It’s becoming increasingly clear that America’s non-action in Syria is having a corrosive effect on a host of countries in the Middle East and beyond — an effect that appears to have been utterly unanticipated by the White House.
All this came to a head with the United States positioned a flotilla of cruise-missile-armed destroyers in the Eastern Mediterranean, backed by an entire carrier battle group in the Arabian Gulf, and then waited for someone else to put up their hands and say, “I’ll come along too.” No one did. So the President wound up doing, effectively, nothing — at least from the perspective of a host of important capitals.
The Saudis tell me they were livid. They want Syrian President Bashar al-Assad out, at any cost — and American missile strikes would, in their view, have been a constructive first step. The Israelis were furious, at least privately. They too want this Iranian off-shoot regime ousted — though Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has privately expressed a bit of delight that his nation’s nemesis, Hezbollah, has turned a substantial amount of its attention away from Israel and toward support of the Assad forces in Syria. Both nations, until now staunch American allies, also hate the idea that the United States may be about to give away the store to succeed in a marginal agreement with Iran that would wind up lifting sanctions that are beginning to bite seriously, while achieving little in terms of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon that would threaten not only Israel but Saudi Arabia as well.
And throughout all this (it goes almost without saying), the United Nations has proven toothless in its Syria efforts. Find and destroy Syria chemical weapons stashes? A Herculean, if not a Sisyphean, task. There may be 50 or more such sites that we know of. But how many are out there that even the most assiduous and accomplished monitors will never locate and destroy? Perhaps the single most telling suggestion of how this process might play out was the destruction of tiny Albania’s chemical-weapons stockpiles, remnants of the stash that former communist regime of Enver Hoxha acquired from China. Under the same body supervising the U.N.’s current Syria search– i.e., the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which won a Nobel Peace Prize this year — it took more than twelve months of intense work to remove and destroy 36,768 pounds of Albanian chemical munitions. Syrian stockpiles are estimated to total upwards of 1,000 tons and are widely scattered across the country — and that’s just the known ones.
So what’s been the fallout from all this? First, the Saudis, among America’s last reliable allies in the Arab Middle East, began moving rapidly away from the United States — or at least from the Obama Administration. Two powerful Saudi princes blasted quite publicly the entire American policy toward Syria. Prince Turki al-Faisal, former Saudi ambassador to England and the United States and former head of the Mukhabarat, the Saudi intelligence organization, called Obama’s policies in Syria “lamentable” and ridiculed the U.S.-Russian deal to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons. He suggested it was a ruse to let Obama avoid military action in Syria.
“The current charade of international control over Bashar’s chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. And designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down (from military strikes), but also to help Assad to butcher his people,” said the prince. Meanwhile, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, another former Mukhabarat leader, told European diplomats that the kingdom intended to embark on a “major shift” in its long-standing relations with Washington. And when Saudi Arabia was finally awarded the seat on the UNSC it had been vigorously campaigning for, the kingdom summarily rejected the award within hours.
The indefatigable John Kerry leaped immediately into the fray. But there’s only so much magic that Kerry can work. He had plunged into a truly toxic environment. The American government shutdown and the game of chicken played by Congress and the President over the nation’s critical debt ceiling had a host of world leaders questioning the very viability of a government in Washington. Then, just as a pulse was returning in Washington, a number of European newspapers — led by the French daily Le Monde and Britain’s Guardian — disclosed that the NSA had been listening in on the private phone calls of French President François Hollande. The office of German chancellor Angela Merkel soon said that she too had been a victim of eavesdropping. Finally, on Friday, Le Monde further revealed that at least 35 national leaders had been on the list.
So where does this all end? “The simple fact is that the shutdown created temporary but real consequences in our ability to work with our partners and pursue our interests abroad,” Kerry confided after his European swing. Indeed, any single foreign policy success could go a long way toward reversing such attitudes. But right now, the United States seems to be in the midst of a dangerous pinball game — one made all the more dangerous because it’s playing as the ball.
David A. Andelman is the Editor of World Policy Journal. Previously he served as Executive Editor of Forbes.com. Earlier, he was a domestic and foreign correspondent for The New York Times in various posts in New York and Washington, as Southeast Asia bureau chief, based in Bangkok, then East European bureau chief, based in Belgrade. He then moved to CBS News where he served for seven years as Paris correspondent, traveling through and reporting from more than 70 countries. He is the author of three books, most recently, A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today. @DavidAndelman