Good foreign policy rests on the foundation of common sense: don’t dig holes to climb into, play to your strength. Directly challenging Moscow’s strength in Syria is simply immature…dangerous posturing that will undermine U.S. credibility. A better way lies through beating ISIS and reevaluating U.S. policy in Yemen.
When a smart quarterback rolls out with the ball, looks down the field, and sees the whole opposing defense clustered on the right, he throws to the left. During the long years of U.S. occupation of Iraq, Russia kept its military quietly at home. Today, Russia has most of Syria locked down with its missile defense system.
Washington should play to its strength. By moving where success is likely, Washington can restore its credibility because adversaries will see the logic of giving way.
The U.S. has two areas of strength in the Mideast. The first is the fight against ISIS, which the U.S. is trying to pursue, albeit haltingly since it keeps allowing its eye to stray from the ball over into the Syrian action where the Russian team is focused. The key for the U.S. is its second area of strength: Yemen.
Yemen is hardly the place for a great American victory; America’s military client Saudi Arabia has destroyed any hopes of that by smashing everything and empowering al Qua’ida. Anyway, strategically, Yemen is a backwater: too small for a “great” victory.
Yet, Yemen is an area of American strength in terms of affording the U.S. an opportunity to make its mark on the whole Mideast at low cost by implementing a change of policy. The U.S. may not have the option of solving the Yemeni crisis, but the U.S. has complete freedom of action to change its own behavior and grab the attention of the world…simply by cutting off its supply of offensive weapons that Riyadh is using with such finesse against wedding parties and funeral attendees. And there is nothing Moscow can do to prevent Washington from thus seizing the initiative and leaving bomb-happy Moscow looking to all the world like the bad guy of the Mideast.
These things matter. The Mideast is the ultimate region of self-starters, with all regimes facing crises of legitimacy, borders collapsing, populations voting with their feet, and private militias popping up everywhere. With every individual empowered and politicized, image matters: in a period of mass popular flux, image is a strategic resource of vast significance in the power game, a significance in recent years very much overlooked on the Potomac.
Taking Mosul while protecting the Kurds is Step One, but the road to Damascus goes through Sana’a.