The Price of Powerlessness
By Charles Krauthammer
August 18, 2016
This week Russian bombers flew out
air bases to attack rebel positions in Syria. The State Department
pretended not to be surprised. It should be. It should be alarmed. Iran’s
intensely nationalistic revolutionary regime had never permitted foreign forces
to operate from its soil. Until now.
The reordering of the Middle East
is proceeding apace. Where for 40 years the U.S.-Egypt alliance anchored the
region, a Russia-Iran condominium is now dictating events. That’s what you get
after eight years of U.S. retrenchment and withdrawal. That’s what results
from the nuclear deal with Iran, the evacuation of Iraq and utter U.S.
immobility on Syria. Consider:
The nuclear deal was supposed to
begin a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran. Instead, it has solidified
a strategic-military alliance between Moscow and Tehran. With the lifting of
sanctions and the normalizing of Iran’s international relations, Russia rushed
in with major deals, including the shipment of
S-300 ground-to-air missiles. Russian use of Iranian bases now marks a new level
of cooperation and joint power projection.
These bombing runs cross Iraqi
airspace. Before President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq, that could not have
happened. The resulting vacuum has not only created a corridor for Russian
bombing, it has gradually allowed a hard-won post-Saddam Iraq to slip into
Iran’s orbit. According to a Baghdad-based U.S. military spokesman, there are
100,000 Shiite militia fightersoperating
inside Iraq, 80 percent of them Iranian-backed.
When Russia dramatically intervened last
year, establishing air bases and launching a savage bombing campaign, Obama did
nothing. Indeed, he smugly predicted that
Vladimir Putin had entered a quagmire. Some quagmire. Bashar al-Assad’s regime
is not only saved. It encircled Aleppo and has seized the upper hand in the
civil war. Meanwhile, our hapless secretary of state is running around trying to sue
for peace, offering to share intelligence and legitimize Russian
intervention if only Putin will promise to conquer gently.
Consider what Putin has achieved.
Dealt a very weak hand — a rump Russian state, shorn of empire and saddled
with a backward economy and a rusting military — he has restored Russia to
great-power status. Reduced to irrelevance in the 1990s, it is now a force to be
In Europe, Putin has unilaterally
redrawn the map. His annexation of Crimea will not be reversed. The Europeans
are eager to throw off the few sanctions they grudgingly imposed on Russia. And
the rape of eastern Ukraine continues.
Ten thousand have already died and
now Putin is threatening even more open warfare. Under the absurd pretext of
Ukrainian terrorism in Crimea (reminiscent of Hitler’s claim that he invaded
Poland in response to a Polish border incursion), Putin has threatened retaliation,
massed troops in eight
locations on the Ukrainian border, ordered Black Sea naval exercises
and moved advanced anti-aircraft batteries into Crimea, giving Moscow control
over much of Ukrainian airspace.
And why shouldn’t he? He’s
pushing on an open door. Obama still refuses to send Ukraine even defensive
weapons. The administration’s response to these provocations? Urging “both
sides” to exercise restraint. Both sides, mind you.
And in a gratuitous flaunting of
its newly expanded reach, Russia will be conducting joint naval exercises with
China in the South China Sea, in obvious support of Beijing’s territorial
claims and illegal
Yet the president shows little
concern. He is too smart not to understand geopolitics; he simply doesn’t
care. In part because his priorities are domestic. In part because he thinks we
lack clean hands and thus the moral standing to continue to play international
And in part because he’s
convinced that in the long run it doesn’t matter. Fluctuations in great power
relations are inherently ephemeral. For a man who sees a
moral arc in the universe bending inexorably toward justice, calculations of raw
realpolitik are 20th-century thinking — primitive, obsolete, the obsession of
Obama made all this perfectly
clear in speeches at the U.N., in Cairo and here at home in his very first year
in office. Two terms later, we see the result. Ukraine dismembered. Eastern
Europe on edge. Syria a charnel house. Iran subsuming Iraq. Russia and Iran on
the march across the entire northern Middle East.
At the heart of this disorder is a
simple asymmetry. It is in worldview. The major revisionist powers — China,
Russia and Iran — know what they want: power, territory, tribute. And
they’re going after it. Barack Obama takes Ecclesiastes’ view that these are
vanities, nothing but vanities.
In the kingdom of heaven, no
doubt. Here on earth, however — Aleppo to Donetsk, Estonia to the Spratly
Islands — it matters greatly.