Published 1-11-2012, 09:02
The writer was US National Security Advisor to President Carter and author of ‘Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power’
The prolonged campaign for the White House shows why the US finds it so difficult to pursue a rational foreign policy in a world of unprecedented complexity. Articulating foreign policy in the heat of an election produces an irresistible temptation to proclaim simplistic remedies to complicated foreign challenges.
Hence the hasty public declarations that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad must go even before a realistic US policy to achieve that goal had been formulated. And hence the deference shown to the fevered pleas of Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, for an ultimatum to Iran and the repeated references to the eventual use of US military power, without much consideration for potential regional or even global consequences. Hence, also, the pledge by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, to announce that on day one of his presidency – without any prior negotiations – he would take punitive steps against China’s "currency manipulations”, irrespective of likely retaliation.
Alas, such a foreign policy – derived from politically expedient, short-term commitments – risks setting in motion dynamics that ultimately lead to international chaos. In particular, the idea that the US could somehow ensure Israel’s future by imposing a new order in the Middle East – through the forceful export of "democracy” to both Syria or Iran – is dangerous daydreaming.
The post-1945 US domination of the Middle East is receding rapidly while the region is in the midst of upheaval. Most of the prevailing borders, which date back to the Anglo-French diktats following the first world war and the concurrent disintegration of the Ottoman empire, are shaky. Even the region’s major states, notably Iran and Turkey, are vulnerable to internal ethnic and religious strains.
In this flammable setting, an American intervention in Syria or a military strike against Iran either by Israel or the US would be likely to set off a region-wide explosion. Iraq is still suffering from the divisive consequences of the US military invasion. It is on the brink of disruptive Sunni-Shia violence. It would not take much effort by Syria or Iran to ignite it. Nearby, Lebanon and Jordan are both also vulnerable.
An explosive crisis in the region would have consequences elsewhere. The inevitable rise in the price of oil – prompted by increased insurance costs even were the Strait of Hormuz forcefully kept open by the US navy – would wreak havoc on Europe’s financial recovery. Differences among European states would intensify. Britain would be tempted to distance itself from European allies in favour of becoming, in the Atlantic Ocean, the equivalent of America-dependent Japan in the Pacific.
Russia would have little reason to accommodate America. It could feel free to press the Europeans to respect its geopolitical aspirations in Ukraine and even Georgia, in exchange for some concessions regarding the price of its energy exports. Motivated by Vladimir Putin’s anti-American bias, it would seek closer strategic co-operation with China. A China already annoyed by America’s inclination to define its "pivot” to Asia in military terms, and offended by the threats voiced in the US elections, may not be indifferent to such self-serving Russian temptations.
As the presidential campaign unfolds, Israel is forfeiting the opportunity to make itself an accepted and enduring part of the Middle East through its determination to colonise much of the West Bank. Yet a genuine partnership with a viable Palestinian state could create a centre of technological and financial innovation similar to Singapore in southeast Asia. It could also prompt closer collaboration with an Egypt that is basically not eager to become involved in sectarian Arab conflicts.
A serious and comprehensive policy analysis will come only after the election on November 6 and once the political temperature has cooled. Regardless of whether Barack Obama or Mr Romney wins the election, the next US president must quickly address the foreign policy challenges that have been sadly neglected in this election campaign. A detailed review should produce four timely US decisions.
First, on Syria, to engage Russia and China in support of an internationally mandated and monitored ceasefire, as a cooling-off phase before internationally supervised elections.
Second, in the absence of agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue, to continue tightening sanctions and pledge publicly that the US will retaliate against any threat by Tehran to any Middle Eastern state – including Israel – in the same fashion it would have responded to a Soviet threat to its allies during the cold war.
Third, to provide strong and explicit support for a more politically united Europe through an updated joint Atlantic Charter.
Fourth, to undertake a high-level strategic dialogue with the new Chinese leadership to codify the fundamental interest of both countries in avoiding a replay of Europe’s tragic wars of the 20th century.