In the war-torn region of the Middle East, from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, we have been reminded again and again that we cannot successfully impose our will on other countries through military pressure and action. We’ve paid a terrible, terrible price for that delusion.
An unlikely source of such a lecture came from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani who is pressing hard within his country for support for the nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA. He took a jab at the US while addressing the United Nations General Assembly on September 28, 2015. Rouhani criticized the United States for intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan, which he intimated — in addition to underlying social, economic, and cultural problems — gave rise to Islamic terrorism essentially destabilizing the region.
But he was also quick to state that he did not want to live in the past, and referring to JCPOA stated: “this opportunity can be seized in order to look toward to the future.” He said he also sees it as a new era of cooperation between Iran and the world, saying it would be a framework (Iran, US and Russia) for resolving other Middle East crisis. The accord nets Iran hundreds of billions of dollars in relief from international sanctions in exchange for a decade of constraints on the country’s nuclear program.
If this holds, it heralds a fundamental shift in foreign policy strategy for countries that do not agree on several other policy matters, but are willing to compromise today to embark on establishing and protecting economic interests in the near future.
For that reason, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stepped-up role on the Middle East stage, ostensibly to fight the growing threat to that region and beyond – the Islamic State/ISIS, is no surprise. But it complicates the alliance equation, after his move last year to annex Crimea from Ukraine and his support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. As a result, Russia was hit with international sanctions — led primarily by the United States and the European Union– that have crippled its economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, the ensuing depreciation of the Russian Ruble precipitated by Western sanctions coupled with the current descent in oil prices would push Russia close to recession in late 2015.
Putin however sees an opening, to change his fortunes, in the chaos in Syria; and he is taking it. His military build-up to support Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad Shiite-dominant regime against current foes – a mix of rebel forces and ISIS, but largely Sunni Muslims –which are also Iran’s foes, is a way to score billions from Iran once the JCPOA spigots begin to flow. This circuitous route of money-flow is one reason Russia will use its influence to pressure Iran to comply with the accord, thus preventing it from obtaining a nuclear weapon. But make no mistake; the last resort of a US military strike will be the ultimate deterrent.
Non Intervention. After more than a decade of American involvement in Iraq, and at the cost of thousands of American lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, we can all agree that the military action taken to rid that country of “weapons of mass destruction” did not produce the intended outcome. The 2011 interventionist approach in Libya by NATO to depose its leader on the heels of the Arab Spring also missed its mark. Perhaps learning from these still smoldering conflicts, President Barack Obama has resisted the impulse to engage a military option in Syria even when he had justification and opportunity. It is conceivable that inaction created not only the opportunity for the Sunni-based ISIS — the successor of al Qaeda in Iraq — to flourish, but the military role that Putin now fills. Addressing the U.N., Mr. Obama acknowledged the complexity of this new development, saying that “nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria.” At odds with Putin on Bashar al-Assad remaining as Syrian President, Obama nonetheless concluded saying he is “willing to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran,” to find a solution.
As Russia becomes more emboldened and aggressive, it’s unclear whether its new role inflames an already intensified conflict – adding to the tide of refugees in Europe, or whether there is a way out through diplomacy. What is absolutely clear however, given this evolving scenario of both common and competing interests, is that elections have consequences. That is why we have to choose our presidential and congressional leaders carefully.
In 2016, we have that opportunity. A sane and nuanced foreign policy agenda will not only relegate war as an important but last resort, it will allow us to focus more of our resources on the domestic economic interest of some 320 million Americans.
Derickson K. Lawrence, the author, is a resident of Mount Vernon and is reachable on firstname.lastname@example.org.