General Mattis has just paid Putin a completely egregious compliment, not to mention one Putin surely relished hearing: he, after the long generation of Russian global decline, is once again Our Greatest Fear. This, more than anything, was surely Putin’s goal in taking control in Syria. Putin likes to be noticed.
Exactly why General Mattis thinks Russia is the West’s greatest threat is hard to say. Is it perhaps because Putin sometimes seems as irresponsible about the use of nukes as, say, Netanyahu…or President-Elect Trump? That would be a persuasive reason but does not seem to be what the general had in mind. Is he just, still, having trouble leaving the Cold War behind?
After a disastrous generation of war against Sunni jihadis and in light of 1) the continuing Saudi war in Yemen, 2) the tenacious grip of ISIS, and 3) the resurgence of both the Afghan and the Pakistani Taliban, Mattis might well have cited the continued Riyadh-Islamabad team effort to promote global Salafi jihad as the main immediate foreign policy threat facing the West. The current destabilizing cycle of Islamabad promoting jihadis in Afghanistan, which in turn is prompting Kabul to respond in kind, creating a reinforcing feedback loop of state stimulation of private Salafi extremism, all encouraged by an endless flow of Saudi funds, is no less dangerous simply because neither Washington officials nor mainstream media care to discuss it in public.
Given the terrorist whirlwind being promoted by various capitals seeking to manipulate private extremism for short-term regime benefit, General Mattis might care to concern himself a little more with the Islamic Bomb in crumbling Pakistan rather than Russian nukes. A professional combination of careful decision-making plus a willingness, already evidently in Trump’s mind, to work together should keep Washington and Moscow from coming to blows. How to deal with the complexities of virtually ungovernable Central Asia is a problem of a sort far more difficult for Americans to comprehend, as history has already demonstrated.