Lose the world, gain a cigar.
Returning from a short spell in Spain last week, I found that some aspects of the news actually seemed positive. Alas, those positives were opposed in every case by some awful facts.
Just before our return, President Obama lifted part of the ban on importing Cuban goods, his latest executive order allowing Americans returning from any destination to bring back one hundred bucks of Cuban cigars. As I light up an H. Upmann Magnum 50, the pleasure is balanced by two things.
First is the plain fact that the Castro regime is still in power and has grown its roots deeply enough into the Cuban culture and government structure that it will continue in power long after Fidel and Raul are gone. Second is the fact that even those of us most dedicated to conservative principles are failing to maintain them in some ways, major and minor. Donald Trump has done his best to prove that those principles are, at best, a dispensable commodity.
Obama’s uncharacteristic action about two weeks ago, allowing the Navy to strike three Houthi radar sites that enabled the Houthis to launch missiles at our ships, seemed undiluted good news. But the Houthis targeted our ships at least twice after that, proving they believe we’ll do nothing more than tickle them with a few Tomahawk missiles.
And the fact that the Houthi forces are supported, and certainly were directed to launch the strike, by their Iranian supporters casts a pall over the whole war in Yemen. Armed, funded, and trained by Iran, the Houthis are able, with apparent ease, to survive the desultory effects of the Saudi “coalition” attacking them.
The two other events from my time abroad are equally important. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who earlier called President Obama the “son of a whore,” has gone off to Beijing. In the course of his trip, he made it clear that his nation would be an ally of the China and pointedly rejected America.
Duterte has reportedly resented American involvement in the Philippines since he was a child. Now, he’s acting out in a way that will clearly provide China with a southern base (on Scarborough Shoal) for its control of the South China Sea. The Philippines was supposed to be the southern anchor of Obama’s “Pacific Shift” with a restoration of American forces to some form of rebuilt bases such as Subic Bay. No matter. Just another failure of Obama’s military and defense strategies. Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.
And then we have to evaluate the threats from Turkish President Erdogan, who wants Turkey to control the fighting in Iraq. In an angry speech last week, after ordering air strikes against American-backed Kurdish forces in northern Iraq, Erdogan demanded a bigger role in the fight to take Mosul from ISIS.
Turkey’s ambitions in northern Iraq go far beyond its supposed assistance in fighting ISIS. Erdogan wants to conquer the Kurdish homeland in the area that the Kurds believe extends into Turkey.
Iran is Russia’s ally in the Middle East. Its troops and aircraft operate in Syria in support of the Russians. Together, they dominate that battlespace. Nothing we can do at this stage — short of engaging in a war with both — will change that.
Let’s pull back on the stick and gain some altitude. We need it to see the common threads in these events.
There are three overriding aspects of every event from the Philippines to Iraq.
First is the strong hand being played by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Erdogan is an Islamist, and at best an unfaithful NATO ally. Since August, Erdogan has been cozying up to Putin, a clear signal that Turkey is accepting bids for its allegiance.
Erdogan evidently thinks that his rapprochement with Putin, still at an early stage, gives him a sufficiently strong base to ignore U.S. interests, such as they are, in fighting ISIS and supporting the shaky Iraqi government. He has no reason to doubt this thinking because he knows, as do Putin and the rest of the world, that Obama’s commitment to our interests in the Middle East is negligible.
Putin is playing his weak hand expertly. The Russian economy is failing with increased rapidity, having relied too much on its oil and gas exports. Nevertheless, he is sufficiently bold to seduce a NATO member into his sphere. The sailing of the Russian carrier battle group last week, led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, to Syria to engage in combat supporting the terrorist regime of the Assads, is a clear message that Russia is able to project its power.
Nothing Obama has done, or is doing, is sufficient to deter Putin or make significant strides against ISIS.
The second factor is that all the wars in the Middle East are religious conflicts, either Sunni vs. Shiite or either of those two against Israel. Obama refuses to recognize that fact. Any other president (with the obvious exceptions of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump) would recognize that as a fact we could use to our benefit.
The struggle between Muslim Shiites and Sunnis is evident everywhere the two are present. The Houthis are Shiite, backed by Iran. The Kurds are quasi-Iranian (there is some confusion in their beliefs, which are more Zoroastrian than Shiite), which distinguishes them from Sunni Turkey. President Obama’s embrace of Iran goes farther than his nuclear weapons deal, and accounts for the plain fact that the Sunni nations — from Saudi Arabia to Turkey and beyond to Pakistan — have chosen to pursue their wars (including their diplomatic policies) on paths that diverge widely from America’s.
The third factor is American global weakness. The Obama-Clinton-Kerry team has made none of the hard decisions required to deter China’s expansion in the South China Sea. That is the proximate cause of Duterte’s approach to China and his rejection of his nation’s alliance with the U.S., which goes back to the Spanish-American war.
It was briefly satisfying to see Obama, at the demand of Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joe Dunford, order the strike against the Houthi radar sites in Yemen. But those pinpricks are not enough to deter the Houthis, the Iranians, or the Russians from pursuing their goals in the Middle East.
What to do? At this point we have no good options.
To deter the Chinese we would have to be able to deploy massive naval forces — which we lack, thanks to the Obama cuts to military spending — in the area. Now that Duterte has aligned with China, the best possible base for those forces has evaporated.
To deter Russia and Iran in the Middle East, as I said above, we’d have to be willing to attack ISIS in disregard of their presence, which would put us at war with both nations. Syria isn’t worth that, but the rest of the Middle East — especially Israel — is.
Russia has made threats of nuclear reprisals for our interference in its regional wars. Those threats are just bluster but bluster enough to deter us from interfering in Ukraine, Crimea, Syria, or Iraq. None of our leaders, or prospective leaders, are going to pull the trigger against Russia or Iran, nor should they at this stage. Nevertheless, Putin and the ayatollahs won’t take our leaders or prospective leaders at all seriously.
It will take more than the massive decade-long military and intelligence buildup we need to restore American credibility in the minds of our enemies. It will take the sort of resolve against them we had in the Cold War, expressed by the sort of leaders we had then, to do so.
Obama and his crew will soon be swept into the dustbin of history. If only we had the chance of a successor who would engage the world on the terms we did between 1952 and 1988. Facing up to three Evil Empires is a tall task we have to perform. But there is no prospect of such a leader at hand.