Putin and the Middle East
Russians in the Air over Iraq

As President Barack Obama and President Vladimir Putin traded veiled (and not-so-veiled) barbs during their speeches to the UN General Assembly yesterday, before retiring to a tense but supposedly “frank” and “productive” meeting to discuss the future of Syria, details were emerging as to what exactly Russia would be doing elsewhere in the Middle East: For one, they will be flying spy planes over Iraq. WSJ:

An Iraqi defense ministry spokesman said Monday that his country would be open to Russian intelligence gathering in Iraqi airspace […]

“If Russia needs to participate in aircraft reconnaissance flights, it can make a formal request to the Iraqi government and there will be no objection in my opinion,” said the spokesman, Brig. Gen. Tahseen Ibrahim.

Iraqi authorities surprised the United States this weekend by announcing that they had entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia, Iran, and Syria in a bid to fight Islamic State militants across the region. And now, comes this Iraqi statement that Russian surveillance flights would be OK.

Washington is now reconsidering what intelligence it can share with Baghdad, given that any information is likely to make it to Russia, and, more importantly, to Syria. However, given that the kind of intelligence being shared with Iraq currently is not that sensitive, Pentagon officials said that the fight will go on, and that the U.S. will continue bombing ISIS: “It does add a degree of complexity to our operations, but it doesn’t cause us to have to stop”, said a military spokesman.

But the bigger problem is that yet again, the U.S. appears to have been caught flatfooted, while Russia is taking the strategic initiative. Administration and military officials are professing complete puzzlement about Russia’s general intentions in the Middle East to the press—either because they genuinely don’t know what the Russians are doing or because the administration doesn’t how to respond. Writing in Foreign Policy today, David Rothkopf identifies the larger pattern at work here:

We have gone from the victory-at-any-cost mindset of World War II to the exit-at-any-cost mindset of the Obama years.

While self-described “realists” may hail the restraint and President Eeyore’s unrivaled mastery of focusing on the downside to any possible U.S. action, and while the president’s defenders will no doubt also revert to the always legitimate argument that the disastrous invasion of Iraq played a big role in getting us to where we are today, they neglect a critical fact. What’s done is done. We are where we are.[..]

When an American president is left with a lousy situation and no good options, then there is still the necessity of figuring out how to best advance U.S. interests going forward. (The specter of foreign fighters, the stream of refugees into Europe, and the strategic consequences of long-term control of the Middle East all underscore that we actually do have long-term interests and the “it’s not our problem argument” is just naive and shortsighted.) “It’s too hard” and “I don’t want to play” are not acceptable answers because what they produce is precisely what we have gotten: adversaries seizing the initiative and setting in motion a potential permanent redistribution of power and influence in a strategically important region of the world.

Whether this Administration wants to play or not, it has fifteen months left when it’s supposed to be in the game. Worrying, to say the least. Meanwhile, it’s well worth reading Rothkopf’s whole piece.

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