On Wednesday news broke that Vladimir Putin had launched Russian military action in Syria, bombing rebel groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. War-hungry neoconservatives in America immediately leaped into action to denounce President Obama’s lack of a Syrian policy and aim some tough talk at Moscow, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that they have all internalized this scene from “Animal House”: “He can’t bomb Syria! Only we can bomb Syria!”
Sen. Tom Cotton, a man who has apparently never ran across a foreign national he didn’t want to shoot, released a statement saying, “The U.S. must reject Russia’s interference [in the bombing of ISIS in Syria] and rally our partners to do the same.” Sen. John McCain immediately ran to the Senate floor to demand Obama do something, anything, so long as it involved leading with leadership. (This is known in political journalism as “The Full Fournier.”) Reacting to news that the Russian military had warned the United States to stop flying its planes over Syrian airspace, McCain sneered, “What we should be saying to Vladimir Putin is that you fly, but we fly anywhere we want to, when and how we want to, and you'd better stay out of the way. That's the message that should be sent to Vladimir Putin.”
Hm, maybe McCain has internalized another classic movie.
McCain did not have any suggestions for how to defuse the international incident that will occur if American and Russian fighter jets wander into each other’s flight paths in the middle of a shooting war. Which, of course, is the problem with the “bomb everyone” crowd. Their solutions, such as they are, would likely intensify the Syrian civil war, increasing the already overwhelming flow of refugees to Europe and spilling over Syria’s borders, drawing in the militaries of neighboring countries.
That Putin is intervening to prop up Assad should surprise absolutely no one. Syria has long been a client state of Russia, which has armed Assad’s military and intervened with the United Nations to keep it from trying to stop the 4-year-old civil war. Putin is an ardent nationalist, in love with the Russian self-image of itself as an important empire on the world stage. He would love nothing more than to reassert his nation’s hegemony across the globe.
But what might really be galling the neoconservatives here is how blatantly Putin is using their long-ago justifications for invading Iraq (an event that eventually led to the creation of ISIS and today’s Syrian crisis) as a fig leaf for his own imperial ambitions in the Middle East.
We all remember the rhetoric from 2002-03 to sell the war in Iraq. Sadaam Hussein was harboring jihadists within his borders, we had to fight them over there so we wouldn’t have to do it over here, you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists, and so on. As Hayes Brown notes, Putin has been using similar language in talking about Syria. Assad and his government are “bravely fighting face to face with terror.” Syria is “waging a fight against terrorist aggression.” On Monday in a speech to the United Nations, he said only Assad and the Kurds are “truly fighting the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations in Syria.”
That last statement is pure garbage from the United States' point of view, but it makes sense in the context of the war. If Putin agrees, or pretends to agree, with Assad’s self-image that he is the only legitimate ruler of Syria, then of course any group fighting to overthrow him is a terrorist group in his eyes. Russia is simply doing something similar to what America did in Iraq: Intervening in a country’s internal affairs to remove a terrorist threat.
Or so Putin can tell America. He’s a master troll, the Weird Twitter of international relations. He’s got the neoconservatives flailing impotently, demanding that Obama wave his magic wand to end the bloodshed in Syria. But given their track record, no one needs to bother listening.