During World War II, the U.S. Navy’s construction battalions, affectionately known as “Seabees,” bragged that accomplishing the difficult was easy and the impossible just took a bit longer. Today, the United States and the Obama administration face an array of foreign policy problems that include the intractable and the seemingly impossible.
Consider the rebellion against authoritarian regimes in North Africa and the Middle East with huge consequences and the enduring intractability of the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as well as the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and, by extension, Pakistan). This column has likened this progression of instability to July 1914 and the run up to World War I but in slow motion.
A conventional third world war isn’t a danger. Yet, the unraveling of a large slice of geography of vital importance to the West, largely but not entirely related to oil, isn’t out of the question.
So how can the U.S. government respond to these realities while engaged in two military conflicts and facing crises over debt, deficits and the political roadblocks to making and taking tough choices?
U.S. President Barack Obama was on the right track in deputizing NATO to take the lead in dealing with Libya. Unfortunately, the administration is on no track in advancing and arguing what a new strategy could be and why it is in many interests, not merely American, for it to succeed.
The crucial word is “partnership.” Unlike the Cold War when the enemy was neither as dangerous nor as cunning as we feared, U.S. leadership was relatively simple — one superpower restraining another (lesser) superpower for the good of, if not all, surely the many.
Today, it is self-evident that no single threat clarifies the mind as the Soviet Union did. Terror, instability, religious fanaticism and other dangers have no boundaries, no capitals and no armies and air forces to defeat. Furthermore, “interests” and “values” aren’t always coincident as during the Cold War. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are in some ways as autocratic and monarchial as Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and, of course, Libya. But no one is calling for the Saudi king to abdicate as in the other states.
Obama, reflecting these constraints, called for NATO and European states to take the lead in Libya. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates amplified this position noting that while the United States had no vital interests in Libya, others do.
Inherent but invisible so far in the administration’s thinking is a broader strategy that could emerge from the Libyan experience relying on international partnerships. This approach will have many obstacles to overcome.
One is former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s correct assessment of the need for “coalitions of the willing” to deal with individual crises or dangers too difficult for alliances and international organizations to tackle. U.S. actions in Afghanistan and Iraq under that banner delegitimized its strategic merit.
The United States simply must make better use of international partnerships to advance its interests and those of others. Success in Libya is essential in this regard. However, consider other opportunities to employ this model beginning with Yemen.
The Gulf Cooperative Council consisting of the six major Persian Gulf states has been negotiating a peaceful settlement between embattled President Ali Abdullah Saleh and the opposition who want him gone now.
If the GCC succeeds, the use of different coalitions to advance common interests will have been reinforced and not just in theory. Other coalitions such as the Shanghai Cooperative Organization consisting of China, Russia and four of the “stan’s” might be utilized for dealing with regional issues. The SCO has as observers and other parties, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan and Iran.
In addition to building Egyptian stability, the major crises threatening the region and beyond are the Arab-Israeli and Afghanistan-Pakistan conflicts. Clearly, Iran is a subset in each. While the United States has promised action on both, little positive is occurring.
Two actions are needed: First, a major and enduring means for resolving the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be set in motion aided by the GCC. Second, with support from the SCO, a parallel forum must be organized to deal with the Afghanistan-Pakistan-India conflicts. These must be serious and leadership not only from the United States but catalyzed by Washington is crucial.
As the GCC recognized, an exploding or failed Yemen was in the worst interests of all. Thus, the incentive of preventing a breakdown and the likely exploitation by al-Qaida forced action. Similarly, neither Arabs nor Israelis can afford the continuation of that conflict. And to give Afghanistan the best chance of success, Pakistan, Iran and India must engage.
Many of the current crises appear intractable and even impossible. But mutual self-interest is powerful. The Obama administration needs to exploit this truth. New partnerships are the most sensible way to achieve these vital aims.
Harlan Ullman is Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, Chairman of the Killowen Group that advises leaders of government and business, and a frequent advisor to NATO. This article was syndicated by UPI. Photo credit: Getty Images.