Sunday, September 15, 2013

President Putin's Letter to the American People Regarding the Syrian Crisis

On September 11th, President Vladimir Putin of Russia published an opinion piece in The New York Times. My goal with this post is to provide first an outline of Putin's argument followed with a short analysis from a Clausewitzian strategic theory perspective.
Let's start out with my assumptions here. Given the political context I assume that President Putin is honestly attempting to communicate with not only the American people but also with our reigning political elite. Second, this is all about international relations which goes far beyond simply Syria and what happens to Assad, so in that sense he is correct when he says Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law". Essentially the stakes go far beyond Syria and this is clearly recognized by Russia. Finally, there is a lot of room for honest negotiation regarding the Syrian crisis and success here would "open the door to cooperation on other critical issues".
Vladimir Putin makes a very clear and compelling argument in this article. He starts in the first paragraph of the piece stating what his intention is as well as mentioning "insufficient communication". This is interesting from a strategic theory perspective, since as the great Russian Clausewitzian theorist Alexander Svechin notes that while tactics can be examined outside of communications, it is precisely communications which makes strategy possible. So Putin's intent is clearly stated as communicating to the American people regarding the Syrian crisis.
A short history of the UN follows, which as Putin points out was a product of US and Soviet Russian determination not to allow countries to simply go to war based on their own political choices, it "should happen only by consensus" which in turn has "underpinned the stability of international relations for decades". While this has withstood crises in the past, the current US move against Syria threatens to "throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance". Putin devotes an entire additional paragraph to expanding this argument, boldly stating that Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law" and "the law is the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not."
Along with Putin's UN/international law argument he weaves the current situation in Syria and the greater Middle East. The conclusion a reader draws from this description is that overt US military involvement not only faces strong international opposition, but is difficult to see as being in the US national interest or even strategically coherent in terms of the forces our military actions would support. The implication is that this aggressive Syrian policy operates counter to the strategic narrative of the Global War on Terror which has dominated US foreign policy for over a decade.
Putin is quick to follow up by questioning the US government's version of the August 21st attacks. This in line with what Russia had communicated to the UN and foreign governments not only prior to, but subsequent to those attacks. His view is simply that there exists a substantial amount of contradictory information to the US official version and that this information "cannot be ignored".
This specific crisis is then placed within the larger context of the US foreign policy emphasis on the use of force which has proved "ineffective and pointless". Not only that, this proclivity has had the opposite effect on nuclear proliferation, since "if you have the bomb, no one will touch you". So with this context in mind, Putin is inviting the US to "return to the past of civilized diplomatic and political settlement", a past which the US was fundamental in building and maintaining.
The Russian president concludes with the hope that the Syrian dialogue that has started will continue and that President Obama is someone with whom he can deal. The final related point which has drawn a good bit of attention addresses US notions of exceptionalism directly:
It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.
This of course is a repeat of the "law is the law" point, applicable to all recognized states, not the US on the one hand and everyone else on the other. Notions of exceptionalism can actually lead to disaster, as a former KGB officer would certainly know given the history of the former USSR. Foreign aggression itself stems often from a notion of exceptionalism, the exact phenomenon the UN was established to thwart.
So now we come to the strategic theory analysis. The obvious question is what would make this specifically a Clausewitzian strategic theory analysis? Here I consider some specific Clausewitzian concepts which are part of Clausewitz's general theory of war and what I have identified as his theory of politics. First, Clausewitz speaks about a balance of power that exists among states. An aggressor who upsets this balance will likely have to deal with resistance from other interested states that see this aggression as being against their interests. The tendency is for the status quo to be maintained, although there are situations where a political balance is so unstable that maintaining it could require force. Second Clausewitz assumes that the political relations of a given country including their levels of moral and material cohesion are going to influence how they conduct wars. Third, we have the distinction between objective politics (especially domestic political considerations) and subjective policy (which is the political purpose of the war in question). Thus "politics" can play an irrational role in strategy and war making. Fourth, the character of the political leadership has a fundamental influence on not only strategy but in how the war is fought/presented/seen. Fifth, and finally, Clausewitz is along with Max Weber, what we could describe as a "mentalist" in that it is ideas, social action and meaning that defines how we see the world. This is the basis of the Weberian concept of legitimacy which fits well with the general theory. I have been considering this for several days now and have decided on four interrelated points I wish to make.
