US president Barack Obama has yet to work out exactly what America’s strategy is in confronting Islamic State (IS), and has been foolish enough to say so in public. Cue the foreseeable torrent of point-scoring from opponents.

As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp perceptively pointed out, however, a more sympathetic interpretation of what Obama meant in context is not “that he has no idea what he’s doing in Iraq”, but rather that:

… there is no good strategy available for fully defeating ISIS in both Iraq and Syria.

With all due respect to a Washington foreign policy community apparently surprised and annoyed by Obama’s reluctance to jump in with both feet with a major military intervention, his instincts are sound.

I have written in The Conversation before that the smorgasbord of unpalatable options available to Obama owes a great deal to the cataclysmically destabilising actions in the region of his predecessor, most especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I have also argued elsewhere that the president was wise to be extremely wary of wading into an interventionist role during the early stages of the Syrian civil war.

Arguments that the US could have averted IS’s rise by funnelling weapons to moderates at the right time are a comforting fantasy, predicated on an inflated estimation of the United States’ ability to shape events on the ground.

But let’s not re-litigate the past here. What can or should Obama do? And is he guilty of shilly-shallying in a situation that demands urgent action?

First, the obvious. IS’s rise is bad from the perspective of pretty much everybody except the group itself. As an ideological force it combines religious fundamentalism, sectarianism and brutality in such a strong brew that even al-Qaeda doesn’t want to be associated with its actions.

With its proclivity for mass executions, forced conversions and ethnic cleansing, IS has managed the impressive feat of being utterly friendless in a region where being the right person’s enemy is usually sufficient to make you at least one or two allies of convenience. As Slate’s Fred Kaplan put it:

It’s a phenomenal thing: Everybody hates ISIS – the United States, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Israel. Nearly all Middle Eastern countries and their big-power backers (including Russia and probably China too) would like to see it crushed.

Its new tactic of gruesomely beheading kidnapped American journalists – partly as ransom-blackmail scheme, partly a pose of warped ideological bravado – has merely confirmed its status as the ne plus ultra of international pariahs. This should augur well for bringing about its ultimate defeat. The chief obstacle lies in the fact that while all these governments may not want to see IS triumphant, the incompatibilities between what they do want are sufficiently stark as to render concerted action tricky.

The decisions about limited US intervention that Obama has had to make thus far have been, if not so easy as to be automatic, then at least not among the most challenging he has ever had to make.

When northern Iraq’s Kurds, arguably the United States’ most solid and reliable allies in the region for the last two decades, needed support from the air to repel a sudden IS advance into their domain, retake a key dam and facilitate the escape of thousands of fleeing Yazidi civilians trapped on a mountain, it was an unwelcome re-entangling of the United States in intra-Iraqi conflict. But it was so obviously the right thing to do that in the end it presented little in the way of a dilemma.

US air forces have dropped arms and other supplies to Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
EPA/US Air Force

How – and whether – to go about the vastly larger task of breaking IS control over the territory it still commands is a far more difficult question. In Syria, where IS is firmly established as the dominant anti-government rebel force, there is no way that the United States can strike at it without tacitly aiding the cause of Bashar al-Assad. The UN has accused the regime of war crimes and Obama has explicitly demanded Assad should leave office.

Yet according to Obama’s top military adviser, there may be no way to really knock IS from its perch in either country without acting within Syria.

Even if we limit the question to action that might be taken within Iraq, while it may be clear that the US should be willing to act to defend its staunch Kurdish allies, it is far from clear that it can uncomplicatedly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Iraqi national government.

That government, whose closest international ally is Iran and whose brazenly sectarian Shia orientation – at least until Nouri al-Maliki’s toppling as prime minister in August – his replacement is yet to be tested – did more than anyone to feed the profound sense of disenfranchisement among the Sunni population that provided IS with the fertile soil in which its roots are now deeply embedded.

Even if Obama were to set aside all his rational and temperamental reservations about re-deploying US military resources more fully in Iraq, there is no reason to believe – as The Economist’s Matt Steinglass has pointed out – that the US knows any better now than it did in 2003 how to successfully navigate the essential next stage. That is to construct an Iraqi state with the pluralistic culture and institutions required to address the underlying source of disillusion and violent resistance on the part of Iraq’s Sunnis.

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, who has spent much time on the ground in the region today and over the past decade, may have offered the key insight. He suggests that the US is the last actor still clinging to the idea of “Iraq” as a viable political entity long after the “Iraqis” themselves, of all religious and ethnic stripes, have moved on.

If the US is to make it a priority to undermine – and ultimately destroy – IS as a political force, it will be a tough mission. It will require patient and skilful coalition-building, and a willingness to significantly compromise America’s ideals on other fronts.

