The Politics of Brinksmanship


I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, during the latter years of the Cold War, and I well remember the tensions of that era. We lived with the general understanding that our lives could change in a moment. The next test of the Emergency Broadcast System might very well turn out to be more than “just a test.” The next special news bulletin might bring word of incoming Soviet ICBMs. We accepted these realities, although, for the most part, we relegated them to the backburner of our thoughts and went about our lives, just as most Americans do today where the threat of terrorism is concerned. There were moments, however, when the true precariousness of the international situation rose to the forefront of our minds: the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and subsequent Olympic boycotts, the downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007, and, finally, the events surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union (which might have turned out far worse than it ultimately did).

For all of the dangers we passed through during those years, however, the current events in Syria have me waxing nostalgic for the old Cold War days. I am convinced that we are now living in the most dangerous time period of my life.

Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Washington has done pretty well as it has pleased in the Middle East, but no longer. With his dramatic intervention in the Syrian civil war, Vladimir Putin is displaying strong resolve to end Washington’s monopoly on meddling. Russia will no longer permit the United States and its allies to dictate policy and topple governments at their leisure.

This is a true turning point in global affairs. Indeed, by striking US-backed Syrian opposition groups in addition to ISIS, Putin has demonstrated that he is willing not only to block Washington’s plans but to forcefully oppose them. There are also signs that he is ready and willing to directly engage the United States and NATO in Syria, if necessary. NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Philip Breedlove recently observed that Putin has moved “some very sophisticated air defenses” and “very sophisticated air-to-air aircraft” into Russia’s newly-established Syrian airfields. “These very sophisticated air defense capabilities are not about ISIL,” he comments. “They’re about something else.”

General Breedlove is correct. The introduction of sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems and interceptor aircraft is a separate issue from Putin’s war on ISIS. These deterrents are intended for a different audience. They are designed to warn the hawks in Washington that they are not the only ones capable of drawing “red lines.” Putin is not actively trying to provoke the United States and NATO into a confrontation, but he has reached a point where he is willing to risk it. Nor is he alone. China and Iran are backing Putin’s play by committing their militaries to Russia’s efforts in Syria. To aggressively advance its Middle East agenda any further now, Washington must risk world war.

Putin’s Syrian gamble was risky but appears to be paying off for him. The world has gained a new appreciation for Russia’s combat capability; Obama has been made to look weak, even duplicitous, due to the ease with which Russia has destroyed targets the United States has supposedly been engaging for a year now; Putin is winning the admiration of many (even in the West, however grudgingly) for the damage he’s doing to the much-hated ISIS; and now Washington is thoroughly on the defensive. Russia will be a major player in the forthcoming peace talks being held to bring an end to the Syrian Civil War, now in its fifth year; and as of this past Friday, the White House announced that Obama is ordering fifty Special Forces personnel to Syria with the mission of advising “moderate” Syrian opposition forces in their conflict with ISIS. Obama’s latest move is a reversal in policy as well as something of an escalation, given that US ground troops have not previously been introduced in Syria’s civil war (at least in any meaningful way), but it strongly indicates a “holding pattern” policy rather than an aggressive posture.

According to the White House, US Special Forces will not take part in combat operations, and will not be aiding opposition groups in their combat with the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Thus, Washington is still demonstrating a commitment to Syrian forces bent on overthrowing Assad’s government, but in a way that is far removed from the advice of Senator John McCain, who has publicly advocated setting up a no-fly zone in order to protect US-backed Syrian opposition forces, and even arming them with anti-aircraft weaponry for the purpose of shooting down Russian jets. Various presidential candidates, including Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Carly Fiorina, have also expressed support for the idea of a no-fly zone to protect Syrian rebels, up to and including firing on any Russian aircraft that violate the zone.

