SPEAKING FREELY Iraq and the emerging regional disorder
By Zorawar Daulet Singh
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US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week expressed a truism when he remarked, "recent crises in Iraq and Ukraine remind us all how quickly things can change in the world, and not for the better."
Since 1980, the Carter Doctrine (America reserves the right to use force to defend its interests in West Asia) has been the dominant
image of the regional security system. The US took West Asia into its sphere of influence, and, Washington could be relied upon to ensure a modicum of geopolitical leadership. After all, this was the implicit contract between America and the world. The US would supply public goods via geopolitical stability and receive the consent of regional and global stakeholders to a US-led regional order. Yet the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the impasse with Iran, NATO's strike on Libya, the Syrian civil war, strengthening of radical Islam in Egypt, and Turkey's drift away from its secular moorings collectively suggest that the US can no longer credibly present itself as a regional security provider.
If there is one stark contradiction in US foreign policy it is this: A relative power decline and the weakening of the domestic base for a superpower role suggest that America would seek to craft a new role, one consistent with its means and body politic. A recent Bloomberg poll showed that 58% of the Americans surveyed felt the US was in decline as a world leader. Yet, a parallel self-image of an exceptional America as a "city upon a hill" seems to be the persistent default mantra for any mainstream policymaker. Obama's West Point speech in May exemplified this: "I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being", even as he wisely argued against the overuse of the American military "hammer". But then also insisting, "America must always lead on the world stage. If we don't, no one else will."
The dichotomy between the declining capacity and strong will to sustain an exceptional role, and, the persistence of a discourse of exceptionalism among US elites suggests a potentially dangerous inflexion point has been reached. This is nothing short of an American identity crisis that is part of the normative and material transition to a multipolar world.
But because the American footprint across the world is still formidable, it is impossible not to be affected by the flux in America's role. An America unwilling to re-define its role is also an America that cannot engage with a cross-section of regional and great powers. Aside from a momentary display of diplomacy, when Russia and the US crafted a deal to secure Syria's chemical weapons last September, the American problem-solving equation is frozen in a binary between using the "hammer" or doing nothing.
Anne-Marie Slaughter exemplifies such an approach when she argues for “Enough force to compel governments and rebels alike to the negotiating table. And enough force to create a breathing space in which decent leaders can begin to consolidate power.” In other words, the US should take on both the terrorists and sovereign states such as Syria simultaneously and hope that a new political dawn would emerge! As Stephen Walt of Harvard University recently opined such discourse sounds uncannily like neo-conservative arguments of the past decade.
The mainstream debate, with very few exceptions, seems unable to offer an argument for a regional order that could also address the legitimate interests of non-allied states. David Ignatius of the Washington Post is an exception when he argues, "the only way to restabilize this region is to gather the essential players around a table and begin framing a new security architecture." Sensibly, Ignatius also includes Iran, Russia and China as part of the equation. Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, a historian at Boston University, argues for a "Nixonian gambit" where the US ends its "diplomatic estrangement from Iran" to produce "a strategic realignment comparable to that produced by the opening to China, its effects rippling across the greater Middle East."
Yet, on the ground America has found itself challenging the core security interests of all three states almost simultaneously. The Ukrainian crisis is particularly severe as it strikes at Russia's historic interests on its European frontiers, and, has produced a reversal in the Kremlin's approach to craft a common agenda with the West on other issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and arms control.
States that cannot see eye to eye on their core interests will find it difficult to work together on secondary issues and regions. Since great power competition is preventing a collective approach, regional contradictions are being left to their own devices. Most Western commentaries forecast a regional sectarian playoff between communities and their state patrons. The contest is between the Shia forces buttressed by Iran and Syria, and, Sunni extremists being propped up by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey is straddling contradictory roles as a sponsor of the Free Syrian Army to topple Bashar al-Assad's Syria to now also responding to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) blowback on its frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan.
The sectarian cleavage has become explosive. A Qatari diplomat stated that, "Any intervention in Iraq by the West … will be seen by the whole Sunni Arabs and Muslims as war against them." Former US commander in Iraq, David Petraeus, recently argued, the US cannot be "the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight."
Obama officially endorsed such a perspective in his statement on the Iraq crisis last Thursday. Obama's body language was extremely detached and he rejected a "military solution" to the meltdown of the Iraqi state. Obama emphatically stated that "American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again" though the US will send a token 300 military advisers to assist Iraq in its counter-terrorism challenge. That Iraq's neighbors would have to assume the primary responsibility of resolving Iraq's crisis is reflected in Obama's remark that "all of Iraq's neighbors have a vital interest in ensuring that Iraq does not descend into civil war or become a safe haven for terrorists."
But perhaps the deeper contradiction in Obama's seemingly detached posture is that since the US is militarily aligned with the Sunni Arabs it has in a sense already been backing one side in the region's geopolitical and sectarian conflicts.
Between the lines it is apparent that while US rhetoric is overtly sympathetic to Iraq's plight, it appears to have a greater interest in undermining Iran's regional position. The Iraq crisis is not an isolated event after all. It is a spillover of the Syrian crisis. The Obama administration's approach to the Syrian crisis - where it either endorsed or turned a blind eye to US's regional allies financing and promoting a de-stabilizing and extremist rebellion in Syria that has finally spilled over into a weak Iraq - if extrapolated would suggest that the dominant view in the US security establishment is to let its Shia and Alawite rivals get bogged down in an Iraqi quagmire. Interestingly, Iran's Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Shamkhani, dismissed Iran-US cooperation over Iraq saying that Western commentary "is part of a psychological war, and is totally unreal". Shamkhani added that America had "encouraged the creation of terrorist groups such as ISIL".
In his final comment , when asked whether he expected cooperation from Iran, Obama response was instructive:
"Iran obviously should consider the fact that … if its view of the region is solely through sectarian frames, they could find themselves fighting a whole lot of places … You know, a Iraq in chaos on their borders is probably not in their interests. But old habits die hard."
Apparently, the US is letting the region churn a little longer to find its own equilibrium as long as the blowback does not effect, in Obama's words, "the security of the United States and the safety of the American people."
The message that goes out to Asia's rising powers is clear: America is unable or unwilling to promote a stable regional order nor is it able to overcome its own geopolitical emotions to craft a wider network to share power and responsibility in West Asia. India, South Korea, Japan, and China have all been free riding on the belief that the US will not let West Asia descend into geopolitical chaos. In Delhi, many policymakers are recognising that on three major issues - energy security, securing line of communication into Afghanistan and regional stability in India's extended neighborhood - it is Iran that is India's long-term geopolitical bet.
Asian states' re-discovery of their national interests and the construction of an appropriate role in West Asia will inevitably follow America's role flux.
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Zorawar Daulet Singh is a foreign affairs analyst and a doctoral candidate at King's College London. www.zorawardauletsingh.com. This article was first published in thediplomat.com.