Over the past weekend, rumors began to emerge that the Syrian opposition would allow elements of the al Assad regime to remain in Syria and participate in the new government. Rumors have become Syria's prime export, and as such they should not be taken too seriously. Nevertheless, what is happening in Syria is significant for a new foreign doctrine emerging in the United States -- a doctrine in which the United States does not take primary responsibility for events, but which allows regional crises to play out until a new regional balance is reached. Whether a good or bad policy -- and that is partly what the U.S. presidential race is about -- it is real, and it flows from lessons learned.
Threats against the United States are many and complex, but Washington's main priority is ensuring that none of those threats challenge its fundamental interests. Somewhat simplistically, this boils down to mitigating threats against U.S. control of the seas by preventing the emergence of a Eurasian power able to marshal resources toward that end. It also includes preventing the development of a substantial intercontinental nuclear capability that could threaten the United States if a country is undeterred by U.S. military power for whatever reason. There are obviously other interests, but certainly these interests are fundamental.
Therefore, U.S. interest in what is happening in the Western Pacific is understandable. But even there, the United States is, at least for now, allowing regional forces to engage each other in a struggle that has not yet affected the area's balance of power. U.S. allies and proxies, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan, have been playing chess in the region's seas without a direct imposition of U.S. naval power -- even though such a prospect appears possible.
The roots of this policy lie in Iraq. Iran and Iraq are historical rivals; they fought an extended war in the 1980s with massive casualties. A balance of power existed between the two that neither was comfortable with but that neither could overcome. They contained each other with minimal external involvement.
The U.S. intervention in Iraq had many causes but one overwhelming consequence: In destroying Saddam Hussein's regime, a regime that was at least as monstrous as Moammar Gadhafi's or Bashar al Assad's, the United States destroyed the regional balance of power with Iran. The United States also miscalculated the consequences of the invasion and faced substantial resistance. When the United States calculated that withdrawal was the most prudent course -- a decision made during the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration -- Iran consequently gained power and a greater sense of security. Perhaps such outcomes should have been expected, but since a forced withdrawal was unexpected, the consequences didn't clearly follow and warnings went unheeded.
If Iraq was the major and critical lesson on the consequences of intervention, Libya was the smaller and less significant lesson that drove it home. The United States did not want to get involved in Libya. Following the logic of the new policy, Libya did not represent a threat to U.S. interests. It was the Europeans, particularly the French, who argued that the human rights threats posed by the Gadhafi regime had to be countered and that those threats could quickly and efficiently be countered from the air. Initially, the U.S. position was that France and its allies were free to involve themselves, but the United States did not wish to intervene.
This rapidly shifted as the Europeans mounted an air campaign. They found that the Gadhafi regime did not collapse merely because French aircraft entered Libyan airspace. They also found that the campaign was going to be longer and more difficult than they anticipated. At this point committed to maintaining its coalition with the Europeans, the United States found itself in the position of either breaking with its coalition or participating in the air campaign. It chose the latter, seeing the commitment as minimal and supporting the alliance as a prior consideration.