Nothing better illustrates the hypocrisy of America’s strategy in the Middle East than the recent round of talks in Vienna aimed at a resolution of the conflict in Syria. While all can readily agree on the merit of a political as opposed to a military settlement, the facts on the ground belie the utility of a broad diplomatic resort to process – more posture than purpose. Changing the venue from Geneva to Vienna made no appreciable difference on the outcome. As former World Bank President Robert Zoellick observed recently in The Wall Street Journal, “Conferences in Vienna will neither influence nor provide an escape from the brutal realities mounting daily in the Middle East.”
Those realities include significant Russian and Iranian incursions into Syria intended primarily to bolster their client, Bashar al-Assad, while U.S. led efforts to “degrade and destroy” Islamic State continue to languish with minimal effect. Deploying 50 more non-combat U.S. Special Forces in an advisory role is unlikely to change the power imbalance much, even though it is portrayed mightily by spokesman for the Obama administration as a tangible shift in strategy. Western allies, including Canada, should be more skeptical of a mission that seems to lack tangible military or political strategic purpose.
Meanwhile, the refugee/asylum-seeker situation gets worse, especially in Europe, and concerns about the Iran nuclear deal escalate. America’s allies in the region – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf emirates, Jordan and Egypt watch warily on the sidelines wondering whether, as Mr. Zoellick noted, the U.S.’s real intent is “to accommodate Iran’s power in the region or, worse, to rely mistakenly on Iran to provide stability in the region.”
Any political settlement will need more than diplomatic conflabs on the future balance of power in the region. The Obama administration’s determination to initiate diplomatic discussions simply masks its more fundamental reluctance to engage let alone lead in the struggle.
The next major international conference will be in Paris on climate change and similar strands of hypocrisy are already much in the air. What the U.S. administration says and what the U.S. Congress does are very different: Just as former president Bill Clinton and vice-president Al Gore discovered almost 18 years ago when they signed the Kyoto accord, which had already been rejected in the Senate by an overwhelming 95 (including then-Senator John Kerry) to 0 vote.
It is one thing for the administration to block a pipeline from Canada by executive fiat while approving 10,000 miles of new oil pipelines in the U.S. along with oil drilling permits in the fragile Arctic Ocean – an example of rank hypocrisy – and yet a decision that evoked only a muted response from the new Canadian government. It will be quite another to get Congress to adopt any meaningful reduction of U.S.-generated carbon dioxide. That is why there will likely be more rhetoric than reason from the U.S. in Paris, more lofty promise than actual delivery. Both the veto of Keystone and the American posture in Paris have more to do with legacy and political symbolism than concrete achievement.
It would be naive for Canadian representatives to see both in any other light. In the rush to be part of the vanguard of leadership on the “world’s most serious, global issue,” the Canadian government should remember the folly of Kyoto, weigh carefully the costs of any commitments they adopt, ensure that any negotiated commitments are actually implementable, and indicate clearly who in Canada will ultimately be obliged to pay. At this level of escapism, they might well read up on the skills of Harry Houdini.