First, this is an appeal from Russia to the US to start acting once again as a great power. What we see today in US Syrian policy is a policy of strategic incoherence, of a power acting not in it's own interests but in those of other powers which attempt to utilize US military force for their own ends. We have degenerated in terms of strategic effect to the point where the US acts as a "tool" of other powers. In the case of a US attack on Syria, the interested powers include Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel. It is thus not at all surprising that certain Arab countries have offered to pay the cost of US military action regarding an attack on Syria. Nor is it surprising that AIPAC is lobbying Congress hard to support war.
What has been totally lacking is any coherent argument as to what US interests are in Syria, let alone how military action or even overthrowing Assad's government is in US interests. Instead Americans have been bombarded with the worst sort of jingoism and chestthumping that saturated US airwaves in the run up to the invasion of Iraq. We should be profoundly embarrassed by this, especially given our experiences post 2003.
For the US to start operating once again as a great power would not only be in Russia's interest, but in providing balance to international relations in general, a plus all around.
Second, the US is operating with an incoherent strategic narrative regarding the Global War on Terror. That narrative is a threadbare collection of myth, half-truths, double-think and memory loss that is truly astonishing. Let's start with "Terror". Terror is a method of political conflict, it is not a target or something that can be effectively dealt with by means of force. Political groups use terror (violence used to communicate a message) as a method for a variety of reasons and most instances of terror have historically been conducted by states. So a war against "terror" makes about as much sense as a war against "submarines" or "Psyops". Now "Al Qaida" . . . given what we know about this entity, it should be obvious that it operates with state support, would not be able to effectively survive without state support. Ossama bin Laden was living for years in a compound in a Pakistani city which is also home to their military academy. He could not have survived without state support and would be probably still alive today had the US not raided his compound and killed him. The Al Qaida affiliates in Syria enjoy the support of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states and would not exist to any significant extent without the support of these states as well as Turkey. Al Qaida is thus a tool of foreign state interests to which we are now expected to offer military support, essentially acting as some have claimed as "Al Qaida's air force". Thus the narrative on which our foreign policy has been based is incoherent and pointing this out gets mostly hysterical responses from "true believers" who in many cases have made a career of selling this ludicrous war on terror. In many ways the US finds itself today in the horrible situation of a mentally ill person who after years of treatment must face the choice of accepting the reality of their mental condition, along with all the lost time, resources, opportunities and self-defeating behavior, or fall back into the psychosis and avoid having to deal with that reality.
Third, and related to the second, much of what passes for "debate" in the US today is more the nature of domestic information operations (IO). A policy move is made, a set of associated propaganda themes are decided upon and then ceaselessly projected in the media, which acts essentially as a "ministry of truth". Information which goes against the imposed narrative is dismissed or simply ignored. Anything ignored is labelled as "unsubstantiated" or from "unreliable sources" upon questioning, but any information supporting the propaganda themes is passed on without hesitation regardless of the accuracy or source. Watching US TV regarding Syria it has been difficult recently to get much of any argument against military action at all. This extensive us of IO has also perverted the way our intelligence services are expected to operate, becoming instead sources of propaganda to support political decisions which have already been made. The use of domestic IO regarding the Iraq war has been thoroughly documented.
Fourth and finally, these all fit together to indicate the international political situation of the US today. What is important to remember though is that this process has been going on for some time with the result that the US today has little or no credibility with foreign audiences. This reflects a more general trend in Western liberal states of decreasing credibility but is particularly acute in the US due to our bellicose foreign policy which is seen as self-defeating in terms of US interests. This political situation of not being master of our own house reflects accurately our current political relations where the US government is seen as a "milk cow" for various domestic and foreign interests. Our inability to formulate coherent strategy is due to the dysfunctions of our political relations. The same interests clamoring for war have little sense of the danger of escalation that direct US involvement in Syria could usher forth. Some would see this possible escalation involving Iran as desirable, but how could that even remotely be in US interests?
Thus President Putin's appeal is not only in Russia's interests but in the interests of the American people, as opposed to the current US political elite who seemingly find nothing amiss, as well as in the interest of the international community. A long and at times painful dialogue with Russia is an offer that the American people should respond to approvingly with the intention of cleaning the Augean stables of what has become of US political relations . . .


