Stop swooning over Putin

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, October 15, 2015

Vladimir Putin has the United States’ foreign policy establishment swooning. One columnist admires the “decisiveness” that has put him “in the driver’s seat” in the Middle East. A veteran diplomat notes gravely, “It’s the lowest ebb since World War II for U.S. influence and engagement in the region.” A sober-minded pundit declares, “Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.”

It’s true that it has been a quarter-century since Moscow has been so interventionist outside its borders. The last time it made these kinds of moves, in the late 1970s and 1980s, it invaded Afghanistan and interfered in several other countries as well. Back then, commentators similarly hailed those actions as signs that Moscow was winning the Cold War. How did that work out for the Soviet Union?

Washington’s foreign policy elites have developed a mind-set that mistakes activity for achievement. They assume that every crisis in the world can and should be solved by a vigorous assertion of U.S. power, preferably military power. Failure to do so is passivity and produces weakness. By this logic, Russia and Iran are the new masters of the Middle East. Never mind that those countries are desperately trying to shore up a sinking ally. Their clients, the Alawites of Syria, are a minority regime — representing less than 15 percent of the country’s people — and face deadly insurgencies supported by vast portions of the population. Iran is bleeding resources in Syria. And if Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize. The United States has been “in the driver’s seat” in Afghanistan for 14 years. Has that strengthened America?

In the 1870s and 1880s, Europe’s major powers were scrambling to gain influence in Africa, the last unclaimed land on the globe. All but one nation: Germany. Its steely-eyed chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, believed that such interventions would drain Germany’s power and divert its focus away from its central strategic challenges. When shown a map of the continent to entice him, he responded, “Your map of Africa is all very fine, but my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia and here is France, and we are in the middle. That is my map of Africa.”

Imagine if today’s interventionists had their way and President Obama escalated force and the Assad regime fell. What would be the outcome? Here are some clues. Washington deposed Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq (Syria’s next-door neighbor, with many of the same tribes and sectarian divides). It did far more in Iraq than anyone is asking for in Syria, putting 170,000 soldiers on the ground at the peak and spending nearly $2 trillion. And yet, a humanitarian catastrophe has ensued — with roughly 4 million civilians displaced and at least 150,000 killed. Washington deposed Moammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya but chose to leave nation-building to the locals. The result has been what the New Yorker calls “a battle-worn wasteland.” In Yemen, the United States supported regime change and new elections. The result: a civil war that is tearing the country apart. Those who are so righteous and certain that this next intervention would save lives should at least pause and ponder the humanitarian consequences of the last three.

In Niall Ferguson’s intelligent and sympathetic biography of Henry Kissinger’s early life, I was struck by how today’s mood resembles that of the 1950s. We now think of that decade as the United States’ high-water mark, but at the time, the country’s foreign policy elites were despairing that Washington was passive and paralyzed in the face of Soviet activism. “Fifteen years more of [such] a deterioration of our position in the world,” Kissinger wrote in opening his 1961 book “The Necessity for Choice,” “would find us reduced to Fortress America in a world in which we had become largely irrelevant.” A few years earlier, in the book that launched his career, “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” Kissinger had advocated the tactical use of nuclear arms to have some way to respond to Soviet activism. And Kissinger was one of the most sober-minded and intelligent of the lot.

The 1950s abounded with what seem in retrospect deeply dangerous proposals designed to demonstrate U.S. vigor — including deposing Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, military confrontations in Hungary and the use of nuclear weapons over Taiwan. Pundits were outraged that North Vietnam and Cuba had gone communist while the United States just sat and watched.

In the midst of this clamor for action, one man, President Dwight Eisenhower, kept his cool, even though it sank his poll numbers. (The Kennedy/Johnson administration ended the passivity, notably in Cuba and Vietnam, with disastrous results.) I believe that decades from now, we will be glad that Barack Obama chose Eisenhower’s path to global power and not Putin’s.

© 2015, Washington Post Writers Group

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