14 March 2016
For the second time, Vladimir Putin has helped rescue the United States from ill-considered commitments that it was either unwilling or unable to honor. First was the so-called US declaration of a red line against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. When the British parliament rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s bid to support US military action, President Barack Obama demurred. Fortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry was able to arrange with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a joint effort to remove the chemical weapons. The job got done, but it opened up opportunities for Russian reengagement in the Middle East.
The second ill-considered US commitment was that “Assad must go.” From the beginning it was not clear how or whether the United States would bring that about. Nor was it clear what would happen afterwards to all of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian groups and how the US could extricate itself from the region-wide Sunni-Shia civil war. Putin has now rescued the United States a second time and thereby confirmed that Russia is in the Middle East to stay, perhaps in time even as an equal partner with the United States.
One thousand miles away, meanwhile, the United States and its NATO allies are confronting Russia and Putin, which began with the latter’s seizure of Crimea, its continuing military actions in other parts of Ukraine, and its making implicit if not explicit threats to other Central European states, including NATO allies. In direct contrast with the Middle East, here the United States is mounting a major campaign to contain Russia by building up military power, both on its own and through NATO. Nor is this just prophylactic, providing reassurances to Central European states that feel vulnerable to Russian pressures, are uncertain of support from Western Europe, and don’t know if the United States will honor its NATO security commitments.
Squaring the circle is not easy. But it is made more difficult by two of America’s top military leaders, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, and Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Philip Breedlove. They have both said publically that Russia poses an “existential threat to the United States.” Existential? That means able and perhaps willing to destroy the United States! That was true of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but to invoke that definition now is bizarre if not dangerous. It also raises the bar for US military preparations, limits President Barack Obama’s diplomatic flexibility, and deflects attention from the critical need to support Ukraine’s economy and demand that its leaders end the corruption that is Putin’s best ally. Although the Russians have moved toward confrontation—and have used the words “Cold War”—America’s military leadership is also heading in that direction. NATO is advancing a plan to streamline decision-making so that a military response to whatever Russia does—even “little green men” across a NATO frontier— could be mounted in short order. Even during the Cold War NATO did not go that far but instead took reasoned, temperate decisions.
Apparently, the US left hand (Secretary of State John Kerry in the Middle East) and its right hand (the Pentagon in Europe) have not been able to settle on one, coherent, policy toward Russia.
Complicating the situation are rising doubts on the continent that, beyond military steps to reassure Central Europeans, the Obama administration places Europe high on its agenda. Washington stands by passively as the European Union goes through one of the most severe internal crises ever, fostered in major part by the flood of refugees from Middle East war zones. It is a supreme irony that the United States is doing virtually nothing to help the European Union deal with a crisis that is the direct descendant of one of the worst foreign policy blunders in US history, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Washington is clearly frustrated that, so long after the Cold War, Europe still cannot handle problems on its own patch. President Obama would like to get on with what he says is the more important work of dealing with China and obviously resents being dragged back into the second-order business of mollifying fractious and ungrateful allies in the Middle East and reassuring European allies that should by now have grown up.
Maybe that attitude of “let ‘em eat cake” toward Europe’s deepest travails would have had some validity if it had not been for the US-led financial crisis of 2008, the US-facilitated calamity in the Middle East, and Putin’s reassertion of Russian power and presence, which owes more than a little to US failure since the late 1990s to follow through on George H.W. Bush’s vision of a “Europe whole and free and at peace.”
Like it or not, Europe still needs America and the United States still needs Europe. That includes understanding on both sides of the Atlantic that the Middle East, Europe, and Russia do not exist on three separate planets. They can only be dealt with all of a piece, which is not now being done.
For his part, meanwhile, Putin finds himself able to out-think and out-maneuver the West and counts on our continuing inability to craft a common strategic purpose and the means to implement it. If he proves correct, we will only have ourselves to blame.