US decline: The shock and awe that wasn’t

Jim Creegan analyses the secular decline of the United States as the world hegemon and the failure of Barack Obama’s Syria gambit

The White House has for the past couple weeks attempted to spin defeat into victory. The tentative US-Russian agreement, so goes the official line, has succeeded in attaining Washington’s original objective of forcing Syria to relinquish its chemical weapons without the use of force only because force was threatened in the first place. But it is apparent to all but the most credulous that divesting Bashar al-Assad of his chemical stockpile was never the principal aim of American sabre-rattling against Damascus. The actual purpose - to affirm Washington’s ability to deploy military might to reverse the steady decline of its influence in the Middle East - has proved an abject, and indeed a comical, failure, at least for the time being.

Lacking leverage

Attempts to explain US Middle East/South Asia policy in terms of petro-politics is frequently dismissed as vulgar Marxism. And if by that is meant that the US’s every political and military manoeuvre in the region is dictated by narrow, oil-monopolising purposes, the criticism is valid. Yet the fact that the area contains the world’s biggest oil supply indeed accounts for its centrality to world politics. The US has been concerned historically not only with securing investment opportunities for its energy giants and ensuring access to oil at low prices; its position of global hegemon also depends upon the ability to determine who else in the world can obtain this vital resource, and under what terms. Not merely access to oil, but control of the petroleum spigot, is a key US weapon against ‘rogue states’ and rivals, actual and potential. Such control in turn demands a high degree of political leverage in the Middle East.

But it is precisely such leverage that Washington increasingly lacks. The unravelling began nearly 35 years ago, when a major pillar of US domination, the Pahlavi monarchy in Iran, fell to the ayatollahs. A further jolt resulted from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had the ultimate effect of enhancing the power of that country’s Shia majority, and hence expanding Iranian influence. Another blow was delivered in the form of the Arab spring. The turmoil surrounding the recent Egyptian coup revealed that the US has little sway with any major faction in a country that is second only to Israel in terms of US-bestowed foreign aid, and upon which Washington had depended to keep the Arab-Israeli peace and enforce the Gaza blockade. It has also become clear in recent months that, despite western attempts to exert control over Syrian rebels with growing arms shipments, the most powerful factions in the insurgency are dominated by al Qa’eda and its ally, the Al-Nusra front, hardly prepared to do the bidding of the state department or the Quai D’Orsay.

This situation has left the US more dependent than ever on its two remaining regional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel (Turkey is also an important player here, but its relationship with the US is more complicated than the other two). For its part, the Saudi monarchy is experiencing mounting difficulties, both in Bahrain, with its rebellious Shia majority, and amongst its own population, a significant number of whom are also Shia. A victory for the Shia-aligned Assad regime could therefore augment the influence of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis, spelling deep trouble for the House of Saud and, by extension, the Persian Gulf emirates. The Saudis thus supported a military strike on Syria. But it was the unease of America’s most stable and dependable ally, Israel, that, perhaps more than any other single factor, pushed Obama to beat the war drums.

Israel is bent on curbing the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria. But the Zionist state fears above all the prospect that Iran will obtain the bomb and break Tel Aviv’s regional nuclear monopoly. If, in the thinking of Netanyahu and others, Obama did not stand by the “red line” he had foolishly drawn against Syrian chemical weapons use a year earlier, Tehran might cease to take American-Israeli threats seriously, and proceed apace with its nuclear programme.

Thus Obama’s declared intent to “send a shot across the bow” of the Assad regime in the form of a limited aerial strike was borne not of strength, but of a mounting nervousness about US-Israeli inability to control events. Using the ‘humanitarian’ pretexts that US imperialism has invoked since the Spanish-American war, and putting himself forward as the defender of the Geneva ban on chemical weapons, Obama was in fact determined to show that his country is still the “indispensable power”; that, despite the failures of Afghanistan and Iraq, the US is still able to deliver ‘shock and awe’.

Muddled gambit

Yet, because it was conceived in haste, Obama’s gambit was feeble to begin with.

