Michael KreponEyes Away from the Prize

The juxtaposition of images of the 1963 March on Washington and the carnage in Syria has prompted melancholy thoughts. The heyday of the civil rights movement came with sustained focus, great leaders, and an abundance of nonviolent foot soldiers. The most famous motto of the US civil rights movement was “Keep your eyes on the prize.” Fifty years later, leaders are too diminished, hemmed in, and easily trapped to seize prizes. Violence dictates agendas, especially in the Islamic world.

Syria is a heartbreaking distraction. The Prize in this part of the Muslim world is reaching an accord with Tehran that constrains Iran’s nuclear program. If President Obama has his eyes on this Prize, he has to be willing to absorb truncheons of punishment from US and Israeli critics, and defend his handiwork with the tenacity of civil rights leaders in the 1960s.

This assumes, of course, that Obama has a partner in Iran, Hassan Rouhani, who also has his eyes on the Prize – in his case, the revival of Iran’s economy and its re-integration into the international community.

The Syrian detour lying ahead could lead them far astray. Iran’s proxies and advisors within and outside of Syria will have ample opportunities to act as spoilers in the weeks and months ahead.

Other spoilers are hard at work to foreclose other prizes. The Prize on the subcontinent is reconciliation between India and Pakistan. A new Prime Minister in Pakistan has been elected with an impressive majority, promising to increase trade and normalize relations with India. He and his Indian counterpart declare readiness to resume dialogue and make plans to break bread in New York at the margins of the UN General Assembly. Lo and behold, a platoon of jihadi foot soldiers crosses the Kashmir divide into India and starts shooting. India fires back and the Line of Control then lights up along various sectors.

Pakistan’s story is that its soldiers cannot control what happens everywhere along the Line of Control and that it would be folly to have two hot borders when its national security establishment is preoccupied with Afghanistan. The violence along the Line of Control is, however, highly choreographed, and will die down. And no Pakistani commander worth his salt is unaware of what’s going on within his sector.

The usual gambit has produced the usual result: Pakistan’s Prime Minister has been reminded to take the Army’s interests into consideration in his dealings with India, while the Congress Party in India is distracted by economic woes and a strong challenge from the more muscular Bharatiya Janata Party in next year’s national elections. Progress and dialogue between Pakistan and India have been temporarily suspended, and there will be no meal between the Prime Ministers in New York.

The leaders of the United States, Iran, Pakistan and India are in the same bind: When violent foot soldiers are on the other side of the fight, and when focus is lost, the Prize will have to wait for another day, another year, or another decade.


  1. Rene (History)


    Sometimes I think the real prize in the Middle East is regime change in Saudi Arabia. I mean, the Saudi regime is preserving the monarchy at the cost of destabilizing the entire region. They helped undermine Morsi and bring back the Egyptian army into power. They’ve supported Iraqi jihadists after the US troops left the country, the result being tens of bombings each month and hundreds of Shi’is dead. They’ve helped crush Bahraini rebels. Sunni radicalization is also destabilizing Pakistan. And of course it has contributed immensely to the Syrian civil war. Africa and East Asia face similar problems, many of which can be traced to Saudi-funded madrasas across the Muslim world.

    Of course the Saudis have tried to make it all look legitimate by casting it as anti-Iran moves. But I think it’s time to limit their influence. Maybe then an accord with Iran could also be reached.

    • Bradley Laing (History)

      —After the Saudi Monarchy went down, would the desire for a Saudi Nuclear Program go with it? Or would the replacements want…

      —something I cannot imagine, goood, bad, or indifferent?

  2. Nick (History)

    The main spoiler is the US Congress. Because of the outside pressure, they can not support the White House on reaching a win-win deal with Iran.

    One hundred members signed a letter for Obama to engage with the new president in Iran, but 80 of these 100 turned around and voted for the toughest sanction so far on Iran, before going for the August recess. Go figure!

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    WASHINGTON: A 178-page summary of the US intelligence community’s “black budget” shows the US has ramped up its surveillance of Pakistan’s nuclear arms, the influential Washington Post reported on Tuesday.

    In a detailed report filed by three correspondents Greg Miller, Craig Whitlock and Barton Gellman, the paper said Pakistan appears at the top of charts listing critical US intelligence gaps. It is named as a target of newly formed analytic cells. And fears about the security of its nuclear programme are so pervasive that a budget section on containing the spread of illicit weapons divides the world into two categories: Pakistan and everybody else.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)


    Pakistan allays fears over N-arms surveillance by US
    Tag: Pakistan, United states, Pak nuclear arms, Nuclear arms surveillance, US
    Last Updated: Tuesday, September 03, 2013, 19:5

    Responding to the Washington Post story, the foreign ministry said Pakistan has established extensive physical protection measures, robust command and control institutions under the chairmanship of the prime minister and comprehensive and effective export controls regulatory regimes to ensure safety and security of nuclear installations and materials, Xinhua reported

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    (Reuters) – Russia said on Wednesday that a military strike on Syria could have catastrophic effects if a missile hit a small reactor near Damascus that contains radioactive uranium

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    —As I said earlier, I have sudden urge to recruit a commando team to evacuate the zoo animals from the Damascus Zoo.

