture and exploring ways to shut down Gitmo. Obama has taken a more assertive moral stance on the issue, perhaps because he realized that America’s treatment of detainees delivered a propaganda boon to its enemies—and increased the risk of similar mistreatment for American detainees. But though he ended torture, he hasn’t settled the political debate, nor has he managed to close Guantanamo Bay.
This is one problem that Obama could resolve by fiat, if he were willing to deal with the inevitable political yelps. He could close Guantanamo Bay overnight, sending dangerous detainees to face trial in the United States, shipping others to allied states like Saudi Arabia, and releasing the rest (many of whom have spent more than a decade incarcerated). To those who would accuse him of putting America at risk by not detaining accused terrorists without charge forever, Obama could point to the US Constitution and shrug his shoulders. As for torture, some believe the best move would be to follow the South African model of a truth commission that airs all the grisly details, while granting immunity from prosecution to those who testify. Of course, critics of torture would decry the amnesty, and supporters would decry the release of narrative details.
Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt says to forget the truth commission. The simplest way for Obama to end one of the most contentious debates in America, he argues, is with a set of sweeping pardons for all those involved in torture. That could include officials from Bush on down, as well as leakers like Chelsea Manning. In an e-mail, Walt said such a move would be a “game changer,” although one with odds so long that he put it in the category of “foreign policy black swans.” “I regard it as very, very unlikely, but it would be a huge step,” he said.
Presidential pardons could make clear that torture and extrajudicial detention were illegal mistakes, while simultaneously freeing whistle-blowers and closing the books on the whole affair. Obama could even wait until after the 2016 presidential election has been decided, altogether eliminating political risk.
A détente with North Korea
EPA/KCNA ; GLOBE STAFF PHOTO ILLUSTRATION
NORTH KOREA entered the news recently because of its alleged role in the Sony hack over the silly film “The Interview.” But the hermit kingdom isn’t a problem because of its leader Kim Jong-un’s absurd cult of personality. No, North Korea poses a problem because it’s a belligerent, opaque, hyper-militarized state that stands outside the international system and is armed with serious rockets, nuclear warheads, and a powerful military.
One fraught area remains the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. About 30,000 American personnel are deployed there, and North Korea routinely provokes deadly clashes to remind the world of its resolve.
If Obama could finally end the Korean war—officially just in a cease-fire since 1953—he would resolve the most dangerous flashpoint in Asia and perhaps the world. Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, has an almost mythic status among villainous world leaders. Millions have suffered in North Korea’s prison camps, and the militarized state maintains a hysterical level of propaganda that makes it stand out even among other “rogue” states. Even China, long the dynasty’s primary backer, has begun to express irritation with North Korean’s volatility.
But all this creates an opportunity, according to veteran Korea watchers. “There’s an opportunity, oddly enough,” says Barbara Demick, author of “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.” “It would require a bold gesture on somebody’s part.”
Kim Jong-un, third in the family dynasty, has lived abroad and appears more open-minded than his father, Demick says. More importantly, despite the anti-American rhetoric, North Korea might want to end its comparatively young feud with the United States, which dates only to the 1950s, to better protect itself from the local threat from its millennial rival China.
Earlier efforts at reconciliation in the early 1990s foundered and collapsed after Kim Jong-il cheated on an agreement to freeze his nuclear weapons program. Demick and other experts are more hopeful that his son will be more interested in negotiating. Three years after taking over, Kim Jong-un seems to have consolidated power. He has relaxed some control over private trade, and he executed a senior member of his own regime who was considered China’s man in Pyongyang, asserting himself over rivals within his family and government.
“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un doesn’t seem to want to spend his whole life as the head of a pariah state,” Demick says.
It’s quite difficult to imagine North Korea doing an about face and becoming a friendly US ally in Asia, but surprising things have happened. Vietnam, just a few decades after its horrifying war with the United States, is now as warm to Washington as it is to Beijing. Obama could try to end one of the world’s longest lingering hot wars by forging a peace treaty with Pyongyang.
A grand bargain with Iran
AMERICA’S RELATIONSHIP with Iran never recovered from the trauma of the US embassy takeover and hostage crisis of 1980. Iran, flush with oil cash and the messianic fervor of Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution, has been at the center of regional events ever since. Iran has been perhaps the most influential force in the Arab world, helping to form Hezbollah, prop up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, and foiling America’s plans in Iraq.
Of late, attention has focused on negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, but that’s arguably not the most problematic aspect of Iran’s power in the region. A regional proxy war between two Islamic theocracies awash in petrodollars—Shia Iran and Sunni Iraq—has contaminated the entire Arab world. Resolving Iran’s major grievances and reintegrating it into the regional security architecture would reduce tensions in several ongoing hot wars and dramatically reduce risks across the board.
Obama could seek an overall deal with Iran, in which Tehran and its Arab rivals would agree to separate spheres of influence in the region and the United States could reopen its embassy. A Tehran-Riyadh-Washington accord could signal a major realignment in the region and a move toward a more stable state order, and is actually possible—not likely, but possible.
The big protagonists here, Iran and Saudi Arabia, lose a lot of money in their proxy fighting. It’s been 35 years since the 1979 Iranian revolution that brought the ayatollahs to power, and both sides—Riyadh’s Sunni theocrats and Tehran’s Shia ones—have learned that no matter what human and financial resources they pour in, they can’t achieve regional hegemony. Eventually, they’re going to have to coexist. Israel, meanwhile, has maintained a fever pitch about Iran, and should welcome a calming shift.
The trick for today’s White House is what’s going on internally in Iran. “My sense is that if Obama and Kerry could push a button and normalize relations with Iran they’d do so in a heartbeat,” says Karim Sadjadpour, who studies Iran at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The biggest obstacle to normalization is not in Washington, it’s in Tehran. When your official slogan for 35 years is ‘Death to America,’ it’s not easy to make such a fundamental shift.” But if Iran’s president can find a way to de-fang the hard-liners in his own country, Sadjadpour believes, there’d be a strong constituency among the political elites in Iran and the United States for a grand bargain.
A step back from Israel
PRESIDENT AFTER presidenthas poured time and energy into a Middle East peace process that never works. Failures have cost America political prestige around the world. As more governments lose patience with the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, America has found itself defending the Israeli government at the United Nations even as the same Israeli government openly mocks Washington’s agenda.
The bold move that the president could make—potentially changing the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—would be not to invest more in some new variant of the peace process, but simply to care less. Cooling our relations with the Israeli government could reestablish the strategic calculations at the core of the relationship and remove the distracting secondary issues that have accumulated around it. Israel is one of America’s closest military and economic allies, and the tightly woven relationship will survive a political shift. Obama could simply announce that the United States would no longer act as Israel’s main international political advocate, and that we would be happy to let other actors try to negotiate agreements, as the Norwegians did in the early 1990s.
Such a move would not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it would go a long way toward reducing costs for the United States. Washington doesn’t need to own the baggage of its close allies. It could treat Israel like it treats the United Kingdom: as a special ally with extra privileges, but one whose bilateral conflicts are its own business.
“I realize that a president’s hands are tied by Congress when it comes to Israel, but there is plenty that the president can do without congressional approval,” says Diana Buttu, a lawyer and former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. She said that Obama has plenty of options, from using his bully pulpit to condemn Israeli actions to not blocking Palestinian UN resolutions.
Duke political scientist Bruce Jentleson suggests another kind of US surprise: incorporating Hamas into peace talks. “A delicate dance no matter what,” he wrote in an e-mail. “But Middle East peace breakthroughs have usually been through the unexpected,” like Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem, or the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords.
What Jentleson says of Middle East breakthroughs may well be true of other ones as well. Global politics never loses its capacity to catch us off guard, regularly delivering events that experts say are impossible. Only an inveterate optimist would bet money on any of these slim possibilities coming to pass. But only a fool would be certain that they won’t.
[The Internationalist column published in the The Boston Globe Ideas.]