Throughout such an effort, Obama will have to contend with a general population at home that is sick and tired of wars. Americans are disinclined to shed blood for anything short of a true emergency.

He will also face constant sniping from political opponents whose primary mode of engagement with foreign policy has become the issuing of vacuous paeans to strength, leadership and “urgency” – all of which Obama is asserted to have in insufficient quantity – rather than constructive engagement with the unhappy trade-offs America’s actually existing options demand.

If Obama is to take all this on, it would be useful to know not just whom the US would be seeking to kill and what bad things they have done, but towards what realistic, achievable end-state it would be fighting. That is the great unanswered question of US involvement in both Iraq and Syria today.

Being increasingly aware of this, it is no wonder Obama still considers his strategy a work in progress. Unencumbered by such awareness, his bellicose critics embody the facile faith in the utility of military force that did so much to generate America’s present Middle Eastern sorrows.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee’s new report on policy towards Iran contains no surprises – startling new departures aren’t in the nature of such documents – but does help crystallise a couple of important features of the present posture of the Western coalition’s posture towards Iran. The first is that the committee declared unambiguously that it is fully on board with efforts to restore UK-Iranian diplomatic relations to normality, or at least the status quo ante that passed for normality in UK-Iranian relations, after the fallout from the 2011 attack on the British embassy in Tehran.

That attack led to a period of recrimination and diplomatic distance between the countries and the report gently chides the foreign secretary for having waited as long as he has reopen the embassy, the decision to do which was announced just this June. This suggests that the British government continues to face nothing resembling the challenges that its American counterpart must contend with when it comes to persuading legislators of the wisdom of detente with Tehran.

The second thing the report served to clarify was that parliament broadly backs the judgement call made by the British, American and other “G5 +1” governments in 2013 when they struck a provisional deal on somewhat loosened sanctions in exchange for intensified talks to resolve the stand-off over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. That judgement was that we cannot be certain of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani’s willingness or ability to deliver a deal over Iran’s controversial nuclear programme. But the alternatives are sufficiently poor that the present course was worth a try, and we must hope fervently that it can be made to work.

Rouhani, a relative moderate, was elected by a convincing margin in 2013 with a clear mandate to try and alleviate Iran’s increasingly crippling sanctions burden by cutting some sort of deal with the West. He has shown every sign since his election of being in earnest in trying to see that mandate through. This is not simple – if it were, one imagines it would not have continued to vex the finest diplomatic minds of both sides for so long.

The past ten years have witnessed a marked rise in Iran’s stature, or at least its prominence and ability to make its will felt, in the diplomacy and statecraft of the region. It has played an ever-more explicit and instrumental role in the conflicts and governance of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and has seemed to don the mantle of informal leadership of Shi’ites across the region at a time when the Sunni-Shi’ite cleavage shows signs of becoming the most relevant of the many divides around which the region’s peoples divide.

Simultaneously, this period has seen the Iranian leadership come to view development of a nuclear weapons capability, or something close to it, not just as a symbol of national status and technological mastery, but also as a necessary ultimate guarantor of its security against external assault as it ups the ante in the high-stakes regional power game in which it is now a player with aspirations to win big.

Some 35 years after its Islamic Revolution, Iran’s clerical regime regards threats, both external and internal, to its lock on power as being at bay for the time being but nevertheless real and serious. The political and strategic benefits of apparent progress towards a nuclear capability speak to both of those concerns of the governing elite: by shoring up the prestige of the regime’s security apparatus at home, through demonstrating technological prowess and independence in the face of foreign pressure, while also deterring aggression from abroad. So long, that is, as the tension the programme creates with the US and Israel doesn’t prove, paradoxically, to be the trigger for a war that brings about Iran’s destruction.

The price of these benefits for Iran has been international isolation and economic sanctions that have gradually intensified their stranglehold over its fragile economy. It is this economic pain which, the parliamentary report agrees, helped bring Iran to the negotiating table. The hope now is that the brief respite granted during this year’s renewed negotiations will have whetted the appetite for a more permanent reprieve, even at the expense of significant concessions.

Judging Rouhani

This is where Rouhani comes in, with two major questions hanging over the present negotiations with his government. The first concerns intent: is he truly a moderate figure who can be trusted to pursue in good faith a compromise realistically acceptable to the G5+1? On this, the committee is in line with the Obama administration in maintaining an open mind, trending towards hopefulness, but being disposed to reserve ultimate judgement until concrete actions follow Rouhani’s hitherto mostly reassuring words.

