Commentary Magazine


Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East

Being a revanchist means being keenly aware of your country’s history, its interests as defined by prior generations, and that which they so carelessly lost. Steeped as he is in revanchism, Vladimir Putin has put a premium on the national interests of Russia’s leaders of another era. He covets the Black Sea coast, as have all his predecessors dating back to Catherine. He views the United States has his country’s strategic competitor in Europe, as did the Soviets who inherited Stalin’s post-War order. And, like many of the ghosts who roam the Kremlin’s halls, Putin is uniquely conscious of the strategic value of the Middle East. He is fortunate in that the American president is equally determined to extricate his country from Middle Eastern affairs and is presently engaged in a disruptive project to reorder the region so as to facilitate that retreat. Putin has taken full advantage of the every opportunity American military retrenchment and diplomatic restructuring in the Middle East has afforded him, and the future will be darker for it.

In February, when Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi chose Russia as the first non-Arab state to which he would make a formal trip, it set off alarm bells in Washington. America’s bilateral relationship with that flawed but nevertheless critical nation’s military leadership had long been strained. Relations between American and Egyptian officials grew tense when President Barack Obama demanded Washington’s ally of over three decades, Hosni Mubarak, leave office amid anti-government protests and spiraling violence. At first welcoming the election of Mohamed Morsi and then standing by him when it became clear that he and his political allies would use every lever of Egyptian democracy at their disposal to destroy it, Barack Obama alienated the members of the Egyptian military with whom America had once had firm relations since the late 1970s. Finally, after being visibly paralyzed by events in Egypt following Morsi’s ouster – vexed by the notion of whether to punish the putsch leaders by calling the events they welcomed a “coup” – Obama’s government eventually withdrew a significant amount of the military aid the world’s most populous Arab country had come to rely upon.

The result of this fecklessness was to alienate Egypt’s democrats, frustrate its Islamists, and terrify the members of its military establishment. It’s one thing to have an idealistic foreign policy that eschews legacy obligations to unsavory actors established by foreign policy realists, but it’s quite another to adopt an approach to international affairs that apparently has no philosophical moorings whatsoever. Obama embraced the latter course.

“Washington’s rather limited criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood during its year in power, as well as the intensifying swirl of conspiracy theories about the U.S. role in Egypt, have fostered a severely anti-American political atmosphere that may welcome a shift away from Washington,” The Washington Institute’s David Schenker and Eric Trager observed.

If the alarm bells were ringing in February, they screamed like an air raid siren by March. It was then that the Sisi government announced that it had secured a deal to purchase $2 billion in arms from Moscow. The arrangement represented the ruination of the post-Sadat status quo, in which the former Egyptian leader and American administrations under three successive presidents over the skillfully disentangled Egypt from the Soviet sphere of influence. Indeed, the importance with which Russia viewed Egypt was revealed when Sadat flamboyantly expelled Soviet advisors and he was subsequently rewarded with even more military aid from Moscow. Putin had effectively reversed Leonid Brezhnev’s folly in Egypt.

But this would not be the end of the West’s humiliation on the Nile. According to a report via the Egyptian Independent, Cairo has agreed to establish a free-trade zone with the Eurasian Economic Union – a trade zone dominated by Russia and comprised of the former Soviet Republics Kazakhstan, Belarus, and Armenia.

“Egypt’s trade agreement with the EEU would ideally give it preferential access to the integrated single market of 176 million people and a GDP of over US$4 trillion,” The publication wrote of the trade zone designed to serve as a counterbalance to the European Union. “A Russian industrial zone near the Suez Canal and a number of other joint projects in the areas of transport, manufacturing, and energy are on the table, and the upcoming free trade agreement, expanding the scope of cooperation, would undoubtedly contribute to increasing EEU’s influence…”

As Washington makes no secret of its desire to see Iran rise and become the region’s prohibitive stabilizing power, it isn’t just Egypt that has turned its jilted eyes toward Moscow. “Deputy Crown Prince and Minister of Defense Mohammed bin Salman visited St. Petersburg in the last week and signed several agreements with the Russians concerning cooperation on oil, space and peaceful nuclear energy, as well as nuclear technology sharing,” Al-Monitor reported on Wednesday. Between the Saudis proxy war in Yemen against Iran-backed Shiite rebels and its speedy pursuit of nuclear technology from countries like France and Russia, the Saudi Kingdom’s behavior a virtual textbook example of how sovereign powers react to shifting regional dynamics and alliance structures.

In fact, the effects of the Obama administration’s approach to regional power politics in the Middle East might have been pulled directly from one of the late University of California, Berkeley, Professor Kenneth Waltz’s lectures. As the United States has become an unreliable ally, propping up a revisionist aspiring hegemon in their neighborhood, the region’s Sunni states have gone in search of some insurance. This real world experiment in international relations theory is actually quite fascinating. If only it were not so extremely dangerous.

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3 Responses to “Russia Outmaneuvers Obama in the Middle East”

  1. KENT LYON says:

    Ironically, Tehran is a client state of Russia. So Russia is courting regional hegemonic influence, affiliating with both Sunni (Egypt) and Shi’ite (Iran)nations. Obama’s insane gambit to allow Shi’ite militias to use American bases in Iraq alongside American military personnel is no offset to Russia’s economic ties with Iran. Obama is just continuing his game of playing the fool while Russia and Iran laugh at him and his utterly feckless moves. With Obama as head of American foreign policy and the weakest ever US Commander in Chief (even James Madison tried harder when Washington was invaded by the British–he at least tried to confront the enemy, though his troops fled) it is a wonder the US hasn’t been invaded by some small country that could get an immediate surrender by the US and take over the country.

  2. BARRY MEISLIN says:

    “Obama is…playing the fool…”

    Um, no. Obama, sir, is showing “flexibility” (while sticking to the game plan).

    As for Obama being outmaneuvered by Russia, heh, that’s like saying Bobby Riggs was outmaneuvered by Billie Jean King in the famous “Battle of the Chromosomes”.

    File under: What’s a poor boy with huge gambling debts supposed to do?


    We all remember that the Pr. promised to Putin, through Medvedev, that he will be flexible!!!

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