WASHINGTON -- The season of Christmas should be filled with joy. Whether you believe in the birth of Christ as the son of God or as the appearance of a great prophet teaching men how to live more wisely, the story is one filled with wonder. When you add the advent of a new year in the Western calendar, the season's message should be even more inspiring.
But we have no space to be naive about the reality of this year. Instead of wonder, we see strange, dark dramas being enacted every day, from the killing of the innocents in Berlin to the murder of a Russian ambassador in Ankara to -- the worst yet -- the horrendous slaughter in Aleppo.
This week, that once-beautiful and historical city near the Mediterranean coast in Syria took its tragic place alongside the German blitzkrieg of Basque Guernica in 1937, the final Russian destruction of Chechnya's Grozny between 1994 and 1999 and the Serbs' massacre of Bosnians in Srebrenica in 1995.
Yet there are actions here below the surface on the part of the two Great Power players, America and Russia, that make the destruction of Aleppo and its bewildered people events we ignore at our peril.
To put it simply: (1) Russia appears to the world only interested in supporting the heinous Syrian dictator, Bashar al Assad, while (2) the United States appears only to want to defeat Assad and bring peace, without much effort, to the Middle East.
But let's look a little deeper, and we might understand the real wars, the genuine politics and the deeper psychologies at play at this crucial turning point.
(1) The general analysis, expressed just about everywhere this week, is that Russia has "won" in Syria. After all, it was the Russian bombing of the so-called "moderate" pro-Western Syrians that carried the day, while Secretary of State John Kerry indulged in the pretense of negotiating with his Russian counterparts in Geneva for ceasefires the Russians didn't want and used only to make the Americans look hapless.
And of course, President Obama's words in Washington, threatening the Kremlin by sending a message that "we can do stuff to you," must have scared the devil out of them. (Being threatened with "stuff" surely terrifies me!)
Ironically, this week marks exactly a quarter-century from the late-December date in 1991 when Moscow formally disbanded the Soviet Union. Now, Vladimir Putin is driving toward establishing a nationalist Russian identity, re-establishing the Russian empire by daring and aggravating the West, and using wars quite elementally as an excuse for not offering his population a better life.
Putin's only drive to gain position in the world is toward destruction; his only perceived "destiny," a Putinesque imperium; his only joy, to see America defeated. It is a ploy as ancient as Babylon and Sparta, only now the Russians have shiny new names for it: "hybrid war" or "crypto war."
Actually, Aleppo shows, in hyper-dramatic outline, the degree to which the West is being had by Moscow.
(2) As for the United States, it remains, on almost every level except Machiavellian strategizing, the far superior nation -- from productivity to military preparedness to educational dominance in the world.
Yet, Moscow's willingness to aggressively wipe out any vestige of moral human movement and to do so unchallenged has made the world profoundly question America's leadership.
For New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, "Pax Americana Is Over." For Financial Times analyst Edward Luce, the Aleppo tragedy shows that "few any longer dispute the fact of relative U.S. decline." To David Miliband, head of the prestigious International Rescue Committee, Aleppo represents "the death of (American-backed) respect for international law and the rules of war."
But American responses to tragedies afoot in the world have not really changed since the Vietnam War. They are responses cemented in half-ways and in "third ways" that never work. As Leon Wieseltier, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, wrote in The Washington Post this week of the Obama administration's "third option" in Syria and Ukraine and elsewhere, "between action and inaction, it chose inconsequential action."
So now the word is that the Russians have won a pyrrhic victory: a bitterly destroyed city and country. And that the U.S. has lost its reputation to a KGB thug who knows how to play geopolitical games more devastatingly than we do.
Actually, winning the game should all be so easy for the West because we have so many chips. But using them would mean having to decide what our primary interests are, and employing some minimal will and cunning in pursuing them. May God give us this gift, this blessed week!