Opinion

Russia's Syria gambit is yet another sign of American weakness

Without American leadership, our friends and foes will get creative — creating a world that's harder for us to understand, to predict, and to thrive in

Russian military equipment and personnel are flowing into Syria — signaling a fresh humiliation for America.

By funneling in forces, Vladimir Putin isn't just embarrassing us, or capitalizing on our mistakes. He's creating an opportunity for others around the world to spring unwelcome surprises of their own.

It all goes back to President Obama's biggest mistake: his 180 on Syria's civil war. Gone are the days when President Obama's insistence on Bashar al-Assad's departure seemed to have some teeth. Gone are the days when the Obama administration's invocation of red lines and its condemnation of chemical weapons seemed to promise a sure, swift punishment. Instead, in an uneven process that quickly gathered steam, America has turned to its adversaries and enemies for help in Syria.

It's bad enough that Moscow and Tehran can freely team up to wield unprecedented influence in and around Damascus. Or that our efforts at fielding a well-vetted force of moderate Syrians have yielded just a handful of troops.

Even if you take an optimistic view, and believe that Obama has actually embarked on a high-stakes game of rope-a-dope, brilliantly luring Putin into a replay of the Soviets' failed occupation of Afghanistan, you must admit that Obama hasn't done much to guard against other countries taking advantage of Russia's intervention. Because Russia is not merely expanding its influence at our expense, but disrupting the global chessboard in a way that keeps us in the dark and on the defensive.

The Chinese, looking for a nice moment to expand its control over the South China Sea, could benefit greatly from the distraction and the precedent of Russia's Syrian shakeup. The Turks, already deep into an anti-Kurd campaign masquerading as a fight against ISIS, now have a chance to press further amid the melee. Even the Israelis are exploring the possibilities unlocked by Putin's gambit, with Benjamin Netanyahu flying key military advisers into Moscow for a closed-door meeting.

Without American leadership, our friends and foes will get creative — creating a world that's harder for us to understand, to predict, and to thrive in. Just a few such actions would prove impossible for us to handle at once. The floodgates would quickly open.

The military's top brass has warned the president that Putin is our most dangerous adversary. That's not because he can stomp us harder than anyone else (even if we can't figure out how to defend NATO from a full-on Russian assault). It's because Russia can upset the delicate balance of U.S. power simply by flexing its weaker muscles. If we step into the background, Syria shows, even the indirect impact on our foreign policy made by a relatively feeble Russia is a potential nightmare.

Conceptually, it's time to get beyond the assumption that America's greatness is at risk. American greatness has now been diminished so much that the main threat is to America's leftover reputation for greatness. By creating a window of opportunity for a wave of revisionism against our interest, Russia's Syrian adventure puts that reputation in the crosshairs.

This isn't a knock on America, or even on the current administration. President Obama's policies have exacerbated the problem, but its roots have little to do with who's minding the store today. The diminishment of other great powers — allies and adversaries alike — gave us a world full of lots of tiny-to-small threats. And the rise of technology gave those threats asymmetric power. Putin figured out how to turn these changes to his advantage. Thanks to our current president, our next will have to do the same.

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