Via Breitbart, I realize that every GOP candidate is under pressure right now to contrast themselves with Obama by showing how they’d stand up to Putin. I also realize that Fiorina, fairly or not (i.e. not), bears a special burden in proving how tough she’d be as president to voters who are leery of making a woman commander-in-chief. Politically, this is a fine answer for a Republican primary. We’re going to use the world’s greatest air force to protect our people on the ground over there, and if Putin tries to cross the line, he’ll see what he gets. And maybe that’s all it’s intended to be — a fine answer for a primary.
Strategically, though, it seems like a borderline nutty overcorrection to Obama’s passivity. Show of hands: Who wants to put American airmen in the line of fire and risk World War III to defend a group of Sunni Muslim fighters on the ground who are likely only nominally “moderate” and whose loyalty to the United States rests entirely on continued supplies of cash and weapons? These aren’t the Marines that Russia is bombing. This is the Free Syrian Army, some members of which have been known to switch to ISIS when they thought the U.S. wasn’t being hard enough on their enemy Assad. Putin’s attack on them yesterday deserves some kind of reprisal because it was, and was intended to be, a humiliation of the United States, but there’s a big difference between saying “we need to respond” and “we need to respond with an air war over Syria.” Especially when, strange though it may seem, the U.S. may be overmatched in an air battle with Russian forces:
The Sukhoi fighters are primarily air-to-air fighters—and some of the best in the world. Besides Russia, China also flies versions of the twin-engine, supersonic Su-30 and has even begun outfitting them with new air-to-air missiles that U.S. Air Force Gen. Herbert Carlisle has repeatedly described as one of his biggest worries.
In a series of aerial war games in the last decade, India’s own Su-30s have tangled with—and reportedly defeated—American and British fighters in mock combat, sparking minor controversies in both countries as their respective air forces scrambled to explain why the Russian-made planes weren’t necessarily superior to U.S. F-15s and British Typhoon jets.
If Putin, eager to show his audience back home his own strength and fearlessness towards the American enemy, brings down a U.S. jet, how would the White House escalate from there? How much of a price are we willing to pay in defense of a group of people so unreliable that their fickleness convinced the White House to try to build its own rebel army from the ground up (to disastrous effect)?
And yet, the blow to U.S. prestige does require a response. No need to focus that response on Syria, though, which Putin cares little about provided that his naval base in Tartus is protected (as it almost certainly would be under international political settlement of the civil war there), instead of Ukraine, eastern Europe, and the Baltics, which would be grateful for any advanced weaponry the U.S. could provide. We owe Putin that anyway after he agreed to provide Iran with advanced anti-aircraft systems to protect its nuclear program from an American or Israeli attack. We can inflict pain on Russia and hopefully get it to come to the table on Assad without risking a direct military confrontation, at least for now.