Vladimir Putin's intervention in Syria may or may not keep Hafez Assad in power, but it marks the end of the era of presumed American omnipotence that began with the end of the Cold War in 1990. The United States has been shocked by Putin's new move, but something like it somewhere in the world was inevitable sooner or later. Essentially, Putin has simply adopted the new rules of international conduct followed by the Clinton, Bush II and Obama Administration to his own purposes. Because of the disastrous impact of those rules upon our own standing in the Middle East and our ability to act, he is having no trouble doing so. In addition, his goals, while hardly worthy ones, are so much more realistic than ours have been that he has a significantly better chance of success.
The new American doctrine was first enunciated by Paul Wolfowitz, then in the Defense Department, in 1992, when he penned a famous memo arguing that the United States should now strive to prevent the emergence of a new peer competitor and, essentially, rule the world. That was not the view of his ultimate boss President George H. W. Bush, who had shown that he believed in the UN Charter, or of Secretary of State James Baker, or even, at that time at least, the view of Wolfowitz's immediate boss, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. But it apparently struck a chord within Wolfowitz's own Boom generation, because the Clinton Administration, especially in its second term, picked up that ball and ran with it. Bush I had gotten United Nations authorization for the war against Iraq in 1991, but Clinton went to war with Serbia on NATO's behalf without it. Putin, who was just coming to power at that time, was outraged, and U.S.-Russian relations have never been the same since. This, however, was nothing compared to what happened under George W. Bush beginning in 2001-2.
George W. and his administration claimed the right to overthrow any regime that either sought weapons we did not think they should have, or supported international terrorism. He assumed that western-style democracy would follow the deposition of dictators like Saddam Hussein. He went into Iraq with almost no international support, beyond that of Great Britain, whose Prime Minister, Tony Blair, shared Bush's religious faith in the righteousness of their cause. The result was not democracy, but tens of thousands of deaths, the ethnic cleansing of four million Iraqis (two million of whom left the country), the installation of an Iranian-backed Shi'ite government in Baghdad, and now, the fragmentation of Iraq into three states, a Shi'ite one, a Kurd one, and a Sunni one now ruled by ISIS. That, one should think, would have persuaded subsequent Administrations to tread more lightly in the region, but it did not.
Barack Obama has continued down the same path three times. In 2010-11 he blessed the Arab spring, when the neoconservative fantasy of democratic revolution throughout the Middle East seemed to be coming true. That resulted within a couple of years in an Islamist government in Egypt, which in turn was brutally overthrown by the Egyptian military. Then, purportedly moved by human rights concerns, he took the lead in bringing about the fall of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, throwing that country into a civil war that continues today, And last but not least, he announced, not long after the beginning of the civil war in Syria, that Assad must step down. Even before the sudden rise of ISIS, the US proceeded on the assumption that it could sponsor reliable, relatively secular allies among the opposition who would take Assad's place. That was the same fantasy that had led us into Iraq ("Iraq has always been pretty secular," Paul Wolfowitz famously told Terri Gross), and it has been equally successful.
Ever since Clinton in 1999, the United States has in effect claimed a right to take military action anywhere that we feel it serves our interest to do so. Even before that, Clinton had struck Al Queda camps in Afghanistan with cruise missiles. Bush, of course, went into Iraq. Obama pushed the no-fly zone in Libya and has begun bombing once again in Syria and Iraq. All of this has taken place without UN authorization or a declaration of war.
When Communism fell in 1990, as I have noted repeatedly here, the US assumed that our values and our influence were now supreme,. Others felt differently. Both the Chinese and Russian governments have repeatedly made clear that they do not accept this view, and that they are especially opposed to the idea that the world has a right to depose authoritarian governments on the grounds of human rights violations. Ironically, in so doing, they, not we, are standing up for the original principles of the UN, which was based, as it had to be, on respect for national sovereignty. Putin has spoken repeatedly and tellingly about the weaknesses in the U.S. world view. Last year, he decided to show us that we could not simply promote a pro-western government in Ukraine, annexing the Crimea and starting a border war. Now he has taken another huge step: adapting American principles for his own purposes in Syria.
Putin, like us, has taken sides in a Middle Eastern civil war--and has now deployed troops and planes and begun combat missions on behalf of his side. We really have no legal basis for complaining, since this is exactly what we have done in Libya, in Syria, and in Iraq. The difference, alas, is that while we have lined up behind a non-existent "moderate opposition" in Syria, Putin is assisting one of the real contenders for power, Hafez Assad, as part of a coalition of allies including Iran and Hezbollah. We on the other hand have no real allies in the fight now. Putin may in part be reacting to the Iranian nuclear agreement, of which he is a part, by trying to ensure that he,. not the US, will be Iran's leading ally in the years to come. That would tend to push the U.S. to the Sunni side of the on-going conflict in the Middle East, which we do support in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. But the Sunni side in Syria now is effectively ISIS, and we cannot ally with them. I am not even convinced that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are more concerned by ISIS than they are by the Shi'te leadership of Iran and Syria and the Shi'ite insurgency in Yemen.
As ye sow, so shall ye reap. George H. W. Bush, the last of seven presidents from the GI generation, thought that the end of the Cold War could usher in the world ruled by law and the UN that he had fought to create. But his Boomer and Gen X successors, including his own son, decided that they lived in a new era of U.S. omnipotence, and acted accordingly. Almost no one--especially in the political arena--stood up to say that this vision was based on false principles, and that it was Washington's responsibility as the leading world power to stand for impartial principles. Putin, or some one like him, was the inevitable result. We now find ourselves engaged in the Middle East in a traditional great-power struggle for influence in a region increasingly devastated by anarchy. While Putin may not be able to restore Assad's control over all Syria, he may well keep him in power for a long time to come. In a hopeful sign, a peace conference is meeting to discuss bringing the conflict to an end, and not only Russia and the U.S., but even Iran, is attending. I hope it succeeds relatively rapidly, because I don't think any of the likely presidential winners will be interested in going ahead with it after 2017.