“Mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam.”
“A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome.”
For centuries, Rome was a seat of power in the Western world. Even during a millennium when her roads represented the best means of transportation and communication, the Eternal City had political gravitas. Popes wielded enormous political power; all roads did lead to Rome.
Today, whether we want for them to or not, all roads lead to Washington. Some Americans question why or if we must be the world’s policeman, but the world expects American leadership regardless of our political will to lead.
When there is a leadership void that America cannot or will not fill, someone else inevitably will. Over the last four years, America has failed to show leadership in addressing the civil war in Syria. What we initially washed our hands of as being an local and internal issue has now spawned a regional political and humanitarian crisis. We’ve watched that crisis grow with a cautious mix of fear, confusion, and paralysis.
Into the void of leadership has stepped Vladimir Putin, whose arrival — ostensibly to combat ISIS, but targeting other Rebel groups instead — will only make the situation more complicated, and weaken rather than strengthen long-term strategic foundations for stability.
Someone recently mentioned to me that he was happy to see Russia take -action. Perhaps Russian intervention would draw jihadi ire and focus away from America and toward Russia. Perhaps. But by bombing other forces opposed to Assad, rather than ISIS, Russia has shown its strategy, and if implemented effectively, that strategy will undermine America in the Middle East.
Putin has presented Assad as Arab secular strongmen have typically been presented, as a local bulwark against Islamic terrorism. Under the guise of fighting ISIS, which he ultimately will do, Putin is first ensuring Assad’s safety and support. With Putin, what seemed unlikely until very recently is now a possibility, that Assad could one day again rule over a united Syria. If Putin can eliminate other rebel groups and help Assad consolidate power, he can then deftly pivot to ISIS and happily play a cooperative role along with Iran in fighting ISIS. If successful, Putin will have done the impossible by restoring Assad to power and created an axis running from Moscow through Tehran to Damascus, and likely to Hezbollah, with a possible stop in Baghdad as well.
Neither Israel nor the Sunni gulf states will be comfortable or confident, and Iran will be empowered at the same time that our nuclear deal with that nation means we must be as vigilant as ever. Inevitably, America will become more involved as we help these allies, and by allowing Russia to fill the leadership void created by our inaction, we will have allowed them to dictate the realignment of the region. Ultimately, perhaps, supporting authoritarian rule in Syria and Iran may indeed put Russia at greater risk to terrorism and help America shoulder the burden of being “the great satan,” but if and before that happens, this will only create a greater headache for the United States.
Whether we wish it or not, and despite an uneven track record, the world expects leadership from Washington. For years we have sat idle, waffled on redlines, and applauded ourselves for bargains to remove chemical weapons from the conflict as though it weren’t the conventional weapons that have killed over 300,000 and driven millions from their homes. For many reasons, we chose not to get involved but rather watched a humanitarian crisis unfold. By abdicating leadership and moral authority, we opened the door for others to lead, and thus under those pretenses Vladimir Putin becomes a protector of human rights while seizing the strategic initiative.
The perils of inaction become clearer as the void of leadership is filled by others. The world expects American leadership, and though imperfect, the world needs American leadership. We cannot naively expect that failure to act will absolve or spare us the consequences of that inaction.
It is not too late for America to intervene in the strategic and humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Middle East, but any attempt to reset a region beset by decades of turmoil must be comprehensive, rooted in new approaches, and have the best interests of the region’s inhabitants at its center. Despite a troubled history of interaction, America can still help lay the foundation for a more positive and prosperous Middle East. In a future post, I will lay out an approach that includes five elements that could be used by American decision makers to recapture the strategic initiative in the region. Stand by…
Will Staton is the Assistant Director of Talent for Democracy Prep Public Schools in New York City. Formerly a history teacher, as well as a religious studies and history major, Will remains passionate about international affairs. When he’s not traveling the country to deliver career readiness professional development, Will reads and writes about a variety of personal and political topics.
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