By any objective measure, Russia has made a strategic decision to challenge America for dominance in the Middle East. Despite depressed global oil prices and economic sanctions intended to curb his Ukraine adventurism, Vladimir Putin is pursuing an undisguised effort to expand Moscow’s military power, political heft, and economic influence in a region long under Washington’s sway. Barack Obama has made no effective response, and none seems in prospect. The recent Obama-Putin meeting at the United Nations did not change that underlying reality.
At a minimum, Russia’s Middle East actions today uncannily resemble Scoop Jackson’s characterization of the Soviet Union as an “opportunistic hotel burglar who walks down the corridors trying all the door handles to see which door is open.” The Kremlin is probing for U.S. weaknesses, meddling across the region in ways unprecedented since Anwar Sadat expelled Soviet military advisers in the 1970s, reversed Egypt’s global orientation, and thereby ultimately enabled the Camp David accords with Israel.
Russia is not pursuing its objectives alone. It is strengthening allies and proxies such as Syria and Iran that regularly assist Moscow or undertake parallel, reinforcing initiatives to advance their own agendas. The ongoing, perhaps accelerating, region-wide deterioration of state structures facilitates Moscow’s assertiveness.
Russia’s recent rapid buildout of an air base at Latakia, Syria, is a palpable demonstration of military muscle, complementing its longstanding Tartus naval facility. Near term, it buttresses Bashar al-Assad’s rump Syrian regime, which is already heavily dependent on Iran (directly and through Hezbollah) and facing enormous battlefield pressure from ISIS, al-Nusra, and the remaining Syrian “moderate” opposition.
Far more important, however, Latakia is clear evidence of Russia’s new, sweeping strategy of challenging America. All too typically, Obama was caught by surprise, still waiting, as he has since Syria’s civil war erupted, for Moscow to partner with Washington to oust Assad from power. John Kerry asserted that Russia’s new air assets were merely for “force protection,” neglecting to explain what the objectives are of the force being protected! Indeed, just days later, the “force protection” force attacked non-ISIS targets in Syria, after warning U.S. planes to leave Syrian skies.
Well before Latakia, Russia was already testing U.S. vulnerabilities. Putin’s successful February visit with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo led directly to substantial military sales to Egypt, the first since the 1970s, sending a powerful signal of regional realignment. And Moscow is certainly not complaining about Sisi’s suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Most visibly threatening, Russia is selling Iran its S-300 air defense system (not to mention other advanced weapons and nuclear reactors when sanctions disappear because of the Vienna nuclear deal). Once deployed, the S-300 will end any prospect of Israel preemptively striking Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Obama, faced with Russia’s assertive faits accomplis, remains lost in a post-Vienna ideological rapture, unable or unwilling to see the consequences of his passivity and disinterest. Expressing “concern” over Russia’s new Latakia base joins a lengthening list of Obama “concerns” that elicit only his rhetoric, nothing more.
Looking ahead, with Assad and Iran operating from much stronger positions, we face the risk that regional ideological adversaries will act in concert when their interests align, as in the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact dividing Poland. The gravest threat to U.S. interests, after a nuclear Iran, is the Russia-Iran-Syria axis reaching a modus vivendi with the Islamic State. A “truce” would allow ISIS to consolidate its new state from the rubble of Syria and Iraq (presumably with Kurdistan de facto independent) and concentrate on its highest-priority targets: the Arabian Peninsula’s apostate, heretic oil-producing monarchies.
With Putin explaining the historical precedent, ISIS and Iran could divide up the goods. Iran would tighten its hold on Baghdad and focus on Bahrain and Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, with their large Shiite populations, while ISIS goes after the other Gulf Cooperation Council countries and the holy cities of the Hijaz. Tender Western ears may find this cold-blooded, but the regional and religious logic is straightforward. The inconvenient betrayal of one side by the other can come later.
Russia’s challenge to America, if unmet, promises far-reaching benefits for its entente and comparable harm to us and our friends. Consider Turkey: Although increasingly unreliable under Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it remains nonetheless NATO’s eastern linchpin. Moscow’s assertiveness directly threatens Ankara. Russia is outflanking Turkey in Syria, while strengthening Assad’s regime. The Islamic State would be secure on its other borders (at least temporarily), and independent Kurdistan would catalyze problems in Turkey’s fraught relations with its own Kurds. A rising, nuclear Iran with dynastic Islamic pretensions needs no elaboration. All that should worry even Erdogan.
