The Big Chide

Column: What will the world look like in 2017?

January 31, 2014

"U.S. Chides Syria on Missed Chemical Arms Deadlines"

New York Times, January 30, 2014

Say goodbye to the big stick. Say hello to the big chide.

Five months ago, you will recall, President Obama was preparing to launch military strikes against Bashar al-Assad. The strikes were averted when the Russians, seizing on a gaffe by Secretary of State John Kerry, proposed a deal in which Assad would give up his WMD if the United States did not bomb.

How are things working out? Well, who could have predicted it, but this week we learned that Assad has retained 95 percent of his WMD stockpile while continuing to miss the deadlines to hand over his weapons. More than 125,000 Syrians are dead, millions more are displaced, and al Qaeda affiliates claim jurisdiction over much of the country.

The conflict has drawn thousands of foreign fighters from 50 countries into Syria, foreign fighters who have every intention of bringing the jihad back home when they return to Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States. The Syrian chaos has spilled over into Lebanon and into Iraq, where ethno-sectarian conflict has resumed and al Qaeda has reappeared.

But do not worry. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is on the case. "The United States is concerned that the Syrian government is behind in delivering these chemical weapons and precursor materials on time, and with the schedule that was agreed to," he said in a statement from Poland. And if that is not enough to get Assad back on schedule, the State Department made the hilarious claim that the military option remains "on the table."

I cannot say I am surprised. Recent world news has had a rather odd quality. Read it and one cannot help noticing the striking divergence between the facts reported and the administration’s response to those facts. Day after day brings headlines that clash with the preferred narrative of the Obama White House and its allies, and day after day the White House and those allies say the news does not really mean what you think it means.

Russia, for instance, has been caught violating a decades-old nuclear missile treaty. A high-ranking administration official has admitted as much to our NATO allies. But the Obama State Department does not want to acknowledge the violation formally because, the New York Times reports, "With President Obama pledging to seek deeper cuts in nuclear arms, the State Department has been trying to find a way to resolve the compliance issue, preserve the treaty, and keep the door open to future arms control accords." This is logic at which Yossarian would not be surprised: We cannot say the Russians broke the treaty because that would jeopardize our chances of signing more treaties with the Russians.

Then there is the Iranian president, who says the interim nuclear deal "means the surrender of the big powers before the great Iranian nation." There is his foreign minister, who visited the grave of a Hezbollah terrorist. There is his chief nuclear negotiator, who said the interim deal could be undone in a day. And there is the White House response: All of this is simply Iranian propaganda, meant for internal consumption. The real Rouhani, the real Zarif, the real Araqchi want exactly the things John Kerry wants.

What unites all of these stories is the reluctance on the part of the Obama White House to deal with the objective reality of the situation, its readiness to brush off hard choices, its dogmatic belief in the diplomatic process. Syria, Iran, Israel, arms control—in each instance the Oval Office and State Department see the act of negotiation not as a means to an end but as an end in itself.

Diplomacy is a faith to which Obama clings no matter the consequences because the alternative, the prospect of open conflict, of deadly force, of troop deployments larger than a SF team, is what he wants to avoid above all. The president’s favorite weapon, the tool he wields most often against recalcitrant actors, despots, international criminals, rogues, is not the B-2 or the M-1 or even the Predator Drone. It is the statement of concern, the message of disappointment.

I often think that the world in 2017, the world Obama will leave to his successor, will resemble not the world of 2009 but the world of 2001. America will be out of Iraq, America will be out of Afghanistan, terrorism will be handled as a criminal matter, troop strength and defense spending will be cut, and Americans, as they have a habit of doing, will be looking inward, reluctant to play the great-power game, more concerned with commercial activity than with national primacy or international order.

There will be differences. The world in 2017 will be more dangerous than the world in 2001. It will be more dangerous because in addition to safe havens in Afghanistan and Sudan, al Qaeda will have established outposts, or will govern actual territory, in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Sinai, and Algeria. It will be more dangerous because Iran will be capable of building a nuclear weapon, and Saudi Arabia and Jordan likely will have started nuclear programs of their own. It will be more dangerous because a heavily armed China and Japan will be at each other’s throats. It will be a world where American power is challenged on every front, a world resembling, even more than it does already, pre-World War I Europe, where declining empires and terrorism and ethno-religious conflict inaugurated the greatest man-made disaster in recorded history.

It will be a world much like today’s, a world where America is mocked, despised, flouted, subverted, challenged, chastened, and threatened, and our only response is to say that we are so very, very concerned.