Belmont Club

The Thirteenth Crisis

Ishaan Tharoor argues in the Washington Post there are 7 crises in the Middle East as important, or more important, than president Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.  “Removed from the bluster in Washington, the Middle East’s most vexing challenges have little to do with Iran’s capacity to build a nuclear weapon … here’s what is far more of a problem.”

1. The Syria endgame
2. The spread of the Islamic State
3. The war in Yemen
4. Turkey’s renewed civil war
5. Failing, corrupt governments
6. The zombie afterlife of the two-state solution
7. The Egyptian political tragedy

Not everyone may agree with Tharoor’s enumeration, but it’s a pretty good list. It’s not complete, Had he cast his eyes beyond the Middle East, Tharoor might have added to his heptalog:

8. The war in Ukraine
9. Chinese expansion in Asia
10. The fraying and fragmenting of the European union
11. The spread of Islamic fundamentalism through North and Sub-Saharan Africa;
12. The growing danger of a global economic crisis.

Yet a mere listing of the world’s current difficulties does not sufficiently capture the essence of the crisis. The real problem isn’t that the list is seven or eight.  The most worrisome thing is the list is growing. Worse, as the list lengthens the individual crises begins to merge and interact.  For example, the crisis in Ukraine is starting to combine with events in Syria.  The connection has been developing for some time. Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times reported as far back as January, 2015 that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned against “childishly” excluding the Kremlin from the fighting global terrorism as punishment for its role in the Ukraine crisis.

Western diplomats have long suspected Russia wanted to be invited into role in Syria to gain leverage over the crisis in Ukraine, as Vladimir Isachenkov of the Associated Press writes.

Signs of an ongoing Russian military buildup in Syria have drawn U.S. concerns and raised questions of whether Moscow plans to enter the conflict. …

Observers in Moscow say the Russian manoeuvring could be part of a plan to send troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State group in the hope of fixing fractured ties with the West. … By playing with the possibility of joining the anti-IS coalition, Putin may hope to win a few key concessions. His main goal: the lifting of Western sanctions and the normalization of relations with the United States and the European Union, which have sunk to their lowest point since the Cold War amid the Ukrainian crisis. In addition, the Russian leader may be angling to make the West more receptive to Moscow’s involvement in Ukraine, while retaining influence in Syria.

Early this summer, the Kremlin put forward a peace plan for Syria that envisions enlisting Syrian government forces and Iran in the anti-IS coalition. A few rounds of negotiations with the Americans and Saudis have brought no visible results, and now Moscow appears to be testing the water for a next move — beefing up its military presence in Syria.

It looks like Putin is going in with or without an invitation. The Guardian reports that John Kerry is afraid a ground presence will give Russia control over the refugee spigot, enabling Putin to increase or reduce the flow of migrants to Europe at will. According to that point of view, Putin could use Syria to blackmail Europe into getting off the Ukrainian sanctions.

But Martin Kalb, writing in the Washington Post, believes Putin doesn’t think that way at all. “Putin won his war in Ukraine,” he says, and was willing to pay the economic price that it took.

Poroshenko … knows by now that neither Germany nor the United States will fight for Ukraine. Yes, they will offer warm words of support, modest financial and military assistance, of course — but apparently little more. …

For this “victory,” Putin has had to pay a heavy price. His economy has floundered, his reputation has suffered and Russia has experienced a return to domestic disorder and discontent that is real, even spreading. But as yet this has not had any discernible effect on his position within Russia. He seems perfectly capable of retaining his almost dictatorial grip on political power.

Now he’s working on getting the sanctions off. Maybe he’ll “win” that one too.  After all, if Iran could insist on sanctions removal on its nukes, why not Moscow over Ukraine?

What is indisputable is that America is now belatedly moving to stop a Russian buildup in Syria. Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times report that “the United States on Tuesday moved to head off preparations for a suspected Russian military buildup in Syria as Bulgaria agreed to an appeal from the Obama administration to shut its airspace to Russian transport planes. The planes’ destination was the Syrian port city of Latakia.”

