Politics & Policy

The West Wins, in Spite of Itself

President Obama visits Saudi Arabia in 2009. (White House via Flickr)
Bailed out by good fortune, the House of Saud, and others

A merciful confluence of events is softening the impact of the foreign-policy errors of the United States and its traditional allies. It must be allowed that U.S. foreign policy in this new century has been a bipartisan failure. There has not really been a policy that could be sustained, or that any sane foreign-policy architect would wish to sustain for more than a few years. Through much of the Obama administration and the preceding Bush era, almost the entire ground-forces combat potential of the United States was mired in the Middle East, while the Western alliance has steadily loosened, and the United States has withdrawn toward its own shores. As has been endlessly recounted, the country has become, in Peggy Noonan’s phrase, “war-wary” — as the Korean, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq Wars (though not the Gulf War of 1991) dragged on interminably and only the Korean and possibly Afghanistan Wars produced even a partially satisfactory outcome. Nowhere was the United States defeated militarily, but it suffered serious strategic setbacks in Vietnam and Iraq. The impulse to be less internationally adventurous is understandable, and the implosion of the Soviet Union drastically reduced the need for American-led resistance to anti-democratic forces in the world. From the end of the Cold War there was much talk of the “peace dividend,” and it was assumed that substantially less resources could be consecrated to national defense.

But as has been lamented here and elsewhere, as brilliant as the containment strategy, pursued from the Truman through to the elder-Bush administration, was, no articulated or consistent policy has succeeded it. George H. W. Bush spoke of a “new world order,” and he and his secretary of state, James Baker, had considerable aptitude for organizing foreign affairs. Amiable ad hoc policymaking followed with President Clinton, but with finesse in the expansion of NATO, firmness in the Straits of Formosa, and considerable grit in pursuing the North American Free Trade Area. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington understandably distracted the George W. Bush administration, which then propagated the theory that, as democracies don’t make war on one another, democracy should be indiscriminately promoted. This policy took no account of the fact that, when democratically consulted, countries not accustomed to democracy frequently elevate anti-democratic movements. This is what occurred in Gaza with Hamas, Lebanon with Hezbollah, and Egypt with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Obama administration has been incoherent and dissimulative: promoting democracy in Egypt and ignoring the undemocratic encroachments of the resulting Muslim Brotherhood, drawing and then backing off a red line in Syria, moving from “reset” with Russia to sanctions largely on the rich friends of the Kremlin, pretending that terrorism had been eliminated in the aftermath of the tragic fiasco at Benghazi, and snorting back at the unforeseen Islamic State only when it began jubilantly decapitating Americans on film. (This “junior varsity,” as the president described it, would not have arisen if the U.S. had not so abruptly withdrawn completely from Iraq, leaving the country to crumble under the ungrateful Iranian puppet Maliki. This was not the disposition for which Americans fought and died there.) The somewhat indecorous move to the exit in the Middle East was covered for a time with a lot of portentous talk about a “pivot to Asia” that in fact consisted of putting a small detachment of Marines at Darwin, Australia, which has not been troubled by an intruder since a Japanese air raid more than 60 years ago.

In general, it must be said that American foreign policy was spectacularly successful from Roosevelt’s quarantine Speech of 1937 through to the Democratic emasculation of the Nixon administration and abandonment of Indochina in 1973–75, that it fully recovered its senses with Reagan and Shultz and George H. W. Bush in the Eighties (though the Bush-Baker lectures in Kiev and Belgrade on the virtues of the Russian and Yugoslav federations were ill-considered)​, and that President Clinton’​s generally plausible improvisations in the Nineties did include mortally under-calibrated responses to the Khobar Towers, East African embassies, and USS Cole terrorist attacks that incited the outrage of 9/11. But there is no precedent in American history for foreign-policy planning to have simply walked off the cliff as it has in the last decade.

However, where deliberate policy has failed, the natural forces of regional power balances have miraculously come to the aid of the West.

As the United States has pulled back, most of its longtime allies have been exposed as having been egregious freeloaders. During the Cold War, the Europeans claimed that the greater risk imposed upon them by relative proximity to the Soviet threat could be fairly compensated for by the greater defense burden borne by the United States. When the Cold War ended and the Euro-federalists had the upper hand in Western Europe, there was much talk of a European strike force and “projection of Europe’s influence” in the world. It was all nonsense, of course; Bosnia was “the hour of Europe,” said the chief European official (Jacques Poos), but a few weeks later the Europeans were begging for American assistance. France’s President Sarkozy and Britain’s Prime Minister Cameron plunged into Libya to rid it of Moammar Qaddafi but ran out of ordnance in a few days and had to be resupplied by the United States.

