Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Russians are coming; the Russians are coming!

When I was a kid, we had A bomb drills in school.  The fear of a Soviet sneak attack was that great.  It was part of our national psyche.  My parents didn’t build a bomb shelter in the backyard but we wouldn’t have been alone if they had. 

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it revealed the weaknesses of an economic and political system that ignored sound principles of economic freedom and human rights.  We have had little to fear from Russia since.  Not only are they weak economically but also they are weak militarily. 

The Russian sphere of influence has shifted east and west for centuries.  It has never extended so far to the west as it did during the Cold War and it has never been so far east as it is now.  The Russians would like to change that. 

Toward that end, they have struck deals with countries like Ukraine, Poland and Germany to sell them oil and gas. And, they haven’t been shy about using their customers’ reliance upon them for energy as a means to influence international events.  Energy exporting nations in South Asia and the Middle East are their economic competitors.  So, they seek to extend their sphere of influence southward as well. 

By contrast, the United States is an economic and military juggernaut, a maritime nation whose integration into the global supply-chain (and our ability to keep it secure) makes it in everyone’s interest to be our ally. 

So, how does Russia end up taking us to school over the handling of Syria?  Or, to put it differently, why we are playing a weak hand when we have a strong one?

The U.S. has a conflict between ideology and military strategy.  Our beliefs – the why of what we know we should do – are based on human rights, the manifestation of which, at least in the case of Syria, is our opposition to weapons of mass destruction.  Moreover, we’ve been sensitized to the specter of mass genocide.  Many people – despite their opposition to war – think we could have prevented the death of hundreds of thousands if we had acted sooner in Rwanda and Bosnia.

So, there is constant friction between what we believe and what we do.  Firing missiles, dropping bombs and sending in the Marines is not the best way to promote human rights.

Our original strategy vis-à-vis Syria was to strike in a limited way.  It would not have had a big effect.  It wouldn’t have destroyed the chemical weapons and wouldn’t have toppled the Assad regime.  It would have been painful while it lasted but not debilitating to a dictator who is in the middle of a long war and who would easily be resupplied by his Russian allies. 

So, why do it?  Like most diplomatic moves played out on the world stage, it’s a gesture.  A gesture to express our unhappiness. 

Unfortunately, the result was to send a signal it doesn’t really matter if we are unhappy!  Our military power should be feared but our diplomatic waffling undermines our intentions. The outcome has been to hand Russia an opportunity to appear to be our equals (or perhaps our superior) by brokering a solution that allows us to back down in the face of popular opposition. 

Our President seems unable to decide if he wants to be George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter and is, therefore, ineffective at being either.  Nations with a strong interest in becoming reliable allies in the region – from Azerbaijan to Turkey to Poland – may now see us as unreliable partners.  The image of Russia forcing us to back down and appearing to be our equals for the first time since the Cold War is bound to have an influence for a very long time. 

International diplomacy is a game of carrots and sticks.  We should reserve our carrots for those who mirror our values and reserve our sticks for those who pose a serious threat. 

The economic and military power of the United States provides us an opportunity to LEAD.  Our values, our economic and political systems are based on human rights, economic freedom and the rule of law.  Promoting these values and helping our allies develop liberal institutions to implement them will lead to global stability and prosperity.  Our long-term national and economic security depends upon it.



  1. Harold Bernaert
    Key Account Manager at Aker Advantage AS

    "Our values, our economic and political systems are based on human rights, economic freedom and the rule of law."

    REALLY ??

    Maybe you should lead by example instead of "don't do as I do but do as I say"

    Do you need a list of area's where the US doesn't care about human rights ?
    Do you need a list of area's where the US doesn't care about economic freedom ?
    Do you need a list of area's where the US doesn't care about the rule of law?

  2. @Harold. I quite agree. That was a key point of the blog.

