Recent events in Syria have unfortunately laid bare the gross ineptitude of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. It is sad but also without question that President Obama has shown himself to be no match for Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in the international arena.
Mr. Putin’s sudden deployment of serious Russian military assets to buttress the Syrian government – literally under the nose of Mr. Obama and apparently without any U.S. retribution – has upended America’s decades-long predominance in the Middle East.
It’s not that an aggressive bully was able to take advantage of the leader of a democratic republic who is understandably reluctant to send American troops into harm’s way. There is some of that, to be sure, but the problem largely stems from Mr. Obama’s insistence on applying his community organizer skills, finely honed on the American domestic scene with its rules of law, to the international arena made up of independent, sovereign nations with interests and armies of their own.
The contrast between the addresses Presidents Obama and Putin gave to world leaders at the recent UN summit meeting was most revealing.
It is hard to fathom, but Mr. Obama’s overarching message was that the key to resolving the Syrian sectarian civil war and addressing the ISIS rampage is to promote democratic ideas, governments, and jobs. “This,” he said, “means defeating their ideology. Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.”
Mr. Putin’s message, on the other hand was that the American strategy of advocating democratic change was a total bust.
“Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster,” he said.
And Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has since paired that conclusion with a call for the world to unite to fight the ISIS scourge. Mr. Lavrov called for a “maximally effective fight” and identified countries that would be key participants including Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, the U.S. and China.
Plainly, Mr. Putin’s message will resonate with a world anxious to deal with Syria and ISIS. President Obama’s message, on the other hand, will do anything but resonate. The latter’s vision is just plainly inappropriate to the tasks at hand.
There is also the matter of the U.S. needing to learn the lessons of the second Iraq war and the Arab Spring. Depressing as it is to contemplate, despotism kept the region from falling apart and becoming prey to non-democratic insurgencies. Saddam Hussein was an evil man and a ruthless murderer of his own people but the depredations of ISIS and the others are hardly distinguishable from those of the late Iraqi dictator. And a similar case can be made respecting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
To think otherwise is to gloss over the fact that Iraq and modern day Syria were arbitrary political configurations, irrespective of religious, political, and cultural considerations, imposed by the French and British following World War I and the defeat of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled over most of the Arab world. And the resulting artificial borders continue to roil the Middle East, pitting Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites, and others against each other as competitors for control of lands that came to constitute nation-states.
It is also to gloss over the special attraction that Syria, specifically the continuance in power of Mr. Assad, has for Russia. This is not just some casual interest. The only continuing Russian presence in the Middle East has been a naval base at Latakia, Syria’s principal port city, which, significantly, is located on the Mediterranean Sea. Should Mr. Assad be driven from power, that base would likely have to be abandoned. On the other hand, should Russia sustain Mr. Assad’s rule against the wishes of the United States, Russia would cement its presence in Syria and thereby the Middle East as well.