In the early 1970s, America’s influence in the Middle East stood at its peak. Egypt, then the region’s chief political power, had just expelled Russia, leaving American predominance unquestioned. Nowhere else in the world was it similarly unrivalled.
This heady moment did not last. Three major events in the 1970s upset the equation. The major oil-producing states of the Middle East, led by Saudi Arabia, formed a powerful cartel, the Organization of Petroleum-Exporting Countries, which raised energy prices sharply, producing a decade of economic distress in the West. The pro-Western Shah of Iran was violently deposed, to be replaced by a theocratic autocracy that immediately—and humiliatingly—challenged American power by seizing the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding most of its staff hostage for two years. Finally, the United States responded to a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to prop up its pro-Communist despot by arming and training Islamic zealots against it.
The first two events were disasters for American hegemony in the region, and the latter cost an American President, Jimmy Carter, his job. The last, however, appeared to issue in great success. The Russians were bogged down by resistance forces in Afghanistan, and the resulting backlash at home, combined with the general sclerosis of the Soviet regime, had led by the end of the 1980s to the loss of its empire and, shortly after, the demise of Communism itself. The Cold Warriors of the Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations congratulated themselves on having prevailed at last after a nearly half-century struggle with America’s great superpower rival. An American academic, Francis Fukuyama, went so far as to proclaim “the end of history”—that is, the unqualified triumph of capitalist democracy as the world’s sole economic and political model, and what was to all practical purposes the permanent hegemony of the United States.
Iraq was at this point a close American ally under the rule of Saddam Hussein, whose rise to power it had blessed and facilitated in the 1970s, and who had done yeoman service for American interests by tying down Iran in an eight-year war in the 1980s. The U.S. lacked only one thing in the Middle East, a secure land base for its military. This was secured when Saddam was suckered into an invasion of the tiny but oil-rich and strategically vital sheikdom of Kuwait, which sat not only on the Persian Gulf but on the northern border of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis welcomed the American-led force that drove Saddam out of Kuwait in early 1991, paid many of the expenses of the war and acceded to America’s quid pro quo: an American base on its territory. A discarded Saddam was left in power as a prop against Iran, but under a sanctions regime that crippled the Iraqi economy.
America now had its base, and a measure of revenge on the Saudis, who had coughed back a little of their cartel profits in war costs and who were forced to submit to a foreign military presence, the ultimate symbol of colonialism. By this time, most of the wealth extracted by the Saudis and their clients had been recycled in the West in the form of purchase and investment, with the family of President George H. W. Bush, long connected to the oil business, a major player—dynasty to dynasty, as it were. The Bush clan and its principal retainer, Secretary of State James Baker, could congratulate themselves on a highly successful two-for-one: the long war that tied up the ambitions of revolutionary Iran, and the short one that had brought the Saudis, as it were, to heel. Egypt had become an American client through the 1978 Egyptian-Israeli peace accord brokered by Jimmy Carter that removed the threat of an Arab attack on Israel that was the last impediment to a Pax Americana in the Middle East (American support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur War had triggered the retaliatory formation of OPEC, although cartelization was an almost certain development at some point).
The world, not merely the Middle East, was now America’s oyster, with China still preoccupied by internal politics and an all-but-prostrate post-Soviet Russia helpless before the steady colonization of its former satellites in Eastern Europe by the European Union, backed by American military power. No state actor could even remotely compete with American interests, either regionally or on a world stage. The American Century proclaimed 50 years earlier by Time Magazine’s Henry Luce was getting its second and even stronger wind. In fact, why should its imperium be limited to a hundred years? Why not an American Millennium?
Indeed, it was true that no state could challenge the U.S. Lightly armed terrorists with no known address—the blowback from the Afghan mujahideen “we’d run against Russia,” in particular a rogue Saudi princeling named Osama Bin Laden—could, however, do what no state was able to. Bomb attacks drove us out of Saudi Arabia in 1996, disabled an American warship in 1998 and on 9/11 terrorists brought down Manhattan’s World Trade Center, the citadel and symbol of American capitalism, partly wrecked the Pentagon, and nearly demolished the White House itself. It was the first attack on the continental United States since the War of 1812, and its result was to turn Americans themselves querulous and fearful, willing to lash out at any perceived opponent.
From that point on, it would be all downhill. It is Rule One that no invader ever wins a war in Afghanistan, as would-be conquerors from the time of Alexander the Great could attest, and we have been losing the longest war in our history there since 2001. The 2003 invasion of Iraq that followed it was an attempt to secure a reliable gas pump and a fresh effort to establish American ground power. Saddam Hussein’s fall and execution in 2006 lay behind the popular challenge to dictators in Egypt, Syria and Libya in the Arab Spring insurrections of 2011, which in the first case led to revolution, in the second to civil devastation, and in the third to a failed state overrun by militias and jihadists who sowed chaos in neighboring states. A Shi’ite-ruled Iraq, meanwhile, predictably allied itself with its coreligionists in Iran, while its support of Syria’s embattled ruler, Bashar al-Assad, projected Iranian power and influence as far as the Mediterranean. American troops were unceremoniously shown the door in Iraq in 2011, while a rag-tag army, Daesh or Islamic State, made itself the master of wide swaths of northern Iraq and Syria, including Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul. American policy, which had flailed under George W. Bush, dithered under Barack Obama, leaving erstwhile allies and enemies alike to fight for purchase in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and elsewhere with little or no reference to American interests—to the extent they were coherently expressed at all. To cap it all, the U.S. found itself running aerial interference for Iranian forces in central Iraq in 2015, while at the same time pushing for a toothless nuclear arms pact in which Tehran “agreed” to respect its own prior commitments in return for what amounted to a subvention of its terrorist sponsorships in Syria and Lebanon. Much of this money would assuredly go to supporting the embattled Assad regime in Syria, to whose overthrow the U.S. was notionally committed. The debacle of American policy was complete. Perhaps no great empire in world history, undefeated in battle and undistracted at home, has ever had a worse decade and a half.
It is into this power vacuum that Russia has stepped in Syria and Iraq. Unlike the U.S., Russia knows exactly what it wants in the Middle East: support for its client, Assad, who leases it its only Mediterranean bases; partnership with Iran, with which it hopes to cultivate commercial and military ties; and tightened control over the former Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union. These goals are clear, forthright, and visible to all; they are also achievable. And Russian President Vladimir Putin has set out to achieve them.
Two years ago, Putin bailed the U.S. out when Barack Obama was forced to walk back from his threat to bomb Syria over its use of chemical weapons; this will doubtless be seen as the moment when Russia took the initiative in the Levant from America, and set the stage for its own intervention. As Putin spared Obama the full consequences of perhaps the most humiliating diplomatic defeat ever suffered by an American president, he now projects Russia as the only power able to rescue Europe from its current flood of Syrian refugees. Perhaps he can and perhaps he can’t; but, right now, he is the only player in town.
Putin didn’t steal our lunch. We handed it to him.