If Mikhail Bulgakov had come back to life and written a Levantine sequel to The Master and Margarita, he could not have devised a scenario more lurid than what we now observe in Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin is now the leader of the Free World against Islamist terrorism, directing the efforts of France and Germany and setting terms for American involvement. Reeling from last week’s massacre in Paris, France lacks both the backbone and the brute force to avenge itself against ISIS, but in alliance with Russia it will make a more than symbolic contribution.
In 2008 I endorsed Putin for the American presidency, in jest, of course. Now he is leading America’s president by the nose and directing the anti-terror efforts of France and Germany. No-one could have anticipated Putin’s sudden ascent to global leadership during the past several weeks. Russia is in the position of a a vulture fund, buying the distressed assets of the Western alliance for pennies on the dollar. Faced with an American president who will not fight, and his European allies whose military capacity has shrunk to near insignificance, the Russian Federation seized the helm with the deployment of a mere three dozen war planes and an expeditionary force of 5,000 men. One searches in vain through diplomatic history to find another case where so much was done with so little. As an American, I feel a deep humiliation at this turn of events, assuaged only slightly by Schadenfreude at the even deeper humiliation of America’s foreign policy establishment.
The world runs by different rules than it did just a few weeks ago. Putin has answered the question I asked in September (“Vladimir Putin: Spoiler or Statesman?”). President Obama declared at the Nov. 17 Antalya summit, “From the start, I’ve also welcomed Moscow going after ISIL…We’re going to wait to see whether, in fact, Russia does end up devoting attention to targets that are ISIL targets, and if it does so, then that’s something we welcome.” After this week’s Russian and French airstrikes on ISIS’ stronghold in Raqqa, that is a moot point. It seems like another epoch when Mitt Romney declared that Russia was America’s greatest geopolitical threat. Russia, on the contrary, is pulling America’s chestnuts out of the fire. Obama is utterly feckless; by the time the next American president is sworn in, the world will be a difference place. Ukraine? Never heard of it.
Obama wants to follow, not lead, as he told reporters at Antalaya:
“What I’m not interested in doing is posing or pursuing some notion of American leadership or America winning or whatever other slogans they come up with that has no relationship to what is actually going to work to protect the American people and to protect the people in the region who are getting killed and to protect our allies and people like France... I’m too busy for that.”
Russia is happy to give him the opportunity to follow...