The United States has been fighting a war in the Islamic world since
2001. Its main theaters of operation are in Afghanistan and Iraq, but
its politico-military focus spreads throughout the Islamic world, from
Mindanao to Morocco. The situation on August 7, 2008, was as follows:
- The war in Iraq
was moving toward an acceptable but not optimal solution. The
government in Baghdad was not pro-American, but neither was it an
Iranian puppet, and that was the best that could be hoped for. The
United States anticipated pulling out troops, but not in a disorderly
- The war in Afghanistan
was deteriorating for the United States and NATO forces. The Taliban
was increasingly effective, and large areas of the country were falling
to its control. Force in Afghanistan was insufficient, and any troops
withdrawn from Iraq would have to be deployed to Afghanistan to
stabilize the situation. Political conditions in neighboring Pakistan were deteriorating, and that deterioration inevitably affected Afghanistan.
- The United States had been locked in a confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program,
demanding that Tehran halt enrichment of uranium or face U.S. action.
The United States had assembled a group of six countries (the permanent
members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) that agreed with the
U.S. goal, was engaged in negotiations with Iran, and had agreed at
some point to impose sanctions on Iran if Tehran failed to comply. The
United States was also leaking stories about impending air attacks on Iran by Israel or the United States
if Tehran didn’t abandon its enrichment program. The United States had
the implicit agreement of the group of six not to sell arms to Tehran,
creating a real sense of isolation in Iran.
In short, the United States remained heavily committed to a region
stretching from Iraq to Pakistan, with main force committed to Iraq and
Afghanistan, and the possibility of commitments to Pakistan (and above all to Iran)
on the table. U.S. ground forces were stretched to the limit, and U.S.
airpower, naval and land-based forces had to stand by for the
possibility of an air campaign in Iran — regardless of whether the U.S.
planned an attack, since the credibility of a bluff depended on the
availability of force.
The situation in this region actually was improving, but the United
States had to remain committed there. It was therefore no accident that
the Russians invaded Georgia on Aug. 8
following a Georgian attack on South Ossetia. Forgetting the details of
who did what to whom, the United States had created a massive window of
opportunity for the Russians: For the foreseeable future, the United
States had no significant forces to spare to deploy elsewhere in the
world, nor the ability to sustain them in extended combat. Moreover,
the United States was relying on Russian cooperation both against Iran
and potentially in Afghanistan, where Moscow’s influence with some
factions remains substantial. The United States needed the Russians and
couldn’t block the Russians. Therefore, the Russians inevitably chose
this moment to strike.
On Sunday, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev in effect ran up the Jolly Roger.
Whatever the United States thought it was dealing with in Russia,
Medvedev made the Russian position very clear. He stated Russian
foreign policy in five succinct points, which we can think of as the
Medvedev Doctrine (and which we see fit to quote here):
•First, Russia recognizes the primacy of the fundamental principles
of international law, which define the relations between civilized
peoples. We will build our relations with other countries within the
framework of these principles and this concept of international law.
•Second, the world should be multipolar. A single-pole world is
unacceptable. Domination is something we cannot allow. We cannot accept
a world order in which one country makes all the decisions, even as
serious and influential a country as the United States of America. Such
a world is unstable and threatened by conflict.
•Third, Russia does not want confrontation with any other country.
Russia has no intention of isolating itself. We will develop friendly
relations with Europe, the United States, and other countries, as much
as is possible.
•Fourth, protecting the lives and dignity of our citizens, wherever
they may be, is an unquestionable priority for our country. Our foreign
policy decisions will be based on this need. We will also protect the
interests of our business community abroad. It should be clear to all
that we will respond to any aggressive acts committed against us.
•Finally, fifth, as is the case of other countries, there are
regions in which Russia has privileged interests. These regions are
home to countries with which we share special historical relations and
are bound together as friends and good neighbors. We will pay
particular attention to our work in these regions and build friendly
ties with these countries, our close neighbors.
Medvedev concluded, “These are the principles I will follow in
carrying out our foreign policy. As for the future, it depends not only
on us but also on our friends and partners in the international
community. They have a choice.”
The second point in this doctrine states that Russia does not accept
the primacy of the United States in the international system. According
to the third point, while Russia wants good relations with the United
States and Europe, this depends on their behavior toward Russia and not
just on Russia’s behavior. The fourth point states that Russia will
protect the interests of Russians wherever they are — even if they live
in the Baltic states or in Georgia, for example. This provides a
doctrinal basis for intervention in such countries if Russia finds it
The fifth point is the critical one: “As is the case of other
countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests.”
In other words, the Russians have special interests in the former
Soviet Union and in friendly relations with these states. Intrusions by
others into these regions that undermine pro-Russian regimes will be
regarded as a threat to Russia’s “special interests.”