  3. I guess I don't see our position as "weakness." We were in a bad position where no action would be ideal. To some extent, of course, Obama, set himself up by painting the "red line" which Syria crossed. But rather than leap into action, he tried to obtain international cooperation in the face of intransigent opposition from Russia and China.

    In the end, he has created some form of international coalition that must now address the problem. Perhaps it will work, perhaps not.

    But why is that unreliable? Seems flexible to me.


  4. The Red Line comment painted the President into a corner. The comment was imprudent and demonstrates his lack of competence despite 5 years on the job. His "flexibility" was the direct result of his failure to gain support either domestically or internationally. He didn't intend to be flexible. He was backed into that position by his own indiscretion.

    In international affairs, everything we do is interpreted by our allies, potential allies and adversaries. Nations caught in the geographic crosshairs of the Middle East including those I mention in the post can have a positive impact on events. Often they must rely upon consistent support of great powers like the US. Our inconsistency in any matters undermines their confidence in our support.

  5. Ralph Michalske, MBA
    Semiconductor Product Marketing Professional


    WTF, how can you say international diplomacy is a matter of carrots and sticks? Diplomacy is an art not easily understood by all, even present company. You've said, "Our President seems unable to decide if he wants to be George W. Bush or Jimmy Carter". I can tell you that our President wants to be Barack Obama. He doesn't want to mess up his image siding with either Bush or Carter ideals. He's in a different league. He's a diplomatic strategist of the 21st century. He rattled a hefty sword but has drawn no blood in Syria. Yet he has gained a unilateral disarmament of WMD in Syria with Russia's help. The world has had some great leaders over thousands of years, but none have accomplished this.

    Peace without increased bloodshed is always "a consummation devotedly to be wished". It matters not that Russia also gain prestige. They are a world power we'd like to always have on our side. Yes, we have political differences of opinion with the Russians, but these differences must be addressed by the Russian people, not us. The Russian people have made great strides in this recently. I also think that their current administration is sympathetic to many of our views, especially those regarding terrorists and the proliferation of WMD. We have a lot of common ground here, I think.

    The civil war in Syria is a different matter. Unlike the use of sarin gas, civil wars abroad can be tolerated until they become a threat to our national security. At the moment, I'm at a loss to say why we should enter the fight there. Syria is in Russia's hemisphere, so I can see why they would like to see stability there. Up until the recent civil war, Syria was somewhat stable, despite instability all around them for years.

    So John, if the Russians are coming, then I still think it's too early to break out the caviar & vodka. We need to develop warm diplomatic relations slowly. It will be some more time before Russia becomes a NATO ally. Let's stop bad mouthing them and give peace a chance. "за ваше здоровье"

  6. @Ralph. I am a little surprised that you would start a dialog with "WTF". You are usually more dispassionate.

    I am also a little surprised that you would characterize Barack Obama as a diplomatic strategist. His "red line" comment painted him into a corner. It was an indiscreet comment at best, a monumental blunder at worst. If you announce that there will be consequences to actions, you should be prepared to deliver on that threat. He was not prepared. What signal has he sent to Iran and N. Korea? Might they not be thinking that there are no consequences to their pursuit of WMDs?

    As for Russia, they are not our friends and any progress they may have made in the areas of free markets and human rights have been reversed during the tenure of Putin. They actively work to undermine our every action and engage in cyberwarfare against us. Why would we want to elevate their status?

    International affairs are about maintaining a balance of power. I agree that we should move slowly but we should always be mindful of the interests of others and how they might be counter to ours. Teddy Roosevelt's axiom "walk softly and carry a big stick" should apply in all matters.

    President Obama talks loudly and carries no stick instead.

  7. Stewart Lenox
    Owner, Principal Designer at Lenox Design

    I think the Russians did us an enormous favor in finding a face saving way to stay the hell out of Syria. It may be making the Russians look good, but it gave Obama the excuse he needed to back off from his "red line".

