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Hillary Mann Leverett

Syria and the Waning of American Hegemony


Once carried out, the Obama administration’s thoroughly telegraphed strike on Syria, ostensibly over alleged chemical weapons use there, will mark an important inflection point in the terminal decline of America’s Middle East empire.  Most importantly, it will confirm that America’s political class, including Obama himself, remains unwilling to face the political risks posed by any fundamental revision of Washington’s 20+-year, deeply self-damaging drive to dominate the region.

Obama initially ran for president pledging to end the “mindset” behind the strategic blunder of America’s 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq; in his first term, he committed to ending America’s war in Afghanistan, too, and to “rebalancing” toward Asia.  But Obama was never ready to spend the political capital required for thoroughgoing recasting of U.S. foreign policy; consequently, the dissipation of American power (hard and soft) evident under George W. Bush has accelerated under Obama.
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Rouhani’s Inauguration and the West’s Strategic Suicide


As Hassan Rouhani approaches his inauguration this weekend, there is self-referential optimism in Western policy circles about what his accession might portend.  A substantial quorum in these circles sees Rouhani as perhaps someone with whom the West—to recall Margaret Thatcher’s 1984 assessment of rising Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev—“can do business.”

The traits these observers cite to justify their optimism—Rouhani’s deep knowledge of the nuclear file, his history of seeking creative diplomatic solutions, an easier rhetorical style for Westerners than outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, fluency in English—are real.

But the focus on them suggests that Western elites still look for Tehran to accommodate the West’s nuclear demands—above all, by compromising Iran’s right, as a sovereign state and signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium indigenously under safeguards.  This motivates them to interpret Rouhani’s election as evidence of Iranians’ growing weariness with sanctions and, by extension, with their government’s policies that prompt escalating international pressure on Iran’s economy.
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Obama Chooses Intensified but Strategically Useless Violence over Serious Diplomacy in Syria


Last week, Hillary Mann Leverett told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story, see here, that the Obama administration’s recent decision to begin providing direct military aid to Syrian rebels is “a signal to the rest of the world, particularly to…those who are looking to deal with Syria politically, in a negotiated way, that the United States is not serious about that.  The United States is much more serious about ensuring a continued quagmire in Syria, to keep both the Assad government and the rebels essentially fighting each other so that they’re not looking at the United States or Israel in the region”—and, of course, to weaken Iran. 

The Obama administration’s lack of seriousness about a political resolution to the Syrian conflict was plain for the world to see at the G8 summit that concluded yesterday in Northern Ireland.  To be sure, attendees agreed on a vaguely-worded seven-point plan to address the conflict, including creation of a “transitional governing body” for Syria.  They also called for convening a Syria peace conference “as soon as possible.”   

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Rouhani Won the Iranian Election. Get Over it

photo: Q8India

The United States’ perennially mistaken Iran “experts” are already spinning Hassan Rouhani’s victory in Iran’s presidential election as a clear proof of the Islamic Republic’s ongoing implosion. In fact, Rouhani’s success sends a very different message: it is well past time for the US to come to terms with the reality of a stable and politically dynamic Islamic Republic of Iran.

Three days before the election, we warned that US and expatriate Iranian pundits were confidently but wrongly positing how Iran’s election process would “be manipulated to produce a winner chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei – a “selection rather than an election” – consolidating Khamenei’s dictatorial hold over Iranian politics”. Many, like the Brookings Institution’s Suzanne Maloney, identified nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili as Khamenei’s “anointed” candidate; the Washington Post declared that Rouhani “will not be allowed to win”.

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Iran's Presidential Election Will Surprise America's So-called Iran 'Experts'

Iran Night
photo: Jorn Eriksson

This year's Iranian presidential election is likely to produce a strong political figure who will have a significant impact on the Islamic Republic's foreign and domestic policies, helping to ensure Iran's continued internal development and bolstering its regional importance. Yet every four years, a combustible mix of pro-Israel advocates, Iranian expatriates, Western Iran "experts," and their fellow travelers in the media try to use Iranian presidential elections as a frame for persuading Westerners that the Islamic Republic is an illegitimate system so despised by its people as to be at imminent risk of overthrow.