    —So, does the UN have a Special Forces Team of some sort that can transport zoo animals out of Syria, if there is a reactor breach?

  7. Bradley Laing (History)
  8. George William Herbert (History)

    A polite disagreement.

    Syria’s chemical weapons were the prize we ignored and hoped not to have to discuss or confront. They were there and known, but out-of-mind, while Iran’s nuclearization was occupying forebrain.

    It’s not in the closet anymore.

    In my opinion, the norm that it’s not acceptable to use WMD is as important if not more important overall than any one nation’s proliferation efforts.

    WMD in bunkers or silos will not kill, though they present a risk and are geopolitically and in other ways offensive.

    WMD used are death, writ upon innocent populations. That is the enemy, defeating that the penultimate prize.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)


      Here is a blogger who might understand your point of view:

  9. Syed Muhammad Ali (History)

    Dear Michael, your arguments make a lot of sense. However, in Syria the logic of escalation and asymmetrical nature of warfare in the middle east warns me that since war is an extension of policy through other means, the fundamental assumption by President Obama in support of military option towards Syria that he can control both subsequent escalation of conflict and Asad’s response, is unrealistic. He may have a strategy but no policy, and his ability to convert enormous US resources and power into policy is not evident, particularly in case of Syria. He also faces the dilemma of wanting to act out of moral compulsion in violation of international law and UN system. We know why he wants to act but I am not sure he knows how Asad regime will respond. He probably also does not know how any military strike (strategy) can be directly helpful in the fulfilment of the political goal of denying Syrian ability to make, stockpile, acquire, transfer or use chemical weapons. I don’t think Asad will be so stupid to be keeping his ‘crown jewels’ waiting to be hit. He must have either dispersed them, buried them very deep or even move them to the territories of allies or proxies so that complicates US strategic and political options. Moreover, Once Tomahawks start to slam into important strategic targets inside Syria, no matter how carefully they have been chosen, the resulting domestic, regional and global political compulsion and insult posed upon Asad regime will force him to create horizontal and not merely vertical escalation and also create diversions and confusion by involving Lebanon, Israel and Saudi Arabia, through proxies if not through direct, overt military action. If one assumes that Obama will be able to control all the responses of all the actors who could get involved as a result of a single actor (Asad’s regime) being hit, is not something which will impress either Clausewitz or Martin Luther Junior II. Best regards, Syed Muhammad Ali, NDU, Pakistan.

  10. Cthippo (History)

    I would argue that the real prize in the middle east is a reconciliation between Sunni and Shia Islam.

    Syria’s transition from a local popular revolution to a proxy war between The United states, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Al Queda linked militants on one side versus Russia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah on the other side is only possible because sooner or later all conflict in the middle east becomes a sectarian one.

    While largely starting out as a secular one, the Syria conflict, like Iraq before it, has become yet another sectarian religious war, and the reason it has the possibility to spread throughout the region is because there are both Sunnis and Shia in all these states who deal with the same sectarian tensions. This isn’t a problem the US or the west can solve, but we might be able to offer some idea as to what a solution might look like. The west has certainly seen it’s share of sectarian religious conflicts and perhaps some of the same approaches that worked in places like Northern Ireland could also be applied to the streets of Baghdad and Damascus.

    One aspect of any solution needs to be a commitment to peace such that the latest atrocity cannot derail the process. Just as in the security council, when we give veto power to anyone who disagrees then nothing tends to get done.

    • Jonah Speaks (History)

      I do not know whether the Sunni-Shia divide is a root cause, a contributing cause, or merely a symptom of other underlying difficulties in the Middle East. To the extent that religion contributes to (or is an excuse for) violence, religious freedom is the answer (not simply a “Western” answer).

      Each of us must be willing to tolerate, and ultimately accept, that others have different religious, political, and other beliefs, views, and practices than we do. Violence is not a proper method for “resolving” such differences. Whether such violence is exercised by an individual, a small or large group, or even by the State, it is equally unacceptable.

      The State itself must not favor one religion or religious belief (or unbelief) over another. When the State plays favorites, those who are disfavored see unfairness and injustice at work. This favoritism and perceived injustice can contribute to civil wars domestically, and potentially to wars between States.

  11. SteveL (History)

    I must say, this is actually the clearest-headed assessment I have seen of the key considerations in the current deliberations on Syria.

    Extra credit for the discussion of Kashmir, which I thought should have been an Obama priority beginning in 2009 — now progress there would justify a Nobel Prize — but which has had an extraordinarily low profile these past 4.5 years.

    Thank you.

  12. Bradley Laing (History)


    VIENNA – The UN nuclear watchdog has received a request from Russia to assess the impact if a missile were to hit a small Syrian reactor and is considering the issue, the Vienna-based agency said on Friday.

    Russia said this week a military strike on Syria could have catastrophic effects if the research reactor near Damascus that contains radioactive uranium was struck, “by design or by chance”.

  13. Bradley Laing (History)


    Olli Heinonen, a former chief IAEA inspector, said other radioactive materials may be a bigger reason to worry.

    “Syria should have substantial amounts of radiation sources such as Co-60 or Cs-137, which in my view are of a greater concern, if they end up in wrong hands. Normally they are stored in protected vaults,” he told Reuters in an e-mail.