The potential for a deal would seem to exist if both sides are serious in wanting one, and its terms are not difficult to discern. To achieve it, Iran will have to accept that accepting actual nuclear weapons in its possession is out of the question from the Western perspective and that to pursue them is to risk calamitous war. If it accepts that principle, it will also have to tolerate the significant incursions upon its sovereignty that will be required to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and others to verify that its programmes remain halted short of actively building a weapon. In the context of Iranian politics and history, these would be big concessions, but if anyone liable to occupy the office of president in today’s Iran would be willing to go this far for a deal, Rouhani appears to fit the bill.

For the West, on the other hand, securing a deal will mean accepting that Iran will be permitted to possess a significant capability in the realm of nuclear technology, which would provide it with the capacity to build a bomb within under a year. The pivotal point for negotiation is therefore what mechanisms can be put in place to give the US confidence that it would have forewarning in good time if Iran decided to “break out” by taking that step.

Such a compromise, imperfect as it is, would be no small political feat for Western leaders to pull off. Powerful constituencies in their own countries, as well as Western-aligned states in the region such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, currently regard anything less than unilateral climbdown by Iran as unacceptable. Having taken a realistic look at what would truly be involved in the unpalatable alternative of a military engagement of unknowable cost, duration and consequence, however, responsible leaders may nevertheless be disposed to use their political capital to face critics down.

The second question hanging over Rouhani’s government is that of whether, assuming he does have sincere enthusiasm for a deal, he can truly deliver his country. Iran is not a pluralistic democracy, but neither is it a monolith: the president represents only one part of its political architecture, and not the most important. Above and behind him stands the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, in whom the ultimate power to decide resides. Supreme though he may notionally be, he must in turn consider how the steps he takes will be regarded by religious, military and paramilitary hard-liners.

The fact that the president is the one identified publicly with Iran’s conduct of the present negotiations leaves Khamenei the space to reserve ultimate commitment on his own part until the last possible moment. Should the details of a serious deal end up on the table, it will be for him to then back or disavow (and thereby kill) it based upon his calculation of the balance of risk to his position and that of the regime to which he has devoted his life.

Such are the dynamics in play. In holding out hope that these will come together to produce the outcome they wish for, while remaining acutely aware of the scope for an unhappier endgame, the British parliament – like the White House and the rest of us – must wait, in some suspense, and see. However uncomfortable such waiting may be, there is some limited consolation in the fact that the alternatives are too grim to contemplate. This makes the decision to err on the side of patience and hope an easier one.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Dorothy Parker famously reacted to the ringing of the telephone with the phrase, “What fresh Hell is this?” Occupants of the White House could be forgiven for having adopted the same practice when it comes to Iraq, to say nothing of its broader neighbourhood.

Since 2003 (and, really, for years before that) Iraq has become, with only the most fleeting exceptions, a source of nothing but the most exquisitely awful sort of news. But even by its own standards, the events of the past 72 hours have surely exceeded the expectations of even connoisseurs of tactical disaster.

Events on the ground have been moving faster than anyone – least of all the government in Baghdad – can keep up with. But as of the time of writing, Sunni militants under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant had taken military control of Mosul, the country’s second city, as well Tikrit and its environs. With the national army sent into disarray and retreat, Kurdish forces have moved to assert their military control over their regional domain, including the long-contested city of Kirkuk.

Al-Maliki is under siege.
Harish Tyagi/EPA

Meanwhile in the capital, prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose ruthless and authoritarian approach to embedding the dominance of his own Shiite faction in national government has contributed to the renewed uptick in sectarian violence, seeks emergency powers to facilitate a strike back against the militants. Thus far he has struggled to muster a quorum in parliament.

Is it all Obama’s fault?

Hanging over all this is the question of the United States’ role. After somewhere north of $2 trillion dollars spent and thousands of American lives sacrificed (to say nothing of Iraqi ones), can this harvest of ashes really be the sum total of what has been achieved? And wasn’t the worst case scenario of a fractured Iraq torn, wracked by extreme sectarian violence, supposed to have been averted by the surge of American troops in 2007 and the counterinsurgency strategy that went with it?

$2 trillion later …
Matthew Cavanaugh/EPA

It has been reported that in the run-up to the fall of Mosul the Iraqi government requested the support of US air power and was rebuffed. And the fact that no agreement was reached to keep a rump American military presence in Iraq after 2010 was the result not just of Iraqi reticence but also of minimal American interest in securing such rights.

