“Making predictions is very difficult,” said Niels Bohr, “especially about the future.” We live in uncertain times, and they have been chronically uncertain, oftentimes acutely so, ever since July 1914. As we enter 2014, it is apt to remember that a hundred years ago the civilized world greeted the new year with the complacent belief, bordering on arrogance, in endless progress based on the globalized world’s unfettered commerce, science, technology, and social work.
The notion of a “Short Twentieth Century” (1914-1991) is an attractive-sounding lie. Nothing much of world-historical significance happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Bolshevik edifice had ceased to be a revolutionary, inspiringly disruptive force long before its demise. After the dreadful Yeltsin interlude Russia became a normal nation again, 75 years and a hundred million graves later admittedly, but—Gott sei Dank—under Putin it turned out to be much more normal than most Western, formerly Christian nations, which had been spared the ordeal of the Gulag and the peculiar brand of Ostpolitiek pursued by the Wehrmacht and the SS in the “eastern territories,” resulting in 22 million dead Slavs.
The disruptive, “creatively destructive,” revolutionary, endlessly adrenaline-laden power of our time is America. Erratic decision-making by inept and undereducated adolescents (vis. Obama’s “selfie” with Denmark’s long-legged, blonde prime minister at Mandela’s memorial service, with PM Cameron squeezing in like a pliant little nerd hoping to support his “alpha” buddy).
The year ahead is likely to bring various unforeseen foreign policy challenges. Two years ago nobody anticipated the “Arab Spring” and yet it happened, although that phenomenon’s causes, significance, and future developments are still a matter of dispute. The North Korean regime is fundamentally less stable than at any time since the 1950-53 war, and its sudden unraveling could cause a first-class regional tsunami. Similar uncertainty applies to Pakistan, a chronically fragile multiethnic state ruled by the Punjabi elite, with three-quarters of the country’s 180 million Muslims perceiving the United States as an “enemy.” All of Africa, on both sides of the Sahara, is unstable, with the potential for an eruption relevant to the rest of the world present in the oil-rich Nigeria, to the south of the desert, and in Algeria to its north. Last but not least, the euro may collapse and leave a trail of social, economic and political devastation in its wake.
Setting such “unknown unknowns” aside, there are several key themes that will be on Obama’s foreign agenda in the months ahead that will require strategic planning and realist assessment of costs and benefits—decision-making imperatives that were obviously missing in last summer’s Syrian crisis. The first of them is the relationship with China, which we discussed in some detail in last month’s issue. The still-unresolved strategic dilemma in the foreign-policy establishment is whether the United States should act as a status quo power and try to contain China by maintaining regional preponderance, or else develop offshore-balancing strategies that will accommodate change while upholding key American interests in the region.
The “pivot to Asia” has no geostrategic substance for as long as this key question remains open. The Chinese believe, with some reason, that the “pivot” has the purpose to curtail their attempts to redefine the regional balance in line with the changing relative strength of the key players. The potential for a sudden crisis is greater than it would have been had a reassessment of U.S. goals in the region taken place before the pivot was announced. That reassessment should start with the acceptance that America’s economic, military and moral power is declining in relation to the growing powers of the Eurasian heartland, and that managing desirable outcomes along its edges—in Europe, in the Greater Middle East, the Subcontinent, and the Far East—requires a strategic leitmotif. The maintenance of U.S. aircraft carrier groups in Japan, ground forces on the 38th parallel, and air bases in Guam and Diego Garcia should be connected to a coherent grand strategy. It would need to take into account the fact that China’s economic and political weight in the region—U.S. allies Japan and South Korea included—is far greater now than that of the Soviet Union vis-à-vis our European allies during the Cold War. Preoccupied as he is with the domestic fiascos of his own making, President Barack Obama should find the time to initiate a thorough intra-departmental examination of the issue.
In the Greater Middle East, Syria and Egypt should be left to their own devices. In Syria the fighting will continue, but a military stalemate has already taken place. The Christian-killing rebels are controlling large areas in the north and east of the country, while government forces have extended control over their strongholds in Damascus, the coastal strip, and the areas along the border with Lebanon. Bashar’s forces will not collapse and the rebels will not unite. Neither side can win, which should be just fine with the United States.
