We have learned from the West that “it takes two to tango.” To the best of my knowledge, US President Barack Obama knows how to do the tango, a dance based on synchronizing steps with and understanding one’s partner. However, as the Ukrainian crisis has demonstrated, either the US president has failed to convince his partner, Russian President Vladimir Putin, to join the dance, or the Russian leader prefers judo.
Putting Washington’s empty threats aside, the American—and, by extension, the Western—confusion reminds me of Moscow’s complete failure to save former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from the fatal blow the US dealt to his rule in February and March 2003.
At the time, a few years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russians were well aware that they were the weaker player. Therefore, early in Putin’s rule, they tried to save what they could of their regional influence, sending Russian “Arabist” Yevgeny Primakov to Iraq to make clear to Saddam Hussein that this was a new era and that the world had changed. Remember, there were no Nikita Khrushchevs or Nikolai Bulganins to warn Anthony Eden and Guy Mollet and force them to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and Port Said in 1956; gone are the days of Leonid Brezhnev and Alexei Kosygin to challenge the world with the veto or rush to rescue Moscow’s Syrian and Egyptian allies and rebuild their armies after their defeat in the Six-Day War.
Putin’s Moscow in 2003 was politically and economically fragile, desperate for the West’s good intentions. Based on a realistic reading of the situation, Moscow understood that it first needed to recover from its strategic defeat in a “third world war” that took the form of a series of proxy wars worldwide. That protracted war exhausted and weakened the then-mighty Soviet force, making it collapse from within. After the tanks of the Red Army imposed Moscow’s will in the streets of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, Boris Yeltsin, the former Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the RSFSR, climbed atop a tank to declare the end of the communist state, after he had abandoned communism as an ideology.
At the time, the US was in ecstasy over its historic triumph. Ronald Reagan and the Republicans were congratulating themselves on the victory of the dynamics of unfettered capitalism and Reaganomics over the aging and debilitated communist system of deprivation and bare subsistence. Some proud US intellectuals and academics were racing to formulate triumphalist theories and predicting the future: Francis Fukuyama wrote The End of History and the Last Man, and Samuel Huntington maintained that Islam would be the next enemy of the US global hegemony in his The Clash of Civilizations. Hard-line right-wing academics were actively formulating the philosophical dimensions of the so-called “American Century.”
Eleven years later, however, we are faced with a different US and a much different Russia. What we are now experiencing seems to be, at least for the emotional among us, an era of Russian revenge taking advantage of global economic, political and military circumstances.
Despite the US’s resounding success in the liberation of Kuwait during the era of George H. W. Bush, what concerned the ordinary American was the value of the dollar in his or her pocket. This is the reason why Bill Clinton won the presidential elections with his “It’s the economy, stupid!” slogan, even though he was running against Bush the “war hero.” Even after suffering more than one sex scandal during his first presidency, Clinton comfortably won a second term in office. Then Clinton’s vice-president, Al Gore, almost won the 2004 presidential elections—would have won, had it not been for former Secretary of the State of Florida, Katherine Harris, who handed George W. Bush a narrow victory.
The economy has often been the obsession of the Democrats, while security and investment in military might have always been the Republicans’ favorite means of escaping the social consequences of the economy. In fact, the September 11 attacks were the best present the hard-line Republicans could ever have hoped for. It justified their abandonment of the economy and their rush to war. This is exactly what happened when Bush Jr. launched his “War on Terror,” occupying Afghanistan, invading Iraq and, of course, winning the 2004 presidential elections.
At this point in time, Iran, a major regional player, was playing it smart. In a shrewd tactic, Tehran used the Bush administration, or to be more precise the Republican neo-conservatives or the Likudniks, as its ideal tool to topple the Iraqi regime, the mutual enemy of both Iran and Israel. Tehran tempted the “Great Satan” to rid it of its direct regional enemy, which had failed to realize the new rules governing the scene.
The scenario was simple: Washington’s pro-Israel lobbies and Tel Aviv would emerge victorious as the region was left broken by sectarian strife in the form of endless inter-Islamist violence. However, once Iran and Israel’s primary objective—namely, the destruction of the Iraqi regime and its institutions was achieved—the US occupation began to show defects.
With Russia’s implicit blessing, the Syrian and Iranian regimes played a role in extorting the US and disturbing the occupation forces. Damascus and Tehran embarked on facilitating the access of fundamentalist Sunni groups into Iraq, even fabricating and nurturing some of them, such as “Abu Al-Qa’qaa’” Mahmoud Kolaghassi. This led Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders, whether aware of this or not, to complain about the Damascus regime’s behavior.
The plan succeeded, particularly after the US occupation forces suffered both financially and in terms of human losses; and eventually the global economic crisis forced Washington, a proponent of the free market economy, to virtually nationalize major mortgage lenders, industrial and financial corporations.
Like Clinton before him, Obama took advantage of the bad situation and called for an isolationist, domestic policy under the banner of “change.” The US, exhausted both financially and militarily, responded well to Obama, who won the presidency and carried his reclusive policy to the White House.
In the meantime, in Russia, Vladimir Putin managed to tighten his grip and establish a “neo-tsarist regime” that glorifies Russia’s heritage and global influence. Syria was the first test of the battle of wills, with the Syrian people paying dearly for the US reclusiveness and retrenchment in the face of Russia’s fast-growing influence.
After Syria, it was only natural that things would continue in the way they did, particularly in light of Obama’s “hands tied” policy and the dismissal of his “red lines.” The Russians are well aware of the implications of this policy, the repercussions of which are reverberating across Crimea today.