Red Line Follies

Mohsin Zeb

Barack Obama came into power carrying with him the aspirations of an expectant nation and the good will of the wider world. He was many things – handsome, articulate, intelligent and charismatic and above all else he was not George W Bush. Indeed not being Bush appeared to be such an achievement for the Chicago man that he was promptly awarded the coveted Nobel Peace Prize despite not having done anything of note to merit it at the time.

In the years that have followed since his historic win and inauguration in 2008, Obama has had his foreign policy successes that the world should not forget – he ended the war in Iraq, he brought to book Osama Bin Laden in the most dramatic of ways and he is on course to wind down US involvement in Afghanistan starting in 2014. However, history may record all of those achievements as mere footnotes in his presidency. All of them were issues he inherited from his predecessor – and highlighting the differences between himself and President GW Bush was the crux of his presidential campaign – he promised ‘change’ from the status quo as it then stood.


However, in dealing with issues that have either emerged or matured under his watch, it is a sad reality that Barack Obama has failed to live up to expectations. Few were more enthusiastic then I at the sight of Obama taking the Presidency – it embodied for me the progress America has made as a society, a man who would once not have been served in countless eateries, who would not have been allowed to use particular washrooms or who would have had to face countless daily humiliations of account of his colour had taken occupancy of the world’s most noteworthy and powerful position – he, a black man – the son of a Kenyan student- was President of the United States. Making history by becoming President is not however an achievement of his Presidency, it is a social and cultural landmark that has assured him a place in history for eternity, but we must not let the magnitude of his holding Office cloud our judgement of him as President as relates to foreign policy decisions.

For me, two things will define Obama’s Presidency as relates to foreign policy – Syria and Iran. The two are inextricably linked and weakness over one is sure to magnify the challenges posed by the other. In setting a red line over chemical weapons for the Assad regime Obama placed his credibility and the credibility of the US on the line. By not acting in a forceful and decisive manner, as now seems sure to be the case, Obama has sent a terrible signal to the world. The redlines of this US President mean nothing, free to be ignored by any dictator in the world without fear of ramifications. It seems if you have powerful friends you are free to flaunt Washington’s warnings at this time as the political will is lacking to back his words with actions. I was shamed and appalled when the British parliament decided not to hold Assad to account for his criminal actions – the UK failed in its obligations to the global community. If the great democracies of this world do not stand tall for human rights and human dignity, who will? I had hoped that the US would still act as the protective arm of the powerless, as a friend to the friendless – but under this President that now seems too much to ask. Being champions of freedom can never be about vocal support alone, it means much more then that – it means action to protect the sanctity of human life. Clinton showed the true meaning of the mantle when he brought Serbia’s genocidal war machine to a screeching halt in 1999 – and for all the opposition, President GW Bush also backed his verbal warnings to Saddam Hussein with the use of force. Obama’s indecisive nature and flip-flopping almost makes one yearn for the days of George W Bush! At least with the Texan you knew if he said it, he meant it. He bit his tongue for no one. Some called him evil or unbelievable, but rest assured had he issues the red line and saw it ignored; Assad would be hiding in a rabbit hole somewhere as pain rained down on his illegitimate regime.

Not only has Obama’s inaction let Syria off the hook – it sends a dangerous message to weakness globally. If Obama dares not strike Syria, where is the assurance that he will stop the theocratic, Shia expansionist regime in Tehran from acquiring even more dangerous arms? If his red line on Syria is a faint mark in sand, why should the world believe his statements on Iran? Iran has seen the inaction over Syria and become emboldened. It will push the nuclear envelope in the coming years and assume its cordial ties with Moscow will too prevent it from being stopped by force. Imagine the dangers of a nuclear Iran! Not only will regional states feel threatened, some like Saudi Arabia will surely seek to counter Iran’s arsenal by developing their own nuclear weapons. In a blink, the entire Non-Proliferation Regime will collapse like a house of cards! Further threats to allied nations and energy supplies mean a nuclear and belligerent Iran is not an acceptable option for anyone – on this issue countries normally far removed from consensus are united. But I like many others and many allied nations, will not take the assurances of the current US President to be credible any more.

There is a fix – Obama should authorize the use of lethal force to break Assad’s war machine and bring down his regime. Further, Iran needs to know that any further disregard for global norms will mean war. Iran does not have great options in terms of retaliation – it cannot choose all out war as the power disparity is too great in favour of Allied nations. It will not block the Strait of Hormuz as that would force further punishment. It will utilize its proxies but this present only tactical nuisance and not any strategic threat owing to overwhelming power disparities in favour of any threatened nation states.

Ultimately, inaction only emboldens aggressors – history has taught us this – and Obama does not want to be the President who allowed his inaction to enable continued untold humanitarian horrors in Syria on his watch – or the nuclearization of Iran and the subsequent complete collapse of the Non-Proliferation Regime. The credibility of the man – and the Office of President of the United States – and by extension the free world at large – is at stake and that is too much to gamble.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University

Wither Japan?

