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Thursday, September 5, 2013

The French Mandate

Alexander Stille makes a nice case for why the French have gone out on a limb over Syria. Yet he neglects to mention the fact that Syria (and Lebanon) were once under French control as a League of Nations Mandate. Perhaps this grants a special responsibility? (We recall that Iraq was under a British mandate.)

Some people have suggested that today’s Middle East is undoing a century of geopolitics: ending once and for all the Sykes-Picot division of postwar spoils. Sykes and Picot are long dead. But does anybody take a mass redrawing of borders seriously? Let’s pray not.

For now the evident sentimentality of some Europeans touches the heart. It also makes for a convenient explanation of why the French once reflexively took the Serbian side in the wars of Yugoslav succession while the Germans took the Croatian side, etc. Thankfully Americans don’t much go for this kind of thing: if they give a toss about a place like the Philippines, it won’t be because anybody knows about their occupation of it long ago.

Too much emotion is never a good thing, however. "A sentimental policy knows no reciprocity."

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Monday, September 2, 2013

Raising the Stakes

Edward Luce has invoked a popular metaphor for Barack Obama’s predicament, perhaps recalling the president’s statement that he “does not bluff.” Evidently not. With his latest Syria gamble, Obama “risks getting into a game of poker he cannot control.”

Poker may not be the best metaphor—card games are won not by controlling your opponent literally but by outsmarting him with the hand you're dealt. Throughout the Cold War and after, games metaphors were mixed and imperfect: Soviets play chess, Chinese play go, Americans play checkers, and so on.

In this case a better analogy would be to judo. And we all know who the judo artist is.

Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks (and much will almost surely happen in Syria), there’s little doubt that the Americans and their allies have been put off balance. They are not yet thrown.

What would a real defeat look like? To answer that question, at least from the Russian perspective, we have to ask what the aim would be. Saving a vicious Syrian client is probably not the principal one. Nor is reversing a 40-year-long departure from major player status in the Middle East.

There’s a bigger and more obvious target which continues to be vilified by many Russians, for quite understandable reasons. Contingency planners should be asking, if Obama takes one for the team now, what will happen if the conflict continues to spread and NATO is forced to act? Where will the American, British, French, German and other governments stand then?

Article V is like virginity; if its deterrent value is lost, there’s no going back.

The Russians are not the main players in this conflict, of course. But they are master opportunists, and a very big opportunity has, up to now, been delivered to them. Humiliate a great power when it’s down, it may come back. Humiliate an alliance, the alliance dies.

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