Paging Dr. Kissinger

February 21, 2014

Paging Dr. Kissinger.

Since February 7th, we have enthusiastically viewed two global events. Together, both provide historic lessons concerning strategy and grand designs. Further, they've provided a doctoral course in irony.

First, the Olympics.

In July of 2007, Sochi, Russia, was awarded the 2014 Winter Games. The games were viewed as a political and commercial coup for Vladimir Putin's Russia. Already riding a wave of riches from the nation's petroleum bounty, the Sochi games appeared to be the crowning achievement for which Putin hungered. A brand building exercise on a global scale. These games would solidify Russia as a modern super power, capable of bending world opinion to its will.

Putin, the former KGB agent who came to head the agency's successor, Russia's FSB, has always been a chess player. Putin's life story is one of strategic intent. Perspective. Positioning. Plans. And patterns. Bridging the gap between policy and tactics. Execution. Beginning with the end in mind.

Russia's president has long been intent on reestablishing economic and political control of the former Soviet black nations, would use the Olympics to sell Russia's brand of influence to the world.

Leading up to the games, all had gone swimmingly. He'd managed to woo Russia's largest client state, Ukraine, away from European influence. Having offered the indebted giant a $15 billion bailout package and cheap fossil fuel for its burgeoning infrastructure.

Only five months ago, Putin had scored the biggest diplomatic victory of his tenure as Russian strongman, having offered a flailing American president an escape from the foreign policy trap that was Syria. Being so bold as to lecture Presidents Obama via an op-ed piece in The New York Times (here).

You see, Putin knew what the American electorate did not. Not then, at least. That his long-range strategic plans throughout the former Soviet Bloc and the volatile Middle East were made all the more possible by the complete lack of strategic plans for both within the American administration.

So, where the U.S. administration appeared weak and vacillating, Putin could be decisive and direct.

All of which was made possible, and ever sweeter, by Russia's seemingly unlimited oil riches. Without which Russia, and its autocratic leader, would have simply represented another large, untenable emerging market attempting to get along in a post-cold war world.

Of course, John Steinbeck knew, as did Robert Burns, what Putin has come to understand. That is, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

Even as the Sochi games were conducted without incident, there were rumblings south west of Moscow. Rumblings which gave way to domestic tumult, followed by an overnight rebellion in Ukraine. Which happens to be Russia's largest, most important client-state.

While the world focused on the games, a revolution occurred 1,100 miles to the northwest. Protesters took to the streets. Battled Ukrainian security forces. Hundreds died. Yet, Ukrainian protesters managed to oust an unpopular president, and simultaneously derail Mr. Putin's grand strategic designs.

Irony, the court jester in life's palace of grand plans, had its day. Just review the recent history.

Last November, Putin won a decisive victory over the European Union when Ukrainian president Yanukovich spurned the EU's financial aid offers, opting instead to rebuild economic relations with its former master, Moscow.

Russia agreed to a $15 billion Ukrainian bailout package. Further promising Kiev steep reductions in the price of Russian gas.

But, that was before Sochi.

Suddenly, Yanukovich has been deposed. And Russia, fresh from winning the Olympic medal count and successfully pulling off the games, stands to lose the economic and defense benefits of the largest member in its portfolio of client states. Grand strategies be damned.

Moving forward, Putin faces three options, none being entirely palatable.

Diplomatically position Russia so that it might make a similar bailout offer to the fledgling Ukrainian government. With elections set for May, this provides an opportunity to establish ties to prospective leadership.

Or, isolate Ukraine, denying a nation on its economic heels the cheap energy and financial rescue package it desperately covets.

Or, invade Crimea, the Russian speaking southern peninsula that oft associates itself with Moscow more than Kiev. Ominously, the Russians have begun handing out Russian passports to willing Crimeans. Of course, such an option would have ramifications, as the west will not sit idly as Russian tanks role into autonomous neighboring regions.

Yet, here again, we see strategy and irony playing their roles.

You see, Putin exhibits little fear of the west, having already stared down President Obama during their Syrian disagreement.

In fact, the ex-Russian intelligence chief has a dossier on President Obama. And it likely exerts the fact that the Obama administration appears to lack any foreign policy strategy, whatsoever. Regarding Clinton and Kerry, never have U.S. secretaries of state travelled more and accomplished less.

Put understands the U.S. administration's preference for shadow boxing, as opposed to firm foreign policy positions. This lack of policy and backbone has emboldened Putin, not to mention other autocrats throughout the Middle East and Africa (Read America's Global Retreat here).

Just last week, President Obama commented on the killings of protesters in Kiev, stating, "There will be consequences if people step over the line."

Yet, Yanukovych and his supporters completely ignored the president's warning. Having discerned from America's foreign policy follies in Syria, Lybia, and, increasingly, Iran, that this administration's bark is much stronger than its bite.