Thus, the Georgian conflict was not an isolated event
— rather, Medvedev is saying that Russia is engaged in a general
redefinition of the regional and global system. Locally, it would not
be correct to say that Russia is trying to resurrect the Soviet Union
or the Russian empire. It would be correct to say that Russia is creating a new structure of relations
in the geography of its predecessors, with a new institutional
structure with Moscow at its center. Globally, the Russians want to use
this new regional power — and substantial Russian nuclear assets — to
be part of a global system in which the United States loses its primacy.
These are ambitious goals, to say the least. But the Russians
believe that the United States is off balance in the Islamic world and
that there is an opportunity here, if they move quickly, to create a
new reality before the United States is ready to respond. Europe
has neither the military weight nor the will to actively resist Russia.
Moreover, the Europeans are heavily dependent on Russian natural gas
supplies over the coming years, and Russia can survive without selling
it to them far better than the Europeans can survive without buying it.
The Europeans are not a substantial factor in the equation, nor are
they likely to become substantial.
This leaves the United States in an extremely difficult strategic
position. The United States opposed the Soviet Union after 1945 not
only for ideological reasons but also for geopolitical ones. If the
Soviet Union had broken out of its encirclement and dominated all of
Europe, the total economic power at its disposal, coupled with its
population, would have allowed the Soviets to construct a navy that
could challenge U.S. maritime hegemony and put the continental United
States in jeopardy. It was U.S. policy during World Wars I and II and
the Cold War to act militarily to prevent any power from dominating the
Eurasian landmass. For the United States, this was the most important
task throughout the 20th century.
The U.S.-jihadist war was waged in a strategic framework that
assumed that the question of hegemony over Eurasia was closed.
Germany’s defeat in World War II and the Soviet Union’s defeat in the
Cold War meant that there was no claimant to Eurasia, and the United
States was free to focus on what appeared to be the current priority —
the defeat of radical Islamism. It appeared that the main threat to
this strategy was the patience of the American public, not an attempt
to resurrect a major Eurasian power.
The United States now faces a massive strategic dilemma, and it has
limited military options against the Russians. It could choose a naval option, in which it would block the four Russian maritime outlets, the Sea of Japan and the Black,
Baltic and Barents seas. The United States has ample military force
with which to do this and could potentially do so without allied
cooperation, which it would lack. It is extremely unlikely that the
NATO council would unanimously support a blockade of Russia, which
would be an act of war.
But while a blockade like this would certainly hurt the Russians,
Russia is ultimately a land power. It is also capable of shipping and
importing through third parties, meaning it could potentially acquire
and ship key goods through European or Turkish ports (or Iranian ports,
for that matter). The blockade option is thus more attractive on first
glance than on deeper analysis.
More important, any overt U.S. action against Russia would result in
counteractions. During the Cold War, the Soviets attacked American
global interest not by sending Soviet troops, but by supporting regimes
and factions with weapons and economic aid. Vietnam was the classic
example: The Russians tied down 500,000 U.S. troops without placing
major Russian forces at risk. Throughout the world, the Soviets
implemented programs of subversion and aid to friendly regimes, forcing
the United States either to accept pro-Soviet regimes, as with Cuba, or
fight them at disproportionate cost.
In the present situation, the Russian response would strike at the
heart of American strategy in the Islamic world. In the long run, the
Russians have little interest in strengthening the Islamic world — but
for the moment, they have substantial interest in maintaining American
imbalance and sapping U.S. forces. The Russians have a long history of
supporting Middle Eastern regimes with weapons shipments, and it is no
accident that the first world leader they met with after invading
Georgia was Syrian President Bashar al Assad.
This was a clear signal that if the U.S. responded aggressively to
Russia’s actions in Georgia, Moscow would ship a range of weapons to
Syria — and far worse, to Iran. Indeed, Russia could conceivably send
weapons to factions in Iraq that do not support the current regime, as
well as to groups like Hezbollah. Moscow also could encourage the
Iranians to withdraw their support for the Iraqi government and plunge
Iraq back into conflict. Finally, Russia could ship weapons to the
Taliban and work to further destabilize Pakistan.
At the moment, the United States faces the strategic problem that
the Russians have options while the United States does not. Not only
does the U.S. commitment of ground forces in the Islamic world leave
the United States without strategic reserve, but the political
arrangements under which these troops operate make them highly
vulnerable to Russian manipulation — with few satisfactory U.S.
The U.S. government is trying to think through how it can maintain
its commitment in the Islamic world and resist the Russian reassertion
of hegemony in the former Soviet Union. If the United States could very
rapidly win its wars in the region, this would be possible. But the
Russians are in a position to prolong these wars, and even without such
agitation, the American ability to close off the conflicts is severely
limited. The United States could massively increase the size of its
army and make deployments into the Baltics, Ukraine and Central Asia to
thwart Russian plans, but it would take years to build up these forces
and the active cooperation of Europe to deploy them. Logistically,
European support would be essential — but the Europeans in general, and
the Germans in particular, have no appetite for this war. Expanding the
U.S. Army is necessary, but it does not affect the current strategic
This logistical issue might be manageable, but the real heart of
this problem is not merely the deployment of U.S. forces in the Islamic
world — it is the Russians’ ability to use weapons sales and covert
means to deteriorate conditions dramatically. With active Russian
hostility added to the current reality, the strategic situation in the
Islamic world could rapidly spin out of control.