  1. Nice piece, Seydlitz. I think your analysis is spot on. It is unfortunate that too many Americans will ignore or deride what Putin had to say because he is Russian and former KGB.

  2. Putin's problem is Georgia. Russia's policies regarding Abchasia and South Ossetia including the fight for the latter are in violation of IL afaik.

  3. The Russians warned the west that the intervention in Kosovo would set a precedent for other places (notably the Caucasus). They duly took advantage of it when Georgia took a whack at Ossetia.

  4. While the politicians in various countries need to suck up to their electoral or financial backing constituencies, "The Community of Nations" is a whole different ball game. I think Putin has intimated that it wasn't just GWB and Co that demanded the right to be the unilateral aggressor, but now it is clear that it is "Washington". Same worn out plot of acting counter to the rest of the world's objectives, just a change in cast members.

    What has the US actually accomplished by it's economic and military primacy in the past 20 years? A world recession of historic proportions. Iraq. Egypt. And so on. He's offering an "alternative" painting Russia as the alternative major player with the world's best interests in first place. He addressed Washington's constituency ("The American People") as if they want to be part of the greater world community and do "what's right" and would wish to follow the World's lead, as exemplified by Holy Mother Russia.

    I think he is a slick bastard. May not be a call for "regime change" as such, but definitely "regime behavior change".

  5. Seydlitz -

    On the whole I agree with Aviator's slick bastard comment. Putin is indulging in the old and venerated habit of Maskirovka. Yes he tells some half-truths. That makes it all the easier to hide the lies. As I have said before I am against US military action against Assad. But that does not mean I have to gobble up Putin's disinformatzia and Assad's outright lies.

    First he says that Russia is ". . . not protecting the Syrian government . . .". And yet the Russian Foreign Service and Russian media are still proclaiming loudly that the rebels initiated the Sarin attacks and NOT their protégé Assad or his troops.

    Secondly he tries to claim that it was Soviet Russia and the US that formed the United Nations. That is some masterful malarkey on rewriting history! The only reason Stalin went along with it was that he got a free hand to expropriate the countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into the USSR as well as huge chunks of Romania and northern Japan. Plus it allowed the Russians to turn Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria into mini-clones of Moscow. Yes, the Soviets were there at the start of the UN but Putin ignores the part of Britain, China and others. And he ignores completely that it was a Roosevelt/Cordell Hull initiative that started the ball rolling.

    Third he tries to imply that there is no consensus in the UN or in the world for action (of any type). In my dictionary consensus means a simple majority. Yet Russia’ seat on the Security Council gives them veto power allowing no vote to take place thereby not allowing consensus of either for or against to take place.

    Churchill’s oft quoted regarding Ultra that ”truth deserves a bodyguard of lies” was turned around by Stalin and other practitioners of denial and deception. All good deceivers know that lies are so precious that they need to be protected by a bodyguard of half-truths to make them believable.

    On the plus side: I agree that your comment that “. . . dialogue with Russia is an offer that the American people should respond to . . ." is a good one. But why stop short with Russia? We should be having those dialogues with all, including Russia's enemies.

    Hopefully this entire situation will resolve itself with Assad complying and turning over all of his chemical weapons. But what about bio-weapons? My understanding is that those are not included in Putin's offer.

  6. I tend to agree with much of your analysis, seydlitz - tho I also tend to agree with mike's assessment that the Putin piece had as much to do with putting out the Russian spin on this situation as it did with "...honestly attempting to communicate with not only the American people but also with our reigning political elite,"

    I think that it's worth considering, though, that Putin (and your) characterization of the U.S. as a helpless puppet being manipulated by the crafty Saudis, Turks, and Israelis sells short the degree of misperception I think is going on inside the Beltway.

    Specifically, I think that a great deal of the U.S. political thinking that prompted the Syrian confrontation was a single-minded focus on U.S. military operations and the perceived need to free the U.S. from politico-military constraints on its military actions. I think that DoD has been aggressively pushing the notion that any potentially hostile state or non-state actor that shows the slightest interest in or willingness to use non-conventional weapons must be discouraged, and by that I mean through armed force (since our foreign policy has in many was been dumbed down to the hammer-nail level by the "War on Terror", as you point out...).

    So I would argue that, while I won't disagree that in the broader sense 1) launching air- and missile-strikes on the Assad troops doesn't really serve (and has at least a good possibility of harming) U.S. strategic interests in the Levant while 2) such strikes WOULD serve the interests of the parties you cite that I'm not sure that there is not a separate internal U.S. rationale for launching the strikes that is independent of external machinations.

    And, in a large sense, that makes this worse, not better. It confirms your assessment that this is an indicator of fairly massive internal systemic failure of the U.S.'s ability to accurately analyze and respond to geopolitical conditions around the world. In effect, we have our "GWOT/Military Supremacy" beer goggles on when we look at almost any situation. There appears to be no real faction in D.C. willing to challenge that worldview which would, in turn, imply more of these sorts of rushing-about-brandishing-weapons at every occurrence of any sort of global behavior that appears to possess a whiff of "terror" (from the "wrong" people...) or present a hint of constraint to U.S. military actions.

    A formula for a very expensive and exhausting "American Century", indeed...

  7. And I should clarify; I don't think that the active push for THIS intervention is coming from Defense.

    I think what happened is that DoD in general is concerned about opponents with the capability to slime U.S. forces. Bugs and gas play badly with Joe and Molly's mom and dad, and I'm sure that the briefers who get trucked up to the Hill and the White House have made this point repeatedly.