WHAT HAPPENED IN UKRAINE over the past month left even veteran policy-watchers shaking their heads. One day, citizens were serving tea to the heroic demonstrators in Kiev’s Euromaidan, united against an authoritarian president. Almost the next, anonymous special forces fighters in balaclavas were swarming Crimea, answering to no known leader or government, while Europe and the United States grasped in vain for ways to influence events.
Within days, the population of Crimea had voted in a hastily organized referendum to join Russia, and Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, had signed the annexation treaty formally absorbing the strategic peninsula into his nation.
As the dust settles, Western leaders have had to come to terms not only with a new division of Ukraine, but its unsettling implications for how the world works. Part of the shock is in Putin’s tactics, which blended an old-fashioned invasion with some degree of democratic process within the region, and added a dollop of modern insurgent strategies for good measure.
Vladimir Putin at the Plesetsk cosmodrome launch site in northern Russia./PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE VIA REUTERS
But when policy specialists look at the results, they see a starker turning point. Putin’s annexation of the Crimea is a break in the order that America and its allies have come to rely on since the end of the Cold War—namely, one in which major powers only intervene militarily when they have an international consensus on their side, or failing that, when they’re not crossing a rival power’s red lines. It is a balance that has kept the world free of confrontations between its most powerful militaries, and which has, in particular, given the United States, as the most powerful superpower of all, an unusually wide range of motion in the world. As it crumbles, it has left policymakers scrambling to figure out both how to respond, and just how far an emboldened Russia might go.
“WE LIVE IN A DIFFERENT WORLD than we did less than a month ago,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in March. Ukraine could witness more fighting, he warned; the conflict could also spread to other countries on Russia’s borders.
Up until the Crimea crisis began, the world we lived in looked more predictable. The fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter century ago ushered in an era of international comity and institution building not seen since the birth of the United Nations in 1945. International trade agreements proliferated at a dizzying speed. NATO quickly expanded into the heart of the former Soviet bloc, and lawyers designed an International Criminal Court to punish war crimes and constrain state interests.
Only small-to-middling powers like Iran, Israel, and North Korea ignored the conventions of the age of integration and humanitarianism—and their actions only had regional impact, never posing a global strategic threat. The largest powers—the United States, Russia, and China—abided by what amounted to an international gentleman’s agreement not to use their military for direct territorial gains or to meddle in a rival’s immediate sphere of influence. European powers, through NATO, adopted a defensive crouch. The United States, as the world’s dominant military and economic power, maintained the most freedom to act unilaterally, as long as it steered clear of confrontation with Russia or China. It carefully sought international support for its military interventions, even building a “Coalition of the Willing” for its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was not approved by the United Nations. The Iraq war grated at other world powers that couldn’t embark on military adventures of their own; but despite the irritation the United States provoked, American policymakers and strategists felt confident that the United States was obeying the unspoken rules.
If the world community has seemed bewildered by how to respond to Putin’s moves in Crimea over the last month, it’s because Russia has so abruptly interrupted this narrative. Using Russia’s incontestable military might, with the backing of Ukrainians in a subset of that country, he took over a chunk of territory featuring the valuable warm-water port of Sevastopol. The boldness of this move left behind the sanctions and other delicate moves that have become established as persuasive tactics. Suddenly, it seemed, there was no way to halt Russia without outright war.
Some analysts say that Putin appears to have identified a loophole in the post-Cold War world. The sole superpower, the United States, likes to put problems in neat, separate categories that can be dealt with by the military, by police action or by international institutions. When a problem blurs those boundaries—pirates on the high seas, drug cartels with submarines and military-grade weapons—Western governments don’t know what to do. Today, international norms and institutions aren’t configured to react quickly to a legitimate great power willing to use force to get what it wants.
“We have these paradigms in the West about what’s considered policing, and what’s considered warfare, and Putin is riding right up the middle of that,” said Janine Davidson, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former US Air Force officer who believes that Putin’s actions will force the United States to update its approach to modern warfare. “What he’s doing is very clever.”
For obvious reasons, a central concern is how Putin might make use of his Crimean playbook next. He could, for example, try to engineer an ethnic provocation, or a supposedly spontaneous uprising, in any of the near-Russian republics that threatens to ally too closely with the West. Mark Kramer, director of Harvard University’s Project on Cold War Studies, said that Putin has “enunciated his own doctrine of preemptive intervention on behalf of Russian communities in neighboring countries.”
