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[Shlomo Avineri] The great U.S. losing streak

[Shlomo Avineri] The great U.S. losing streak

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Published : 2013-12-06 20:10
Updated : 2013-12-06 20:10

JERUSALEM ― The interim agreement reached in Geneva between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (the P5+1) and Iran is probably the best deal to curtail Iran’s nuclear program that could be reached, given current circumstances. The United States and its Western allies were unwilling to risk a military option, and not concluding a deal would have allowed Iran to proceed unimpeded toward acquiring nuclear weapons.

In an ideal world, Iran should have been forced to scrap its nuclear program altogether and hand over all of its enriched uranium to an outside power; but, realistically, that was unattainable. So the outcome of the Geneva talks is that Iran has secured some international legitimation as a nuclear-threshold power, which deeply worries its regional neighbors, from Saudi Arabia and Israel to Turkey, Egypt, and the small and vulnerable Gulf states.

Western statesmen are right to congratulate themselves on averting an immediate major crisis. But they are wrong to believe that they have resolved the Iranian nuclear threat. Indeed, it is nave to imagine that a final agreement with Iran will be achieved in the coming six months: Iran’s seasoned diplomats will make sure that that does not happen.

So, while the interim agreement may not be a replay of the Munich Agreement in 1938, as many critics contend, it may have set the stage for an even more combustible future. U.S. President Barack Obama may not be in office when the fire ignites, but if things do go terribly wrong, he may be remembered as another statesman who, like Neville Chamberlain, was blind to the consequences of his peaceful intentions.

The main reason for pessimism stems from the interim agreement’s wider geopolitical context, which has been ignored in favor of the regional dimension. In fact, the agreement, which alleviates much of the economic pressure on the Iranian regime, is a result of Russia’s success in delaying international sanctions against Iran and its stubborn refusal to tighten them further.

For the Kremlin, Iran’s nuclear program is only one chapter in a campaign to reassert Russia’s role as a great power. Indeed, the interim agreement should be viewed as another in a string of recent Russian diplomatic victories over the U.S.

The current U.S. administration lacks the type of grand strategy that animates Russian President Vladimir Putin. Instead, it considers every issue separately, unsure about how to balance its role as a global power with its commitment to liberal values, and led by a president who apparently believes that soaring rhetoric is a substitute for strategic thinking. There should be no illusion: The interim agreement with Iran is a resounding triumph for Putin, not for Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

That victory was quickly followed by another ― Ukraine’s decision to reject an association agreement with the European Union, opting instead to join Putin’s pet project, a Eurasian customs union designed to reconstitute much of the Soviet Union as a single economic zone. Meanwhile, the Syrian crisis also is going the Kremlin’s way, with President Bashar al-Assad remaining in power, despite Obama’s insistence that he leave.

Obama’s threat last summer to use limited force in Syria was empty rhetoric. It might have convinced Assad to give up his chemical weapons, but Russia’s threat to veto any muscular Security Council resolution against Syria guaranteed that his murderous regime would retain control. Even if a Geneva II meeting on Syria is convened in January, Russia will ensure that Assad remains on the throne.

America’s strategic vacuum can also be seen in Egypt in the wake of the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood government. Obama’s uncertainty about how to deal with the coup has created an absurd situation in which most Western-oriented groups in Egypt ― the military and secular elites who underpinned Mubarak’s alliance with the U.S. ―have now turned, in desperation, to Russia as a source of future military supplies.

Decades of American strategic thinking and diplomacy, initiated by Henry Kissinger in the 1970s, aimed at weaning Egypt from its Russian alliance, now appear in danger of going down the drain because of Obama’s inability to make up his mind about Morsi’s overthrow. Of course, it is not easy to support a military coup against a democratically elected president (even one who, like Morsi, undermines the democratic values and institutions that brought him to power). But one wonders how Obama would have reacted in 1933 had the German military toppled Hitler (who, after all, was appointed chancellor after winning an election).

One does not have to demonize Russia ― or Putin ― to be worried by these developments. Russia is entitled to its place as a leading power. And the U.S. should shun a domineering policy. But, confronted with a resolute Russian policy of imperial reassertion, now also visible in the Caucasus, the U.S. seems unable to see how global developments are linked. Is anyone in Washington asking how the Geneva agreements on Syria and Iran are connected to Ukraine’s refusal to move closer to the EU, much less developing a strategic response?

The choice facing the U.S. is not former President George W. Bush’s megalomaniacal swashbuckling or global withdrawal. Russia’s resurgence calls for a reasoned American response, combining its preponderant power and recognition of the inherent limits on the use of that power. The current U.S. administration seems incapable of this, and Tea Party isolationism certainly is not the answer. A rudderless U.S. foreign policy is no response to a resurgent and neo-authoritarian Russia flexing its geopolitical muscle. Nostalgia for a Metternich, or a Kissinger, may not be out of order.

By Shlomo Avineri

Shlomo Avineri, professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, served as director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)

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