    BUT...I think that DoD also has a better view of the problem here, which is that Assad and his rebel enemies are locked in a game of thrones. This isn't a case of a Kim in his bunker threatening to gas Seoul; it's an orthodontist-turned-dictator who has nothing to lose and a precariously neo-failed-state that would be a complete booby prize for the foreign force that ended up trying to pacify it.

    But I think the damage had been done. The civilian politicians who buy into the national-greatness politics of Bachevich's "Washington Rules" see this as a "red line" (and you throw in the McCainites who just want to boot Assad and the PTP-crowd that want to "punish" careless sliming of civilians and you've got quite a brew) and Obama, havign shot his mouth off, was backed into a corner.

  8. Gentlemen-

    Thanks for your comments.

    Basically I don't see Putin's argument as moral . . . he's not preaching to us.

    He's simply providing the American people and their leaders with a short primer of how Great Powers operate . . . or in the case of the US, could operate. Nothing more than that . . . His use of history simply reads that the US and USSR worked together to create the UN . . . in terms of strategy he doesn't consider the political nature of either state at the time. His mention of the deity merely repeats the same Americans hear from their own president. Comparing the US and USSR of 1945 with the US and Russia today, Russia looks improved indeed . . . but how would ya'll rate the comparison for the US?

    A nice view of Putin's letter from Paul Pillar . . .

  9. FD Chief-

    ""GWOT/Military Supremacy" beer goggles on . . . "


  10. @seydlitz - "Comparing the US and USSR of 1945 with the US and Russia today, Russia looks improved indeed . . . "

    The Russian oligarchy of today looks like the America of the 1880's and 1890's. No check on vampire business practices. Graft and corruption prevalent in the government. Poverty. A breeding ground of crime. Many Russians were much better off under before Putin. The worst of the oligarchs raped Russia state assets after perestroika and are still at it. (Kind of like what Bush Junior and his compadres are trying to do with the US by their privatization mania.)

    Under oligarchs I include Putin himself. And yes, I know that he has put some of them out of business. But he did so by confiscating their assets to give to his friends. While pocketing a healthy amount for himself.

    The man spent 16 years in the KGB. Including five to six years in East Germany in the 1980s. He was a career man and knows the tradecraft.

  11. Have to agree on mike on this one, Seydlitz. Russia circa 2013 looks pretty awful to me. At least the USSR promised its people some sort of stability. The stability of poverty and repression, true, but now they have the poverty and repression AND the volatility of a Gilded Age...

    Not that the U.S. is a treat, either; we're driving headlong back to 1890 ourownselves. But we started out in '91 at a hell of a higher level economically and have held that advantage since.

    Now could make the case the the Russians have the advantage of not having a fractious internal politics to throw sand in their foreign policy machinery and I'd agree. Not sure if that makes them "better off", but it does tend to make their foreign policy and geopolitical decision making less volatile...

  12. seydlitz wrote: "He's simply providing the American people and their leaders with a short primer of how Great Powers operate . . . or in the case of the US, could operate. Nothing more than that . . "

    There can be no geopolitical objectives without domestic political objectives. Putin appears to be addressing "The American People" in a manner to influence domestic politics to result in a new geopolitical outlook. After all, the uniformed technocrats at DOD, who ideally should have no domestic political agenda, are not enamored with the idea of a strike on Syria.

    Don't really matter what Russia's domestic politics happen to be when addressing what international politics should be. Putin is not attempting to promote their political system. That ended with the fall of the USSR and the drive for "World Communism".

    There is only one basic strategic question. Is Putin's approach to the chem weapons right or wrong, or, perhaps more correctly, better or worse than a punitive strike. As far as his motives and revisionist history, what difference does than make? His delivery was intended to sway a constituency.

  13. mike-

    Russia today is a long way from Russia in 1945, or even 1995. Russia today as compared to 1945 is not Stalinist, with Stalinist institutions, terror, or an ideology that puts them on a collision course with most of the world. Putin took over a shambles in 2000 left in the wake of Boris Yeltsin. The oligarchs came to power under Yeltsin when he enjoyed full US support for his "economic reforms".

    I would remind you of the "Harvard Project" . . . notice that Larry Summers, aka "Larry the Turd" was involved . . .

    Russia was in clear strategic decline in 1999, the year Putin was appointed Prime Minister, but the country has turned around to the point where Russia is able to act quite independently and in the nature of a great power.

    Putin has been consist in his strategic views. He made essentially this same argument in Munich in 2007 . . .

