President Obama’s foreign policy is adrift, but there’s one good way to bring it back into focus. He needs to appoint a “czar,” someone decisive and results-oriented, someone who will take this whole Syria debacle and give it direction and control.
But you know, if you’re going to choose someone for a position modeled on an authoritarian Russian leader, why not pick an actual authoritarian Russian leader?
So you can see there is a grim kind of logic to the Obama administration’s new policy in the Middle East, which is to outsource it to Vladimir Putin.
Of course, they’re protesting that the Russian takeover of Syrian airspace and bombing campaign against Syrian rebels is unhelpful and was done over their objections. But if the administration really wanted the Russians out, we could have kept them out. I don’t mean by directly intercepting their planes or threatening them. These days, we’re back to operating by the old Cold War rules, so direct conflict between the United States and the Soviets—er, Russians—is to be avoided at all costs. But we could have prevented this intervention well ahead of time by taking control of events ourselves, by making clear that this is our sphere of influence and the Russians can’t enter without being the ones to initiate a direct conflict with us.
Of course, that’s precisely why Obama let the Russians in. His whole policy has been to disengage the United States from the world and to have no spheres of influence, no areas where we dominate events to the exclusion of other powers. If that’s the goal of US policy—if the goal is to offload as many of the world’s problems as possible—then why not just let the Russians in? Why not let them spend the money and the trouble to take charge of a difficult part of the world?
There are a whole list of reasons why not.
To begin with, when Vladimir Putin intervenes in Syria, he doesn’t intervene for our reasons. He intervenes for his reasons. Our first interest is to destroy the Islamic State, because we cannot tolerate a successful terrorist regime controlling such a large swath of the Middle East and becoming a source and rallying point for anti-Western terrorism. But that’s our problem, not Putin’s. By contrast, Putin’s first interest is to prop up the Assad regime. He is in the business of building up spheres of influence. The Assad regime and its sponsor, Iran, are Russia’s only big allies in the Middle East. Propping them up and making them more dependent on him is his first interest.
That’s why Russia’s first air strikes are not against the Islamic State, but against the non-Islamist (or less Islamist) Free Syrian Army. It would go too far to say, as some news reports do, that the Free Syrian Army is “supported” by the United States, since that implies a decisiveness the Obama administration is not capable of. But it is the faction we have toyed with supporting. So naturally, that’s who Putin bombs first.
The fact is that Russia doesn’t really want the Islamic State to go away, at least not at first. Its existence is necessary to justify Putin’s intervention in Syria, and to justify the intervention of his allies, the Iranians, in Iraq. And Russia has long history, from back in the Cold War, of stoking anti-Americanism in the Muslim world as a way of keeping America pinned down. So why focus first on getting rid of a faction whose main enemies are in the West?
All of this fits with Russia’s broader interest, which is about building influence far beyond Syria. The message of this intervention is to show that America is dithering and uninterested and won’t act to tip the balance of any conflict or contest. But Russia will. So if you’re considering who should be your ally, the Russians are a better bet. Like I said, we’re back to playing by the old Cold War rules. And we’re losing.
This debacle is about more than just the administration’s indecisiveness or incompetence. President Obama was brought up, literally at his mother’s knee, with tales about American intervention and imperialism as the cause of all problems in the world, which will be solved if we stop being such bullies and disengage. As an anti-Vietnam War protester, John Kerry made that worldview the foundation of his political career. So the dismantling of America’s global influence is an ideological goal of this administration.
But the lesson of the last wave of anti-imperialism—the dissolution of the British Empire in the middle of the 20th Century—is that when one major power stampedes precipitously toward the exits, it often just creates an opportunity for another, less benevolent power to take its place.
Putin has no interest in peace and freedom. His grand strategy has been to build a mutually supportive dictators’ club, a group of oppressive regimes who will back each other up diplomatically, economically, and militarily. That often means deliberately creating zones of instability and chaos like the ring of “frozen conflicts” that surrounds Russia, with Eastern Ukraine as the latest addition, as a way of keeping Russia’s more liberal neighbors weak and unstable. I think it’s totally reasonable to speculate that this is what he is likely to achieve in Syria: his own endless “War on Terrorism” that justifies the continued existence of the Assad regime and its garrisoning with Russian air power and support troops.
That’s the policy President Obama is now allowing Putin to implement in the Middle East. It is certainly not in America’s interests, but this administration is not in the business of securing American interests.