The limits of American power

The reality of America’s waning power hit home this week as events unfolded from Ukraine to Iraq, to Afghanistan

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

The reality of America’s waning power hit home this week as events unfolded from Ukraine to Iraq, to Afghanistan and back to the corridors of the Pentagon. The week began with Americans being told of planned defense cuts that will downsize U.S. ground forces to pre-World War II levels, reflecting the country’s financial stresses, but also the painful legacy of the two longest wars in U.S. history and the new reality, as expressed by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel that “after Iraq and Afghanistan, we are no longer sizing the military to conduct long and large stability operations.” America was saying goodbye, once again, to nation-building in faraway lands, and maybe, maybe heeding John Quincy Adams’ warning against going “abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” particularly if those monsters are lurking in those large swaths of inhospitable Muslim lands. In the middle of the week, Secretary of State John Kerry lamented what he called America’s “new isolationism” and suggested that budget cuts mandated by the Republican controlled House of Representatives are leading the United States “to behave like a poor nation.” Strangely, Kerry blamed the new isolationism on the Republicans who refused to back President Obama’s threat to use military force against Syria after the Assad regime used chemical weapons against his own people. In fact, the opposition to the attack was not limited to Republicans and included Democrats, and more importantly, the president’s heart was not in it. He probably wanted Congress to save him from acting on his threat and he did not exercise the leadership necessary to mobilize public opinion and Congress to support him.

The offer Karzai could refuse

Then came the first telephone call between President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai since last June. The exchange saw the junior partner who owes his position to American bayonets reject, once again, President Obama’s entreaties to sign a long term bilateral security agreement, or BSA, allowing a residual military force to remain behind to train Afghan forces and conduct counterterrorism operations after the withdrawal of NATO’s forces at the end of the year. The statement issued by the White House underscored President Obama’s frustration and his inability to do anything but wait until the election of a successor to Karzai to see if the U.S. has “a willing and committed partner in the Afghan government” who will sign the BSA. President Obama was then forced to order the Pentagon to prepare a so-called “zero-option” plan for the total withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by the end of the year. Meanwhile, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was warning from Afghanistan that the failure to sign a BSA would create additional military challenges for U.S. forces, embolden the enemy, and could lead some of Afghan forces to collaborate with the Taliban. The fact that after 13 years of war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, economic support and uneven nation-building, the president of the United States could not give the president of a brittle state an offer he could not refuse, says a lot about the ability of the local player to manipulate and resist his foreign sponsor.

Our man in Baghdad

As if President Obama’s problems with his defiant satrap in Afghanistan were not enough, another erstwhile ally intruded to remind him of his inability – and to be fair, this was also true of his predecessor- to stop Iraq’s steady drift towards Iran and of the limits of U.S. influence in a country that sapped enormous American treasure and claimed thousands of American lives for more than seven years. There is also the hidden cost that Americans will pay for many years to come for the physical and emotional care for thousands of wounded veterans. When a press report revealed that Iraq had signed a $195 million arms deal with Iran, the only options available to the State Department were raising “serious” concerns about the alleged illegality of the deal since it could be in violation of United Nations sanctions on Iran, while asking for “clarification” from the Nouri al-Maliki government in Baghdad. The clarification was swift. Maliki’s spokesman Ali Mussawi said that since his country is engaged in a war on terrorism, “nothing prevents us from buying arms and ammunition from any party…” Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to supply Iraq with large shipments of weapons including Hellfire missiles, and intends to sell Baghdad Apache attack helicopters, that could be used not only against terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), but also against Sunni tribes who have legitimate political grievances against Maliki and his increasingly Shiite sectarian agenda.