    The US stands before a political abyss, similar and also very different from what Russia had to go through in the 1990s . . . we'll see how we look in 10-20 years time . . .

  14. Al-

    "There is only one basic strategic question. Is Putin's approach to the chem weapons right or wrong, or, perhaps more correctly, better or worse than a punitive strike. "

    Disagree. The basic strategic question has little to do with chemical weapons (which only provide the "moral" excuse for US intervention) and is rather in whose interest is it for the US to get directly involved in the Syrian civil war and overthrow Assad. It seems that BHO has used the Russian option to step away from war which is definitely in US interests imo. But then US "policy" or rather the inherent spasms due to our dysfunctional political relations, is all over the place so we'll see what happens in the next few weeks . . .

  15. seydlitz-

    I was not suggesting that chemical weapons were a strategic issue. Rather the nature and substance of involvement in Syria's internal conflict. Allowing the chemical weapons issue to drive actions that will most certainly have strategic consequences is dysfunctional. But then, US policy makers seem to relish being overcome by events.

  16. Just as a comparison . . . a MilPub thread from May 2011, in fact posted 14 May and last comment 17 May . . . FD Chief's post . . . great text and pix btw and the expected level of comments from most of the usual suspects . . .

    We've been doing this for some time gentlemen . . .

  17. Seydlitz - Here is one of your comments from that May 2011 post when you were asking for US military intervention in Libya:

    "What happens in the Gulf and Syria won't spill over (in terms of refugees) as in the case with Libya. Imagine the chaos should MQ regain control of the entire country, the masses of refugees attempting to get to Europe . . ."

    Guess what? Those Syrian refugees have bled over into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq. They are causing huge problems for the Middle East and will continue to do so for decades or more. And they are attempting to get to Europe now. 2.5 miilion as of last January and those were under-reported. How many now?

  18. mike-

    Actually I wasn't arguing for US intervention in Libya on that thread, although I did on others. My comments on this particular thread were mostly about US strategic confusion . . . a very consistent argument of mine and with always plenty of new examples to bring up . . .

    "My argument was and is that Obama is inconsistent, turns on a dime to make an important policy decision and then the next day starts backtracking on it, only to turn on a dime in the opposite direction a bit further down the road. All this influenced by domestic US politics, or rather the corrupt reality of current US political relations. We've seen this numerous times, the Libyan example being simply the latest.

    We should be supportive of democracy in the Arab world, that was the reason supposedly for Bush's war in Iraq, his so-called "freedom agenda", but then that never really was what the Washington Rules wanted. Our hopelessly confused Libyan policy simply reflects this fact imo.

    As to Al Qaida, it seems obvious to me that we have to rethink our assumptions on that one. My comment as to "resuscitation" saw AQ as providing a useful prop for US policy, linking AQ/Islamofabulism with the Arab Spring would be in the best interests of the Washington Rules and of course our (remaining) autocratic proxies in the ME. To this we must now add the reality - which is hard to dispute imo - that AQ/OBL was essentially a state-sponsored entity. OBL would have never lasted as long as he did nor would have felt as secure as he obviously did were that not the case. The open question at this point is which other states, besides Pakistan, were its sponsers . . . ?"

    As to the Syrian refugees "surging" towards Europe (the NYT headline), we're talking 3,300 during August with 4,600 for the year reaching Italy.

    But then in May 2011 who would have guessed that the Syrian revolt would have transformed into a full civil war with Saudi, Turkey, Israel and others supporting regime change (or simply chaos) hoping to use US military action as a tool for their own aims . . . Not to mention the attitudes of France and Britain . . . strategic decisions do have consequences as history shows . . . and if the Europeans end up with a refugee problem regarding Syria it will be to some extent one of their own making . . .

  19. Interesting interview with Emile Simpson who has written a great book from a Clauswitzian strategic theory perspective:

    -In Simpson’s view, one of the biggest mistakes the US has made has been to talk about a “global war on terror”, a phrase he describes as silly because it raises expectations that can never be met. “If you elevate this to a global concept, to the level of grand strategy, that is profoundly dangerous,” he says. “If you want stability in the world you have to have clear strategic boundaries that seek to compartmentalise conflicts, and not aggregate them. The reason is that if you don’t box in your conflicts with clear strategic boundaries, chronological, conceptual, geographical, legal, then you experience a proliferation of violence.”-

  20. @Seydlitz: "My argument was and is that Obama is inconsistent, turns on a dime to make an important policy decision and then the next day starts backtracking on it, only to turn on a dime in the opposite direction a bit further down the road."

