October 15th, 2015 // 12:51 pm @ Oliver DeMille
Putin, Iran and Our Escalating National Security Problem
I. The Disaster
In the last few weeks, Putin has rapidly reversed many of the major gains Reagan garnered for the United States when he faced down the USSR in the Cold War. Amazingly, Russia is now arguably the major power in the Middle East, having moved significant military assets into Syria and created an alliance between Syria, Iran, and now even Iraq.
This is incredibly big news. A month ago many people were deeply worried about the rise of nuclear Iran; today major nuclear power Russia is bombing U.S.-backed rebels.
Things just got a lot worse.
The Rise of Russian Power
Consider the strategic upgrade for Russia, which is the world’s second largest producer of oil in the world over the past 10 years, now quickly spreading its influence in the oil rich regions of the Middle East. Russian jets and helicopters are now flying daily maneuvers in the area, near 5 of the top 10 oil producing nations in the world (Saudi Arabia, Iran, UAE, Iraq, Kuwait). And the Russian navy has proven its eagerness to act in the area as well.
This at the same time that the Obama Administration’s stunningly weak foreign policy has significantly reduced U.S. influence in the area. In a very real sense, the U.S. has lost the Middle East to Russia as much as it lost Vietnam and North Korea to Russian and Chinese influences in past decades. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times: “3 U.S. Defeats: Vietnam, Iraq, and Now Iran.” (August 7, 2015) And that was written before Russia’s latest aggression.
Imagine the situation if U.S. power continues to weaken, Russian dominance in the region continues to increase, and Putin’s administration gains even more influence over the control and price of world oil. Like it or not, this is a major issue; yet the Obama Administration continues to defend its recent agreements with Iran and its general downgrade of U.S. military strength.
This new reality has an interesting backstory. Listen to a Republican presidential debate, and you’ll hear a chorus of criticism toward the Obama Administration’s foreign policy and national security record. Most Americans—on both the Left and the Right—tend to chalk such rhetoric up to political bickering.
But what some voters don’t realize is that President Obama is a Woodrow Wilson-style diplomat, not an adherent of realpolitik. Whether regular citizens understand this or not, it has serious ramifications for all of us, many of them dangerous for the United States.
Wilsonian diplomacy is based on the idea that agreements made between nations will be honored by both sides. Negotiate, discuss, compromise, then sign a mutual deal. And—Voila!—your work is done.
In this worldview, words are the main thing. You can talk your way out of, or into, almost anything. Once the talking is done, it’s all peachy. “Peace in our time!” Neville Chamberlain announced, sure that the words and paper agreements had done the job. Churchill scoffed.
Where Reagan famously quipped “Trust, but Verify,” the Wilsonians prefer a different approach: “Trust, Trust, Trust.” And the corollary: “Talk, Talk, Talk.” Indeed, they often label a “Trust but Verify” strategy as too aggressive, even warlike. “Give peace a chance,” they demand. And, on face value, that’s a good idea. But without follow up, without effective verification and a strong military, even the best “talk” often evaporates in the face of reality.
Many nations break their agreements. Iran has done so repeatedly. The same is true of Iraq and Syria. Not accounting for this in a negotiation with them is tantamount to national security malpractice.
In contrast to Wilsonian negotiations based primarily on hope and talk, realpolitik argues that nations act for their own national interest, and that aggressive enemy nations are ultimately limited only by actual power. The American framers pitted power against power, governmental branch against branch—in order to curb the abuses they knew were inevitable. Similarly, many commercial contracts openly include exit plans and establish specs for arbitration for the breaches, misinterpretations and misunderstandings that can and do sometimes arise.
In international affairs, realpolitik has a much more effective history than Wilsonian idealism. (The word “idealism” isn’t a criticism; Wilsonianism is actually called “idealism” by many political scientists and historians.) The only Wilsonian presidents in the past century were Wilson, Carter, and Obama. All three left international chaos in their wake.
Specifically, in our time, President Obama has taken a “words and trust” approach to:
- Syria (Assad must go, and crossing the “red line” of using chemical weapons will not be tolerated)
- the Crimea and Ukraine (you cannot invade other countries in the 21st century, Russia)
- Iran (it must come clean on it’s nuclear program, or we won’t make any deal)
- ISIS (we will downgrade and destroy it), and China (I’ve indicated that they must stop engaging in cyber attacks on us, and they agreed).
Really? All of these words by President Obama turned out to be false. All of them. But many Americans aren’t very surprised. After all, such words mirrored certain domestic promises: e.g. If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor.
Except: you can’t.
- Syria’s use of chemical weapons was tolerated with no significant response.
- Russia was allowed to invade Crimea.
- Now Russia is reinserting itself in Syria, Iran, Libya and Bagdad at pre-1973 levels, foreshadowing major increased conflicts ahead. Syrian refugees are fleeing by the millions. Iran didn’t have to come clean—despite President Obama’s tersely delivered words—and it got almost everything it wanted in the negotiation anyway.
- ISIS hasn’t been downgraded or destroyed. Indeed, it is still growing, and emboldened by all this U.S. weakness, the Taliban is once again stepping up its operations. For example, on September 29, the Taliban attacked and took control of the first major city (Kunduz) it has overtaken since 2001. On top of these serious developments, Putin’s first choice of targets in Syria was U.S. backed rebels. Seriously.
In short, President Obama’s Wilsonian words aren’t working. At least not in the real world.
“Peace Through Weakness” isn’t even a bumper sticker. It’s just plain stupid.
