Major media focus on President Donald Trump’s desire to withdraw United States military forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and the very powerful backlash in Congress led by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). We ignore Russian gains.
The U.S. has few troops in either country. In Iraq, where other military powers have forces on the ground, the 2,000 U.S. forces are enough to spark a major conflict. There has been direct combat with Russian forces, which fortunately did not escalate.
Meanwhile, early in January President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel talked, shared warm words about mutual interests, and vowed significantly to increase diplomatic and military cooperation in Syria. Russia is increasing influence in the Mediterranean and Middle East region, leading to rapprochement with Israel, traditionally a close ally of the U.S. and former enemy of Russia and the Soviet Union.
On Feb. 14, Russia hosts a leadership summit with Iran and Turkey in the Black Sea city of Sochi. Putin took the initiative in hosting a Moscow summit of leaders from these nations just before Christmas in 2016.
The decision by Russia in 2015 to intervene with military force in the brutal combat in Syria furthered this expansion of regional influence. As a result, Moscow has greatly increased the staying power of the beleaguered regime of Syria President Bashar al-Assad.
Historically, Moscow has been preoccupied with secure national borders, especially in Eastern Europe, and generally abstained from sending military forces long distances. Putin has now abandoned this strongly rooted caution. He has become a daring military gambler in various areas.
Russia has a long history of involvement in the volatile region, especially Syria. The profoundly serious Suez Crisis of 1956 resulted in sharp rupture among western allies, as the Eisenhower administration refused to support a combined military assault by Britain, France and Israel to retake the Suez Canal and seize the Sinai Peninsula from nationalist Egypt.
From that time until the end of the Cold War, Moscow had significant influence. Syria developed close military partnership with Egypt, and the two nations went to war together against Israel in October 1973. The Yom Kippur War also witnessed American-Soviet nuclear confrontation.
President Richard Nixon aggressively ensured essential aid got through to Israel, moved B-52 bombers from Guam to the U.S., placed the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division on alert, and pursued skillful diplomacy. Stability returned.
President Jimmy Carter then brokered Egypt-Israel peace. The Camp David accords endure.
President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker orchestrated the extraordinarily challenging and successful international military effort to liberate Kuwait after invasion by Iraq. They also initiated complex multilateral negotiations seeking to achieve formal Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.
The Soviet Union and U.S. cosponsored the 1991 Madrid Conference. Resulting momentum led to the Oslo Accords for Palestinian self-government.
President Barack Obama declared use of poison gas by Damascus would be a “red line,” implying military retaliation. When poison gas was used, he did nothing. Trump unilaterally moved the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as desired by the Israel government, but received nothing in return.
George H.W. Bush and James Baker left office with the U.S. having unparalleled promising influence in the region. Since then, absence of sustained disciplined leadership has almost completely reversed this situation.
In the future, serious evaluation of American foreign policy since that first Bush administration is likely to be harsh - and deserved.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.