    Or some might call that a successful triple bluff. Which is what he just carried of on Syria. In doing so he managed to outfox the Israelis, Saudis, Syrians, Iranians, and Russians. At least in phase one. Time will tell whether Assad and Putin will honor their agreement. And he managed to put one over on AQ elements in the FSA also, which is why Zawahiri got so steamed up.

    On your Simpson link. He is not peddling anything new. Many years ago most of the folks on MILPUB were saying the same thing about the Cheney/Bush GWOT.

  21. mike-

    "Or some might call that a successful triple bluff. Which is what he just carried of on Syria."

    Sorry, I don't buy that for a minute.

    As to Simpson not peddling anything new . . . depends on whether the dominate narrative is also the one that you follow . . . seems to be the case with many. Just finished Gian Gentile's book trashing COIN. Nothing new there either for many of us, but definitely a book that needed to be written . . . given the level of current US strategic confusion.

    Nice view from Pfaff btw . . .

  22. Well I see Obama has also opened up dialogue with the new Iranian president:

    The right wing, bomb-bomb-bomb folks here are going crazy over this and calling it antothetical to great power policy. They are also saying that by talking to Iran that Obama is a tool of foreign interests, but whose they don't say. Perhaps you agree with them?

  23. Seydlitz:

    Pfaff is not impartial. He is a member of the Hudson Institute, which is a right wing organization whose primary aim is to slam Obama or any other Dem regardless of truth. So he makes stuff up. You should not put any faith in his article.

  24. Seydlitz,

    Good essay, I agree with most of it

    Some comments:

    I do think you're too deferential to Putin's views in some areas. For example, Putin says Russia is "not protecting the Syrian government, but international law." I don't think that can be taken at face value. In this case “international law” neatly aligns with Russian interests. Putin is protecting those interests - can't blame him at all for that - but the idea he or Russian is primarily concerned about international law is, at best, questionable. Additionally, Putin's essay, particularly his defense of the UN and international law, can also be seen as an effort to deflect criticism of Russia for protecting Assad and Syria’s own violations of international law.

    Getting to your analysis about great powers, the subtext of the whole "great power" argument is that great powers have clients and spheres of influence. On that I would make three related points:

    1. Putin, I think, is arguing that Syria is part of Russia's sphere and that, as a great power, the US should recognize that fact. More than that, though, I think Russia is drawing a red line here when one considers this opinion piece in context. Russia is making a stand and isn't got to sit on the sidelines out of weakness as it did in Libya and over the past two decades.

    2. Russia also wants to get back into the "great power" club. It never completely left of course, but, politically at least, the US doesn't consider Russia to be a great power. Putin is trying to change that and I believe that sentiment is reflected in his opinion piece.

    3. Finally, I would frame the US domestic problem a bit differently from you in terms of the influence of domestic and international interests on US policy. While I acknowledge there are certainly a lot of players looking to steer the US in various directions, I think that is symptom of a deeper problem: A combination of American exceptionalism and the belief (not just by Americans) that the US is the sole super power. In other words, the US foreign policy elite is operating under the assumption that we are the only "great power" and, furthermore, that our status is well earned. Great powers do what they want and if there is only one….Our elites have become too accustomed to operating without significant strategic constraints and are outraged that Russia, especially, would block our efforts in the UN.
    In short the incoherence doesn't exist in a vacuum and can’t be completely explained by foreign and domestic factionalism. I think the incoherence is the result of a worldview that sees the US as the lone great power - a position that comes with responsibilities to protect the nice little countries and punish the bad little countries. As King of the Hill we don’t need to pay much attention to the concerns of othes. Putin is trying to remind us that they aren’t a little country anymore.

  25. mike-

    Iran is part of the larger Russian strategy, as Pfaff points out. If BHO takes advantage of the opportunities presented by Russia, all the better.

    I like Pfaff, have been following him for over 20 years. Have read most of his books and articles. He's got an Iowa connection and is Prussian on his mother's side, just like me. Korean war vet and former MI . . . He's an old school conservative, a Catholic, thinks in Weberian terms . . . compared to what he used to say about little Bush, Obama comes out not so abused . . . Pfaff was dropped from the IHT because his attacks on the neo-con insanity about ten years ago were considered too harsh . . .

    Btw, this post made 2nd place on zenpundit's recommended readings for this weekend . . . looks like I'm back blogging . . .

  26. Andy-

    Thanks for your comments as always.

    As you probably know I post different types of writing. Analysis is what I've attempted here rather than say a polemic which I have produced at times in the past. If I come across as too pro-Putin it's to present another view from what is the normal anti-Putin. In this way we have a wide range of views "bracketed" between the two, whereas if I had attacked Putin . . . Lots of concepts in strategic theory are handled in this way: limited war/war to overthrow the opponent, tendencies to extremes/limiting (social) factors, objective politics/subjective policy, etc . . . I also interpreted Putin's article strictly in terms of strategic thought regarding how great powers operate, not for instance in terms of Russian domestic politics, which could have been an alternative . . .

