Continuing the Game of Risk Against Russia Isn’t Worth the Cost

This now-viral photo of Presidents Obama and Putin at the G20 is confidence-inspiring because of its implications for the crisis in the Middle East, among other reasons.

Most people underestimate the degree to which American foreign policy in the Arab world is predicated on Cold War geopolitics designed to thwart Russia. In both Iraq and Syria, the politics of U.S.-Russia relations have negatively shaped outcomes that contributed to the current state of affairs with ISIS.

First, let’s consider Iraq. Invading Iraq and displacing Saddam Hussein was never a good idea. But once done, it was apparent to many people that Iraq would probably not succeed as a unified state. The Shi’ites in the south would not get along well with the Sunnis in the middle, and would want retribution after decades under Saddam. The Sunnis would chafe under majority Shi’a rule and rebel violently. Meanwhile, the Kurds in the north would want as much autonomy as possible.

In theory, this should have led to a tri-partite division of the country. The geographic location of Iraq’s oil wealth would always be a chief obstacle to any such plan, but it turns out that religious and tribal tensions are far more problematic than any division of oil profits would have been.

But the biggest reason no tri-partite division of Iraq was even seriously considered is because the Kurds would finally begin to demand their own nation, which infuriates the Turks, who have long been engaged in oppressing the Kurds in their own eastern territory. America, for its part, has had a policy of placating Turkey in all respects–whether by playing coy with acknowledgment of the Armenian genocide by Turkey, or in our handling of the Kurds. We compromise what makes moral and practical sense in the region vis-a-vis the Kurds and Iraq because we use Turkey as a base from which to hem in Russian interests.

Meanwhile the U.S. and Russia are engaged in a proxy war in a much more obvious way in Syria. The Russians want to maintain an ally in Assad for both energy production and military reasons. The U.S. wants to see Assad gone because he’s a destabilizing force in the country, and no true peace can be achieved with him still in power. If the U.S. and Russia were in cooperation with one another, a pathway forward could be achieved in which Putin could be assured of continued pro-Russian influence in the area by coaxing Assad into exile and bringing a realistic peace process into fruition.

The American deep state is deeply invested in the realpolitik game of Risk against Russia. Mitt Romney famously declared Russia our greatest geopolitical foe only three years ago. This is frankly crazy.

Whatever problems Russia poses in terms of Ukraine, Crimea and negative regional influence is dwarfed entirely by the ongoing destabilization of the Middle East that failure to cooperate with Putin is engendering. ISIS owes its existence not only to the removal of Saddam, but also to the proxy war that fails to grant autonomy in Iraq to the Sunni middle and the Kurdish north, and that fails to allow for a political solution to the civil war in Syria.

A destabilized Middle East is a far greater threat to peace and prosperity than an empowered Russia. It’s time to put away the board games and cooperate on making the world a safer place.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.