Are the United States and Russia on the brink of War?

“War is the continuation of policy by other means… mistakes that come from kindness are the very worst.” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, 1832)
“[In] my judgment, [Iran] is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons. [But] another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need.” (former defense secretary Robert Gates, 2010, “Reflections on Leadership”)

When John Kerry recently lamented that the collapse of negotiation with Putin was the result of a lack of “credible threat” in support of America’s diplomacy, he also described the long and tortuous path the administration was forced to take to achieve a weak nuclear deal with Iran. But before laying blame entirely on the present US administration for a tepid foreign policy (well deserved), it is a matter of fact that Obama, as Bush earlier, is also constrained by a US Military averse to fighting, even threatening to fight, yet another Middle East war. In response to Iran’s threat to respond with “iron fists” to a potential US military strike on their nuclear program then defense chief Leon Panetta said he agreed with his predecessor, Robert Gates that the United States has to,

"be careful of unintended consequences here… from what they want to do…But more importantly, it could have a serious impact… on U.S. forces in the region.” (emphasis added)

As if US forces in the region were there only for show.

As regards “Unintended Consequences,” this term to distance the military from its purpose as projecting power as deterrent was introduced by Gates and his Joint Chiefs head Admiral Mullin soon after Bush appointed them to head the military. It was repeated throughout their terms in office, particularly when the question of allowing Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities arose. As if it was America’s regional surrogate’s responsibility, and not our own, to deal with the Iranian threat to the region, and the West.

Soon after President Bush dispatched the US military to engage in regime change for Iraq Iran, apparently concerned they might be next sent a worried email to the White House offering not only to unilaterally abandon its nuclear weapons program, it suggested interest in normalizing relations with Israel. The administration did not respond. Within months and finding itself now in a war with Iran-backed insurgents it turned to Israel to threaten the ayatollahs and their nuclear ambitions. It was then that Gates first warned of undefined “unanticipated consequences.” American policy, both political and military, was openly announced as to avoid not only the actual use of force, but even its threat. And so John Kerry’s insight that minus “credible threat” diplomacy cannot but fail.
And so Syria and Kerry’s failed diplomacy with Russia. One week ago the on-line journal Debka suggested a balance of power between the United States and Russia: US, Russia on brink of military showdown in Syria even as there clearly is no equivalence or ground for comparison. First, successive US defense secretaries display lack of heart for use, or even threat of further military engagement in the region even as Russia daily displays by action its own level of engagement. Russian ambition has for centuries, and certainly since its ignominious rejection by Egypt forty years ago, planned its return, has maintained a toe-hold in both Syria and America’s new “ally,” Iran. Seemingly unaware or possibly hoping Russia would relieve it the embarrassment of its retreat President Obama actually invited Putin’s return. Desperate to escape the humiliation of his “line in the sand” threat to Assad Obama turned to Putin, a dream come true for the Russian! While Russian involvement on the side of Assad increased Obama stood on the sidelines warning of the quagmire that would be the Russian’s certain fate. In the end the quagmire Obama warned of is of America’s making and however one judge’s Russia’s contribution to the conflict its stature in the region today all but eclipses that of America. And the consequences of American lack of engagement are dire. Not only for the Middle East tottering on the brink, but for Europe and, yes, also the United States.

Impact on the Region

The state of collapse in Syria with half a million dead and millions homeless is the clearest immediate evidence of America’s regional policy clearly enunciated by Gates/Mullen following the invasion of Iraq: “another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need.” In America’s haste to leave following the chaos caused by a policy of Democracy over Realpolitik, the US appears totally unaware of its responsibility for the present state of the Middle East and, indeed, the spread of terrorism its result. Decades of bipartisan weakness explains the popularity of Trump at home; of Putin abroad.

As this is written Saudi Arabia encouraged Egypt to enter into an arms deal with Russia, while it and other regional states are turning to Putin to provide them with nuclear power plants, first step in an Arab response to the threat posed by Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.

Impact on the European subcontinent 

Since Bush invaded and destroyed the Iraqi state I have been describing that which should be obvious: with a diminishing American footprint in the region, as in nature so also in diplomacy a vacuum will be filled. During the Cold War Russia was contained by American power. Minus that counter-balance Russia is increasingly assertive in pursuit of it national interests. Putin is not only replacing American hegemony in the Middle East; its wider aim is de facto control over the Mediterranean basin. Europe dependent on Russia for natural gas to heat its homes and run its factories: is it far-fetched to imagine that, with Russia’s navy to the south and army to the north, Europes traditional ally an ocean away;  who will determine the future of the EU?

According to today’s edition of Israel Hayom (7 October) Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov is considering plans to reopen Russia’s old bases in the Far East in Vietnam, and ninety miles off the coast of Florida in Cuba. Diplomacy minus credible threat invites challenge.

And where does this leave America?
Regardless who wins the White House in November America has been increasingly moving towards isolationism for years. Nor is this a Democrat or Republican issue. At least since 2004 the Bush administration has sought Iran’s help to disengage from the quagmire of Iraq. Even assuming the next administration takes office determined to reverse American isolationism ( not very likely) it would take years to formulate and encourage a bureaucracy by definition conservative and resistant to change to put that policy into practice. President Roosevelt spent years trying to move public and bureaucracy to even consider getting involved in WWII and, in the end, it took Germany declaring war on the US to achieve it. And so America would, as is the mood of the nation, likely remain isolationist for the foreseeable future. Considering the challenges the West today faces from Islamist terrorism backed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and Muslim Brotherhood offshoots such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State already possibly possessing chemical and biological weapons; how long before they will have access to a nuclear weapon, at least at the level of suitcase sized dirty bombs?