There have been intimations of this approach before. In 2008, Russian infantry pushed into two enclaves in neighboring Georgia, citing claims—which later proved false—that thousands of ethnic Russians were being massacred. Russia quickly routed the Georgian military and took over Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Today the disputed enclaves hover in a sort of twilight zone; they’ve declared independence but were recognized only by Moscow and a few of its allies. Ever since then, Georgian politicians have warned that Russia might do the same thing again: The country could seize a land corridor to Armenia, or try to absorb Moldova, the rest of Ukraine, or even the Baltic States, the only former Soviet Republics to join both NATO and the European Union.
Others see Putin’s reach as limited at best to places where meaningful military resistance is absent and state control weak. Even in Ukraine, Russia experts say, Putin seemed content to wield influence through friendly leaders until protests ran the Ukrainian president out of town and left a power vacuum that alarmed Moscow. Graham, the former Bush administration official, said it would be a long shot for Putin to move his military into other republics: There are few places with Crimea’s combination of an ethnic Russian enclave, an absence of state authority, and little risk of Western intervention.
The larger worry, of course, is who else might want to follow Russia’s example. China is the clearest concern, and from time to time has shown signs of trying to throw its weight around its region, especially in disputed areas of the South China Sea. But so far it has been Chinese fishing boats and coast guard vessels harassing foreign fishermen, with the Chinese navy carefully staying away in order not to trigger a military response. For the moment, at least, Putin seems willing to upend this delicately balanced world order on his own.
THE INTERNATIONAL community’s flat-footed response in Crimea raises clear questions: What should the United States and its allies do if this kind of land grab happens again—and is there a way to prevent such moves in the first place?
“This is a new period that calls for a new strategy,” said Michael A. McFaul, who stepped down as US ambassador to Russia a few weeks before the Crimea crisis. “Putin has made it clear that he doesn’t care what the West thinks.”
So far the international response has entailed soft power pressure that is designed to have an effect over the long term. The United States and some European governments have instated limited economic sanctions targeting some of Putin’s close advisers, and Russia has been kicked out of the G-8. There’s talk of reinvigorating NATO to discourage Putin from further adventurism. So far, though, NATO has turned out to be a blunt instrument: great for unifying its members to respond to a direct attack, but clumsy at projecting power beyond its boundaries. As Putin reorients away from the West and toward a Greater Russia, it remains to be seen whether soft-power deterrents matter to him at all.
Beyond these immediate measures, American experts are surprisingly short on specific suggestions about what more to do, perhaps because it’s been so long since they’ve had to contemplate a major rival engaging in such aggressive behavior. At the hawkish end, people like Davidson worry that Putin could repeat his expansion unless he sees a clear threat of military intervention to stop him. She thinks the United States and NATO ought to place advisers and hardware in the former Soviet republics, creating arrangements that signal Western military commitment. It’s a delicate dance, she said; the West has to be careful not to provoke further aggression while creating enough uncertainty to deter Putin.
Other observers in the field have made more modest economic proposals. Some have urged major investment in the economies of contested countries like Ukraine and Moldova, at the scale of the post-World War II Marshall Plan, and a long-term plan to wean Western Europe off Russian natural gas supplies, through which Moscow has gained enormous leverage, especially over Germany.
Davidson, however, believes that a deeper rethink is necessary, so that the United States won’t get tied up in knots or outflanked every time a powerful nation like Russia uses the stealthy¸ unpredictable tactics of non-state actors to pursue its goals. “We need to look at our definitions of military and law enforcement,” she said. “What’s a crime? What’s an aggressive act that requires a military response?”
McFaul, the former ambassador, said we’re in for a new age of confrontation because of Putin’s choices, and both the United States and Russia will find it more difficult to achieve their goals. In retrospect, he said, we’ll realize that the first decades after the Cold War offered a unique kind of safety, a de facto moratorium on Great Power hardball. That lull now seems to be over.