Mohsin Zeb

Much is made of the rise of China as a superpower these days, with comparatively scant attention being paid to the concurrent decline of Japan as the regions’ leading power and the impact of that slide down the global power tables has and will have on the Japanese people and Japan as a state.


Two things are important to note from the start – one, that historically and certainly over the past few centuries, Japan has had the better of its regional rivals Korea and China and has in comparative recent history subjugated both via military conquest. The second core point is that the rise of China to superpower status – now surely undisputed as a reality in the near future if Beijing is not already acknowledged as such – will impact Japan more directly than any other state – including the United States. It is Japan that sits a stone’s throw away from China, Japan that is directly in line of the growing and increasingly assertive Chinese military, Japan that faces being sucked into the economic dynamo that China now is – finding itself usurped as the regional leader in every field. Indeed steps towards further economic integration, the one area where cooperation seems logical and desirable by all in the North East Asian region, are somewhat stymied by the fear amongst Japan and South Korea that in a free trade area, neither could complete with China on cost – thus seeing a sizable outflow of capital to maximize the benefit of China’s comparative cost advantage for Japanese and Korean producers. However this article deals not with the economics of China’s meteoric rise – but rather hopes to focus more on the political and social impact of the shifting power dynamics in East Asia.

To gauge this, I rely partially on my own unscientific but tremendously interesting experiences. Many moons ago during my first incarnation as a doctoral student I struck up a friendship with a Japanese student enrolled on the same program. Perhaps we both subconsciously thought that the only other ‘Asian’ in the class would enable an easier friendship to emerge or perhaps he assumed I too was a foreign student who would be equally shy speaking in English before more obviously apparent ‘native speakers’- but none the less over time we became quite close and despite my zigzag journey though different programs and cities to where I am now, we remain good friends. I shall not give his full name as he is still on the program and I have no wish to embarrass him but Nish as I called him (Nishi was too much to say!) gave me a tremendous insight into the mindset of segments of the educated strata of Japanese society and how they both view and react to the sea geopolitical changes taking shape around them.

To say he is a nationalist would be an understatement. His grandfather and granduncle fought and died in Iwo Jima in spring 1945, he had been taught to be proud of his roots and over the years has interned for politicians who now make up the second tier of Japan’s ‘Japan Restoration Party’ – a fiercely nationalistic outfit who govern Osaka and now have a few dozen MP’s in Japan’s parliament. The rapid national rise of the JRP is reflective of the mood of a particular set of Japanese of which Nishi is perhaps representative. Affluent, culturally aware and with a family tradition of military service, their concerns centre on the future of Japan – and I shall relate them as follows.

Why they ask, nearly 70 years after World War Two ended; does the US still have troops in Japan? They see Japan as being occupied and sold out by governments to agree to humiliatingly one sided terms in bilateral US-Japanese ties.

Why is Japan still governed by a constitution forced upon it after the War ended by the Allies? This constitution constrains Japan’s freedom as a sovereign state and leaves it at the mercy of the US in so far as security is concerned?

Why is it wrong for Japan to honor their war dead yet the war dead of other countries are celebrated? Are Japanese war heroes less worthy of recognition?

The undercurrent of frustrated nationalism in the Japanese may not remain so hidden should the feeling that their nation is being superseded by China become more apparent. World War Two and the subsequent political mechanics have bottled Japanese nationalism, have cut out from common conscience that history that glorifies Japan and emboldens the nationalistic Japanese. However, Japan may not wither into second tier power status quietly as some have expected. We have all seen the protests against US troops; against China when events transpire between the two and the rise of right-wing parties such as the JRP reflect the existence of a very real current of nationalistic rebirth evident in some Japanese.

Somewhere in the national psyche of the complex Japanese people is that warrior spirit that made them so feared by Allied powers and so successful as an expansionist military power for centuries. It is my belief that the right external stimuli could well bring this characteristic back to the forefront should the Japanese people – who remain fiercely proud and xenophobic as even close Japanese friends will admit to ‘outsiders’ when they are being honest – feel they face permanent national loss of position and prestige in their region.

It is this undercurrent of anger, frustration and regret that the Japan Restoration Party taps into and the same sentiments are expressed by even some amongst the most educated, worldly and sophisticated Japanese people. It is possible that Japan withers as a power or it may attempt to bridge the gap by investing heavily in its military and in reviving its’ still mighty economy to try and retain its regional leadership.

