A distinguished American diplomat, the late Larry Eagleburger, quipped in 1979 that we would soon miss the USSR. He was a little premature on the “soon” but correct otherwise.
He contrasted the almost perfectly-matched balance of terror between the United States and the Soviet Union against the chaos now spreading from country to continent.
The two Cold War antagonists, perversely, cooperated as much as they competed to prevent local conflicts from getting out of hand. Mutual Assured Destruction ensured a mutual interest in keeping the lid on.
The end of the Cold War left us, momentarily, as the dominant superpower. Our rhetoric convinced Americans that our unmatched military strength allowed us to dictate to every other country on the globe.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes this national self-deception in his recent book: Duty. He writes that our national penchant for telling other countries what to do produced widespread resentment and bitterness and not obedience.
Gates also noted, “The end of the Soviet threat also ended any compelling reason for many countries to automatically align themselves with the United States or do our bidding for their own protection.”
The rest of world saw the Bush Administration’s prosecution of the “War against Terrorism” as massive violations of the American ethos (Think renditions, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and waterboarding). They saw occupation of Iraq as a self-serving grab for another country’s oil and a new Crusade against Muslims.
After the USSR collapsed, Russians saw us trying to undermine both Russia and Orthodox Christianity; the latter thanks to the activity of American Catholic and Protestant missionaries.
The world saw that our vaunted military strength failed to achieve quick victory in Iraq and Afghanistan but did exhaust our Armed Forces and our Treasury. They also saw that we could not impose our will either on dependent countries, such as Israel, or our putative enemies such as Syria.
Another distinguished American diplomat, Chas Freeman, wrote recently that an American foreign policy based on the assumption that some country or movement is “either with us or against us” has lost all meaning. The post-Cold War period released pent-up resentments and conflicts of such complexity that picking sides defies logic.
Mass popular uprisings brought down the corrupt and brutal dictators whom we had supported to guarantee stability such as Egypt’s Mubarak. In fact, our support brought them down because it made so arrogant that it blinded them to the fact their people hated them more than they feared us.
Old allies such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey support extremist Islamist militants who often target American interests because their domestic politics demand it. Other old enemies such as Iran and Russia are on the same side as the US, locked in a death struggle with those same militants (although our politicians would have us believe otherwise).
Two countries that we have long regarded as the most strategic of allies, Israel and Turkey, are now locked in deep mutual hostility. Bitter enemies and U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, again according to Gates, both urged the United States to attack Iran on their behalf.
Syria’s brutal dictator, whose overthrow we advocate, is locked in a death struggle with al-Qaeda backed Islamist rebels who receive Saudi and Turkish aid, while his Christian, Shi’a, Druse, and Alawite population see his survival as synonymous with their own.
People around the world deal with issues vital to their survival for which the United States offers no solutions and lacks the economic and military power to impose them even if it had any. Senator McCain’s view that “three days of bombing” would compel Assad’s surrender represents the fantasy of an aging and nostalgic former fighter pilot.
The terms of war have changed as much as the politics. Since the late 1960s not one foreign military power has defeated a nationalist insurgency in another country. The world is littered with dead and maimed American and Russian soldiers and both countries are saddled with the debt to pay for their failed military ventures.
With few exceptions, politicians initiated those ventures by misleading their populations into believing that as all-powerful and exceptional nations we can impose our will.
One would have hoped that President Obama could have found a more elegant and persuasive way to articulate this reality other than the ill-chosen but absolutely rational “leading from behind.”
The new reality demands that we construct new alliances for each situation. We need the Russians and they need us in Syria; Kerry understands this. The Arabs took the lead in bringing down Qadhafi in Libya and we supported them. Happily, Obama ignored the asinine GOP suggestion that we do this on our own.
Byzantium relied on diplomacy using the full spectrum of national power, including economics, culture, religion, education, assassinations (think modern drones) and, only if all else failed, armed force to stay King of the Hill for almost a millennium. If we do not learn that lesson we will be lucky to still be there by mid-century.
A quote from Winston Churchill should be emblazoned across the desk of every politician: “Never, never, never believe any war will be smooth and easy, or that anyone who embarks on the strange voyage can measure the tides and hurricanes he will encounter. The statesman who yields to war fever must realize that once the signal is given, he is no longer the master of policy but the slave of unforeseeable and uncontrollable events.”