So, Ukrainian snipers continued shooting protesters. With no further utterances from the United States.

Here, irony rears its head again.

President Obama's supporters have long billed him as a peacemaker, the antidote to the warmonger that was George W. Bush. On taking office, President Obama would engage in shuttle diplomacy. Reengaging past friendships with nations around the world. Which sounded great. But, the reality has fallen short.

In fact, only today, a Russian war ship entered Cuban waters and docked in Havana (here). 90 miles from Florida. The U.S. state department received no courtesy call. Though such calls have been standard procedure in the past.

A warning to leave well enough alone? Or, just a sign of disrespect? Either way, it does not align with the foreign affairs expectations of the president's supporters.

The administrations apparent lack of foreign policy strategy has become apparent (here). We've lost touch with Russia, which had been a volatile though erstwhile friend under Bush (here). And even when the administration's diplomats have engaged, it was been with a timid reluctance that denies any chance of success (here).

President Bush's foray into Iraq was predicated on ill-gotten facts. The nation committed too many young lives and treasure to a misadventure that could have been avoided. Yet, that administration's steadfast strategic designs served notice to a region replete with ruthless dictators.

"Mess with the bull, or the bull's friends, and you get the horns."

Historian Niall Ferguson reports that the lack of American resolve has had another ironic outcome through the Greater Middle East. One that those in the administration, its supporters and detractors, could not have foreseen.

"In 2013, according to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, more than 75,000 people died as a result of armed conflict in this region or as a result of terrorism originating there, the highest number since the IISS Armed Conflict database began in 1998. Back then, the Greater Middle East accounted for 38% of conflict-related deaths in the world; last year it was 78%.

Mr. Obama's supporters like nothing better than to portray him as the peacemaker to George W. Bush's warmonger. But it is now almost certain that more people have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the last one."

The Bush administration bungled its way into Iraq. Many, including myself, did not agree with the idea. Yet, his administration had a foreign policy strategy that was effective in accomplishing greater goals. Promoting democracy. Containing tyranny. Keeping armed contestants from each other's throats. However misguided they sometimes were, those policies served to contain the ambitions of the region's tyrants. And provide U.S. foreign affairs with a strategic and tactical direction. A direction that, at this moment, the U.S. lacks entirely.

In fact, today's lack of will to lean forward on the international stage has served notice to malcontents everywhere: genocide and violent aggression against innocents and those seeking freedom may be tolerated by the west.

Consider the anecdotal evidence, as those in the Middle East might.

The U.S. stood passively as the Iranian electorate stood up to the nation's theocratic tyrants, watching silently as those seeking liberty were violently put down.

The U.S. handled the Arab Spring and Egyptian uprising with the aplomb of a pimply faced teenager on a first date. Clumsily. The administration first supported Mohammed Morsi and the Egyptian Brotherhood. Then the administration stood against them. Now, Egypt operates in a strange vacuum, unsure of where U.S. support begins and ends.

John Kerry, Obama's choice to replace Secretary Clinton, began his tenure in the State Department by shuttling to Palestine. As if getting the Israeli's and Palestinian's together might convince the Iranians to shelve their nuclear ambitions. Even the Israeli media scoffed at the completely lack of forethought and originality.

Contending with Syrian genocide, the administration received a foreign policy lesson from Putin, who had till then displayed the foreign policy wherewithal of a schoolyard charlatan.

Then, the U.S. cobbled together a "containment policy" on Iran that would prevent their nuclear energy efforts from slipping into weapons grade plutonium. Only, everyone in the world recognizes that oil-rich Iran is enriching uranium for one purpose only. Nuclear weapons. Even as Iran's political class manages the U.S. administration like a first-grader might a homemade sock puppet.

Sometimes, the best laid plans, or lack thereof, can go awry.

In seeking to reverse George Bush's aggressive approach to foreign affairs, the Obama administration has permitted the greater Middle East to regress back to a state of escalating sectarian violence that threatens to tear apart the entire region. Ironically, the U.S. went from being accused of leading too forcefully, to not leading at all.

And Russia? Well, Putin's Olympic efforts to reestablish his nation as a global power player has been set on its heels during what should have been his finest moment.

Yet, here's the difference. Putin still has a plan. One that he will recommit to in the weeks to come. Does the U.S. have a plan? As the Middle East sinks ever deeper in violence, the administration faces its sinking healthcare reality, and both parties begin their November reelection efforts in earnest, what might we really hope to accomplish?

Perhaps Dr. Henry Kissinger, American's penultimate foreign affairs strategist, most aptly summed up the nation's current course.

"If you don't know where you are going, every road will get you nowhere."

Can't help but feel that, from a foreign policy perspective, we are more than a little lost. I hope I'm wrong.

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