For the Obama administration, there’s always a surprise when it comes to the Middle East. Having pulled out of Iraq before Iraq was ready, they were taken unawares by the Islamic State’s rise. Now Russia’s strategic moves to be the big dog on the block in the Mideast have thrown them for another loop.
Russia has forged an alliance with Syria, Iran and Iraq to share intelligence to destroy the Islamic State — without inviting the U.S. The pact has a powerful moral rationale, given the monstrosity of the enemy and the U.S. lack of will to fight. But it also will permanently extend Russian power in the region, something that Russia had under the USSR but that is also a longstanding imperial ambition dating back to the days of Vlad the Great.
What we are seeing here is the totally predictable outcome of a U.S. victory thrown away.
No matter how much Obama blames former President Bush or Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for the current shambles in the Middle East, the facts on the ground remain: Our military was on the cusp of victory after a painstaking process of engagement, but the entire effort was discarded for the far cheaper aim of pulling troops out and calling the pullout “peace.”
Instead of stabilizing Iraq and making it a bulwark against Iran and a beacon for the other Middle Eastern states, there was just the Obama administration’s self-delusion of “peace” with few U.S. troops around.
The world doesn’t operate that way. Power abhors a vacuum, and Russia saw its opportunity: It will take not just the victory that the U.S. didn’t seem to want but an empire with a moral rationale to follow.
Those are two ideas absolutely foreign to the Obama administration but not to the Russians.
That Russia believes in victory is evident in its willingness to put boots on the ground — not just a land base but an air base and a sea base too in Syria — even in the face of significant public opposition inside Russia.
Empire is generally a dirty word in the West. But Russia’s building a de facto one. At root, it amounts to stability and protection of minorities, as geography writer Robert D. Kaplan has noted in an essay, “In Defense of Empire,” which appeared last year in The Atlantic.
Putin at the United Nations Monday spoke at length on stability in the Middle East, while history spoke of Russia’s role as the defender of Christian minorities in the Holy Land at times when the West failed to act.
So Obama’s abandonment of the Middle East gave Russia a religious cause and let Russia know that it was time for it to act to fill our vacuum. To wit:
• In 2013, Obama announced a “red line” in Syria for U.S. action that Syria complied with quickly at Putin’s request — and Obama still showed zero will to act.
• In 2014, President Obama told a press conference: “We don’t have a strategy yet” for fighting the Islamic State. “Folks are getting a little further ahead of where we’re at than we currently are.”
• This month, 50 intelligence analysts blasted the Pentagon’s leadership for doctoring intelligence reports to paint a phony rosy picture of U.S. progress against the Islamic State. The only reason for that: to give the president the news he wanted to hear.
• After that, Central Command admitted that its plan to train 5400 anti-Islamic State fighters in Syria had yielded just “four or five” fighters.
• Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes repeated Sunday that there would be no boots on the ground in Syria.
With signals like that, how could anyone have not foreseen that Russia would seize the initiative? No wonder the Russians have nothing but contempt for Obama’s claims to international law and world coalitions. It’s winners who make the rules.