Struggling economically, many in the United States are weary of, and wary of, foreign involvement. That’s understandable. But four seminal events of 2013 should make the White House rethink the costs of an overeager rush to turn inward as it considers our foreign policy direction in 2014:• The deal to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Far from advancing diplomacy, the deal conveyed U.S. weakness and undercut the prospects for diplomacy in 2014.
How so? In September, President Obama endorsed a limited strike on Syrian military targets after the country’s regime crossed his “red line” by killing about 1,000 civilians with sarin gas. However, Obama, wary of Mideast entanglements, got cold feet and suddenly turned to Congress for approval, without warning France or Saudi Arabia (which had pledged support).
Then Moscow threw Obama a face-saver by proposing the chemical weapons deal. The Russians knew the deal would cement Bashar Assad’s hold on power, giving him free rein to keep killing civilians by means other than chemicals.
The continued Syrian conflict has permitted al-Qaida to build a new emirate on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. The deal also convinced Russia, Iran, Israel and probably China that Obama is unwilling to use force even after pledging to do so. This will affect Iran’s negotiating posture on its nuclear program, along with Russian and Chinese thinking on America’s willingness to stand by its allies.• Beijing’s declaration in November of a new air-defense zone over islands claimed by both China and Japan. Sensing U.S. weakness and withdrawal, China is testing whether it can establish primacy in the region and drive a wedge between Washington and its Asian partners.
• Vladimir Putin’s $15 billion bailout of Ukraine in December to keep the country inside Russia’s sphere of influence. The largesse had two main goals: to undercut Ukrainian protests against a corrupt, Russia-oriented president, Viktor Yanukovych, and to reward the Ukrainian leader for turning down an association agreement with the European Union. The move displays Putin’s yearning to reassert the influence of autocratic Russia in its neighborhood and beyond, at a time when he perceives America as weak.
• The Egyptian military’s coup against elected President Mohammed Morsi, and its massive December crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood (which it declared a terrorist organization). Add to that the military’s arrest of key leaders of the 2011 Tahrir Square revolt. Whatever the Brotherhood’s flaws, I’ve yet to meet a reputable expert who believes the group is behind terrorist attacks in Egypt.
Egypt’s generals are leading the regional counterrevolution and restoring autocracy as the answer to radical Islam. This won’t work. But no American advice is wanted or listened to anymore, and any talk of democracy is disdained.
What do these four events have in common? They are warning signs that Russia and China will test and take advantage of U.S. weakness to expand their regional ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Mideast will continue to implode, and jihadism will grow, as foes and allies alike assume that Washington has lost interest. Peace talks on Syria, on Iran’s nuclear program, on Israel and Palestine, and on Afghanistan’s security future have little chance if the participants don’t believe America will put muscle behind them.
Obama can put his finger to the wind and follow the public’s desire for America to unload its foreign burdens. But as these four events show, no matter how much we may wish otherwise, the world’s problems won’t leave us alone.