A hundred years after it began the American century is drawing to a close. It began in the closing stages of the First World War, when the exhausted allies turned to the Americans for the final, decisive, push to defeat Germany. It is ending with the Obama administration’s increasingly obvious inability to stop the growth of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. What is coming to an end is not America’s military pre-eminence in the world: no country can even think of waging war against it. What is ending is American hegemony.
Hegemony needs to be distinguished from dominance. Gramsci described it as “the permeation throughout society of an entire system of values, attitudes, beliefs and morality that has the effect of supporting the status quo in power relations”. In international relations a dominant country enjoys hegemony when it can claim, successfully, that what it is doing in its own interest also serves the general interest. This is the perception of America that is dying in a welter of mutual recrimination.
Momentous changes sometimes reveal themselves in small, even trivial, events. One such occurred on Fareed Zakaria’s CNN programme ‘GPS’, on Sunday October 12. The subject was the imminent fall of Kobani, the capital city of Syrian Kurdistan, to ISIS. While interviewing Barham Salih, former prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan and deputy prime minister of Iraq, Zakaria asked him whether the Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, would be prepared to go into central Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS . Salih’s response was carefully weighed: “Kurdistan has emerged as the most reliable partner of the coalition in the fight against ISIS. There may be a number of reasons. One that I am proud of is that Kurdistan is a tolerant society with tolerant values. We do have a real interest in taking on ISIS. … but I have to say that the Peshmerga should not be relied upon to go to Mosul or the heartland of the sunni areas. We can be there to support, but at the same time the communities there have to be empowered. The same thing can be said about Syria….” I did not hear the rest of the sentence because at this point Zakaria cut him off.
Zakaria may have done so unintentionally, but in the fifteen-minute panel discussion that followed, all the participants, Francis Fukuyama, Gideon Rose of Foreign Affairs, Daniele Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and Walter Mead , professor at Bard college and columnist in The American Interest, also avoided mentioning Syria. Nor did they mention Iran.
Their reticence was strange. Cooperation with Syria has been an option on Obama’s table since day one: in fact the intelligence agencies began exchanging information in June itself. In August, after Iran backed the new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi, several members of his administration advocated cooperating with Iran, which would have meant with Syria too. Mead devoted an entire column in the American Interest to discussing its pros and cons. So why, two months later, did Pletka, Rose, and even Fukuyama, criticise Obama for promising too much, and implicitly advocate withdrawal from the region in preference to cooperating with Syria and Iran?
The answer is that cooperating with Syria now will be an admission that the US made a colossal mistake in joining the conspiracy to oust Bashar–al-Assad three years ago. Given that this would not be its first but second huge mistake in the middle east, and given their incalculable cost, it would destroy what is left of America’s moral authority in the world.
That is why it has become so necessary for the US to keep insisting that Assad must go if peace is to be restored in Syria; to pretend in the face of all evidence to the contrary that, hidden under the Salafi jihad for the establishment of an extreme theocratic state, there really is a moderate sunni freedom movement that wants to bring in democracy; and that its sunni allies – Qatar, the UAE, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are really good guys who were paying and arming these fighters in good faith, and are now eager to rectify their mistake.
In reality – and this is the true measure of how deeply American hegemony has been eroded – 62 countries have supposedly joined the US coalition against ISIS, but their contribution so far has been laughable. Saudi Arabia has 340 aircraft but has contributed four fighter jets to the aerial campaign against ISIS. Qatar has contributed two. Turkey has so far only allowed NATO to use its bases. Its tanks and troops are drawn up on the heights a mere 800 metres from Kobani, watching the battle while its government presses the US to create a no fly zone to prevent Syria’s air force from going to the Kurds’ rescue, and demands a commitment to oust Assad as a precondition for sending soldiers to join the battle.
Israel has played a key role in nurturing ISIS: it was an offshoot of AIPAC, its powerful lobby in the US, that introduced Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to Senator John McCain during his four hour visit to Syria last year. In June prime minister Netanyahu went on American television to warn Obama against cooperating with Syria and Iran, because ISIS’ defeat would allow a nuclear-capable Iran to emerge as the pre-eminent power in the region.
Obama has succumbed to all these pressures. As a result he has been left with a ‘grand strategy’ that is doomed to fail. If he wishes to cut America’s losses he would do well to ask himself a few questions: From Pakistan to Indonesia why has not a single Muslim country joined the fight against ISIS ? Why has India not offered help? Why are Kurds in four countries, who are overwhelmingly Sunnis, willing to fight ISIS to the death? And why are so few moderate Sunnis in Syria willing to join the fight against Assad?
The answer to all these questions is the same: This is not a battle between Sunni good guys and Shia devils, but an attempt by a tiny Wahhaby-Salafi fringe of Islam to take over the entire Muslim world, and the Americans are on the wrong side. It is America’s so-called friends that are digging the grave of American hegemony.