It is both a common and common sense understanding that the United States no longer exercises dominant influence over the global economy. While still the world's largest economy, (twice the size of China's and almost equal to the combined 27 nation European Union), and possessor of the dominant international reserve currency, economic globalization, including dependence on relatively few sources of oil have greatly diminished U.S. influence. A similar trend, especially pronounced since the end of the Cold War in late 1991, in the diplomatic and international security areas has led to prominent failures and inaction with only a few examples of successful U.S. led international cooperation. The first Gulf War in 1991 and the air campaign and eventual settlement of the Bosnian conflict in 1995 are the most prominent.
U.S. foreign policy makers are faced with choices, not certainties. The context for these choices are first, a Kissinger style “Realpolitik” of dealing with the world as we find it and not as we would prefer it. The alternative context is constructing foreign and security policies based not on capabilities and interests but on concepts of international or national moral obligations. The latter was a significant ingredient in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the failed nine and ten year efforts to democratize and “nation build” in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now with major cuts in military spending, combined with the aforementioned diminished economic influence in the world, policy makers should make decisions based on what we can do, what the costs will be and what the long term ramifications will be. In the current international environment one thing that we can't do is defeat the Afghan Taliban, impose democratic institutions and processes and successfully “build” a democratic nation. The physical environment and the rules of engagement imposed on the military by the nation builders futile attempts to win the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan populace have resulted in a ten year stalemate. Afghanistan's, primitive, tribal society simply does not possess the raw material for an understanding, appreciation for, or tolerance of democratic principles. The current paroxysms of hate and violence over the accidental burning of a few Islamic holy books is illustrative and simply doesn't conform to basic rules of democratic governance. And this incident is just a small example of the ignorance, intolerance and fanaticism dominant in the society.
Tribal and sectarian identification vs. any overarching loyalty to the nation, have resulted in the failure of similar nation building attempts in Iraq. Since the U.S. withdrawal, daily bombings by Sunni militants on Shiite mosques, neighborhoods and the institutions of the Shiite dominated government portend a violent, long term struggle with considerable outside interference by regional states.
The U.S. cannot bring about stable, democratic regimes in Egypt or Libya. The Obama Administration's late support of the popular uprising against Egypt's Mubarak government and its naïve offer of $1.5 billion before even knowing who the recipients would be or how the money would be spent, accomplished nothing. The Egyptian political situation remains chaotic with the outcome being a possible anti-Western Islamic state or a return to direct or indirect military rule.
The situation in Libya, although influenced by U.S. support for the British and French led air campaign that helped overthrow the Qaddafi regime, is similarly beyond meaningful influence by Western governments including the U.S., who can do nothing but standby while the proliferation of tribal militias battle among themselves for power.
Islamic militants and terrorists in Nigeria, an important oil exporting nation, and Somalia have attracted U.S. attention, and in Somalia the U.S. conducts desultory drone and special operations missions. But these are small operations in what is still a peripheral, though potentially important area and a failed state. There is simply no prospect for a wider U.S. involvement or definable success in these efforts.
But it is the situation in Syria which makes the inability of the U.S. to dictate outcomes in important geopolitical conflicts most apparent. Secretary of State Clinton's frequent and meaningless “condemnations” of violence and calls for President Bashar Assad to step down, simply emphasize the lack of U.S. influence. The choices available to outside interests, be they humanitarian or security interests, are limited and contain potential contradictions.
Syria is not Libya. Assad commands a large, Russian equipped military with an officer corps made up from his ruling Alawite sect. The publicly stated goals of the regional and international community are first to end the slaughter of the Syrian citizenry, from whom the insurgency is drawn but which include many innocent non-participants. Second, there is general unanimity, with the exceptions of Iran, Russia and China, for regime change.
The suggestions for how to bring this about are divided. One group, which includes several of the Sunni Arab members of the Arab League, wants to provide arms to the insurgency to both defend themselves and enhance their prospects for demoralizing the Syrian military and bringing about the downfall of Assad. The Obama Administration has signaled its lack of support for this option. This, no doubt, is part of a general hesitancy on Obama's part to take an active role in the regional populist movements, as well as the possible affects of such a role, on his 2012 re-election prospects. Opponents of such a strategy worry that it would result in more, not fewer, casualties and enable post-revolution civil conflict between rival tribes and sects, similar to the Libyan situation. They also warn that the weapons could fall into the hands of al Qaida terrorists who support the insurgency.
A more robust alternative exists but has few if any supporters. That would be an international military intervention to train local forces and provide military operational support. Regional states, even if they supported the idea, lack the logistics and capabilities to carry out a serious effort of this type. NATO governments, facing economic stress and war weary electorates, lack the will to participate. The U.S. has the ability to carry out such a mission but Obama lacks the will and leadership skills to convince the American public to support it.
This leaves the so called “diplomatic solution” along with the usual array of slowly escalating economic sanctions, as the probable continuing choice. Economic sanctions, however, are greatly limited without the participation of all important trading partners and potential conduits for clandestine trade. Russia, China and Iran fall into this category. Diplomacy without an incentive to reach an agreement on the part of all parties simply results in interminable discussions. Governments are not likely to negotiate themselves out of existence without the prospect of a similar outcome under far less desirable circumstances. That is not the case in Syria in spite of the fact that the elimination of Iran's only Arab ally and patron of Islamic terrorist groups Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza, would be of significant benefit to regional stability and thus in the interests of the U.S.
The world, beset by economic crisis and weak governments, is in a period, perhaps permanent, where it can no longer rely on U.S. leadership in terms of international security. The lack of political will, politically mandated diminished military resources, and the need for international support for foreign intervention in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan world, have imposed harsh limits on U.S. capabilities even for humanitarian efforts. A resurgent isolationism in the U.S. is a derivative of these realities and is evident in the steady level of support for libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul.
The Obama Administration and any subsequent administration, will have to establish more strict priorities, based on direct national interests, for the expenditure of financial, political and military capital in foreign policy initiatives. Liberals won't like it but the U.S. cannot “free Tibet”, single handedly create a Palestinian state or bring democracy or affluence to the world's downtrodden. Conservatives won't like it but the U.S. cannot keep Russia from intimidating former Soviet republics on its border or deter China from expanding its influence in the South China Sea.
Kissinger was right.