Give Andrew Sullivan some credit. Unlike other supporters of President Obama, he isn’t trying to spin defeat as victory this week. At least he’s not doing it in the way the administration is trying to sell it to the American public. Most liberals are trying to pretend the president’s acceptance of Russia’s bogus offer to negotiate the surrender of Assad’s chemical-weapons stockpile is a sign of U.S. strength, or at least offers the possibility of a diplomatic escape from a conflict in Syria few Americans want any part of. But such transparent deceptions and spin are not for the proprietor of the Daily Dish. Instead, Sullivan believes Obama’s surrender of American influence in the Middle East is actually a good thing. Rather than pretending that Putin’s end zone dance in the New York Times yesterday was meaningless, he thinks the Russian authoritarian’s triumphant mood is good for American national interests and bad for those of Russia.
The problem with this formulation isn’t just that the United States has important national security interests in the Middle East (a point President Obama made clear in his speech this past Tuesday) and that abandoning Israel or disregarding the human-rights aspect of letting Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies win undermines them. What’s most absurd about Sullivan’s rant is his profound misunderstand of how much Russia has to gain and how little it has to lose in taking ownership of the Middle East.
Sullivan says a situation that he concedes looks like “national humiliation” for the U.S. is “good” because it avoids American involvement in more wars or even having responsibility for anything that happens there. If this withdrawal from the region winds up hurting our allies in the vicinity (especially Israel, for which Sullivan has a well-known distaste), then so much the worse for them. Any concern about the human-rights situation in Syria is mere emotionalism, as Sullivan brusquely told a distraught Christiane Amanpour on CNN last night when she had the temerity to point out Obama’s retreat meant that the body count of the victims of Russia’s ally Assad would continue to grow. Any dissent from this line is, Sullivan tells us, mere neocon dreaming about U.S. hegemony.
The writer thinks the Middle East should be lost. Putin is, he says, welcome to it, something that would allow the U.S. to concentrate on Asia and “entrenching universal healthcare” at home. Given the disastrous impact of the ObamaCare rollout on the economy, it’s doubtful doing so would help the president sell an expansion of the unpopular program. Nor does Sullivan seem to have too many ideas about how the diversion to Asia would help contain the nuclear lunatics of North Korea or fend off an aggressive China. But if he really thinks Russia’s rout of the U.S. in the Middle East would not impact its ability to exercise influence elsewhere, he’s as crazy as he is callous.
The argument is that Russia’s ownership of the Syrian conflict will wind up hurting them because it is more trouble than they can handle and the chemical weapons will wind up in the hands of Islamists who will wind up using them on Putin’s people. But what Russia is after in this gambit isn’t administration of Syria; it’s ensuring that their sole ally in the region stays in power. He won’t be caught between the warring parties since the Russian diplomatic track will enable Assad (with the assistance of Iran and Hezbollah) to take care of such details. The guiding principle of Russian foreign policy is twofold: annoy, humiliate, and defeat the United States every chance they get and thereby help rebuild the lost Soviet empire whose fall Putin still mourns. Russian adventurism in Syria won’t stop there. It will extend into Asia and cause havoc and diminish American influence there and everywhere else.
This Brezhnev-style diplomacy should also inform our view of the Kremlin’s relationship with its partners in keeping Assad afloat. The assumption has always been that Russia has as much to fear from a nuclear Iran as the West. But just as the Soviets didn’t worry much about blowback from their support of Arab terrorism in the ’70s, Putin doesn’t waste much time with concern about how the U.S. retreat he has helped engineer will encourage Iran and its terrorist auxiliaries. He rightly thinks their prime target will always be the U.S. and Israel. Iran didn’t bat an eye or protest when Putin slaughtered Muslims in Chechnya in the 1990s and he doesn’t think they will cause him any trouble in the future.
Contrary to Sullivan’s invocation of Nicolo Machiavelli’s praise of deception in a ruler, Obama’s humiliation is not a façade for a strategic retreat. Influence and prestige are fungible commodities for a great power. Even if we bought Sullivan’s idiotic premise that the U.S. no longer has any interests in the Middle East, American decline along these lines cannot be contained. An America that abandons a key region to a vicious rival and stands by impotently while atrocities that could be prevented are allowed to continue will not be able to magically resurrect its influence elsewhere.
As false as the justifications offered by most other liberals for President Obama’s lack of leadership are, they are still more connected to reality than Sullivan’s formulation. Sullivan would have us believe that defeat is really victory. But the president knows that abandoning the Middle East to Putin would be a catastrophe and therefore he and his cheering section deny that this is what he is doing. As bad as Obama’s performance has been, at least he recognizes that America has interests that must be defended. He just lacks the will or the skill to defend them. Sullivan claims these defects are virtues. It’s hard to tell which position is more risible.