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.

2013′s top 10 political risks

Ian Bremmer
Jan 8, 2013 16:18 UTC

It was a close call at times, but we made it through 2012. Now we’re set to encounter a new set of risks ‑ but not in the world’s advanced industrialized democracies, which are much more resilient than feared. This year, with the global recession on the wane, attention shifts back to emerging markets, the economies that are usually the ones that pose the most political risk. You can read the whole report from my political risk firm, Eurasia Group, here, but an executive summary of this year’s top 10 risks, in video and text, is below:

10.) South Africa: Africa overall looks like it will continue its recent growth. But South Africa, one of the continent’s most complex and important economies, is floundering. Its dominant political party, the African National Congress, is resorting to populism to maintain its base among the urban and rural poor. That means more state intervention, more labor unrest and more assertive unions. We’re not predicting a fundamental political crisis, but the country is moving along a path that offers little reason for optimism.

9.) India: We’ve all read the predictions that India is poised to become the world’s next infinite-growth country. Not so fast. Despite initial optimism, the 2009 election hasn’t freed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to reform the country as anticipated, with the tough choices continually being kicked to the next parliamentary session. (Americans should find this familiar.) Corruption continues to reign, and as we’ve seen in the rape protests of the past few weeks, there are fundamental cultural issues that India has yet to resolve. As general elections draw closer, the government’s ability to execute robust economic policies will decline even further.

The three 2012 themes that matter most

Ian Bremmer
Dec 27, 2012 15:47 UTC

2012 – the year of the primary, the election, the Diamond Jubilee, the superstorm, the flying dictator, the escaped dissident, the embassy attack, the empty chair, the tech protest, the Olympics, and dozens of other stories already forgotten. It was a busy year and a terribly volatile one, too. Which of these stories will actually matter five years from now? By my count, three:

1)     China rising

2)     The Middle East in turmoil

3)     Europe muddling along

They’re the good, the bad, and the ugly of 2012.

The Good: For the sake of our listless global economy, thank goodness for China’s rise. The country’s Commerce Minister is promising that China will hit its GDP growth target of 7.5 percent for the year. (In the first three quarters of 2012, it grew 7.7 percent.) China’s ability to power through the financial crisis provided global markets with much-needed energy, and its momentum, despite the crisis in the Eurozone, a key trade partner, has helped limit the damage. If it wasn’t for the resilience of the world’s second-largest economy, we’d all be a lot worse off.

The Bad: In 2012, almost every key story in the Middle East has gotten more complicated and more dangerous. Syria, Israel, Gaza, Iran, Jordan, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt. Israel has become increasingly isolated within the region, facing Palestinian rockets, a nuclear-driven Iran, and the prime minister of a former ally dubbing it ‘a terrorist state’. Egypt’s president pulled off a power play, and the Syrian nightmare deepened. Iraqis struggled to build a new society in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, and (supposedly allied) Afghans killed a record number of U.S. troops before they could reach the exits. When the Arab Spring first began to take shape, many observers hoped it would be just that – a rebirth. But you can’t spin it now. It’s bad and getting worse.

Four Debate Questions for Obama and Romney

Ian Bremmer
Oct 22, 2012 01:22 UTC

There will always be a wide gap between what candidates promise and what they deliver once elected, particularly when it comes to foreign policy. After all, this is an area where U.S. presidents have less control than either candidate will ever admit near a microphone. But this year, there are contradictions that cut straight to the heart of debates over American power and how it should be used. With that in mind, here are the questions I would like to see each candidate answer.

THE CHINA CONUNDRUM

    President Obama, given how much money the United States borrows from China each day, how can your administration expect to persuade the Chinese government to do anything it wouldn’t otherwise do? Governor Romney, you have pledged that, if elected, you will formally label China a “currency manipulator” on day one of your presidency. This decision would surely provoke a sharp response from China. Are you risking a trade war, and how could the United States win a trade war with China?

China-bashing has figured into many a U.S. presidential campaign. As China’s economy and geopolitical importance has grown — and as U.S. manufacturing jobs have moved from U.S. swing states to China and other foreign countries — both sides have tried to score points by promising to “get tough” with Beijing. Given the economic interdependence of the two countries and continued Chinese willingness to loan money to the United States, voters are right to wonder how seriously they should take all this anti-Chinese rhetoric.

SYRIA AND THE MIDDLE EAST

    President Obama, does the United States have a moral responsibility to protect Syrians from their government? Governor Romney, if we were to see large-scale pro-democracy demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, similar to those we saw last year in Cairo, would your administration side with the Saudi citizens demanding democracy? Or would you side with their government, a key U.S. ally?

