The U.S. and its allies are faced with four major threats, and they are as diverse and yet as akin as the proverbial apocalyptic horsemen.
Vladimir Putin has a tsarist idea that he can reclaim insidiously the periphery of the old Soviet Union — Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine, the Baltic states — on the principle of protecting Russian-speaking minorities in these breakaway republics. More practically, he feels that any security guarantees extended by the West to these entities are about as valid as an Obama red line or a Greek assurance of financial reform.
By Western criteria, Putin’s Russia is broke. It is shrinking and dysfunctional. But by Putin’s own metrics, his people are energized by Russia’s new defiance of the West. And if Russia is increasingly autocratic, and bifurcated into a small elite and an impoverished mass, that is nothing new, but simply the way things have always been in Russia, whether tsarist or Communist. Putin seems to assume that, if he can succeed in reestablishing the 19th-century Russian empire and bullying Eastern Europe into becoming once again a neutral buffer between Russia and the West, then he will go down in history as another Peter the Great or Joseph Stalin.
In one of the great diplomatic blunders of our time, the Obama administration thought it could win over a supposedly misunderstood Putin by rhetorically distancing itself from the Bush administration. But blaming Bush for Putin’s own agenda, which transcends the Middle East, only empowered Russia. The Obama administration’s bombing Libya and, in empty fashion, threatening Syria alienated Putin even more. Obama’s false step-over, red, and deadlines confirmed Putin’s impressions of the continued weak leadership of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry. He probably believes that he can do to Estonia what he has done to Crimea or Ukraine — and without too many more consequences.
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Putin is not greatly worried that the U.S. will reenergize NATO, rebuild its own nuclear deterrent, work with the Eastern Europeans on missile defense, or start exporting its plentiful natural gas to a Russia-dependent Europe. Right now Putin is digesting Eastern Ukraine and sizing up Obama’s responses to others’ aggressions. But next year, in the last twelve months of the Obama administration, we should expect him to move on another former Soviet republic, as well as to emphasize new partnerships with China, a few Eastern European or Balkan nations, or an ascendant Iran.
Obama sees Putin as a caricature of a 19th-century tsar, updated with a bare-chested macho schtick — supposedly symptomatic of his various inferiority complexes. That sort of pop-psychology condescension, when coupled with U.S. weakness, is dangerous, because it provides an emotional goad to Putin’s mostly rational plan of aggrandizement. Putin may well become even more aggressive than he otherwise would be, not just because he can take other countries’ territory and humiliate the West, but because he can make the U.S. in general and in particular a finger-wagging Barack Obama look absolutely foolish in the bargain.
If Putin’s Russia is a 19th-century power that does not see economic robustness as necessary for the reacquisition of empire, China feels that it is far more globalized, rich, and integral to the world economy and thus even less likely to be on the receiving end of U.S. sanctions or even censure. China, unlike Putin’s Russia, wants to acquire new dependencies, not just reclaim former ones. Picking a fight with the U.S. over the Pacific, or hacking U.S bureaucracies and corporations, is much safer than haggling with India or Russia over contested borders.
China assumes that its growing military capabilities, its new sand-castle bases in the critical sea-lanes of the South China Sea, and its intrusions into the territorial waters and airspace of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines are slowly redrawing the Pacific map. The countries being bullied really have only three choices: to reach agreements with China that acknowledge its preeminence, to seek new assurances from the U.S. that they still remain under our nuclear umbrella, or to become nuclear powers themselves.
The world has grown accustomed to anti-Western states — China, India, Pakistan, North Korea — going nuclear since the 1960s. The 21st century is more likely to see former U.S. allies get the bomb, especially given that Obama has never quite realized why friends of the U.S. that have the power to become nuclear states have thus far chosen not to. While the Obama administration has been contextualizing and psychoanalyzing Putin’s macho antics, it has also been lecturing China on its dismal human-rights record — but without making any show of military solidarity with American allies that lie in China’s shadow.
When China and Russia look at U.S. efforts to negotiate with Iran, or to deal with the Middle East, or to confront radical Islam, they see a confused administration whose one constant is either embarrassment over or ambiguity about America’s long post-war role of global preeminence. China, then, believes there is little chance that the United States will line up its Pacific allies, reassure them of our support in extremis, and configure a joint Pacific military front, much less that the U.S. will triangulate with Russia and India to assure a balance of power that would remind China that it is already surrounded by nuclear Russia, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and soon-to-be-nuclear Iran, and that a nuclear Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan could be added to that lineup in the not too distant future.
