The fall of Mosul and the collapse of the Iraqi Army have positioned the entire UN Security Council into a huge dilemma: the council must either begin to cooperate on the Middle East, or face the dire consequences. In fact, for the cooperation to work it must be conceived in a spirit of full global partnership. For the US, that means that the days of the American Century must, by necessity, finally come to an end. No longer can Washington view itself as the world’s sole policemen. For Russia and China, the bi-polar confrontation with the US over Syria has now morphed into a much greater problem. The future of the entire Gulf region and all its oil have now become a huge question mark. The recent events in Iraq have changed everything.
But in Washington the full force of the dilemma has failed to sink in. As the White House ponders its next move, already Iran appears on the march. The Sunni extremists and their Gulf allies will simply not be allowed to capture Baghdad without a strong Iranian reaction; that much is certain. But the prospect of the US and Iran fighting on the same side in Iraq, while the Sunni moderates in Syria burn, is not a scenario that the Obama administration would relish. Yet for the American president to continue to sit on the fence in the face of a further Iranian encroachment into the Arab world would not be a wise or prudent move either. But the US cannot fight on the side of al Qaeda to show the Gulf states that it is serious about Iran. The US must act, but how?
For Russia, a Middle East policy whose major emphasis has really been on Europe has now played itself out. Europe is now in crisis over its division and, unlike the previous decade, the Middle East can no longer play the role as Russia’s European safety valve. Yes, the Americans were severely unwise to attempt to remake Iraq as a Shiite state at the expense of the total Iraqi community. And yes, the Russians were extremely opportunistic to use the misadventure to alter the course of NATO expansion. But history has moved on. With the EU’s glaring misstep in the Ukraine, the gross division of Europe has turned the continent toward direct hostility and conflict. Now the Middle East can have no impact on the timing or structure of European economy and security. Russia’s Mideast gambit pays no more dividends. The nasty little secret of NATO’s total disregard for Russian security is out of the bag. Meanwhile, the American misadventure in Iraq has now engulfed the entire region in the emerging prospect of a vast war. A zero-sum game between the Russians and Americans will only make matters worse. Events in the Middle East and Europe can only be solved by greater Security Council cooperation. With the Middle East region in flames, there are no pieces on the board other than the ex-superpowers. But will Russia, China and the US react with enough wisdom to understand this?
The global economy is fragile on its own. Events in Iraq and the Gulf could risk a disastrous spike in the price of all commodities, especially oil. The effect of such a spike on inflation and interest rates could set the world’s financial system on its head. The unraveling of market positions was very expensive in 2008. It will be much worse next time around. The US economy has been stagnant since the last crisis, even though the Fed has thrown trillions of dollars at the problem. The same is true of the Treasury Department. Any spike in interest rates to stem inflation would flatten the US economy and send it into a tailspin.
Russia might achieve a short-term benefit through commodity inflation, but in the medium to long-term, a raging Middle East war leading to a global depression is not in its economic interest. China depends on exports and therefore needs customers. Price rises are not good for customers, especially the working class US customers who buy a good deal of China’s products. Events in Iraq have already (in less than a week) raised the price of oil. This will only worsen as the Iraqi civil war intensifies, and it will intensify unless the three presidents change the current friction of their outdated foreign policies. The world needs wise leadership and effective action in order to stave off a shaking house of cards. But from what we’ve seen of Mr. Obama, Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi, wisdom appears in short supply. Gamesmanship is not the answer; only cooperation will work.
First of all, the three leaders have to decide whether or not they are willing to risk the breakup of Syria and Iraq through the continued expansion of the war. If the answer is no, then they must decide whether they support a single regional hegemonic power, or instead some non-hegemonic arrangement that could be endorsed into international law through the UN Security Council. In other words, they have to either support Iran, the Sunni Gulf states, or find an international solution to the regional war whereby the Middle East has no exclusively dominant power. If they choose the latter (the only real choice that they could agree upon), they must determine a strategy for a UN shutdown of the war. Compromise is essential.
Syria, under Assad, has become a vassal statelet of Iran. In a prospective region without a dominant power (the only real choice for peace), vassal states cannot exist. A moderate, unaligned, democratic Syria can be the only goal of a non-hegemonic region. The major powers of the UN Security Council must agree that both the Sunni extremists and the Assad family can have no future in a democratic Syria. In order to accomplish this goal, an invigorated Geneva process must become the necessary political solution. But the political solution must be backed up with muscle. A UN no-fly zone and the interdiction of military supplies are the best ways to send the Assad family a strong message. On the issue of Syria, the Russians must meet the American position more than halfway.
In order for this to happen, the Russians need to be given assurance that the current security relationships in Europe are open for review and alteration. France and Germany have a key role to play in this regard. For Russia to compromise, the West must compromise also. If the UN Security Council is ever to operate as originally planned, the full partnership of all its members must be realized.
Iraq needs new leadership to unite its sectarian and ethnic divisions. But even without new leadership, Sunni Islamic extremism cannot be allowed to stand. Both Russia and the US agree on this. Gulf state support for these irregulars must cease, as a show of strength by the Security Council could impress upon the traditional Sunni leadership that democratic inclusion is the best way forward. This demonstration of strength must happen soon, as Iraq risks being torn apart by secessionist forces. Unless the US and Russia come to a quick agreement, unilateral action by any outside power could cause a cascade of mistrust and potential proxy escalation. The larger the political vacuum, the greater the amount of cooperation required to stem the bleeding. Religious sites must be protected from wild-eyed extremists hell-bent on achieving violent theological victories at the expense of other people’s sacred shrines.
As the Security Council unifies its position on a non-hegemonic regional zone, the internal political dialogue for Syria and Iraq must begin. A constitutional framework, leading to an advanced level of human rights through the limitation on central state authority, must become the norm throughout the entire Arab state system. Free judiciaries and the “rights of the governed” must become enshrined. An equitable distribution of state funds must be institutionalized, while a national reconciliation board needs to be established. Both Iraq and Syria can be rebuilt upon a democratic pluralistic framework, but legitimate outside actors within an international law structure have become the essential referees. This region could completely spin out of control, if the current nuclear negotiations fail and the regional war expands to include a non-Muslim or nuclear proliferation component. This could place the whole world in jeopardy.
I have been writing for months that American unilateralism and the separation of the Iranian nuclear talks from the total regional dynamic are a joint recipe for disaster. This has now come to pass in all three theaters of global conflict. Europe, the Middle East, and East Asia all need security alternatives to the post-WWII “ancient regime”. But the Middle East has become top priority because it’s an ever-expanding “hot zone”. As it goes, so goes the world’s economy and the future of global nuclear proliferation. The destabilization of Iraq and Syria cannot be in the interests of Russia or China. But the old-fashioned Cold War response, whereby “mutually assured destruction” ensured that patron states kept client states in check, has been surpassed by the centrifugal political forces of tribe and sect. Without UN Security Council cooperation, the point of no return will be passed shortly. Either Syria and Iraq will have democratic, nonaligned futures or they’ll have no futures at all.
The only hope is the UN Security Council. As we approach the one-hundred-year anniversary of WWI and its disastrous diplomatic aftermath, the UN is at a crossroads. Either cooperative global security works or it doesn’t. The Arabs and Iranians might not like Sykes-Picot, but their own history of victory or defeat by empire couldn’t be less inspiring. The whole world is watching the inferno at the core of the Islamic World’s historical and geographic center. Either the great powers will fall sway to the gravitational black hole, or they will pull everyone back from the brink by the imperative of a US-Russia Middle East cooperative initiative. After one hundred years, have we learned anything?