Putin Plays Mideast Chess as Obama Looks On

It is sometimes said that in negotiations with foreigners, American leaders play checkers, while their wilier opponents play chess.   There is perhaps some truth to this, as American leaders sometimes chase short-term political results, a consequence of democratic governance and constantly changing leadership.  By contrast, despotic Persians are credited with inventing chess, and in modern times autocratic Russians have been its master, and so it is tempting to say of President Obama’s dealings with those two countries that the analogy holds.

But that is way too charitable.  As Vladimir Putin skillfully reasserts Russian power and influence in the Middle East with Islamic Persian Iran as a willing partner, a more apt analogy might be that while the Russians and Iranians move their chessmen, isolating and threatening opposing pieces, Obama is not even at the table, but rather childishly looking on, as he pushes diplomatic dirt around the Middle East sandbox.

For over 150 years, a primary objective of Western diplomatic and military strategy was to keep the Russians out of the Middle East and Southwest Asia.  In the 1850s, the British and French went to war in Crimea to protect the Ottomans from Russian predation and to preserve the balance of power.  Later, the so-called “Great Game” centered on similar British efforts to frustrate Russian domination of Iran and Afghanistan.  A century later, the United States took up the task, offsetting Russian influence in newly socialist Arab dictatorships by backing Israel and more traditional Arab monarchies in the Middle East, while openly and successfully opposing the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. 

Today, one can’t even say there remains any Western strategy regarding Russia.  Western Europe has mostly forfeited its military and political influence overseas to support decadent welfare states, even as it is being progressively and deliberately overwhelmed by millions of Islamist migrants.  Under Obama, who supports and admires Europe’s demise, the United States has increasingly joined in the decline.  The laughable Libyan campaign, “fought” by Europeans while the U.S. led from behind, set an example of pursuing a feckless, feel-good military campaign without regard for consequences or traditional strategic concerns.  Obama’s encouragement of the so-called Arab Spring and its Islamist provocateurs almost lost Egypt and did lose Syria, with catastrophic humanitarian and geopolitical results.

Putin is taking advantage of American weakness and inaction.  A half-century of successful American effort to keep the Russians out of the Middle East has been forfeit in a few months of breathtaking American diplomatic and military incompetence.  Obama’s capitulation in the Iran deal effectively completed the groundwork for the Russian move, Putin having carefully monitored America’s year-long and ineffectual air campaign against ISIS.  Putin now claims that Russia’s push into Syria is to redeem the campaign against ISIS with Russian troops fighting with Syria and Hezb'allah.  Embarrassed by Putin at the U.N., Obama gave up any pretense of strength, effectively welcoming the Russian “intervention” against ISIS.  Unexplained is why a large percentage of Russian anti-ISIS forces are heavily equipped with anti-aircraft weapons, something that even a flaccid NATO command cannot ignore, inasmuch as ISIS have an air force.  Those weapons are useful only against NATO or Israeli aircraft. 

So lost was Obama before his meeting with Putin at the U.N. that his stated strategy for dealing with the Russian strongman was to ask him what he was doing.  From the stiff and awkward body language of the president following the meeting (a painful handshake and awkward smile) it is clear that Putin told Obama at least some of the story, whether Obama liked it or not.  Most particularly, his client Bashar Assad will remain in power with Russian backing, regardless of Obama’s view on the matter.  But likely Obama had known what he was in for, and just going through the motions.  The day before, Secretary of State of State John Kerry responded to a question about how long the U.S. could tolerate the survival of Assad, saying, “… it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever.”  Right, dude, whatever.  Between Obama and Kerry, it is now fair to assume that our much muddled and irresolute Syrian policy is “whatever,” which means we just don’t care.  We take our toys and go home.  

If Obama was hoping, as he and his supporters implied, that the Iranian deal would produce a more moderate, cooperative Iran, Putin and the mullahs are doing all they can to demonstrate how wrong he was.  If he was hoping that “international pressure” and the conflict in Ukraine would moderate Putin’s aggressive strategies, he was wrong again.  And if he thinks that by quitting, he has left Putin an unwinnable game, the Russian leader aims to prove him wrong again.  And since Obama is almost always wrong when it comes to foreign policy, it’s a fool’s errand to bet against Putin. 

In chess, before going for the opponent’s king, typical strategy calls for supporting one’s important pieces, while threatening and isolating opposing pieces.  The Russians and Iranians are now going about this with a vengeance, without the United States or the West making any noticeably effective counter-moves.  Russia is backing and protecting Assad and has closely allied itself with a newly empowered (thanks largely to Obama) Iran.  Meanwhile, traditional American allies in the region, Israel, Egypt, and the Arab monarchies are indeed increasingly threatened and isolated.  The stage is being set for a Russo-Iranian endgame that could prove disastrous to America’s traditional allies and the West in general. 

 Some of Obama’s liberal supporters dismiss such analysis as over the top, and insist that Putin’s moves have more to do with domestic politics than a long-term Middle Eastern power play.  They point out Putin’s problems at home, and the relative weakness of the Russian military.  However, relative Russian weakness means little when moving into a power vacuum created by Obama’s flight from international responsibilities and, to a large extent, reality.  And besides, this has been the basic way liberals have sought to excuse Obama whenever he is pushed around by a foreign leader (which is almost always).  Putin’s got problems, so he invades Ukraine, threatens the Baltic States, and moves into Syria.  The Chinese have problems, so they push naval vessels into American waters and fortify disputed Western Pacific archipelagos.  Korea’s got problems, Iran’s got problems, and none of their aggressive actions has anything to do with the dilettante in the White House.  It’s all about solving problems at home with international temper tantrums. 

Obama has made a lot of foreign policy mistakes in office, but his capitulation on the Iranian nuclear talks followed by Russia’s move into Syria is impossible to explain away as anything but a stupendous strategic fiasco.  Incompetence is too nice a word.  Obama was never even in the game.