That, certainly, was the narrative that underwrote the withdrawal of all American troops under President Obama. Does that decision now look like an irresponsible rush for the door on the part of this president? When viewed alongside the current withdrawal from Afghanistan, the “leading from behind” approach to regime change in Libya, and the minimalist approach to the agonies of the Syrian civil war (itself a major contributor to renewed instability in Iraq), does this add up to a president dogmatically turning his face against military intervention, even when the alternative is a major advance on the part of forces militantly hostile to the United States?

Does Obama’s perceived inward turn, and particularly his aversion to any new or prolonged military entanglement in the Middle East, bear responsibility for what is now unfolding in Iraq? The answer is a qualified yes, but that answer must be placed in the context of the grimness of the options he faces. These options have their origins in the bleak legacy inherited from his predecessor’s disastrous strategic misstep in invading Iraq in 2003.

Damned if he does …

Let’s recall the original rationale proffered for regime change in Iraq, by the Bush administration and its supporters (aside from the notorious disappearing weapons of mass destruction).

It was argued that by overthrowing tyranny, and replacing it with a liberal democratic state where Sunni, Shiite and Kurd lived side by side in peace and prosperity, the United States would be facilitating the birth of a new a new role model for the Muslim world. They would be draining the swamp of disillusion, economic decline and extreme religiosity that had given rise to radical Islamist militancy. It seems remarkable now that this scenario could have been sincerely proposed by so many serious people.

Yep, definitely in trouble either way.
Ron Sachs

This best of all possible worlds having proven elusive, Obama faces an appalling set of choices in Iraq. These options are either (a) stand aloof and watch the most virulently hostile anti-American force in the world carve out a swathe of territory in Iraq and Syria to use as a base of operations; or (b) reinsert a level of direct American military force into Iraq which he has not previously contemplated, in order to aid a Baghdad government whose escalating authoritarianism and sectarianism – not to mention its close Iranian ties – have contributed to the insolubility of the conflict.

Both courses will result in the hardening of anti-American anger among a large number of dangerous people. Neither is assured to work. Staying out may allow circumstances to unfold which later compel intervention against a direct security threat (see Afghanistan, 2001). Supporting Maliki directly even as he declares emergency powers and cracks down will re-establish a pattern of US support for antidemocratic strongmen as a bulwark against ideological enemies which has regularly generated blowback.

It should also be noted that this decision must be made in the context of a domestic political scene in which public appetite for major military intervention overseas is close to zero, and where – helped along by the inordinately expensive Iraq misadventure of the past decade – resource constraints are tighter than ever.

President Obama is no isolationist, and to suggest that he is when he oversees the edifice of globe-spanning diplomacy, military presence and intelligence that he does tells us more about the imperial-level baseline of assumed for modern US foreign policy than it does about him.

He is, however, a temperamentally cautious and realistic leader, whose core analysis hasn’t wavered much over his time in office. The way Obama sees it, the United States has suffered from a surfeit of counterproductive military interventionism over the past decade, not a dearth of timely force-exertion, the American people have no appetite for more, and he is disposed to give them what they want.

Original sin

Critique of Obama’s judgement in choosing between the array of bad options open to him at this time is justified. It is the administration of today that must answer for its decisions in response to the hand it has been dealt. And having had the scale of the threat thrown into stark relief by the events of recent days, he may be in the process of revisiting the assumptions behind his earlier disengagement.

If there is deemed to be a real risk that the Baghdad government cannot fight back effectively against ISIS, a group whose status as a direct enemy of US interests cannot be disputed, then we should expect a grudging recommitment to direct action in Iraq. This president is nothing if not a pragmatist.

But we should not forget that he has been forced to chose between courses of action which all seem likely to end badly, and this is the legacy of the American decision to invade and occupy Iraq in 2003.
That is the original sin of American strategic miscalculation in the 21st century, and it will continue to define the terms of its engagement with the region for the foreseeable future.

The Conversation

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

American presidents often grow to enjoy foreign-policymaking more than the domestic kind as their time in office goes on. One reason is that they find that the comparative lack of interest it holds for both Congress and the general public allows them scope to make decisions with less need to bend to short-term political pressure.


Sometimes, however, events come together in such a way as to thrust foreign policy into the spotlight of the 24-hour news cameras, as they did in Ukraine in February with the overthrow by popular uprising of President Viktor Yanukovych. That event, the latest product of deep, longstanding divisions within Ukraine regarding its relations with its powerful neighbour, Russia, has triggered a spiral of unforeseen repercussions. These included Russia’s annexation of the majority-Russian-speaking region of Crimea and destabilisation of the remaining eastern Ukraine by pro-Russian and Moscow-backed paramilitaries.


