We may look back on this week just passing as one of the true nadirs in America's post-9/11 efforts to lead the world, a series of events that make the failures of America's shallow strategies, of both Republican and Democratic administrations, impossible to ignore. It is a particular low point for President Barack Obama.
With his Iranian nuclear deal in hand, at last secure from blockage in the U.S. Senate, Obama must have expected a good week around the annual United Nations General Assembly gathering of heads of government in New York. But, caught off guard by Russian President Vladimir Putin's sudden Middle Eastern moves, then by America's rebuke from hoped-for ally Iran for bringing instability to the region through military interventions, by week's end Obama was struggling to respond not only to a surprising new anti-Isis coalition of Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq but also aggressive Russian military moves to bolster their longtime ally, Syria's Assad regime, beginning with air strikes. And on top of that, word of Iranian troops arriving in Syria to help push back Syrian rebels.
Russian President Vladimir Putin scored the Obama administration in his big United Nations speech in which he outlined a new anti-Isis coalition and Russia's military intervention in Syria and asked if America understood what it has done.
Couple all that with the shocking Taliban capture of a key Afghan regional capital and America's multiplex strategic failures in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia begin to come into focus.
Can Putin's new approach make a real difference, as more than a few outside the Washington orbit seem to think? Well, although the US media is not mentioning it, the authoritarian Russian leader did win a war against Islamic fundamentalists, against breakaway Chechnya. Which is more than any American leader can say. But that will be harder to pull off with Isis.
Putin had some harsh criticisms of America as the principal bringer of chaos in the Islamic and Arab worlds with its various military interventions. Not so much with regard to Afghanistan, of course, since Putin was a key American ally there after when US forces went in after 9/11. Though obviously self-serving as he seeks to promote renewed Russian power, his criticisms carried some bite.
The Obama administration never had the right take on Russia as it pursued its "Russia re-set" policy early on, as I wrote here at the time of Obama's big trip to Moscow in 2009 in "Obama Does Moscow, and Vice Versa." Obama foolishly believed that Putin's former chief of staff, Dmitry Medvedev, taking a turn as president to preserve the new Russian constitution, was the real power in the country rather than Putin, who repeatedly warned Obama in a meeting at his dacha outside Moscow to keep hands off neighboring Ukraine.
So Putin took a notable relish in criticizing the administration's feckless efforts against Isis and on behalf of Syrian rebels against Moscow's longstanding ally the Assad regime, pointing up media reports of the massive failure of a ballyhooed American program to train Syrian rebel fighters.
One needn't be an old war college fellow to see that Obama's grand strategy with regard to the Middle East and associated areas of action is neither grand nor very strategic. What it is is a largely incoherent accumulation of ad hoc moves and evasions designed to respond to political pressure. All of it leavened with a modicum of liberal good intentions not very aggressively pursued.
Why did Obama nearly careen into the Syrian civil war in 2013? In response to pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Why did he accept Putin's palliative of having the Assad regime dispose of at least some of its chemical weapons instead? Because his national address in September 2013 to a surprised America fell flat, yet he had to do something.
Why did Obama take so disastrously long to respond to the rise of Isis? This is a strange one.
Obama's express reason is that he was still analyzing the situation and pushing for change in Iraq's Shia-dominated, Iran-aligned government to make it more accessible and response to Sunnis and Kurds. But that doesn't really make sense, because its predilections have existed for at least the past decade. It's the obvious default position for the government that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney foolishly brought into being after destroying Iraq's infrastructure.
And Obama's long delay in striking the clearly emerging Isis, as I wrote at the time, allowed the Isis insurgency to expand its reach and consolidate its grip and overall power, making it more formidable and all the more difficult to uproot. That all seemed crashingly obvious at the time.
I think it's just as likely that Obama was loathe to engage Isis because its stunning success in recruiting foreign fighters points up the problematic nature of Obama's boomeranging secret anti-jihadist war while the success of Isis in growing widespread Sunni support inside Iraq proved the failure of the Bush strategy of "surge" and withdrawal he inherited and tacitly accepted with his maintenance in office of Defense Secretary Bob Gates.
It's tough to admit that everything which has gone before is an abject failure and that your plan going forward is creating a devastating backfire.
