America Adrift

TOKYO – US President Barack Obama’s hesitations, ambivalence, U-turns, and political gamesmanship with the US Congress over punishing Syria for its use of chemical weapons has achieved only two things with certainty: it has raised Russia’s diplomatic profile for the first time in many years, and it has spooked those of America’s allies – from Saudi Arabia and Israel to Japan and South Korea – that rely heavily on US promises. To minimize the impact of both consequences, the United States now must enforce with utmost determination its agreement with Russia on eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. But will it do so?

US Secretary of State John Kerry’s heat-of-the-moment comment that a military strike on Syria could be avoided if all chemical weapons were turned over was a diplomatic gift to Russia, and it responded with alacrity. Not usually noted for its diplomatic dexterity, the Kremlin quickly proposed compelling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to join the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and to place its chemical-weapons stockpile under United Nations control.

Putin’s initiative turned out to be a diplomatic lifeline, as Obama’s gambit of seeking Congressional approval for an attack on Syria looked certain to fail, which would have dented his authority as America’s commander-in-chief. Although the agreement may yet strip Assad’s regime of some of its most dangerous weapons, the process – if it can be called that – which brought it about has strengthened a global perception that US foreign policy in Obama’s second term is either adrift or drifting into isolationism.

The US response to the so-called “Arab Spring,” for example, has lacked political conviction, much less strategic direction. Egypt’s old-new military rulers, for example, have concluded that American criticism can be ignored, because America cannot cut off its aid to Egypt for geopolitical reasons. When I met with Egypt’s foreign minister, Nabil Fahmy, in August, he hinted at the new regime’s dissatisfaction with attempts by the European Union and the US to influence his country’s domestic affairs. Egypt, he said, understood the importance of democracy and human rights, but avoiding turmoil must be the government’s highest priority.