Childish posturing? Muslim civil war? Or do the two authoritarians have a plan?
Albeit a bit less super than they were and surely less super than they think they are, the two old superpowers are once again intensifying their competition in the Mideast. Having made its big move into Syria to fill the vacuum left by Washington’s long-standing confusion, Moscow is now wisely consolidating its new Shi’i stronghold. Its point has been made: Mideast problems can no longer be resolved without Moscow’s participation. Washington, having forgotten its excesses earlier in this century, is grasping at loose sand trying to erect its own Sunni castle. The effectiveness of Washington’s move was instantaneous, shattering the superficial unity of the Sunni Arab Peninsula states/fiefdoms/oil baronies. If Moscow’s new-boys-on-the-block Shi’i allies were not content with their enhanced strategic position, they certainly must be now. Castles in the sand or not, the Shi’i castles look wet and well-packed relative to the massive but dried out, blowing-away-in-the-wind strongholds of the old money Sunnis.
In this interesting context, Washington’s chief has curiously decided that the timing is perfect to meet Moscow’s chief. Like everything else about the new guy on the Potomac, one can only wonder at this decision. Does he intend to cut a deal, on his heels, with the man with the Cheshire Cat grin? Putin has a couple reasons for his grin, from U.S. post-election infighting to last year’s smooth little display of gunboat diplomacy. It is hard to imagine how he might be cowed by Trump’s famous snarl.
Perhaps, however, these two gentlemen are more sophisticated than appearances would suggest. Perhaps they have something in mind that would enhance the reputation of each. Are they dreaming of a new Treaty of Tordesillas?
Update Jul 8, 2017: If we believe a piece in the Guardian based on body language, it was all about one-upmanship, and, in the end, the great meeting boiled down to a hand wrestling match won “hands down” by Putin. The two great authoritarians strode together across the world stage looking…very small.