From my Oct. 20, 2009 essay, “When the cat’s away, the mice kill each other“:
The most dramatic response to Washington’s abdication of power may be Israel’s. The Jewish state’s window of opportunity to strike at what it claims is an Iranian nuclear weapons program will close before long, either because the Iranian program will grow past the point at which air strikes can stop it, or because Iran will acquire S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia sophisticated enough to prevent an Israeli attack.
A complex negotiation involving Russia and Israel is underway. Russia has the capacity to suspend or cancel its promised shipments of S-300 missiles to Iran, or to provide Israel with means to make the system ineffective. Russian nuclear scientists, meanwhile, reportedly are assisting Tehran’s weaponsprogram, and the Russian government has the capacity to neutralize this threat as well. The question is: what does Russia want from Israel in return for refraining from arming Iran?
The answer may lie in the world’s response to the virtual cancelation of the American F-22 program. Fewer than two hundred of the fifth-generation American stealth fighter are likely to be built, and the US will export none of them. America’s efforts are concentrated rather on the F-35, a cheaper, more versatile and less advanced aircraft. For the first time since World War II, America’s rule of the skies may be challenged by its failure to invest adequately in the next generation of American aircraft. Russia and India already have agreed on joint development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft based on existing Russian airframes. Russian quality control is notoriously poor and Russian avionics are backward. If Israel joined the consortium, the product might challenge the F-35 in the world market for military aviation.
Russia has only a few cards to play, but these cards are important: the proliferation of its anti-aircraft technology enhances its bargaining power. Were Israel to strike Iran during the next few weeks, it might do so not as a proxy for the US, but as part of a broader agreement with Russia. America may have missed the point of Russian policy. The entire issue of sanctions on Iran may seem like diplomatic idiocy to the Russians; the question, in Moscow’s judgment, may come down to a digital decision: either attack Iran, or don’t. Russia wants to benefit in either case, but it probably prefers to prevent an historic enemy on its southern border from acquiring nuclear weapons.
The United States may cast away its technological edge in air power without a second thought, but Russia understands that superpower status today depends more on military technology than any other factor. No one can control the failed states and soon-to-be-failed states of the region; one can only contain them. The fact that America can sail an aircraft carrier up to the coast of any country in the world without fear of attack and without significant opposition gives America a decisive edge in containment. That, I believe, is what Russia wants to diminish. Think of it as a chess move: sacrifice a few pieces, eg Iran, in order to get at the king. None of these terrible things would be happening if only Vladimir Putin were president of the United States, as I proposed last year. (See Putin for US president – more than ever Asia Times Online, August 13, 2008.)
The most important thing that has changed since 2009 is that American carriers no longer are invulnerable; China can sink them within 200 miles of its coast by saturating their defenses with shore-to-ship missiles. The other thing that has changed is that China has become a player in the Middle East. The present equation has too many unknowns: what is the discussion between Russia and China, between Saudi Arabia and Israel, between France and all the parties? With the US in a tailspin Middle East diplomacy looks like speed dating. We Americans will find out what is happening when someone else decides to tell us — maybe never. The contempt with which the United States is viewed in Asia is remarkable. No-one even asks about the political news from Washington. The world has moved on. Thanks to the Bush Administration’s Quixotic stupidity and the Obama Administration’s sabotage of American interests, we have become bystanders. If I read another “America-can’t-afford-to-abandon-the-Middle-East” hand-wringer from the folks who promoted the Bush Freedom Agenda, I’ll throw up.