“It’s a tragic moment,” McFaul said.
Cops say they figure out a suspect’s intentions by watching his hands, not by listening to what comes out of his mouth. The same goes for American foreign policy. Whatever Washington may be saying about its global priorities, America’s hands tend to be occupied in the Middle East, site of all America’s major wars since Vietnam and the target of most of its foreign aid and diplomatic energy.
How to handle the Middle East has become a major point in the presidential campaign, with President Obama arguing for flexibility, patience, and a long menu of options, and challenger Mitt Romney promising a tougher, more consistent approach backed by open-ended military force.
Lurking behind the debate over tactics and approach, however, is a challenge rarely mentioned. The broad strategy that underlies American policy in the region, the Carter Doctrine, is now more than 30 years old, and in dire need of an overhaul. Issued in 1980 and expanded by presidents from both parties, the Carter doctrine now drives American engagement in a Middle East that looks far different from the region for which it was invented.
President Jimmy Carter confronted another time of great turmoil in the region. The US-supported Shah had fallen in Iran, the Soviets had invaded Afghanistan, and anti-Americanism was flaring, with US embassies attacked and burned. His new doctrine declared a fundamental shift. Because of the importance of oil, security in the Persian Gulf would henceforth be considered a fundamental American interest. The United States committed itself to using any means, including military force, to prevent other powers from establishing hegemony over the Gulf. In the same way that the Truman Doctrine and NATO bound America’s security to Europe’s after World War II, the Carter Doctrine elevated a crowded and contested Middle Eastern shipping lane to nearly the same status as American territory.
In 2012, we look back on a recent level of American engagement with the Middle East never seen before. Even the failures have been failures from which we can learn. The decade that began with the US invasion of Afghanistan and ended with a civil war in Syria holds some transformative lessons, ones that could point the next president toward a new strategy far better suited to what the modern Middle East actually looks like—and to America’s own values.
President Carterissued his new doctrine in what would turn out to be his final State of the Union speech in January 1980. America had been shaken by the oil shocks of the 1970s, in which the Arab-dominated OPEC asserted its control, and also by the fall of the tyrannical Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Shah of Iran, who had been a stalwart security partner to the United States and Israel.
Nearly everyone in America and most Western economies shared Carter’s immediate goal of protecting the free flow of oil. What was significant was the path he chose to accomplish it. Carter asserted that the United States would take direct charge of security in this turbulent part of the world, rather than take the more indirect, diplomatic approach of balancing regional powers against each other and intervening through proxies and allies. It was the doctrine of a micromanager looking to prevent the next crisis.
Carter’s focus on oil unquestionably made sense, and the doctrine proved effective in the short term. Despite more war and instability in the Middle East, America was insulated from oil shocks and able to begin a long period of economic growth, in part predicated on cheap petrochemicals. But in declaring the Gulf region an American priority, it effectively tied us to a single patch of real estate, a shallow waterway the same size as Oregon, even when it was tangential, or at times inimical, to our greater goal of energy security. The result has been an ever-increasing American investment in the security architecture of the Persian Gulf, from putting US flags on foreign tankers during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, to assembling a huge network of bases after Operation Desert Storm in 1991, to the outright regime-building effort of the Iraq War.
In theory, however, none of this is necessary. America doesn’t really need to worry about who controls the Gulf, so long as there’s no threat to the oil supply. What it does need is to maintain relations in the region that are friendly, or friendly enough, and able to survive democratic changes in regime—and to prevent any other power from monopolizing the region.
The Carter Doctrine, and the policies that have grown up to enforce it, are based on a set of assumptions about American power that might never have been wholly accurate. They assume America has relatively little persuasive influence in the region, but a great deal of effective police power: the ability to control major events like regional wars by supporting one side or even intervening directly, and to prevent or trigger regime change.
Our more recent experience in the Middle East has taught us the opposite lesson. It has become painfully clear over the last 10 years that America has little ability to control transformative events or to order governments around. Over the past decade, when America has made demands, governments have resolutely not listened. Israel kept building settlements. Saudi Arabia kept funding jihadis and religious extremists. Despots in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia, and Libya resisted any meaningful reform. Even in Iraq, where America physically toppled one regime and installed another, a costly occupation wasn’t enough to create the Iraqi government that Washington wanted. The long-term outcome was frustratingly beyond America’s control.
