"... Those who are urging the US to get more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict now are living in the past. They assume that America can and should continue to dominate the politics of the Middle East. But four fundamental changes make it no longer realistic, or even desirable, for the US to dominate the region in the old way.These changes are the failures of the Afghan and Iraq wars; the Great Recession, the Arab spring and the prospect of US energy independence....President Barack Obama has given some ground to the “arm the rebels” camp. But his reluctance and scepticism are evident – and amply justified. If a full-scale western occupation of both Iraq and Afghanistan was unable to secure a decent outcome, why does anybody believe that supplying a few light weapons to the Syrian rebels will be more effective?
The Great Recession also means that the west’s capacity to “bear any burden” can no longer be taken for granted. European military spending is falling fast – and cuts in the Pentagon budget have begun. With the direct and indirect cost of the Iraq war estimated at $3tn and the US government borrowing 40 cents of every dollar that it spends, it is hardly surprising that Mr Obama is wary of taking on new commitments in the Middle East.
The third new factor is the Arab spring. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was a long-time ally and client of the US. Nonetheless, Washington decided to let him fall in early 2011 – much to the disgust and alarm of other long-term American allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel....
Finally, the ability of the US to take a more hands-off attitude is greatly enhanced by the shale revolution in the US, which lessens American dependence on Middle Eastern oil.
Accepting that western domination of the Middle East is coming to an end, however, should not be confused with saying that western nations will not defend their interests.
The US has large military bases in the Gulf and, together with its allies, will still try to prevent the Middle East becoming dominated by a hostile power. Despite its role in Syria, Russia is not a plausible regional hegemon. But Iran worries the US; an attack on its nuclear programme remains an option, despite the encouraging result of this weekend’s presidential elections. Jihadist forces, linked to al-Qaeda, will also encounter western resistance – one reason why the Syrian opposition continues to be treated very warily. And the US and its European allies will remain deeply involved in regional diplomacy over Syria.
Western humanitarian instincts will play a role too – as they did in the decision to support the Libyan rebellion. But, as Syria is demonstrating, there is a limit to what the west will take on. Even former Australian foreign minister Gareth Evans, the intellectual godfather of the doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” civilians, is warning against military intervention in Syria.
Despite the US decision to begin to supply military assistance to the rebels, Mr Obama is obviously still wary of deep involvement in the Syrian conflict. More than some of his advisers and allies, he seems to appreciate the limited ability of outside powers to control the new order that it is emerging in the region. The era of direct colonialism in the Middle East ended decades ago. The era of informal empire is now also coming to a close."