When the Green Revolution started in Iran and thousands were murdered, the Obama administration’s loud silence was motivated by the following rationale: if the President supports protestors, the latter will be portrayed as puppets being moved by a hidden puppeteer, which would offer the regime in Tehran a golden alibi to finish them on the grounds of treachery and disloyalty.
Once the clouds dissipated, we understood the real motives behind the US administration’s stance, or rather, the lack thereof. It was seeking a bigger deal with Iran’s regime.
But what really happened between that deafening silence and the striking of that deal?
By rewarding a monstrous regime, not only inside Iran but also elsewhere, the United States has lost the world’s trust, after having curated a successful world order that has been in place since the 1950s and defended its pillars along with its trusted allies across the globe.
The pullout from Iraq was the second stop on Washington’s journey away from the world order it created. Former CIA Director, Gen. David Petraeus, recalls a conversation with Obama when the latter was still a Democrat presidential candidate, in which he warned the President-to-be that withdrawal from Iraq is synonymous with Iran’s dominance, to which Obama replied: “I can clearly see the map on the wall.” What Obama meant is that he understands Iran’s interests in neighboring Iraq and will swap Bush’s military style with diplomacy. A complete withdrawal followed, reaffirming that the US is stepping down from its role in the region and backtracking on its belief in unipolarity: it was time for a multipolar world now.
Syria was the third stop. Obama decided to strike, enough to send a message that destabilizing the international system is unacceptable, but not enough to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. Eventually, the strikes never happened, but something more worrisome did. Most politicians in Washington, Democrats and Republicans, backed Obama’s withdrawal policy as the theory claiming that the US is not responsible for the rest of the world gained more popularity among the naturally isolated and self-centered American society.
With a full grasp of all these shifts in US foreign policy, Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in Ukraine, then in Syria, eyeing more than mere expansion. Putin was looking to change the rules of the international game, an ambition he openly reiterated in his statements on the death of the liberal world order and the need to replace it with another driven by new values. At the time, the US administration, perhaps looking for an excuse for withdrawal, said the Russians will drown in the Syrian swamp. They have yet to be proven right.
When Trump became President, the foreign policy landscape was marked with confused, overlapping interests and policies. Trump clashed with his European allies, who have always been a main pillar of the established world order. He flirted with Russia in a bid to distance Putin from China, which he viewed to be the US’ greatest strategic enemy. He tightened the noose around Iran’s neck, established rapport with North Korea, and restored ties with allies in the Middle East.
Trump’s circle was more aware of the importance of preserving the world order than he personally was, particularly his Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo, who considers Iran a sworn enemy, and National Security Advisor John Bolton, the man who refused to shake hands with Taliban leaders.
Obsessed with winning a second term, Trump waxed lyrical about America coming first, in a bid to hit the right nerve with his popular base. He also declared his disinterest in all that happens outside the US if it does not yield revenues or create jobs for Americans and bring back the companies leaving the States. Trump’s aides seemed to be keener than he was to maintain strategic relations with allies and preserve the world order created by America, which changed the face of the world.
Now, under Biden, things have not changed much. The US foreign policy is still troubled, albeit differently. Theoretically, Biden believes in liberalism, but he values the relation with Europe more. The pullout from Afghanistan was rooted in a domestic objective, which perhaps stumbled due to the catastrophic implementation of this withdrawal. But at the end of the day, Biden is a politician, and he will be seeking a second term, which is why he could concede just about anything, including the historical role of the United States, to realize his personal objectives. Logically, if things head this way, we could someday witness a presidential announcement of America’s definitive withdrawal from the world, under popularist, sentimental excuses that guarantee him a second term.
Amid all this mess inside Washington and the conflicting political views and theories with every advent of a new President, we can try to make sense of Putin’s and his Chinese counterpart’s behaviors, although the latter rarely reveals what’s going on inside his mind. It is no secret that both presidents wish for the end of America’s global dominance after over seven decades and are working to turn the US into an Atlantic powerhouse, away from their areas of influence, not just from Ukraine and Taiwan.
How this power struggle will end remains a mystery. Interestingly, Putin’s heavy burden of changing the world order is being carried primarily on American shoulders.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat.