“The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back,” President Obama said in 2011, mocking Mitt Romney’s hawkish stance on Russia. “The Cold War has been over for 20 years.”
“If a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,” Obama said of ISIS in early 2012, downplaying the threat posed by the organization.
Both of these comments were made during the president’s first term. And thanks to the surprising military success of both Putin (Crimea, Ukraine) and the Islamic State (Iraq, Syria, Libya), both of these comments have already come back to haunt Obama in his second. But for the first time, the unintended consequences of these comments and the strategies they represent are combining, as Vladimir Putin uses the “JV team” as a pretext to employ an 1980s-style foreign policy of his own.
Just days after Putin embarrassed the U.S. at the U.N. by announcing he’d orchestrated an intelligence agreement with both Iraq and Iran, Russian jets began a bombing campaign in Syria. Although Putin claims his air force is targeting ISIS, Reuters is reporting that rebels backed by the CIA were also hit, and much of the bombing is taking place in areas held by factions opposed to both the Syrian government and the Islamic State.
“Russia is challenging everyone and saying there is no alternative to [Syrian Dictator Bashar al-Assad],” said Hassan Haj Ali, a leader in the Western-backed Free Syrian Army.
To make maters worse, hundreds of Iranian troops have reportedly crossed into Syria, and backed by Russian air support, are said to be mounting a major ground offensive against Assad’s enemies. This is sure to further inflame regional tensions with Qatar and Saudi Arabia, who are already fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen.
At the end of the day, it would be foolish to blame the current situation in the Mideast solely on President Obama. After all, he was a lowly state senator when President Bush (with the support of high-ranking Democrats like Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) invaded Iraq. And to be fair, his options for dealing with the civil war in Syria were always bad. But by completely underestimating both Putin and the Islamic State, his options are now worse.