President Obama did not end the war in Iraq. His precipitous withdrawal of American troops allowed the Islamic State group to take control of major cities and Iran to become the puppet master in Iraq. His decision to announce when the U.S. would withdraw troops from Afghanistan emboldened the Taliban, as witnessed most recently in the assault on Kunduz. But most importantly, the president's feckless policies have set the stage for Russia's ascendancy and its move to become a major player in the Middle East.
Thanks to the administration's dithering on Syria, Russia now has 30 warplanes in the air that are launching attacks on anti-Bashar Assad rebels, and soon there may be troops on the ground -- "volunteers" like the ones Russia has employed against Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russia is firing its most sophisticated cruise missiles from warships in the Caspian Sea a thousand miles away, again targeting not the Islamic State but the Free Syrian Army. Turkey, a NATO member, has also claimed that Russian planes have violated Turkish airspace.
It would be bad enough if Russia's intervention in Syria accomplished nothing more than propping up the murderous regime of Assad, which has killed more than a quarter-million Syrians and led to the exodus of 3 million refugees. But Russia's role is far more insidious. Russia's move also enhances Iran's power in the region and makes it far likelier that we will see future confrontations between Iran and its Sunni neighbors.
Lest we forget, Russia remains a powerful nuclear state. According to the Arms Control Association, Russia currently has 1,582 nuclear warheads deployed on 515 intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarines and strategic bombers. In addition, Russia's nuclear arsenal includes 4,500 stockpiled warheads and another 3,200 that are intact but no longer stockpiled, awaiting dismantlement under the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with the United States. Any guess whom these weapons are aimed at?
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union avoided direct confrontation precisely because such confrontation could have escalated into a nuclear war. But avoiding direct confrontation did not mean that the U.S. backed down against obvious threats. When the Soviets secretly put nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962, President John F. Kennedy didn't ignore the provocation but deployed U.S. ships to blockade the island. During the 13-day crisis, three Soviet ships, including a submarine, approached the American blockade line, and President Kennedy gave permission to the American aircraft carrier USS Essex to take whatever measures deemed necessary to stop the submarine. The ships turned back at the last minute, and the Soviets ultimately withdrew their missiles when the U.S. pledged not to invade Cuba.
There are lessons to be learned from the Cuban missile crisis. Syria is not in our own backyard, as Cuba is, but America's failure to counter Russian interference in the Middle East nonetheless poses a strategic threat. Unless this threat is met by U.S. resolve and strength, a greater war is inevitable.
The Middle East is a tinderbox, with explosions occurring throughout the region that could ignite a major conflagration. America's major ally in the region, Israel, faces an existential threat if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, which the Obama administration's deal makes more likely than not. A Russian-backed Iran also poses threats to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf States.
The rise of Russia also poses a direct threat to Europe. What is to stop Russia from moving against some of its former satellites, especially the Baltic States? The United States has employed economic sanctions but has done far too little to help Ukraine fight Russian-backed rebels, providing no offensive weapons or ammunition against Russian tanks and other sophisticated Russian weapons. If we are unwilling to arm those who are fighting Russian expansion, we will see Russia gobble up more territory on its path to regain superpower status.
Contrary to his promises, President Obama has greatly damaged the standing of the United States in the world. It may well be too late to reverse this trend in his remaining year in office. The tragedy is he shows no interest in even trying.