The United States is therefore trapped by its commitment to the
Islamic world. It does not have sufficient forces to block Russian
hegemony in the former Soviet Union, and if it tries to block the
Russians with naval or air forces, it faces a dangerous riposte from
the Russians in the Islamic world. If it does nothing, it creates a
strategic threat that potentially towers over the threat in the Islamic
The United States now has to make a fundamental strategic decision.
If it remains committed to its current strategy, it cannot respond to
the Russians. If it does not respond to the Russians for five or 10
years, the world will look very much like it did from 1945 to 1992.
There will be another Cold War at the very least, with a peer power
much poorer than the United States but prepared to devote huge amounts
of money to national defense.
There are four broad U.S. options:
- Attempt to make a settlement with Iran
that would guarantee the neutral stability of Iraq and permit the rapid
withdrawal of U.S. forces there. Iran is the key here. The Iranians
might also mistrust a re-emergent Russia, and while Tehran might be
tempted to work with the Russians against the Americans, Iran might
consider an arrangement with the United States — particularly if the
United States refocuses its attentions elsewhere. On the upside, this
would free the U.S. from Iraq. On the downside, the Iranians might not
want —or honor — such a deal.
- Enter into negotiations with the Russians, granting them the sphere
of influence they want in the former Soviet Union in return for
guarantees not to project Russian power into Europe proper. The
Russians will be busy consolidating their position for years, giving
the U.S. time to re-energize NATO.
On the upside, this would free the United States to continue its war in
the Islamic world. On the downside, it would create a framework for the
re-emergence of a powerful Russian empire that would be as difficult to
contain as the Soviet Union.
- Refuse to engage the Russians and leave the problem to the Europeans.
On the upside, this would allow the United States to continue war in
the Islamic world and force the Europeans to act. On the downside, the
Europeans are too divided, dependent on Russia and dispirited to resist
the Russians. This strategy could speed up Russia’s re-emergence.
- Rapidly disengage from Iraq, leaving a residual force there and in Afghanistan. The upside is that this creates a reserve force
to reinforce the Baltics and Ukraine that might restrain Russia in the
former Soviet Union. The downside is that it would create chaos in the
Islamic world, threatening regimes that have sided with the United
States and potentially reviving effective intercontinental terrorism.
The trade-off is between a hegemonic threat from Eurasia and
instability and a terror threat from the Islamic world.
We are pointing to very stark strategic choices. Continuing the war
in the Islamic world has a much higher cost now than it did when it
began, and Russia potentially poses a far greater threat to the United
States than the Islamic world does. What might have been a rational
policy in 2001 or 2003 has now turned into a very dangerous enterprise,
because a hostile major power now has the option of making the U.S.
position in the Middle East enormously more difficult.
If a U.S. settlement with Iran
is impossible, and a diplomatic solution with the Russians that would
keep them from taking a hegemonic position in the former Soviet Union
cannot be reached, then the United States must consider rapidly
abandoning its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and redeploying its forces
to block Russian expansion. The threat posed by the Soviet Union during
the Cold War was far graver than the threat posed now by the fragmented
Islamic world. In the end, the nations there will cancel each other
out, and militant organizations will be something the United States
simply has to deal with. This is not an ideal solution by any means,
but the clock appears to have run out on the American war in the
We do not expect the United States to take this option. It is
difficult to abandon a conflict that has gone on this long when it is
not yet crystal clear that the Russians will actually be a threat
later. (It is far easier for an analyst to make such suggestions than
it is for a president to act on them.) Instead, the United States will
attempt to bridge the Russian situation with gestures and half measures.
Nevertheless, American national strategy is in crisis. The United
States has insufficient power to cope with two threats and must choose
between the two. Continuing the current strategy means choosing to deal
with the Islamic threat rather than the Russian one, and that is
reasonable only if the Islamic threat represents a greater danger to
American interests than the Russian threat does. It is difficult to see
how the chaos of the Islamic world will cohere to form a global threat.
But it is not difficult to imagine a Russia guided by the Medvedev
Doctrine rapidly becoming a global threat and a direct danger to
We expect no immediate change in American strategic deployments —
and we expect this to be regretted later. However, given U.S. Vice
President Dick Cheney’s trip to the Caucasus region, now would be the
time to see some movement in U.S. foreign policy. If Cheney isn’t going
to be talking to the Russians, he needs to be talking to the Iranians.
Otherwise, he will be writing checks in the region that the U.S. is in
no position to cash.
George Friedman is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article was
first published on the Stratfor website.