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A Bear in the Desert

Why did the Obama administration allow a Russian resurgence in the Middle East?

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Obama didn’t improve cohesion among U.S. allies in his first term with a ham-handed effort to cancel a missile defense system scheduled for deployment in Poland. One gets the impression that senior officials in the Obama administration regard the security concerns our Central and Eastern European allies voice about Russia as overblown. They may well be. But the American dismissal of such concerns only serves to exacerbate them, which in turn encourages all the wrong tendencies within Russia. Once again, though, Russian weakness and fecklessness have protected us from major consequences of our miscues.

But in Syria, it looks like Russian weakness and fecklessness may finally be meeting their match in a race to the bottom with U.S. weakness and fecklessness. Maybe the long-overdue decision to supply weapons to the Syrian opposition marks a turning point, and the Obama administration has at last figured out that a vacuum where U.S. leadership should be can lead not only to further humanitarian disaster but also to adverse strategic consequences. But it’s remarkable how long the administration has blithely watched the erosion of our position in the Middle East​—​and with what equanimity it has allowed Russia to once again become a consequential player acting against U.S. interests there.

Russia’s marginality in the Middle East has been a constant since 1990-91, the time of the first Gulf war. George H. W. Bush actively and successfully cultivated the cooperation of the last Soviet general secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, in presenting a united front of opposition to Saddam Hussein’s conquest and attempted annexation of Kuwait. The result was a sequence of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding Saddam’s withdrawal and culminating in the authorization of member-states to remove him by force if necessary​—​along with the mobilization of a large military coalition legitimated by the U.N. and led by the United States. The Soviet Union did not contribute military assets, but Bush and his national security team, led by national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James A. Baker III, worked assiduously to keep Gorbachev on their side diplomatically while resisting all Soviet entreaties that they thought would weaken the coalition’s position against Saddam. 


In retrospect, Gorbachev’s sometimes noble, sometimes hapless efforts to cope with the terminal crisis of the Soviet Union give the impression of a man trying to ride a tiger. Some forward-thinking senior Soviet officials seemed genuinely to have supported his position at the side of President Bush. But not all. Yevgeny Primakov, Gorbachev’s special envoy for Iraq, was on the hunt from the outset of the diplomatic maneuvering in the run-up to the war for a face-saving out for Saddam. His frantic maneuvering in the days before the commencement of the ground war in February 1991 eventually persuaded Gorbachev to approach Bush with a proposal to defer the ground campaign in response to supposed “concessions” from Saddam. The response from Bush and his team was a diplomatic but firm “no”: Saddam’s only way out must be full compliance with all the provisions of the Security Council resolutions demanding immediate and unconditional withdrawal.

And that was that. Gorbachev went away empty-handed, unable to force an outcome more to his liking. The Soviet capacity to influence events against the wishes of the United States in the biggest international crisis in 10 years or more was nil. Within a year, the Soviet Union itself dissolved, its influence in the Middle East having predeceased it.

Gorbachev did not, however, bolt on the coalition effort. He grumbled, but he acquiesced. And this has largely been the pattern of Russian-American relations on matters of high policy ever since. Russia opposed military action against Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia to prevent ethnic cleansing and atrocities in Kosovo in 1998-99, and used its veto power to refuse to allow a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing military action. When NATO decided to go ahead anyway, Russia denounced the move, but if Milosevic harbored the impression that the Russians were going to come to his rescue (which he may have), he eventually became disabused of the notion and capitulated. The main angle of Russian maneuvering was for participation in the follow-up peacekeeping mission. Russia aspired to a sector of its own​—​and was denied it by NATO.

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