It’s hard to remember a time—we’re talking even way back in the bad old days of the Cold War—when things were such a mess. It’s hard even to count the number of wars underway right at the moment, but let’s list at least some of them: there’s the Israeli invasion of Gaza, the civil strife in eastern Ukraine, the twin civil wars in Syria and Iraq, the ongoing Afghanistan war, Pakistan’s assault on Taliban strongholds, virtual civil war in Libya, general conflicts across Africa (Nigeria, Mali, the Sudans, Somalia and of course in the eastern Congo/Uganda region), drone strikes and civil war in Yemen. To that list we might add tensions pitting China against Vietnam, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines and, of course, the high-stakes negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. And then there’s the immigration crisis at the border. (You might be able to think of some I’ve neglected to mention.)
At the beginning of July, the surprise offensive by the Al Qaeda–like Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) captured the headlines. Though it hasn’t gone away, it’s essentially been eclipsed by the brutal Israeli offensive in Gaza and by the crisis in Ukraine, sparked by Vladimir Putin’s irredentist claim to defend Russians everywhere and culminating in the shootdown of Flight MH17. In normal times, any one of these crises, each one of which brings unbearable losses of human life and ill forebodings of things to come, would grab the attention of the entire world. But this is not normal times. Why is this all happening, and why now?
It’s tempting to say that it’s the result of retrenchment on the part of the United States and of President Obama’s disinclination to get involved in conflict overseas—tempting, but wrong. That hasn’t stopped Republicans, and hawks and neoconservatives in the United States, from blaming Obama for everything: if only he’d kept troops in Iraq, if only he’d bombed Syria, if only he’d rush military aid and US advisers to Ukraine, if only he’d bomb ISIS in Iraq, if only he’d throw America’s full support to the Syrian rebels, if only he’d been a stronger ally of Israel’s. And so on.
As readers of this blog are know well, for the past several years I’ve analyzed every one of these conflicts as they’ve built to explosive levels. And while Obama might have handled things differently in every case, it’s utterly wrong to blame the president’s alleged over-caution and aloofness for the wave of crises sweeping the world. Fact is, what we’re seeing around the world might be the new normal. The emergence of a multipolar world, the irreversible decline of America’s ability to throw around its political, economic and military might, the rise of regional powers which insist on carving out spheres of influence, and the collapse of the old, authoritarian order in the Middle East are all factors—as is the growing competition for resources, especially water, food and energy, as climate change causes major shifts in the balance of power. There’s no magic bullet for any of these—especially solutions that actually require bullets.
So Obama’s caution is laudable, but that’s not to say that there aren’t things that Obama might do. He could push Israel to halt its murderous assault and then announce an American peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict—something he’d hinted he might do, but didn’t. He could wind down America’s support for the rebels in Syria, which would weaken ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. He could take advantage of the MH17 tragedy to unify the rest of the world around a no-nonsense approach to Russia’s out-of-control inflammation of Ukraine, and get diplomacy back on track. And so on. But Obama’s critics are wrong when they insist that a more “robust” (and I hate that word), stronger and more aggressive US military and political stand could somehow calm the waters. There’s no option that involves US forces in Ukraine, no option that sends US troops into Libya or back into Iraq, no new escalation of the war in Afghanistan, no Cold War–style “containment” of Russia and China and certainly no option to use US military force against Iran’s nuclear installations.
Equally, while it’s easy to look back and blame George W. Bush, the eruption of a world in crisis isn’t simply “Bush’s fault.” Yes, the Ukraine crisis would be less intense if President Bush (and President Clinton) hadn’t expanded NATO toward Russia’s borders. Yes, Iraq would be suffering far less but for Bush’s illegal 2003 war. Yes, radical Islamists would be less powerful if Bush hadn’t proclaimed a “Global War on Terrorism” that was perceived as an American assault on the entire Muslim world. But the rise of China, the reassertion of Russia’s claim to parts of the old USSR, the chaos that followed the Arab Spring, the conflicts in Africa—well, none of those have easy solutions. And there are deeper, underlying causes at work.
Although President Obama may be right in his instinct to focus on rebuilding America’s infrastructure at home, creating jobs and dealing with healthcare, he’s going to have to spend a lot of time at the United Nations—and perhaps hire a passel of new, Richard Holbrooke–style special envoys, too—because none of these crises are going away, and every one of them needs an army of diplomats.
That said, the crisis in Gaza ought once and for all to convince the United States that Israel is far too costly an ally, and one that is far too arrogant. The Israeli doctrine that one or two dead or kidnapped soldier on the border with Lebanon justifies killing a thousand Lebanese and bombing Beirut, or that a fusillade of mostly harmless rockets landing in Israel’s southern desert means that Israel has to (for the third time in a decade) kill hundreds in Gaza is breathtaking in its sheer arrogance. Given America’s vast aid to Israel—not to mention its being nearly the sole source of Israel’s political support—the United States can either rein in Israel or exact costly penalties. But perhaps it’s too much to believe that the Obama administration is finally getting the message, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s hot-mike comment sarcastically referring to Israel’s “pinpoint” attacks that are anything but pinpointed.
If Obama does anything, in regard to foreign policy, in the next two and half years, he’ll need an all-out effort to develop a consensus at home about how to deal with a world in crisis, and how to put in place a serious diplomatic strategy that can take all of this on. Looking at each crisis on its own, as a fire to be extinguished, won’t work. That will take a lot of serious thinking from a lot of serious people, but he’d better start now.