    So, what I'm saying is that the purpose of the post has been to encourage dialogue and get readers to think about this article and the larger international political context which spawned it in a different way.

    My "headless chicken" view of US strategic incompetence/political dysfunction is an ideal type which consists of a whole series of these extreme characteristics, but then is meant to act as a "yardstick" to measure one's own observations. Where are we more or less on the spectrum of strategy with "USA in 1945" on one end and the current "headless chicken" on the other?

    Let me think more about the points you've raised . . .

    First day of class today at work . . .

  27. Seydlitz -

    Obama's dialogue with Rouhani started in June long before the Syrian CW event and long before Putin's piece. And prior to June he was corresponding with Khamanei. That does make him sound like a tool of either Israel or Russia.

  28. mike-

    The dialogue you mention is "indirect" and could go nowhere. In the interview where this came up, BHO was quick to add:

    “I think what the Iranians understand is that the nuclear issue is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that the threat . . . against Israel that a nuclear Iran poses is much closer to our core interests,” Obama said. “My suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck [Syria] to think we won’t strike Iran.”

    Sorry mike, but I don't see any daylight between the US and Israel on this . . .

    Also Kerry was quick to fly to Israel to see Bennie and the Jets and assure them that there was no linkage between Syria and Iran . . . as if just a phone call wouldn't do . . .

  29. Seydlitz -

    Don't forget Putin. Any kind of ice-melt between Iran and the US is against Russia's interest also. He will be working his wannabee great-power status to wreck any deals.

  30. mike-

    Putin has every reason to hope that the US would let up on Iran, since of course Russia would get much of the credit for the turn around.

    Also the Iranians have been down this road with BHO before . . .

    Recall the Brazil/Turkey deal of 2010 . . .

    My assumption here is that the US has no real US policy regarding Iran, simply follows Saudi/Israel, essentially acting as their "tool" . . . or perhaps sees the Middle East as our (and Israel's) own playground following Pfaff . . .

  31. Seydlitz -

    I am not following your line of reasoning on why you think Putin would hope for US/Iran rapprochement. Putin and Russia may perhaps assert the claim that they deserve the credit. But Iran knows better. And so does the rest of the world ever since Obama’s letter to Rouhani and his previous letters to Ali Khamenei have been made public.

    Russia has a major interest in limiting the political influence of the US in that part of Asia. Two Russian oil giants, both Gazprom and LUKoil, are becoming more deeply engaged in oil and gas drilling in Iran. Gazprom (of which 50.01 percent is owned by the Russian government) is used by Putin as a political tool. Putin is also prominent in the wheeling and dealing of LUKoil, which does not have government ownership but was formed by a former Soviet deputy oil minister, Vagit Alekperov, who regularly consults with Putin.

    Russia also has huge contracts with Iran in agriculture and telecom. The Russians would like to keep this as their own little fiefdom and keep out the Americans.

    Yes, I recall the 2010 Brazil/Turkey proffer on Iran you mention. The one that was full of loopholes, and it was not the same as the one previously offered by Obama and the UN regardless of claims. Furthermore Brazil backed out of that proffer in 2011:

    Regarding your assumption that ’ . . . the US has no real US policy regarding Iran, simply follows Saudi/Israel, essentially acting as their "tool" . . . ‘: I believe that was true during the Cheney/Bush administration, but not now. I cannot think of any NeoCons in a position of power in the Obama administration. Yes, there are some right-to-protect folks like Samantha Powers as his UN Ambassador and Susan Rice as his National Security Adviser. But the R2P folks are a different breed than NeoCons. They would like to see both Israel and the House of Saud brought up before the world court for Human Rights violations. And you were calling for R2P action in Libya. Does that make you an AIPAC loving neocon? I don’t think so.

  32. Andy-

    As to "sphere of influences", I agree, but there's more to it than that. It goes along with your third point about "American exceptionalism" in that no country is allowed a sphere of influence without our say so. "What's mine is mine and what's yours is up to me".

    What Russia's saying is that the post-Cold War confusion that the US was able to exploit, but to no lasting positive effect, is over. It is best that the US work together as a great power with other great powers (defined as those able to project power abroad) for a more stable international system. That, and it's high time the US decided what exactly its interests in the Middle East are, instead of being led by the Saudis/Israelis . . .

