In these grim times, I am afforded light relief by CNN—the only news channel offered by the treadmill of my Tokyo apartment house—as its presenters and pundits gravely debate the motives behind Putin’s investment in Syria. His own version is that he is fighting “extremism,” which oddly enough is the same dark threat that President Barack Obama also recognizes while rigorously avoiding the qualifiers Islamic, Islamist, or Muslim—although he will refer to Isol, prompting the thought that it is impossible to defeat an enemy one is afraid to name. There is no Isol or even Isis anymore, because the good old ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyah fi’l-ʿIraq wa-sh-Sham—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria—has long since become the Islamic State of everywhere from Nigeria to Afghanistan, no doubt also including the British Isles and Michigan. Ignoring earnest declarations of its un-Islamic character solemnly issued by non-Muslim presidents, premiers, and prelates, volunteers who recognize the authenticity of the Islamic State keep pouring into its still-expanding borders, easily offsetting the casualties inflicted by the very expensive U.S. bombing campaign, now joined by the British, French, … and Putin, whose air force already claims dozens of air strikes against the common foe.
Putin’s enthusiasm for the great cause might be expected to earn him some gratitude. Instead, the Russian leader is criticized by wise CNN pundits—and by the Obama Administration—for seeking to defend his client Assad by bombing his other enemies as well, i.e., the dozens of quarreling Islamist bands that grandly call themselves Jaysh al-Fatah, “the army of conquest,” the several quarreling factions of Syrian Army defectors that call themselves al-Jaysh as-Suri al-Ḥurr, “the free Syrian army,” the unabashedly extremist al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat an-Nuṣrah, which is much stronger than both, and, above all, the brave “pro-democracy” warriors armed and trained by the United States itself, under a $500 million program.
In reality Putin’s young bombing campaign has hit very few Islamic State targets. Yes, aircraft have flown and bombs have been dropped, but the Russians have no ground intelligence in place to identify targets any more than the United States has, except in those rare occasions when black-flagged vehicles are actually seen driving around in broad daylight—which is why the Islamic State has expanded ever since the U.S. bombing started. But Putin must certainly be innocent of the accusation that his air force has bombed the U.S.-trained “pro-democracy” freedom fighters, because the trainers themselves have admitted that the first lot on which one-tenth of the budget has been spent, i.e., $50 million, are exactly five in number, the rest having deserted after receiving their big family-support signing bonus and first paycheck, or after they were first issued with weapons (which they sold), or after first entering Syria in groups, when they promptly joined the anti-American Jabhat an-Nuṣrah, whose Sunni Islam they understand, unlike talk of democracy. That guarantees Putin’s innocence: All five extant U.S.-made freedom fighters are reportedly alive and well, though one may have defected since the last count. (It would really be much cheaper to hire Salvadoran contract gunmen and fit them out in Arab head-dresses.)
On the other hand Putin is certainly guilty of defending Assad’s regime and indeed of wanting to preserve it in the capital-city area of Damascus if possible, or at least in the natural redoubt of the coastal strip from Lebanon to Turkey where Assad’s fellow Alawites outnumber the Sunni Muslims ranged against him, and which also has room for Syria’s Christians, Ismaili, Twelver Shia, and urban Druze who suffer persecution and sometimes outright massacre wherever Sunni insurgents of any kind advance (the only difference is that the Islamic State documents its killings in vivid color), and that happens to include the city of Tartus, home of a Russian ex-Soviet naval base since 1971, which happens to be the one and only overseas base of the Russian Federation anywhere in the world, and which greatly adds to the naval value of Putin’s conquest of Crimea, where his Sevastopol naval base is on the wrong side of the Dardanelles. With refueling and light repairs in Tartus, the Russian navy can operate continuously in the Mediterranean, and prevail in the eastern Mediterranean, especially now that the historic U.S. Sixth Fleet is down to a ship or two, the rest of the shrinking U.S. Navy having long since gone to the Indian Ocean or the Pacific.
So, yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, the aforementioned accused, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin is guilty of a very great crime: He defends his allies and attacks his enemies—conduct particularly reprehensible in the eyes of the Obama Administration, which does the exact opposite. Obama’s America dislikes Japan’s staunchly pro-American Prime Minister Abe (deemed “insufficiently apologetic”), it spurns the calls for action of Britain’s Cameron and Hollande of France, and has missed no opportunity to denigrate Benjamin Netanyahu, even as it eagerly embraces the bleak dictators of Cuba and of course Hassan Fereydoun a.k.a. Rouhani, president of the “death to America” Islamic republic of Iran and de facto chief nuclear negotiator—for the second time. The first time, from Oct. 6, 2003 to Aug. 15, 2005, when Rouhani was the official negotiator, under the equally mellifluous President Mohammad Khatami, he boasted that he had used the talks “to buy time to advance Iran’s nuclear program”—but that is not something that would dissuade an American administration that is intensely suspicious, but only of its allies.
Side with the Americans and you will be promptly abandoned if troublemakers force the police to shoot. Side with Putin’s Russia and you will be supported no matter what.
Putin is a very peculiar character who believes that the president of a country should give a very high priority to the enhancement of its own power, which is admittedly an old-fashioned pursuit as compared to the hundreds of initiatives that the Obama Administration has deemed more important than the upkeep of American power and credibility on the global scene. The administration has a growing list of disastrous failures to show for its preoccuptions, from the Ukraine to Afghanistan. In each case, there has been neither an effective engagement nor a clean disengagement but only vapid assurances, agonizing indecision, gross policy errors by visibly incompetent officials (who keep embarrassing Obama without being re-assigned to parking duties) and really appalling execution—as in the Iran negotiation, which ended with Secretary of State John Kerry camped in Geneva, and very visibly unwilling to leave without his agreement, for which he made the most embarrassing last-minute concessions (including the amazing 24-day advance warning of inspections), acting no differently than first-time bazaar customers who buy ancient, historic, unique, imperial Persian palace carpet for a mere (“only for you”) 10,000, a nice mark-up over the 49.99 charged by its Pakistani manufacturer. When it comes to execution, even that shameful silliness is exceeded by the botched Syria operation of that Obama favorite, CIA director John O. Brennan, who thinks of himself as a great Middle East expert, yet cannot read Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, or Turkish.
Putin is different. He has two aims in Syria, both utterly realistic: Keep his Tartus base that makes Russia a Mediterranean Great Power (look at the competition) at very low cost, and demonstrate that it really pays to serve Russia. The Americans abruptly dropped Hosni Mubarak like a rotten apple after decades of obedient service because his police shot at some demonstrators: Russia still supports Assad vigorously no matter what. The message resonates with potentates across the region, none of whom happens to be democratically elected (with the exception of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is doing his best to undo his country’s democracy). Side with the Americans and you will be promptly abandoned if troublemakers force the police to shoot. Side with Putin’s Russia and you will be supported no matter what. So it little matters what happens to Assad in the end: Putin has already won the credibility competition, which earns him and Russia real gains.
Putin is also different in his understanding of the business of diplomacy. The Obama version is that the practicalities of any actual transaction are much less important than their decoration with fashionably modish principles and procedures, including genuflections to the forever useless United Nations. Hence none can expect to exchange X for Y in dealing with the Obama White House and Administration—it all has to go through its indecision machine that delays everything inordinately, at the very least.
