From Consortium News
Russian President Vladimir Putin, following his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 28, 2015.
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Last week as Donald Trump was preparing to take office, The New York Times -- reeling from Trump's interview in which he said he didn't "really care" if the European Union holds together and described NATO as "obsolete" -- declared that "the big winner" of the change in U.S. presidents was Vladimir Putin.
Why? Because Putin "has been working assiduously not just to delegitimize American democracy by interfering with the election but to destabilize Europe and weaken if not destroy NATO, which he blames for the Soviet Union's collapse." And based on what Trump has been saying about the alliance and the EU, it appears that, as of noon on Friday, Putin has a co-thinker in the White House.
The Times may be right about Putin coming out on top, but its bill of indictment against him is over the top. The Russian president is not working to delegitimize America democracy -- the U.S. is doing the job just fine on its own -- and he's not destabilizing Europe either since the forces undermining the E.U. are essentially generated by the West (traceable to the austerity medicine administered after the 2008 financial collapse and to the refugee flows created by the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya and the "regime change" project in Syria, none of which were initiated by Putin).
But the Times is entirely correct in pointing out that Putin is now riding high. He has a friend in Washington, he's calling the shots in the Middle East, and it looks like he'll soon be in a position to hammer out a rapprochement with Europe. So the big question facing the world is: how did he do it?
The answer is not by blackmailing Trump, hacking the Democratic National Committee, or any other such nonsense put out by disappointed Clintonites. Rather, Putin prevailed through a combination of skill and luck. He played his cards well. But he also had the good fortune of having an opponent who played his own hand extremely poorly. Russia won because America lost.
Years from now, as historians gather to discuss the great U.S. foreign-policy debacles of the early Twenty-first Century, they'll have much to debate -- the role of oil, Zionism and Islam; the destabilizing effects of the 2008 financial meltdown; and so forth. But one thing they'll agree on will be the impact of hubris.
The U.S. emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall as history's first "hyperpower," a country whose military strength dwarfed that of the rest of the world combined. It celebrated by engaging in a series of jolly little wars in Panama, the Balkans, and the Persian Gulf that seemed to confirm its invincibility. But then it made the mistake of invading Afghanistan and Iraq and found itself in serious trouble.
What Went Wrong?
Historians of the future will also no doubt agree that Obama might have averted catastrophe if he had decisively broken with Washington's pro-war foreign-policy establishment. Plainly, a change of course was urgent if catastrophe was to be avoided. But the more realistic among them will note that any such correction would have been both difficult and disruptive. It would have meant abandoning some allies and hammering out new relationships with others, changes that would have elicited howls of protest from Washington to Riyadh.
President Barack Obama waits backstage before making his last address at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, Sept. 20, 2016.
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So Obama, an ardent compromiser by nature, decided to fine-tune the existing policy instead by shifting from the direct military intervention of the George W. Bush era to more indirect means. This was an understandable reaction to the excesses of the previous administration, but it only made matters worse.
Exhibit A is Syria, the great bleeding wound in the side of the Middle East. After calling on Bashar al-Assad to step down in August 2011, Obama could conceivably have followed up by sending in hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops to throw out the Baathists and install a pro-American regime in their place. None of Washington's allies would have objected.
But since any such adventure was unthinkable in the wake of Afghanistan and Iraq, he opted for something more oblique. He ordered the CIA to begin working in secret to support the anti-Assad forces and sent Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to persuade such "Friends of Syria" as Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates to back up the insurgency with money and arms.
Most of the foreign policy establishment agreed. After all, Israel, Turkey and the Gulf kingdoms were of one mind that Assad should go, as were the intelligence agencies back home in Washington. As long-time Syria watcher Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma observed, the Assad government had long been in America's crosshairs: