When the Obama administration took control of U.S. foreign policy in 2009, it undertook to mitigate what it considered the damage wrought by the George W. Bush team. The Iraq War was to be wound down, although, as it happens, more or less along the timeline laid down by the previous president. Afghanistan, the forgotten war, was to be quickly turned around by a judicious application of U.S resources and attention. A deft wielding of diplomacy would end the standoff with Iran, “reset” relations with Russia and bring China into a new dialogue to solve global problems. After the massive expenditures for conflict that marked the first decade of the 21st century, America would have a period of quiet in which to rebuild its economic might and return rejuvenated to the world stage.
Things did not go according to this plan. That does not mean that the attempt was futile and therefore should never have been tried, as some of the president's critics charge. But it does mean that it is past time to move to a “Plan B” for U.S. foreign policy. What is problematic is that over the past year, whether by design or by accident, Washington seems to have embarked on an overly ambitious plan of "triple containment" to counter any expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East, Russian influence in the Eurasian space and Chinese influence in East Asia. But it has not articulated the strategic rationale for such a measure or generated the political support necessary for devoting the expenditure of the necessary resources to give such an approach better odds of achieving success.
If fully realized, triple containment would mean the end of America's ability, over the past two decades, to build up a preponderance of force in one region of the world while being able to rest assured that other parts would remain quiet. The annexation of Crimea earlier this spring was an unwelcome wake-up call for Russia's ability to project conventional military power in a continent that many assumed would never see a major great power conflict again, and it heightened calls for the U.S. to return significant land, air and naval power to the European theater of action. Meanwhile, the problems in the Middle East have led to U.S. military power being once again readied for action there. And all of this takes place against the backdrop of commitments to significantly shift the balance of U.S. armed might to the Asia-Pacific region over the next several years. This led Seyed Mohammad Marandi of the University of Tehran
, "Obama's pivot to Asia is viewed with skepticism, as the U.S. already has more than it can handle in Ukraine, West Asia and North Africa."
A triple containment approach also has another unintended consequence of taking three separate regional geopolitical rivals and giving them even more of an incentive to join forces to spread thin American attention and focus. The Ukraine crisis pulled attention away from the troubles of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who has steadily moved closer to China and Russia for support; in turn, the flare-up of a possible civil war
in Iraq shifted attention away from Ukraine, which now finds itself unable to combat rebels in its eastern provinces and faces an energy cut-off from Russia. The twin crises in Eastern Europe and the Middle East also pull U.S. attention away from the Pacific rim, where China, in recent weeks, has flexed its muscles in the South China Sea by placing facilities in areas that are disputed with both the Philippines and Vietnam. Not surprisingly, some analysts in both Russia and China have talked about accelerating cooperation and drawing Iran into an effort
to balance against the United States.
Finally, the unfortunate reality that the U.S. faces is that each of these three countries—Iran, Russia and China—hold possible solutions to pressing U.S. problems, but reaching them would require Washington to make accommodations that would be problematic for stated U.S. preferences. For the past two decades, for instance, the U.S. begrudgingly acquiesced to Russia's growing role as Europe's energy supplier because that was seen as preferable to the alternative, which was to allow Iran's underdeveloped and undercapitalized gas reserves to be developed for export to European markets, and for Iran, not Russia, to bank the energy revenues. Despite Western efforts to develop other sources in Central Asia, the reality is that other players, such as Azerbaijan, can only impact Russia's predominance at the margins. As a result, Gazprom has been one of the main beneficiaries of America's containment of Iran, and as long as the U.S. continues to push for Iran's economic isolation, that reality will not change.
The current crisis in Iraq creates the possibility of changing that dynamic
. Iran shares a common strategic interest with Washington in pushing back the gains made by the Sunni extremist movement the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in western and central Iraq. A possible settlement of Iran's nuclear program is in range, with the next round of talks to start shortly. That in turn would open massive new sources of energy for Europe's use, and make pipelines crossing Turkey much more cost effective.
But to achieve that, the United States would have to accept the fundamental legitimacy of the Islamic Republic and cease efforts at regime change. Washington would have to accept the Iranians retaining a significant civilian nuclear infrastructure that would still put Tehran in range of a breakout military capability. And even if common ground might be found in Iraq, Iran would continue to back the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and maintain its cold war with Israel. So far, these would appear to be dealbreakers with a significant portion of the U.S. political establishment. Compromise settlements with Russia over Ukraine or with China over the disputed maritime zones could also free up U.S. attention but face similar political roadblocks.
In an ideal world where all the diplomatic stars aligned in America's favor, Russia would settle its conflict with Ukraine by lowering gas prices and letting Ukraine "join Europe," while China would cede its territorial claims in favor of its neighbors and Iran would give up its nuclear ambitions entirely and endorse John Kerry's peace-making efforts in Syria. Since all of that is not likely to happen, it might be advisable to start setting some priorities—and sticking with them.
Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.