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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Syria and the debate over America’s decline

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Publication: Dore Gold Articles


According to a revealing report in The New York Times this past week, President Barack Obama went much further than he originally planned last August, when he issued “a red line” to the Syrian regime about its possible use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama’s warning, which came in answer to a question, was not part of a script that had been worked out ahead of time by his national security team. As a result, because of his unprepared remarks, according to the article, Washington is now caught in a trap, needing to respond forcefully once the Syrian Army has used chemical weapons, or otherwise badly compromising American credibility.

This challenge has emerged at a time when the image of the U.S. in the Middle East has been badly damaged already by the Syrian crisis. The Economist’s Lexington column entitled “Dithering over Syria” concludes in its current issue that “[E]xposed to the tough love of a less attentive America, other nations will have to think harder about their security.” With mounting reports pouring in every month of more Syrian civilians being killed, America’s standing already has been badly eroded, reigniting the argument over whether the U.S. can still be relied on as a global leader, when crises of this sort erupt.

It should be recalled that the Obama administration originally supported the NATO intervention in Libya to avoid this kind of scenario. It feared that Moammar Gadhafi’s forces were going to slaughter the Libyan rebels in Benghazi, along with much of its population. In Washington it was said the administration would have had a “Middle Eastern Srebrenica” on its hands, referring to the Bosnian village where Serbian forces murdered 7,000 Muslims in 1995, resulting in a major humanitarian intervention led by the Clinton administration. Presently, the number of civilians killed in Syria is ten times greater than Srebrenica.

The question about America’s standing that is now being asked in different parts of the world in light of the ongoing disaster in Syria does not come in a vacuum. Over the last five years there has been a vociferous debate raging in the West over the question of whether the U.S. is in decline as a great power. This has been partly an economic question. Many academics in the U.S. have been writing that the era of Western hegemony is coming to an end with the economic rise of China, Brazil, India and Russia.

Some commentators focus on the military dimension of U.S. power by lamenting the drop in combat ships in the U.S. Navy over the last 50 years from nearly 1,000 vessels to 270 or even less. In late April 2013 the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, admitted that the U.S. Navy had no aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean. Countries like Israel need to closely watch the effects of the cuts in the U.S. defense budget, especially when they are accompanied by new defense policies like the strategic “pivot” of American power from the Middle East to the Pacific.

Some of this pessimism about the decline of America’s role in the world comes from internal U.S. official documents, like Global Trends 2030, prepared by the U.S. intelligence community. Many academics added their voices to the trends that it identified. The prestigious American journal, Foreign Policy, actually introduced a regular feature section in September 2011, called “Decline Watch,” to track the new conventional wisdom that the U.S. was declining while China and other Asian states were emerging as the new great powers.

A variation of the debate over American decline asks whether the U.S. has become objectively weaker or whether its policies project weakness. One of the most important books published this year in this regard is ironically entitled “Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.” It was written by Vali Nasr, who served for two years in the Obama administration, where he dealt with Afghanistan and Pakistan, but was exposed to the internal debates over Iran and the Middle East as well. He is the dean of the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

Professor Nasr’s book describes an America that is tired and has lost the desire to serve as a global leader. His problem with the Obama administration is not the reduction of the size of its armed forces, but rather the wisdom of its foreign policy. Looking back at how it handled the withdrawal from Iraq, he reviews how the administration backed Nouri al-Maliki to become its prime minister, even though he was a Shiite leader with a checkered history, who received the written support for his candidacy from no less than Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in December 2010.

Pro-American Iraqi politicians quickly learned that the U.S. did not want to leave forces behind, but preferred a full withdrawal instead, strengthening Iran’s hand in Baghdad. Over time, Maliki became an authoritarian strong man, centralizing all power by becoming prime minister, defense minister and interior minister. Nasr unveils how Washington had misjudged Maliki’s ties to Tehran.

Nasr’s analysis is revealing on the peace process, as well. He explains how Obama misread the Arab world during his first term in office: “Publicly Arab rulers pressed him on Palestine, but privately all they wanted to talk about was defanging Iran …” Nasr then tells about the first meeting between Obama and Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in June 2009, which he describes as a “royal lecture” on the Iranian threat: “the Saudi king wanted America to fix the Iranian problem, not the Palestinian one …” King Abdullah opposed any diplomatic linkage between the Iranian issue and the Palestinian question: “in that the King and Netanyahu were on the same page.”

When it comes to Iran, Nasr is clearly not hawkish. He hoped that U.S. engagement with Tehran would help Washington with the problem of Afghanistan, to which he was assigned. Because of his exposure to the subject of Iran, he is able to share with his readers some of the inside thinking in the Obama administration. He makes clear that when it came to Iran, Obama “favored all manner of pressure short of war.”

According to Nasr’s account, Obama “assumed that the Iran problem could be managed without resort to military action.” But he warns that Obama’s thinking on Iran was flawed: Tehran might cross the nuclear threshold putting the U.S. in a position of either going to war or accepting containment of a nuclear Iran contrary to its declared policy, which would involve a loss of face by the U.S. In the meantime, he explains, Iran was becoming more dangerous. President Bush’s red line against Iran was calibrated so that Iran would not be allowed any uranium enrichment. Obama moved the American red line to “no nuclear weapon” and Nasr warns that this newer red line was in danger of being breached, as well.

So what do these cases that Prof. Nasr reviews from the Obama period tell him about the debate in the walls of academia about whether America is declining? He says that this question should be re-phrased: why, despite the overwhelming power and potential of the U.S. is its influence diminishing? This change he attributes to a choice that was made in Washington to become less engaged in the world, by withdrawing from many of the world’s conflicts, especially those in the Middle East.

In other words, the world the U.S. has entered does not have a whole assortment of new powers that can replace it with naval fleets rivaling the power of the U.S. Navy. America’s diminishing influence does not appear to be a consequence of weakening American power. Yet the idea that America is in decline can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in the minds of its statesmen, if they start to convince themselves that this is indeed the case. Power and influence clearly have a psychological dimension. They are the result of a state of mind as much as they are of the hardware a country procures. The U.S. will be weaker only if it decides that it indeed no longer has the power in world affairs that it once could wield.

Israel has one important lesson to learn from this internal American discourse about its declining power: Israel must never compromise its defense doctrine according to which it has always insisted that it must be able to defend itself by itself. While from time to time there are peace envoys, who whisper friendly suggestions, like Israel accepting the deployment of international forces in territories that are vital for is security, such as the Jordan Valley. Israel must not be tempted by these proposals. The way the world stood by while the Syrian people were massacred serves as a warning of what happens to a people who rely on the international community to safeguard their security.