The apparent inability or unwillingness of the United States to do much in the way of concrete action to prevent this, in spite of its support for the new Kiev government, has led to a good deal of public fulmination on the part of President Obama’s political critics at home, rarely in short supply, largely focused upon his supposedly having tacitly provoked Russian adventurism by projecting ‘weakness’ in the face of foreign aggression. Implicit admiration for the virility of President Putin’s contrastingly ruthless and assertive pursuit of Russian interests, if not for those interests themselves, has coursed through the hawkish wing of the American foreign policy commentariate.


Targeted economic sanctions have imposed some limited cost on the Russian regime, but apparently not enough to outweigh Putin’s determination to make his point regarding Russia’s right to assert special prerogative as a hegemonic power in its own ‘near abroad’. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western backers seem to have concluded that the risks entailed by even suggesting a military dimension to their response are prohibitive, with President Obama adopting a loftily dismissive tone regarding the threat posed by Russia, noting its status as a ‘regional power’ rather than a global force.


With the appeasement of Hitler’s expansionism at Munich being the favoured analogy of many, should we be alarmed that that the United States has been disinclined to take an uncompromising stand against Putin’s destabilisation and partial dismemberment of a weaker neighbour? No. Or at least, not so long as the American strategy is to concede Russian ‘gains’ – if that is what they are – so far while planning ahead for the defence of the United States’ greater regional interests in the longer term.


It is important to bear four points in mind when considering the present situation. First, there is nothing that the United States can realistically do, short of the threat of nuclear war, to defend Ukraine should Russia choose to use its military superiority to bully it. The combination of geographical proximity and asymmetric geopolitical commitment make it impossible for the United States to respond to Russian use of conventional military force across its Ukranian border.  The analogous reverse-scenario of imagining Russia attempting to defend Mexico against a US incursion is something of an overstatement in light of differences in US and Russian military transport capabilities, but the point remains that extreme differences in geographical advantage count for a lot.


Second, the United States has never committed to defend Ukraine’s borders, and its failure to do so now conveys no message whatsoever regarding its willingness to live up to its actual guarantee to its NATO allies. It therefore in no way weakens the United States position in Eastern Europe and may strengthen the attachment its NATO allies feel to the American alliance. If it was prepared to defend Ukraine when push came to shove, the United States would have admitted Ukraine to NATO, and it did not precisely because it could imagine a scenario such as this and not wanting to do so.


Third, the United States is not alone in its disinclination to incur real costs in order to act against Russia in Ukraine: so long as continental Europe depends so much on Russian energy and the City of London so much on an influx of Russian cash, the major powers of Europe will not consent to meaningful sanctions against the sort of core economic activities that might force a genuine pause for thought in the Kremlin.


Fourth, Russia has not, in the grander scheme of things, achieved much of a victory here. At the beginning of 2014 it had vast influence over government policy in the whole of Ukraine thanks to its hold over Yanukovych. Today, it has lost all of that, perhaps forever, in exchange for the gain of a small, expensive territory for which it has paid a high price in international opprobrium.


In light of the downturn in relations with Russia, the name of George Kennan, the senior American diplomat who first conceived the Cold War strategy of ‘containment’ has reappeared on many op-ed pages analysing the need for a new toughness in the United States’ Russia policy. It is important to remember in drawing this analogy that Kennan regarded it as key, in operationalising containment, to avoid deploying resources unthinkingly to confront Russian expansionist efforts on whatever ground it might happen to choose for making a push. Rather, it was key for the United States to concentrate on shoring up the strength of those strongpoints the defence of which it regarded as essential to maintaining its global position of strength. It should avoid costly peripheral engagements, apply counterpressure in those places where the United States held the advantage, and wait for the pressure thus applied on Russia to play itself out in its internal politics. This is good advice now as it was then.


To be drawn into making overblown pledges of support for Ukraine against Russia, pledges which will assuredly ultimately be revealed as impossible to back up in practice given the asymmetry between Russian and Western capabilities and motivation in that theatre, is to confront Putin on his own chosen ground and set the stage for the further burnishing of his desired reputation as a strategic hard man when he calls the bluff. Sounder policy is to lodge genuine but restrained protest at his recent actions, while proceeding to take the appropriate steps elsewhere to assure full preparedness for the defence of the United States’ larger stake in the broader regional theatre.


That means reinforcing both the military capabilities and political will which underwrite the security of those nations to whose territorial inviolability the United States actually is committed, through NATO. It also means encouraging and assisting America’s European allies by all available means to reduce their dependence on Russia for energy supplies, and in the case of the UK encouraging it to curb its appetite for Russian cash. In this way, while Putin digests the questionable gains of a subsidy-hungry new province and a destabilised, mostly hostile neighbour, the United States and its allies can invest their time in taking the necessary steps to ensure that they are commandingly placed to prevail in any challenge to those positions of strength at which they choose to draw their real red line against Russian revanchism.

