- - Monday, September 23, 2013

In October 2012, I sat in the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, completely appalled by the Obama administration’s mishandling of the entire debacle.

To someone like me who served for more than 30 years on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the hours of political theater, partisan crosstalk and bureaucratic flackery on display at that hearing proved to me that the tragic event was the direct result of the weak and misguided policies of an administration completely out of touch with the realities of an unpredictable and violent world.

I warned my colleagues at the time that President Obama and his advisers have a dangerous obsession with viewing the world as Mr. Obama wants it to be, instead of how it really is, and that if this continued, the results for the United States would be disastrous. The recent bungling of the chemical weapons crisis in Syria just reinforces my conviction. Although no Americans have died in the Syrian conflict, American influence and prestige have suffered a terrible blow. Our enemies are emboldened, and our allies are no longer confident that they can count on the United States to say what it means and mean what it says.

The president is fond of pointing out to the American people a so-called “teachable moment.” I hope he is paying attention because he just got schooled by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin has a plan to rebuild the glory and influence of mother Russia, and he just proved to the world that he will use whatever means and tactics he deems fit to accomplish that goal, including protecting unsavory regimes in places such as Syria and Iran. It’s time to face the facts: Russia is not our ally; it is our competitor.

Human nature abhors a power vacuum. If we cede our place on the global stage, the Russians will gladly take it. Rather than shrink from the fight, we should learn our lesson and face this competition head-on. Despite what Mr. Putin thinks, America is exceptional, and when we put our mind to something, there is nothing we cannot do, and no one in the world who can stop us. Everywhere that Russia and her satellites are spreading their mischief, from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf to the republics of the Caucasus, we must stand fast with our allies and counter Russia’s meddling. A case in point is U.S. ally and friend Bahrain, which Iran is trying to destabilize with the help and support of Russia.

The logical place to start is reversing the slide of U.S. influence in the Caucasus by increasing engagement with Azerbaijan, which is the only country in the world directly bordering both Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan is a valuable and tested ally of the United States, and we must cement that relationship. From counterterrorism and nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction to serving as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan, Azerbaijan is among America’s best friends. However, squeezed between the neo-imperialist ambitions of Moscow and the theocratic proliferation of Iran, even this staunch friend could buckle under pressure and be turned away from the West if we continue to pull away.

Appointing a new high-level negotiator to help resolve the conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh and thereby normalize Azerbaijan-Armenian relations is the perfect way to demonstrate America’s commitment to the region. Ending this conflict would be good for Armenia, good for Azerbaijan, and it would remove a tool that the Russians and Iranians have been using to exert influence over the region and its vast oil and natural-gas reserves.

We can still engage with Russia, and when our mutual interests coincide, we may even be able to work together, but we must stop being naive about Russia’s intentions and tactics. The president must come down from his ivory tower and stop viewing the world as a college textbook. It’s not. America suffered a body blow in Syria, but we can get up, dust ourselves off and ultimately prevail. The alternative is to risk surrendering global leadership to Russia and Middle Eastern control to a country such as Iran. That would be disastrous, and I’m sure our children and grandchildren will not forgive us for leaving them that kind of world.

Former Rep. Dan Burton, Indiana Republican, was a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and chairman of its Europe, Eurasia and emerging threats subcommittee.

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