Since 1980, the Carter Doctrine (America reserves the right to use force to defend its interests in West Asia) has been the dominant image of how the world perceived West Asian geopolitics. West Asia was America’s domain, and, Washington could be expected to ensure a modicum of leadership. After all, this was the implicit contract between America and the world. The US would supply public goods via geopolitical stability and in lieu receive the consent of regional and global stakeholders to a US-led regional order. However, Iraq 2003, the impasse with Iran, the strike on Libya, Syria’s civil war, strengthening of radical Islam in Egypt, Turkey’s drift away from its secular moorings collectively suggest that the US cannot present itself as a credible regional security provider.
If there is one stark contradiction in US foreign policy, it is this: a relative power decline and the weakening of the domestic base for a superpower role would suggest that America would seek to re-craft a new global role, one consistent with its means and body politic. For example, a recent Bloomberg poll revealed that 58 per cent of Americans felt the US was declining as a world leader. Yet, a parallel self-image of an exceptional America as a “city upon a hill” seems to be the persistent and default mantra for any mainstream policymaker. Barack Obama’s West Point speech in May exemplified this: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”, even as he wisely argued against the overuse of the American military “hammer”. But then insisting, “America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will.”
This dichotomy between a declining capacity and will to sustain an exceptional role, and, the persistence of a discourse of exceptionalism among US elites suggests a potentially dangerous inflexion point. Arguably, this reflects an American identity crisis that is part of the normative and material transition to a multipolar world.
The reason this matters is America’s role flux is having global consequences. An America unwilling to re-define its role based on primacy is also an America that cannot engage with a cross-section of states. Aside from a momentary display of diplomacy, when Russia and the US crafted a deal to secure Syria’s chemical weapons last September, the American problem-solving equation is frozen in a binary between using the “hammer” or doing nothing.
The mainstream debate seems unable to offer arguments for a regional order that could also include legitimate interests of non-allied states. David Ignatius is an exception when he argues, “the only way to restabilize this region is to gather the essential players around a table and begin framing a new security architecture.” Sensibly, Ignatius also includes Iran, Russia and China as part of the equation. Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, argues for a “Nixonian gambit” where the US normalises its ties with Iran.
Yet, on the ground, America has found itself challenging the core security interests of all three states almost simultaneously. The Ukrainian crisis is particularly severe since it challenges Russia’s historic interests on its European frontiers, and, has produced a reversal in the Kremlin’s prior approach to craft a common agenda with the West on other issues such as Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and arms control.
States that cannot see eye to eye on their core interests will find it difficult to work together on secondary issues and regions. Since great power competition is preventing a collective approach, regional contradictions are being left to their own devices. Most Western commentaries forecast a regional sectarian playoff between communities and their state patrons. The contest is between the Shia forces buttressed by Iran and Syria, and, the Sunni extremists being propped up by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Turkey is straddling contradictory roles as a sponsor of the Free Syrian Army to topple Assad’s Syria to now also responding to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) blowback on its frontier with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Regional cleavages have become explosive. A Qatari diplomat stated that, “Any intervention in Iraq by the West… will be seen by the whole Sunni Arabs and Muslims as war against them.” David Petraeus recently argued, the US cannot be “the air force for Shia militias, or a Shia on Sunni Arab fight.” Obama endorsed such a perspective in last Thursday’s statement. Rejecting a “military solution”, Obama placed the burden of managing Iraq’s anarchy on its neighbours. He also urged a non-sectarian approach, and, portrayed the US as a relatively detached observer.
But since the US is deeply aligned with the Sunni Arab monarchies, it has already chosen a side in the sectarian conflict. Between the lines, it is apparent that while the US is rhetorically sympathetic to Iraq’s plight, there is a greater interest in undermining Iran’s regional position. After all, the Iraq crisis is not an isolated event. It is a blowback of the Syrian crisis, where the US endorsed its regional allies, financing and promoting a de-stabilising and extremist rebellion in Syria that has finally spilled over into a much weaker Iraq. Arguably the dominant view in Washington is to now let its Shia and Alawite rivals get bogged down in an Iraqi quagmire.
Interestingly, an Iranian official, Ali Shamkhani, dismissed Iran-US co-operation over Iraq, saying that Western commentary “is part of a psychological war, and is totally unreal”. Shamkhani added that America had “encouraged the creation of terrorist groups such as ISIL”. Indeed, Obama’s own terse response to whether he expected co-operation from Iran was “old habits die hard”.
West Asia seems poised for an extended period of sectarian conflict, which is being underwritten and exacerbated by even deeper geopolitical cleavages.
As Asia braces itself, Delhi cannot lose sight of its national interests – energy security, securing a line of communication into Afghanistan, and, a stable extended neighbourhood. Iran is India’s long-term geopolitical bet on all three issues.
The writer is a foreign affairs analyst and a doctoral candidate at King’s College London