The land of Syria is a hellscape. A desert ruin, a blasted place where fundamentalists clash with fascists as major powers—America, Russia, Turkey, Israel—drop bombs.
After a U.S.-brokered cease-fire collapsed in recriminations, Washington responded by saying it wouldn’t talk to Moscow about the war. Then Moscow announced its intention to pull out of a nuclear agreement with Washington, and moved an advanced anti-aircraft system into Syria. President Obama sought a "Plan B" (good luck with that). Meanwhile, at the vice presidential debate, both Tim Kaine and Mike Pence called for humanitarian "safe zones" protected by U.S. forces.
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Where does this end? The Russian objective is clear. Vladimir Putin wants to rescue Bashar Assad, preserve access to warm-water ports, embarrass America, and become a player in the Middle East.
What is less certain is America’s objective. We want to destroy ISIS. And we say we want Assad out—though how that can be accomplished at this point without risking open war with Russia is unknown. As is who rules a divided, ravaged Syria after the total collapse of its government.
We are flying blind. And the problem is much larger than the Middle East. A rudderless America, in a moment of transition, is heedlessly reacting to events rather than influencing them. What Halford Mackinder dubbed the world-island of Eurasia is ringed by wars both hot and cold—from the Baltics to the Donbas, across the Shiite crescent, along the Indo-Pakistani border, through the South and East China Seas.
Putin tests NATO, fuels guerilla war in Ukraine, and pummels Aleppo. Turks fight ISIS and Kurds. America fights ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Iran sends aid to Hezbollah, militias to Syria, and swift boats to the Straits of Hormuz. India and Pakistan battle over Kashmir. Americans fight in Afghanistan. China builds its forces in the Pacific. North Korea flirts with nuclear war.
This planet is laced with dynamite. Only one spark is necessary to light it up. And the chances of miscalculation are immense.
Our leaders are not exactly up to the task. John Kerry is possibly the most feckless, credulous, blithering secretary of State in U.S. history. President Obama is on his way out. Secretary Clinton is more eager to use force, defends our intervention in Libya as a success, and would have something to prove early in her term as the nation’s first woman president. Kaine’s response to any criticism of world affairs is "Bin Laden." Pence decided just to make up his own policy. And Trump—well, we can only begin to imagine.
Nor is it only our elites we must worry about. Putin, Assad, Erdogan, Khamenei, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un—these men feel they have the upper hand. U.S. and Russian officials and analysts tell the New York Times that Putin’s strategy
is to move aggressively in what he sees as a prime window of opportunity—the four months between now and the 2017 presidential inauguration—when Mr. Putin calculates that the departing President Obama will be unlikely to intervene in the escalating Syrian conflict and a new American president who might consider a tougher policy will not yet be in office.
The other despots must think the same way. But they aren’t omniscient. They could overreach, press their advantage to the point where America or some other power feels it has no choice but to respond with deadly force. And then?
Niall Ferguson wrote a book in 2006 I highly recommend. The argument of The War of the World is that the first and second world wars were indistinct. They were but phases of one giant conflagration incited by three factors. All of them are present today.
Ethnic Conflict. The move toward nationalism and sectarianism heightens tensions between nations and within them: Shia versus Sunni, Arab versus Persian, Muslim versus non-Muslim, Salafi versus heretic, Chinese versus Vietnamese versus Japanese versus Korean.
In the meantime the surge of Muslim refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa is reshaping the politics of Europe. Anti-immigrant parties are on the rise in Germany, in France, in England. Nor is the United States immune. Black Lives Matter, Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump, the alt-right—racial politics is polarized, social cohesion frayed.
Economic Volatility. "Recovery remains the weakest of the post-World War II era," read a Wall Street Journal headline from July. Seven million American men between the ages of 25 to 54 have dropped out of the workforce. The latest census news was positive, but America is still poorer than it was in 1999.
And we’re the bright spot. The global economy is in much worse shape. Europe and Japan are in a rut. Russia is stagnant. The Middle East is a basket case. China is weathering slow growth and facing a calamitous demographic transition. And how has the Chinese Communist Party responded to these challenges? By whipping up nationalist sentiment.
Empires in Decline. This may be the most unsettling parallel between our situation and that of a century ago. Ferguson writes that instability increased as the British, Ottoman, and Russian empires entered their decadent phase. Might the American-led postwar order of NATO, free trade, the U.N., E.U., and the U.S. armed forces as guarantors of the commons of sea, air, space, and cyber be coming to a similar, turbulent, self-inflicted end?
A few years ago I would have said no. But now I am undecided. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan clearly punctured national self-confidence, soured elites and the public on intervention. They also gave us the ambivalent leadership of President Obama, who destabilized one alliance after another as he cut defense budgets, mishandled Russia, emptied Guantanamo, labeled half-measures a "pivot" to Asia, drew red lines and ignored them, turned the Department of Defense into a social justice lab, belittled our friends, and catered to our enemies.
The result is an anxious Europe, a bloodstained Middle East, growing dangers to U.S. forces in the Pacific, and an inward-looking America that, I fear, has neither the strategy nor the will to sustain a global order it paid so much in blood and treasure to obtain.