In the wake of the – very tentative – Syrian weapons deal between Russia and the United States, a rash of essays and editorials have run wondering what this means for US influence, both in the Middle East and the rest of the world. Some articles have claimed that this deal, which re-asserts Russia as an influence in the region, marks the end of American might.
And yet, just this week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, on a media tour on the US, reached out to the US and President Barack Obama, signaling his country's increased desire to engage in a dialogue over its nuclear program and the US-led, UN-imposed sanctions that have constricted the Iranian economy.
President Obama, in his speech at the UN on Tuesday, also seemed to expound on these themes – that US engagement in the region is still vital, and that the present moment does not mark an end, but perhaps a shift. Obama said,
"The danger for the world is, that the United States after a decade of war, rightly concerned about issues back home, aware of the hostility that our engagement in the region has engendered throughout the Muslim world, may disengage, creating a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill."
I don't mean to paint a causal relationship between the two events. The deal on Syrian weapons happened almost accidentally, and has seen the US tone down its bellicose rhetoric about the war in Syria – a shift that the US public was eager to see happen. It has also meant that the disaster in Syria continues to fester, without end in sight. Iran's sudden willingness to engage is the result of many circumstances – a struggling economy, a new president – and the tone of the Syrian debate is only a small part of that puzzle. But I would like to examine the question of whether American might and influence is declining – and whether this is a bad thing, in the long term.
It seems reasonable to use the end of the Cold War as the point when the US emerged as the major super power, at least militarily, in the world. Since then, the US has used its "influence" to wage two disastrous Middle Eastern wars of questionable legality (and a slew of lesser wars and invasions) – wars that have accomplished little more than the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, Kurds, Afghanis, and Americans, the squandering of hundreds of billions of dollars, and the further destabilization of the Middle East.
These two decades of unparalleled might have led to the creation of the most sophisticated police state in history and the birth of a drone program that has killed hundreds, likely thousands, of civilians.
And none of this even takes into account the domestic disasters – a drug war that has incarcerated millions and seen thousands die, an escalating series of gun massacres, and the near financial destruction of the middle class. All told, American influence has wrought a heck of a lot of violence. And yet people are lamenting the end of this period?
It seems to me, as an American living abroad, that world interests, long term, would be helped by a less bellicose, more cautious America. A humble America. An America that truly does view violence as a last resort, that does not meddle in every situation, and that seeks to use diplomacy instead of force.
The situation in Syria remains horrific and untenable. Yet I'm not sure US military intervention would have helped. In the short term, it would have meant a spike in violence. Long term, it's likely American intervention would not have solved the deep sectarian rifts that exist. It's not like American influence is some panacea, as both Iraq and Afghanistan can attest. There also would have been the possibility of the war spreading, depending on how Iran, Hezbollah, and Israel reacted. An already awful situation could have become more awful.
What's happened, instead, is that the door for diplomacy is at least cracked. It's conceivable, though far from likely, that the US and Russian agreement on chemical weapons could eventually pave the way for larger negotiations that could end the war – and the awful suffering. The only path to lasting, stable peace is through compromise and dialogue. It will not come through more violence. And this is a very small step in that direction, hopefully.
It has also opened the door for a relationship between America and Iran. A relationship between the two countries not only improves the prospect of peace in Syria, but it makes regional peace more likely. More immediately, it makes it more likely that the Iranian people, suffering and struggling under sanctions, will see their lives improve.
America's role in the world is, perhaps, changing. And this would be a good thing. Perhaps a humbled, less bellicose America is now more likely to use diplomacy instead of violence. Perhaps such an America can, finally, lead by example instead of force.
Justin Pahl is a staff editor with The Fountain.