Since my last post, events in the Middle East seem to have reached a dramatic crescendo. In Egypt, Presidents are simultaneously being arrested and released, while the army continues to battle the forces of evil in the Sinai. In Lebanon, car bombs are exploding all over the country, as Hezbollah is beginning to pay the real price for its involvement in Syria. And in Syria, an enraged and vengeful Assad is apparently using chemical weapons to do his dirty work. The Arab Spring has provided the background for an all-out bloodletting between various Arab and Muslim factions, while hopes for democracy and real change are currently on hold until further notice. Until now, Israel has done a good job of staying on the sidelines. Israel is no doubt secretly involved in all of the above conflagration points, and has acted when needed to forestall negative developments (e.g. destroying “game-changing” weapons), but has still managed to maintain a satisfying level of deniability.
Barring an extreme change in the current circumstances, Israel will continue this fly-on-the-wall policy. But not everyone has this luxury. “If only I could do the same”, President Obama is most likely saying to himself, as he faces a difficult dilemma deciding whether or not to respond to the blatant crossing of the red line he himself put into place earlier on this year.
On the one hand, the U.S. has not yet recovered from the bloody wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost the American tax payers trillions of dollars. Trying to extract itself from the world economic crisis, the last thing the U.S. needs is another military confrontation in the Middle East.
Additionally, and as I have pointed out before in this blog, the U.S. has begun to consolidate its resources to confront what is increasingly becoming its main challenge – the Far East, and specifically – China and North Korea (with Russia reasserting itself with a more aggressive foreign policy as well). The fact that the U.S. is well on its way to becoming largely self-sufficient in oil and gas, as a result of vast oil reserves in the U.S. and Canada, and advanced technologies for producing energy, means that the Middle East, while still important to certain American interests, is increasingly becoming less so.
And finally, last but not least – there is no clear side to support in this case, and therefore no tangible objective. The forces opposing Assad are divided, and consist of groups that the U.S. is trying to steer well clear of, as a lesson from backing the Taliban against the U.S.S.R in the 1980’s. As General Dempsey pointed out in a letter to Congress that was purposely leaked by the administration to put a lid on mounting pressure to act in Syria, “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides. It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favor. Today, they are not.”
On the other hand, America’s status in the world is at stake. While perhaps no longer considered the superpower it once was, it is still very much perceived as the leading force in the West. If a country blatantly defies the international norms established after the Second World War regarding the use of weapons of mass destruction, all eyes are turned to the leader of this so-called international community, especially if a stated red line was openly crossed. Not acting now, will most certainly damage America’s status in the Middle East, not to mention the entire world. State actors (China, Iran, Russia) and non-state actors (Al-Qaeda) alike, are waiting to see whether the U.S. still has the clout it once had. And all this is without mentioning the ideological and moral considerations that have always been part of American foreign policy, at least when they suited American interests.
This dilemma expresses the entrapment that comes along with the status of superpower. The U.S. will be criticized for not acting , yet if it does decide to act, it will be criticized as well, while also endangering its interests.
What does all this add up to? While the U.S. will do all it can not to rush into a costly ground war in Syria, it will likely opt for a limited pinpoint air strike against Syrian targets. This tactic kills two birds with one stone: pacifying the critics at home and abroad accusing the U.S. of a lack of leadership and moral hypocrisy, while also not committing to a deeper military involvement.
More so, since this kind of attack is limited in scope and does not put Assad’s rule in any real danger, a retaliation against American interests in the area (i.e. Israel), that may drag the U.S. into committing additional forces, is not expected. Of course, logic does not always work in a region like the Middle East. i.e. a ruling President using Sarin gas on his own people!