Amid the hubbub of media and official commentary on and denunciation of the jihadi Islamic State (Isis), only one thing is clear—no one has a clue what to do.
Barack Obama announced with a great flourish at the Nato summit in Newport last week the formation of a “core coalition” of ten states to “degrade and defeat” Isis.
But most are Western countries far from the scene of the action. They include such states as Germany, which is fiercely resisting US pressure to increase its defence spending to 2 percent of national income.
David Cameron said Isis was going to be “squeezed”, but he didn’t explain who would do the squeezing.
The US mounted more airstrikes against Isis last weekend, but neither Washington nor London is contemplating committing ground troops in Iraq.
There is something common to the multiple crises confronting US imperialism and its allies. First Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine are all disintegrated states. The causes of disintegration vary.
The US and Britain broke Iraq up when they invaded in 2003. The regime of Bashar al-Assad fractured Syria when it reacted to the 2011 revolution by launching a sectarian civil war. And Ukraine has been torn apart by the struggle between rival gangs of oligarchs and their outside backers—on the one hand, the US and the European Union, on the other, Russia.
But state collapse has opened the door to local forces that are hard to control.
Isis, a sectarian jihadi outfit, is the extreme case. It has cleverly and ruthlessly used the Syrian war and popular hatred of former Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki to build its own state. But the rival nationalist militias that are doing most of the frontline fighting in southeastern Ukraine also fall into this pattern.
Secondly, these crises have been exacerbated by the action of local states.
Russia is the most obvious example—a relatively weak imperialist struggling to prevent encirclement by the US and Nato. All the Western bluster about a new Cold War and the wickedness of Vladimir Putin doesn’t begin to grasp what his strategy is.
Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Centre explained to the Financial Times, “By stepping up Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks and deploying regular Russian troops, Mr Putin had sent a message to Kiev that he would not allow Ukrainian forces to defeat the pro-Russian rebels.”
The paper went on, “‘He put his finger on the scales of the battle, not his entire fist. And that was enough to deny victory to Ukrainian forces,’ said Mr Trenin.
“The Russian president’s main aim, he added, was to position Moscow to have ‘enough leverage to weigh in very seriously on what happens in Kiev’, and prevent it from joining western alliances such as Nato.”
In the case of Syria and Iraq, we have Russia again and Iran. The Islamic Republican regime in Tehran is particularly important as the main backer of Assad and Maliki, and also of Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement in Lebanon.
But then there are Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which are widely accused of backing Isis and the Jabhat al-Nusra, the official al Qaida affiliate in Syria. The role of Turkey—the only Middle Eastern state in Obama’s new “core coalition”—has been equivocal.
In seeking to impose its will on these local powers the US is limited by its unwillingness to deploy troops.
No one with a brain is prepared to contemplate Western serious military operations in Ukraine. The occupation of Iraq made the US a Middle Eastern power with formidable military capabilities that other states had to take into account. No longer.
Finally, the very multiple character of the crises reduces Washington’s room for manoeuvre. Obama, his allies and opponents all have to make their calculations based on the fact that the US has to spread attention and resources.
This is not simply between Ukraine and the Middle East but also East Asia, where the most serious long-term threat to American hegemony has emerged in the shape of China.
None of this will stop the US hitting out viciously. But more and more it looks like an imperialism at bay.