Why are Middle East leaders talking to Putin and not Obama?
Russia is emerging as the dominant player in the Middle East, despite the fact that U.S. military assets in the region far outstrip Russia's.
We have far more troops and planes in the region, as well as being more capable of projecting our power. But Russia possesses a key ingredient that has leaders in the region making pilgrimages to Moscow to meet Putin and not Washington to meet with Obama.
The Russian military intervention turned the tide in Syria and, contrary to Obama’s view, has put the Russians in a stronger position without imposing any meaningful costs on them. Not only are they not being penalized for their Syrian intervention, but the president himself is now calling Vladimir Putin and seeking his help to pressure Assad—effectively recognizing who has leverage. Middle Eastern leaders recognize it as well and realize they need to be talking to the Russians if they are to safeguard their interests. No doubt, it would be better if the rest of the world defined the nature of power the way Obama does. It would be better if, internationally, Putin were seen to be losing. But he is not.
This does not mean that we are weak and Russia is strong. Objectively, Russia is declining economically and low oil prices spell increasing financial troubles—a fact that may explain, at least in part, Putin’s desire to play up Russia’s role on the world stage and his exercise of power in the Middle East. But Obama’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia did not alter the perception of American weakness and our reluctance to affect the balance of power in the region. The Arab Gulf states fear growing Iranian strength more than they fear the Islamic State—and they are convinced that the administration is ready to acquiesce in Iran’s pursuit of regional hegemony. Immediately after the president’s meeting at the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, a journalist very well connected to Saudi leaders, wrote: “Washington cannot open up doors to Iran allowing it to threaten regional countries … while asking the afflicted countries to settle silently.”
At every turn, President Obama's policies have been ignored or contradicted by Russian action. Obama's reading of the situation has been a combination of myopia and wishful thinking. He has had at least three separate plans over the last four years to deal with ISIS, and no specific policy to assist the rebels in taking down President Assad.
Putin, on the other hand, has gone in firing both barrels. His boldness has saved Assad and impressed the rest of the Middle East. President Obama's halfhearted efforts to combat ISIS, as well as his disastrous outreach to Iran, have strengthened our enemies and frightened our friends.
There's a changing of the guard in the Middle East, with America on the way out and Russian influence growing. No doubt some would cheer this development. But losing influence in a region we've dominated since the end of World War II, largely to keep Russia out, cannot be good for American interests or the future of the Middle East.