McFaul linked to a Guardian story by Andrew Roth that had a hell of an opening:
Russian officials and analysts have warned of the dangers of a military clash with the United States if Donald Trump orders a military strike in Syria in response to the chemical attack in rebel-held Douma at the weekend.One Russian politician involved in defence policy called it the most dangerous moment in U.S.-Russian relations since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The chief of staff of Russia’s armed forces said last month that Russia would shoot down incoming missiles and attack their launching platforms if a U.S. strike on Syria threatened Russian military personnel.“The U.S. and Russia are now closer to a direct collision between their military forces than at any time since the cold war,” Dmitri Trenin, the head of the Carnegie Moscow Centre and a former Soviet military officer, wrote on Monday. “The only question on my mind: will Russia hit back at the U.S. when it launches strikes against Damascus?”
So this sounds pretty bad! Indeed, this is what I fretted about in 2015 when the Russians initially deployed in Syria. Furthermore, this is coming at a time when the hawks have clearly wrested control over the national security machinery of the Trump administration. On Wednesday morning the president of the United States tweeted this out:
So, am I worried? Sure. Am I Cuban-missile-crisis worried? Heck no.
The Cuban missile crisis was serious enough to force the United States to put Strategic Air Command at Defcon 2, the only time that happened during the Cold War. That made sense at the time, because it seemed that any clash between U.S. and Soviet forces in Cuba would escalate into a nuclear exchange very quickly.
Syria is bad, but it’s not that bad. It’s not even close to that bad. The conflict in Syria lacks the tight coupling between initial clash and escalation to full-blown nuclear war that the Cuban missile crisis did. Indeed, this more closely echoes the rather dangerous deployment of Russian troops to Pristina at the end of the Kosovo war than Cuba.
But what about the explicit Russian invocations of Cuba? Well, of course the Russians will compare this to the Cuban missile crisis. Russia likes to reference Cold War-era clashes because it reminds everyone that it has lots of nuclear weapons and there was a time when it was considered a real rival to the United States. The reason that the Putin administration repeatedly brings up nukes is that it is one of the few areas where Russia is still a superpower.
I am not saying that things are great between Russia and the United States right now. Tuesday night at the Fletcher School, Victoria Nuland, the former assistant secretary of state and current CEO of the Center for New American Security, referenced the current period of relations as “Back to the Future,” meaning it echoes Cold War tensions. But the Cuban missile crisis was the high point for those tensions. The current situation is not remotely like that. Russia now is much weaker than the Soviet Union was, and Syria is not as vital to either country as Cuba used to be.
Indeed, 30 minutes after Trump tweeted that bellicose threat,
someone wrestled the smartphone away from John Bolton he tweeted this follow-up:
I am worried about a military skirmish in Syria. I am far less worried about it escalating into anything requiring Defcon 2.
Let me close by thanking Ambassador McFaul for this question. For most of my adult life as a political scientist, I have been telling people to calm the heck down. In the past, almost every world politics headline story was not as calamitous to national security as my friends seemed to think. It was easy for to tell them, in my professional opinion, that they needed to relax.
I have not been able to do this in recent years. I cannot say that I have a lot of faith in the foreign policy acumen of this White House. Now, when people ask me if they should panic about something, I am no longer as calm as I used to be. It is indeed quite possible that this business will get out of control.
But is Syria the second coming of the Cuban missile crisis? No, no it is not.