On the Road to Damascus.

For a guy who played a lot of Chicago rec league basketball, President Obama seems to get taken to the hoop a lot by Vladimir Putin. First it was the Ukraine crisis. Now it is Syria. Tomorrow …

A couple of “realist” Republicans—Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates–have recently spelled out the foolish notions that have guided President Obama in dealing with Russian actions.[1] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that other countries have foreign policy goals that are different from those that the United States wants to establish as the norm.[2] It appears to come as a surprise to the Obama administration that not everyone views Nineteenth Century great-power politics as “bad old days.” The United States does not want to launch a military intervention in Syria. Consequently, President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry insist that there is no military solution possible. Both Russia and Iran beg to differ.

In contrast to the president’s derision of Russia as “just a regional power,” the “fact is that Putin is playing a weak hand extraordinarily well because he knows exactly what he wants to do.” In the view of Rice and Gates, the Russians are using military power to bolster the situation of their Syrian client, Bashar al-Assad. As a first order of business, they plan to tip the balance in favor of the regime and against the non-ISIS rebels. Whether Russia and Iran will then extend the campaign to crush ISIS is an open question. What the Russians can hope for is to insure Assad’s grip on the western, more heavily populated parts of the country. Russian intervention has also startled the Turks, who have been living with two civil wars (Iraq, Syria) and a Kurdish insurgency on their southern border for years.

Implicit in this analysis is a harsh judgement by Rice and Gates about the United States: it is playing a strong hand badly because its decision-makers have no idea what they want to do. The two critics see “a vacuum created by our own hesitancy to engage in places such as Libya and to stay the course in Iraq.” They favor creating “no-fly zones and safe harbors” in Syria to protect the civilian population from harm. They favor “providing robust support for Kurdish forces, Sunni tribes, and what’s left of the Iraqi special forces.” In short, the U.S. needs to do what Russia is already doing: “create a better military balance of power on the ground on the ground if we are to seek a political solution acceptable to us and to our allies.”

At first glance, this sort of hard-headed thought can only be welcomed by anyone who has studied Nineteenth Century diplomacy. (See: “What Would Bismarck Drive?”) However, the Rice-Gates polemic raises as many questions as it answers.

First, the op-ed piece reads like a “realist” Republican manifesto for the coming election. (That supposes that a “realist” Republican will get the nomination, rather than one of the exhibits from a political Mutter Museum[3] who now crowd the stage.) “Who lost the Middle East?”

Second, “no fly zones” enforced against whom? Just Syrian military helicopters dropping barrel bombs, or Russian strike jets as well? Lot of “de-confliction” will have to go on.

Third, Rice and Gates totally ignore the reality of a Shi’ite-Sunni civil war now ablaze. For the moment at least, the Russians have picked the side of the Shi’ites. The U.S. has been trying to straddle the divide, which it did so much to create by its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Back when Condoleezza Rice served as National Security Adviser.

[1] Condoleezza Rice and Robert M Gates, “See Putin for who he is,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 15 October 2015, A15.

[2] Woodrow Wilson had the same sense of unreality at encountering Great Power politics at the Versailles Conference in 1919. However, a sense of unreality is not a legal defense.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/M%C3%BCtter_Museum

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