When it comes to requests, however, especially those linked to enticements, the recent past has more encouraging lessons. Analysts often focus on the failings of George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” period in the Middle East; democracy didn’t break out, but the evidence shows that no matter how reluctantly, regional leaders felt compelled to respond to sustained diplomatic requests, in public and private, to open up political systems. It wasn’t just the threat of a big stick: Egypt and Israel weren’t afraid of an Iraq-style American invasion, yet they acceded to diplomatic pressure from the secretary of state to liberalize their political spheres. Egypt loosened its control over the opposition in 2005 and 2006 votes, while Israel let Hamas run in (and win) the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. Even prickly Gulf potentates gave dollops of power to elected parliaments. It wasn’t all that America asked, but it was significant.
Paradoxically, by treating the Persian Gulf as an extension of American territory, Washington has reduced itself from global superpower to another neighborhood power, one than can be ignored, or rebuffed, or hectored from across the border. The more we are committed to the Carter Doctrine approach, which makes the military our central tool and physical control of the Gulf waters our top priority, the less we are able to shape events.
The past decade, meanwhile, suggests that soft power affords us some potent levers. The first is money. None of the Middle Eastern countries have sustainable economies; most don’t even have functional ones. The oil states are cash-rich but by no means self-sufficient. They’re dependent on outside expertise to make their countries work, and on foreign markets to sell their oil. Even Israel, which has a real and diverse economy, depends on America’s largesse to undergird its military. That economic power gives America lots of cards to play.
The second is defense. The majority of the Arab world, plus Israel, depends on the American military to provide security. In some cases the protection is literal, as in Bahrain, Qatar, and Kuwait, where US installations project power; elsewhere, as in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, it’s indirect but crucial. (American contractors, for instance, maintain Saudi Arabia’s air force.) America’s military commitments in the Middle East aren’t something it can take or leave as it suits; it’s a marriage, not a dalliance. A savvier diplomatic approach would remind beneficiaries that they can’t take it for granted, and that they need to respond to the nation that provides it.
The Carter Doctrineclearly hasn’t worked out as intended; America is more entangled than ever before, while its stated aims—a secure and stable Persian Gulf, free from any outside control but our own—seem increasingly out of reach. A growing, bipartisan tide of policy intellectuals has grappled with the question of what should replace it, especially given our recent experience.
One response has been to seek a more morally consistent strategy, one that seeks to encourage a better-governed Middle East. This idea has percolated on the left and the right. Alumni of Bush’s neoconservative foreign-policy brain trust, including Elliott Abrams, have argued that a consistent pro-democratic agenda would better serve US interests, creating a more stable region that is less prone to disruptions in the oil supply. Voices on the left have made a similar argument since the Arab uprisings; they include humanitarian interventionists like Anne-Marie Slaughter at Princeton, who argue for stronger American intervention in support of Syria’s rebels. Liberal fans of development and political freedoms have called for a “prosperity agenda,” arguing that societies with civil liberties and equitably distributed economic growth are not only better for their own citizens but make better American allies.
Then there’s a school that says the failures of the last decade prove that America should keep out of the Middle East almost entirely. Things turn out just as badly when we intervene, these critics argue, and it costs us more; oil will reach markets no matter how messy the region gets. This school includes small-footprint realists like Stephen Walt at Harvard and pugilistic anti-imperial conservatives like Andrew Bacevich at Boston University. (Bacevich argues that the more the US intervenes with military power to create stability in the oil-producing Middle East, the more instability it produces.)
While the realists think we should disentangle from the region because the US can exert strategic power from afar, others say we should pull back for moral reasons as well. That’s the argument made over the last year by Toby Craig Jones, a political scientist at Rutgers University who says that the US Navy should dissolve its Fifth Fleet base so it can cut ties with the troublesome and oppressive regime in Bahrain. America’s military might guarantees that no power—not Iran, not Iraq, not the Russians—can sweep in and take control of the world’s oil supply. Therefore, the argument goes, there’s no need for America to attend to every turn of the screw in the region.
