It is ironic that US President Barack Obama, who campaigned and was elected on the promise of ending wars and not launching new ones, sought to rally his people for a military strike on Syria.
Now, thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s realpolitik, there is a US-Russia agreement on dealing with Bashar Al Assad’s chemical weapons. Obama has, however, been dwarfed by Putin in this whole exercise.
Putin has poked his finger in Obama’s eye many times in recent weeks — frustrating the US at the G20 Summit held in St Petersburg; granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden; using Russia’s veto power three times in the Security Council to shelter Al Assad, even though the cautious UN secretary-general finally accused the Syrian leader of committing crimes against humanity.
I continue to believe that if Al Assad is not punished, it will embolden US foes, especially Iran, Hezbollah and North Korea. I agree with the Gulf News editorial ‘A window of opportunity in Syria’, published on September 10 that Syria must not go unpunished on the issue of chemical weapons.
Not acting will lead Iran to pursue its nuclear program with more determination, sensing the US weakness and Obama’s hesitancy. Even Al Assad could interpret this weakness as a licence to use chemical weapons again.
Even the pragmatist strategist Richard Haass, head of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, tweeted:”This has been probably the most undisciplined stretch of foreign policy of his [Obama’s] presidency.”
Is this the realignment that will usher in a new world order? Or is it just an aberration? For too long there has been a raging debate over the US position and role in the international system.
Even America’s own intelligence community represented by the National Intelligence Council (NIC), an umbrella of all US intelligence agencies, has issued two important unclassified studies in 2008 and 2012. I alluded to them in my articles in Gulf News, indicating that the declining role of the US in world affairs has become a reality.
By 2030, though the US would be the leading power in world affairs, it would not be predominant. The US would not be the world’s policeman as it is today. The international system will become a multipolar world order where other players — state and non-state actors — will emerge and be expected to play a pivotal role.
The US wavering over Syria and Obama being pushed around by Putin led one American commentator to even observe that, “the one who is wearing the pants in this crisis is Vladimir Putin!”
The unintended consequence of the Syria crisis is that Russia is slowly replacing the US as the dominant player in the Middle East.
Putin raised hackles in the US administration with his recent article on Syria in the New York Times. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said the article made him want “to vomit”.
He added that “I worry when someone who came up through the KGB tells us what is in our national interests, and what is not. It really raises the question of how serious the Russian proposal is.”
Senator John McCain tweeted that “Putin’s NYT op-ed is an insult to the intelligence of every American”.
Putin’s article, published on September 9, warned the US not to launch military strikes on Syria. He maintained that Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s regime was not responsible for the August 21 chemical weapons attack in which more than 1,400 people were killed, according to US officials.
Putin even had the audacity to rally the American people against their own president and administration. “No one wants the United Nations to suffer the fate of the League of Nations, which collapsed because it lacked real leverage. This is possible if influential countries bypass the United Nations and take military action without Security Council authorisation,” he wrote.
Putin also warned that “a strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilise the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
More Americans are growing restless with Obama’s handling of the Syria crisis. Only 29 per cent of Americans approve his policy compared with 60 per cent who disapprove. A mere 10 per cent of Congressmen support a military strike against Syria.
Obama’s retreat and giving diplomacy more time is being interpreted as weakness. And that is not limited to the US foes and enemies. One senator was quoted as saying: “This is the first time I see a commander-in-chief relinquishes his authority...
US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov have reached an agreement over Syria’s chemical weapons and convinced Syria to join the Chemical Weapons Treaty, but implementing this could take a long time.
In the last few weeks, Russia, not the US, seems to be dictating the tempo and calling the shots. The question in many startled corners of the world is: How has Russia upstaged the US on the international stage? And what are the ramifications on world politics and US allies and foes?
Professor Abdullah Al Shayji is the chairman of the Political Science Department, Kuwait University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/docshayji