America discovered the cruel reality of the limits of its military power in the harsh deserts of Iraq and the deadly mountains of Afghanistan against new enemies waging effective asymmetric wars

Hisham Melhem

Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, Iraq has moved closer to the Assad regime and has become a main conduit for Iranian military and logistical supplies to the Syrian forces battling the armed rebellion. The Maliki government is allowing Iraqi Shiite “volunteers” to cross the borders to Syria and fight with the forces of the Assad regime. All attempts by U.S. officials to stem this vital pipeline of support to Assad from our supposed man in Baghdad ended in failure. This situation has made for truly strange bed fellows. The U.S. is supporting a Shiite dominated government in Baghdad that is deepening its political and security cooperation with Iran and Syria in the name of Shiite solidarity, and at the same time Washington is supporting a Sunni dominated rebellion in Syria against an Alawite ( an offshoot sect of Shiism) dominated regime in Damascus.

Not worth fighting

The American public has long soured on those two wars and a clear majority of Americans say now that neither achieved its goals and that even the Afghan war, which was a reaction to the Sept. 11 , 2001 terrorist attacks and not a war of choice like Iraq, has not been worth fighting. According to a report issued by the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, the two wars will be the costliest in U.S. history (in today’s dollars) totaling between $4 and $6 trillion dollars after adding the cost of long term medical care and compensation for veterans and their families, in addition to economic costs and military replenishment. For the first time since the Vietnam War, America discovered the cruel reality of the limits of its military power in the harsh deserts of Iraq and the deadly mountains of Afghanistan against new enemies waging effective asymmetric wars. It is in the realm of the possible that if no security agreement is signed with a new Afghan president and all the NATO forces are withdrawn by the end of this year that the country could revert once again to Taliban rule. It is possible, probably likely, that Iraq’s low intensity civil strife between the Sunnis and the Shiites could degenerate into a full scale civil war like Syria’s since both conflicts are morphing into one. The sight of the black flags of the terrorist group ISIS and other radical groups on the ramparts of the city of Fallujah, in Iraq, where the Marines fought pitch battles against insurgents roughly a decade ago, their bloodiest since Vietnam, was particularly galling to Americans.

Putin throws down the gauntlet

The week ended with a new and potentially very dangerous challenge to American and European leadership by Russian President Vladimir Putin who ordered what looked like an incremental takeover of strategic areas in the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. The move came after repeated urgings and warnings to Mr. Putin by the United States and its NATO allies not to use military force against the popular uprising against the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych who since fled the country. The brazen decision by Mr. Putin to throw down the gauntlet may reflect his conviction that the United States and its allies lack the political will and/or viable options to check his moves. It is as if he was daring the West to act. President Obama said that the U.S. is “deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine” and that “any violation of Ukrainian sovereignty would be deeply destabilizing.” He then warned that “the United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” Not surprisingly, the president did not specifically explain what those “costs” mean or entail.

Limited options

President Obama, who kept insisting that the U.S. was not involved in a cold-war style confrontation with Russia, was all of a sudden facing a serious leadership test. His “reset” policy with Russia that he tried to pursue since the beginning of his administration could crumble. Had he handled the Syrian crisis last summer more decisively, his warning to Putin would have been more credible.

The range of punitive options available to President Obama is limited. There is speculation that the U.S. would resort to boycotting and isolating Moscow, such as boycotting the upcoming the G-8 summit in Sochi, a move similar to boycotting the Summer Olympics in the Soviet Union in 1980 following Moscow’s invasion of Afghanistan. The Obama Administration believes that it still needs Russian cooperation in the P5+1 negotiation with Iran and the Geneva talks between the Syrian government and the opposition. The Administration has been touting the agreement to dismantle the Assad regime’s arsenal of chemical weapons that came into being after Russia’s intervention as an example of effective U.S.-Russian cooperation. Also, the U.S. needs Russia’s cooperation in moving military supplies through Russian territories to U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The question remains whether President Obama’s track record and leadership style, his reluctance to use military force against Syria, his inability to be assertive in maintaining U.S. influence and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan may have encouraged Putin’s adventurism. Ukraine, once again may show the limits of American power and the diminishing Western leadership in confronting an aggressive Russian leader determined to restore Russian influence in what he sees as the former “provinces” of the old Soviet empire.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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