I started this as a minor post a few days back, but in the span of a few days, the story has changed.
“I would like to address Obama as a Nobel Peace Prize laureate: Before using force in Syria, it would be good to think about future casualties,” Putin told Russian news agencies in Vladivostok during a tour of the country’s flood-stricken Far East. …
Putin said he was sure the attack was the work of rebels trying to provoke international — and especially American — involvement in the Syrian conflict. The government of Bashar al-Assad, he said, would have had no reason to use chemical weapons at a time when it had gained the upper hand in the fighting.
Doing so, he said, would have been “utter nonsense’’ – with the clear implication that that is how he would characterize the American allegations.
On top of that, he said, the Obama administration’s “claims that proof exists, but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody, are below criticism. This is plain disrespect for their partners.”
Putin’s comments were soon underlined by a stern statement from the Foreign Ministry. After U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul had finished a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Saturday, the ministry declared, “Russia has expressed its conviction that any forceful action against Syria that the U.S. could carry out in circumvention of the U.N. Security Council would be an act of aggression and a gross violation of international law.”
Pretty harsh, and some biting digs there at Obama, using Obama’s own words and line of attack against Bush against him. Putin even used Obama’s own hatred of American exceptionalism against him in his NYT op-ed:
And I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy.
(the US)… is going to war because Obama wandered off prompter and accidentally made a threat. So he has to make good on it, or America will lose its credibility. But he only wants to make good on it in a perfunctory and ineffectual way. So America will lose its credibility anyway.
While he was expecting a military response in the bare minimum as the quote by an unnamed official went: “just muscular enough not to get mocked”, what’s happened was an even weaker response – empty posturing and nothingness.
The president has backed away from a military strike in Syria. But he can’t acknowledge this or act as if it is true. He is acting and talking as if he’s coolly, analytically, even warily contemplating the Russian proposal and the Syrian response. The proposal, he must know, is absurd. Bashar Assad isn’t going to give up all his hidden weapons in wartime, in the middle of a conflict so bitter and severe that his forces this morning reportedly bombed parts of Damascus, the city in which he lives. In such conditions his weapons could not be fully accounted for, packed up, transported or relinquished, even if he wanted to. But it will take time—weeks, months—for the absurdity to become obvious. And it is time the president wants. Because with time, with a series of statements, negotiations, ultimatums, promises and proposals, the Syria crisis can pass. It can dissipate into the air, like gas.
The president will keep the possibility of force on the table, but really he’s lunging for a lifeline he was lucky to be thrown. …
All this, if it is roughly correct, is going to make the president’s speech tonight quite remarkable. It will be a White House address in which a president argues for an endeavor he is abandoning. It will be a president appealing for public support for an action he intends not to take.
What happened was Vladimir Putin proved, as has been stated across a million blogs and talk radio shows now, that the Russians are playing chess, while Obama is playing tiddly winks. Maybe we should’ve expected that.
The Syrian government has accepted the proposal because they understand it is an empty formalism. As everyone knows, as even all but the most obtuse White House officials must also understand, Assad will not give up his unconventional arsenal because he cannot. … …. plan B is to withdraw from Damascus and head to the coastal mountains that make up the historical Alawite homeland. The question for Assad then is, how to ensure the safety of that retreat? Further, once there how are the Alawites to defend their redoubt from a Sunni community galvanized by a shared vendetta against Assad and his community? From Assad’s perspective, without chemical weapons the Alawites might fall off the face of the earth.
Who knows what the Russians told Assad? For God’s sake, just say it’s your chemical weapons arsenal you’re turning over for safekeeping. Send them canisters of perfume, or cat urine. The Americans just want a deal, the president thinks he’s saving face. If the Americans are smart, they’ll let the whole thing drop and call it a win, but knowing them they’ll come back later and complain that you’re not keeping your end of the bargain. No problem. We’ll stall them. And then every time Obama whines it will remind your adversaries and U.S. allies around the world that the Americans are empty suits, a bunch of legalistic bureaucrats who are incapable of standing with their friends.
But Putin showed shrewdness and defeated Obama handily by appealing to Obama’s weakness. He can’t let himself look bad. The only “credibility” question was a corner Obama painted himself into that he expected to paint his way out of at the cost of US military power, Syrian lives, and a war that would escalate.
The president’s supporters and publicists in the press know how to package Obama’s weakness. The fear that everyone else in the world smells emanating from him like a wounded animal is really just humility and modesty—fitting attributes for the leader of a superpower that needs to make amends for having meddled so long in the affairs of others. And besides, this talk of strength and weakness is juvenile—the world is not a schoolyard. And so Obama ignored Putin’s slights and held his head high. This revealed to Putin Obama’s real liability, his vanity. Obama always needs to look good. He will embrace defeat so long as he can still imagine himself a handsome princeling. After pushing Obama around for five years, now Putin escorts him out of the Middle East. Here, friend, take my hand. Let me help you to the sidelines.
As David Samuels wrote last week, Putin’s goal is to replace the United States as the regional power broker. Sure, Russia is less a state than a criminal enterprise with lots of energy to sell, while the United States drives the global economy, but so what? What good are American aircraft carriers if you don’t have the will to use them? Putin will use anything he has to win, while Obama is looking for a reason not to fire a few cruise missiles into the Syrian desert. There is absolutely no chance Obama would risk a shooting war with Iran.
Part of the reason for a Western European demand for action is because Russian Gazprom controls the heat in Europe in the winter, and a pipeline through Syria could be built if the Assad regime (backed by Russia) goes away. Russian Gazprom wouldn’t be controlling Europe’s thermostat, and with it would go a lot of economic and political power. So losing Syria would could also harm Russian interests in the future.
And the reason Britain might’ve been interested in getting into Syria? Britain sent Syria a lot of components for chemical weapons, and they may want to go clean up the mess they helped make.
The Russian proposal not only saves Obama from having to do something about Syria, it also, and much more important, shows the way forward with Iran. From the White House’s point of view, its credible threat of force made Syria buckle and will similarly bring Iran to the negotiating table. Putin has shown his bona fides as a credible interlocutor with Damascus and will do the same with Iran. Obama can relax now and imagine that he has finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize and that that sound he hears is the tide of war receding.
In fact, it is the sound of American allies around the world—the Poles and Czechs, the Japanese and the South Koreans, the Saudis, Jordanians and Israelis, among others—gnashing their teeth. They now see that they are on their own, and that the word of the United States means nothing.
There’s all that talk of credibility, and all it proves is that Obama won’t stand up to anyone on the global stage except US allies. It’s marvelously consistent with Dinesh D’souza’s theory that Obama’s anti-colonialist roots drive him to harm the US and its allies at every turn and weaken the power of both.
The only thing credible was Obama’s threat to take unilateral military action over the orders of Congress and his triangulating to blame Congress for failure if he went to war or if he didn’t.
Putin just gave him a more convenient exit, and took another step towards his own expansion of power, and at American expense.