Europe has no influence anywhere, and, among its important member states, the only ones pulling their weight are the British (almost always relatively reliable) and the Poles, who are, after all, on the edge of the historic volcano. Of the G-7 leaders (mercifully, Russia’s sojourn in that group has been terminated), Canada’s Harper talks a good game but he has so reduced Canada’s defense capability that his voice doesn’t count for much. Germany’s Merkel is also quite sound, but she has allowed German military capabilities to deteriorate badly and is hamstrung by the ideological schizophrenia of her grand-coalition partner, the Social Democrats. She has not even appreciably reduced German imports of Russian natural gas, though other and friendlier sources, especially Canada and the United States, are available. Japan’s Prime Minster Abe is energetic and clear-sighted, but is still struggling to end the prolonged agony of Japanese economic sluggishness. The American, British, and French leaders are not up to it, and the Italian leader has compromised authority in a divided and economically and politically demoralized country.

But in the vacuum left by the feckless lassitude of the U.S. and Western Europe, the Chinese have overplayed their hand in Burma and virtually been expelled, and in the China Sea they have brought together a tightening coalition of India (now under the most impressive and sensibly purposeful leader in its post-British history, Narendra Modi), Abe’s rearming Japan, Indonesia under its reform president-elect (Joko Widodo), the Philippines, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and Australia (now led by the strongest leader of the traditional Anglo-Saxon countries, Tony Abbott). As those countries, which are collectively 20 percent more populous and have a substantially larger collective GDP than China, spontaneously counteract Chinese friskiness, an unimaginably benign scenario is unfolding in the Middle East. Beneath the near-hysteria about 20,000 to 30,000 Islamic State fanatics, the West has won the bounce. The 900-pound gorilla in the room in the Middle East for 90 years, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, fumbled its way out of popularity and power and we dodged that bullet; and the Saudis, who have done much that has made it hard for us to like them and are a model of illiberal government, have become so exasperated with the antics of Iran in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza, and with Russian meddling in the region, that they have sharply increased oil production. This, coupled with rising American production and the long-expected decline in Chinese oil imports as that country’s economic growth has slowed (despite the deafening decades-long alarm of those who thought the Chinese progress to headship of the world on a quick march was inexorable), has lowered the world oil price, from $100 per barrel to around $80. The Saudis can continue this to $50 without serious inconvenience to themselves, but Iran and Russia will be in financial extremis anywhere below $70. 

The Saudi oil-price offensive is the chief explanation for Russia’s sudden retreat from the Ukrainian border, and if Iran does not mend its ways, its economic condition will, in Hillary Clinton’s infamous threat, become “crippling” after all. This development coincides with the United States’s quiet strengthening of Israel’s ability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program from the air, on the condition that no such attack can be undertaken without American agreement (giving Washington plausible deniability). Such an Israeli strike would be greeted with relief, if mutedly, by the Turks, Saudis, and Egyptians, as the Jewish state would have done the world’s dirty work for it again. Turkey, though it should be advised that it is close to expulsion from NATO because of its adversarial behavior, has lightly supported the anti-Assad and anti-extremist forces in Syria. In the Middle East as in the Far East, the correlation of regional forces is realigning in terms that are convenient for the West. The Russian de-escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, under the Saudi pressure on oil prices, after completely outmaneuvering the Americans and Germans, is a bonus. It is a little like the Saudi-generated rollback of oil prices to squeeze the USSR in the mid Eighties, after the Reagan administration sold Saudi Arabia AWACS air-defense aircraft.

It is right that these regions should sort themselves out. It all could have been faster, less suspenseful, and more gratifying to the West if our own statesmen could claim any contribution to this dénouement (though Obama may deserve credit for helping to enable Israel opposite Iran, after long restraining and harassing that country). The contemptible defeatism of the Pentagon and the State Department over the heroic Kurdish defense of the Syrian town of Khobani is a particular contrast with the bold conduct of indigenous ISIS opponents. Let no one now doubt the occurrence of miracles: As our official statesmanlike aptitudes fled, fortune astonishingly appeared, clad mainly in the distinct apparel of the House of Saud. Americans may have more blessings than they imagined to keep in mind this Thanksgiving, even if their own leadership is not among them. 

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.



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