Stephen M. Walt

Catching up on the news

I’m back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere. On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for ...

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/GettyImages

I’m back from Japan after a very enjoyable trip, and catching up on developments elsewhere. A few quick comments on recent events elsewhere.

On Syria: As many have feared, the violence continues to intensify and prospects for a negotiated solution appear increasingly bleak. The stalemate between the regime and the opposition will increase pressure for a more forceful international response, but the case for military intervention remains weak. Not because anybody condones the Assad regime’s behavior, but simply because outside intervention could easily make things worse. Regrettably, not every foreign policy challenge has a ready solution, and sometimes "standing there" is still better than "doing something."

Russia continues to be Assad’s primary protector, and it will be interesting to see if Obama and Putin can make any progress toward agreement during their meeting at the G20 summit. As I’ve written previously, Russia is the key to a political settlement, but only if a way can be found to preserve Russian interests and give them lots of credit for helping resolve the crisis. Russia’s amoral stance has elicited a lot of condemnation thus far, but we shouldn’t be surprised or overly outraged by what Moscow is doing. Syria is Russia’s only remaining Middle East client and Russia is simply trying to protect its own position there. More broadly, Russia has long sought to prevent the emergence of a world order dominated by the United States and its allies — i.e., one where Washington gets to decide who governs in key regions — and backing Assad is one way for Russia to remind everyone that Washington isn’t all-powerful. I suspect Putin isn’t happy about what Assad is doing, just as the Obama administration wasn’t happy about the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain. But when strategic interests are involved, moral niceties tend to be overlooked.

On Egypt: I’m not that surprised that Egypt’s military leaders are trying to reverse the revolution/reform movement that overthrew former president Hosni Mubarak. Step 1 was getting Egyptian courts to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated legislature; step 2 was the announcement that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) would supervise the drafting of a new constitution. There are reports that Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi has won the presidential election; if so, you can count on the SCAF to write a constitution that diminishes the president’s powers. But I will be surprised if this effort to roll back the clock succeeds, because the SCAF has no solution for Egypt’s debilitating economic and political stagnation and younger Egyptians aren’t going to acquiesce in this reversal for long. And as Juan Cole notes on his own blog, once free and fair elections become the norm, it becomes increasingly difficult for unelected military rulers to retain the same level of influence. If we take a longer view, the Egyptian revolution is likely to continue.

Speaking of which, I wonder how American neoconservatives will react to SCAF’s efforts to reverse or retard Egypt’s move toward democracy? Neocons have long portrayed themselves as vigorous proponents of liberty and democracy, and they are usually quick to demand forceful U.S. action against any non-democratic regimes they don’t like. So presumably they will now call for the United States to use cut off all aid to Egypt until the Egyptian generals allow full democracy to re-emerge. But don’t hold your breath.

On Iran: Negotiations resume tomorrow between Iran and the P5+1. We may see some progress, but I don’t expect a breakthrough. The key questions are: 1) are the P5+1 are willing to concede Iran’s right to enrich uranium at low levels and under strict safeguards? and 2) will the United States continue to demand that Iran dismantle its underground enrichment plant at Fordow? These two demands are deal-breakers: Iran has made it clear for years that it won’t give up the right to enrich, and insisting that they dismantle Fordow is asking them to leave their program vulnerable so that we (or the Israelis) can attack it whenever we want.

Think about this for a second. What sensible government would ever agree to something like that? Imagine how the United States would have reacted if the Soviet Union had demanded that we leave our ICBMs above ground and completely exposed to a surprise attack, and had further demanded that we give them the locations of all our ballistic missile submarines, so that the USSR could attack them too if they ever felt they needed to. We would have rejected such a silly request in a nanosecond. Demanding that Iran dismantle Fordow is similar; would any government spend a lot of money hardening its enrichment capability only to give it up, especially when the United States and others have already done various things to try to damage or destroy their other nuclear facilities? If the P5+1 aren’t willing to compromise on those two issues, it shows we’re not serious about a genuine diplomatic deal.

The Obama administration is caught between two fires: They understand that military action is foolish and counterproductive (i.e., such action will just convince Iran to redouble its efforts to gain an effective deterrent), but they also understand that a realistic compromise would expose Obama to (bogus) charges of appeasement from Israel and from hardliners in the Israel lobby. That’s not an appealing prospect in an election year, especially when the election promises to be close. So they can’t go to war, but they can’t make a deal either, at least not between now and November. And that means that the real issue is whether the various parties can find enough common ground to keep the negotiations limping along until then.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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