Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Can the U.S.’s limited military strike against Assad stay limited?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 27, 2013 21:44 UTC

After Secretary of State John Kerry’s speech about Syria’s chemical warfare yesterday, it’s clear that the U.S. is going to attack Syria. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel says U.S. forces are “ready to go.” Envoys are telling rebels that Western forces “could attack Syria within days,” per Reuters.

But even as the United States prepares to strike, Syria is not really the heart of the issue. As Kerry said in his speech, “The meaning of [Assad’s chemical weapon] attack goes beyond the conflict in Syria itself.” The goal will not be to tilt the scales in Syria’s civil war or to put an end to the violence; rather, the U.S. wants to retaliate against an affront to its credibility, and the unambiguous breaching of an international norm. But there is danger. What begins as a limited military strike to punish Assad could quickly devolve into deeper engagement in Syria, or it could scuttle America’s top regional priorities like its nuclear discussions with Iran.

Months ago President Obama made clear that he would not permit any chemical weapons abuses in Syria, calling it his “red line.” But despite evidence of small batches of chemical weapons being deployed on Syrians, Obama sat idle for months. It’s only now, after chemical attacks last week that left hundreds dead and more traumatized, that the U.S. is moving to action. The chemical warfare became too large — and calls from the United States’ allies too loud — for the United States to remain a spectator any longer. So after two years of idling on Syria, it’s clear that what the U.S. is really defending is not Syrians, but the international prohibition of chemical weapons, and, most of all, its own credibility. Assad has to be punished because he clearly and publicly crossed Obama’s one explicit red line — however arbitrary hundreds of chemical weapons-induced deaths may seem in comparison to the 100,000-plus Syrians who have perished in the civil war.

As I explained a few months back, the United States had two options that weren’t quite as bad as the status quo of slowly slipping into the conflict: it could go big — establish a no-fly zone and do what is necessary to stem the violence — or go home: firmly stay on the sidelines. The Obama administration opted for the latter — that’s why it dragged its feet responding to chemical weapons charges the first time around. The White House believes the best way to stay the course is to apply the minimum amount of force that will satisfy the mounting pressure for action without becoming further entangled: “The options we are considering are not about regime change,” the White House said on Tuesday. Afterwards, it can return to its backseat role.

But it has only become more difficult to pull that off. If there were limited military actions that had no risk of dragging the U.S. deeper into the Syrian conflict, Obama would have opted for them in response to the first wave of chemical attacks. The irony is that the bar for what the international community will deem an acceptable response to Assad’s chemical weapon use has risen substantially since that first instance a few months back. If this had been an Israeli red line that was breached, we would have seen an immediate, limited and surgical strike in response. The U.S. dithered, a much bigger atrocity occurred, and now the U.S. will need to engage in a broader response to maintain its credibility and satisfy its allies — just the sort of response that carries a higher risk of pulling the U.S. further into the quagmire.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 23, 2013 13:11 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

Getting Serious: An End to the Russia-Japan Dispute?” – J. Berkshire Miller, The Diplomat

Russia and Japan have not yet formally signed a peace treaty to end their World War II hostilities. Could things really be looking up for their bilateral relationship?

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 16, 2013 15:19 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order, and shared from ForeignPolicy.com. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

Why Russia is worried about the ‘Zero Option’ in Afghanistan” – Andrew S. Bowen, The Diplomat

What are the security risks that Russia faces as the United States pulls out of Afghanistan? Russia’s own pullout in 1989 is an ominous signal for what’s to come.

The world leaders who are actually leading

Ian Bremmer
Aug 15, 2013 15:33 UTC

Earlier this summer, as I watched the Pope attract millions as he toured Brazil, I noticed how rare the scene was. Here was a man in control of an embattled institution, and he had somehow rallied his troops. By going back to the basics of Catholic belief—embracing humility, supporting the downtrodden, asking for sacrifice— as well as pushing the envelope (with his more progressive stance on homosexuality, for example), Pope Francis had begun to rehabilitate the church. It was viable leadership: the kind that motivates, inspires, and unites.

This is becoming increasingly rare. We live in a world where no single country or group of countries can provide dominant, sustainable global leadership—G-Zero, as I call it—and that’s in large part because so many countries lack solid leadership at home. As I look around the world, I see only three leaders of major countries that, like the pope, are managing to squelch opposition, carve out a more impactful role for themselves, and undertake difficult reforms, all while leveraging their popularity and consolidating their strength.

In Japan, Shinzo Abe, the country’s former and also new prime minister, has enjoyed extraordinary popularity since reemerging as a national leader last year. Abe, who had a disappointing stint as prime minister in 2006-2007, has come back with force, promoting a namesake economics plan that has Japan shedding its “lost decades” and inspiring Japanese citizens. So far, “Abenomics” is producing some impressive results. Profits among major Japanese companies in the 2nd quarter of this year were double the figure a year ago. Private consumption in the same period increased 3.8 percent on an annualized basis. The Nikkei stock average is up over 30 percent this year.

