It should have been a no-brainer for the U.S. and Russia to cooperate to fight Islamic radicals in the Middle East. But even if you place the high-jump bar on the ground, some people will still manage to trip over it -- then insist on going back and tripping over it again.
Everything was perfectly set up for a strategic partnership. Both countries' special forces had long been conducting joint counterterrorism exercises. Some were even conducted on American soil, at Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs. The Winter Olympics earlier this year in Sochi, Russia, not far from the Islamic-terrorism-plagued Northern Caucasus region, should have provided the perfect pretext for the start of operational cooperation -- particularly given that the Caucasus Emirate, a jihadist group that claimed responsibility for deadly train station and bus bombings shortly before the start of the Games, has traditionally been backed by the same Gulf states that have been instrumental in funding the Islamic State.
But instead of working with Russia to eliminate the problem, the Obama administration went in the opposite direction. Not only has it fostered a whole new jihadist problem by blindly tossing resources and training at any ragtag rebel who could hold a weapon, but it has also taken a diversionary detour of questionable long-term value through Ukraine -- attempting, against hard geopolitical realities, to carve out a bigger economic share for Western interests at Russia's expense through a grotesquely unsophisticated coup d'etat.
The bill for this administration's chronic lack of strategic foresight is coming due:
-- The Pentagon has authorized the use of reconnaissance drones over Islamic State territory (which includes Syria) in preparation for airstrikes against this now-common enemy of Syria, the U.S. and Russia. How awkward. It's like trying to convince someone that you'd like to mow their lawn a year after you tried to burn down their house. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem issued a "get off my lawn" warning that "any strike which isn't coordinated with the (Syrian) government will be considered as aggression." Success of this U.S. mission now hinges largely on the goodwill of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom Barack Obama wanted to depose a year ago.
-- Obama's strategy has made such a mess of Libya that America's partners in the not-so-long-ago quest to remove Assad are now fighting each other behind America's back. Turkey and Qatar, which were both allied with the U.S. against Assad, have now taken to fomenting Islamic insurgency in Libya. The Obama administration apparently was surprised that America's other regional allies -- United Arab Emirates and Egypt -- launched airstrikes against Libyan Islamists without notifying U.S. officials. It wasn't even a year ago that the U.S. accepted a proposal by Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan to train as many as 7,000 conventional Libyan soldiers plus counterterrorist forces. As I wrote at the time, providing direct military training in an already unstable country isn't the way to stabilize it. What a waste of funding.
-- Other than warning the U.S. against dumping even more resources into the region that could fall into the hands of the Islamic State, Russia has been relatively quiet on the subject. It's simply sending fighter jets to Iraq to help the embattled Iraqi government deal with the Islamic State. Who can blame Russia? It cleaned up Obama's mess in Syria, and it's still dealing with the mess Obama created in Ukraine. The ideal option for taking on the Islamic State would have been the same sort of cooperative military effort between the West and Russia that existed during World War II (despite the U.S. having contributed significantly to the Islamic State's creation in Syria in the first place). But with the U.S. and Russia still at odds in Ukraine, it's possible that the relationship between the two countries has passed the point of no return.
Where Russia goes these days, China is likely to follow, albeit quietly. China has long had a policy of non-intervention in other nations' domestic affairs, preferring instead to operate more discreetly via economic influence. China has the most oil holdings in Iraq and the most foreign direct investment in Libya. Still, it would have every reason to contribute to the defeat of Islamic terrorism so that all the world powers can relax and just go back to cyberattacking each other and fighting over resources. But as we've seen when the U.S. and Russia have been at odds over Syria and Ukraine, China tends to come down on the side of its closest geopolitical ally. The two countries announced a $400 billion gas deal and launched joint war games at the height of the Ukrainian conflict.
Any U.S. effort to leverage both Russia's muscle and China's money to deal with the Islamic State would have to pass through Russia, and would require a grand bargain on Ukraine that addresses overt, covert and clandestine operations and funding on both sides of the conflict. But that would first require a détente between Obama and his own bullet-ridden foot.