Commentary Magazine


Obama Lost More than Style Points in Syria

President Obama is touting the deal Secretary of State John Kerry has made with the Russians over Syria’s chemical weapons as the “first step” toward a solution to all of that country’s problems. He is also, predictably, taking credit for creating the pressure that made all these good things possible. As for the chorus of criticism from across the political spectrum about the manifest incompetence and lack of leadership he displayed in the last few weeks, the president dismisses that as mere carping about “style” rather than substance. But by backing down on his threats to use force and then agreeing to a toothless deal that allows Russian President Vladimir Putin to save the Assad regime after President Obama had repeatedly called for the fall of the dictator, there is more wrong here than a sloppy presentation.

As our Max Boot noted earlier today, the Russian-sponsored process to get rid of Assad’s chemical weapons is an invitation for the Syrian tyrant to delay and obstruct any efforts to actually remove the toxic material and lock the U.S. into a partnership with a man that even United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon labeled as a criminal. Even worse, by authorizing Secretary Kerry to bow to Russian demands to remove any threat of force from operative UN resolutions that will govern the process, the president has virtually guaranteed that there will be no consequences for Assad cheating or a chance that this murderous ally of Russia and Iran will be deposed. Obama has avoided an embarrassing defeat in Congress over authorization of force against Syria and can pretend that he has advanced the cause of peace since no Americans will be involved in any fighting (in contrast to the Syrian people who continue to be slaughtered by Assad). But all he has accomplished in the last month is to trash U.S. credibility and to grant Putin an unexpected victory that will further embolden Iran and its friends. This gives the lie to those who blithely claim Obama’s supine stance on Syria will not inform his policy toward Tehran’s plans for its own weapons of mass destruction.

Putin is sealing his triumph over Obama by announcing his plans to visit Iran to confer with his partners in propping up the Assad regime. In doing so, the Russian authoritarian proclaimed his support for Iran’s right to a nuclear program including the enrichment of uranium. While the Obama administration and the rest of the West has assumed all along that Putin shared their fear of a nuclear Iran, he has always been operating from a different playbook. The keynote of Russian foreign policy under Putin remains his dream of reconstituting the old Soviet empire and to frustrate the U.S. at every turn. By demonstrating his lack of will to act on what he has rightly labeled a human-rights catastrophe, President Obama has not only secured the Russian base in Syria; he has sent the region a signal that the U.S. is a paper tiger.

The new Middle East that has emerged from Obama’s Syria fiasco is one in which the Russians are no longer marginal players clinging to a sole outpost in Syria. It is also one in which the Iranians and their Hezbollah allies who have actively intervened in the Syrian civil war are the victors in a power struggle with moderate Arabs. It was one thing for the president to spend two years dithering over Syria while more than 100,000 people died. It is quite another to sign on to a diplomatic process that ensures a murderer will not only not face justice but will also have impunity to use chemical weapons.

The Iranians have spent the five years of Obama’s time in the White House skillfully playing the West with diplomatic feints that have given it more time to develop a nuclear capability. With Russian backing and with Obama showing himself incapable of taking decisive action, there is no reason for them to back down or to treat rumblings from Washington about force being the last resort if the talks fail again seriously.

Had President Obama not played Hamlet about acting on his own authority to strike Syria none of this needed to happen. Several months ago the Russians feared they were about to lose the last vestige of their once-formidable sphere of influence in the region as Assad tottered. Now they are back in business and Assad is even deeper in their debt than before. Bolstered by victory in Syria, Iran also has good reason to be more confident about stalling or even defying the West on the nuclear issue. All this is something Obama handed to them free of charge on a silver platter. That isn’t “style” Mr. President; it’s substance. And the consequences will be suffered by the people of Syria, regional allies like Israel, and an American people who, despite their justified worries about trusting Obama with military force in Syria, will soon realize that American prestige and influence has never been so low since Jimmy Carter sat in the White House.

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