In what will certainly be her last masterwork, the 2002 Statecraft, Margaret Thatcher insists the West can help Russia become "a real free-enterprise economy based on sound money, low taxes, limited government and above all a rule of law." Thatcher says that, "above all, perhaps, we have to be patient." Which is good counsel regarding Russian internal change. But -- in its external affairs -- Vladimir Putin's Russia is in a hurry. It is working fast and hard to undermine everything we are trying to do to reshape the Middle East. We can have no patience with Putin's efforts to thwart what we must do.
The most painful moment in the President's news conference last Thursday night wasn't when the networks cut him off to chase the May ratings sweeps. It came much earlier when he was describing his relationship with Putin. The President said, "I had a long talk with Vladimir there in Slovakia about democracy and about the importance of democracy. And as you remember at the press conference...he stood up and said he strongly supports democracy. I take him for his word." For a man who supports democracy, far less strongly, the former KGB capo has a funny way of demonstrating it.
One night about two years ago an Israeli alarm clock -- in the form of a pair of F-16s that snapped a sonic boom over his house at about 0300 -- woke Syrian President Bashar Assad with sufficient suddenness to justify a change in bed linens. That wake-up call threw enough fear into him to slow his terrorist surrogates' operations against Israel for a short while. Since then, Assad has come to feel protected. First, by President Bush who -- declining to take action against Syrian support for the Iraq insurgency -- has effectively granted the insurgents a sanctuary in Syria. Second, by Putin who is helping Assad help the terrorists.
Having placated the U.N. by withdrawing about 14,000 Syrian troops from Lebanon, and leaving their intelligence structure behind to continue supporting Hezbollah and their ilk, Putin is selling Syria Igla-8 shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to deter Israeli or American air attacks. Mr. Bush's reaction was all too tepid. We're protesting the sale of the vehicle-mounted Iglas, not the man-portable ones. The man-portable version is less capable, but not much. And these missiles are a danger to us as well as the Israelis.
The Pentagon knows where at least some of the terrorist camps in Syria are, from which the insurgents in Iraq are operating. The new Iraqi government hasn't yet given us permission to operate from Iraq against these camps. As tolerant as we are of the Iraqis' struggle to organize their new government, we can no longer allow their indecision to protect the Syrian sanctuary the terrorists now enjoy. If we can't launch our special ops people against these camps from Iraq, we can hit them from the air with cruise missiles and manned aircraft. The Russian sale of the Igla-8 to Syria puts American lives at risk. This missile, relatively new, is capable of penetrating most of the defenses our aircraft have against heat-seeking missiles such as these. There is no other way to put it: Russian sale of these missiles to Syria is meant to deter American and Israeli air strikes.
At the same time Putin is defending democracy by arming Syria, he is also doing everything he can to support Iran's nuclear program. Russia, of course, was the primary builder of the Iranian nuclear program and continues to be its principal supplier. While the EU-3 (Britain, France and Germany) were trying to negotiate Iran out of its uranium enrichment program again last week, Putin offered to supply Iran with nuclear fuel for its reactor and then collect the spent fuel so that Iran couldn't further enrich it into weapons-grade uranium. Mr. Bush said he appreciated Putin's gesture, and that Putin understands the dangers of an Iran with a nuclear weapon. He does, indeed. And we would be absurdly naive to trust Putin to prevent the Iranians from making fissionable material.
CAN ANYONE BELIEVE IT a coincidence that while Putin is allying Russia with both Iran and Syria, those two nations are more or less formalizing the Axis of Evil? Last February, Iranian veep Mohammad Reza Aref said Iran and Syria were forming a "common front." He said, "We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats." Syria's principal threats are Israel and America, and so they will remain as long as Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism. That the two terrorist states are allying more formally, with Russia playing the third-party co-conspirator, should send chills up every spine in western Europe. The last time this happened, Stalin was signing up to play second violin to Hitler.
While this is going on, Putin is also offering to train "security services" among the Palestinians and selling them helicopters and communications equipment. Unmentioned in Putin's trip to Israel last week were the armored personnel carriers he was also offering the Palestinians. It seems Mr. Bush's pal is eagerly seeking to restore Russian influence in the Middle East, but not in the interests of countering terrorism: only countering America.
In Statecraft, Lady Thatcher also wrote that, "The worst error, as always in dealing with Russia, is naivete." We need to be engaged with Russia, not to it. And whatever passes between Iran and Syria, Russia must not aid or abet. Uncle Joe, as FDR and Churchill called Stalin, was taught an expensive lesson when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941. Putin would do well to remember that when the Germans retreated, millions of Russians already lay dead. And that as easy as it would be for terrorists to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, it would be just as easy -- and far less a distance -- for them to smuggle one into Russia.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).
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