Remember Sirens from Greek Mythology? Those beautiful and dangerous femme fatales whose music and lure proved irresistible to the sailors of those days. Try as mightily as they could, the determined sailors of old simply could not resist the sound of haunting music of the Sirens. So as moths to flame, the sailors would turn their ships towards the shore and crash on the rocks surrounding the island. The wise Odysseus escaped by filling the ears of his crew with wax and by tying himself to the ship’s mast.
We don’t have to go back to Homer to read about Sirens. We see them today and we have seen them for the past couple of decades. The sirens of today are not daughters of a river god or a sea god. They are daughters of a desert god. They are the ancient tantalizing civilizations of the Middle East, those lands of yore with ancient cities called Baghdad and Damascus.
These new sirens have proved irresistible to the most powerful sailing captains of our age, the Presidents of USA. These sirens have appealed to confident right wing Presidents with songs of valor and manifest American destiny. Their appeal to liberal high-minded Presidents is even more powerful. That appeal is the old deadly charm of chivalry which is irresistible to good men as well as the noble irresistible charm of protecting people suffering from the cruelty of wanton warlords. And like the sirens of old, these new middle eastern sirens have tempted American Presidents to crash the ships of their presidencies on the deadly rocks of sectarian, ethnic strife in that desert ocean.
Candidate Barack Obama did not want to be like President Clinton, a pragmatic leader of short evolutionary steps. He wanted his Presidency to be as defining and as transformational as that of Ronald Reagan. The Reagan Presidency destroyed inflation, the biggest financial evil of that era, and launched a 30-year bull market in stocks and bonds. Reagan slew the biggest global monster of that era, Soviet Union, and established America as the unquestioned military superpower that it is today.
How could one leader do all that? The secret might be Reagan’s greatest strength, his simple and unerring balance. His rhetoric was inspirational but his intellect was firmly grounded. This enabled President Reagan to proverbially tie himself to the mast of his foreign policy ship and resist the haunting appeal of the middle east. And that appeal was much stronger than today’s.
The carnage in Syria is small compared to the human disaster that was the 1980-1988 war between Saddam Hussein’s Iraq annd Iran. Hussein used chemical weapons and extreme brutality in that war. Reportedly a million Iranians died in that war which essentially ended without a victory for either side. There were so many human and geopolitical reasons to get involved in this conflict.
The reasons to not get involved were simple. America was not threatened in any way by the Iran-Iraq war. America had no national interest in that war. Both Iran and Iraq were nasty regimes that were inimical to America at a very basic level. America’s interests were best served by letting those two nasty brutal regimes fight each other to exhaustion. Look back and you will see that the Iran-Iraq war virtually stilled all other conflicts in the middle east as every nation watched that war in horror.
His simple and brilliant decision to not get involved in the Iran-Iraq war gave President Reagan the room, the space for his major foreign policy achievements. Had he involved America in that war, possibly the Soviet Union would have become involved as well and that might have ended his relationship with Gorbachev. Iran is a neighbor of Afghanistan. So Soviet involvement in the Iran-Iraq war might have drawn Iran into Afghanistan, Iran’s medieval vassal, on the side of the USSR and perhaps prolonged Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
Today’s civil war in Syria is quite similar to that Iran-Iraq war. It has the same religious sectarian Sunni-Alawite fervor. It is even more of an existential conflict than that Iran-Iraq war. The religious regime in Tehran-Qom knew that losing the war with Iraq would end their regime. That is why the Ayatollahs of 1980s proved willing to sacrifice a million soldiers including teenage draftees against the chemical weapons of Saddam Hussein. Assad of today’s Syria knows that losing this civil war against the Sunni majority would end not just his family but his entire Alawite clan.
President Obama might not be as resolute or have the simple brilliance of President Reagan. But he has one great quality. He is lucky. And we mean this as a compliment to that rare quality that distinguishes successful men from others. President Obama has found his own Gorbachev (anti-Gorbachev really), a leader who can work with President Obama to rescue both America & Russia from crashing on the rocks of Syria.
Vladimir Putin is no Gorbachev. Frankly, he is much much better. Gorbachev was a dreamy man who destroyed the Soviet Union. Putin is a coldly rational man who wants to restore glory to Russia. And we live in a world in which Russia is neither a friend nor an enemy but an alli-versary. Russia is an adversary of America in Europe, especially in the Baltic and Caucasus.
But Russia can also be an ally of sorts because she shares many common interests with America, great interests of global significance. The most immediate common interest is the Iran-Afghanistan sphere. A nuclear Iran is far more threatening to Russia than it is to America. And Russia is equally worried about Taliban extremists coming back to power in Afghanistan. And America and Russia have a common interest in destroying Al Qaeda.
America can help Russia & Japan work out a compromise and help them achieve a win-win deal on energy. Such a deal will give Russia a new rich customer and help Japan reduce its crippling dependence on Middle east oil. A Japanese-Russian deal will also act as a check again China’s expansion in Asia.
President Reagan was both brilliant and lucky. His grounded smarts enabled him to stay out of the Iran-Iraq war and his vision enabled him to build a relationship with Gorbachev, with a regime he himself had termed an “evil empire”.
President Obama has not been brilliant but he has been lucky. As we write this article, America and Russia have reached a deal on Syria. If this deal works, then President Obama will have escaped the deadly charms of the Syrian siren. That is a great relief indeed.
There is still time for President Obama to emulate President Reagan. And it is quite simple. Avoid the Middle East. Work with Putin on Afghanistan and Iran. Focus on Asia as the main pivot of the Obama Administration. That could be his visionary legacy.
Lady luck is not a siren. She is a lovely fairy who visits a few. President Reagan embraced her when she visited him. President Obama should do the same.
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