Whenever something bad happens in the world, most people’s immediate reaction is to ask what the United States will do in response. Flashpoint in Asia? What does the boss say? Skirmish in Eastern Europe? Well, what does the boss say?
The actions of the US truly matter, more than any country’s actions. How one feels about the superpower is largely extraneous. This irrelevancy can frustrate good people, but reality will always trump ideology. One can loathe the United States and its many foibles, but the country is impossible to ignore.
It wasn’t always this way. Only after the collapse of the Soviet Union was the US alone as a global power. Those were heady times when the military actions of a superpower switched from strict protection of national interests to pursuing humanitarian intervention instead.
At least back then, 25 years ago, these US actions of ethics were cheered by most modern people. But good intervention is not always a national interest and humanitarianism is always a luxury. The ability to do almost anything in the world has proven a mixed bag for the United States. The events of 9/11 occurred right in the middle of United States coming to grips with being an accidental empire.
Invading Iraq and Afghanistan was a reflection of a decade of US inertia. No sufficient external pressure compelled the US to choose between a policy of strategic military interventions or humanitarianism, so it awkwardly retained both in a mist of cognitive dissonance. This indecision lead to misguided attempts to “free” the world while defending US strategic interests.
Only now is the superpower beginning to understand that it cannot do both. The events in the Middle East over the last decade hammered into the US elite exactly how impossible it can be to affect significant change there. The Americans were speaking as a Western polity, while the Middle East is predominantly Islamic. No amount of weaponry can alter this fundamental fact. Looking back now, it’s clear there was no communication breakdown. There couldn’t be, because the two civilisations were never talking in the same language in the first place.
More than 25 years and four presidents later, the United States is finding its rhythm and outlining the limits of power. It always will have the ability to stop bloodshed with military force, but action based on humanitarianism is the mark of a strong and decadent power, not a responsible power.
The United States knows it must eventually emerge into a post-9/11 reality. To get there it needs to learn how to be a good conductor of an unintended empire.
Evolving to this new foreign policy reality will appear as if it is stumbling, incoherent and capricious. US president Barack Obama has been called misconceived, dangerous and isolationist. Yet he understands that creating strategic balances of power will be crucial to protecting the US homeland in coming decades. Under this emerging framework the current Iran nuclear deal and the fighting in Iraq and Yemen can be understood. The key factor is how disengaged the United States military is becoming from the frontlines.
Although the US is providing Saudi Arabia and Gulf fighting forces with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance information and some airstrike capability, the Americans are not taking the initiative. The operation in the Iraqi city of Tikrit over the past few weeks was controlled almost entirely by Iraqi and Iranian forces.
In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and a group of Gulf States is involved in protecting Yemen president Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi from aggressive forces loyal to a former Yemeni president. The anti-Hadi forces are weakly supported by Iran causing Riyadh to act out of existential fear that Iranian influence might touch its southern borders.
Meanwhile, Turkey is realising its luxurious foreign policy of non-interference is untenable. Turkey enjoyed a long run living under the implicit protection of the United States which operated for ten years or more just south in Iraq. Ankara was able to focus on its economy rather than defence as its historic adversaries were distracted with the larger Western foe.
Now, as the US reassesses its strategic role in the region, and chooses not to get involved in spiralling conflicts, the three historic power centres of the Middle East – Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia – are being forced to shoulder the burden of security themselves. All three powers may clamour for the US to “pull its weight” or “fix past mistakes” - as if before the Americans arrived the Middle East was a utopia of friendly tribes and cooperating religions - but this was always a bluff. All three powers knew it was their skin on the line if the US eventually refused to help.
Mr Obama is creating a world where the US won’t be drawn into other people’s fights unless clear American national interests are at stake. A nuclear deal with Iran, however temporary, has become the focal point for the current US administration because it realises that doing the same thing in this region over and over is the very definition of adolescence and probably insanity.
By forcing the regional players to balance between each other, the American president is hoping to forge a Middle East with greater stability and less cost for the US. He is ripping up the status quo playbook of acting as both the good and bad cop by compelling the three powers to take responsibility for the region’s peace. This process is bound to be bloody - at least in the short term - and don’t get used to the borders. But if the US is to be flexible enough to confront real threats elsewhere, it must learn to conduct its empire responsibly.
In 500 years, the best result the American project can hope for is a historian who says the US imperial structure was “relatively responsible as far as empires go”. That’s the best it can get. Balancing powers in an empire is crucial for the safety of as many people as possible in the only time that matters - the present.