The Weakened West
IN JULY 1972 Anwar Sadat, president of Egypt, suddenly decided to turf out thousands of Soviet military advisers. Menaced by Egyptian leftists and undervalued by the Kremlin, he calculated that he had more to gain from siding with America. Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s secretary of state, administered some deft diplomacy to broker a ceasefire between Egypt, Syria and Israel in the Yom Kippur war, and American aid duly flooded into Cairo. So did American influence: the Soviet hold over the Middle East never recovered.
The plan to wrest chemical weapons from Syria, shortly to be embodied in a UN resolution, has echoes of that era—except that the modern Metternich is a serial abuser of human rights and occasional op-ed writer on democracy for the New York Times, called Vladimir Putin. Russia, the country he leads, is too frail to regain its place in the Middle East. But this week, a decade after the invasion of Iraq, it suddenly became clear just how far the influence of the West has ebbed. The pity is how few Americans and Europeans seem to care about that.
The best of a very bad lot
In Western capitals the sigh of relief over Syria is audible. Barack Obama, while admitting that his diplomacy fell short on “style points”, claims that he got what he wanted. Syria’s president, Bashar Assad, will sign the convention against chemical weapons and get rid of the agents that he used to kill around 1,500 of his own citizens last month (see article). Even better, Russia shares responsibility for enforcing the plan, which could lead to broader co-operation with America, while Syria’s other ally, Iran, is making noises about negotiating with the Great Satan over its own nuclear programme.
The West’s leaders are off the hook. Mr Obama has managed to avoid the sort of humiliating defeat in Congress that David Cameron suffered in Britain’s Parliament. Now that military action is unlikely, Mr Cameron will not be embarrassed as a no-show. François Hollande no longer faces a domestic fight over his willingness to take France to war on Congress’s command. Some even see it as a victory for democracy: the people of the West did not want to fight, and got their way.
Yet the deal looks good only because the mess Mr Obama had got himself into was so bad. Step back, and the outcome looks rotten.
For a start, the deal itself is flimsy because it will be so hard to enforce. Mr Obama reserves the right to attack a delinquent Syria but the unpopularity of military action among America’s voters makes it clear that only an egregious breach, such as another chemical attack, could stir the country to action. Although Mr Putin would lose face if Syria brazenly defied the agreement, he now knows that Mr Obama needs his support. Given that Russia cares more about diplomatic parity with America than about de-fanging Mr Assad, it is more likely to prolong the crisis than resolve it. Nor is it clear that Russia can force Syria to comply. Mr Assad may co-operate at first, when the will to enforce the deal is strongest. But it is hard to impose disarmament during a civil war. As time drags on, Mr Assad is likely to frustrate the process—both to keep some chemical weapons and to be seen to defy America.
America’s credibility as an ally has been undermined. Whereas Mr Putin has stood firmly by Mr Assad, even while 100,000 people have perished, the West has proved an inconstant friend to the opposition. Two years ago, when only a few thousand Syrians had died, the liberal democracies called for Mr Assad’s ousting, but Mr Obama refused to get mixed up in the fight, even though the regime was reeling. His lone attempt not to look weak was the promise to punish any use of chemical weapons. Since then the formerly largely moderate rebel force has become infested by Sunni extremists, including foreign fighters and al-Qaeda.
As for Syria so for the Middle East. The Arab spring has driven a wedge between the West and its allies. Mr Obama recently sent his envoy to Cairo to ask the generals not to fire on an encampment of protesting Muslim Brothers. But, in an echo of Sadat, the generals preferred to heed Saudi advice, shoot the Brothers and collect billions of dollars of Arab aid. When the cold war ended, the West’s leadership showed imagination and resolve; no historian looking back at the Arab spring will say the same.
Last, America’s credibility as an opponent has also suffered. That’s not because all red lines that politicians draw must always be enforced. A leader who freely chooses to walk away from a fight need not suffer any loss of prestige. But a leader who the world sees is unable to fulfill his promises is inevitably weakened. And although nobody doubts that America’s armed forces continue to enjoy overwhelming superiority, its unwillingness to use them undermines their ability to give force to its diplomacy.
Freedoms and constraints
The West’s great problem is the paralysing legacy of Iraq and Afghanistan, exacerbated by a weak economy in Europe and, in America, vicious partisan politics. Everyone knew that Western citizens were tired of fighting, but until Mr Obama and Mr Cameron asked them, nobody knew just how tired.
Now every tyrant knows that a red line set by the leader of the free world is really just a threat to ask legislators how they feel about enforcing it. Dictators will be freer to maim and murder their own people, proliferators like North Korea less scared to proceed with spreading WMD, China and Russia ever more content to test their muscles in the vacuum left by the West.
The West is not on an inexorable slide towards irrelevance. Far from it. America’s economy is recovering, and its gas boom has undermined energy-fuelled autocracies. Dictatorships are getting harder to manage: from Beijing to Riyadh, people have been talking about freedom and the rule of law. It should be a good time to uphold Western values. But when the emerging world’s aspiring democrats seek to topple tyrants, they will remember what happened in Syria. And they won’t put their faith in the West.
September 21, 2013
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