In comments downthread, I asseverated that the American foreign-policy establishment would like to shift gears - bearing in mind that such shifts of policy, particularly after momentous commitments such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan - may require several years of unwinding and transition in order to effectuate. I advance the contention not as a certitude, but as an hypothesis, much as Stratfor's analysts are doing. Below are excerpted two essays published by that firm during the preceding two months.
From a Sept. 15 analysis of American geostrategy in Eurasia:
Russia is attempting to reforge its Cold War-era influence in its near abroad. This is not simply an issue of nostalgia, but a perfectly logical and predictable reaction to the Russian environment. Russia lacks easily definable, easily defendable borders. There is no redoubt to which the Russians can withdraw, and the only security they know comes from establishing buffers — buffers which tend to be lost in times of crisis. The alternative is for Russia to simply trust other states to leave it alone. Considering Russia’s history of occupations, from the Mongol horde to Napoleonic France to Hitler’s Germany, it is not difficult to surmise why the Russians tend to choose a more activist set of policies.
As such, the country tends to expand and contract like a beating heart — gobbling up nearby territories in times of strength, and then contracting and losing those territories in times of weakness. Rather than what Westerners think of as a traditional nation-state, Russia has always been a multiethnic empire, heavily stocked with non-Russian (and even non-Orthodox) minorities. Keeping those minorities from damaging central control requires a strong internal security and intelligence arm, and hence we get the Cheka, the KGB, and now the FSB.
Nature of the Budding Conflict
Combine a security policy thoroughly wedded to expansion with an internal stabilization policy that institutionalizes terror, and it is understandable why most of Russia’s neighbors do not like Moscow very much. A fair portion of Western history revolves around the formation and shifting of coalitions to manage Russian insecurities.
In the American case specifically, the issue is one of continental control. The United States is the only country in the world that effectively controls an entire continent. Mexico and Canada have been sufficiently intimidated so that they can operate independently only in a very limited sense. (Technically, Australia controls a continent, but with the some 85 percent of its territory unusable, it is more accurate in geopolitical terms to think of it as a small archipelago with some very long bridges.) This grants the United States not only a potentially massive internal market, but also the ability to project power without the fear of facing rearguard security threats. U.S. forces can be focused almost entirely on offensive operations, whereas potential competitors in Eurasia must constantly be on their guard about the neighbors.
The only thing that could threaten U.S. security would be the rise of a Eurasian continental hegemon. For the past 60 years, Russia (or the Soviet Union) has been the only entity that has had a chance of achieving that, largely due to its geographic reach. U.S. strategy for coping with this is simple: containment, or the creation of a network of allies to hedge in Russian political, economic and military expansion. NATO is the most obvious manifestation of this policy imperative, while the Sino-Soviet split is the most dramatic one.
Containment requires that United States counter Russian expansionism at every turn, crafting a new coalition wherever Russia attempts to break out of the strategic ring, and if necessary committing direct U.S. forces to the effort. The Korean and Vietnam wars — both traumatic periods in American history — were manifestations of this effort, as were the Berlin airlift and the backing of Islamist militants in Afghanistan (who incidentally went on to form al Qaeda).
The Georgian war in August was simply the first effort by a resurging Russia to pulse out, expand its security buffer and, ideally, in the Kremlin’s plans, break out of the post-Cold War noose that other powers have tied. The Americans (and others) will react as they did during the Cold War: by building coalitions to constrain Russian expansion. In Europe, the challenges will be to keep the Germans on board and to keep NATO cohesive. In the Caucasus, the United States will need to deftly manage its Turkish alliance and find a means of engaging Iran. (Emphasis mine.) In China and Japan, economic conflicts will undoubtedly take a backseat to security cooperation.
Russia and the United States will struggle in all of these areas, consisting as they do the Russian borderlands. Most of the locations will feel familiar, as Russia’s near abroad has been Russia’s near abroad for nearly 300 years. Those locations — the Baltics, Austria, Ukraine, Serbia, Turkey, Central Asia and Mongolia — that defined Russia’s conflicts in times gone by will surface again. Such is the tapestry of history: the major powers seeking advantage in the same places over and over again.
A Sept. 6 analysis of shifts in America rhetoric concerning Iran, as well as a major American concession to Iran in regards to the MeK:
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting Libya, said on Thursday that Iran and North Korea should emulate Libya’s example. What she meant by that was, like Libya, they should reach an accommodation with the United States while abandoning policies that the United States opposes.
That seems like a fairly uninteresting statement, except for the fact that Iran was mentioned. We have heard nothing from the Bush administration on Iran since before the war in Georgia — although a State Department official told us on Thursday that the last official statement was issued by the U.S. Treasury on Aug. 12. Certainly, the constant barrage of comments by the Bush administration on the Iranian threat has decreased dramatically. Frankly, while there might have been passing mentions, the administration appears to have simply dropped the subject.
