February 9, 2012

On Syria, Obama & Putin can afford to arm-wrestle

It's campaign season all around the world, and time to start picking fights.

At the United Nations, the U.S. and Russian ambassadors are openly disparaging each other over Syria, probably because they can afford to. The plight of thousands of Syrians is distressing, but neither country has a major stake in military intervention over there, especially as the United States is just catching its breath from the Iraq withdrawal and still trying to figure out an Afghanistan wind-down.

Iran is a different story. Washington truly needs Moscow's support or disinterest in order to impose effective sanctions and other forms of containment to turn back or limit Iran's nuclear defiance of the international community. In Iran, the United States sees fundamental national interests -- balance of power in the Middle East and protection of U.S. assets as well as defense of our borders. We also see a clear and present danger, if Iran achieves nuclear capability. Sure, we're very rah-rah on human rights and democratic agitation in the Islamic Republic, but it's all about stopping Iran from getting The Bomb.

In Syria, though we sincerely want to stop Assad Jr.'s bloody crackdown, we're not about to commit boots on the ground to stopping him. A UN Security Council resolution ordering him to restructure his own government, along with ever tighter sanctions, ought to suffice for now -- as long as we don't really need him to step down. And neither Washington nor Moscow wants to place bets on the political turmoil that would return to Syria after the Assads leave the building -- within line of sight to the Israeli border...

Whether intentionally or not, the "I know you are, but what am I" barbs being traded around the UN help boost Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin. Both men are seeking to repeat their past election victories and continue in leadership; in Putin's case he's sat out the past four years as Prime Minister and now seeks to return as President. Obama has regained much of the international influence we last enjoyed when Bill Clinton was in the White House, but it has come at the cost of appearing to get along with foreigners. As the Republican Presidential contenders compete over whether U.S. foreign policy should be either triumphalist or isolationist, it doesn't help President Obama to be seen as courting Russian cooperation where he doesn't really need it (e.g., Syria). For Putin as well, defying the United States on Syria (including sending his foreign minister to Damascus for an Assad pep rally) shows the Russian people that they still rate in the Middle East, and that he can still be a thorn in the side of the U.S. President.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing that happens in Syria is likely to activate the countdown to Armageddon. The future of the Middle East, and of the world's oil supply, will largely turn on Iran. The Israeli-Palestinian impasse is also impactful, but it remains in a vegetative state and there's little political value in Obama or Putin engaging there right now. Syria is safe ground politically, otherwise everyone would be behaving. And that's too bad for the Syrians.

No comments:

Post a Comment