It's easy to criticize Barack Obama for weakening the posture of the United States, and furthering the mess that George W. Bush created in the Middle East. Barack's responsible for the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, giving the Russians a leg up in Syria, and insisting that he could oppose the Islamic State without American boots on the ground. Bush destroyed the Iraqi regime, and created a vacuum filled by chaos, the Islamic State, with something of a bright spot in the Kurdish enclave.
Along with all that criticism, its appropriate to consider the frustrations of American Presidents, measuring their military and economic capacity against the accomplishments likely if they use their power[email protected]
War is costly, and seldom productive of great success.
Political pressure, even with economic goodies or sanctions, is no magic bullet.
There are a number of middle-range powers, each with their agendas, coming up against other middle-range powers with their own goals.
The Kurdish enclave in Iraq, and what the Kurds are developing in Syria bothers the Turks. The Turks are also messing it up with the Russians, don't know quite what to do with the Iranians and Hezbollah in Syria, and are generally floundering in aspirations to revitalize the Ottoman role throughout the region.
In a number of other places where Muslims are significant, things appear unstable or on the brink of it. Saudi Arabia is battling Iranians and their proxies in Yemen, Libya is in no better shape than Syria or Iraq, Mali and Nigeria are occasionally in the headlines for something dire, and Somalia is terra incognita.
Elsewhere North Korea is the wildest of cards, Brazil still plans to host an Olympics despite a new disease that should worry all women of childbearing age.
Not all is apocalyptic.India and Pakistan.are managing their conflict without using nuclear weapons. China, Japan, and their neighbors squabble without bloodshed about islands and the limits of their borders at sea.
Israel and Palestine are often in the headlines, but seem more a plaything of political activists than a stage where significant change is likely.
In short, what we have is a variety of messes, a sizable number of middle range powers, and no country capable of moving anything sizable in a predictable direction. Those with significant power either remain self-limited by their memory of what went wrong the last time they sought to impose their will on others, i.e., Germany and Japan; are tired of frustration, i.e., the US; or wary of losing what they have by setting their sights too high, i.e., Russia and China.
Looking at things this way ups our perception of Barack Obama. He came to office after his successor made a mess of Iraq, and only a generation after Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon lost face and 55,000 American lives in Vietnam. Obama continued in the mode of using power in Libya, but has since been chary of anything more than limited force against the most barbaric of militias, all the while being careful to avoid insulting Muslims.
So we have a number of active countries, lots of problems, and no government trying to lead..
Russia may appear to be an exception, but its limited aims reflects the middling weight of its power. It has enough military capacity to destroy a great deal, but not the economic or personnel muscle to control what would remain. It chewed off a piece of Ukraine, and has proxies active in another piece of that miserable country, but is suffering economically from sanctions imposed by wealthier countries and a drop in the price of energy. Its military is killing lots of people in Syria, but is limited itself to protecting the Assad regime and its own military base in the Middle East.
What to do?
In such a situation, looking after yourself appears to be the wisest strategy. The recipe fits the bigger boys, like the US, Britain, France, and Germany, as well as little Israel.
The US can still pretty much get by on its own, given its size and natural resources. European countries are straining to keep their EU vibrant, with their move toward the United States of Europe put under great pressure by Muslims. Initial expressions of humane concern for refugees have turned into beggar thy neighbor, or not in my back yard.
As yet, there is no clear indication in the US presidential campaigns what any of the prominent candidates would do if elected. It's reasonable to guess that whoever wins will have enough to do at home, with problems of migrants, tweaking Obamacare, dealing with the lagging quality of middle class living standards, and any number of other details likely to get on the agenda. It'll be easiest following the Obama path overseas, i.e., speaking loudly from a bully pulpit, preaching good behavior to one and all, with ample signals that there'll be limited if any force behind the words.
Anyone feeling frustrated, and wanting more activity might consider the expenditures on war, and the meager results likely.
If Americans are happy that Lincoln freed the slaves, they should reckon with the cost of 620,000 total dead in a population of 31 million, and the additional century required to provide anything close to equality for African Americans. World War I destroyed generations in several countries, with a total loss of some 17 million, and not much accomplished except to pave the way for the even more destructive regimes of the Nazis and Japanese, and the 60 millions killed to end them. WWII did produce the repair of Germany and Japan, but the respite achieved was brief: barely five years till Korea, then less than a decade to Vietnam, then less than another decade until the Russian adventure in Afghanistan, the awakening of militant Islam, and where we are today.
All of the above reflects a view that things are more or less fixed where they are.
That conclusion is problematic. Things change, sometimes dramatically, often with limited warning, and not according to any government's plan.
The most unfortunate recent example is Arab Spring morphing to Arab Winter.
What deters any certainty is the variety of countries in the middle range of power, with no major powers inclined to take any dramatic steps. Changes will come, but there is nothing close to certainty of what, where, or when.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)Department of Political ScienceHebrew University of Jerusalem