Iran is the third horseman, and one both similar to, and also altogether different from, China and Russia in a number of ways. Like China and Russia, Iran sees its present ambitions as consistent with a restoration of its glorious past. The Achaemenids are seen as every bit as illustrious as were the tsars or the Chinese dynasts. Iran is also an autocracy that does what it pleases at home. And, finally, Iran is obsessed with energy, as are Russia and China, as both a political weapon and a means to fuel military rearmament.
But Iran in the short term, even though the weakest of these three anti-American autocracies, is also the most dangerous.
It will be a nuclear power quite soon, but it has no experience, as China and Russia both do, in the accustomed behavior of nuclear states. And also unlike both, it is a self-proclaimed revolutionary theocracy, with periodic fits of end-of-days rhetoric. Whether these are genuine expressions of a looming twelfth-imam apocalypse or simply feigned bouts of lunacy that are useful strategies in nuclear poker, no one quite can be sure. If China has evolved somewhat in its obsession over Taiwan, Iran has not matured in its fixation on Israel, which, unlike Taiwan, is itself already nuclear. Iran also is actively subverting nearby states such as Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, in the hopes of crafting some sort of Shiite regional hegemony. Petrodollars, the bomb, and terrorists are scary assets, and Iran believes that it will soon complete that triad, and be free at last to recreate its Middle East empire without much interference from the United States.
ISIS, the fourth horseman, is the weakest of our current threats, but ironically the one with the greatest likelihood of conducting a major attack, albeit terrorist and asymmetric, against Europe or the United States or both. In creepy fashion, its barbarity — from immolations and beheadings to crucifixions and drownings — gains it world attention, and appeals to listless, video-game-playing Middle Eastern expatriate youth bored in the West. Its diplomacy is paradoxical as well. ISIS fights against enemies of the West like Bashar Assad’s Syria, Hezbollah, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and against erstwhile Western allies like the Kurds, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf States. Hitting ISIS would empower Syria and Iran; not hitting ISIS weakens our moderate Sunni former friends.
ISIS is not, as Osama bin Laden was, headquartered in caves in the outback of Afghanistan. It already has burrowed into many cities of the old Syrian–Iraqi Middle East and has a fighting chance of taking Baghdad or Damascus or both. After the Obama red line to Syria and the abrupt pullout of all U.S. peacekeepers from Iraq in 2011, ISIS has had little, if any, fear of the U.S. and none at all of our allies — to the extent that we have any allies left in the Middle East. A different administration might have destroyed any and all ISIS vehicles and hardware with round-the-clock bombing, supplied the Kurds with plentiful arms, and sent in U.S. ground forces to organize a regional resistance force.
Our ability to meet these four threats depends on three factors. First, checking the four horsemen will require all U.S. military capabilities — nuclear deterrence, anti-ballistic missiles, traditional sea power, heavy traditional infantry and armor, special and counter-insurgency forces, and tactical and strategic air power. Cutting any of them at this juncture is madness.
Second, all the threats are distinct but also opportunistic and interrelated. A phony red line, an empty step-over line, a serially repeated deadline against any one threat only encourages the other three to become bolder. In contrast, firmness against one aggression lessens the likelihood that there will be further aggrandizement elsewhere. Right now we are caught in a perfect storm of defense cuts, huge new borrowing, phony red lines, appeasement in the P5+1 negotiations in Vienna, the Libyan mess, the stupid Iraq pullout, the quagmire in Afghanistan, and comical resets and pivots. ISIS watches how we deal with Putin, who studies our past red line with Syria, which is watching the nonproliferation talks with Iran.
We think the world is growing tense; in fact, it is only the calm before the storm.
Finally, all four have mortal enemies that are as worried about them as we are. Most Central and Eastern Europeans fear Putin more than we do. Our Pacific allies, terrified by China’s crude aggression, aren’t worried about an overbearing United States; rather, they desperately want U.S. leadership. A once-unthinkable alliance has emerged between Israel and moderate Sunni states in their complex opposition to both Iran and ISIS. Forming coalitions in any of these regions would be far easier than it was in the past to find friends who would go into Afghanistan or Iraq.
If this administration is not careful, by next year it may find ISIS at the gates of Baghdad, Russian forces massing on the border of Estonia, Japan and China shooting at each other over disputed air and sea space, and Iran stockpiling its growing enriched-uranium supplies for a not too distant multi-bomb nuclear rollout.
We think the world is growing tense; in fact, it is only the calm before the storm.