  8. @Stewart. I agree with your assessment but would point out that the "red line" comment was indiscreet at best and inept at worst. If Obama hadn't made the comment, we would not be "making the Russians look good". And, as I pointed out in the post, I believe there will be unfavorable consequences to helping them to elevate their status.

  9. Once again, an outstanding editorial, John. And, to answer your over- riding question---Obama does not have any idea of what it takes to be a leader, let alone lead. If he was a CEO, he would have been fired already for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which for his ineptness in handling this fiasco with Syria. His lack of leadership there has virtually erased all we have done to try and stabilize the region over the last 2 decades. He makes Jimmy Carter look like Napoleon.

  10. Ralph Michalske, MBA
    Semiconductor Product Marketing Professional

    Okay John,

    We seem to have delineated our differences of opinion on red lines, Russians, and International Affairs. For the while, let us agree that WMD are nasty and need to be dealt with forcibly when they are used. Personally, I don't care if our President uses smoke and mirrors to get rid of WMD. They simply must go, can never be tolerated, no negotiations.

    Time will tell if the President's threats to militarily take out the WMD in Syria were valid. We, of course, have the ability to neutralize a lot of bad things in Syria. Russia knows our military capabilities very well. President Putin had no doubt President Obama would go there, if necessary. Putin did a quick risk analysis, talked to President Assad, and made us a offer we couldn't refuse. Big thanks to John Kerry for suggesting it.

    I'm more generous to the Russians than you are. I make no apologies for this. As you know, they are a huge country endowed with many natural resources that are hard to find elsewhere. It is a country of many nationalities, who seldom get along. It has been this way for hundreds of years. Let's just say they are a mature nation with a relatively new government. History was not kind to them in the 20th century with revolutionary wars, world wars, cold wars, and arms races. If you try hard enough, you can find Human Rights issues in every country. Personally, I don't find the Russians as offensive as you do. Maybe it's due to my background, I don't know.

    John, when it comes to cyberwarfare, you're just going to have to get used to it. It's going to be around for a long time. America is the master of cyberwarfare. We are entering a new age of mutually assured harassment as a new warfare. Personally, I think we need better countermeasures to fend off these electronic attacks. I don't want to be held hostage to someone who turns off the water in my neighborhood, or worse.

    When it comes to International Affairs it's all about maintaining a mega imbalance of Sea Power. We're there John. We should move responsibly (no drinking on watch). In the case of Syria, Russia saw us moving and ran quickly to the head to change their skivvies.

  11. @Ralph. Good summary. And, I think you have correctly identified the key point on which we will agree to disagree. I don't see Russia as a potential friend (or even frienemy) of the US. I see them as endeavoring to block our every move everywhere in the world.

    As for Sec. Kerry, I don't think he was suggesting anything. I think he was just doing what he often does -- making an imprudent, off-the-cuff remark.

    In the end, the blend of these two factors has left the President with a way out of the corner he painted himself into. As I pointed out in my post, I believe that he has handed Russia an opportunity to gain strength in the region at our expense.

    PS please explain how your background comes into play here. Thanks, JC

  12. Harold Bernaert
    Key Account Manager at Aker Advantage AS


    It's a European thing called Realpolitik.

    "Realpolitik refers to politics or diplomacy based primarily on power and on practical and material factors and considerations, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral or ethical premises. In this respect, it shares aspects of its philosophical approach with those of realism and pragmatism. The term realpolitik is sometimes used pejoratively to imply politics that are coercive, amoral, or Machiavellian."

    Obama wanted to be ideological " hard on chemical weapons ( anti human pesticides)

    Putin was thinking more practical ( let is not support Muslim fundamentalism in Syria)

    Don't underestimate Mr Putin

  13. Well said (again), Harold. I haven't heard the term Realpolitik since the fall of the Soviet Union; but, I think you are correct to observe its application here.

    I also agree that Mr. Putin should not be underestimated (or trusted).