While Russia is making inroads, Washington is stuck in gunboat diplomacy era

The geopolitical map of the region is changing and Moscow's reaction has caught Washington by surprise.
Sunday 11/03/2018
A member of the Russian military police stands guard between the portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at the Wafideen checkpoint on the outskirts of Damascus, on March 1. (AFP)
Expanding footprint. A Russian military police stands guard between portraits of Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) at a checkpoint outside of Damascus, on March 1. (AFP)

The combined efforts of US Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and the lack of a comprehensive foreign policy have ceded the United States’ position of leadership in the Middle East to Russia. Indeed, both Obama and Trump are responsible for relegating the United States behind Moscow in terms of political clout in the Middle East.

Despite a continued military presence in several countries in the region, the United States is in a position of political weakness while Russian President Vladimir Putin is emerging as the new tsar of all of Russia’s regions of influence.

Washington maintains important bases for the US Air Force and Navy in many countries in the region, along with, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, some 55,000 military and civilian contractors. Diplomatically, however, Washington has been missing in action across the Arab world or at best left standing on the sidelines as US diplomats are often left without a proper sense of direction.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which have always been staunch US allies, are queuing up to visit the Kremlin and confer with Putin, the new centre of power and political influence in the region. Even Israel, which would not exist were it not for US military and financial support, has been playing up to Moscow with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visiting Putin. This is despite Trump recently declaring that the US Embassy in Israel would be moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The United States maintains an important air base in Qatar despite accusing the country of supporting terrorists. Bahrain serves as regional headquarters for the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Additionally, the United States has outposts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. While the United States has failed to understand the importance of Syria in the Arab world, Putin jumped on the occasion and has obtained what he wanted all along: access to year-round ports for the Russian Navy.

The geopolitical map of the region is changing and Moscow has reacted in a manner that has caught Washington by surprise. It used to be that Western powers would call on their militaries to back up their diplomatic and political initiatives. Thus derived the term: “gunboat diplomacy.”

In recent years, however, gunboat diplomacy seems not to have worked. Instead, what is needed is a reverse policy in which politicians and diplomats back up the military rather than the other way around.

This is what Moscow has been doing in the Middle East, having learnt the hard way in Afghanistan that gunboat diplomacy is passe. Moscow’s charm offensive began in earnest during the tenure of the previous US administration but picked up its pace with the changing of the guard in the White House. The chaotic atmosphere that enshrouds the Trump administration has not helped American diplomacy, either.

Add to the travails of the White House the shortcomings of the US State Department, where numerous important positions remain unfilled more than a year into Trump’s first — and hopefully only — term.

Putin is re-establishing close links with former Soviet clients by offering new business incentives. Moscow’s penetration in the Middle East should be ringing every alarm bell from the White House to the State Department and across the river at the Pentagon.

Part of the problem is that there is practically no one at the White House with enough knowledge of the Middle East to make any inroads and the alarms may well be ringing at the State Department, except that they are ringing in empty offices. Also empty — incredibly as it may seem — are the offices of the US ambassadors in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey and, of course, Iran.

The United States has been engaged in making its presence noted through military actions using drones and warplanes while Putin has proved to be an astute negotiator, establishing cordial relations with practically every country in the Middle East, including Israel, Turkey and Iran and, with the exception of Syria, the Russian military did not need to deploy.

Putin has succeeded where the Soviets failed and has raised Russian prestige to previously unattained levels. Regretfully, Washington still doesn’t seem to get it. Politically, Trump is lost in the fog of the 1970s and ‘80s, wanting to devote incredible sums of money to build up US forces when emphasis should be given to diplomacy.

President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” Trump is concentrating on building a bigger stick, ignoring the need for dialogue.

“We’re not acting like a state with global responsibilities and interests,” said Jessica Mathews, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “We are building tanks we will never need, aeroplanes that cannot operate in modern combat airspace.”

“No great nation has ever been built on military strength. The Soviet Union tried and left its people standing in line for soap and matches,” said Mathews.