In chess you see everything. Every piece of information you need is available on the board, so what is being tested during a game is your ability to process all that information. In politics things are different: we never have all the information. People often compare politics to chess, but in fact politics is more like a game of cards, poker perhaps, in which winning means relying on guts, instincts and strength.
Which is why, in the terrible international game being played over Syria, Vladimir Putin is currently the master. Although — as I will explain — his winning streak may not last, at least for the time being he has outplayed all his opponents, largely because President Obama and other western leaders have left the game wide open for him. Putin is now so confident that he is busy drawing up plans for a new ‘post-Assad’ Syria. He is sure he can retain his influence, whoever is in charge.
The West’s inadequate and vacillating response to the Syria crisis has made some people draw parallels with Munich in 1938 — and for once the comparison actually rings true. Even while Cameron and Hollande have been desperately trying not to look like Chamberlain and Daladier, they looked exactly like them. Meanwhile President Obama showed he could not keep his own promises. The consequences of his failure to enforce his own ‘red line’ on the use of chemical weapons will come back to haunt him long after this current impasse is over.
Of course, in any international dispute, a dictator always has an upper hand over democrats. That is why Hitler outmanoeuvred Chamberlain. During peacetime, democratic leaders are always underdogs because they have to pay attention to public opinion and parliaments — the House of Commons in the UK, or the Senate in America. Not to mention facing the free press. A dictator, on the other hand — a Hitler, Stalin, Putin or Mao — does not need to care about any of this. They are far more mobile in reacting to situations and crises. They do not care whether they lie and it does not matter if they are caught lying. They can U-turn on policy, and be as inconsistent as they like.
But it wasn’t just that Putin played his hand well. Both Obama and Cameron played a genuinely inept game. The Conservative party was disorganised and Obama’s argument about legal technicalities proved unconvincing. If you want people to authorise and approve of military action, you have to sound both convincing and capable. Persuading the American public to intervene in Europe in the 1940s was a tough sell for FDR. But he succeeded in selling it, winning the election and winning the vote in the House. That was leadership.
But the disaster of President Obama’s presidency is not just his lack of leadership but the fact that he shows such weakness. It is not only Putin who is watching and taking note of this. There are other players in this new Great Game waiting in the wings — the Iranians in particular, who will arrange their nuclear progress in accordance with the weakness they see.
Putin is like a mafia boss. He is ruthless and does not bother about public opinion. He knows what he needs, knows how to get it and is used to displaying strength, so the only way to oppose him is to show strength back. But the strength shown by the great Cold War leaders — Reagan and Thatcher — is absent in the West at present.
Since the end of the Cold War, the world has also seen a complete lack of strategy from America. The policy of the Cold War was well planned and the mechanism well oiled. Presidents knew about their enemies and a clear line existed between the free world and the rest. But in 1991 all the lines turned a bit gluey and since then there has been no comprehensive policy. Beginning one war after another without a clear idea how they would relate to, or contribute to, global stability severely degraded America’s global credibility. And though Obama came up with big promises, he had no clue about strategy. When the Arab Spring offered the opportunity to show leadership and demonstrate a strategy, or even just to take a side, he failed to meet the challenge.
I do understand the reservations about the Arab Spring and especially the Islamic elements within the revolutions that toppled several regimes. But as somebody who was born in a communist country, I believe that overthrowing dictatorships is a positive step even if it has negative results in the short term. America could have seized the opportunity the Arab Spring offered to immediately display itself as a friend of freedom. Instead it went back and forth, back and forth. For more than two years America failed to come up with any plan, or any vision at all, for its role in the Arab world.
Syria has highlighted this. Two years ago the opposition may have had some elements of al-Qa’eda, but in general it was the legitimate democratic opposition that was not leaning towards Islamic radicals. But the longer the war has continued, the worse the picture has become. Today perhaps half of the rebels are al-Qa’eda. A year from now it will probably be all of them. At some point, the free world led by America has to take a stand. The failure to take a stand not only loses friends — it creates enemies.
Shipping weapons to the Syrian opposition would not have solved all these problems, obviously, but what concerns many of us is that on a wider scale America and the West have failed to come up with a long-term plan that could demonstrate vision and opportunity for people in a part of the world which needs to see the value of being allied with liberal democracies as opposed to the Putins of this world.
With such tyrants on top, there will be many people who will lose confidence in the idea that history is moving against the dictators. Yet I remain an optimist. I believe that history is on the side of freedom. I don’t know whether I am wrong or not, but my experience of studying history is that although we may go through very bad periods, eventually freedom is the natural demand of the whole human race. New technologies and devices can help us get to each other throughout the world. This will benefit individuals while creating insurmountable problems for dictators. Putin may be winning the game for now, but time is not on his side.
Garry Kasparov is a former world chess champion and a Russian political activist.