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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Last week in Afghanistan, the Taliban, once almost lacking a presence in the northern part of the country, attacked Kunduz, a northern provincial capital and held parts of it for days (as they had in 2015). At the moment, that movement also has two southern capitals under siege, Tarin Kot in Helmand Province and Lashkar Gah in Uruzgan Province, and now seems to control more territory and population than at any time since the U.S. invasion of 2001-2002. Mind you, from an American perspective, we're talking about the war that time forgot. Amid the hurricane of words in Election 2016, neither presidential candidate nor their vice presidential surrogates has thought it worth the bother to pay any real attention to the Afghan War, though it is the longest in our history. It's as if, 15 years later, it isn't even happening, as if American troops hadn't once again been ordered into combat situations and the U.S. Air Force wasn't once again flying increased missions there.

Of course, it wasn't supposed to be this way, not for the planet's "sole superpower," its "hyperpower," its last remaining "sheriff" bestriding the globe with military bases in close to 80 countries, its Special Operations forces in almost 150 nations annually, and its Navy's 10 aircraft carrier battle groups patrolling the seas. On paper, it's been a hell of a new century for the United States. Only reality, it seems, has begged to differ.

As TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro points out today, if you've noticed the growing assertiveness of China and Russia (and perhaps, one of these days, India will become more assertive, too), you'll know that we're on an increasingly multipolar planet. In reality, I suspect it's always been a significantly more multipolar place than anyone in Washington cared to imagine. In a sense, our world is not only becoming more multipolar but also more helter-skelter, a place filled with low-level insurgencies and terror outfits that simply can't be crushed, amid failing and collapsing states and vast refugee flows, on a globe that is ever more subject to the overheated, rampaging pressures of nature. It's not exactly the picture of a tidy imperial planet nor one that Washington had ever imagined possible. Tom

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American Power at the Crossroads
A Snapshot of a Multipolar World in Action
By Dilip Hiro

In the strangest election year in recent American history -- one in which the Libertarian Party's Gary Johnson couldn't even conjure up the name of a foreign leader he "admired" while Donald Trump remained intent on building his "fat, beautiful wall" and "taking" Iraq oil -- the world may be out of focus for many Americans right now. So a little introduction to the planet we actually inhabit is in order. Welcome to a multipolar world. One fact stands out: Earth is no longer the property of the globe's "sole superpower."

If you want proof, you can start by checking out Moscow's recent role in reshaping the civil war in Syria and frustrating Washington's agenda to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. And that's just one of a number of developments that highlight America's diminishing power globally in both the military and the diplomatic arenas. On a peaceable note, consider the way China has successfully launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a rival to the World Bank, not to speak of its implementation of a plan to link numerous countries in Asia and Europe to China in a vast multinational transportation and pipeline network it grandly calls the One Belt and One Road system, or the New Silk Road project. In such developments, one can see ways in which the previously overwhelming economic power of the U.S. is gradually being challenged and curtailed internationally.

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Moscow Calling the Shots in Syria

The Moscow-Washington agreement of September 10th on Syria, reached after 10 months of hard bargaining and now in shambles after another broken truce, had one crucial if little noted aspect. For the first time since the Soviet Union imploded, Russia managed to put itself on the same diplomatic footing as the U.S. As Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented, "This is not the end of the road... just the beginning of our new relations" with Washington. Even though those relations are now in a state of suspension and exacerbation, it's indisputable that the Kremlin's limited military intervention in Syria was tailored to achieve a multiplier effect, yielding returns both in that war-ravaged, devastated land and in international diplomacy.

In August 2015, by all accounts, President Assad was on the ropes and the morale of his dwindling army at rock bottom. Even the backing of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had proven insufficient to reverse his faltering hold on power.

To save his regime from collapse, the Kremlin's military planners decided to fill the gaping hole left by Syria's collapsing air force, shore up its air defenses, and boost its depleted arsenal of tanks and armored vehicles. For this, they turned one of Russia's last footholds abroad, an airbase near the Mediterranean port of Latakia, into a forward operating base, and shipped to it warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. Russia also deployed its most advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles there.

The number of Russian military personnel dispatched was estimated at 4,000 to 5,000. Although none of them were ground troops, this was an unprecedented step in recent Russian history. The last time the Kremlin had deployed significant forces outside its territory -- in December 1979 in Afghanistan -- proved an ill-judged venture, ending a decade later in their withdrawal, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

"An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won't work," said President Barack Obama at a White House press conference soon after the Russian military intervention. He should have been an expert on the subject since a U.S.-led coalition had been bombing targets in Syrian territory controlled by the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) since September 2014. Nonetheless, the Pentagon soon signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kremlin over safety procedures for their aircraft, now sharing Syrian air space, and established a ground communications link for any problems that should arise.

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During the next six months in a sustained air campaign, Russian warplanes carried out 9,000 sorties, claiming to have destroyed 209 oil production and transfer facilities (supposedly controlled by ISIS), and enabled the Syrian army to retake 400 settlements spread over 3,860 square miles. In the process, the Russians lost just five men. As the prospect of Russia playing an ongoing critical role in Syria grew, the mood in the White House started to change. In mid-March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. The implication, even if through gritted teeth, was that the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the Russian position in Syria, and that closer coordination between the two leading players was needed to crush ISIS.

A year after the Russian campaign was launched, most major Syrian cities were back in government hands (even if often in rubble), and rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack. The morale of the Assad regime had improved, even if the overall size of its army had diminished. It was no longer in danger of being overthrown and its hand was strengthened at any future negotiating table.

No less important to the Russians, just reemerging on the Middle Eastern stage, all the anti-Assad foreign players in Syria had come to recognize the pivotal position that the Kremlin had acquired in that war-torn land where a five-and-a-half-year civil conflict had resulted in an upper estimate of nearly 500,000 deaths, and the bombing of hospitals had become commonplace. On the first anniversary of the Russian campaign, Putin dispatched more planes to Syria, which made getting into a quagmire a possibility. But there can be no question that, in the interim, Putin's strategy had served Russia's geopolitical goals well.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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