(CNN) Over the last week, the world has once again looked on aghast as President Vladimir Putin has taken violent advantage of regional instability to re-establish Russia’s influence, this time in the Middle East. Despite promises to join the United States in a counterterrorism effort against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, Putin is on a mission to protect Russian assets in the Mediterranean by propping up his client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration has been caught flat-footed as Putin’s actions threaten to inflame and destabilize an already acute crisis.
Enough already. We don’t need a reset. We need a reality check.
Putin has been unmoved by the Obama administration’s threats of isolation on the international stage, andeconomic sanctions have on their own been no deterrent to his opportunistic behavior. More of the same will not result in success.
We need a coherent plan to address both the specific crisis in Syria and the challenge posed more broadly by Putin’s resurgent Russia. The good news is that America still has options — if our leaders can summon the will to exercise them.
For starters, in Syria we can’t double down on the failed strategies that have given Putin his opportunity to intervene. We are now two years out from President Obama’s proposed intervention after al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.
Some of my Senate colleagues vocally supported the administration’s plan to strike al-Assad. Others opposed, on principle, intervention of any sort in Syria. While I understood how important it was for Obama to enforce his own “red line,” I was skeptical of the proposal on the grounds that I did not think a “pinprick” strike that was “unbelievably small” and designed to “enforce international norms” would effectively further America’s national security interests.
As it turned out, the President rescinded his request to Congress to authorize military force against Assad. He instead opted to partner with Putin in an effort to remove chemical weapons from Syria, an arrangement that gave the Russian strongman his first toehold in the region.
We are now more than a year — and more than $4 billion — into Obama’s military effort against ISIS, which has been a failure. Despite the exemplary bravery and professionalism of our men and women in uniform, they are being deployed to execute a strategy so opaque and confused, under rules of engagement so restrictive, that there can be no hope for victory.
The $500 million training and equipping of the Syrian “moderate” opposition that Obama and his supporters have insisted would provide a viable alternative to al-Assad has utterly collapsed, with apitifully small handful of fighters either defecting, dead or swept aside by Putin’s airstrikes.
Meanwhile, the government of Iraq remains paralyzed by sectarian conflict and increasingly under the sway of Tehran, and as such unable to muster an effective offensive against ISIS, despite a steady stream of American support in the form of regular supplies of arms and thousands of ground troops.
If we want to actually dismantle ISIS, we need to dramatically change course. We need a real, robust campaign that maximizes our overwhelming air advantage. We need to focus our efforts not on trying to create friends, but on supporting our real ones, especially the Kurds in Iraq and Syria who have actually had success against ISIS. And rather than pouring more resources into a dysfunctional Baghdad, we should extend consistent, robust assistance to our regional allies — Israel, Egypt and Jordan — who are on the front lines of this fight.
These actions would demonstrate real American resolve to dismantle ISIS without entangling us in some sort of devil’s bargain with al-Assad or the Iranians. And they would demonstrate to Putin that we will not allow him to move unimpeded into the region to advance an agenda that is contrary to our own.
There is also the larger issue of how we will confront a Russia that has been emboldened by six and a half years of American weakness. But we know perfectly well how to reverse this situation. Putin himself has told us what he fears the most. According to his September 2013 op-ed in The New York Times, it is American exceptionalism.
It is dangerous to dictators like Putin when Americans remember their exceptionalism. The unique combination of power and principle that has made the United States the greatest force for good on the planet has historically posed a grave threat to repressive bullies.
We have a successful model in front of us of how to deal with Russia without creating a diplomatic crisis. We can emulate the decisive actions that empowered Ronald Reagan to win the Cold War without firing a shot.
We can highlight human rights, and aggressively expand and enforce the Magnitsky Act, which targets Russian officials accused of human rights abuses. We can redouble our efforts to develop the defensive weapons that neutralized the offensive Soviet threat — particularly missile defense, which has seen a 25% budget reduction under Obama, according to an analysis from the conservative Heritage Foundation, and has been constrained by bad arms deals like New START.
We should not only move quickly to install the canceled interceptor sites Putin opposed in Poland and the Czech Republic, but also to develop the next generation of systems that will only increase his discomfiture.
These options do not entail a ground war in Syria, yet would effectively shake us free from the failed policies that have brought us to our current impasse. These options set us on a new path that puts Putin on notice that the United States is reclaiming our traditional role as leader of the free world.