Is the Pivot about to become an awkward and dangerous Straddle?
The Obama administration's geopolitical pivot to the Asia-Pacific seems more than a little stuck between moves. Already slowed by the long goodbye of the Afghan War, President Barack Obama's strategy is threatened by the prospect of the conundrum of Syria spinning up into a much wider war.
And we know from athletics how vulnerable an experience it can be to be caught in transition between moves.
The White House announced late yesterday that it has confirmed evidence that the Assad regime, which has the clear upper hand, has used chemical weapons on several occasions against its rebel opponents in the Syrian civil war. Obama had previously called that a "red line" action; former President Bill Clinton, appearing the other day with Senator John McCain at a McCain Institute event, urged US intervention in the Syrian civil war. The U.S. will now provide some forms of military aid to the rebels.
Other options, including some that Assad allies such as Russia would undoubtedly vociferously oppose, such as a no-fly zone, are on the table. McCain, the old naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam, is a particular proponent of that. Obama will talk Syria next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland. My guess is that Putin, one of the true hard men of world affairs -- who notably left Obama dangling when he visited Moscow four years ago, as I wrote at the time -- has no intention of allowing regime change in one of Russia's oldest allies. China has shown no sign of budging, either, though it hasn't the level of involvement Russia has.
Things can change, of course, but what seems likeliest at first blush is that the US joining Britain and France -- which recently got the European Union to lift the Syrian arms embargo -- in providing weapons to the Syrian rebels achieves no more than a stalemate. After all, the Libyan rebels, fighting against a much less powerful dictatorial regime than that headed by Bashar al-Assad, required months of direct air strikes before they finally prevailed.
That sort of active military intervention in Syria would put us right up against Russia, which voted for the UN Security Council resolution authorizing the Libyan action against Moammar Gaddafi but is providing advanced anti-aircraft systems to Syria, its longtime ally. Moscow was very displeased by recent Israeli air strikes inside Syria.
Russia today rejected the new insistence that the Assad regime has employed chemical weapons on occasion, calling the evidence "fabricated."
I don't see much appetite in America for yet another war in an Islamic country. Especially one which could spiral into something much bigger.
Not too surprisingly, proposed Syrian peace talks this month in Geneva, conceived by the U.S. and Russia, fell apart as neither side in the Syrian civil war accepted the others' demands for participation. In fact, the Syrian opposition refused to take part. The intransigence came with major new arms seemingly set to flow into the conflict on both sides.
This is just the latest migraine headache for Obama, who has come to see last weekend's California summit with new Chinese President Xi Jinping in a new light with the revelation that ex-NSA contractor Edward Snowden had been in Hong Kong for weeks.
Did Obama know that word was to come when the White House signaled before the summit that the president intended to push hard personally on cyber-espionage? It hardly seems likely.
Needless to say, Snowden's revelations have dramatically undercut Washington's effort to corner Beijing on the issue. They allow Xi to counter Obama's complaints by saying that the rest of the world, including China, is a potential victim of this massive and formerly secret American cyber-surveillance program.
You can see an archive of my articles related to the geopolitical pivot from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central Asia to increased engagement with rising Asia and the Pacific by clicking here.
Is Obama headed for another Afghan War-like muddle, in which he greatly escalated in order to negotiate with the Taliban, only to find himself bogged down militarily with talks barely existing? Or is he in danger of being dragged into something worse?
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