Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Syria Chess Game: The US and its Intervention History

What always strikes me after reading many books (Games Nations Play is a start) on the US entanglements since WWII is that geopolitical events ALWAYS involve a complicated, intricate chess game between more than two countries. Since WWII, the US has been the de facto peace maker because no other country was in a position to do it after Europe and Asia was decimated.  The US was in a great position to accept this role economically and militarily. However, in retrospect, our attitude was strongly adolescent. To illustrate this, let's compare the geopolitical landscape from World War II to the present to a hornet's nest: 

One or two hornet's nests are easier to manage. The US saw the Soviet Union as that ONE nest along with maybe China.  (Remember that Europe was not a player post World War II although we rebuilt that "nest" via the Marshall Plan)  The zero sum game of the Cold War prevented the US and Russia from shaking their proverbial nests.  The status quo was better than all out Nuclear War.

Korea and Vietnam showed that there were other nests out there worth watching except that we shook those nests thinking that we could squash the hornets.  We grossly underestimated the consequences of those actions.  Korean War lasted only a few years but the Vietnam War last almost 15 years if you count our military advisor presence starting in the late 50s/early 60s prior to the late 60s escalation.  A little over a month after the end of the Korean War, the CIA and MI6 (United Kingdom) overthrew Iranian government after they nationalized their oil industry in an operation called AJAX. It wasn't until 2000 and 2001 in a New York times article that this operation finally came to light.  Last month, the remaining CIA documents were finally made public. Yet another nest with communist infiltration was in Afghanistan. In the late 70s and 80s we funded Afghanistan rebels (Mujahideen) called Operation Cyclone in response to the Soviet-backed Afghan government.  When the Soviets retreated, our financial support stopped.  The consequences lead directly to a more heavily concentrated Anti-American movement which gave rise to Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.  Our covert actions in Afghanistan in the late 70s and early 80s (unbeknownst to us at the time) influenced the Middle East landscape in a non-favorable way for the US decades later. 

I mentioned these specific events not to criticize the decision making of that era.  Hindsight is always 20/20.  Reality is that these policing actions rarely tempers one or two nests. If anything, it creates more smaller nest that grow that grow over time.  Any attempt to quiet one nest increases the probability of aggravating the others. Once that happens, you have a much bigger problem as is the case today.

2013 is not a world featuring Russia and the US from the cold war days. This is a multi-polar world in which ALL of the moving parts must be sized up BEFORE any action is taken. In the case of Syria, the players are RUSSIA, EUROPE and the entire MIDDLE EAST especially IRAN and ISRAEL and NORTH AFRICA from the Suez Canal to Morocco not to mention NORTH KOREA. The unintended consequences of a Syrian intervention could cascade into other regions creating further destabilization. Long term, this might remove any trump card we have with Russia, Iran and North Korea should another situation arise..

All of that said, the US cannot look weak. If any bluff is called, it will strengthen the positions of NORTH KOREA, IRAN and SYRIA among others. They will test the US again and again pushing the envelop further. The chess game is a power play for which the US is a major player.  The difference over the years has been the number of players.  Now, China, Russia, Iran, multiple Middle East counties, Great Britain, Israel, Germany, France, the EU and the US are the biggest players.  Add the newer nuclear powers of North Korea, India and Pakistan and your task of balancing out the needs of one with the needs of many becomes herculean.  I don't envy an President Democrat or Republican who has to make this decision.

Early this morning, we heard from many people who wish that the US become an isolationist country. "Let the rest of the world solve their own problems!"  These cries are thunderous. But remember that we have never been a strictly isolationist county. In the late 1800s and early 1900s we had multiple interventions in Central America along with a short-lived occupation of the Philippines.  Many will argue that our influence in these counties didn't have the far reaching aftershocks vis-a-vis today's extremist ideals and terrorism both domestically and abroad.  Make no mistake, our presence ultimately shaped our relationship with these Latin American countries years later.  Some for the better, others not so much.

2013 is a multi-polar world with emerging powers both militarily and economically.  Unlike the late 1800s and early 1900s where an ocean provided a huge geographic obstacle in exercising influence, today we have no such restrictions. The advent of satellite communications, super-sonic flight, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, Nuclear Powered Battleships and Submarines in conjunction with high speed computing and virtually instantaneous remote operations bridge any geographic gap.   Technology has dramatically altered the foreign policy landscape for everyone.  Everywhere is in the present and is fair game. 

As much as we want the US to return to our quasi-isolationist days  that we enjoyed from the earliest days of the republic through the early 20th century up until World War II (not counting the Spanish American War), a world with the United States in total isolation free from using foreign military interference both directly and indirectly no matter how benign is next to impossible. Our problem is that we continue to try to over and over again to tame the worst hornets nest while ignoring the others.  We claim to have a big picture mentality yet we start a methodical inward push away from the periphery. Our surgical policing actions ultimately operate in a vacuum. Its never worked.  It always has unintended consequences in the short and long term.  Politics aside, whether its chemical weapons, nuclear warheads or extremists, we need to learn from our mistakes and utilize our power with more caution.

I remember this part of Thomas Jefferson's inauguration speech in 1801 said. He said, "...peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none." I wonder how the Founding Fathers would look upon our tumultuous history of "entangled alliances".

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