President Obama talks to bipartisan congressional leaders in the Cabinet Room while discussing a military response to Syria. Reuters/Larry Downing
Plans for a US-led air and missile attack appear to be on hold, pending the outcome of a diplomatic drive to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile under international supervision. But the debate over using military force to achieve US objectives continues. Even if President Bashar al-Assad agrees to demands for the swift destruction of his chemical arsenal under international supervision, the White House will insist on its prerogative to employ force in the event of cheating or backsliding by the Syrians. Why this insistence on retaining the option of attacking Syria, despite growing opposition to such action in Congress and the general public?
Supposedly, the purpose of an attack will be to deter the Assad regime from using chemical weapons against its citizens while “degrading” its future capacity to do so. But, as in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, those who favor military action are also offering up a variety of other reasons: to enhance America’s “credibility” as a major world power; to provide reassurance to American allies in the region; to assist the anti-Assad forces within Syria; and more. Similar justifications were used for the US assault on Iraq. And, just as was true in 2003, a deeper, less acknowledged impulse is driving the United States to war: a perceived need to protect America’s geopolitical interests in the Middle East.
Throughout history, states and empires have sought to enhance their wealth, power and influence by reshaping the world order to better serve their interests—by acquiring colonies, forging alliances with friendly states, constraining the power of their rivals, and so on. Typically, this drive has united political-military and economic motives: a perceived need to bolster the nation’s strategic position in juxtaposition to that of competing states, along with a desire to acquire and protect valuable overseas assets. Much of what we call “history”—the rise and fall of the great powers, imperial conquest and expansion, wars and rebellions—can be attributed to this combination of geopolitical objectives.
For the United States, the irresistible pull of geopolitics has been most evident in Washington’s approach to the Middle East—or, to be more precise, the oil-producing areas of the Persian Gulf. Until World War II, Washington paid almost no attention to this region, viewing it as a strategic backwater. Once oil was discovered, however, it became an area of fundamental interest. President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited there in 1945 to meet with the Saudi king, Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, and forge an alliance under which the United States would guarantee the kingdom’s safety in return for privileged access to its vast oil reserves. Every American president since Roosevelt has reaffirmed this relationship, and most have also pledged wholesale deliveries of arms and military hardware.
For a time, the United States was content to share responsibility for maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf area with Great Britain, long the region’s imperial overlord. However, when the British announced in 1968 that they would be removing their forces from the Gulf by the end of 1971, American leaders determined that the United States would have to assume the British role as ultimate guarantor of the gulf’s oil exports. Initially, these officials hoped to enlist Iran—then ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi—as a junior partner in this endeavor, but when the Shah was overthrown in 1979, they concluded that America would have to go it alone.
Since 1979, US policy toward the Gulf area has largely been driven by an overarching strategic precept: the United States must bear ultimate responsibility for ensuring the safety of oil exports from the Persian Gulf to the US and its allies, and, to that end, take whatever action is considered necessary to prevent other powers from endangering that flow. This was the impetus for US intervention in the First Gulf War (Operation Desert Storm, 1990–91) and the subsequent drive to eliminate Saddam Hussein—at first through economic warfare, later by direct intervention.
America’s geopolitical mission in the Middle East has come at a high price: two costly and demoralizing wars, massive human tragedy, and a decline in this country’s overseas prestige and influence. In recognition of these losses, the Obama administration has sought to forge a new strategic blueprint for America—one that places greater emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region and less on the Middle East. This shift—what Obama calls the “pivot” to Asia—has been driven in part by growing anxiety over China’s rise and partly by a rise in domestic US oil output, allowing a reduction in America’s dependence on imports from the Middle East.
But declaring a strategic shift of this magnitude and actually implementing it are two different things: for all his desire to extricate the United States from Middle Eastern turmoil, Obama has been unable to escape the legacy of our past involvement in the region. Iran still poses a significant threat to the safety of the oil flow from the Persian Gulf, and the petro-sheikhdoms of the southern Gulf—not to mention Israel and Jordan—still rely on the United States to protect them from Iranian aggression. To ignore these threats and obligations would be to abdicate America’s status as the world’s sole superpower and undermine its ability to guaranty the stability of global oil markets (and thus energy prices in the United States).
And this is where Syria enters the equation. Although Syria is not itself a significant oil producer, it lies adjacent to many of the major suppliers and has long served as a host for pipelines connecting the Gulf to the Mediterranean. More importantly, in recent years, is has assumed strategic importance as an ally of Iran and a conduit for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Syria has a geopolitical importance out of all proportion to its relatively small population, area, resource base, and economic wealth because of formidable military power…and its location at the heart of the Middle East,” Alasdair Drysdale of the Australian National University wrote in the Oxford Companion to World Politics. “As a result, it plays a central role in most of the Middle East’s key disputes.”
This is the dilemma facing Obama today. If the United States cannot extricate himself from the geopolitical imperatives posed by Iran’s continuing threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the safety of Persian Gulf oil supplies, it cannot extricate itself from the turmoil in Syria. Because a failure to confront Assad’s excesses could be viewed as giving Iran and other outside powers a green light to meddle in the Syrian conflict, and could be seen by the Iranians as an indication that they can continue to stockpile enriched uranium with impunity, US leaders see no choice but to become involved in Syria.
Russian involvement in the Syrian imbroglio adds another dimension to America’s dilemma. Russia has long-established ties with the Syrian leadership, beginning with Assad’s predecessor, his father Hafiz, and retains a vital naval base at Tartous, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast. More important than these strategic interests, however, is Moscow’s desire to curb America’s global activism. From Russia’s perspective, then, Syria is less important as a strategic asset in itself than as an arena in which to gain geopolitical advantage over the West. By the same token, a failure to contest Russia’s spoiler in Syria role could be interpreted as an invitation for Moscow to undertake other obstructionist endeavors.
Add all this together, and it becomes nearly impossible for American leaders to avoid involvement in the Syrian conflict. “What makes Syria so much more complicated than Libya is that the strategic issues are as prominent as the moral ones,” said Princeton professor Anne-Marie Slaughter in February 2012, shortly after completing a stint as director of policy planning at the State Department. But while the moral issues may be dominating the public debate over possible attacks on Syria, it is the strategic issues that will, in the end, dictate the government’s response.
It may well be that President Obama, in his heart of hearts, truly believes that moral—and not geopolitical—considerations should govern US policy in situations like this. Were that, in fact, the case, one could envision a genuine debate over the desirability of becoming directly involved in the Syrian conflict. Under present circumstances, however, Obama is finding it very difficult to escape the geopolitical forces that are pulling us into ever-deeper engagement with Syria.
The more we get involved, moreover, the harder it will be for the United States to limit its engagement to a limited military strike (or the continuing threat of such action). Deeper US involvement is bound to alter the strategic equation within Syria and lead other interested parties—Iran, Russia, the Gulf states, Hezbollah and so on—to take fresh initiatives of their own. And, as these will no doubt threaten America’s fundamental interests in the region, Washington will feel compelled to consider additional military options—eventually triggering an cycle of escalation whose outcome cannot be foreseen (but is bound to be horrific).
If Obama truly seeks to avoid this sort of quagmire, he must abandon the strategic imperatives that have governed American policy in the region for so many years and fashion a new set of guiding principles, aimed at limiting our overseas commitments and strengthening international norms and institutions. The best way to deter Assad is not through unilateral military action but by documenting his culpability for atrocities and isolating his regime from the outside world.
Read Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina vanden Heuvel on the diplomatic alternative.