The Corner

National Security & Defense

Becoming Putin’s Poodle

The sound you’d be hearing this morning if you live in the devastated city of Homs in Syria, would be Russian jets doing bombing runs against your neighbors rebelling against dictator Bashar al-Assad. 

And not just in Homs. The roar of those Russian jets is being heard around the world; it’s the sound of Vladimir Putin becoming the new alpha male and power broker of the Middle East.

What I dubbed in a recent NR article the Pax Putinica is rapidly taking shape. Just as the earlier Pax Americana was aimed at containing the Soviet Union, so Putin’s new world order is aimed at smashing the U.S.’s influence as a superpower, first in Europe and now in the eastern Mediterranean. 

Our president, meanwhile, is letting it all happen. If Vladimir Putin is the dominant alpha male in the new international pecking order, Barack Obama has emerged as his highly submissive partner. 

There are various reasons why we are being subjected to the humiliating spectacle of an American president, so-called leader of the free world, rolling over on the mat at Putin’s feet.

Of course, there have been signs for years that Obama is prone to submitting to males who act dominantly in his presence. Who can forget his frozen performance with Mitt Romney in the first presidential debate in 2012, where Romney ruled the stage while Obama seemed to shrink away (Romney then threw away his alpha-male advantage in the next debate). We’ve seen it in his interactions with China’s president Xi Jinping; his strange bowing and scraping with the Saudi king; and his various meetings with Putin, including the last at the United Nations on Monday where a tight-lipped Obama could barely bring himself to look at the Russian president while Putin looked cool and confident—as well as he should.

For every aggressive move Putin has made on the international stage, first in Crimea and Ukraine in Europe, and now in Syria, our president’s response has been largely verbal protestations followed by resolute inaction. Why should Putin not assume that when he orders the U.S. to stop its own air strikes against ISIS in Syria, and to leave the skies to the Russians, he won’t be obeyed? 

But there’s more to Obama’s passivity than just pack behavior, and the real explanation is Iran. 

Since gaining the presidency, Obama’s entire policy of constructive engagement with Iran, including the current nuclear deal, has been built on the premise that Russia will help, both with shutting down Iran’s nuclear program when a deal is finally struck, and re-imposing sanctions if Iran doesn’t.  

That’s why he was so eager to accept Putin’s offer to get Assad to give over his chemical weapons in 2013 — as a test run for cooperation in stopping Iran’s nuclear program — and why he’s been so hesitant about supporting the anti-Assad rebels, even after publicly calling for the dictator’s removal for more than four years — not to mention so weak in confronting Russian aggression in Ukraine. 

It even explains why he’s been slow to respond to ISIS’s seizing of territory in both Syria and Iraq, out of fear that aggressive American military action might offend Tehran, and with it Iran’s chief patron, Vladimir Putin.  

Of course this is all an Obama fantasy, reinforced by Obama’s deep disdain for our allies in the region, Israel and the Saudis, who are also the ones most worried by Russia’s escalating influence. They know Putin’s ambitions run counter to real peace and stability in the Middle East; that he has no intention of defeating ISIS if it helps keep the region in turmoil and no reason to rein in Iran’s nuclear program as long as fear or Iran serves Russian interests. They also understand that Putin will be able to play the Shia Iranians against the Sunni Arabs in order to increase his own status as power broker, as well as his status as gatekeeper for other powers who will want a bigger piece of the action in the Pax Putinica Middle East, including China. 

In the meantime, Obama’s fantasy has turned U.S. policy in the region inside out – and propelled Russia back into the ranks of the world’s superpowers. The next president will have to deal with the consequences of that passivity. For now, the rest of us will be listening for the roar of Russian jets — and hoping they stay in the Middle East. 

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