New post by me over at European Leadership Network:
“It is a safe assumption that any deal the president might conclude with Iran would be dead on arrival at the U.S. Senate should it be sent there for approval. Does this make it less likely that such a deal will be done? Perhaps not, for the following reasons…”
The new US National Security Strategy defends the Obama administration’s foreign policy restraint, but struggles to identify its limits.
The much-delayed second iteration of the Obama administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) was published on Friday, after the longest gap between such publications since the NSS came into existence. As predicted in a January Chatham House research paper, the new document underlines the administration’s ‘cautious, restrained approach to the wielding of American power and its aspirations to facilitate the integration of rising powers into the liberal order’.
However, it did little to specify how the United States will find equilibrium in its efforts to balance competing imperatives on three key fronts: American intervention in others’ civil conflicts; support for democracy and human rights in places where the US has other priorities; and the management of China’s potentially destabilizing rise.
Full post continues at: http://www.chathamhouse.org/expert/comment/16861
[For website-tech reasons, as a non-CH staff member my byline is close to undercover on this one compared to that of my co-author, but I did write it, I promise…]
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.
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 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.
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.
Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
Adam Quinn receives funding from the Economic and Social Research Council
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.