Russian dictator Vladimir Putin said in his April 2005 state of the nation address that the “collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century.” Putin, an old KGB operative, yearns for the days of the USSR, when the Soviets vied with the Americans for global power. He’s spent well over a decade trying to rebuild that lost legacy in the Middle East.
It turns out all he needed was a sucker.
Barack Obama is that sucker.
On Wednesday, Russia demanded that the United States refrain from military operations in Syria while they pursued attacks against ISIS. Or rather, supposed attacks against ISIS, given that Russia promptly began bombing non-ISIS targets on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. According to Jennifer Griffin and Lucas Tomlinson of Fox News, “Activists and a rebel commander on the ground said the Russian airstrikes have mostly hit moderate rebel positions and civilians.” Russia’s parliament went further, granting Putin the ability to deploy forces in Syria, without any duration attached. Russia’s action guarantees that Assad will remain at the head of the Syrian government for the foreseeable future, just one day after President Barack Obama announced that Assad needed to go.
Thus far, the Obama administration’s response has been Benny Hill-theme-music-level comical. On Wednesday, NATO’s top commander, General Philip M. Breedlove, explained, “As we see the very capable air defense [systems] beginning to show up in Syria, we’re a little worried about another A2/AD bubble being created in the eastern Mediterranean….High on Mr. Putin’s list in Syria is preserving the regime against those that are putting pressure on the regime and against those that they see who might be supporting those putting pressure on the regime.” How awkward.
Then, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to play Putin’s aggression as an “opportunity,” explaining that the U.S. welcomed “genuine efforts” to fight ISIS. He added, lamely, “We must not be confused in our fight against ISIL with support for Assad.” He concluded that Assad still had to go, but gradually, because otherwise there would be an “implosion” in terms of the Syrian power structure.
Finally, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest warned Putin that “Russia will not succeed in imposing a military solution any more than the United States was successful in imposing a military solution in Iraq a decade ago, and certainly any more than Russia was able to impose a military solution in Afghanistan three decades ago.” This, of course, ignores the somewhat inconvenient fact that the United States did win the war in Iraq, and that somewhat more inconvenient fact that the U.S. removed a dictator while Putin fights to preserve one. But blaming Bush always comes first for the Obama administration.
No matter what the Obama administration says, however, the effect is clear: Putin will do whatever the hell he wants in Syria, as he has in Ukraine. And he’s now achieving wonders in the Middle East about which his Soviet forebears would have dreamt. In 1945 and 1946, Stalin attempted to push into Turkey and Iran; the West fought back, and Stalin withdrew. Truman, recognizing Stalin’s aggression, embraced George Kennan’s policy of containment at the same time, agreeing that diplomacy in the absence of economic and military pressure would be bound to fail. The Iranian/Turkish crises of that period settled American policy on the importance of a joint defense of the two countries from Soviet interference.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Soviets attempted to extend their imperialism via strategic alliances with and weapons shipments to nationalist Arab movements. Their involvement with these movements contributed to repeated conflicts between those movements and the state of Israel; the United States consistently defended Israel, preventing Soviet influence from having too far-reaching an effect.
In the late 1970s, the Carter administration decided that Truman’s longstanding policies had ignored the true root of chaos in the Middle East: those pesky Jews. Carter thus threw his focus on pressuring Israel into concessions to its enemies, leaving the Soviet Union with a free hand elsewhere. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan and stood behind the ouster of the Shah of Iran, throwing Carter’s foreign policy into turmoil. Reagan’s ascension shifted Middle East policy back toward the Truman Doctrine, which remained the policy of the United States until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
After the Soviet Union fell apart, the new Russian Federation became a guarded ally with the United States – at least briefly. But then Vladimir Putin came to power and began exploring his options in the Middle East. George W. Bush’s involvement in Middle Eastern politics following 9/11 foreclosed heavy Russian infiltration into the region.
Then came President Obama. Obama created a vacuum in Iraq, which was quickly filled by the Russian-allied Iranians. He backed a series of nationalist uprisings in various Muslim countries, virtually all of which ended with terrorists ascendant – and, unsurprisingly, a certain lack of warmth toward the United States. He drew a fake red line on chemical weapons use by Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, then said Assad had to go – and finally thrust Assad directly into Russia’s arms by embracing a Russian “deal” that gave Putin the power to police Assad’s weapons of mass destruction. Meanwhile, like a bewildered lawyer canoeing down an unknown river without a weapon, Obama insists that America’s imminent Deliverance-ization at the hands of the Russians will be just fine.
President Obama has handed Vladimir Putin large swaths of the Middle East on a platter. Even heretofore American allies now look to Putin as the grand political master of the region: just weeks ago, Egyptian president General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, ignored or insulted by Obama, reached out to Putin; Israel has tentatively reached out to Putin, recognizing that the Obama administration provides no hedge against Israel’s enemies; Jordan has agreed to build a nuclear plant with Russian help.
Vladimir Putin must have thought that rebuilding Russian influence in the Middle East would be a long-term project. President Obama has accelerated his timetable.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and The New York Times bestselling author, most recently, of the book, The People vs. Barack Obama: The Criminal Case Against The Obama Administration (Threshold Editions, June 10, 2014). Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.