World crises intertwined, a September test for the Obama doctrine

Policy of multilateralism faces test through NATO, as crises with Russia, Islamic State, Iran coalesce.

US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. (photo credit: REUTERS)
US President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the situation in Iraq from his vacation home at Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – Grave challenges to the international system across Europe and the Middle East are beginning to fuse together.
That is the scale of dread facing Western presidents and premiers this month, convening twice in September to clarify their strategies to threats permeating from eastern Ukraine, northern Iraq and the heart of Iran.
Their response to each crisis will have direct consequences on their ability to contain the others. And, in a test of President Barack Obama’s leadership, they will challenge his declared foreign policy doctrine: that multilateral institutions are capable of accomplishing that which America, alone, cannot.
Global partners, global problems
In Wales on Thursday, members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization will weigh their post-Cold War allegiances to one another, their commitments under Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty to protect the sovereignty of each member, and the strength of their collective will in countering newfound military aggression from the Russian Federation.
Responding to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine, the organization plans to announce the creation of a “spearhead” rapid reaction force able to deploy to Eastern Europe within 48 hours. Moscow has reacted with an ominous vow to review its military policy toward NATO.
Russian participation is an absolute necessity, a linchpin, in current diplomatic efforts with Iran, which will reach a nexus in New York only two weeks after the NATO summit in Wales.
At the United Nations General Assembly, the leaders of all countries negotiating to end concerns with Tehran over its nuclear program – including the US, UK, France, Germany, China and Russia – will attend with their top diplomats. US officials tell The Jerusalem Post they expect consequential negotiations to take place with Iran on the sidelines of the UN summit.
Should Russia choose to break consensus with the West over Iran due to events in Ukraine – pushed over the edge, potentially, by retributive actions taken in Wales this week – the prospects of success in the nuclear talks will drop dramatically.
Diplomacy as chaos theory 
In recent years, Iran policy out of Moscow has been publicly aligned with Western interests: preventing the Islamic Republic from attaining a nuclear weapons capacity – or the weapons themselves – was declared in the interests of Russian national security.
A stable, moderate Middle East is a Russian security imperative, and such stability is undermined by the prospects of a nuclear arms race in the region with Saudi Arabia and Turkey, or of war between Iran and Israel.
And yet conversely, in a sign that consensus on Iran has begun to fray, Moscow signed an oil-for-goods deal with Tehran last month worth more than $2 billion a year, in an attempt to “undermine sanctions” leveled against both countries, according to Russian state-sponsored media.
With talks set to expire on November 24, Moscow has little time to choose whether preventing a nuclear Iran is of greater interest to Russia than the sabotage of Obama’s primary foreign policy goal: a comprehensive nuclear accord.
The fate of nuclear talks with Iran in New York, of unity among NATO powers in Wales on Ukraine, and of Russia’s choice of reprisals against the West are not only intertwined among themselves: the outcomes of these crises have direct implications for the fight against Islamic State, metastasizing throughout eastern Syria and northern Iraq and now threatening attacks against Western Europe and the United States.
“If we agree to do something in Iraq, the other side of the negotiations should do something in return,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in late August. “All the sanctions that are related to Iran’s nuclear program should be lifted.”
And thus the fate of Ukraine – and of Russia’s policies supposedly isolated to its rebellious east – trickles down through diplomacy with Iran to warp a Mideast crisis with an army of Islamists loyal to no one.
US officials worked aggressively to separate nuclear negotiations with Iran from discussions over terrorism in Iraq, for which the US and Iran share the blame. Sectarianism in Baghdad was sparked by the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Washington’s de-Ba’athification efforts, and its willful crushing of the Iraqi state; and in the years to follow, by Tehran’s decisions to stoke sectarianism in the Iraqi capital, to prop up Shi’ite leaders and to arm its opposition, leading to the disenfranchisement and disaffection of Sunnis across the country’s north.
Iran has reportedly sent arms and ammunition to Baghdad for its fight against the Sunni extremist group – a violation of international sanctions against the Iranian government, signed on by the UN Security Council, including Russia.
Iran, too, has provided broad support for Bashar Assad in his war against his own people in Syria – a war that began with peaceful protests, grew into open revolution and ultimately produced a state vacuum that allowed al-Qaida in Iraq, as it was known in 2005, to develop into the Islamic State the world knows and fears today.
Tehran can choose a different course. So, too, must NATO members prepare themselves to tackle Islamic State as a collective, with thousands of foreign fighters hailing from their territories and an attack from the group on their sovereignties more likely than not.
Coalitions of the willing
Obama’s foreign policy has been scattershot in the opinion of many, but clear to the president himself and to his White House: international institutions, built by the United States, are force multipliers for American power because they ultimately serve American interests.
International norms are American norms, Obama argues: enforcing the universality of human rights and the freedom of markets, respecting the sovereign borders of nations, rolling back the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, without absolute success, preventing their use. His comprehensive strategy is to enforce those principles, cost-effectively, through international bodies.
“In each case, we built coalitions to respond to a specific challenge,” Obama said in May, outlining his doctrine at West Point. “Now we need to do more to strengthen the institutions that can anticipate and prevent problems from spreading.”
In the signature speech, Obama pointed to NATO – the “strongest alliance the world has ever known” – as key to US efforts to maximize consequences against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. He lauded “multilateral institutions” as the most efficient tools at his disposal in Washington’s confrontation with Iran, noting that those tools have “kept the world on our side.”
Rust is wearing those tools, challenging the president to reinforce institutions that are fraying due to a complex of discordant, if not irreconcilable, interests. And while Obama has invested nearly all his presidential clout abroad in a strategy of multilateralism, he has yet to provide a vision – leadership for those in doubt – to address the fissures in those bodies through which evil seeps.
The wonders of a globalized world also appear to be its terrors: among the chaos of international affairs, three historic, seemingly independent emergencies have convulsed into one great trauma for leaders of the free world. Let us hope their toolbox is deep and rustless.