A foreign policy that stands for nothing but easing tensions is yielding some very tense results. As Max notes, Russia is reportedly sending attack helicopters to Syria for Bashar al-Assad to better mow down Syrians. Hillary Clinton responded by describing the development. The shipment “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she said, and registered “concern.”
There are indeed multiple reasons to be concerned—even if you’ve decided that population slaughter is no longer any of America’s business. Vladimir Putin has used the Obama administration’s reset policy as an opportunity to elevate himself and humiliate America before the world. He is positively giddy about his good fortune. When the U.S. approached him to help ease Assad out of power he responded by arming Assad instead. He had three perfectly good reasons for doing this. First, Assad is his client (as this shipment demonstrates). Second, he and Assad are autocrats up against local manifestations of a global anti-autocratic revolt. Squelching such revolt in one place makes it easier to dampen it in the next. Three, going bold in Syria where the United States fears to tread gives him a much-needed boost at home. This is especially true among members of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church who fear an anti-Christian explosion in a post-Assad Syria. Needless to say, Syria is Iran’s closest ally. With additional boosts from Russia and no counter move from the U.S., there’s no reason to think Assad can’t put down the rebellion and survive as the mullahs’ link to the Mediterranean.
It’s one thing for the United States to implement bad policies; it’s another to approach the perfectly wrong people on a given issue and ask them to do something they’d never do in a billion years. The one-way reset policy has proved to be the mistake that keeps spoiling. Putin’s got Barack Obama’s number. He knows the United States is out of the superpower game and is now testing the limits of unfettered cynical realism.
The reset must be coupled with the Obama administration’s Libyan lead-from-behind strategy to see the dimensions of the corner we’re in regarding Syria. Would Assad be so comfortable with wholesale butchery in service of regime survival if America had led from the front in Libya? If Obama had given Muammar Qaddafi a short deadline to step down and then unapologetically led an international coalition in a short and devastating mission when he refused? If an American presence remained in Libya to track weapons, money, and terrorists? If Obama then made a credible statement that the United States would not fence-sit while anti-democratic rulers kill their people?
The truth is we can’t know for sure. But we do know that the strenuous effort to downplay our differences with bad actors hasn’t saved us any trouble. The point about a bold foreign policy that’s been lost is that it’s aimed at avoiding larger conflicts. With a pusillanimous American administration pushing a global détente, what reason does Russia or Syria—or China, North Korea, and Iran—have for checking their ambitions? And so, the global order spins further from our reach a little more each day.