The U.S., obsessed by the rise of Asia, withdrew too quickly from the Middle East, without seeing the grand return of Russia and without asserting itself as a great power in the Asia-Pacific region.
The grand game. To mark his great comeback on the international stage, show his loyalty to his Syrian ally and his determination to defend that ally at any cost, Vladimir Putin has deployed a complete set of new weapons to the battlefield: Sukhoi Su-35 fighter planes, Mi-28 attack helicopters and, the highlight of the arsenal, 26 long-range intercontinental missiles fired from the Caspian Sea, 2,000 km (about 1,243 miles) from their targets. U.S. Adm. William Gortney’s astounded comment was, “… It forces us to catch arrows instead of going to where we can shoot the archers.” Add to this arsenal a rapid deployment force, capable on the ground of occupying the “voids” created by Putin’s air force and a joint information center with the Iranians and the Iraqis, allies of the territory, and you have all the ingredients of a military power that we believed only the U.S. had.
It was hard for the U.S. general staff to hear its Russian counterpart claim that with its aerial strike force, there were “more bombings in a single day in Syria than from the international coalition altogether in a month.” But this is the reality: modernized, well trained, with an acute sense of timing (for the moment, the U.S. Navy does not have any aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf), the Russian army has a free hand. The message was not lost on the United States. Relegated to the level of a second class country after the collapse of the Soviet Union, “a gas station masquerading as a country” according to Sen. John McCain’s cruel joke, Russia has again become a military superpower, as it was during the Cold War, able to intervene far from its bases to defend its allies and enforce its conception of world order.
The US Trapped in Its Contradictions
There is a strategy, on the opposite side of Obama’s America, guided by two principles since 2011 and the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq. First, a leadership in retreat, limited, leading the maneuver in the background with only logistic support (“leading from behind”), but without any ground intervention (“no boots on the ground”), as during the Franco-British intervention in Libya or the invasion of Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, armed and assisted by the Kremlin. Second, a loosening of its preferential ties with the oil monarchies (Saudi Arabia) to move closer to Iran, “a great regional power of tomorrow” which, however, denies Israel’s right to exist.*
This “withdrawal” from the international stage culminating with Obama’s refusal in September 2013 to intervene in Syria despite the proven use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad against his people (“the red line” not to be crossed, according to American diplomacy!), is now developing its negative consequences. Taking advantage of immobilization and American blindness, Putin’s Russia annexed Crimea without encountering any opposition and is creating conditions for a partition of Ukraine. In the Middle East, the departure of U.S. forces from Iraq has created a vacuum into which the Islamic State, now extending its influence in Syria, has rushed. In Afghanistan, after the brief taking of Kunduz, a strategic city north of Kabul, by the Taliban, Barack Obama had no other choice than to postpone the withdrawal of the U.S. contingent “until the end of his term” in January 2017 to avoid an Iraq-style scenario. Caught in these contradictions, the commitment to “end the two wars he inherited” and the need to not give a free reign to jihadism, Obama is now collecting the dividends of a nearsighted or blind policy. The priority given to Asia (the “pivotal shift”) caused the U.S. to neglect tensions in the Middle East and to ignore the return of Russia to Syria and to the region where it has become one of the leading players. At what point should you intervene in a war between others, even if having partly created it, it has become yours? History will harshly judge a withdrawal that, occurring after an unjustified intervention and billions of dollars spent to “rebuild” states, form national security forces and attempt to straighten out economies, leaves a sense of unfinished business.
Looking for Foreign Policy
“How long can a country that represents less than 5 percent of the world’s population and 22 percent of the global economy, remain the world’s dominant military and political power? That question is being asked with increasing urgency in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and in the Pacific Ocean,” states essayist Gideon Rachman.
Including the Pacific in the “red zones,” the British publicist hits another sensitive nerve, one of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, where Beijing multiplies artificial islands to further expand the surface area of its territorial waters.
The U.S. Navy, determined to ignore this construction and Chinese claims, is preparing to test the freedom of passage. Isn’t the U.S. a great power in the Asia-Pacific region? But how long will China accept its dominant naval power? Worse, by retreating in the Near East and the Middle East to better focus on Asia, did the U.S. not compromise its prestige and its interests in this very region?
The next U.S. patrols in the South China Sea will start in a few days. It will be a new test for a superpower with a huge defense budget ($577 billion this year, up 10 percent this year), but still looking for a coherent and effective foreign policy in a multipolar world.
*Editor’s note: These quoted passages, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.