Commentary Magazine


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Obama Fails to Sweet Talk Putin

At today’s meeting in Mexico between President Obama and his Russian counterpart, the U.S. leader sought to persuade Vladimir Putin that America had no desire to come between Moscow and its loyal client state Syria. Counting on his personal charm and instinctive belief that a demonstration of his good will toward those who are hostile to the United States will solve most problems, Obama thought he could convince Putin to back off on his support for the murderous Assad regime and join the West in pushing for an end to the slaughter in Syria. But the grim look on the faces of both Obama and Putin after they endured two hours of each other’s company indicates just how badly the American failed.

Obama’s attempt to sweet talk the former KGB agent went about as well as some of his previous efforts to apologize his way into foreign popularity. It’s not just that Putin doesn’t trust Obama — though he obviously doesn’t — but that after three and a half years in power and one failed “reset” later, the U.S. president still doesn’t understand the basic dynamic of Russian attitudes toward the United States. The meeting, the first between the two men, was clearly a dialogue of the deaf. The net result is another humiliation for Obama who not only has failed to do anything about the massacres in Syria but also will now be seen to have tried and failed to get Assad’s patron to abandon him. For his part, Putin has looked Obama in the eye and saw a man determined to kowtow to Moscow, a sign of weakness that Putin could not mistake and will not fail to exploit in the future.

The cold shoulder given to Obama by Putin only underlines the downward spiral of U.S.-Russia relations. With the Russians sending missiles to Syria and now reports from Iran discussing the possibility of joint military exercises with Russia, Obama, whose camp mocked Mitt Romney’s description of Russia as America’s number one geopolitical foe, is seeing Putin restore his country’s Soviet-era influence over parts of the Middle East.

Obama cannot be blamed for Putin’s bad behavior or the Russian’s determination to cut America off at the knees any chance he gets. But the president’s characteristic try at romancing Putin may set the stage for even worse to come. Just as his past appeasement of Russia by dumping missile defense for the Poles and the Czechs failed to win the Putin regime’s failure, by starting the talks by conceding that after the theoretical fall of Bashar al-Assad Syria would remain under Moscow’s influence, Obama increased the likelihood that the Russians will continue to push the envelope in their ongoing effort to undermine U.S. influence. Rather than making it clear to the Russians that the United States would not tolerate such misbehavior or the continuation in power of a murderous tyrant, Obama has worsened an already fraught relationship and virtually guaranteed that Assad has nothing to worry about no matter how many people he kills.

The fault here is not just the bad intentions of the Russians but also the hopeless romanticism of the U.S. administration about winning the hearts and minds of foreign leaders and their nations. Though it has long been obvious his belief that his charm and demonstration of good will would be enough to overcome stark policy differences with other countries is a self-serving myth, President Obama continues to blunder along, trusting in the power of his personality. That will cost the Syrian people dearly. If he continues along these lines and lets the Russians, Chinese and the Europeans drive the effort to pressure Iran to give up its nuclear program in the ditch, the cost for the Middle East and the world will be even higher.