What’s clear, from any of these perspectives, is that the Carter Doctrine is a blunt tool from a different time. It’s now possible, even preferable, to craft a policy more in keeping with the modern Middle East, and also more in line with American values. It might sound obvious to say that Washington should be pushing for a liberalized, economically self-sufficient, stable, but democratic Middle East, and that there are better tools than military power to reach those aims. In fact, that would mark a radical change for the nation—and it’s a course that the next president may well find within his power to plot.
In my latest Internationalist column for The Boston Globe, I write about a group of critics I think of as “new isolationists” — cosmopolitan and balanced advocates for a modest, demilitarized, less interventionist American foreign policy. They’re urbane, they care about the world, but they think America meddles far too much — a level of interference that hurts America as much as the rest of the world.
These old-school realists come at the question from different perspectives but they all share in common a willingness to challenge the received wisdom about America’s approach to the world, and to question whether militaristic interventionism objectively has helped or harmed America’s economy and security. Their critique has matured in the decade since 9/11, and the time is ripe, I think, for us to reconsider their arguments.
There are few ways to get Democrats and Republicans to agree faster than by bringing up national security. Should America invest in a dominant, high-tech military? Should it spend time, treasure, and lives intervening in distant lands and protecting allies? Almost always, the short answer is a resounding yes. Ever since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt browbeat the skeptics and brought America into the Second World War, the country’s foreign policy has been robustly — some would say aggressively — interventionist.
Disagreements have flared only over the details: where to intervene and with what tools. Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, both right and left took for granted America’s position as lone superpower — and that securing America required complex engagements in global conflicts. There’s mainly a difference in tone between “liberal order building,” Princeton grand strategist G. John Ikenberry’s proposal for how America should reestablish its global position, and conservative historian Robert Kagan’s unapologetic demand for American “primacy.”
This consensus in the world’s leading economy has underwritten an unparalleled military that can strike anywhere in the world. The United States has invested trillions of dollars in projecting power, and immeasurable amounts of political capital fulfilling what it considers its rightful, if exhausting, role. Its policy makers have assumed that America must police disputes from the Straits of Taiwan to the Straits of Hormuz. The next 10 largest militaries combined do not equal America’s in size, expense, or power.
But all that glitter obscures a glaring failure, according to an increasingly energized phalanx of critics. While their prescriptions vary, they all believe America suffers from imperial overreach, fighting abroad to the detriment of prosperity at home. MIT’s Barry Posen has been developing “the case for restraint,” calling for the “stingy” use of military power. Boston University historian Andrew Bacevich argues in his latest book, “Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War,” that America has become a national security state addicted to military interventions that justify its vast defense apparatus. And the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, in the latest issue of the National Interest, charges that American interventionism creates more threats than it neutralizes. They, and a handful of other thinkers, say that America needs to stop meddling far and wide and concentrate on its forgotten, core interests — if it is not already too late. “The results have been disastrous,” says Mearsheimer.
The nail-biting saga of General Stanley McChrystal’s Rolling Stone interview has riveted a wide audience whose interest in Afghanistan had otherwise flagged. Shortly we’ll know whether he keeps his job, and the hyperventilating will subside over civil-military relations (On life support? Healthier than ever?).
McChrystal’s personality aside, however, the American government needs to figure out something much more urgent and important: Is his counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan working? Based on what we’ve learned in the last year, can it work at all?
President Obama hired McChrystal to turn around a war that had stagnated. He was chosen to execute a nimble counterinsurgency strategy, a campaign designed to stabilize Afghanistan and win popular support among Afghanis, harnessing military, political and economic policy.
The prior strategy wasn’t working – the Taliban had made a dramatic comeback in the years since the original invasion in 2001. Even the most vocal proponents of counterinsurgency doctrine cautioned that it had no guarantee of succeeding. To give counterinsurgency a fighting chance might require more troops, money and time than the United States was willing and able to give. (That caveat presaged some early advocates’ current view that there were never enough resources tasked to make a COIN campaign viable.)