The silence is, of course, enormously significant. Prior to Aug. 8, the focus of the United States was on Iran. Washington was warning Iran that the deadline for delivering an answer on freezing nuclear development had passed, and the United States was now going to ask its partners in dealing with Iran — the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany — to impose sanctions. Obviously, Russia was part of that group and, equally obviously, it was in no mood to work with the United States on placing sanctions. The Russians have said that they do not see sanctions in general as a desirable strategy. With the Russians out of the picture, the sanctions won’t work anyway. You can’t have a dam with a section missing.
That made the negotiations and the sanctions strategy moot. What strikes us as extraordinary is that the Bush administration has not returned to discussing Iran and posing new strategy or making new threats. The administration simply has acted as if a major confrontation with Iran had not been under way just prior to the Russo-Georgian war and, indeed, has acted as if Iran was not a major issue, which it obviously was and continues to be. The American media have not been particularly aggressive in demanding that the administration explain the relative silence on Iran, and the administration has not raised it.
All this becomes more interesting with confirmation that an anti-Iranian group — Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MeK) — had been ordered by the Iraqi government to leave Iraq, amid accusations that it had been involved with al Qaeda. The MeK has been a major issue between Iran and the United States. The Iranian position has been that while the Americans demand that Iran pull its support for Hezbollah, the United States is itself supporting an anti-Iranian terrorist group. The reports appear to be true, since supporters of the MeK demonstrated in the United States on Thursday protesting the expulsion from Iraq.
It is unlikely that the Iraqis decided to take this action unilaterally; the United States had to have supported it. It is understandable why Washington would not want its fingerprints on this, since the MeK has been a longtime ally, and this change of policy would leave other longtime allies nervous. Still, it is happening. And that means that the Americans have given in to a long-standing demand of the Iranians.
There are rumors that the United States and Iran have signed a document concerning the MeK — which is something we find hard to believe, and the sources aren’t great. We have also received a report from a pretty good source who is in a position to know that a meeting is scheduled between U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and unnamed Iranian officials at Italy’s Lake Como later this week. We are not saying that we know that a meeting is taking place; we are saying only that we have heard rumors about this meeting. But there are many such rumors in the region at the moment. It should be noted that there are such rumors whenever a senior American and Iranian official are within 50 miles of each other.
Given that, we still note three things. First, the United States has gone silent on Iran for the first time in a very long time. Second, the United States engineered or did not prevent the expulsion of the MeK from Iraq — which is a substantial concession to Iran. Third, unlike Syria, Iran has not sent its leaders to Moscow since the end of the war with Georgia and has been fairly subdued on the matter.
As we have said, one geopolitical option for the United States now is a deal with Iran. We do not know whether one is in the works, but we know this: The rhetoric from Washington on Iran has quieted since the Russo-Georgian war and has stayed quiet. And the United States has made a major concession to Iran this week.
The media have lost interest in Iran, but it is hard to believe the Bush administration has.
Yet the rhetoric has shifted. We do not think the United States is on the brink of attacking Iran. If the Americans were planning an attack on Iran, the last thing they would do is pull the MeK back. So something is up.
American rhetoric has shifted, and diplomatic maneuvers are underway, well below the radar threshold of major media reporting. There are, even now, some indications that the United States is preparing a major shift in strategy in Afghanistan, in an attempt to replicate some of the successes of recent shifts in Iraq; in the Afghanistan theater, this will entail alliances with local militias - effectively, a reconciliation with factions of the Taliban, and an attempt to split that Taliban movement as a whole, while reconciling some parts thereof with the Karzai government. We no longer hear much about Iran, for a variety of reasons: stabilizing and drawing down the Iraqi theater will involve some sort of accommodation with Iran; moreover, the prospects for the imposition of international sanctions have dramatically deteriorated.
These shifts have seemed to people more knowledgeable than myself to coincide with the Russia-Georgia conflict in August; and, if this is the case, then that can only be because the United States is in the beginning phases of a reactivation of an older sort of geostrategic agenda, namely, the containment of any conceivable Eurasian hegemon. Curiously, in American thinking, as opposed to the thinking of some neoconservatives, who have been pounding the drums about the Chinese threat - which is genuine, on some levels, though in dimensions other than those enthusiasts of globalization are wont to concede - it is Russia that traditionally occupies this position of Eurasia hegemonic threat. Why anyone would entertain, for even a nanosecond, the notion that a Russia undergoing demographic implosion, reliant upon energy revenues for state financing (and for international leverage, although it should be noted that the energy weapon, given its association with Russian state finance, is, at best, a short-term weapon only, and of limited long-term viability), and contained by the rising powers of Asia, China and India - factors not present during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was perceived, quite rationally, as a prospective Eurasia hegemon - could be such a monumental geopolitical threat is quite mystifying. One cannot teach old dogs new geopolitical realities, I suppose.
In any event, there are the realities: American rhetoric, and strategy, with respect to present theaters, are gradually shifting, following the dramatic silences that greeted the Caucasian unpleasantness of August. One can say at least this much: that significant factions of the American establishment would like to reorient the American focus, and that this reorientation will require several years of patient effort, diplomatic, economic, and military. It may not happen. But some are, in fact, greatly desirous that it occur, and for reasons that cannot sustain the weight of the policies they are expected to bear.