Could we please kill the Blob’s “gift to Putin” meme?

Oct 26 2019

American foreign policy elites are in near-unanimous agreement that President Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria, along with the ensuing influx of Russian and Syrian troops, is a “gift to Putin.” Some variant of that phrase has over the past two weeks appeared in headlines from the venerable New York Times, the venerable Foreign Affairs, and the quasi-venerable CNN, among other mainstream outlets. 

Russian elites have joined their American counterparts in viewing recent developments in Syria as a zero-sum game that Russia won and the United States lost. One Russian newspaper touted Russia’s “triumph in the Middle East,” and an analyst on Russian TV said this triumph is “sad for America.”

There are certainly things to be sad about. It’s sad that Trump’s withdrawal—impulsively ordered, with no diplomatic preparation—has caused so much more havoc and suffering, especially for the Kurds, than was necessary. And to me, at least, it’s sad that Trump, in his record-setting incompetence, is giving military withdrawals a bad name.

But I don’t buy the premise of the “gift to Putin” meme—that a decline of American influence in Syria, and a commensurate growth in Russian influence, is inherently a sad thing for America. This shift may well be good for Putin, but it could also be, in the long run, good for the United States and good for the Middle East broadly. 

Some people may find the previous sentence, with it’s win-win overtones, deeply disorienting if not flat-out unintelligible. The Cold War idea that the U.S. and Russia are playing a zero-sum game has gotten a second wind in recent years, in part because of genuine contentions between the two but also because of #Resistance psychology. Acting on the intuition that the friend of my enemy is my enemy, lots of anti-Trumpers look at the often-cozy relationship between Trump and Vladimir Putin (including their symbiosis during the 2016 presidential campaign) and conclude that Russia must be thwarted at every stop.

But what most needs thwarting is this archaic way of looking at foreign policy—as a Manichaean struggle for influence between the United States and its allies, on the one hand, and the forces of darkness on the other. The U.S. shares important interests with Russia—and, for that matter, with Russian allies Syria and Iran—and the sooner it recognizes that, the better.

I noted one example of this in last week’s newsletter: Russia and Syria and Iran are enemies of ISIS, one of the final obstacles to firm regime control of Syria. So any reprieve to ISIS granted by America’s abrupt withdrawal may be temporary.

But a larger and more critical point is that the challenge facing Russia and its client regime in Syria—not just consolidating control of Syria but rebuilding a devastated country—leaves Russia with no interest in the further destabilization of the Middle East. Which is good, because it’s hard to imagine the Middle East getting much more unstable—especially along the fault line between Iran and Syria on the one hand and Israel and Saudi Arabia on the other—without another disastrous war breaking out.

Russia has already shown signs of being able to play a constructive role here—a fact that, oddly, has been emphasized even by some who buy the “gift to Putin” thesis. Hal Brands of the American Enterprise Institute—in a Bloomberg Opinion essay titled, “Putin Conquered the Middle East. The U.S. Can Get It Back”—notes that “Putin has shown diplomatic flexibility, keeping the lines open to nearly all players throughout the region.” 

Brands laments “the collapse of America’s position in the region and Moscow’s ascendance as the key power broker in the Syrian civil war.” He goes on: 
“Moscow, in partnership with Iran and its proxies, has made itself the centerpiece of the diplomacy and regional power struggles surrounding that conflict. To what other capital would both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, trek to discuss Middle Eastern security?”

Not Washington, certainly—and that’s the point! It isn’t just that Russia shares America’s interest in a stable Middle East. It’s that Russia, unlike America, is in a position to do something about it. Yet Brands is so busy recoiling at Russia’s regional rise that he doesn’t welcome, or perhaps even quite recognize, its potential benefits—even as he comes tantalizingly close to spelling them out. 

Brands’s disposition is shared by many in the American foreign policy establishment. They combine an awareness that America hasn’t translated its regional power into productive diplomacy with a deep aversion to any waning of that power. This isn’t as ironic as it may sound. Many, perhaps most, of them see America’s diplomatic impotence as a product of the Trump era. They want to preserve American influence so that, once Trump is gone, it can again be used wisely.

Hope is a wonderful thing, but in this case you have to wonder what its historical basis is. When exactly in recent American history could you have gotten an Iranian leader, and not just an Israeli leader, to trek to Washington? Would that be, say, right after George W. Bush declared Iran part of the “axis of evil”? Even Barack Obama, more intent on improving relations with Iran than any recent president, never got all the way to rapprochement.