The nuclear deal reached between the United States and Iran represents both a breakthrough and a risk for Barack Obama. A breakthrough because it stalls Iran’s progress towards nuclear weapons capability for six months, in exchange for only moderate concessions on sanctions, while a bigger final settlement is haggled over. The very existence of such extended high-level negotiations, let alone ones concluding in agreement, marks a high for US-Iran diplomacy after 34 years alternating between fiery acrimony and deep freeze.

It is also a risk, however, because Obama is certain to face a blistering assault from powerful opponents of any compromise with Iran. Having made this the main play in his quest for a diplomatic legacy he must now rely for vindication on Iran following through to deliver a comprehensive compromise agreement.

The foremost critic of the deal in its aftermath has been Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who immediately declared it an “historic mistake” which had made the world less safe. He did not want for vocal support within the United States, however, where a number of prominent Congressional figures lined up to express their scepticism. These included not only the usual suspects from the hawkish Republican ranks, but also some prominent Democratic Senators who had been spearheading a push for tightening the American sanctions squeeze against Iran still further.

Meanwhile, predictably, the most conservative voices among the foreign policy punditocracy reacted with apoplexy, one condemning the deal as “abject surrender” and predicting a (justified) military response from a betrayed Israel.

Power of Israeli lobby

This coincidence of views is usual. The politics of America’s Middle East policy has for many years featured a close intertwining of views between American hawks and the Israeli right, sharing as they do the view that revolutionary Iran is a toxic actor in international affairs, not to be negotiated with, only cowed and vanquished through punitive means. Meanwhile, a majority of Congress, including members with more moderate views in other policy areas, has tended to avoid at all costs divergence with Israel on those issues it identifies as core to its security.

Netanyahu: “deal a mistake”. Ian Nicholson/PA Wire

This tendency, which has complex roots in both domestic politics and perceived shared national interests, is powerfully reinforced by the effective efforts of the “Israel Lobby”, whose effect on the political discourse has been mapped – controversially but not inaccurately – in detail by the political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt.

The presence of these views means that for all the justified, if provisional, satisfaction currently felt within the Obama administration’s diplomatic team, there remains reason yet for some jangling of nerves. The worst-case scenario is that Israel might take matters into its own hands and carry out a military strike against Iran without American support. However, analysis from within Israel itself suggests that such a reckless and unilateral step is only an outside chance at least for now.

Thaw: Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif. AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

A more pressing fear, perhaps, is that those within the American political system who sympathise with Netanyahu’s analysis that a bad deal has been done may press ahead with their plans to vote through tougher sanctions against Iran when Congress reconvenes in December. The administration has already had to strain its political muscles to slow down Congressional progress towards this end while it pursued the most recent negotiations.

While this threat of an even tighter sanctions noose may have been a useful background threat during the latest round of talks, to have them inflicted now, in the context of what is supposed to be a period for confidence-building and reciprocity, would be disastrous for the administration’s diplomatic strategy.

Nevertheless, with Democratic senators Schumer and Menendez apparently determined to continue their push to escalate sanctions, and majority leader Harry Reid showing signs of willingness to allow them to do so, this must be a real fear.

Failure not an option

It seems plausible that at least some part of the Congressional critics’ initial hostility to the deal stems not just from its substance, but from chagrin that it appears to be the product of an extended project of secret diplomacy about which they were kept in the dark despite their attachment to the issue.

Once that sentiment has died down and the details have been examined more soberly, it may prove possible to convince enough of Congress – if not the most strident Iran hawks – to hold off on any new sanctions push at least long enough to see how the coming six months of further negotiations pan out. And in the final analysis, Obama always has his veto power as a last resort, though on such a white-hot political issue that would be a painful stretch indeed for a presidency not short on acrimony.

In making the case for circumspect and patient perseverance with his preferred diplomatic track, Obama has the advantage that his recommended course is the only one that holds out any hope whatsoever of a good ending in strategic terms. It has for a long time been clear that there are no good military options for trying to end Iran’s nuclear programme, and even if executed perfectly such an operation could achieve only a partial and temporary victory in setting back Iranian capabilities.

Meanwhile, the hawks’ alternative vision of how a hard-line diplomatic track might work – that the United States should tear up the current deal and inflict ever-harsher sanctions on Iran until the regime either collapses or declares unconditional surrender – shows all the hallmarks of ideology-tinted fantasy. If attempted, such a course would far more likely set the stage for degeneration into intractable stand-off and ultimately a war of unknowable consequence.

