One way or another we seem to be approaching a turning point in American and even world history this week. The impending Congressional vote on a strike against Syria could indeed mark the end of the United States' role as sole superpower in the post cold war world--and a very serious blow to the Obama Presidency. (As I write, news has just broken that the White House will not go ahead with a strike without Congressional approval.) I am concerned for another reason. For the first time since the 1930s--a perilous decade indeed--the world seems to be without diplomatic and political leadership. To be sure, as I have said many times here, we do not face threats similar to those of the 1930s. The age of mass armies and large-scale conquest is, for the time being, at least, over. The threat we face isn't tyranny, but anarchy. But not a single world leader, so far as I can see, has actually identified that threat, much less put forward a strategy to respond to it.
The immediate threat facing the world is the possibility of a regional Shi'ite-Sunni civil war in the Middle East. That threat began to emerge in 1981, after the Iranian revolution, which led quickly to the Iran-Iraq war. It was most dire, of course, in countries ruled by the minority sect: Iraq, where a Sunni minority ruled the Shi'ites; Syria, where the situation is reversed; and Bahrain, where a Sunni government also rules over Shi'ites. The United States in 2003, without really realizing what it was doing, decided to put the Shi'ites--allies of Iran--in power in Iraq. Bahrain became the exception to the Arab spring, as the US clearly made no attempt to stop the Sunni Saudis from helping to put down its revolution two years ago. Syria has now been wracked by civil war for more than a year, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia backing the Sunni rebels while Iran and Russia back the Shi'ite Alawite regime. Until the last month, the United States government had wisely stayed out. Meanwhile, Egypt is threatened by a civil war between the relatively secular army and the Muslim Brotherhood which it just ousted from power in defiance of the verdict of recent elections.
Effective diplomatic leadership comes from the recognition that the peoples of the world need peace, not war--and peace is bound up with respect for international law. On June 14 last, I suggested what a serious world leader might say to the Middle East today: that a long conflict parallel to the 17th century Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants would be a catastrophe beyond measure that the whole region must try to avoid. I have not however heard either President Obama or any other world leader say anything like that. Instead, the US, while still disclaiming any definite interest in the outcome of the Syrian civil war--which Assad clearly seems to be winning--has arrogated for itself the role of moral enforcer of norms of behavior, and specifically of punishing Assad for using chemical weapons. That in my opinion can only contribute to greater anarchy, especially since there seems to be no hope of securing more support for the move than George W. Bush secured for the war against Iraq, with France this time playing the role of Britain then.
Another profoundly depressing aspect of the current situation must not go unnoticed. One country and one country alone actively welcomes the disintegration of the Muslim Middle East: Israel. Its government solidly supports the strike against Syria--although not a more active intervention in the Syrian conflict. Having largely failed during 65 years of existence to secure the acceptance of its neighbors, the Israelis welcome their slide into political chaos. They also want the US government to lay the foundation for subsequent strikes against supposed Iranian weapons of mass destruction. AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, is the major lobbying organization supporting the Administration's call for action against Syria. This may be a big reason why John Boehner and Eric Cantor, the Jewish Republican minority whip, have come out in favor of the President's course of action.
And that is the problem: the pro-Israel lobby, dedicated to furthering the interests of the Israeli government, knows what it wants. Our own leadership does not. No one is speaking for the world as a whole. When the Cold War came to an end, we had a President who had fought in the Second World War, and he tried to use the end of the Cold War to create exactly the kind of world he had fought to create. His successors--two Boomers and one Gen Xer--have used the situation to assert American supremacy, even as the financial base of the US government and the loyalty of the American people eroded under their feet. The Tea Party, as I pointed out last week, is too hostile to government authority to bless a major military undertaking. Generation X in general is very skeptical as well. We will not, given our own limitations, be able to halt the spread of anarchy in the world. I fear the real question is whether we can stop it here at home.