By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
This has been the summer of our discontent and the coming fall season promises to be no better. Weeks of blistering heat and cloudless skies in the nation’s breadbasket will reduce crop yields by one half. The prospect of inflation at the grocery store and all along the food chain is a very real prospect. This is the last thing the economy needs with growth rate of 1.5 percent and unemployment stuck at 8.4 percent. While some people argue that the 24/7 news cycle exaggerates problems, this has hardly been the case this summer.
Our spirits were lifted by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics. A string of gold medals is good for national self-confidence and the Mint. We will turn the tide but it will take much longer than we thought.
In the Middle East the tide has turned and it appears not the way we imagined when the West welcomed the Arab Spring. Syria and the rest of the region now command all of our foreign attention in the middle of the hot weather and failing harvest. Whoever wins the White House in November will have to weigh our Wilsonian democratic idealism, so deeply rooted in our DNA, and a foreign policy in which our national interests trump all else. In the end, old-fashioned Bismarckian Realpolitik or national self-interest may be the best direction when it comes to Syria.
Syria is a very complex nation, extremely diverse, which is now at the heart of its current problems. It would be unhistorical to argue that the current crisis is merely rooted in an effort to oust its president, Dr. Bashar al-Assid, a British-trained doctor and the son of its former dictator. For more than four decades the al-Assid family has employed iron-fisted rule to prevent opponents of the regime from coalescing into an opposition movement.
The one constant has been their relationship with Russia, which goes back to the Cold War. For years the Russians have been arms suppliers and still have a naval base on the coast. As the world knows from Moscow’s vetoing of every U.N. proposal concerning Syria’s behavior, Russia is motivated by national interests. Of course, our interests in the region differ from those of Russia. We have been motivated by an updated version of Wilsonian democratic idealism and applauded the arrival of the Arab Spring, which is now moving in a different direction.
While Moscow and Washington have been at opposite ends on how to deal with Syria, now that this Middle Eastern nation has collapsed into civil war, there may be more of a mutuality of interests than first meets the eye. Clearly, it is time to start talking to the Russians. This is not a question of one side or the other “winning” the Middle East. It is a question of preventing a much wider war before it is too late.
Once the London Games end and Team America returns home to be feted at the White House, our attention will once again return to our economic problems and crop reports. After two major wars, and as we gradually look inward in the summer of our own discontent, we may be reaching a tipping point with millions of us saying, “Let the Islamic world resolve its own problems; we have done enough and have spilled too much life and treasure already.”
Indifference would be a tragic mistake, and if we throw up our hands we will pay a much larger price later. After World War I we withdrew into isolation in part out of disgust with Europe. We paid a much greater price in the 1940s: a second world war. We can be certain that Israel will not permit Syria’s stockpile of poison gas from falling into the wrong hands and only hope Dr. al-Assid does not invite the Iranians in to save his regime. A Syria left to the fates could easily spill over into a region war, in time undoing our good efforts in Iraq.
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