By Paul Taylor, Switzerland, Reuters
DAVOS — As U.S. President Barack Obama starts his second term, the world’s business and political elite pines for greater American engagement to tackle a thicket of security challenges. From Syria to Mali, from Iran to the South China Sea, the United States’ reluctance to be drawn into conflicts far from its shores was a leitmotiv of geopolitical debate at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos. The absence of top Obama administration officials from the annual brainstorming and networking event in the Swiss mountains symbolized to some a perceived pullback from global leadership, even though it was Inauguration Week in Washington. Leaders of Russia, Germany, Britain, Italy, South Africa, Jordan and many other nations made the journey. U.S. bankers, business leaders and academics were out in force, but the most senior U.S. government officials were a Treasury undersecretary, an assistant secretary of state and the outgoing U.S. Trade Representative. Delegates debated whether and when China would overtake America as the number one economy and global power — estimates ranging from the early 2020s to never — and what troubles were brewing while Washington remains in hands-off mode.
The ground rules of many Davos panels preclude identifying the speakers. One minister, shielded by that anonymity, lamented the dangers of “a world without American leadership.” Without U.S. involvement, one session was told, Syria would become a “Somalia on the Mediterranean,” with Middle East states waging a proxy war via sectarian factions, some of which would export militant violence to the neighbors and to Europe. Iran may accelerate its nuclear program to try to break out of isolation, Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University said, because Washington is squeezing it with economic sanctions but shunning either direct diplomatic engagement or military action. ‘New Taliban In Syria’ In a public address, King Abdullah of Jordan said his country, which had sent troops to fight Islamist militants in Afghanistan, now faces a “new Taliban in Syria,” where an al-Qaida affiliate has gained ground among forces fighting to oust President Bashar al-Assad. It could take years after the fall of Assad to “clean them out,” the king said. His fragile desert kingdom has taken in some 300,000 Syrian refugees, straining its thin resources and political stability. Some Syrian exiles present in Davos complained that Jordan has closed its border to Syrian opposition fighters. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, whose country has absorbed some 150,000 refugees and serves as a rear base for rebel fighters, said the international community would one day have to apologize to the Syrian people, as it had done in Rwanda, for failing to intervene to prevent massacres. At least 60,000 people have been killed in two years of civil war in Syria, according to the United Nations. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki al-Faisal, a senior member of the royal family, former head of intelligence and ambassador to London and Washington, said the rebels were not receiving game-changing anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons because of U.S. and manufacturers’ restrictions on transfers to third parties.