US Secretary of State John Kerry is often perceived as one of the “good guys”, the less hawkish of top American officials, who does not simply promote and defend his country’s military adventurism but reaches out to others, beyond polarising rhetoric. His unremitting efforts culminated partly in the Iran nuclear framework agreement in April, followed by a final deal, a few months later.
Now, he is reportedly hard at work again to find some sort of consensus on a way out of the Syria war, a multi-party conflict that has killed over 300,000 people. His admirers see him as the diplomatic executor of a malleable and friendly US foreign policy agenda under President Barack Obama.
In reality, this perception is misleading, although Kerry is not a warmonger as George W Bush’s top staff were, such as Vice-President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld. The two were the very antithesis of any rational foreign policy such that even the elder ex-President George H W Bush described them demeaningly, according to his biographer who was quoted in the New York Times. Cheney was an “Iron-ass”, who “had his own empire... and marched to his own drummer,” Bush the Elder said, while calling Rumsfeld “an arrogant fellow” who lacked empathy.
Yet, considering that the first President Bush was rarely a peacemaker himself, one is left to ponder over whether or not the US foreign policy ailment is centred on a failure to elect proper representatives and to enlist anyone other than psychopaths. If one is to examine US foreign policies in the Middle East fairly, for example, comparing the conduct of the last three administrations — Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama — one would find that there are abundant striking similarities. In principle, all three administrations’ foreign policy agendas were predicated on strong militaries and military interventions, although they applied soft power differently.
In essence, Obama carried on with much of what the younger Bush had started in the Middle East, although he supplanted his country’s less active role in Iraq with new interventions in Libya and Syria. In fact, his Iraq policies were guided by Bush’s final act in that shattered country, where he ordered a surge of troops to pacify the resistance, thus paving the way for an eventual withdrawal. Of course, none of that plotting worked in America’s favour, with the rise of Daesh/ISIS among others, but that is for another discussion.
Obama has even gone a step further by deciding recently to keep thousands of US troops in Afghanistan well into 2017, thus breaking a commitment to withdraw next year. Of course, 2017 will be Obama’s last year in office, and the decision is partly motivated by his administration’s concern that future turmoil in that country could cost his Democratic Party heavily in the next presidential election.
In other words, US foreign policy continues unabated, with business as usual often guided by the preponderant norm that “might is right”, and by ill-advised personal ambitions and ideological illusions like those championed by neo-conservatives during Bush the Younger’s era.
Nevertheless, much has also changed simply because American ambitions to police the world, global politics and the excess of $600 billion a year US defence budget are not the only variables that control events in the Middle East and everywhere else. There are other undercurrents that cannot be wished away, and they too can dictate US foreign policy outlook and behaviour.
Indeed, an American decline has been noted for many years, and Middle Eastern nations have been more aware of this than others. One could even argue that the latter Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq in 2003, in an attempt to control the region’s resources, was a belated effort at staving off that unmistakable decay, whether in America’s ability to regulate rising international contenders or in its overall share of the global economy.
The folly of George W Bush, Cheney and company is that they assumed that the Pentagon’s more than $1.5 billion-a-day budget was enough for the US to acquire the needed leverage to control every aspect of global affairs, including a burgeoning share of the world economy. That misconception carries on to this day, with military spending already accounting for about 54 per cent of all federal discretionary spending, itself nearly a third of the country’s overall budget.
However, those who are blaming Obama for failing to use US military strength as a lever for political currency refuse to accept that the president’s behaviour hardly reflects a lack of appetite for war, but a pragmatic response to a situation that has largely spun out of US control. The so-called “Arab Spring”, for example, was a major defining factor in the changes of US fortunes and it all came at a particularly interesting time.
First, the Iraq war has destroyed whatever little credibility the US had in the region, a sentiment that has also reverberated around the world.
Second, it was becoming clear that US foreign policy in Central and South America — an obstinate continuation of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which laid the groundwork for US domination of that region — has also been challenged by more assertive leaders, armed with democratic initiatives, not military coups.
Third, China’s more forceful politics, at least around its regional surroundings, signalled that the traditional US hegemony over most of East and South East Asia is also facing fierce competition. Not only have many Asian and other countries flocked to China, lured by its constantly growing and seemingly more solid economic performance, if compared to the US, but others too are turning to Russia, which is filling a political and, as of late, military vacuum.
The Russian military campaign in Syria, which was welcomed half-heartedly by the US, has signalled a historic shift in the Middle East. Even if Russia fails to turn its war into a major shift of political and economic clout, the mere fact that other contenders are now throwing their proverbial hats into the Middle East ring is simply unprecedented, at least since the British-French-Israeli tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956, the so-called “Suez Crisis”.
The region’s historians must fully understand the repercussions of all of these factors, and that simply analysing the US decline based on the performance of individuals – Condoleezza Rice’s hawkishness vs. John Kerry’s supposed sane diplomacy – is a trite and trivial approach to understanding current shifts in global power.
It will take years before a new power paradigm emerges fully, during which time US clients are likely to seek the protection of more dependable powers. In fact, shopping around for a new power is already under way, which also means that new alliances will be formed while others fold.
In the meantime, though, the Middle East will continue to pass through this incredibly difficult and violent transition, for which the US is partly responsible.
Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally-syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. His books include “Searching Jenin”, “The Second Palestinian Intifada” and his latest, “My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story”. His website is: www.ramzybaroud.net.