Washington, Sept. 13: The fatal attack on the American ambassador to Libya and three other US personnel at their consulate in Benghazi has had the immediate result of ending the prospect of any western military effort to change the regime in Syria in the foreseeable future.
John Kerry, the man who is most likely to be Barack Obama’s next secretary of state if he is elected President for a second term in November, said last night that the violence in Libya “will certainly give pause, or should give pause, to people who are pressing for a kind of involvement (in Syria) that you have got to back up to be successful”.
Kerry, who is now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Democratic majority Senate, told The Washington Post in an interview that protecting American interests in the Arab world must be the top US priority.
Implicit in this assertion is a message that a prospective new Obama administration is not going to pursue the messianic “spread-democracy” campaign of the George W. Bush era from which Obama’s first tenure was unable to sufficiently extricate itself, resulting in the regime change in Libya and long-term policies going wrong in Iraq.
As in Libya, there have been credible reports that elements fighting to remove President Bashar al Assad from power in Damascus include a large element of al Qaida sympathisers and other extremist forces that are uncompromisingly anti-West in general and anti-American in particular.
Because these elements are also fanatically anti-Israel, there has not been much enthusiasm in Tel Aviv for changing the regime in Syria by force.
Anti-American demonstrations, which spread today to Iraq, another Arab country which the US “liberated” by force, were a stark reminder of how much Washington’s West Asia policies have gone woefully wrong. Protests against a film denigrating Prophet Mohammad that was made in the US continued today in Cairo and spread to Tehran and Dhaka.
They took a serious turn in Yemen where demonstrators breached the American embassy compound in Sanaa.
Kerry said: “There will be moments of danger and moments of setback and confrontation. But we have to continue to press our interests, and you can’t retreat.” He cited examples of Washington “working very effectively with Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, the Saudis (and) the Gulf states.”
Most of the countries Kerry referred to want to promote democracy in the Arab world, but only outside their own borders and have fiercely put down even a semblance of dissent or protest.
Washington too has not supported regime change in any of these countries that are aligned to the US.
The incumbent secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, has rejected the idea that she would serve a second term in her job and has even indicated that she may retire altogether from public life. No one believes she would and speculation is that she does not want any office that would impede a renewed presidential bid in 2016.
In the light of Clinton’s decision, Kerry, with his long Senate experience in foreign policy, is being talked about here as the next US secretary of state in the eventuality of a second term for Obama.
At a hurriedly arranged media teleconference yesterday by the US state department which wanted to put across its version of the events in Benghazi, the very first question was: “…I know Secretary (Hillary) Clinton said that this would not affect how the US dealt with the Libyans, and that you would move forward. But certainly, it must make you start to think about any precipitous rush to support groups in any other countries such as Syria or the like because of the uncertainty of who is on the ground.”
Three state department officials participated in the teleconference, the ground rules for which, prohibited reporters from identifying them. None of the three officials came forward to answer that question because the anti-US backlash in Libya has added a new dimension to what will happen in Syria now.
Besides, professional diplomats may be excused from answering that question because it is clearly a political call to make. From the side of Democrats, Senator Kerry unambiguously took that call last night.
It is not only on Syria that the fast-paced situation on the ground in the Islamic world is having an echo. For all practical purposes the long-running debate on whether Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities — with or without American approval — is now virtually over.
Israel, which knows its neighbourhood far more intimately than the Americans will ever know, is now unlikely to attack Iran notwithstanding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s continued desire to launch such a pre-emptive strike. At least not in the short run.
Even before Muslims countries erupted in violence over the film that mocks Prophet Mohammad, Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, one of the most experienced statesmen anywhere, gave expression to his opposition to an Israeli air strike.
Peres was of the view that Israel should do nothing to rock the American election scene or hand Republican Mitt Romney an unfair advantage in the contest, which would be the consequence of any attack on Iran.
Additionally, he was of the view that Iran is capable of retaliating against US forces in Afghanistan in the event of an Israeli strike and, therefore, Tel Aviv should hold back until the Americans have pulled out of Afghanistan in 2014.
In Israel, the views of its army leaders carry a lot of weight even though the top echelons of the defence forces prefer most of the time to act behind the scenes.
A rare exception came recently when a former director of military intelligence of Israel’s army, General Uri Sagi, publicly questioned the wisdom of an attack on Iran under the present circumstances.
Israel cannot launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran without a broad national consensus. Its President and a leading army figure have made that consensus impossible now. Obama’s decision not to meet Netanyahu during the UN General Assembly in New York this month came before the Benghazi violence.
Yesterday’s incidents have legitimised that decision even though the Jewish lobby here may yet persuade the US President to change his mind. If that happens, the outcome in New York may be no more than symbolic.