The prospect of military action in Syria seems a lot less likely than it did a few weeks ago, but I think that even if it doesn’t go to blows, this event will still be looked back upon as being historically significant. Right now it looks like we’re witnessing the government of the United States attempting to go beyond their political, moral, economic and military limits in Syria and these guys are definitely not used to not getting what they want in the world. After over 20 years of being the world’s sole superpower, I believe this incident highlights the world’s transition into a multipolar world.
I should also say that war is not completely off the table at this point and if it goes to war it’s going to be a huge shit-show because there’s the potential for a lot of bad things to happen, ranging from only further pissing off the world as the best possible outcome and world war at the worst possible outcome. Our recent campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as prisoner abuse scandals and drone warfare left a sour taste in much of the world’s mouth and adding another preemptive war to that laundry list of complaints against us surely wouldn’t help improve our public image. At the more extreme end of potential outcomes, Russia has beefed up her naval presence in Syrian waters and Iran has hinted towards retaliation against the United States and/or Israel if the US strikes Syria. Israeli involvement could flare up tensions in the regions beyond their already turbulent state (although they did strike Syria in the spring). The possibility of this going from an in-house affair to a regional conflict to a world war involving NATO & friends against Iran, Syria and Russia is certainly there if cooler heads do not prevail.
Between hurting feelings abroad and full-scale world war lies many other potential outcomes we could face: terrorism, being bogged down in proxy wars, economic warfare, cutting off petroleum supplies and diplomatic blowback. With all the other problems we have in our country, we do not need more of them thrown onto our backs. Fortunately, it does seem like the situation is deescalating and military action looks less likely. If we’re lucky, the American public will get out of this with only a case of shame over the guys we collectively voted for.
A decade ago we had carte blanche in the world and undertook two separate wars. Today we’re facing serious diplomatic resistance from Russia (and to a lesser extent, China) and the support/goading we’re getting from Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey plus the toadyism from the UK, France, Germany, etc. on the issue doesn’t seem like a sufficient “consensus” from the world on the situation. I think this is notable on how far the balance of power in the world has headed to the east since we last decided to flex our muscles in 2003. I think it’s still safe to say we’re the world’s premier superpower, but it’s looking like we’re a stoppable one with limits today.
In addition to the balance of power in the world shifting away from complete American hegemony towards a multipolar world, I think another significant reason for this operation falling flat is that our leaders in the US and Europe have failed to make a convincing enough case for it to the public. Parliament in the UK resoundingly swatted down David Cameron’s request for authorization to use military action and there’s little enthusiasm for military action from American rank-and-file politicians. Not only has the Obama administration and their cohorts failed to muster up the political clout to gain the world’s approval, they’ve failed to even do it within their own countries and political parties. I think this shows a sharp decline in the power and prestige of the United States government and its figurehead.
On the home front in pretty much all Western nations (including Turkey) the overwhelming majority of the people strongly disagree with the prospect of aggression against Syria to the point where there’s not even a real national debate over this on main street. The divide between regular “folks” (as Obama is so fond of saying) and governments is pretty damn big at this point. I don’t believe they’ve made a convincing case to the public on this one and I don’t think that I’ve talked to a single soul who thought this was a good idea. If something does end up happening with Syria, it makes a pretty good case to reject the idea that our politicians “work for us”. It’s particularly disheartening knowing we have a president who was basically elected on the unpopularity of the wars in the Middle East, a secretary of state who protested the Vietnam War on the grounds that it didn’t serve our interests and Vice President who threatened to impeach George Bush over an unconstitutional war. John McCain is just being, well, John McCain.