By contrast, when Netanyahu heard that Putin was sending fighter-bombers to Syria, over which Israeli fight-bombers must operate from time to time to destroy trucks carrying Iran-supplied missiles to Hezbollah, thus opening the very real possibility of deadly aerial encounters, there were no lengthy pre-negotiation palavers to arrange for preparatory meetings that might one day lead to a meeting of the principals, in the manner of the Obama Administration. Instead Netanyahu asked for a quick meeting, Putin responded by inviting him to come to Moscow right away, where the two right away agreed that the Russians would telephone Cohen before taking off to bomb—that being Yossi Cohen, Bibi’s National Security Advisor and ex Deputy Director of the Mossad and its likely future director, yet known as “the model” as in fashion, not as “Cohen the spy” as per the very old joke (he might be the other Cohen, David S. is now Deputy Director of CIA). Israeli flights would be announced to Nikolai Patrushev, Putin’s national security adviser, and former head of the FSB foreign intelligence service—Cohen’s colleague as well as counterpart. As for verification, there will be no 24-day inspection delays for the Israelis because even if none of their airborne command centers are aloft, their mountaintop radar can see aircraft from the moment they take off from the Russian base—the operating rule being that when one side does any bombing, the other side must stay on the ground.
Important in itself, the Putin-Netanyahu agreement also illustrates a contemporary reality that continues to elude the Obama Administration. Its policies toward Israel are by no means malevolent—there may be an intense personal hostility on the part of some officials but they cannot act on it. On the other hand, from the president down, the Obama Administration obviously retains a particular vision of Israel that is not at all hostile, indeed it is even protective, but which is also thoroughly obsolete: They still imagine a small country surrounded by enemies in its own region, isolated globally as well, and utterly dependent on the United States.
That was all true enough in the 1970s, but hardly depicts current reality—except in the hollow ceremonials at the United Nations. Today’s Israel has genuine Arab allies on two of its four borders, with which it cooperates every day, and other Arab allies beyond them ready to act jointly against Iran, and not only secretly. Israel has broad relations with both China and Russia (with which it is connected by ten non-stop flights a day), and has very active strategic relations with the major European countries that would have been unimaginable in the 1970s. In other words, in treating Netanyahu so contemptuously the Obama Administration was also revealing its misreading of the balance of power, an unsurprising error in a group that seems bereft of strategic understanding in many other directions as well.
Putin by contrast may understand nothing else but he does understand strategy, and the balance of power. That is why he played no games with Netanyahu, and simply conceded Israel’s right to bomb in Syria—no small thing in the circumstances, given that Russian personnel and aircraft will be on the ground when that happens, within a total geography that is very small indeed at 500 miles per hour.
Many Americans view Putin simply as a thug but public opinion polls show that Russians disagree. His popularity is bound to decline as Putin’s own counter-sanctions are needlessly intensifying the shortages caused by Western sanctions, and by the fall in the value of the ruble, yet a majority of Russians are likely to remains responsive to his fundamental message: “You are Russian. Sanctions or no sanctions, you will never eat as well as the Italians nor dress as elegantly as the French, and you will never be rich as the Americans—but you Russians are an imperial people, masters of the largest state in the world, equally ready to rule benevolently two dozen obedient nationalities and to punish the lawless. I, Putin, for my part, will not give away parts of your empire as my feckless predecessors Gorbachev and Yeltsin did, and I will strive to recover what I can, not just Crimea but as much of the Ukraine as possible, with more gains to come elsewhere.”
Such primitive notions are no doubt incomprehensible to Obama and his officials, as well as to their intellectual milieu, for which empire can only be an embarrassment, power cannot be purposeful, peace is obtained by good will and not by assured security, war is purposeless destruction (and all warriors are merely future PTSD cases), and diplomacy should be a multilateral pursuit, having to do with Global Warming if at all possible. These are all useful stances for rank-and-file Obama officials as they prepare their future with Bill and Melinda, Bill and Chelsea, and the rest of the PC foundation universe with its light lifting and ceaseless conferencing travel to yammy destinations, but to conduct the foreign policy of the United States they are hopelessly off-target. Putin and Netanyahu, by contrast, are determined to hit their targets hard.
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Edward N. Luttwak is a contractual strategic consultant for the U.S. government and an author.