July 19, 2021
On February 19, President Biden addressed the global community for the first time. At the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference he defined the partnership between Europe and the US as the cornerstone of all that the West hopes to accomplish in the 21st century, just as it did in the 20th century. He expressed his strong belief that democracy will and must prevail.
Actually, the West fought two world wars in the 20th century, both of which started in Europe among today’s allies. But after the Second World War, the UN was founded. The Marshall Plan was launched. NATO was founded. The West achieved unprecedented prosperity. The Treaty of Rome, establishing the European Economic Community was signed, paving the way for the European Union. Democracy was ascendant. The collapse of the Soviet Union marked end of the Cold War. Germany was reunified. NATO and the EU embraced new members. These were Western accomplishments.
But there were also failures, like the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and military interventions in Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Syria. Not much needs to be said on Afghanistan except that had the US-UK military intervention been confined to Afghanistan today’s picture could have been different. But in March 2003, the US and the UK invaded Iraq vowing to destroy Iraqi weapons of mass destruction which proved to be false. In March 2011, a day after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1973, a conference in Paris, held under French, British, and US leadership decided to start air operations against Qaddafi’s forces to protect civilians. Within hours air strikes began. It soon became clear that the purpose was regime change. A decade after the launching of the misguided regime change project in Syria the country is in ruins. The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen supported by the West has turned into a humanitarian disaster. Beyond causing indescribable human suffering, these conflicts have empowered Iran as a regional actor. They have enabled al-Qaida and the Islamic State.
Moreover, during the past decade, democracy’s decline has become a topic. In a recent Foreign Affairs article Larry Diamond said:
“Once a political system loses bipartisan consensus respecting the rules of the democratic game, it can be a short slide to autocracy. The world has watched this happen in Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela. It is not inconceivable that it could happen in the United States.”[i]
In all his public remarks President Biden has underlined the importance his administration attaches to democratic rule. And, while confronting Russia and China he has not closed the door to dialogue, to moving forward in areas where interests converge.
The slogan, “America is back” coins Mr. Biden’s desire to reassert Washington’s global leadership. But global leadership does not rest exclusively on economic and military power and alliances. Countries with such claims must also enjoy moral authority. Inconsistency between the public discourse on democracy and actual policy will not go unnoticed. Today’s reality is that neither the US nor the EU enjoys enough moral authority to assert global leadership. Advocating for democracy is the right policy but global leadership requires more than that. Russia and China, both major economic and military powers, are not on solid ground in this respect either.
So, if President Biden is determined to persevere in his claim to global leadership, he must support it with moral authority. And this can only be accomplished by moving beyond narrow interests and giving proof of America’s peace-making capacity.
The Middle East is a region where the West has a history of colonialist/imperialist divide-and-rule policies which had started long before the Sykes–Picot Agreement and the First World War. Thus, the region offers many opportunities to Washington to prove its peace-making capacity. One such opportunity is the Syrian conflict. Because in launching the regime change project in Syria the West and its regional partners ultimately failed to assess the regime’s capacity for survival. This was an unforgivable error of judgment particularly for Ankara being a neighbor to and sharing a 911 km. border with Syria. And once it became clear that the only alternative to the Assad regime was radical extremists, the West left the scene except for a US military presence in Iraq. In brief, the project was doomed project from day one.
What President Obama told Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times in August 2014 only confirmed that: “…the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.”
Syria has been devastated in the last decade. If that was the mission it is accomplished. Syria has a population of seventeen million. At present, six million Syrians are now living as refugees mostly in neighboring countries. More than six million are internally displaced. For the majority of them, the top priority is returning to some kind of normalcy, not the intricacies of the political process. Washington should now help achieve that in cooperation with Russia and the regional actors. The Syrian conflict is more than allowing or hindering the United Nations’ aid across the Turkish-Syrian border.
The US will complete withdrawal from Afghanistan at the end of August. What follows would also call for understanding between Washington, Moscow, Peking, and New Delhi. Last Thursday, Mr. Biden himself said, “To be clear — to be clear: Countries in the region have an essential role to play in supporting a peaceful settlement. We’ll work with them, and they should help step up their efforts as well.”
It is time for Washington to take the lead in bringing peace to the broad region, to engage Russia on a positive agenda in Syria. If he were to act, this would be the greatest investment in President Biden’s claim to global leadership. The US and the West owe this to what is no longer the Middle but the Miserable East.