As a member of the American public, I personally don’t feel they’ve made a compelling case to convince me of the urgency of the issue. So there’s this guy in Syria who has chemical weapons and maybe he ordered the use of them against his own people but we’re not sure so we want to go bomb them? How thoughtful. If we’re really just wanting to be good Samaritans, why haven’t we gone into North Korea yet? They have some scary weapons in their arsenal and that guy is truly a dick. My guess is because North Korea isn’t next to Israel and their economic output revolves around the cabbage harvest and not fossil fuels. This inconsistency does not go unnoticed in the world and takes away from the moral creditability we once enjoyed as a nation. In Russian President Vladimir Putin’s September 11, 2003 Op-ed piece in the New York Times he states “Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us.”, summing up the world’s distaste with our foreign policy.
I believe another issue on the American public’s mind is the idea that we can’t afford another war. We’re currently a little shy of $17 trillion in debt and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have already cost a couple trillion dollars and still counting – we’ll be paying veterans benefits for quite some time if everything goes to plan. It should also be noted that we didn’t pay cash for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and we would probably put this one on the credit card as well, thus raking up higher interest payments on the debt. The average American can look around and see government services being slashed, a declining economy and our cities and infrastructure crumbling down around them and rightfully be outraged over some of our politicians wishing to go on another seemingly pointless military adventure on the other side of the world. What’s really interesting to me is that I believe this is the first time that I know of in modern American history where “we can’t afford it” actually gives the government some pause when it comes to military action showing that we do actually have limits on how far we can go with our current paradigm in the world.
It should also be noted that if we step on Russia and China’s toes too hard and for too long, one way they could retaliate against us is economically. Both hold significant amounts of US debt and could force the value of the dollar downward if they really wanted to. We are definitely not untouchable in this regard today. When we have an economy built around confidence, a little confidence shattering can go a very long ways.
Secretary of State John Kerry seemed hell-bent on war and made an off-the-cuff comment about how an American attack could be taken off the board if Assad turned over Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly got the ball rolling on a plan to have Assad turn over his chemical weapons and forced Kerry to eat his words. I think much of the world realizes that Putin had outfoxed the Americans and after decades of dysfunction Russia is emerging as an important player on the world scene again. In fact, the international edition of TIME magazine featured Vladimir Putin with “American is weak and waffling. Russia’s rich and resurgent – and its leader doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him”. The American edition featured a football player on the cover instead. As it stands now, this appears to be a diplomatic victory for Russia and definitely a diplomatic loss for the US that will probably haunt us for a little while. The deal with Assad doesn’t guarantee that there will be no military action against Syria, but it definitely took some of the wind out of our hawkish politicians’ sails.
For the record I believe that Russia’s intentions with Syria aren’t exactly altruistic (i.e. power, money, prestige, oil), but I think Putin is looking better in the world right now than our guys and that the situation has been handled very well on the Russian end. Ours? Not so much. I found it distasteful when Barack Obama snubbed Putin at the G-7 meeting, knowing that he had a list of very difficult questions waiting for him. I also thought it was interesting that right about the time of the G-7 a massive human rights crisis magically appeared in Russia involving the persecution of homosexuals in the American media and then magically disappeared just as fast as it came, giving President Obama another arrow in his quiver on reasons to not meet with Putin.
So here’s where we are in the world: Our government, quarterbacked by our Nobel Peace Prize recipient president, looks like bullies to the rest of the world and hasn’t been able to coherently justify this endeavor to anyone but themselves. We’re a little shy of 17 trillion dollars in debt and the idea of shelling out more to pay for this is unpalatable to most. Other nations are using soft power (i.e. diplomacy, world opinion) against us and winning. Our military is still overstretched and worn out over the past decade. Our leaders look like complete assholes and the American public aren’t behind them on this one, despite pressure from the mainstream media and our politicians. Vladimir Putin looks like a saint and well, Obama doesn’t. Neither does Hollande, Cameron or Merkel. In short, I think we’ve found our limits on how far we can carry on successfully with our current geopolitical paradigm and we’re currently somewhere on the wrong side of that line now.
I really hope we duck out of this one gracefully and use it as a learning experience because the mile-high view of this situation looks like this could wind up being one of the key events that mark the end of America’s position as the world’s sole superpower and shattering the idea that America is exceptional. I’d rather we see that the easy way than the hard way…