A comment overheard at the right moment can leave as much of an impression as a well-put essay. Early one morning, a couple of days after 9/11, when New York City was still in shock, I was taking the Lexington Avenue train downtown. Next to me going down the steps were a young Russian woman and her American boyfriend. The stairs were crowded, we were pressed together and I could hear them. She said something to him like, “I guess now we’re allies.” By “we” she meant America and Russia, and I took her reference to mean that Russia and American faced similar threats from Islamic extremists and this would be enough to finally sweep away the vestiges of the Cold War. It seemed in the context more romantic (the woman was pretty) than geopolitically sophisticated, but for one reason or another I remember it.
Since then it’s clear we’re not really allies—and under Putin Russia has reverted back to what may be its essence, its characteristic blend of Oriental despotism and sophisticated Western culture. I don’t expect Russia to become democratic in my lifetime, but Putin is clearly one of the best Russian rulers of the past century. There is no good reason that U.S.-Russian relations shouldn’t be cordial. Russia is not a rising power like China, where tensions are inevitable, if manageable. On two issues at least—the prevention of nuclear weapons going to terrorists and global warming—it would seem to me there are overwhelming incentives for the two countries to get along well. The Chechen bombers confirmed at least one, if narrow, area of direct strategic interest. And yet we now have a secretary of state—not to mention half the Republican Party—who seems to want to restart the Cold War over fairly relatively inconsequential issues.
One of these of course is Syria, which has been Russia’s most steadfast Mideastern ally for 50 years. (We have Israel, Turkey, Egypt—all more important states). What can one say about Syria—beyond that the civil war is a tragedy for the Syrian people? And that the victory of either of the contending sides, the brutal Assad regime or the Islamist-led resistance, promises a dreadful outcome. The Obama statement that “Assad must go”—mysteriously blurted out in an election year—seems to have tied us to a policy hardly in our interests. (For a fascinating take on what a destabilized and jihadist Middle East might mean for the United States and Israel, see this interview of Zbigniew Brzezinski with Jacob Heilbrunn here.) Is the driving purpose behind it—cementing a newly reconstituted beltway axis of John McCain and John Kerry—to humiliate Russia, to push it out of the region? Or is it refreshment under new auspices of the neocon freedom agenda? If the goal is to evict Russia from the Mideast, then what? Is America’s strategic position actually improved by a Islamist regime in Damascus, and the concomitant humiliation of Moscow? Do we desire to see Russian families on the run from Damascus on charter flights and Moscow embittered? Why? What does that gain us?
On top of this comes Snowden affair. As I write, the young whistle-blower appears to be at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. The Obama administration, in trying to present him to the world as the reincarnation of Julius Rosenberg, is out of synch with most public opinion in the Western world. The ever belligerent Lindsay Graham, demanding that Putin turn Snowden over, has called the case a test of America’s relations with Moscow. He fails to mention that the United States of course does not return defectors to Russia and never has.
None of these policies make sense on strategic grounds, and there is no evidence they have been thought through. If I were to try to analyze them, I could come to no better explanation than considering them a symptom of Beltway hubris or “Washington Rules,” the reactions of old men in Washington who feel alive only if they are “doing something” consequential on the world stage. The Syria tragedy is one Washington could ignore, or help to mediate, or Washington could provide humanitarian help at an appropriate time to pick up the pieces. Instead Obama is allowing it to morph into a kind of test of national virility. No good and much evil could come out of it.