The administration has also asked Greece to close its airspace to the Russian flights, Greek and American officials said, but Greece has not publicly responded to the request.

The apparent Russian military preparations and the Obama administration’s attempt to block them have escalated long-running tensions between the White House and the Kremlin. Although the United States and Russia agree that the Islamic State is a threat, the new dispute shows that they remain far apart on how best to combat the militant group and on the political future of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — divisions that are likely to be on display when President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin speak to the United Nations General Assembly this month.

The flashpoints are multiplying.  Number 1 and 8 on the list of doom have linked up.  Now number 4 looks to be entering the mash-up. Ceylan Yeginsu reports in the New York Times that “Turkish ground troops entered northern Iraq on Tuesday, seeking to capture Kurdish rebels who had crossed the border after a rebel attack in Turkey over the weekend killed 16 soldiers, a government official in Turkey said.”  Now the BBC is reporting that violence has broken out in Turkish six cities as Ankara attempts to crack down.

Russians in Syria, Turks in Iraq, Saudis in Yemen and Syrians in Berlin.  Welcome to 2015.

In the coming weeks more linkages may develop between items on the list as the various elements of foreign policy, like rivulets after a rain, flow into channels and eventually build up into a flood.  Should this happen it would falsify one of the key tenets of the Obama foreign policy, the belief that various issues could be “de-linked” from each other.

The president told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “you don’t negotiate deals with your friends. You negotiate them with your enemies.” To forge agreements with foes you had to first of all forget they were trying to kill you.  Next you had to overlook the fact that they would probably lie to you.  But the president was willing to disconnect the former from the latter, as only a brilliant man could do, or a man who doesn’t know the engine is connected to differential via a drive shaft.

When the president pursued his agreement with Tehran he “rejected the idea of linking the deal to the fate of U.S. citizens currently held in Tehran or Iran’s backing of militants across the region.  He pursued negotiations with the Taliban in the belief one could de-link the Afgan battlefield from diplomacy.  He has most famously de-linked Hamas from the his burning vision of solution to the Palestinian question.  De-link, de-link, de-link. You could isolate his grand bargains from the shocks of actual reality.

Now it turns out that you can’t separate things so cleanly.  The list of doom exists and is growing because one can’t do what he thought he could. This miscalculation might be the 13th crisis on the list all by itself.

13. The Obama administration fundamentally misunderstood how international relations worked.

Acting on a faulty premise the Obama pursued policies which made things worse. They blithely moved the tiller in the direction in which they wanted the bow of the boat to move.  When this did not produce the desired result, they ignored it and “moved on”.  A team of writers for the Los Angeles Times described back in August 2013 how this dysfunctional process worked.  The administration hoped to handle the crisis in Syria, then in its comparatively early stages, by shambolism. The administration plan was to do just enough to move the issue past the immediate news cycle. In other words, they decided kick the can down the road, with the difference that they believed this would actually fix things.

One U.S. official who has been briefed on the options on Syria said he believed the White House would seek a level of intensity “just muscular enough not to get mocked” but not so devastating that it would prompt a response from Syrian allies Iran and Russia.

“They are looking at what is just enough to mean something, just enough to be more than symbolic,” he said.

The thirteenth crisis is the breakdown in American competence. It was the joint product of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama farcical strategy, accelerated by the extraordinary reluctance of the mainstream press to question its premises. During this period of astonishing foolishness, the ship of state has moved dangerously close to the roaring falls.  A great deal of mischief was begun and allowed to grow into monstrous excrescences that Tharoor sees looming up today.

Now that everything’s in plain view, surely the administration will act to correct things.  But it won’t. If it does, it will as before do only just enough not to get mocked. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. The Obama administration, despite its pretense to youthful vigor, represents an ideology in senility, if not in dementia. The administration won’t solve the 13+1 problems because they don’t know how. Perhaps they never knew at all.

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