The U.S. Must Step Up and Lead

When Russian President Vladimir Putin recently addressed the United Nations in New York City, he publicly condemned the policies of the "one center of dominance" in the post-Cold War world: America. He went on to speak directly to all of Russia's critics saying: "It is not about Russia's ambitions. … but about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world."

The only one who caught the foreshadowing in Putin's speech was Putin. After a frosty photo-op and handshake with President Obama, Putin boarded a plane back to Moscow. Two days later, American diplomats were notified that Russia would be dropping bombs in Syria within an hour. Russia had one message for America: "Get out of the way."

While Putin was in New York publicly scolding the United States in front of the U.N., the terrorist group Hezbollah, Iranian troops and Shiite fighters from Iraq were quietly preparing the ground game in Syria. Then came Russia, dropping bombs from the skies. Russia has come to the aid of Assad, indiscriminately bombing targets in Syria and taking the lives of anyone in the way, including Syrian rebels backed by the U.S. What is our reaction? No real action at all. The U.S. is still without a workable strategy, four years after the war in Syria began.

How did we get here? We should look no further than the White House's inaction and indecisiveness in Syria and the surrounding region. Russia has taken advantage of the power vacuum in the Middle East created by America choosing not to lead. The plan to train and equip so-called moderate rebels has been an abysmal failure. Five hundred million dollars later, all that remains are maybe four or five armed rebels after deaths and desertions, according to General John Allen, the president's chosen point man to counter ISIS. Putin sat back and watched the U.S. doing the two-step in the Middle East, drawing meaningless red lines and making concessions to our enemies like Iran. He waited; now he has made his move.

So here we are, caught flat-footed and bungling our response. Russia took advantage of the crisis and instability in Syria, entering the Middle East in a combat mission for the first time since the Cold War. It has instantly replaced the U.S. and become the dominant force in the Middle East. What's more, Russia's ground squad happens to be made up of America's enemies, Iran, Hezbollah and the militant Shiites in Iraq. So much for that Russian reset.

After the world convened for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia stunned everyone and invaded Crimea and then Eastern Ukraine. This was six years after it militarily seized one-third of the territory of Georgia, which it still controls. By now, Putin's actions should be no surprise to anyone. He is a tyrant who is hell-bent on restoring Mother Russia's dominance in the world. He is an imperialist whose sights go far beyond Russia and its backyard. He seeks world dominance, and he will not stop until he restores the old Russian Empire.

Putin is motivated by power. Any tyrant knows that one way to stay in power and suppress your people is to have a strong economy. Russia's economy is hurting, so Putin is desperate to find new ways to distract the population, boost his economy and maintain legitimacy. Building an alliance with the governments of Iran, Iraq and Syria allows Russia to have an unstoppable geopolitical and economic influence, controlling energy in the region. This monopoly will make Russia the dominant player in the Middle East and increase Putin's power in the world.

So what now? The administration's policy of "deconfliction" is clearly not going to work with the Russian Bear. Our strategy is still not clear. We need to reassert our global leadership so that our allies look to us, not Putin. The effectiveness of American air strikes has been minimal. U.S. planes are flying a quarter the number of sorties that we did in Libya, and two-thirds of them are returning home without dropping their munitions. The reason? Poor intelligence. Meanwhile, foreign fighters are able to travel freely across the Turkish border into Syria. Our NATO ally Turkey should not allow this. Our other allies in the region have shown willingness to combat extremist elements within their countries in the past, but they could do more now. They do not want to stand with Russia, but they will if we leave them no other option.

Finally, the American people need to understand why Syria matters. Syria is in turmoil, and hundreds of thousands of people have died at the hands of Assad. Millions of Syrians are running for their lives into Europe and the U.S. away from Assad and ISIS. ISIS — which has publicly called for attacks on our homeland — has taken advantage of the instability in Syria and expanded the territory under their control. Syria is to ISIS what Afghanistan was for the extremists who planned 9/11. If we don't do more, we may face serious consequences here at home.

During a 2012 presidential debate, President Obama mocked Governor Romney for calling Russia one of our biggest threats. "You said Russia ... the 1980s, they're now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War's been over for 20 years." President Obama miscalculated Russia's actions then and he is miscalculating them now. Either America steps up and leads or Russia will continue its march of aggression, and the world will be even more embroiled in turmoil. And that's just the way it is.

Originally published in the Washington Examiner.


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