The fact is that various features of American politics—especially the longstanding influence of Israel on our Middle East policy, but also, increasingly, the influence of other adversaries of Iran, such as Saudi Arabia—have made it hard for the United States to even remotely resemble an honest regional broker. Obama had to work doggedly to get the Iran nuclear deal past all the domestic political obstacles, and meanwhile, almost as a kind of penance for pursuing the deal, he (1) collaborated with Israel on a cyberattack that physically damaged Iranian centrifuges, which some might call an act of war; and (2) supported Saudi Arabia’s disastrous military intervention in Yemen.

Of course, bad relations with Iran are a two-way street. Iranian hostility toward the United States, dating to the American-backed overthrow of its government in 1953, has been exploited and nourished by Iranian leaders since the revolution of 1979. But however you allocate the blame, the U.S. has for most of its recent history been unable to do what Russia is already showing signs of doing—being seen as a plausible broker in the Middle East broadly.

Residual cold war psychology, intensified by the Trump-Putin symbiosis, isn’t the only thing that makes it hard for Americans to imagine Russia being a constructive force in the region. There’s also Putin’s dominant role in the Russia-Syria-Iran axis. In 2015, Joseph Dunford, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran is “the most destabilizing element in the Middle East.” And the Syrian regime’s brutality is well known. Can we really expect the senior partner in an alliance famous for spreading chaos and mayhem to now morph into a responsible statesman? Is there such a thing as a destabilizing stabilizer?

The first step toward answering this question is to understand that, to some observers in the Middle East, it is beyond ironic for the United States to accuse anyone of destabilizing their region. They would point to, for example:

The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, which, among other feats, spawned the precursor of ISIS.

The U.S.-led bombing of Libya into regime change—or, more accurately, into a change from having a regime to having warlords, chaos and weapons flowing outward into black markets across the region.

The massive arming of various Syrian rebel groups by the United States and its European and Middle Eastern allies, which turned a probably doomed insurrection into a full-fledged civil war that spread millions of refugees across the region and got hundreds of thousands of people killed.

In short, if destabilizing a region disqualifies a country from diplomatic leadership, then the United States should get out of the diplomacy business pronto. What’s more, Russia would argue that in Syria it and Iran were playing a stabilizing role: Rather than try to upset the existing order—to overthrow a regime, to fan the flames of civil war—they worked to preserve that order. They entered Syria at the invitation of its government, a longstanding ally, and fought to preserve Syrian sovereignty.

Of course, this cold and clinical assessment of what’s “destabilizing” and what’s “stabilizing” sidesteps important moral questions—including the question of Russia’s seeming indifference to the Syrian regime’s many atrocities.

My own view is that the more carefully you look at American history the harder it is to claim vast moral superiority here. See, for example, U.S. support of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s even as he killed tens of thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons. Or the current U.S. support of an Egyptian leader who in 2013 had nearly 1,000 peaceful protesters gunned down to nip rebellion in the bud—and who would no doubt have been willing to add a couple of zeroes to that toll had outside powers armed his domestic opponents, as happened in Syria.

I’d say much the same about the fact that Russia won’t use its power to encourage democracy in the Middle East. America’s essentially uncritical support of, for example, Egypt and Saudi Arabia—not just under Trump, but under his predecessors—gives it little ground for complaining and suggests that, along this dimension, expanded Russian influence won’t represent much of a departure from the norm.

These questions—about fostering democracy, about building a world where great powers don’t routinely look the other way while their clients commit atrocities—are critically important. But they aren’t questions that set apart the two leading candidates for Middle East power broker nearly as sharply as many Americans might assume.

They also aren’t the most urgent questions facing the Middle East. Right now that region is too fraught and volatile to put diplomacy on hold while we argue about the moral fiber of potential diplomats. What we need in the near term is to avoid a new war, wind down current conflicts, and start building the foundation for sustained peace and regional stability.

And those who would like America alone to orchestrate all this, with no major role for another outside power, are hoping that stability will come from the country that may well have been the most destabilizing force in the Middle East for the past two decades. They’re also hoping that masterful diplomacy will come from a country so devoid of objectivity, so blinded by moralism and regional alliances, that few of its foreign policy elites have seriously pondered that possibility.

None of that means the United States can’t play a constructive role in the Middle East. But it means that we need all the help we can get.

[Back story: A Politico editor who read the piece in last week’s NZN that noted the shared Russian-US interest in subduing ISIS asked me if I wanted to do a piece on other non-zero-sum aspects of Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East—in other words, a piece that would rebut the “gift to Putin” argument more broadly. This piece, published in Politico Magazine a few hours before this week’s newsletter came out, is the result.]

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