Now the U.S. is a year into McChrystal’s plan: the halfway point to the summer of 2011 when the surge is supposed to end and American troop numbers will be reduced. So much has gone off script, however, that it raises questions about whether McChrystal’s blueprint still applies.
- President Hamid Karzai has broken ranks, frequently attacking his U.S. patrons in public.
- The Taliban has gotten stronger militarily.
- The first showcase offensive in Marjah has so far failed to stabilize the town or deny the Taliban sanctuary there.
- This summer’s major showcase offensive in Taliban-dominated Kandahar has been indefinitely postponed.
- Pakistan has derailed efforts to negotiate with the Taliban, even arresting the Taliban’s number-two when he held clandestine meetings with the United Nations.
All these events don’t prove that the U.S. can’t achieve its aims in Afghanistan – but that’s the conclusion to which they’re beginning to point. Counterinsurgency defines the toolkit the military brings to the fight; it doesn’t actually answer the question of what America should do.
Over the next year, if it hopes to establish some lasting stable order in Afghanistan, America will need a far greater unity of effort between its generals, its diplomats, its special envoys, and its friends in the Afghan and Pakistani governments. With or without McChrystal, the United States will have to make course corrections in Afghanistan as the war unfolds.
Quick briefing materials
Fred Kaplan at Slate argues that McChrystal and his loose-lipped team reveal a war effort spinning of control.
Leslie H. Gelb at The Daily Beast argues that the Democratic Party suffers from a permanent culture clash with the military.
Andrew Exum writes a thoughtful post about whether the assumptions behind the current strategy in Afghanistan still hold up. He also struggles with the implications of firing/not firing McChrystal in these two posts.
In the “Is History Repeating Itself?” department we have Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s post-mortem on the last general fired from running the Afghan year, just about a year ago.
And finally, the Michael Hastings article in Rolling Stone that kicked off the fuss, and which – the scandal aside – raises pointed questions about whether the counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan makes any sense.
Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress and Andrew Exum at the Center for New American Security tangled this week over Afghanistan strategy. Brian said the counter-insurgency community had hoodwinked Washington, and Andrew said that the Center for American Progress hadn’t presented compelling plans for Iraq and Afghanistan. Michael Cohen prompted the kerfuffle when he argued that the left had failed to question the war in Afghanistan and propose credible alternatives.
All of which got me thinking: can the think tank community propel a smart, substance-focused public debate about America’s strategic aims in Afghanistan? I have in mind a probing, impolitic assessment of whether the current tactics can achieve that strategy. CAP invited CNAS to take part in a public debate, which Exum said he we would happily join after returning from a dissertation leave. But I’d like to see these thinkers applying their brains to the big sprawling questions. Think tanks are largely extensions of different power constituencies in Washington, so perhaps it’s naïve, or structurally impossible, to expect them to re-frame the Afghanistan debate so that it includes more than the current two options: leave, or stay and fight, with some debate over the timeline and number of troops.
I expected this kind of vigorous reappraisal in 2009, during the Obama Administration’s Afghanistan policy reviews. However, the government ended up focusing on narrow questions, like how many troops were required to execute a counter-insurgency strategy, and on what timeline American troops should withdraw. The public never heard an airing of the underlying strategic questions:
- What tactics have been most effective at killing, capturing or deterring individuals and organizations whose goal is to conduct terrorist attacks beyond Afghanistan’s borders?
- What is America’s desired end-state in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Is it achievable, especially considering Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s drift away from the U.S. and Pakistan’s internal problems?
- If not, can America disentangle itself from Afghanistan in its tenth year of war there, even without achieving its principal war aims?
- If the U.S. cannot midwife a stable Afghanistan (or Pakistan) then what is the most effective way to combat the international terrorist groups currently thriving in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan?
These questions are tough, and probing honest answers would probably require the defense and South Asia experts to jettison some of their previous conclusions and criticize the policies of some of their friends and colleagues. But it would be a healthy and illuminating discussion at a moment when the course set largely by General Stanley McChrystal’s report last fall seems not to be yielding the desired results.