The Great American Losing Streak

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By Shlomo – 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 naïve 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. US 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 US.

The current US 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 US 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 US – 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 1970’s, 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 US should
shun a domineering policy. But, confronted with a resolute Russian policy of
imperial re-assertion, now also visible in the Caucasus, the US 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 US 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 US administration seems incapable of
this, and Tea Party isolationism certainly is not the answer. A rudderless US
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.

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.

Project Syndicate,

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