“The Polish-American alliance is worthless, even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security. It’s bullshit.” – Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski, secretly taped in early 2014. Discuss.
There are senior foreign policy officials elsewhere who might be tempted to make similar remarks about the US (though perhaps not in alcohol-fuelled conversations in restaurants where they might be overheard). And there are those in Washington who are saying the same thing.
Sikorski’s angry remarks can be explained by the date when they were made. It was before the United States responded to Russia’s annexation of Crimea by imposing sanctions on Russian leaders and sending reinforcements to NATO countries in Eastern Europe. He is presumably singing a different song now.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, however, is undoubtedly now talking much like Sikorski did last winter. After the horrors of the US occupation inflicted in 2003-11, Maliki must feel that he has a right to American military help when things fall apart at home. But he’s not getting it.
Washington might save Maliki’s neck if it believed that the survival of his regime was a “core national interest” of the United States, as Obama put it in a speech at West Point Military Academy last month, but even if it did there would be no American troops fighting on the ground.
This is because President Obama knows two very important things. The first is that the American public simply will not stand for another large US military intervention in the Middle East. The other is that neither Iraq, nor indeed even Ukraine, is a “core national interest” of the United States.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came…from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences,” Obama said at West Point, and he has no intention of doing the same thing. Does that mean that the United States has become a “worthless ally”? No, but it may not always be a “faithful friend”.
The distinction matters.. An alliance like NATO or the US-Japanese alliance is a formal commitment to fight in support of another country in certain stated circumstances. However, most of the wars that the United States has fought in the past fifty years were “wars of choice”, fought in places where the United States had no legal obligation to fight.
Back when American power seemed irresistible and American wealth inexhaustible, Washington repeatedly sent US troops into wars that had only the sketchiest relationship with any definable American national interest. But only actual allies can now count on the United States showing up when it’s needed.
How do you get to be an ally of the United States? By being a country whose independence, borders, and/or political orientation are seen by Washington as truly vital American interests. That is a very high threshold.
Poland crosses that threshold, because Russia, the country that obsesses the Poles, remains a major American security concern as well. Ukraine, on the other hand, is not an ally, because not many NATO members would be willing to fight a war with Russia to save it. And Iraq is definitely not an ally.
Despite the general US obsession with the “terrorist threat”, Obama probably understands how little the outcome of the current turmoil in Iraq really matters to American security. Iraq’s oil, post-fracking, is not a serious strategic consideration any more. No core American national interests here. So the US cavalry will not be riding over the hill to the rescue.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.