You say you want a revolution? Not now, mate, can’t you see we’re busy?
“It’s the economy, stupid,” was the focal message around which Bill Clinton organized his against-the-odds 1992 campaign victory over President George H.W. Bush. The incumbent had presided over the soft landing of the collapsing Soviet empire and driven Saddam Hussein’s armies out of Kuwait having achieved full U.N. backing for the operation. But foreign policy chops counted for little in the face of the economic pain Americans were feeling as a result of a recession, and Bush found himself pilloried as a to-the-manor-born lordling for not knowing the price of milk.
Fast forward two decades and the message may well be the same: Not that President Barack Obama has scored any significant foreign policy victories, mind, but the onset of a renewed recession is likely once again to make concerns over the economy the focus not only of an angry electorate but also of political leaders, not only in Washington, but also in other Western capitals. It’s the economy that will increasingly set the limits on commitments Western powers are willing to make abroad, whether in the form of military intervention or even of aid. And, on the flip side, it will be economic pain that will increasingly serve as the main driver of rebellion and political instability across the global spectrum.
That’s bad news, of course, for anyone abroad expecting to get Washington’s focused attention, much less persuade the Obama Administration to take political risks on their behalf. Libyans got an early taste of recessionary geopolitics with President Obama’s “leading from behind” formulation of the U.S. role in NATO’s intervention to topple Colonel Gaddafi — a euphemism, really, for limiting U.S. exposure in what has been an ineffectual Western intervention. Syrians, needless to say, oughtn’t hold their breath for any foreign intervention to stay the hand of the Assad dictatorship as it rains brutality upon rebellious cities.
The killing of 22 members of the elite Navy SEAL Team 6 among the 38 U.S. and Afghan personnel lost when the Taliban downed a Chinook helicopter last weekend will simply remind Americans that they’re spinning their wheels in Afghanistan, squandering blood and treasure on an expeditionary war in which the U.S. is unlikely to prevail. And the uptick in attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq will eventually prompt the question of why it falls to Americans to put themselves in the firing line of an Iranian-Saudi proxy war there.
The Palestinian leadership want Western powers to recognize their statehood in September; the Israelis want Western powers to stop the Palestinians seeking such recognition. Don’t be surprised if both sides find the U.S. unwilling to wade too deeply into the issue. And top-tier meetings between the Obama Administration and its European peers these days are unlikely to dwell too long on the question of the Palestinians’ U.N. initiative when by their own reckoning they have far more important questions to discuss.
Pro-Israel hawks may be jumping up and down warning that sanctions aren’t working and that the U.S. must threaten military action against Iran, but the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran’s capabilities and intentions, and the threat they represents is not as dire — and Washington is unlikely, on that basis, to start a war that could imperil oil supplies, sending prices skyrocketing and sharply raising the economic pain of all. It’s a safer bet, today, to predict more treading of water on the Iran front — which is fine with Tehran.
Make no mistake, though, Iran is under pressure economic pressure of its own, made worse by those sanctions, with inflation rising and squeezing the already impoverished majority as social inequality expands. The very same economic triggers that set off the Arab Spring rebellion could yet come into play in Iran.
Similarly, while the economic slump — as well as a number of geopolitical considerations — make it unlikely that Western or any other foreign powers will intervene in Syria, the Assad regime is likely to be progressively weakened by its own declining economy, its inability to restore growth that could create a basis for stability threatening to see some of its core constituencies looking for alternatives.
In Egypt, the rebellion that began as a knock-on effect from the Tunisian uprising sparked by economic despair, rising food prices and unemployment levels — and declining foreign currency reserves — threaten renewed instability. Even in Israel, hundreds of thousands of people are on the streets protesting against their own declining living standards. And their concerns are shared by millions of Palestinians who’ve seen little evidence of the West Bank economic “boom” that has so impressed some Western pundits.
In other conflict zones, the picture is no different: Pakistan is no more likely to do U.S. bidding against the Taliban now than it had been over the past decade, and it may well be banking on the life support needed for its flailing domestic economy coming from China or Saudi Arabia than from the U.S. And don’t expect a muscular U.S. role in policing conflicts in the north Pacific and the South China Sea, or for the Russian “reset” to bear much fruit. The geopolitical assumptions of the two decades since the end of the Cold War are no longer fixed in place, and the major players will be taking the measure of the new possibilities in years to come. But for now, all are focused on the same crisis that is giving President Obama nightmares. That’s because while all politics may be local, all economics, these days, is global.