Finding Time — and Courage — for Crisis Management

by Henry Precht

They used to say during the Cold War that the Pentagon was prepared to fight two and a half wars at the same time. Actually, I can’t think of such a fraught moment in post-World War II history. Vietnam came along after Korea; Reagan took on Grenada and Panama after ducking out of Lebanon. Only when George W. Bush pushed troops into Afghanistan and Iraq did we come close to the theoretical limit of our force projection capabilities.

It wasn’t the same with diplomacy: One crisis at a time has been the cap on American Great Power role-playing. The classic case was President Jimmy Carter’s taking a pass on the budding Iranian revolution while at the same time nudging Egypt and Israel into a peace settlement. A 500 percent batting average isn’t too bad, however.

If the one crisis at a time rule still applies, let us extend a bit of sympathy to the Obama White House. I count four major, on-going crises, five pretty big ones holding a serious potential to get worse plus a host of seedlings that should be brought under control. The biggies are:

  • The clash with Russia over Ukraine;
  • The Syrian civil war;
  • The Iranian nuclear program;
  • The Israel-Palestine peace negotiations.

You can make your own list of the slightly lesser dangers by throwing darts at a map. Let’s limit ourselves to examining the four major threats:

  • China’s assertiveness in the Pacific;
  • Pakistan under threat of Islamic extremists;
  • Egypt’s move to strong-man rule;
  • Venezuela’s internal strife;
  • Europe’s fragile economy.

Plainly, the Ukrainian trouble harbors the widest and most severe long-term threat: A renewed Cold War, higher energy costs, ruined economies around the globe and the unrest that will provoke, distortion of domestic priorities — the list goes on and on. Domestic politics and distaste for Russian President Vladimir Putin afflict American diplomacy; domestic sentiments, history and Putin’s pride bear upon Russia’s. The way out is fairly clear: both sides have to switch off their rhetoric and hostile gestures, walk their positions back and prove stronger than their Ukrainian clients. The elements of a settlement can objectively be foreseen: a freeze by all on moves towards Crimea; a new regime in Kiev displacing right-wing elements; free, supervised elections later this year; and generous financial help from both East and West.

Once Ukraine is headed in that direction, work must be resumed on Syria to stop the killing. To do that Russia’s help will be essential as will that of Saudi Arabia (for dealing with the rebels) and Iran (for dealing with Assad). Moscow’s influence will be important with the latter; Washington’s crucial with the former. Assad, having killed so many of his people, must accept early retirement to be replaced by eminent Syrians acceptable to both sides who will in some months oversee national elections. Reconstruction will be the priority task and Saudi money the only possible supplier for that. Again, Washington will have to find the time and means to be persuasive with its royal client.

The same talents in Washington will have to be applied to persuade Riyadh that its interests will be protected when a nuclear deal with Iran is completed — which must happen if the US is to get Iran on board for a Syrian settlement.

And what of Israel? Will Jerusalem twiddle thumbs as the world weaves new alignments? Hardly. No Israeli leaders — or friend in Congress — will sit quietly while Obama offers an olive branch to Tehran while throwing a punch at Israel’s presence on the West Bank. Something will have to give and, as has happened in the past, that will mean peace talks must be slowed down and US pressure quietly eased. Perhaps the Saudis can be persuaded to appease the Palestinians, especially if we agree not to take the side of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — which we certainly weren’t going to do in any event.

Can all or any of this be accomplished by a one-crisis-at-a-time administration, especially in a very difficult election year with a crowed domestic agenda before a rebellious Congress? No one knows, but if the usual crisis management limitation governs, a potentially explosive Ukraine must obviously receive the highest priority.

The administration’s diplomatic skills should be sufficient to put together a solution — given the time to nurture the necessary connections in Western and Eastern Europe. A measure of luck will, as always, be essential. But the largest lacuna may lie in the requirement for political bravery. The time will have to be found to muster up courage not profiled in Washington in many, many years.

Photo: President Barack Obama convenes a National Security Council meeting in the Situation Room of the White House to discuss the situation in Ukraine, March 3, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Henry Precht

Henry Precht, a retired Foreign Service Officer, worked mainly in the Middle East. His assignments included the Arab-Israel Desk after the 1967 war, four years in Tehran as political-military officer, in charge of the State Department Iran Desk during the revolution and hostage crisis, and two tours in Egypt – Alexandria in the 1960s and deputy ambassador in Cairo 1981-85. Precht speaks and writes on the region, and has published a book of short stories, A Diplomat’s Progress.


One Comment

  1. This post started out good, at least until it go to “Jerusalem twiddling thumbs”, which gives Israel a pass. Israel has got to readjust too, as they’re just too involved in the M.E.”Clusterfuck” not to. The one thing all these educated past and present government/private talking heads don’t seem to understand, is the people who live in the countries the U.S. stirs up dissension in, end up being victimized, one way or another.

    The same can be said for the people of the U.S., especially the men & women who volunteer to be in the military services. But like a lot of old used rags, are discarded after they serve. How this Congress can continue giving Israel the $Billions plus adding to the total, while at the same time, cutting the benefits of the military veterans, is in two words: B.S. Putting Israel first, while giving away taxpayers money is one of the crimes of this century our government has perpetrated upon the American public.

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