III. The Real Strategy
And let’s be clear. This is not, as some Republican politicians claim, a case of incompetence in the Oval Office. If we’re honest, we have to admit that Barack Obama is one of the most effective politicians in American history. Just look at the evidence:
- He got Obamacare passed, despite the fact that a large majority of the nation dislikes it.
- He pushed through the Iran deal, even though, again, most of the nation thinks it’s very bad for America.
- He got the debt limit raised repeatedly, even in the face of Republican majorities in both the House and Senate.
- He also led numerous, significant budget increases and massive growth of the federal government.
- His drive to increase the size and scope of the federal government has hardly been stopped by the flaccid speed bump that is the Republican opposition. To date, more has been added to the national debt under President Obama’s watch than during all the presidents before him combined.
In short, this President knows how to get things done. When he ran for office, he had a campaign quiver full of domestic goals—and we’ve seen many of them realized. Not a kinder, friendlier Washington, certainly, but many of his other objectives.
Concerning foreign policy, his main purpose was to stop exporting American exceptionalism and make the U.S. just another industrialized nation—not a superpower, but just another country; you know… like France, maybe, or Japan. In many measures, he’s accomplished this as well. In the next sixteen months of his tenure, he’ll likely do even more.
In fact, when asked on 60 Minutes why his foreign policy has been weak, he responded that is hasn’t been weak, that it has in fact been strong. When pushed on what he meant by this, he noted that his words about global climate change have been very strong indeed.
The truth is, I think this is exactly where his head is. Strong foreign policy to him means talking strongly about things like fighting climate change and lecturing Syria about chemical weapons. Wilsonian words.
In other words, this President did exactly what he meant to do with our foreign policy. As a result, we live in a much more dangerous world. This gutting of our national defense will probably be his biggest and most enduring legacy.
Putin, clearly, has gone the opposite direction. As has China. And Iran. Syria too. And many others.
As bad as this all is for the U.S., imagine how Israel must feel.
Our overall foreign policy goals are a deeper topic than we have time to fully develop here. Yet it is worth mentioning the highlights. Some argue that the U.S. should happily stay out of the Middle East, and let the various radical Islamic groups fight it out amongst themselves. There is a lot of merit to this strategy. Supporting Iraq against Iran in the 1980s resulted in the extremities introduced by Saddam Hussein. Likewise, intervening to remove Saddam and trying to create a more pro-Western Iraqi government resulted in a power vacuum that has helped ISIS.
But sitting back and watching Putin essentially take over Crimea and Syria, establish Russian military bases in the Middle East, fly Russian aircraft and drones in droves around the region, and establish a new axis alliance (with Iraq, Iran, and Syria all working with—and to a certain extent, for—Russia), is a whole different matter. If Russia turns its eyes toward controlling world oil prices and revenues (and this has already begun), the consequences will only destabilize the entire region and could drastically hurt the U.S. economy.
In a stroke, Putin has managed to sweep in and direct much of the $150 billion Iran-deal U.S. payout to Iran in the direction of Russian and Chinese weapons and infrastructure. Moreover, events in Europe, relationships between China and Russia, and Russian-American relations are quickly—and dramatically—becoming more dangerous. Putin simply moved into the Middle East without announcement or fanfare and took over. The White House was, and remains, shocked.
When Russia invaded and took Crimea, President Obama responded with words (of course) of censure, and Western sanctions. The President also called Russia a “regional power,” basically limited to influence in Eastern Europe. He was pointed in his explanation that Russia is no longer a global power, just as he recently called ISIS the jayvee team. But under Putin’s leadership, this “regional power” took over Syria almost overnight (cheaply and easily) and then got Iraq and Iran to join the alliance.
However you feel about American intervention abroad, the result of these developments is a major downgrade to our national security. It’s one thing to avoid getting caught in a Middle Eastern quagmire; but it’s an entirely different thing to turn the reins of power over the Middle East to Putin’s Russia. And it’s even worse to do this while simultaneously downgrading the U.S. military year after year. Not only has the Obama Administration’s policies hurt national security, they’ve significantly downgraded our national defense as well.
V. The Road Ahead
Let’s now turn our attention to briefly considering the bigger picture. We have a serious set of problems ahead. The following are potential existential crises for the United States, meaning that one or more of them will almost surely threaten our very national survival in the years ahead:
- Terrorist Attacks in U.S.
- Nuclear North Korea
- Russia’s Expansion and Oil Domination in the Middle East
- Economic Recession—or Worse
Even something as simple as continued economic stagnancy could have a hugely negative impact on our families, standard of living, and our children’s future. None of these problems are likely to just go away, no matter how many Wilsonian words our leaders multiply. America will need to wisely consider, plan, and take effective action to deal with all of these major challenges.
On the issue of defense, without a significantly re-strengthened military, the United States is in serious trouble. I’m not by any means suggesting that we need as many interventions as the two Bush presidents felt determined to engage, but a weak military is not the right path to American success. And big words from the White House about how America will use its power–followed by capitulation whenever a foreign enemy ignores the President and attacks our interests with no consequence except more words–isn’t the right course either.
The Obama legacy may well go down in history as the era of “Speak Loudly and Carry a Small Stick.” Again, the President seems genuinely annoyed that he has to deal with foreign issues. We can expect the problems to grow in the months ahead—not just in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but elsewhere as well.
Whoever replaces Barack Obama in the Oval Office will have his/her hands full. It was bad enough when Bush left office, leaving massive problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an escalating face-off with China–not to mention the beginning of the Great Recession in 2008.
But let’s be honest: Things are much worse now.
The tinderbox only needs a spark.