President Obama cited moral concerns for the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya. Syria is a much more politically and logistically complicated problem for outsiders contemplating involvement, but the moral imperative — protecting citizens who are being killed by their government — appears the same. Where is the line in U.S. foreign policy between pragmatism and moral concerns?

Democracy doesn’t make miracles for Greece or Egypt

Ian Bremmer
Jun 27, 2012 15:25 UTC

For months now, the world has been waiting for the results of the momentous elections in Greece and in Egypt. In Greece, it was hoped that citizens would reject candidates who called for the breakup of the euro zone, or a Greek exit. In Egypt, the stakes were simpler, but larger: It was hoped that the election itself wouldn’t be a sham and that the country’s people would get their first true taste of the power of democracy.

It felt like everyone was holding their breath for the results in these two troubled countries, but it turns out neither country had the “disaster election” that some pundits feared. No, what both countries had was a “kick the can” election: For very different reasons, neither Greece nor Egypt is going to transform into a flourishing, liberal, fiscally sound nation overnight. And the task of governing in either country, therefore, is no big prize to either Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras or Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi. A lot of chips have to fall in their favor before they can even begin to get beyond the basic duties of simply showing up to work in the morning and keeping the lights on in government. But again, each country’s situation is different and bears a different explanation of the reality on the ground. Let’s take Egypt, with its internal threats to stability, first.

While the election of Mursi, the incoming Egyptian president, is a signal achievement that goes a long way toward instituting a tradition of civil rather than military rule, he alone will not get the economy to stand on its feet. The Egyptian tourism industry, its most important, has been absolutely crushed. The economy is in a shambles as the thread that was holding it together – Mubarak’s dictatorship – has been pulled from the fabric of Egypt, and the country is a long way from convincing anyone that it has recovered. While Mursi was the better choice for Egypt, he comes from the Muslim Brotherhood, basically a civic organization with no experience or expertise in macroeconomic management. The brotherhood is an important social organization: It’s a lot of things to a lot of people in Egypt, but it’s not an incubator of technocratic economic thinking or governance. That’s what the country will need to get back on its fiscal feet.

Egyptian democracy’s predictable unpredictability

Ian Bremmer
Jun 6, 2012 16:55 UTC

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” – Winston Churchill

In a little less than two weeks, Egyptians will choose their first new president since Hosni Mubarak took office in 1981. Before we talk about the contenders as selected by Egyptians in the first round of voting in May, let’s pause to consider how far Egypt has come in an incredibly short period of time.

Egypt has seen its thousands of years on the planet pass by without a democracy. Then, over the course of 18 days, it found itself with a revolution partly fueled by digital tools like Twitter that deposed a president (since sentenced to life in jail). Objects of the world’s attention, the protesters found themselves splashed across the pages of Time magazine, a symbol of the power of change that even oppressed citizens can have when they make the most of their moment and refuse to give up. So why the recent disappointment?

The world’s year of reckoning

Ian Bremmer
Jan 30, 2012 17:11 UTC

DAVOS–If 2011 was the year of the protestor, 2012, at least where the World Economic Forum is concerned, is the year of the reckoning. Through the events of the Arab Spring, major power vacuums have been created in countries all over the Middle East. More governments, such as Syria’s, are likely to topple. But the time to start thinking about what’s next for countries like Egypt is already here.

The thing is, it’s coming at an inconvenient time for Western democracy. Having long held themselves as the global models for governance and economic structure, Western Europe and the U.S. have in recent years shown their warts as never before. That has opened the door for state capitalist models — like China’s — to take the stage. And the simple fact that new models for how countries and economies should work are even being considered is a blow to the Western world’s power and prestige. Obviously, well before the G-7 system broke down, China was already on a path of state capitalism, and that has turned out to be a successful course for that country to chart. But here’s the problem: While it has led to wealth and a rise in living standards for the Chinese, it hasn’t led to more democracy.

Here at Davos, and in capitals around the world, the paths countries should chart for themselves in the future is always topic A, and what we’ve learned over these last years is that transforming those countries and indeed the world is about a lot more than simply swapping out the players who legislate and lead. Look at the precarious situation in Egypt. Consider Putin’s long hold on power in Russia. For that matter, look at the situations in many countries on the euro zone periphery. Going down that list, nations that have simply replaced one power-grabbing leader with another are in trouble. (In Russia’s case, that leader has simply replaced himself.) Countries that have revolved leadership without addressing deeper institutional weaknesses are not setting themselves up for success in the long run.

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