Obama Enabling Russia's Mideast Rise

"Moscow now has more power in the Middle East than at any time since at least 1973, if not longer."

In Monday’s National Interest, Brent Sasley argues that our view of America’s deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons—insofar as it is a “deal” at all—is unnecessarily alarmist. “It’s not clear,” Professor Sasley writes, “that Russia [poses] a challenge to the United States in the Middle East.” He also claims that our “argument rests on a single case—Syria.” While we welcome Prof. Sasley to this debate, we obviously disagree, as we see a clear and long standing Russian challenge in the region that goes far beyond “one case.” We regard Prof. Sasley’s reading of the current situation as naively optimistic; worse, despite his descriptive listing of Soviet involvements in the region, we find his larger analysis of Moscow’s influence in the region to be remarkably ahistorical and crippled by a serious lack of understanding regarding Russian foreign policy, its inner workings, or its goals.

Prof. Sasley’s attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of the Obama administration’s defeat rests on a series of improbable guesses and bald assertions: that Putin didn’t outfox Kerry; that the Russian deal had been under consideration for some time before Lavrov seized it; that the use of force was never (and still is not) off the table. Indeed, Sasley tells us confidently, it was almost certainly President Obama’s putative show of force and a consequent danger of regime change that forced Moscow’s hand. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support any of this; in fact, the events that actually took place point to the opposite conclusion, since the Kerry-Lavrov “deal” happened as the U.S. president’s threat of force was imploding into a domestic political morass back in the United States and the American position was crumbling into incoherence.

Prof. Sasley’s reasoning requires us to believe several things, each of which is improbable in itself, but when taken together defies both the available evidence and plain common sense.

First, if the Kerry-Lavrov deal was such a good idea, why didn’t anyone try it a year ago? To say that the administration “discussed” diplomatic solutions with Putin is to say almost nothing, other than to grant the obvious fact that the normal channels of contact between Moscow and Washington were not completely closed. Of course diplomatic solutions were “discussed.” They always are, and they almost always founder on the rocks of reality when it comes to outlaw states like Syria. (Just ask the leaders of the newest nuclear regime in Pyongyang about the various “deals” made with them back in the 1990s.)

Had something like the Kerry-Lavrov solution emerged at the start of the Syrian mess, rather than at its barbaric apogee, we might have thought differently about it, especially if it had encouraged the Russians to restrain their client before the chemical genie was let loose with such ghastly consequences. Prof. Sasley, however, is writing as though the Kerry-Lavrov deal was in the works for months. (It wasn’t.) He also has a serenity about the deal as if it has already come to a satisfactory conclusion. (It hasn’t.) Sadly, this is all just so much wishful thinking, and it should be no surprise (at least it isn’t to us) that the Russians are already backpedaling and issuing nasty charges of American “blackmail” while protecting their client from further meddling by the West.

Prof. Sasley makes a legalistic observation that there has been no explicit promise from Obama to Putin about the use of force. The absence of such a vow, like so much of the symbolism in this foreign-policy train wreck, is meaningless. If there is any danger at all of U.S. action still hanging in the air—and we believe there is not—then it is an uncomfortable option hanging over President Obama’s head, not President Putin’s. Americans, reacting in part to past U.S. military excursions as well as to the uncertain trumpet blared by their own national leaders about Syria, have quickly backed away from any further consideration of military force. Congress clearly did not want the hot potato of U.S. military force dropped in its lap, and trying to send this decision down Pennsylvania Avenue was a huge and unforced political error. Barring some kind of horrible misstep by Bashar Assad, we suspect that the administration will not repeat that mistake.

Prof. Sasley’s political arguments are difficult enough to swallow. His historical analysis, however, is completely detached from the realities of both Soviet and Russian foreign policy.

Ironically, in seeking to rebut our arguments, Prof. Sasley ends up accidentally (or so we must assume) confirming our own reasoning. Soviet influence during the Cold War, he argues, was never all that significant, he says, so why worry about Russian influence now?

