America in retreat
One of the most frustrating stories that one went chasing after in edgy, pre-war Baghdad was the hunt for Saddam Hussein‚Äôs elusive stockpile of chemical and biological weapons through February-March of 2003.
Every morning, a group of journalists would exit the Rashid Hotel, stomping all over the mural of George Bush Sr.‚Äôs face, to the delight of the Iraqis manning the hotel lobby and on to the UN headquarters across the river Tigris, to follow a team of UN weapons inspectors led by the gritty and the much-maligned Hans Blix as they rolled out into the desert.
Shadowed by Iraqis who swore allegiance to Saddam‚Äôs menacing son Udai, the UN weapons inspectors, working from confidential documents provided by Iraqi defectors, would head straight for factories on the secret list. Most were derelict, abandoned, and showed no sign that marked them out as storage sites for weapons of mass destruction.
There was no trace of the seven missiles, the 50 warheads and the 500-odd mustard gas filled artillery shells that Saddam‚Äôs regime claimed it had destroyed in the 1991 Gulf War. There were no shell casings, not even a shard. No sign that these dusty rooms were the laboratories where the nerve gas, sarin, could have been manufactured and stored under the controlled temperatures needed to keep them stable and lethal.
Months after the US rode into Iraq on the back of US secretary of state Colin Powell‚Äôs impassioned pitch at the UN that Iraq had a secret stockpile ‚ÄĒ Saddam had after all, gassed the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 and thousands of Iranian soldiers during the Iran-Iraq war 1980-1988 ‚ÄĒ the teams were back in October 2003, trying fruitlessly, to find the stockpile that would justify their invasion, after they had for years turned a blind eye to Saddam‚Äôs repeated ‚Äúcleansing‚ÄĚ of every opposition.
Now, a little over 10 years ‚ÄĒ and some 30 months into the Syrian civil war ‚ÄĒ the world has woken up to Ghouta, where among the 1,429 casualties from Syrian President Bashar al- Assad‚Äôs purported gas attack on August 21 in this rebel-held suburb, lay 426 dead children. The red line!
Then as now, the US, this time under Barack Obama, a ‚Äúno-war President‚ÄĚ, is preparing the ground for a surgical strike to degrade
Mr Assad‚Äôs formidable standing Army and its military arsenal that includes 42 suspected chemical weapons sites, examining the ramifications of raining retribution on the Syrian regime for a gas attack on a suburb that is, improbably, barely 20 kilometres from the presidential palace atop Mount Mezzeh.
Except, this time while the UN has conclusive evidence of a gas attack ‚ÄĒ although it‚Äôs still not crystal that it is the handiwork of Mr Assad‚Äôs men and not a covert bid by Jerusalem or forces within the US to push Washington to reclaim its supremacy in the Arab world ‚ÄĒ America is in retreat, its foreign policy in a shambles.
This is an Obama being dragged reluctantly back into the West Asian quagmire even as he was trying to fundamentally reshape US policy towards the Muslim world, and pivot towards Asia.
As Vali Nasr argues in his brilliant indictment of President Obama in The Dispensable Nation, ‚Äúthe fears of a political backlash and the spectre of terrorism has seen him pursue the same questionable policies as his predecessors, while the true economic threats to US power, in the form of Russia and China, quietly expand their influence in places where America has long held sway.‚ÄĚ
Indeed, President Obama, knowing he possesses none of the evangelical zeal to talk up the deeply unpopular Syrian strike at home as George W. Bush blithely did over Saddam‚Äôs Iraq, could even be hoping the US Congress as well as Russia under the much vilified Vladimir Putin ‚ÄĒ cold-shouldered at the recent St. Petersburg G-20 Summit ‚ÄĒ will stall his administration‚Äôs headlong rush to a new conflict.
US secretary of state John Kerry, accompanied by the full complement of chemical weapons experts as he arrives in Geneva for talks with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on Moscow‚Äôs plan to secure Syria‚Äôs chemical weapons, must know that Washington is sending out contradictory and confusing signals. At one level, the US is seeking to reclaim its pre-eminence in West Asia. On the other, it is bowing to Russian manoeuvres to block efforts to hold Mr Assad accountable.
US-led strikes on Syria, however selective or small, are on hold. For now. Could it happen later? Although, if the Moscow-Damascus deal does fly, Mr Assad‚Äôs moving around of his chemical weapons assets would make it almost impossible to verify the Syrians had handed over every last drop of mustard gas to international monitors.
Clearly, the current crisis has its genesis in George W. Bush‚Äôs deeply flawed policies that set out to remake West Asia, and the US‚Äô contradictory reaction to the Arab Spring, which saw US armed forces‚Äô ill-conceived exit from Iraq, opening the doors to Iranian influence in a once staunch Sunni redoubt. And again, the US-led aerial bombardment of forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi‚Äôs Libyan regime precipitated that oil-rich country‚Äôs fragmentation, robbing Russia and China of a key energy resource.
Preparing similarly to execute a drawdown from geopolitically strategic Afghanistan, Washington now seems willing to countenance the return of the obscurantist Taliban, rather than stand fast as the bulwark against extremist forces, willing to forego a key link to energy reserves in Central Asia.
While China‚Äôs stakes in securing Pakistan and Iran as part of its ‚ÄúSilk Road‚ÄĚ strategy, that dovetails into its ‚Äústring of pearls‚ÄĚ stratagem to curtail the Indian sphere of influence, is obvious, as is the growing Saudi nervousness about becoming irrelevant in the region, Putin‚Äôs Russia stepping into the vacuum left by the United States, as it seeks to reclaim its previous role in the region, is the new reality.
Energy experts have remarked on the Syrian crisis coming to a head as the energy-rich Eastern Mediterranean that includes the Levant Basin and Syria‚Äôs own gas, oil and shale reserves ‚ÄĒ 50 billion tonnes of gas alone ‚ÄĒ become a factor. Syria, and its Russian managed port of Tartus, is the strategic opening in a proposed Iran-Iraq-Syria pipeline project that could become the new energy corridor to Europe that puts Russia back in the big power bracket.
And we thought it was all about ridding a dictator of his lethal chemical weaponry!