    I think that is Putin's message. Of course as Al points out, international and domestic politics are always connected, but I would see this as more of a healthy tension (since how else would national/state interests come to be defined?). What has happened in the US is that domestic political interests are essentially those of the political investors who control the system and profit from US government spending. It is our own oligarchs who are the real threat to us, not those in Russia.

  33. mike-

    The Iranian economy is in bad shape due to economic sanctions pushed by the US. If there is a sudden change in US/Iranian relations - which I doubt will happen for the reasons I've mentioned - Russia would benefit. An improved Iranian economy would promote more trade and the ability to pay more readily for imports. Russia has extensive commercial relations with Iran which are not going to disappear should US/Iranian relations improve. As President Rouhani wrote in his WashPost article, "international politics is no longer a zero-sum game".

    Also you commented, "But the R2P folks are a different breed than NeoCons. They would like to see both Israel and the House of Saud brought up before the world court for Human Rights violations."

    I'm unaware of any of main R2P players calling for that. I see this as simply another characteristic of our political dysfunction. R2P is a speculative doctrine looking for a home . . . which allows it to be rolled out from time to time to morally brace arguments for military intervention which are actually due to other interests/considerations . . . yet another element of domestic IO.

  34. mike-

    Also the link you post regarding Brazil/Iran is not about Brazil "backing out of a pro-offer in 2011" since the deal was already dead. It concerned rather the new Brazilian president's desire to cool relations between Brazil and Iran which had no direct connection with the earlier deal which was no longer an issue . . .

    Contrary to your view, the Brazilians were miffed in 2010 by BHO's rejection of their plan since they felt they had been following his guidelines (as provided in one of those letters of his . . .):

    -- But, rejecting US criticism, both Brazilian and Turkish officials said they took Obama’s letter as a guide during the negotiations with Iran. Speaking to the New York Times, a senior Brazilian official said there was “some puzzlement” among Brazilian officials over why the US would reject the deal now because “the letter came from the highest authority and was very clear.”

    Brazilian officials also provided a full copy of the letter, sent by Obama to Lula on April 20, to the daily, arguing that it laid the groundwork for the agreement they reached in Tehran. --

    Imo, as in Syria, the US has no coherent US policy regarding Iran, rather we simply support Israel/Saudi Arabia . . . act as their "tool" . . .

    When it comes to concrete action, BHO's letters seemingly don't count for much . . .

  35. Seydlitz -

    I have read the letter and the article. It does not change my opinion. Perhaps it was used as a guide. But it must have been a 'loose' guide as the deal with Iran that came out of it left too many loopholes.

    I am no friend of Israel. I believe they hold too much influence in our Congress, in our media, and in our former administration (the Cheney/Bush one). But I do not believe your accusations that they are a puppetmaster behind Obama.

    I am not even convinced that the Israelis want regime change in Syria. I understand about their Hezbollah problem being re-armed via Syria from Iran. But why would they want to put Jihadis in power in Syria and replace Assad's government which has not made any aggressive moves towards them in 40 years, even though they have conducted some airstrikes in Syria. Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.

    The Israeli CofGS General Gantz even made the offer last year that Israel would take in Alawite refugees in case Assad's government cracked and pogroms started against Alawite communities.

    There are huge communities of people in Assad's Syria that have no direct beef with Israel, for example the Christians, the Druze, and the Kurds. Why would Israel throw them under the bus in order to champion a Muslim Brotherhood run Damascus?

  36. seydlitz, a very good capsule summary: "What's mine is mine and what's yours is up to me".

    What Russia's saying is that the post-Cold War confusion that the US was able to exploit, but to no lasting positive effect, is over

    It has always interested me that Americans generally have no notion of sovereignty for other nations. At least that's what it seems to boil down to.

    In the run up to Desert Storm, I was surprised at the number of CENTCOM and 3rd Army field grades I worked with who could not come to grip with the fact that the primary UN objective was to restore Kuwait's sovereignty, not to topple Iraq or diddle in Iraqi internal affairs.

    In Bluman vs FEC, the court denied Bluman (a Canadian citizen living and working in the US) the right to contribute to political campaigns, stating, "It is fundamental to the definition of our national political community that foreign citizens do not have a constitutional right to participate in, and thus may be excluded from, activities of democratic self-government." Remember all the uproar and effort spent trying to prove that there was Chinese money going into the Clinton/Gore campaign war chest? Yet, we regularly and routinely diddle in other states' self government, be it a democratic form or not.

    And, is it not fair game for the Koch brothers and their ilk to dump big bucks into attack ads to back state and local candidates in jurisdictions where they have neither residence nor eligibility to vote?

    Basically, our view of muscle, be it financial or military, is that if you have it, you have the unfettered right to use it.

    Mr Putin seems to be questioning this.