When Bob Dylan sang, “There’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all,” he might well have described America’s foreign policy.
Before President Obama’s historic errors come to their disastrous conclusion, it might be worthwhile to look back along the path that led us here.
It begins long before Obama’s presidency, back in the days when Great Britain ruled a global empire.
By juggling the interests and intentions of Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Iran, Great Britain sought to control the Middle East in the 20th century. The British Foreign Ministry’s policy was termed the Triad and was somewhat successful for a time. After the Suez Crisis, when Britain abdicated its prerogatives “East of Suez” in favor of the United States, the Triad nevertheless remained a policy touchstone. Recently and in essence, Turkey has assumed Iraq’s erstwhile place in the three-legged stool upon which the US State Department continues precariously to balance America.
Originally a notion springing from Metternich’s Europe, this Triad redux like its immediate British antecedent is predicated on the idea that a balance of power in a region assures dynamic stability among the would-be hegemons and allows an outside power leverage with respect to them. In theory, such influence would permit the outside power to rule the region indirectly as it judiciously shifts its support among them. While a brilliant idea in the abstract, the problem with actually trusting such a three-legged stool to bear one’s weight is that its legs are frequently not of equal length and strength. Predictably the stool tips over and its former occupant is then, well, overturned.
The US would be quite unwise to trust its weight to the tripod that it has tried to foster and to preserve in the Middle East. There are a number reasons for this inadvisability: Regional balances of power, whether in Metternich’s Europe or Obama’s Middle East are more often than not inherently dynamic and thus unstable. It is only when the parties involved seek stability despite conflicting national interests that such arrangements tend to a balance of power. More often that is not the case.
Each party seeks to increase its power to the point of predominance or to switch its alliances so as to protect itself from such an ascendant power.
The arms races, geopolitical conflicts and shifting alignments that result are all relatively well predicted by coalition theory. The worst and not uncommon case is a region at war, thousands or (given a nuclear Iran and its stated intentions) millions of deaths. That’s a rather shaky foundation on which to sit.
When serious and potentially decisive imbalances in power occur, then consistent with indirect rule, the outside power must intervene to restore the equilibrium and to deter regional actors from further attempts to gain a decisive advantage. The British followed this course on a number of occasions, as did George H.W. Bush in the first Gulf War. Nowadays, however, there is little likelihood that America has the stomach or even the assured wherewithal for serious intervention.
Sadly, that is the takeaway from the pathetic “deal” it would strike with Iran conceding eventual nuclear status to the Islamic Republic, touching off an arms race in the region, raising the possibility of nuclear war and, again, abiding millions of deaths.
That raises questions of morality that foreign affairs realists of various stripes may find quaint. In theory, those nations around the periphery of and within the area delineated by the Triad find themselves a battleground for regional conflict. This has already become all too clear in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Israel, Yemen, Lebanon, Kuwait and Bahrain. The suffering of these peoples and the threat to their societies represent a moral failure of the Triad Policy and one to which it has proven largely indifferent. It views these conflicts as opportunities, not tragedies.
The US has also been remarkably unsupportive of democratic movements in the region in Turkey, Iran and, until far too late, Syria. Such movements might have undermined and ultimately replaced more or less aggrandizing regimes. In turn, that might have reduced the level of conflict in the region and quite possibly the needs of its actors for American intervention and/or assistance. Until that happy day, however, it would have alienated regimes on whom the US fancies it can otherwise exert influence.
Where the choice was between democracy and national interest, as defined by the Obama administration, America has repeatedly preferred an amoral policy in the Middle East.
As Natan Sharansky recently pointed out in The Washington Post, such an abdication of morality has real political consequences. The US will find it increasingly difficult to persuade potential sympathizers in other nations that it views democracy as a universal entitlement rather than as its own exceptional good fortune.
Eventually it will also find it extremely difficult to mobilize opinion and to motivate self-sacrifice among Americans too. Having surrendered the moral high ground, such is the loss of credible principle at home and in the rest of the world.
Finally, not only has the marketplace for ideas like democracy become globalized, so too has the power of even regional hegemons. Followers of Metternich and later those in the British Foreign Ministry could not have foreseen that their theories would no longer be workable in such a world.
There are no longer merely regional players. Intercontinental ballistic missiles, satellite platforms, nuclear weapons, cybernetic warfare have permitted regional hegemons to mount global campaigns as well. North Korea and Iran are the most obvious examples.
The upshot is that the stakes for those who would play with balances of power are now intercontinental and incalculably higher.
We are left with the conclusion that the Triad in its current incarnation is an outmoded, amoral, and doomed imperialist policy. The US would be wise to abandon it and instead return to its opposition to aggression through collective security and to its occasionally muddled commitment to democracy. Perhaps America could once again credibly articulate and ultimately aspire to achieve international ideals, but that may be too much to hope.