The Obama administration’s failure in Syria after four years of wasted lives, money, and effort deepens by the day now. The Russians have just benched us, whether Washington wants to admit it or not, and we may well sit out the rest of the game.
You can’t beat Obama’s policy people for their timing. The same week Russia opens up a well-planned, vigorously asserted military campaign that goes far beyond antiseptic bombing runs, the Defense Department announces that, several years and $500 million later, there’s no point training “moderate” Syrian rebels after all.
It’s always good to admit mistakes—but not when you follow with another one. The administration will now send arms and ammunition to “briefly vetted” rebels active on their own account. Of course, there’s no guarantee as to where this material will end up.
Haven’t we been here before? In my read, the new Syria policy is just another way of saying, “We have no clue what to do but we have to do something.”
It’s the wider implications of the administration's huge miscalculation in Syria we have to think about now. While these may be many, for the moment I count three:
• You don’t have to agree with Moscow’s strategy—keep the Assad regime in place while defeating ISIS, then negotiate a political transition in Damascus--to recognize the Russians' determination to eliminate a terrorist threat very near its borders. They’re serious, with skin in the game. And having no serious comeback leaves a vacuum that could prove fateful.
It’s too soon to tell, but it’s at least plausible that the era of America’s unchallenged primacy in the Middle East, which historians customarily date to the Suez crisis in 1956 is ending. Consider, for instance, the alliances now activating in response to the Islamic State: Russia’s with Iran (which has a long history) and now Russia’s with Iraq. Washington, by contrast, declines to let the nuclear accord with Iran lead to any further collaboration in the name of shared interests—of which there are several.
The lesson here is simple: You can demonize others all you want—Russians, Iranians—but it the end (1) nobody takes you seriously and (2) you place rational decisions out of bounds.
• While Moscow’s new campaign in Syria was reportedly six months in the making, it faced Obama with a decision only as of last month, when Obama and Vladimir Putin met at the U.N. The Russian leader invited Obama to co-lead a united front against ISIS, sound sources in Moscow tell me.
Last week Obama and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter declined: This was Carter’s drumbeat all week. White House officials are now in the ridiculous position of expressing “confidence” that Russia will fail to defeat the Islamic State.
This is what we want? We’d rather ISIS survive if Russia is to play a significant role in defeating it?
There is a cock-eyed worldview behind this, and Obama’s big thinkers have just committed to it: No rapprochement with Russia on any question or in any circumstance. Are we resurrecting the black-and-white world of the Dulles brothers?
The implications are ominous. In my read, the U.S. won’t lift a finger to get the Kiev government to comply with the Minsk II accord, signed in February and intended to produce a negotiated settlement in Ukraine. Since the pact runs out in December, this has a couple of months to play out. More mess on Europe’s eastern flank is likely.
There is also the related question of Europe’s complex relations with the Russians. Washington has never been sympathetic to the European Union’s extensive economic interdependence with Russia. If core Europe is alert, officials in Berlin and Paris know they’re now on notice that the long U.S. campaign to drive wedges between the EU and Russia, which intensified since Ukraine broke open, will continue indefinitely.
• An internal war among the administration’s foreign policy people has just been decided. Wrongly, in my view, although there are at least two perspectives on the question.
“Hawks” and “doves” is simplistic to the point the formulation is misleading. Better to say that there is a constituency within the administration advocating a new direction in American policy—less Manichean, more given to diplomacy and a rational recognition of common interests. The core point is to articulate a different conception of “engagement.”
It has been evident at least since May, when John Kerry met Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Sochi that the secretary of state leads this policy faction, effectively if not in fact. The Iran deal offers further evidence: That was Kerry’s banana.
These people have just lost a big one to those who assert that engagement means military engagement. And this lands Obama with two big problems.
One, the Obama administration remains effectively committed to the 20th Century idea of American primacy advanced by the military-firsters. Two, even if you think the military must be the chief determinant of America’s conduct abroad, Obama’s unwilling to back this kind of power the way it must be: By definition it requires skin in the game, and a bombs-and-drones strategy isn’t a substitute, to state the very obvious.
Result: Carteresque confusion—a little of this, a little of that, and a lot of nothing as the outcome. Grotesque example: With the bombing in Ankara this weekend, we’ve now spread the Middle East’s chaos to Turkey, and to no identifiable end.