How did the government know it was Assad who unleashed a sarin gas attack that killed at least several hundred in the rebel-infiltrated Damascus suburb of Ghouta? The claim was based on circumstantial arguments that seemed strained and unconvincing. No more compelling, according to some senators and congresspersons permitted to view it, was the ‘classified’ evidence the administration proffered. It was hardly to Assad’s advantage to invite foreign intervention by committing a major war crime at precisely a time when the regime seemed to be gaining the military edge with victories in Qusair and Homs. It was rather the rebels who stood to gain from outside help.

Had not George Bush lied the country into the Iraqi war 10 years ago on the basis of non-existent ‘weapons of mass destruction’? Moreover, the projected intervention seemed more like a stitched-together political compromise than part of any thoughtful military strategy: for the neocon hawks in his administration, bombs and cruise missiles over Syria; for those still chastened by Iraq, disavowal of regime change as a goal, fulsome assurances that the operation would consist of strictly time-limited air strikes, with absolutely no “boots on the ground”.

But what guarantees were there of any of these things? Many senators, congresspersons, media pundits, a few retired generals and the public at large wanted to know. What if Iran or Hezbollah retaliated in some way? If an American strike was too limited to hasten Assad’s downfall, would he not be as willing to use chemical weapons a second time as he supposedly was the first? Would the “red line” still be in effect then? What if air strikes did weaken Assad and hasten the accession to power of al Qa’eda forces? Too many questions, no persuasive answers - and all the familiar ingredients of another quagmire.

It was questions like these that led to Obama’s first major setback, when, contrary to all expectations, the House of Commons defeated David Cameron’s motion of support by 13 votes. Also lacking the support of those bodies that have provided cover for overseas operations in the past - the United Nations, Nato and the Arab League - the president had only one place to turn in order to avoid near complete isolation: the US Congress. But there he was to find a reception no friendlier than in the Commons. The leaders of the two parties, as ever, fell in line behind Obama. But most newly elected Tea Party legislators in both houses refused to go along, and even the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party began to emit uncharacteristically loud noises of demur. After a week or so, it became clear that Obama, even if he managed to get his authorisation for force narrowly through the Senate, would not be able to muster the required votes in the House of Representatives. A defeat for his resolution would do him incomparable political damage for the rest of his term.

Rand Paul, a Tea Party favourite in the Senate, recalled the famous remark of John Kerry when he testified before Congress as a young soldier in opposition to the Vietnam war: who among you, Kerry asked a Congressional committee 40 years ago, wants to ask the last man to die in Vietnam for a mistake? Why now, Paul asked, is the erstwhile anti-war activist so keen to ask the first man (or woman) to die for a mistake in Syria? By the time Putin and Assad put forward their offer to eliminate Syrian chemical weapons, Obama had little choice but to grasp it with both hands.

Old fixes don’t work

Few media commentators seem to appreciate the extraordinary nature of the political moment through which we have just passed. It was as if a physician were attempting to apply a range of standard remedies to what he thought was a familiar disease, only to discover that the patient fails to respond each time.

As if by force of habit, the administration performed all the time-tested tropes to ready the country and the world for military intervention: moral indignation at foreign atrocities, encomiums to America’s unique role as world peacekeeper, attempts to lean on trusted allies and international bodies, Congressional resolutions invoking that body’s traditional ‘bipartisanship’ in foreign policy, presidential appeals to loyalty from members of his own party. All fell flat. A Facebook group calling itself Armed Forces Tea Party posted photos of ostensible soldiers and sailors displaying placards that covered their faces reading, “I did not join to fight for al Qa’eda in a Syrian civil war”. And even MoveOn.org, until now abject ‘progressive Democratic’ apologists for Obama, ran a television advert against intervention.

What Obama had not reckoned with was the growing war-weariness of the American people, who opposed hitting Syria by roughly 55% to 70% in all opinion polls. For this anti-war majority, the question of whether Assad had used chemical weapons was largely beside the point. Though not stirred to the heights of anger provoked by the Vietnam war, people have been demoralised over time by the persistent reflux of coffins, wounded, disabled and mentally disturbed veterans coming back after the multiple tours of duty made necessary by the present volunteer army’s small size.

These sacrifices are rendered doubly galling because the protracted wars in whose name they are imposed have ended, and are ending, in failure, and by the persistent unemployment and income decline that hardly make more bearable the prospect of war without end that both parties seem to be offering. The ‘Vietnam syndrome’, which George Bush senior boasted of having overcome as he launched the first Gulf War in 1991, has now been gradually replaced by an Afghanistan-Iraq syndrome.