China, another potential partner, has already conducted naval maneuvers with Russia in the eastern Mediterranean and is expanding its blue-water capabilities in nearby Pakistan. China’s interests and ambitions, including possibly massive investment in Iran’s hydrocarbon reserves, will only grow.
America’s friends are not waiting for Washington to wake up, as Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent trip to Moscow shows. Russia’s growing Syrian military presence constrains Israel’s self-defense options, which Jerusalem cannot allow to proceed unchecked. Obviously Russia’s emerging challenge is not alone in roiling the Middle East. Terrorism, radical Islam’s continuing menace, and an accelerating nuclear arms race also demand responses.
Israel wants Russia to fully appreciate these dangers, to which Obama seems indifferent. Netanyahu is hedging Israel’s bets on the United States, perhaps permanently, calculating that Moscow’s strategy ultimately rests on Russian national interests, no matter what Washington’s vaporings reflect. The Gulf Arab monarchies are also hedging. In their neighborhood, leaders must deal with facts, not fantasy.
Moscow’s unabashed Middle East challenge would normally prompt a countervailing U.S. strategy, at least if the president hadn’t pirouetted off to another region or back to “fundamentally transforming” America. Seven years after Obama’s election, however, it is hardly likely that his answer to Russia and other threats will stray from his unvarying pattern of doing next to nothing except at the last ditch. Accordingly, America’s presence in the Middle East, its vital interests and its alliances will continue to deteriorate until a new president takes office. The ground under our feet, which has already shifted dramatically since 2009, will continue shifting for 16 months toward an increasingly unsustainable position.
In policy terms, therefore, simply reversing Obama’s direction — ordering a 180-degree turnabout from his course — would at best leave us managing America’s decline. That is unacceptable. We should not rest at whatever low ebb we inherit in 16 months, but instead climb out of the hole Obama is still digging.
Prompt, decisive, and muscular corrective actions must start on Inauguration Day 2017, before the opportunity is lost. The new president must not be diverted from restoring America’s position in the Middle East and globally, both for geostrategic reasons and precisely because of our continuing, pressing economic problems. We must restore sufficient international stability to enable robust economic growth, and we must have economic growth to maintain a strong international presence, especially in the Middle East.
America’s strategy must bring Russia back to earth, which means, somewhat ironically, first implementing an effective policy regarding Ukraine and other former Soviet republics before Putin gulls Europe into lifting economic sanctions. Putin is on weaker ground in Ukraine than Obama has ever understood. A vigorously led NATO can strengthen deterrence and support Ukraine’s military capabilities and political will, thereby raising the costs and risks of Russian adventurism close to home. Moscow must relearn a key lesson from the USSR’s collapse, namely that expeditionary efforts in distant regions can be dangerous distractions. Standing up to Russia in Europe will produce considerable benefits in the Middle East.
In the region itself, the first priority must be to convince Israel, Turkey, and the Arabs that Washington has not permanently lost its moorings, holding illusions that Iran under the mullahs is a responsible, nonthreatening power. Stressing Russia’s entente with Iran would demonstrate clearly why Russia is not their new best friend.
Washington must additionally lead a serious effort to destroy ISIS without bolstering Iran or Assad, with the Arabs and Turkey making substantial military and financial commitments to that effort. Left to themselves, the regional powers lack both the military competence and the political coherence needed to coalesce against ISIS. However tempted some are to say, “It’s their problem, let them handle it,” they (and we) need U.S. leadership and military power. Even Obama says his ultimate goal is destroying ISIS. We simply need to start doing so in 2017.
Persuading Egypt, the Gulf monarchies, and others not to purchase Russian weapons systems or nuclear reactors will also be an urgent priority. If that allows further harsh measures against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere, so be it. We should recall Jeane Kirkpatrick’s warning of the dangers of replacing “moderate autocrats friendly to American interests with less friendly autocrats of extremist persuasion.”
Iran’s nuclear program must be eliminated. Abrogating the Vienna deal on day one is the easy part. We will also need enormous diplomatic efforts to resurrect the international support Obama has dissipated, based on evidence reflecting the certain Iranian violations of Vienna already underway. Ultimately, military action is inevitable. Others may disagree, for now, but they must at least believe (and show it) that they are willing to strike Iran if necessary, something Obama has assiduously resisted. We should also affirmatively declare supporting the overthrow of Tehran’s mullahs to be U.S. policy; there will be no Middle East peace and stability until that regime lies on history’s ash heap.
This is a tall order, but necessary. Republicans must make 2016 a national-security election and nominate someone who understands the urgent strategic perils the next president will face — worldwide, but especially in the Middle East.
John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06. This article was originally published by The Weekly Standard.