What does Obama’s snub mean for U.S.-Russia relations?

Ian Bremmer
Aug 9, 2013 19:55 UTC

Earlier this week, Barack Obama announced that he won’t be meeting with Vladimir Putin in advance of the September G20 summit in St. Petersburg. That was, at least in part, a response to Russia’s decision to grant NSA leaker Edward Snowden temporary asylum, a move that left the White House “extremely disappointed.” So what will the fallout be? Are the media’s Cold War comparisons appropriate?

No. This episode will have limited impact on an already toxic bilateral relationship that matters increasingly less around the world.

Obama made the right decision — and more importantly, he did it at the right time. By snubbing Putin when he did, Obama will allow Secretaries of State and Defense John Kerry and Chuck Hagel and their Russian counterparts to work back up from this low-water mark when they meet this week. If he had waited to snub Putin, it would unwind any progress that might come out of the current meetings. Obama clearly understands there is more room for productivity among senior diplomats than between the heads of state, where the relationship has always been icy, and any shortcomings are higher profile.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 9, 2013 14:31 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

City chickens and country eggs” – The Economist

China has gone all-in with efforts to spur increased urbanization. Said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, “Urbanization has the greatest potential for boosting domestic demand.” He claims urban residents in China spent 3.6 times as much as their rural peers in 2010. But what if China has it backwards? Does urbanization lead to growth — or does growth lead to urbanization?

Searching Big Data for ‘Digital Smoke Signals’” – Steve Lohr, New York Times

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Aug 2, 2013 15:18 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order, and shared from ForeignPolicy.com. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads 

Chinese Search for Infant Formula Goes Global” – Edward Wong, New York TImes

Are Chinese consumers ready to trust the safety standards of homemade products? Concerned parents in China are registering their doubts with their wallets as they go abroad to purchase baby formula.

Israeli-Palestinian talks won’t fix the Middle East’s problems

Ian Bremmer
Jul 31, 2013 15:35 UTC

On Monday, the Obama administration announced that Secretary of State John Kerry had convinced Israel and the Palestinian Authority to sit down for negotiations for the first time in three years. Coming out of Monday and Tuesday’s meetings, Kerry announced a goal of working out a comprehensive peace agreement within nine months.

Simply reviving talks at all is a highly impressive achievement; getting both sides to the table would have been impossible without Kerry’s relentless effort. But if the Obama administration thinks this will change the dynamic in the Middle East, it is mistaken for two reasons. First, the initiative is unlikely to succeed, and second, even if it did, it would have little impact on other more immediately pressing Middle East conflicts.

It’s not that pushing for an Israel-Palestine solution isn’t a valiant cause — it’s that there is a full tray of conflicts in the Middle East that exist independently from the Israel-Palestine question: the growing rifts in Egypt or Iraq, the Syrian crisis that has claimed over 100,000 lives, or Iran’s nuclear program. Even Israel and Palestine themselves prioritize many other regional concerns over making any significant progress with each other.

Political risk must-reads

Ian Bremmer
Jul 26, 2013 14:56 UTC

Eurasia Group’s weekly selection of essential reading for the political-risk junkie — presented in no particular order, and shared from ForeignPolicy.com. As always, feel free to give us your feedback or selections by tweeting at us via @EurasiaGroup or @ianbremmer.

Must-reads

Back on top” – The Economist

After Japan’s upper-house elections, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has a stable majority in both houses. But will the nationalistic tendencies that have made him so popular at home incense neighbors like China and South Korea even more? 

A hungry world: Lots of food, in too few places” – Mark Koba, CNBC

Of the nearly one billion people who go hungry, approximately 852 million of them live in developing countries. Is the issue that there’s not enough food—or that those who need it most can’t access it?

The countries not letting a crisis go to waste

Ian Bremmer
Jul 25, 2013 14:57 UTC

In 2008, before the financial crisis had even reached its nadir, Rahm Emanuel famously said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Emanuel’s quote became the conventional wisdom for crisis management, even if the idea is age-old: John F. Kennedy Jr. famously pointed out that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of two characters, one for “danger” and one for “opportunity. 

Nearly five years after the global economic meltdown, we can now look at the world’s major powers and assess how well they’ve responded to their various crises. Three categories emerge. Who took advantage of crisis? Who never really had a true crisis? And who is letting crisis go to waste?

A crisis unwasted: Japan and the Euro zone

Let’s begin with Europe, which experienced a real and urgent crisis. Remember that as little as 18 months ago, the media and bond markets had the euro zone pegged for imminent fracture, when the debts of its member countries and the untenable divide between its core countries and those on the periphery threatened to overwhelm the political unity and economic cohesion that the bloc enjoyed. A lack of fiscal coordination, political and monetary dexterity, and balance between strong and weak states pushed the world’s largest economic bloc into existential crisis.

  •