Watching American complaints roll out that Russia is bombing the wrong terrorists in Syria last week, I was reminded of the epic Cold War black comedy movie, Dr Strangelove, which takes a dark look at the lunacy of nuclear war.
Younger readers may not know the Peter Sellers classic but it is as relevant today, with US and Russian planes eyeball-to-eyeball in the skies over Syria. A particular line stands out, when a character in the film mutters: “Well, that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard come over a set of earphones.”
He might have been referring to President Barack Hussein Obama’s recent complaint that Russia, by launching air strikes on a country pummelled by US planes for the past year, was somehow making things worse. American officials have been feverishly accusing Moscow’s jets of bombing, not ISIS, but rival terrorist armies in the apocalyptic wasteland that is northern Syria. Seriously?
Yes, seriously. Obama’s own Secretary of State for Defence, Ashton Carter, stated in Congress recently that one cannot find enough good terrorists to train and fight against both Bashar al-Assad and ISIS. His complaint was that Russia had targeted a group, only some of whom were terrorists, the rest having been trained by the CIA.
The notion, even the inference, that there are good terrorists and bad terrorists is straight out of Dr Strangelove and it would be really funny if folks were not seriously saying it.
The world must hope that a new US president can rediscover diplomacy
But these comments and complaints hide a grimmer truth, which is that the Obama administration really has no policy when it comes to defeating ISIS. It bombs the group from 20,000 plus feet, but not the ISIS oil convoys that pay their bills. It seeks to arm rebels to fight both the regime of Assad and ISIS, then watches helplessly as some of those rebels say thanks for the guns and then join the jihadists plotting war on the US.
Contrast this with the cold Machiavellian pragmatism at the heart of Russia’s policy. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s experienced Foreign Minister, made the point that, when it comes to air strikes, “if it looks like a terrorist, acts like a terrorist, fights like a terrorist, then it probably is a terrorist”.
In weeks, Moscow has stolen a march on Washington, shipping in planes and troops to Damascus to wipe away a four-year campaign by the White House to unseat Assad. With Russia’s deployment, Assad is now here to stay. And so are the Russians, securing their important strategically-warm water port in the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, the US is stuck with a foreign policy that looks like a broken Rubik’s cube, battling the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, while turning a blind eye as it expands fast into Libya and its oil fields on the southern shores of the Mediterranean.
What is missing in all of this is the steely-eyed focus that Obama’s forebears brought to the table during the Cold War a generation ago. At least on the American side of the board, the Russians having no such problems.
Dr Strangelove drew attention to the madness of a system in which war was prevented by both sides having enough nukes to wipe out the planet. It was appropriately called MAD (mutually assured destruction) but that same doctrine did in fact prevent global war for nearly half a century. And the officials back then, knowing the horrific consequences of getting it wrong, played a sophisticated diplomatic game.
There was a Moscow-Washington hotline, serious people, from Harry Truman through John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan on the other end of it, to save the world from destruction. A senior experienced Pentagon official, who will remain nameless, told me he thought the US military could destroy ISIS, in all its locations, in under a week. So why don’t they?
It would be good to report that Republicans, on the other side of the aisle from Obama, have a sounder reading of the turmoil in MENA countries, but they don’t. Senator John McCain, supposedly one of its foreign policy specialists, is calling not just for arming the good terrorists but for having them shoot down Russian jets, a policy that risks igniting World War III.
Yes, Assad is a reprehensible figure but in the world of realpolitik he is not going to be defeated and if he is, then it will be by the infinitely more dangerous maniacs of ISIS.
The Mid-East chessboard is changing fast. The democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring are dead, save in tiny, noble, Tunisia.
Iran is coming out of the cold after decades of sanctions to alter the Gulf’s military balance.
Terror groups, not just ISIS, are spawning faster than mushrooms after a flood and the US, the world’s only hyper-power, is paralysed with indecision.
What it could be doing, what it should be doing, is working with the Russians. Not as friends, or even allies; that is unlikely after the goings-on in Crimea and eastern Ukraine but in the interests of stopping today’s small wars becoming tomorrow’s big wars.
In the Cold War, Nixon, reviled at home for Watergate, built detente with the Kremlin and Peking not because he liked them - he described communism as a scourge - but because it was the right thing to do.
The current crop of US leaders, on both sides of the aisle, may be incapable of that brand of ruthlessness, mixed with sophistication. The world must hope that a new US president can rediscover diplomacy.
And there is more west and east military intervention to come before the year is out. I predicted that Bernardino Leon’s plans for a Unity Government would collapse in Libya. MAD is getting closer.
Richard Galustian is a security analyst.