So too with the rest of the Middle Eastern matters, like the 70 year-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The administration pushed for a renewed peace process, though it was obvious that the most right-wing government in Israeli history not only had no interest but was actively hostile. This infuriated Israelis and their absolutist allies in the US. It won only a little favor in the Arab world, which had looked in vain for follow-up to Obama's brave speeches of 2009 in Cairo and elsewhere proclaiming a new era.
The fresh favor quickly faded when Obama backed away from using obvious levers of influence and control to compel the behavior of Israel which is, despite its protestations of profound independence, very much an American client.
After the Arab Spring, Obama had the opportunity to foster ongoing engagement in the largest Arab nation with relatively radical Islamists. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood almost inevitably emerged as victor in that nation's first truly democratic elections following the successful peaceful revolution against the longtime Mubarak dictatorship.
In retrospect, there may never have been a better chance for the US to engage with a historically radical Islamist organization than bringing the Muslim Brotherhood along in the early democratic politics of Egypt. President Mohammed Morsi, a University of Southern California PhD who taught engineering in the California State University system and also consulted for NASA was well-positioned to bridge the gap. But he and the new government made mistakes, and the overthrown forces of the longtime Mubarak dictatorship weren't going to roll over and play dead.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani criticized the US in his UN speech for bringing instability to the Middle East. He also called for a nuclear-free zone in the region, which of course will not happen as Israel has no intention of giving up its nukes. This sets up Iran to loop around when it seems opportune to an argument for its own nuke.
A sudden economic emergency spun up, a big protest movement fronted by fresh faces emerged, the military stepped in, and Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood colleagues were overthrown. Their party was outlawed by the old Mubarak-appointed judiciary, its members either rounded up, massacred, or driven abroad or into hiding.
Obama wasn't happy about it, but he let it happen, refusing to cut off military aid even though the law authorizing the aid specifically required it, given the reality of a military coup.
The Saudis were very pleased, though, quickly bolstering the new Egyptian military regime with funds and support.
The Saudis hated and feared the Arab Spring, intervening militarily in neighboring Bahrain to end major protests there and of course crushing those who dared protest in Saudi Arabia. The Saudis especially disliked the Muslim Brotherhood's successful move into electoral politics in the Arab world's most populous country, as its democratic and liberationist rhetoric coupled with traditional Islamist appeal would severely undercut the Saudis' hardcore autocratic Islamist approach across the Sunni world.
The Saudi agenda did include taking advantage of one aspect of the Arab Spring; namely, the protests and subsequent rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria.
Obama pulled back from the precipice of being drawn into the Syrian civil war in 2013, but he still had to respect the longstanding Saudi superpower role in the global fossil fuel economy. That was especially true after the Saudis merrily sanctioned a sharp plunge in the price of oil, a stunning 60 percent drop since June 2014.
That oil price move helped Obama at home by masking some of the fundamental weakness of America's economic recovery. And it helped Obama in getting a deal of sorts with Iran on its nuclear program and in dealing with recalcitrant Russia, which was unmoved by repeated rounds of Obama-led Western sanctions against it for intervening in Ukraine following a US-backed regime change at the height of Putin's long-cherished Sochi Winter Olympics. (You might be able to think of a better way to piss off Putin, but it would not be easy.)
Obama's sanctions hit the well-stuffed pocketbooks of some Putin cronies, but did not dent Russia's agenda in Ukraine, which predates the existence of the United States. Think buffers from invasion and access to the sea.
The Saudi-sanctioned oil price drop ravaged Russia which, like Iran, is a higher-cost producer than the lucky sweepstakes winner on the Arabian Peninsula. But that did not change Russia's stance in Ukraine, either, or have a real and discernible effect on Putin's popularity at home, as Russians, not generally big believers in coincidence, are ready to listen to calls to band together against outside conspiracies.
While the Saudis were happy with Obama's agreement to train the elusive moderate Syrian rebel, the oil price drop in a deeper sense merely served Saudi interests in manifold ways. It further enshrined the Saudi market position, provided more stability to Western economies hosting Saudi investments, hurt oil competitors and geopolitical rivals like Iran and Russia, and helped squelch both oil exploration in other parts of the world and more technology-based oil development in the US. (Bye bye would-be California fracking boom.) And it also provided the wrong price signal for proponents of efforts to combat greenhouse gas emissions at a time in which the peril to human habitability on the planet is becoming quite alarmingly clear.
Meanwhile, Putin saw what some of the US media saw. The Obama administration's ballyhooed program to train Syrian rebels to fight against the Assad regime was a total bust.