This reflects a complacency that completely misses the point: the reason Soviet influence in the Middle East was limited during the Cold War is because American policymakers of all political persuasions and parties made every effort to curtail it and keep it that way. If Prof. Sasley had looked carefully at our piece, he would have seen that we were not arguing that Russia is being allowed to return to a position of prominence, but rather that it is being given one, thus fulfilling a long-standing aim of Russian foreign policy. In other words, we are all in heated agreement: Moscow has not been this powerful in the Middle East in at least a century. It is now enjoying a new status because Washington has chosen to confer it.

Of course, Prof. Sasley and others might ask: so what? The Cold War is over. What will Moscow do today that worries us?

Here it is important to reiterate how divided we are in our own views on most other issues. Schindler is a former intelligence officer who sees great continuity in Imperial, Soviet, and modern Russian policies, and he has remained generally pessimistic about any notion of improved cooperation between Moscow and the West that is not based on the hard realities of power. Nichols, for his part, is a former Sovietologist who has argued elsewhere that unique ideological differences were the source of the Cold War, and that with the end of the ideological conflict, far greater possibilities now exist for amity between Russia and the West. While we both agree that America’s Russia policies since 1991 have been characterized by stunning incompetence, we disagree about the degree to which those policies should be corrected in one direction or the other.

Nonetheless, both of us see in the Russian regime of Vladimir Putin a deep antipathy to all things Western, and particularly to all things American: our system of freedoms, our globalized culture, our widespread alliances, and our immense political and military reach. The Kremlin’s objective is to curtail American power by all means short of outright military conflict. While Russia has no global ideological agenda, it is governed by atavistic leaders who seek revenge on behalf of a humiliated great power that no longer exists. This dovetails with the Putin regime’s domestic attempts to increase its own support by banging the hollow drum of a Russian nationalism that is increasingly based only on reflexive opposition to the United States and NATO.

We find it especially disturbing that Prof. Sasley seems not to understand how Russian foreign policy was, and is, conducted in that region. Like many Westerners, Prof. Sasley focuses on Russian diplomacy and the activities of the Russian foreign ministry. The real driver of Russian policy in the Middle East, however, has always been the Russian military’s General Staff, as well as Moscow’s intelligence services, both of whom have an approach to competition with the West that has always been harder-edged than a focus on formal diplomacy might suggest.

More specifically, Prof. Sasley is so busy painting the best face on the Syrian deal that he neglects to note the ways in which President Putin is positioning Russia as a regional counterweight to the United States. This is particularly obvious in Iran, where the immediate result of the U.S. collapse on Syria was a quick move by the Kremlin to float a new offer to sell advanced air defenses to Tehran, thus helping Iran to defend a nuclear program that is orders of magnitude more dangerous than Assad’s sarin gas.

Putin’s goal is to make Russia a viable alternative partner for repressive states in the Middle East (and by extension, in the rest of the world). His offer to such regimes is simple: Unlike the Americans, Russia will never judge other forms of government, violate the sovereignty of authoritarian states, encourage any “color revolutions” against their leaders, or hold any of them to any standards regarding human rights. Should those dictators take Putin’s hand, he can now use Russian support of Syria to buttress one more pledge: when the going gets rough, the Kremlin will not throw them under the bus the way the Americans did with their Arab allies. Perhaps Prof. Sasley is not alarmed by the possible creation of this kind of brutal new order in the Middle East, but we see nothing good in it, neither for Western interests nor for the furtherance of anything like Western values.

The fact of the matter is that no serious student of Russian affairs would deny that Moscow now has more power in the Middle East than at any time since at least 1973, if not longer. Until now, the Russians have had to pry that influence away from the U.S. and its allies through venal promises of arms and unconditional political support to some of the worst regimes in the region. Now, that influence has simply been handed to Moscow by an American administration seeking an exit from a strategic dead-end of its own making. We understand that apologists of such a policy will want to put the best possible face on this disaster. But the debate needs to be kept in the realm of historical reality, rather than based on hopeful reinterpretations of Russian history and foreign policy that have nothing to do with how the Kremlin actually conducts itself.

Tom Nichols and John Schindler are professors of national security at the Naval War College, and fellows of the International History Institute at Boston University. The views expressed are entirely their own.