Public opinion counted much less with legislators close to the military and foreign policy establishments. But, for those lower down and more exposed to mass sentiment, fear of repudiation at the hustings probably added to whatever genuine misgivings they harboured to begin with. And such misgivings were by no means confined to the public at large. Top policymakers were in disarray over any intervention in a war in which the US ruling class had no clear side, whose military objectives were vague and whose outcome would be uncertain, and perhaps calamitous.

Hospitality of enemies

Whether the compromise now being haggled over was the result of John Kerry’s supposed London news conference gaffe or had been prearranged at the G20 summit in St Petersburg is immaterial to the outcome: a clear defeat for US imperialism.

That a United States president had to rely on the good graces of a major geopolitical rival, Vladimir Putin, to extricate him from the corner he painted himself into, is humiliating enough. But the agreement also thrusts Vladimir Putin, whom the US has been trying to marginalise, into the centre stage of international diplomacy. It also gives the Assad regime a new legitimacy. The arms-elimination process envisaged in the agreement will require Assad’s cooperation well into 2014, and therefore assumes that he will be in power at least till then.

Obama is now attempting to put the best face on his defeat. His liberal apologists are lauding his ‘decision’ to choose diplomacy over war, and hope that the president, under pressure of mass anti-war sentiment at home and abroad, will inaugurate a new era of creative peaceful diplomacy in place of the militarism of the past - much as we were told five years ago (by many of the same people) that Obama’s election would open new vistas of progressive change. But everyone who has trembled under the rain of US bombs, napalm, agent orange and drone strikes knows that the world’s self-proclaimed gendarme relies in the last instance upon force. They also know that the latest attempt to demonstrate its ability to use force has collapsed amid internal discord and irresolution.

But this will not make the guardians of the imperial armoury more reluctant to deploy their hardware in future. They will rather be on the lookout for new opportunities to redeem their humiliation with another of their signature pyrotechnic displays. Already, the US seems to be reneging on its original agreement with Russia by insisting that reference to chapter 7 of the UN Charter, authorising the use of force, be included in any security council resolution on Syria.

In a skilfully crafted op-ed piece in the New York Times, Putin capitalised on his new-found prominence by taking Obama to task for a remark in his nationally televised September 10 White House address: “It is extremely dangerous,” the Russian president wrote, “to encourage people to see themselves as ‘exceptional’ …” The apoplectic rage Putin’s remarks called forth from a number of political figures in this country perhaps bespeaks an irrepressible suspicion that Obama’s failed Syrian gambit may be remembered as a watershed moment in the undoing of post-World War II Pax Americana.

Top cop wounded

The role of global enforcer that the US is now straining to maintain is crucial not only to American capitalism, but to the stability of the capitalist world order as a whole. Just as the national bourgeois state is necessary to enforce laws for regulating the often fierce competition among business interests at home, a set of rules, explicit or implicit, for containing national rivalries is needed to maintain a stable climate for commerce and investment. Without an enforcer, such laws are a dead letter.

When Britain, with her colonial empire, international gold standard and naval supremacy, had lost her leading role by the beginning of the 20th century, a period of economic breakdown and war ensued - a maelstrom so intense that many Marxists quite understandably mistook it for the terminal crisis of the capitalist mode of production. Yet, despite what we can now see was a premature conclusion, the post-war recovery of capitalism was hardly inevitable. The recent memory of the October revolution and the survival (in deteriorated condition) of the state that issued from it; the existence of a still powerful and, in part, revolutionary workers’ movement; and the emerging struggle against western colonialism - all presented strong possibilities for a rupture with the existing order on a world scale. Political misleadership - mainly on the part of social democracy and Stalinism - were probably more responsible than any objective conditions for capitalism’s longevity.

Yet one can never step into the same historical crosscurrents twice. If what we are now witnessing in the Middle East and elsewhere are the signs of a second unravelling - this time of American global pre-eminence - the possibilities of a hopeful outcome are far less apparent. With their tendency to see the present in terms of the past, as well as their desire to look for good guys in every fight, many socialists and leftwingers have taken up the cudgels for one side or the other in the Syrian civil war. Some see the rebels, despite al Qa’eda infiltration, as attempting to carry out a democratic revolution against a murderous despot. A few of this persuasion have famously developed a soft spot for the prospect of western intervention. Others see in western support for the rebels a grand design to take over the opposition and overthrow a regime that, despite its brutality, has played an anti-imperialist and anti-Zionist role. Beyond that, it is said that the US and EU are trying to undo what remains of the ‘Arab revolution’ of half a century ago and recolonise the region.