Putin was loathe to allow the ouster of Assad, since Moscow has been allied with the Assad family since Obama was in elementary school.
Why? The map, as usual, suggests the answers. (Obama needs a White House Map Room like FDR had.)
Like Ukraine, Syria provides an important point of access to the sea. It also provides a key pressure point in the backyard of its oil producer rivals and immediate access to the Arab and Islamic worlds.
Had Obama, or whomever he listens to on national security and strategy, studied Mahan as well as Fanon, his "Russia re-set" policy would have been much better tuned than it was. Of course, it would also help to have realized that Putin was the real power in the country all along. The fact that, during the four years in which he stepped away from the presidency he ran the ruling United Russia Party, had his longtime staffer installed as president, and served as prime minister himself should have provided sufficient clues.
Now Putin is embarrassing Obama with his aggressive moves into Syria and Iraq. Yes, into Iraq as well. The new joint intelligence center for Russia, Iran, Syria, and Iraq is housed in a Russian op center in Baghdad.
That the Obama administration was reportedly caught by surprise by the Russian moves speaks very badly of both our supposed alliance with Iraq and of our intelligence efforts in both the Middle East and Russia.
We don't so much need spooks running a secret drone war as we need spooks developing actual intelligence. In contrast, Putin certainly doesn't seem surprised at all by what we're doing in the Middle East.
Of course, Putin comes from a very different background from Obama. Where Obama, a Chicago lawyer, was a state legislator four years before becoming president -- and just two years before he became a presidential candidate -- Putin as an intelligence professional has a long background in international intelligence and security affairs.
The ex-KGB colonel, who was director of Russia's security service when I briefly encountered him during the last gasp of liberal reform parties late in the Boris Yeltsin era, actually does have experience in winning a war against Islamic fundamentalists.
But that decidedly does not mean that Putin's clever new gambit will lead to the defeat of Isis.
As Yeltsin's rather sad sack days as Russian president ran down, he increasingly turned to the urbane hard man Putin to take charge of the chaos. First as director of the FSB, then as prime minister, with a specific charge to win the war in breakaway Chechnya, where Islamist separatists had humiliated the once vaunted Red Army.
Russian media reported the country's first air strikes in Syria, along with supportive statements from a variety of international figures.
Putin did not let Yeltsin down. He led Russia to victory in the war in Chechnya. But his tactics were brutal, not suitable for 24-hour news.
The Russian people, who had grown to hate Islamic fundamentalists during their war in Afghanistan, in which Russian brutality was matched by Afghan savagery, didn't care much about the hard core horrors of the Russian victory in Chechnya. Such an approach, if pursued in what has been Syria and Iraq, might well backfire in the international media environment and grow even more jihadists.
In any event, Isis, now that it has had the opportunity to reach critical mass, thanks in part to failures in Obama administration strategy, looks like a tougher nut to crack than the Chechen rebels.
But if the authoritarian Putin can't defeat Isis, he and his people -- who include, let's be frank, much of the old KGB -- have a good chance of doing a much better job of containing Isis.
Despite Obama administration claims, the US really hasn't rolled back Isis, much less come at all close to defeating it. And the rather frightening reality is that the reach of Isis has actually grown over the past year. Since then, more than 15,000 foreign fighters have made their way into what has been Syria and Iraq to join Isis.
That's an astounding number of foreign recruits in general, much less foreign recruits who are able to make their way into the war zone.
What's wrong with this picture?
The Obama administration has established a massive, intrusive global surveillance apparat that tracks your communications and mine but evidently fails to track the movement of thousands of actual jihadists across international borders.
The CIA has had its moments. Especially when not perverted by right-wing political agendas, as it was when then CIA Director George H.W. Bush, encouraged by then White House chief of staff Dick Cheney, pushed a highly alarmist and false revision of CIA's estimate of the Soviet threat in 1976. And when the Bush/Cheney White House produced doctored "intelligence" in the run-up to the disastrous invasion of Iraq in 2003, which created the present chaos to begin with.
But reviewing the record shows that CIA has been largely distracted from what should be its core intelligence mission by an endless string of frequently idiotic covert operations ever since the days of that kindly President Dwight Eisenhower, who repeatedly okayed regime changes of governments that were not Communist.
Now, under the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Obama, CIA is further distracted by its conduct of a top secret drone war against, well, we don't really know. What we do now is that the ranks of jihadists continue to grow unabated.
