More and more the ground reality is at odd with the narrative that is presented publicly to explain it. There are several reasons for why this may be happening. Events are occurring rapidly, and moving too quickly, to be understood fully in the time available. There are vested interests that desire to present their side of the story and manage perceptions. The forces of status quo are stronger, and while they are successful in projecting their interpretation, in the long run, they often miss the mark. The reality by itself holds no biases.
A number of confusions presently engulf the world of politics and international relations. Some of them stem from the fact that in the information age we have come to expect everyone to freely and publicly declare their intent, which has hardly ever been the case. So when we hear policy statements and political leaders speak, we believe this is what they intend to do. In fact, there is now a stark demarcation between words and actions.
As oppose to commenting about how Iraq arrived at the present predicament, which is amply being done in the media, a more productive endeavor at this junction is to examine where the region is heading next. The public appetite in the West for more military interventions, or going back to places from where the withdrawal was expected, is no longer there, especially in times of economic recession. More seriously, how can authorities make a public case for more military involvements when the past policies and missions were presented as successful?
The Present Predicament
At a NATO related speech, John Kerry on June 25 pointed out how Russia has used a massive media/information campaign to present a reality that differs from what is taking place on the ground in Ukraine. Then there is the question of if the US is truly pivoting to the Pacific, or is the highest priority to keep Europe aligned. At a recent speech by President Obama at West Point, he stated countering extremism was at the top of the list. Realistically, probably all three areas remain the priority for the US; it’s a matter of converging these three objectives under a single a goal.
Moreover, even the best held narrative on Iraq, and increasingly Afghanistan, is falling to stand against reality. Then there is the question of what is happening to the wider campaign against extremists, and where is it heading. PoliTact has been examining these questions in detail (see Related Articles section below). While the key leadership of AQ has been eliminated, the associates, and AQ inspired groups, have now spread the threat far and beyond. The original risk has multiplied many times over. While the West succeeded in taking the fight to the enemy and protect the homeland against major attacks, many of its state allies in the region are at a precipice of major debacle.
The irony is that the non-state actors, and the threat they pose; also provide the reason d’être for the badly needed western unity against the emerging strategic adversaries. On the other hand, the fragile state actors of the region inflicted by extremism have become more of a liability, with their alignment with the West increasingly uncertain, and their governance failing. The present situation needs to be understood in this context as well.
Dealing with the quagmire, now requires a kind of response for which the West neither has the appetite nor the resources. As pointed out in the previous assessments, the US and NATO are relying on Special Forces, smart technologies, and its regional allies to take on the fight against extremists. These allies, meanwhile, are increasingly reluctant, economically dependent, and proving incapable of leading the fight against extremists. Polarization is growing in these societies, and like Egypt, military may be relied upon again as an institution to control and govern. However, it’s not clear that even they can simultaneously control the forces of anarchy and also govern.
Then there is the question of a military or a political solution. The primarily military approach that lasted until Barack Obama came in to power, may have generated some room to attempt political settlement in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That breathing space has fast evaporated. The Talk-Fight approach has not shown any remarkable results either. Now, it appears the pendulum is reverting back to the military focus as being witnessed in North Waziristan and Iraq. In Syria, ‘Good’ and moderate non-state actors are going to be trained by US/NATO to stand up to Assad. Without clear-cut winners, or one or the other party having an upper hand, it’s hard to see why any party will reconcile.
The Future Challenge
As oppose to commenting about how Iraq arrived at the present predicament, which is amply being done in the media, a more productive endeavor at this junction is to examine where the bandwagon is heading next. PoliTact covered this theme in detail in its 2014 forecast. A number of broader questions are raised connected to the possible undoing of Iraq.
Will other week nations hold off the non-state actors, and how will the West and other stakeholders now respond. How will the slow moving US-Iran détente, and the shift in the balance of power in favor of Shia Muslims, impact the response from the Sunni State and ‘Bad’ non-state actors of the Gulf region, AfPak, and Turkey? Most critically, how does Israel view that shift of circumstance in favor of its archenemy Iran, especially in the aftermath of the collapse of the Middle East Peace Process?
In PoliTact’s estimation, the foremost priority for the western approach is geared towards preventing the non-state actors from getting hold of weapons of mass destruction, as witnessed in the case of Iraq and recently Syria. This is a goal shared with other powers such as Russia and China. The chemical weapons deal with Syria would not have been possible without the Russian assistance.
The second priority is to counter extremism using regional allies and moderate Sunni ‘Good’ non-state actors on the ground, especially in the Middle East, while at the same time continue to move ahead with the Iranian détente. The Iran factor also acts as leverage in acquiring better cooperation from Sunni state allies, while offering opportunities to use Shia non-state actors (Hezbollah) against ‘Bad’ Sunni non-state actors (AQ and Affiliates).
An increasingly important realization is to prevent China and Russia to take advantage of the situation in these regions. For example, both Egypt and Iraq, including Pakistan, are moving towards acquiring weapons from Russia. Moreover, from time to time, Russia has threatened to deliver advance air defense systems to Iran, which can have a dramatic influence over western and Israeli military options. Not to mention whoever maintains influence in these strategic regions will also maintain control over the critical trade and energy sea-lanes. Any closure of the Suez Canal, choking of the Strait of Hormuz, and instability around Horn of Africa, will have tremendous impact on global trade.
The exercise of promoting democratic norms and pressure for reforms will only be in places where it is convenient to do so.
The responses from other stakeholders will also be examined in the future articles. However, how China and Russia react to the western strategy in these regions are the major determinants of the future direction.
A prerequisite for solving a complex challenge, first of all, requires identifying and explaining it correctly. That is hardly achievable when the narrative for public and private consumption has discrepancies. It leads to many more issues, some of which we are witnessing presently in the West and the regions impacted by extremism. The public appetite for more military interventions in the West, or going back to places from where the withdrawal was expected, is no longer there, especially in times of economic recession. More seriously, how can authorities make a public case for more military involvements when the past policies and missions were presented as successful?