In the final analysis, then, the president’s best hope of winning provisional embrace of his deal and further time for diplomacy lies in the fact that among imperfect options it is the only sane and realistic course. But then perhaps relying on the realism of members of the present US Congress requires a triumph of hope over realism in itself.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

For presidents, like sports team managers, the tough weeks tend to outnumber the jubilant. But even by the standards of an unforgiving job, Barack Obama could be forgiven for feeling unusually buffeted of late. Many of the blows have come on the domestic front, with the all-consuming stand off of the government shutdown segueing into frantic efforts to defend and repair the roll-out of Obamacare amid charges of fatal technological incompetence. But if he were tempted to seek solace in the autonomy of foreign policy – as modern presidents have been wont to do – there has been little consolatory triumph to be found.

In August and September, he was caught in a mighty tangle over Syria, threatening military strikes over its chemical weapons use before being hamstrung first by Britain’s refusal to join the charge and then by the reluctance of his own Congress. The legacy of that mess continues to work itself out in unpredictable ways, such as increasingly public tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, hitherto one of its more solid allies. Though the eventual Russian-orchestrated deal to remove Syria’s chemical weapons was a respectable one given the circumstances, the episode as a whole spoke of an America straining to translate its power into influence, or to maintain a united front among its friends.

Now the rolling scandal over National Security Agency surveillance, triggered by the mass leak of secrets by Edward Snowden, has entered another phase of intensity, this time centred on Europe. Revelations that the US tapped the phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, operated numerous “listening posts” on European soil, and sucked up vast quantities of communications data from millions of citizens across Europe have broken in the press. Public expressions of displeasure have been forthcoming, including a European Union statement. Taken together, these vignettes of public dissention will be enough to make many ask the question: is the US losing its influence even over its allies? Is this just a tricky moment for a particular president, or harbinger of a broader trend?

Global shift

First, the necessary caveats: enduring alliance relationships resemble long marriages, in that the mere presence of moments of strain, or even audible arguments, cannot be taken as evidence of imminent separation. Looking back over the longer-term history of America’s relations with its allies, episodes such as the Vietnam War, the “Euromissile” crisis of the 1980s, and the controversial interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, demonstrate that sharp differences of opinion and conflicting priorities are no radical new state of affairs.

And however unhappy they may be with their recent treatment, it is not obvious that countries such as Germany, France or Saudi Arabia have anywhere to go if they did decide the time had come to tout for alternative alliance partners. It is not entirely clear how European annoyance might manifest in ways that have practical importance. It is true they have it in their power to threaten progress on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership process, but it is not clear that such an action would harm the US more than Europe itself. In short, even if they are disgruntled, necessity may ultimately prove a sufficient force to help them get over it.

The reason present friction between the US and its allies carries greater weight, however, is that it arises in the context of a global shift in power away from the US and its established allies and towards new powers. The prospect of “American decline” in terms of relative international power is the focus of a great deal of debate over both substance and semantics. But the central fact is that even the part of the US’s own intelligence apparatus charged with long-term foresight regards it as established that within 20 years the world will have transitioned from the “unipolar” American dominance of the first post-Cold War decades to a world in which multiple centres of power must coexist. The centre of economic gravity has already shifted markedly towards Asia during the last decade.

This certainly does not mean any single new power is about to rise to replace the US as a hegemonic force. Nor does it mean the US will be going anywhere: the scale of its existing advantages across a range of fronts – military, economic, institutional – is sufficiently great that it is assured a prominent place at the table of whatever order may come. What it does mean is that Americans must presently be engaged in thinking carefully about how best to leverage their advantages to retain the maximum possible influence into the future. If they cannot continue to be first among equals in managing the world order, they will wish at least to ensure that order is one that runs in line with their own established preferences.

Soft power

Many of those who are optimistic about the ability of the US to pull off this project of declining power without declining influence place emphasis on two things: the extent to which the US has soft power due to widespread admiration for its political and cultural values, and the extent to which it has locked in influence through the extent of its existing networks of friends and allies. Even if these advantages cannot arrest America’s decline on harder metrics, if played properly they can mitigate its consequences and secure an acceptable future. Shoring up support from like-minded countries such as those of Europe ought to be the low-hanging fruit of such an effort.

So the current problems do harm on both fronts. It will be difficult to maintain the allure of soft power if global opinion settles on the view that American political discord has rendered its democracy dysfunctional at home, or that its surveillance practices have given rein to the mores of a police state. And it will be harder to preserve American status through the force of its alliances if its politicians’ economic irresponsibility (for example, publicly contemplating a default on American national debt) or scandals over surveillance or drone strikes alienate their public or cause their leaders to question the extent to which they really are on the same side as the US.