So while Obama’s policy appears moderate in comparison to what others have suggested, the situation is dangerous on a level we have not seen in decades. Russia has been bombing “moderate” Syrian opposition forces as well as ISIS, and these are the very groups into which Obama is now sending his Special Forces advisers, thereby presenting us with the possibility that US military personnel could be injured or killed in future Russian airstrikes, especially since, as the New York Times reports, the US has not informed the Russians where these troops will be and is reserving the right to make them mobile “as the situation warrants.” One cannot help but wonder here if the White House is not betting that Russia will stop striking Syrian opposition groups altogether simply to avoid the possibility of an international incident, thereby ensuring that these forces will survive to continue to threaten Assad’s government.

With the exceptions of Rand Paul and, to a lesser extent, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, the candidates vying to become the next President of the United States all seem to be tripping over themselves for a chance to cross swords with Putin and assure the world that America is still the big dog on the block, all seeming to assume that Putin will “get the message” and back down, although his actions with regard to Georgia, Ukraine, and now Syria strongly suggest otherwise. Putin is a cautious player on the world stage, but it is clear that he will not allow Russia to be dictated to, and that he believes that Russia is entitled to a sphere of influence (and to defend that sphere of influence) just as much as the United States and NATO are. Further, Washington’s determination to contain China is forcing that country into closer ties with Russia. We’re now seeing the beginning of their cooperation in Syria, and must consider the possibility that conflict with either one of them could easily lead to conflict with both. As if this were not enough, other countries, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have threatened intervention in Syria should things not go their way. The Syrian opposition groups are a motley crew as well. Many are mercenaries with ties to al Qaeda (with whom we are supposedly at war) and of doubtful allegiances. What if one of them should bring down a Russian jet with a US-made, shoulder-launched, surface-to-air missile, as John McCain seems to think advisable?

With so many nations and unpredictable, independent mercenaries now mixing it up in Syria, the potential for a new world war has never been greater in my lifetime. Battlefield logistics are a complicated matter. Accidents can happen. One side or the other could easily blunder its way into war, particularly if one of the current wanna-be John Waynes out there currently riding the campaign trail should manage to wrangle the White House in 2016.

The American people need to see the threat of this situation for what it is and demand that their politicians dial back the rhetoric. A war between the US/NATO and Russia or Russia/China would be a disastrous conflict, with the potential for a death-toll unlike anything we have seen since the Second World War, and likely far worse. Nuclear weapons would almost certainly be involved at some point.

Mr. and Mrs. Voter: In our upcoming primary season, please remember that the candidate(s) you’re cheering on for their willingness to throw down with Russia and/or China will, in the event of a nuclear exchange, have bunkers to run to: comfortable bunkers stocked with years worth of food, water, and medicine, protected by special forces and the best technology your tax-dollars can buy, and you are not invited. Indeed, if you try to stockpile your own disaster supplies, you risk being labeled a terrorist. In the event of war, the government will look out for itself. You will, undoubtedly, be remembered in a number of flowery speeches after the storm passes, while what’s left of the country is trying to pull itself together again; but in the meantime, I have to ask: what in Syria (or Ukraine or the South China Sea, for that matter) is worth the deaths of potentially millions of people (including yourself and members of your own family) and the crippling of our civilization?

We are at a tipping point. Whether we correct our course or plunge headlong into an inferno largely depends on whether the American people are willing to ignore the insinuations of the warhawks and pull this country back from the politics of brinksmanship.


Robert Hawes is the author of One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution, as well as In Search of God: A Look at Life’s Most Essential Question. As a writer, he focuses on history, politics, science, philosophy, and faith. Originally from Northern Virginia, he now lives in South Carolina with his wife and three children. He is available for hire for freelance writing projects and may be contacted at [email protected]


Robert Hawes
Robert Hawes is the author of "One Nation Indivisible? A Study of Secession and the Constitution," as well as "In Search of God: A Look at Life's Most Essential Question." As a writer, he focuses on history, politics, science, philosophy, and faith. Originally from Northern Virginia, he now lives in South Carolina with his wife and three children. He is available for hire for freelance writing projects and may be contacted at [email protected]