The Caravan

Here We Are on Syria and Iran

Friday, April 12, 2013

The use of force as an instrument of foreign policy has been an important and salient issue in America's grappling with its role as the world's sole superpower for more than two decades now. Europe could not muster the resources required for putting an end to the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia and was relieved by the arrival of the US cavalry, but Europeans and others were irritated by George W. Bush's use of force against another bloody tyrant. And American opinion vacillated from one end of the spectrum to another as Washington had to deal with successive challenges and crises in Somalia, Darfur, North Korea, Iraq and Iran, to name just a few. Was America willing and ready to serve as the global policeman? What were the practical and moral constraints on the use of force? And was it not true that if you had credible deterrence the actual use of force could be avoided?

In this context, the Middle East worlds of the Arabs and of Islam have occupied a special place. These are unstable parts of the world. Their attitudes toward America are ambivalent at best. Societies that are still grappling with the challenges of modernity and the West view America as the epitome of their predicament. It is to use the Ayatollahs' language, "the great Satan" and therefore the legitimate and prime target for terrorist and other attacks. But it is also the power they want to come to terms with. It was from these lands that the attack on America was launched in 2001 and further attacks are waged and plotted. It is there where Washington's allies wonder whether the cavalry would be available yet again should they be attacked by domestic or external foes. And it is there where Iran is building a nuclear arsenal and a stockpile of ballistic missiles.

In the Middle East the pros and cons of America's willingness to use military force are now tested in two arenas. One is the Iranian quest for a nuclear arsenal. President Obama has committed himself to deny Iran that option. He has defined it as a crucial American national security issue. He has led the international community to impose severe (but still not crippling) sanctions on Iran. He has pressured Israel not to launch its own raid on Iran's nuclear facilities and has alluded to his own potential willingness to use force against Iran. So far Iran has not crossed the nuclear threshold, but it continues to enrich uranium. This state of affairs illustrates the point made earlier. A credible threat to use force is one of the four components required to achieve a peaceful resolution (in addition to negotiations, crippling sanctions and a face saving formula for the Iranian regime). In other words, only a credible threat of a US raid will prevent the Iranians from crossing a line and then forcing the US to either use force or lose its credibility.

The issue in Syria is different. After two years of civil war, more than seventy thousand people killed and a million refugees, it is clear that only a bolder US policy would expedite the regime's fall. A bold policy does not necessarily mean direct military action. It could mean a no-fly zone and indirect supply of more advanced weapons. Humanitarian and geopolitical considerations converge. A still larger disaster is looming and it is also evident that as time goes by jihadi elements become more prominent in the opposition's ranks. It is easy to understand Obama's reluctance. The opposition is ineffective and divided, the weapons required to fight Asad's armor and Air Force could easily fall into the wrong hands. Syria's army is much stronger than Saddam's and Qaddafi's. But most important is the fear of a long entanglement in another failed state. The shadows of Iraq and Afghanistan are cast over the Syrian issue. A drift toward greater US involvement is visible, but further and bolder decisions will be required. In Syria, as in other arenas, the same paradox is at work, an early decision on a bolder course of action could save a more radical intervention at a later stage. And another point must not be missed, the linkage to other issues in the Middle East and elsewhere. Action in Syria affects Iran and credible deterrence vis a vis Iran affects North Korea. The future course of the Syrian crisis is of immense importance to the rest of the Arab world and for the geopolitics of the Middle East, but it is hardly less important as yet another test to America's ability to define and execute its global role.