The United States is Losing Influence in the World

President Obama recently gave a speech at the United Nations. The principal topic was the war against the “so called” Islamic State. (As an aside, I resent our policy makers leaving out the modifier since to simply call it a “state” gives it legitimacy that it does not deserve.) It now looks like our influence in the region has waned to the point that we may be forced to “join” a coalition between Russia, Iran, and Assad’s Syria. Oh how the mighty have fallen!

For most of the latter half of the Twentieth Century, world politics was dominated by the Cold War between the two Superpowers. America sought to contain communist expansion. This led to “hot” military conflicts in places like Korea and Viet Nam. It also led the U.S to adopt a policy of using “proxy states” to protect our interests in key regions. In the Middle East, Iran was our staunchest ally along with Israel.

In 1978, I worked at the Office of Management and Budget in Washington analyzing Foreign Military Sales and Training. The motto at that time was “What the Shah (of Iran) wants, the Shah gets. In return, he helped keep things in check and his relationship with America clearly demonstrated from whence his power emanated. He might have been a dictator, but he was “our” dictator.

In 1979, the Iranian Revolution focused hatred of the regime at its principal backer-the United States. The occupation of our embassy and the Hostage Crisis, was the direct result. Thus began the long trek to today with the U.S. as their “Great Satan.”

The United States also backed Israel. They were the one bastion of democracy in the region and provided the capabilities to thwart Soviet intervention and support of hostile Arab states. America and the USSR sparred through these two warring factions for decades.

However, the United States never allowed the Soviet Union to be a part of any coalition or peace keeping mission. Our objective was clearly to minimize their influence and we had the power to do it. This was clearly demonstrated in our support for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet invasion and occupation throughout the 1980s, a situation that would come to haunt us twenty years later.

As a harbinger of things to come, this war bled out Soviet resources and facilitated the collapse of their empire symbolized by the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty-five years ago.

Despite our position as the sole Super Power, our loss of allies ultimately caught up with us. In 1991, Saddam Hussein felt bold enough to invade Kuwait.  Without a Persian counterweight in the region, the United States was forced to bear the burden of the fighting. After that First Persian Gulf War, there was no doubt about American dominance on the world stage.

The lull in hostilities appeared to create a “Peace Dividend.” President Clinton shrank the Armed Forces which reduced government spending. Our policy-makers failed to understand the shifting dynamics within the devolving Soviet Empire and the turmoil in the developing world. The net effect of these events was to diminish US capabilities.

A sea change in global politics was underway. Within this supposed “New World Order” two undercurrents emerged.

First, states formerly controlled by strong dictators broke apart. Yugoslavia shattered into micro-states including Bosnia and Serbia and old animosities drove violence and genocide. Into this fray dove the United States and its allies, woefully unprepared for such a low-intensity conflict, as the military termed it. Similar clashes erupted in other areas, most notably Somalia.

At the same time, America built-up significant military forces in the Arabian Peninsula as a deterrent against another invasion by hostile states like Iraq. Unfortunately, this presence began to engender animosity amongst the Muslim community. We appeared to represent exactly what the propaganda said we were: a foreign (predominately Christian) occupying force in their home. The seeds of 9/11 had been sown.

The attack on the twin towers was a watershed event in modern history. It precipitated fifteen years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq that depleted the American treasury and created a war weary nation. In an ironic twist of fate, we got exactly what we wished for with the Arab Spring that followed. We wanted dictators overthrown and a chance for democracy.

It was a fool’s errand and chaos has reigned in the region ever since. It was a lesson we should have learned from the Balkans. Authoritarian regimes kept a lid on sectarian violence. These countries with fundamentally tribal governing systems did not have the fundamental prerequisites for democracy, primarily an independent, educated electorate.

The tragedy in Syria is but the latest example. In its totality, the turmoil in the region has sparked a migration of refugees the likes of which has not been seen since the end of the Second World War. Europe is quite literally under invasion from hundreds of thousands of displaced people fleeing conflict or seeking to improve better opportunity.

The only viable solution is to mitigate their motivation to leave by improving conditions in their homelands in Africa and the Middle East. The most important factor is stopping the violence, followed by a sustained effort to improve living conditions and rebuild economies.

The United States and its timid and overwhelmed European allies are not up to the task. America is rightfully hesitant to enter into yet another ground war with no reasonably viable outcome. Given our lagging economy, Americans are unwilling to fund massive foreign aid. The Europeans are in poor economic shape and can barely deal with the flood of immigrants.

In steps Russia. They have supported Syria’s dictator all along and have now formed a new “Axis of Evil” with Iran as a prominent member.

This situation was spurred by incompetent diplomacy. An emboldened Russia annexed Crimea from the Ukraine, with barely a whimper from us. The Iranian Nuclear Deal freed that state from a harsh economic embargo and strengthened their influence. They stood up to America and we blinked. In addition, the deal undermined our relationship with our one reaming friend in the region, Israel.

So with all of this what is America to do? We may just have to default to a more “Realist” (balance-of-power) approach reminiscent of the policies of Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration. To accomplish that, perhaps we should adopt the old axiom, “An enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

Stamping out the “so-called” Islamic State is priority number one. Joining the Russian coalition may be the best of a host of very bad alternatives. There really may be a new “New World Order” emerging, one in which the United States is a member of the group rather than the leader.

Have we now become the “Weary Titan,” reminiscent of Great Britain exhausted from the First World War?

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