One cannot help wondering if there were not some subtext on Syria behind the current rapprochement. Iran is one of the few nations in modern times to suffer chemical warfare, and, in their own odd way ,the ayatollahs can be quite principled – as we were reminded at the United Nations, about the fatwa against nuclear weapons. Is it possible that the sarin in Syria might test the Damascus-Teheran axis?
Even so, Barack Obama’s uncritical proclamation of American exceptionalism in his UN speech counterpoints his willingness to talk to Teheran. The latter shows some pragmatic acceptance that other countries than the United States and Israel have domestic policies with which their leaders have to cope with. The occasion recalls one of the better US ambassadors to the UN, Bill Richardson, who looked puzzled when questioned why other countries should accept a US offer to pay some of its arrears to the UN, but leave hundreds of millions owing. “But Congress has passed this.” Even such liberal and well-meaning statesman had difficulty accepting that there was anything between Capitol Hill and heaven, which puts into context Obama’s original thought that if Congress approved air raids on Syria, why would the UN be involved?
Mark Twain averred: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress.” Successive generations of representatives have reinforced his point with their votes. But the contemporary breed has a particularly obtuse outlook in which the criminality is permeated with an ideological rigour that is disturbing because the stench of corruption is (only partially) masked with the whiff of sanctimony.
If Obama had gone to Congress for support to bomb Syria without a UN resolution, then some legislators would have opposed it because of its illegality. But diehard conservatives would have opposed it because they have written the Good Samaritan out of their texts. They do not see that is any of America’s business what is being done in a far away country of which they genuinely know little and care less. Indeed, their phobia about “Obamacare” shows that they do not care much about suffering at home.
However, American conservatism is not monolithic. The neo-conservatives, as their name implies, are new. Unusually, their focus is on foreign policy, as befits their Trotskyist antecedents, and they now substitute a pro-Israel and anti-Islamist sensibility for their former rabid anti-communism. The older conservatives draw on the isolationist trends that kept the US out of the League of Nations and the Second World War for so long.
The spectrum is varied. Principles are fine, but a lot of them depend on domestic lobbies to be re-elected. So neo-cons and older conservatives alike will go along with powerful campaign funders such as the defence industry lobby. Some of the libertarian right are so firmly isolationist that they defy their conservative colleagues and oppose intervention even when Israel wants it.
Which, sort of, brings us back to Iran. Benjamin Netanyahu is on his way to Washington, and is unhappy with the idea of any kind of a deal with Iran. It is remotely possible that Obama will finally tell the arrogant Likudnik that the tail does not always wag the dog. It will be difficult, and diplomatically stupid, for the administration to withdraw from a deal brokered with the Russians and Europeans. But will the Palestinians end up paying the price, with yet more concessions ton settlements and arms aid? John Kerry’s willingness to chastise the European Union over embargoes on settlements is a reminder of the lobby-trimmed limits to ethics in US foreign policy.
So the shifts in foreign policy might not be as tectonic as one would hope, but any concession to global reality in the face of domestic lobbying has to be a step forward.