Since the KGB was better at developing intelligence than CIA, Putin may be better able to stem the growth of Isis. We'll see. It would be hard for him to do worse.
Meanwhile, his power projection agenda is already working.
Russia gave the US only one hour's notice of its first air strikes on Syria, not saying where it would strike while advising the US to stay out of Syrian airspace in the meantime. Strikes continued for every day since. The US says the initial strikes "mostly" weren't against Isis, but against other Syrians fighting against the Assad regime, including some trained by the US.
There's not much the US can do about it.
The Assad regime invited its longtime Russian allies into Syria. It's still the recognized government, a fully accredited member of the UN. More to the point, some of the Russian aircraft now deployed in Syria are top-line jet fighters most appropriate for air-to-air combat. Isis doesn't have fighter planes.
Beyond that, the Syrian Air Force inventory includes dozens of high-performance fighters. US forces would have an edge over them if they're flown by Syrians. If they're flown by Russians, that edge diminishes. There are also top-line Russian anti-aircraft systems in Syria now, similar to what Moscow finally deployed to Iran when there were threats of airstrikes against its nuclear program.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is unique as an international leader who has won a war against Islamic fundamentalists. But his brutal tactics in breakaway Chechnya would be highly controversial today.
So much for all the easy talk in Washington just a week ago about establishing a no-fly zone over Syria. Can US forces in the area defeat the new Russian forces there? Probably. If we want a bigger war. We're already way past the point of sheer ludicrousness when it comes to our recent wars.
So, the Russians are in a few bases on the Mediterranean, including their longtime naval base of Tartus, Syria. They're not going anywhere. And neither is the Assad regime, or some semblance of it or a lineal successor down the line which continues alliance with Russia.
What was post-colonial Syria is probably forever altered, just like post-colonial Iraq. The various major ethnic and religious groups of two nations that were will be sorted out, hopefully in a way that minimizes the role of Isis, leaving enduring Kurdish, Sunni, Shia, and Assad-related enclaves.
The Iranians will gain more influence in the region. The Saudis, who seem angriest of all about the Russian move -- Israel and Russia are coordinating to avoid any conflict in their air missions -- will see their hopes in both Iraq and Syria mostly dashed.
But as the late Fred Dutton, the former Bobby Kennedy campaign manager and Pat Brown executive secretary who served as the Saudis' chief lawyer in the US, told me decades ago, the Saudis will always have an advantageous position in the world so long as the oil economy is dominant. Well, as long as the House of Saud rules in Saudi Arabia, that is.
The biggest Saudi concern going forward should be their war in Yemen. It isn't going very well. At least 2500 civilians have been killed in recent months, most, reportedly, by Saudi air strikes. That includes nearly 150 Yemeni civilians, mostly women and children, killed a few days ago at a wedding.
Given its reliance on Saudi Arabia and support of its campaign in Yemen, we shouldn't expect the Obama administration to complain about that. (Indeed, the Saudis just got Western nations to block a UN human rights probe.) Besides, the administration has much bigger problems.
Like, what the hell is it doing in the Middle East, and with jihadism in general?
Obama inherited one of the worst geopolitical messes imaginable from the Bush/Cheney administration. But he's proceeded to make his own messes.
His big escalation in Afghanistan was an enormously expensive distraction from the core mission of defeating groups whose aim is to attack America, which we achieved long ago in Afghanistan.
His intervention in Libya (which I supported, perhaps mistakenly, in response to Gaddafi's vow to massacre his Arab Spring opponents) proved a typical ADD American moment as, with US leaders distracted elsewhere, the country descended into chaos.
His dilatory response to Isis, then rampaging across the countryside as motorized infantry highly vulnerable to air attack, allowed it to become much more powerful and difficult to dislodge.
His nuclear deal with Iran lessens some tensions -- well, except for the "Death to America" chants and the Ayatollah's prediction that Israel won't exist in 25 years -- but it does not close the door on an Iranian bomb. And so on.
Then there is the expansion of a massive and intrusive global surveillance architecture, angering much of the world, and prosecution of an ill-defined top secret drone war, which appears to be helping drive a viral growth in jihadist sentiment.
It's all a gigantic, stinking mess.
Instead of holding conferences on how to counter Putin, which is what Obama is doing now, he should be thinking beyond some minor necessary PR to the deeper question of rethinking his entire approach on the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, and his diffuse anti-jihadist operations. Because what Obama has been doing really is not working.
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