SEATTLE – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is often perceived as one of the “good ones” — the less hawkish of top American officials, who does not simply promote and defend his country’s military adventurism but reaches out to others, beyond polarizing rhetoric.
His unremitting efforts culminated partly in the Iran nuclear framework agreement in April, followed by a final deal a few months later. Now he is reportedly hard at work again to find some sort of consensus on a way out of the war in Syria, a multi-party conflict that has killed over 300,000 people. His admirers see him as the diplomatic executor of a malleable and friendly U.S. foreign policy agenda under President Barack Obama.
In reality, this perception is misleading; not that Kerry is a warmonger like President George W. Bush’s top staff, such as Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Those two were the very antithesis of any rational foreign policy, such that even President George H.W. Bush described them with demeaning terminology, according to his biographer quoted in The New York Times. Cheney was an “Iron-ass” who “had his own empire … and marched to his own drummer,” H.W. Bush said, while calling Rumsfeld “an arrogant fellow” who lacked empathy.
Yet, considering that the elder Bush was rarely a peacemaker himself, one is left to ponder if the U.S. foreign policy ailment is centered on failure to elect proper representatives and to enlist anyone other than psychopaths?
If one is to fairly examine U.S. policies in the Middle East, for example, comparing the conduct of the last three administrations, that of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama, one would find that striking similarities are abundant. In principle, all three administrations’ foreign policy agendas were predicated on strong militaries and military intervention, although they applied soft power differently.
In essence, Obama carried on with much of what his predecessor had started in the Middle East, although he supplanted his country’s less active role in Iraq with new interventions in Libya and Syria. In fact, his Iraq policies were guided by Bush’s final act in that shattered country, where he ordered a surge in troops to pacify the resistance, thus paving the way for an eventual withdrawal. Of course, none of that plotting worked in their favor, with the results including the rise of Islamic State, but that is a topic for another discussion.
Obama even went a step further when he recently decided to keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan well into 2017, thus breaking the U.S. commitment to withdraw next year. 2017 is Obama’s last year in office, and the decision is partly motivated by his administration’s concern that future turmoil in that country could cost his Democratic Party heavily in the upcoming presidential election.
In other words, U.S. foreign policy continues to often be guided by the preponderant norm that “might makes right,” and by ill-advised personal ambitions and ideological illusions like those championed by neoconservatives during George W. Bush’s era.
Nevertheless, much has changed as well, simply because American ambitions to police the world, politics and the $600 billion-plus annual U.S. defense budget are not the only variables that control events in the Middle East and elsewhere.
There are other undercurrents that cannot be wished away, and they too can dictate U.S. foreign policy outlooks and behavior.
Indeed, an American decline has been noted for many years, and Middle Eastern nations have been more aware of this decline than others. One could even argue that the Bush administration’s rush for war in Iraq in 2003, in an attempt at controlling the region’s resources, was a belated effort at staving off that unmistakable decay — whether in U.S. ability to regulate rising global contenders or in its overall share of global economy.
The folly of Bush, Cheney and company is that they assumed that the Pentagon’s over $1.5 billion-a-day budget was enough to give the U.S. the needed leverage to control every aspect of global affairs, including a burgeoning share of the world economy. That misconception carries on to this day, where military spending is already accounting for about 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, itself nearly a third of the country’s overall budget.
However, those who are blaming Obama for failing to leverage U.S. military strength for political currency refuse to accept that Obama’s behavior hardly reflects a lack of appetite for war, but a pragmatic response to a situation that has largely spun out of U.S. control.
The so-called Arab Spring, for example, was a major defining factor in the changes of U.S. fortunes. And it all came at a particularly interesting time.
First, the Iraq War has destroyed whatever little credibility the U.S. had in the region, a sentiment that also reverberated around the world.
Second, it was becoming clear that U.S. foreign policy in Central and South America — an obstinate continuation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which laid the groundwork for U.S. domination of that region — has also been challenged by more assertive leaders, armed with democratic initiatives, not military coups.
Third, China’s more forceful politics, at least in its regional surroundings, signaled that Washington’s traditional hegemony over most of East and Southeast Asia is also facing fierce competition.
Not only have many countries in Asia and elsewhere flocked to China, lured by its economic performance, but others are also flocking to Russia, which is filling a political and, as of late, military vacuum.
The Russian military campaign in Syria has signaled a historic shift in the Middle East. Even if Russia fails to turn its war into a major shift of political and economic clout, the mere fact that other contenders are now throwing their proverbial hats into the Middle East ring is simply unprecedented since the British-French-Israeli Tripartite Aggression on Egypt in 1956.
The region’s historians must fully understand the repercussions of all of these factors, and that simply analyzing the U.S. decline based on the performance of individuals — Condoleezza Rice’s hawkishness versus Kerry’s supposed sane diplomacy — is a trivial approach to understanding current shifts in global powers.
It will take years before a new power paradigm fully emerges, during which time U.S. clients are likely to seek the protection of more dependable powers. In fact, the shopping for a new power is already under way, which also means that new alliances will be formed while others fold.
For now, the Middle East will continue to pass through this incredibly difficult and violent transition, for which the U.S. is partly responsible.
Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years.
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