In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood is effectively finished as a viable political and social force, which is good. It has been unable to prevent the military from establishing control, it has been designated a terrorist organization, and the leaders will languish in jail for many years – there will be no regime change in Cairo. MB leaders are in jail, and those still at large have been unable to adjust to pressure and revert to the underground tactics which functioned well under Mubarak. Egypt’s “deep state” has been able to stabilize the country, partly due to General Sisi’s prudent disregard for the Brotherhood-friendly advice coming from Washington. Egypt’s future president will face many challenges in 2014, especially in kick-starting the country’s faltering economy, but dealing with them will be easier with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ongoing demise as a major political, social, and moral force. That demise fits in neatly with the American interest in the region, and should be accepted with good grace. Some time next spring Obama should resume military aid to Egypt—a minor budgetary item—to underscore that acceptance and to help Sisi contain the ongoing Al Qaeda insurgency in the Sinai.
After the ground-breaking agreement in Geneva last fall, the negotiations with Iran will continue in a more or less non-adversarial manner in 2014. There will be no war, as we have predicted in these pages every year since Obama’s election. The Obama Administration does not support Israel’s insistence that all Iranian uranium enrichment facilities should be shut down and all stocks of fissile material removed from the country. In the final settlement some time in the summer of 2014, Iran’s demand that it should not be prevented from the legal use of nuclear technology for electricity generation and other peaceful purposes will be accepted in some form. In the end, Iran will remain only theoretically nuclear-capable—which is to say, allowed to enrich uranium to low levels in return for step-by-step easing of sanctions—within an international supervision regime designed to prevent any sudden weaponizing breakthrough. The Persians would just love to cheat—everyone does in the Middle East, after all, not to mention the grand liars in Washington, Brussels and London—but their maneuvering space is tight. There will be no enrichment beyond five percent in 2014, and there will be no war.
Israel and Saudi Arabia are unhappy that America will not enter a risky imbroglio for the sake of their peculiar strategic interests, but neither state will act unilaterally to alter that outcome. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly threatened to do so, but—as everyone knew—he was not being serious. It is not that he will not “dare” do it; being a rational player, he knows that the long-term diplomatic cost of attacking Iran on his own would greatly exceed any short-term military benefits. His de facto Saudi allies would be happy to provide him with the rights of passage and refueling facilities—Likud meets Wahhab—but the overall scenario is self-defeating unless it leads to America being forced to join the fray. Obama is too focused on his domestic life-altering agenda to allow such a distraction, and Netanyahu and Bandar know that.
In 2014 John Kerry will likely continue his futile quest for a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. There are no structural elements needed for a deal, however. Israel is no longer interested in the two-state solution, much to the peril of her long-term survival as a Jewish state. The Palestinian leadership cannot settle for anything less, of course, and demography is on their side. If and when the two sides decide that it is in their interest to sign a deal, it will happen regardless of the good offices of an intermediary seen as untrustworthy by one side and fundamentally biased by the other. It would be in the American interest to sit back and let them continue on their long road to nowhere until they decide they have had enough.
Talking of the Saudis, the royal kleptocrats are aware that the United States is on the road to energy self-sufficiency thanks to shale gas and that their influence in Washington will diminish accordingly. To postpone that moment they were keen for Iran to remain under sanctions, not only because of the strategic and sectarian rivalry (which is real), but also because a looser sanctions regime would bring some 800,000 barrels of Iranian oil to the global market, driving prices down and thus eroding Saudi earnings and clout. Having lived for decades under the American military umbrella, they are also worried by the “pivot to Asia” which is intended to move America’s focus away from the Middle East.
The Saudi connection is ready for a thorough review. It is in the American interest to give up the fiction that Saudi Arabia is an “ally” of the United States. It is not in the American interest to side with the Saudis’ jihadist clients in Syria, or to support Riyadh in the regional Sunni-Shia power struggle, not to mention the ongoing Saudi-financed spread of Wahhabism in the West. Quite the contrary, that interest would be best served by encouraging the development of a regional balance-of-power system, which demands continued dialogue with Iran and gradual diplomatic and military disengagement from the region. By not appeasing the royal cleptocracy, President Obama may partly atone for his infamous low bow when he met Saudi King Abdullah in 2009. A step in the right direction in the year ahead would be for the Administration to consider relocating the home of the U.S Fifth Fleet away from Bahrain, a Saudi client state with a Shi’ite majority, and a simmering social and political cauldron. Another would be to make the Administration’s eccentric preoccupation with “human rights” applicable to the desert bastion of Islamofascism. Asking for the right of Saudi women to drive cars and for a “pride parade” in Mecca would be consistent with the U.S. foreign policy obsessions in other parts of the world.
In the new year the American interest will continue to suffer from the absence of a consistent grand strategy. The balance between ends and means of American power in the rapidly multipolarizing world has not been found. A new, realist paradigm is badly needed, but there is no sign of the realization that the problem exists—let alone that it should be resolve—at either end of the Washingtonian duopoly.