Obama’s day-to-day foreign policy struggles should not be simplistically taken as signs of collapsing American influence. But if the long-term plan is to carefully manage relative decline so as to preserves maximum influence, episodes such as those his country has faced since August do nothing to boost the prospects of success.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

After 16 days of anxiety, grandstanding and acrimonious finger-pointing, the experiment in American democracy that was the government shutdown has been run, and for the Republicans, the results were devastating.

With the immediate crisis over, amid a prevailing mood of exhaustion and contempt for those who precipitated it, Republican minds now turn to question of long-term electoral fallout. Immediate polling has suggested that association with the shutdown debacle has the potential to do damage to Republican hopes of winning a Senate majority, and some have even argued that it may lead them to lose the House of Representatives.

How realistic is the prospect of a Republican electoral blowout in 2014 as a legacy of recent events? Well, if it does happen, or even if the House numbers swing substantially towards the Democrats, it will certainly be because of recent missteps. The polling makes clear that an incumbent’s association with the shutdown can nudge voters to vote against them, making the strategic play during the campaigns a no-brainer for Democrats. A Republican loss of the House was considered a pipe dream only a few weeks ago, so the very existence of the debate suggests the severity of the recent error.

The path of moderation

Two points should be borne in mind, however. The first is that election day is more than a year away, meaning that much depends on what happens between now and then. Given that they were unconvinced of its wisdom in the first place, and it has now ended in ignominy, it might seem a reasonable prediction that the (relatively) moderate leaders of the Republican caucus will refuse to countenance any re-run of recent brinkmanship when the next set of budget and debt deadlines arrive.

They are seasoned enough operators to know the difference between tough negotiating and self-immolation, even if not all of their colleagues are. During some of the arguments to come – on the role of government, “entitlement” (health and welfare) spending and taxation – the GOP may be able to retain greater party unity and win more favour with the median voter, so long as they steer clear of flirting with nuclear options.

A successful Republican regrouping may rely, however, on the radical right being more chastened than they appear to have been by recent events, and accepting the need to rein in their more outlandish instincts, as opposed to mounting a renewed assault on the moderates in their own party. If, on the other hand, the radicals choose to interpret this latest defeat as a stab in the back by their own side and become even less controllable by the party leadership, all bets are off. We may yet find out where the party’s rock bottom ultimately lies.

Lest we forget, even when staring down the barrel of the gun on Wednesday night, a majority of Republican members of the House – 144, or 62% – voted against the deal which ultimately won the day. The difficulty involved in steering the Republican house majority onto the path of moderation should not be underestimated.

Saved by the gerrymander

Bleak as that may sound for the party’s electoral prospects, it is important to remember a second point: there is a structural safety net limiting how far the party can fall, least in the short term. If the Republican goal is ultimately to reclaim national power, then the shutdown circus may well have done them grievous harm, since the electorates for marginal Senate seats have tended to punish extremist candidates in the general election. Those voters show all the signs of responding badly to the recent burst of radicalism.

In the House, however, where the drawing of constituency boundaries usually lies in the hands of partisan state legislatures, dislodging the Republicans in 2014 will be a far taller order. Because they won big in 2010, Republicans were able to lock in advantageous boundaries for themselves for the next decade. Combined with other factors, such as the increasing geographical clustering of like-minded voters and the tendency of Democrat voters to be concentrated in urban districts, this helps explain why Democrats failed to win a majority of seats in the house in 2012 even though they won 1.4 million more votes nationwide.

The number of uncompetitive seats that this creates also helps explain why Congressmen fear a primary challenge from their own extreme flank as punishment for compromise far more than a backlash from the general electorate for adhering to doctrinaire positions.

Plumbing the depths

The story is more complicated than gerrymandering alone, but it is evident that the problem is real. Current arrangements make it unduly difficult for Democrats to translate national victory with the voters into a House majority.

Unless the misjudgements of both leadership and radical fringe continue to mount such that the Republican party plumbs catastrophic new depths of unpopularity, it seems highly likely the party will remain entrenched in their majority position in the House, even as their Senate and presidential aspirations falter.

President Obama will no doubt seek to press his advantage to maximum effect in the weeks ahead, as any politician worth his salt should. But so long as the electoral system remains as dysfunctional as it presently is, and so many of the participants within it so averse to the very idea of compromise, divided government seems all-too likely to continue after 2014. Sadly, with that comes the sort of government-by-crisis that has embarrassed America and horrified the world over recent months.

Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.