Compared to the normal gravitas of formal international relations, there was something clownish about the way then- Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced a new approach to Russia in 2009, complete with a prop “reset” button and a bungled attempt to describe it in Russian.
But the results of the “reset” have not been a joke. Whatever President Obama and Mrs. Clinton meant by their policy change, Russian President Vladimir Putin has read it to mean that he can expand Russia’s sphere of influence without resistance from Washington.
First it was the seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine, followed by the ongoing, Russia-dependent separatist war in the Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Now it is Syria, where Russian troops and aircraft have reportedly entered the civil war on the side of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a development that changes the power balance in the Middle East and raises troubling questions for Israel and continued American influence in a region that is a major source of the world’s oil supply.
In doing so, Mr. Putin has taken a bold step. Not even Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev was willing to commit Soviet troops to Syria, a close ally, during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Since the early 1980s Syria has been a client state of Iran and a base for attacks on Israel by the Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist organizations. But before that, in the 1960s and 1970s it was a client state of the Soviet Union.
The Syrian army that tried and failed to invade Israel in 1973 was trained and equipped by the Soviet Union. So was the Egyptian army that crossed the Suez Canal into Israeli-controlled territory under the protection of a Soviet-supplied air defense system. Those events caused President Nixon to put U.S. military forces on the highest level of peacetime alert ever, an act that may have persuaded Soviet President Breshnev to reject advice to send Soviet troops to Syria.
An awareness of this history should cause the government of Israel to reconsider its complacency about the Assad government’s survival. And it will raise new concerns in Tel Aviv about the reliability of the United States as an ally which has done nothing more than protest the Russian move. Secretary of State John Kerry complains that it will lead to “greater loss of innocent lives.”
Last summer President Obama expressed hope that Russia was ready for “a serious conversation” about a settlement of the Syrian civil war that would remove President Assad from power. But President Putin recently declared that his plan for a settlement was supported by Mr. Assad. As The Washington Post has said, that “tells you all you need to know about it.”
By withdrawing from an active diplomacy of more than empty words, Mr. Obama has left the Middle East door open for not only Mr. Putin but also Iran to throw their weight around as they like. That has made the Middle East even more dangerous.