Both arguments contain elements of truth. Assad - along with Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein before him - has been a thorn in US imperialism’s side at various points. For their part, the promoters of the ‘Syrian revolution’ are right in saying that the civil war did in fact begin as part of the general democratic upsurge known as the Arab spring. But both assessments are fundamentally wrong. Assad - no more than Gaddafi or Saddam - has never been a consistent anti-simperialist or anti-Zionist. He does, in fact, want the Golan Heights back from Israel, but has shown himself more than willing to keep the lid on the Palestinians and Hezbollah - one reason why Tel Aviv has been less than enthusiastic about the prospect of his overthrow. And who can forget Syria’s provision of ‘black sites’ for torturing prisoners as part of George W Bush’s ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme?

While the Syrian insurgents do contain secular-democratic and even leftwing elements, the numerical breakdown of rebel forces recently published in a study by Jane’s Defense Weekly is hard to argue with. Of 100,000 combatants under arms against the regime, Jane’s says that roughly 10,000 are jihadists, including foreign fighters. Another 30,000 to 35,000 are hard-line Islamists who see themselves as waging a purely Syrian, as opposed to an international, struggle. A further 30,000 are counted as ‘moderate’ Islamists. That leaves only about 20,000 who see their cause as secular, and of those a no doubt smaller number consider themselves leftwing in any sense. Not a democratic regime, but one of Sharia law and the religious-sectarian vengefulness prefigured by the floggings, beheadings and the wholesale execution of prisoners featured so graphically on the front page of The New York Times, would be the most likely result of a rebel victory.

And if the US and EU are supplying the rebels as part of some scheme to ‘recolonise’ the Arab world, they are having even less success than Obama did in trying to bomb Syria. Saudi Arabia would no doubt favour a Sunni victory in Syria. But the least unfavourable outcome for the US and Israel would probably be the common ruin of the contending forces and a Balkanisation of the region. It would mean that, even if the imperialists gained no dependable allies as a result of the carnage, they would at least face no new regional adversaries. Better to let the belligerent parties wear each other out.


And, just as the imperialists have no obvious allies in the Syrian civil war, neither do Marxists or consistent democrats. The war is only the leading example of the morphing of the Arab spring into a winter intercommunal carnage - not irreversible, perhaps, but by no means easily halted once begun.

The decline of American power in the past was viewed by socialists as an unalloyed boon because the major forces ranged against it were socialists (at least self-proclaimed) or revolutionary, third-world nationalists of various descriptions. These forces are not extinct even now, and the weakening of the world’s top cop is a precondition for their advance. But secular-democratic-socialist forces are by no means best positioned to fill the growing power void. The religious-sectarian fanatics who now stand to gain the upper hand are a less formidable enemy to socialists only because they are weaker than the imperialists by several orders of magnitude. But, at the current historical pass, imperialist decline does not automatically spell social progress, and, to face reality squarely, the prospects of our progenitors between the world wars were a good deal brighter.

Yet certain principles must be upheld if any headway is to be made at all. Foremost among them in Syria and the rest of the Middle East is the equality of nations and peoples championed by Lenin and the Third International. We must reject, in principle, the humanitarian pretentions of the imperialist powers and oppose all their foreign interventions, regardless of circumstance. We must favour the battlefield success of all and any forces in the Middle East who take up arms to oppose such interventions, for whatever reasons. And, while we abhor nuclear bombs and other instruments of mass killing, we must abhor even more the rank hypocrisy of those who seek to monopolise such weapons for themselves and deny them to others in the name of peace and non-proliferation. Iran and North Korea have as much right to their nuclear weapons as Israel and the US and far stronger existential reasons for having them.

As Marxists, we would vastly prefer that oppressed nations and peoples be guided in their struggles by enlightened theories and advanced political programmes. Marxists, however, will never gain any influence among the oppressed by demanding advanced political consciousness as a precondition for siding with them against the purveyors of shock and awe.