President Obama said recently that the United States cannot simply play ‘whack-a-mole’ in the Middle East. The only appropriate response to which is to say, ‘Yes you can.’
We can all understand why the President might be feeling a little tired over all this. For nearly six gruelling years he has been calling the troops home and declaring that the war is over. Making that speech repeatedly, with the facts so continuously contradicting it, might get to anyone. The successful raid on the bin Laden compound in Pakistan was meant to have put an end to al-Qaeda. Iraq was meant to have been solved when President Obama ordered US troops out of the country. And that iteration of the ‘a decade of war is over’ speech was one of his best.
Meantime, ISIS has saved journalists a few more taps of the finger by renaming themselves the ‘Islamic State’ (IS) after declaring a Caliphate across what was, until very recently, Syria and Iraq. Recent developments in Syria have included a stepping up in the rate of crucifixions, allowing modern people to see photographs of a barbarism most might have expected never to see.
Meantime at home we discover (thanks to the Birmingham Labour MP Khalid Mahmood) that the number of British Muslims who have gone to fight in Syria might be as high as 1500. If this is the case then it would mean that there are three times more British Muslim citizens serving in the jihad in Syria than are currently serving in the British Armed Forces. Though at least we do not currently have – as the Dutch Armed Forces do – the embarrassment of somebody who has been trained as a member of our own national army going off to use their skills to assist the jihad there.
All in all Syria is providing some very unpalatable lessons. But the one that Obama’s America is going to have to ponder as fast as possible is this: if the United States no longer has the energy to play ‘whack-a-mole’ then to whom would it be happy to delegate the role? The current players who seem most interested are regional actors (Iran, Saudi Arabia). But it is hard to see how they will do anything other than pursue their sectional interests and bring Armageddon a little closer in the process. Ordinarily at this stage of hegemonic ambition-droop there would be another world power with more than regional ambition eyeing up the burden. But Vladimir Putin’s Russia seems happy with swallowing up nearer neighbours and China appears content with just buying up the continent of Africa.
So all in all, if America isn’t going to do the job of whack-a-mole, then it looks like the job will remain vacant. And if that does happen then I predict that those people who claimed to dislike the era of American dominance may yet turn out to be the first to begin missing it.