Iran's election processes, pundits tell us, will be manipulated to produce a winner chosen by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei -- a "selection rather than an election" -- consolidating Khamenei's dictatorial hold over Iranian politics. Either Iranians will be sufficiently outraged to rise up against the system, commentators intone, or the world will have to deal with increasingly authoritarian -- and dangerous -- clerical-military rule in Tehran.

But this year's presidential campaign, like its predecessors, challenges Westerners' deep attachment to myths of the Islamic Republic's illegitimacy and fragility. The eight candidates initially approved by the Guardian Council represented a broad spectrum of conservative and reformist views. While one conservative and the most clear-cut reformist -- neither of whom attracted much support -- have withdrawn, they did so not from intimidation but to prevent conservative and reformist votes from being dissipated across too many candidates from each camp.

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The Self-Defeating Dynamics of American Hegemony in the Middle East

Naval Fleet
Photo: Konabish ~ Greg Bishop

Our experience in the U.S. government — running from roughly the period of the first Gulf War in the early 1990s until March 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq, when we left our positions at the White House on the National Security Council staff — effectively spanned the high-water mark of American primacy in the Middle East. In an interview for the University of California’s Conversations with History series, see here, we discuss how our government service gave us “ringside seats” to watch as “the United States really misused that primacy, misused its supremacy in ways that were grossly counterproductive for its own interests, and for America’s standing in international affairs.” We also reflect on how our experience in government has both prompted and helped us to explore the ways in which succumbing to an “imperial temptation” in the Middle East distorts American perceptions of the region and warps U.S. policy outcomes.
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Washington’s Hegemonic Ambition and U.S. Policy Toward Syria (excerpts)

What really drives American foreign a post-Cold War determination on the part of the United States to dominate the Middle East, to play a hegemonic role in the Middle East,  to micromanage political outcomes in key Middle Eastern states so that those states’ strategic orientation is subordinated to U.S. foreign policy preferences and the Middle East has a regional order which is essentially run by the United States.

When you look at the situation in Syria, it’s obvious that many innocent people have been killed, and that is a profound tragedy.  But I think that the narrative in the West — that this was basically a peaceful protest by Syrians that was responded to brutally, and these people took all of this violence until a year later, eighteen months later, they had to start responding violently — I don’t think that’s really the way things played out. Outside powers — the Saudis, others — were pouring money and weapons into Syria from a very early point.
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The Iranian Nuclear Issue: What’s at Stake for the BRICS

The controversy over Iran’s nuclear activities has at least as much to do with the future of international order as it does with nonproliferation.  For this reason, all of the BRICS have much at stake in how the Iranian nuclear issue is handled. 

Conflict over Iran’s nuclear program is driven by two different approaches to interpreting the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT); these approaches, in turn, are rooted in different conceptions of international order.  Which interpretation of the NPT ultimately prevails on the Iranian nuclear issue will go a long way to determine whether a rules-based view of international order gains ascendancy over a policy-oriented approach in which the goals of international policy are defined mainly by America and its partners.  And that will go a long way to determine whether rising non-Western states emerge as true power centers in a multipolar world, or whether they continue, in important ways, to be subordinated to hegemonic preferences of the West—and especially the United States. 

The NPT is appropriately understood as a set of three bargains among signatories:  non-weapons states commit not to obtain nuclear weapons; countries recognized as weapons states (America, Russia, Britain, France, and China) commit to nuclear disarmament; and all parties agree that signatories have an “inalienable right” to use nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.  One approach to interpreting the NPT gives these bargains equal standing; the other holds that the goal of nonproliferation trumps the other two.   

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