Forty years ago this fall, the United States shipped more than 20,000 tons of tanks, artillery, weapons, and supplies to Israel to ensure its victory over two of the Soviet Union’s Arab clients, Syria and Egypt. Those airlifts showed the Arabs that despite their numerical superiority, they had no hope of defeating the tiny Jewish state. As long as Israel was backed by a United States willing to prove its resolve and determination to stand by its allies, the conclusion was etched in stone—America doesn’t lose, and neither do her friends.
The 1973 Yom Kippur war was the beginning of the end for the Soviet Union. With Egypt, the largest and then most influential Arab state, leaving the Soviet camp to become an American ally, Moscow’s position in the Middle East was all but ruined, and it was only a matter of time before Soviet brittleness was apparent for all to see. Now, four decades after Nixon and Kissinger managed one of the great victories in American policy-making, Obama has opened the door for Moscow to reenter the region.
In time, we may look back on last week and see it, like the Yom Kippur war, as a threshold moment, with the difference being that this time it signaled growing American weakness. In the meantime, Obama’s Syria blunders—his failure over two and a half years to see the conflict as an opportunity to advance American interests, his carelessly drawn red line over Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, his belated and half-hearted request for an authorization of military force from Congress, his unwillingness to make the case to the American people for striking Assad, and his turning Russia into the regional power-broker at the expense of the United States—call for a reckoning. The tally of American losses at Obama’s hand, in bases, allies, and influence, raises one key question: Can the damage that he has done and is likely to do in the next 41 months be reversed?
Give Vladimir Putin his due. With his proposal to put Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons under international control, he proved he was more than a mere thug who expresses his self-regard by posing bare-chested, dating teenage gymnasts, and wrestling wild game. In showing his subtlety and cunning, Putin reminded us that his professional training as an intelligence officer (not to mention his judo hobby) taught him to zero in on human vulnerabilities and exploit them. Obama is vain. Putin saw that the American president always needs to look good.
Thus, after years of denigrating the president and his staff, Putin spared Obama a devastating defeat on Capitol Hill by repackaging humiliation as a diplomatic win for a president whose motto is that he came to end wars, not to start them. It mattered little to Putin that the White House claimed credit for the initiative, that administration spokesmen said Obama officials had broached the subject with Moscow over a year ago, that the Obama team pretended it was the president’s threat of force that had prompted the diplomatic breakthrough. Let Obama boast of another beautiful victory: Putin knew that he had exposed an American president too timid to fire a dozen cruise missiles into the Syrian desert as indecisive, unreliable, and weak. To American allies, a president who makes good on neither his promises nor his threats is a liability.
Astonishingly, Putin won with a weak hand. Russia is not China, never mind the Soviet Union. Her economy is run like a criminal enterprise and depends on a monopoly in European energy markets; Russian society is in a demographic tailspin; and the only way for Putin to shore up his domestic legitimacy is through a steady diet of anti-Americanism and posturing meant to signal Russian strength. If the Americans can’t keep Putin in line, our allies are wondering, who else might start punching above their weight, and at us?
With Putin brokering the proposed deal over Syria’s chemical weapons, U.S. allies surely fear that a similar arrangement is in the works over Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Now playing the role of Putin’s junior partner, Obama is likely to take almost any deal with Tehran, just to have a piece of paper and get the issue behind him. While the Israelis, Saudis, Emiratis, Jordanians, and Turks, among other Middle East partners, contemplate the building chaos in Syria and, more important, the loss of American power and prestige in the Persian Gulf, other allies are starting to count the bodies that the White House has left in the field.
The administration abandoned Iraq after the United States invested thousands of American lives and billions of dollars. Without a status of forces agreement, the White House effectively handed influence on the government in Baghdad over to Iran, which has used it as a transport hub to resupply its forces fighting for Assad in Syria. The Syrian dictator, an Iranian ally, still rules, two years after Obama demanded he step down. Meanwhile, American allies were toppled in Tunisia and Egypt. Whether Obama prefers stability or democracy is still unclear, because two years on, after two violent changes of government in Cairo, he still has no coherent policy for the largest Arab state. The White House wanted to make its footprint smaller in the Middle East, which has so far amounted to making America and its allies more vulnerable. A year after the murder of four Americans in Benghazi, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, no one has been brought to justice.
For all the talk of the pivot to Asia, American allies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan have to wonder if that’s just a slogan. When they face China and North Korea, are they reassured by U.S. security commitments that may be empty? In Europe, Obama sold out the Czechs and the Poles in 2009 by canceling a missile defense system so as not to anger the Russians. If he was already willing to sell out some smaller allies then, how much more of a supplicant to Moscow will he be now that Putin has helped him save face over Syria?
Obama said in his speech last week that he agrees with those who wonder why the United States has to be the world’s policeman. But “policeman” was always a caricature of America’s actual role in the world. Since the Cold War, our power and influence have been premised on a very simple strategy of ensuring the freedom of trade and open markets that keep the American economy humming from coast to coast, and ensuring peace in Europe, balance in Asia, hegemony in the Persian Gulf, and dominance of our own hemisphere. In other words, the United States does not police the world for the benefit of others; rather, we are a superpower with allies around the world because our chief interest, and a vital interest of our allies, too, is a strong America.
By making us smaller around the world, Obama risks making us smaller at home, too. He wants to focus only on domestic politics, but that is a luxury afforded by an ability to project power abroad in order to keep the peace. Obama has made America less powerful and less respected in the world, and less confident abroad and at home. We now face three, long years of damage control before the next president can begin the unenviable task of repair and restoration.