However, should Japan wither, it is my understanding that it is unlikely that Japan will wither away quietly. Efforts are underway to try and open up the constitution to allow for some offensive military capability and just recently Japan inaugurated the largest warship it was had since its halcyon days of Empire in World War Two – a huge helicopter carrier named Izumo. As China becomes more assertive and expansionist – it should be ready to face stiff resistance from Japan, resilience lesser states such as the Philippines cannot possibly offer. I do not doubt that East Asia has seen a changing of the guard – a passing of the baton to a new primary power, but judging by political developments within Japan – and a renewed overt patriotism within an influential element of Japanese young adults – those who will tomorrow govern the nation on account of their education and noble blood, the Japan will to retain leadership remains. From a valued friendship I have learnt of a culture I knew nothing off, learnt to appreciate a finely crafted Masamune sword or the epics of Japanese literature – but as a political scientist, I have learnt most importantly to observe – not just the ideas of one friend, but a movement led by Japan’s youth – a youth who yearn for the power and prestige their ancestors once knew and enjoyed. From everything I take one core lesson – Japan’s youth will not surrender its regional status without a fight.

Mohsin Zeb, MA Reading University


The Hard Truth about Syria

Mohsin Zeb

They are the most shocking images I have ever seen, as far removed from my life in a quiet college town suburb as is feasible. Children withering on the ground in pain, grown men wailing over the dead bodies of their children, women screaming and piles and piles of bodies – too many to count. Seas of white shrouds as the survivors bury their dead – almost all it would seem innocent people. I cannot imagine that the child shaking on the ground – aged perhaps five or six, or the little girl on a hospital bed, fighting for life as she turns blue represented any serious threat to Assad’s criminal regime.


Each time a humanitarian catastrophe unfolds before our eyes, the world declares “never again” – never again will such actions be tolerated, never again will the world sit back and watch war crimes take place. As ever, nothing will ever happen. This is the hard truth of Syria – no one is going to save the civilians. No one will stop Assad and his backers, or his paid mercenaries from butchering civilians, from bombing innocents with chemical weapons. The moral indignation of the wider world has become meaningless- red lines come and go, now so unclear as to be invisible for all practical purposes.

Now this is not to say I support the Free Syrian Army. I recognize that both sides have unsavoury characters – but it is not the opposition that commands a complete, modern military machine that is conducting war crimes every week. It is not they who drop bombs on civilians from MiG fighters, or they who fire scud missiles into neighbourhoods. Sometime ago I wrote of the need for intervention – to bring a war that was then still quite young to a swift end – to avoid this very outcome. The passing of time has resulted in untold horrors, scores of thousands of extra deaths and now once again the use of chemical weapons. However it seems moral outrage is meaningless – the political powers that be in the Middle East and the West and within those states such as China and Russia that back Assad care not for any personal loss or about the conduct of war. All that matters is the bottom line – the strategic outcome of a proxy war being fought within Syria between the various states involved. That the tab for this conflict and strategic tussle is being paid by little girls and boys, old women and the like is immaterial.

It is doubtable that Syria as a state can be saved now. Should the guns fall silent, who amongst the masses will forgive and forget the horrors perpetrated against them by the faceless ‘other’? Who will accept the status quo when so much blood has been spilled to change just that? How can the people accept Assad in power when much of the state has been physically destroyed and an endless stream of Syrians seek refuges abroad all as a result of his unwillingness to loosen his grip on power?

I cannot imagine a post conflict Syria will be stable. This civil war is to a large degree shaped along sectarian lines. Assad is a Shia, Iran and Hezbollah – his key backers are Shia. The opposition is overwhelmingly Sunni – as are those who provide them with materials, recognition and support – Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This war has exacerbated the delicate fault lines within Syrian society – and the Muslim world more broadly. The likes of Russia have geopolitical reasons to prop up Assad and the West too has reasons to oppose him – all of it amounting to a complex web of factors that keeps anything from bringing this conflict to a swift end. Perhaps a stable country under a tyrant is better than the current situation – undoubtedly to any sane person it would be, but who will accept this tyrant again? Is a new strongman the solution? Or perhaps it is better for all if the Alawite community simply secede from the Syrian republic into a new state? Assad and his father before him have perpetuated Alawite dominance over the masses of Sunni Syrians and will never willingly allow natural demographic pressures to shape Syrian politics and such a situation would see his Alawite community forever outnumbered.

Perhaps then a swift partition is better than endless war. The Alawites would have their own state – a land where they can feel empowered, whilst the rest of Syria can get on without them. The issues of disempowerment and discrimination they as the minority fear should their grip of power weaken would become mute. Syria – then free from its sectarian division could proceed to rebuild as a democratic state representing the will of the majority of its peoples.

I am not calling for partition, just opining that it may be better then constant war. Whatever they decide, the sad truth is that the people of Syria will have to reach their own solution. No one is going to step in and save them from the horrors of war; no one takes more than a customary note of war crimes. For their own sake, the people of Syria need to fix or they will continue to bury their future one shrouded child at a time.

Mohsin ZebPhD candidate University College London.