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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East

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U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by Vice President Joe Biden, delivers a statement on Syria in the Rose Garden of the White House on Aug. 31, 2013. (Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images)
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It is also worth noting that the nerve-gas attack in Syria is simply the latest and biggest in a series of incidents in which Putin has chosen to publicly confront the United States and stick his finger in Obama’s eye. First, Putin chose to give NSA leaker Edward Snowden refuge in Moscow’s airport and then in Moscow itself—a decision that led Obama to cancel his planned summit meeting with the Russian president, which presumably was a consequence that Putin both predicted and welcomed. Second, Putin decided to criminalize homosexuality at the Sochi Olympics—a thumb in the eye to an American government that prided itself on its acceptance of gay marriage. The U.S. press treated each of these incidents as indications that Putin is a difficult, ornery person—when in retrospect, they appear to be part of an ongoing global campaign to put Moscow on one side and Washington on the other. Applying the wedge tactics in the global arena that were so successful in Putin’s use of the Pussy Riot incident at home was an interesting novelty, it seemed, but nothing more. What was missing was any sense of why Putin would suddenly find it to Russia’s advantage to stoke conflict with Washington.

Evidence for why Putin might have gambled on America backing down is again easy to find. Obama made it plain that his only real interest in the Middle East was to get American troops out of the region as fast as possible. His famous Cairo speech, which so excited global commentators, pro and con, was a rhetorical signal that America was taking a new direction after eight years of war. The direction Obama clearly favored was “out”—out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, out of the business of backing Hosni Mubarak and other regional dictators, out of attempts to overthrow or destabilize the regime in Iran, out of any real effort to create a Palestinian state or force Israel to leave the West Bank.

For Washington policymakers on both sides of the aisle, Obama’s new direction for Mideast policy made plenty of sense. The American economy was weakened by a decade of wars, the American people were tired, and the Pentagon was broke. Attempts at using limited force in Libya had created a mess that made even reasonable people long for the days of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Egypt, where Obama hoped for an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, slid into economic chaos and hopeless misrule. On the plus side, what was left of al-Qaida seemed more or less under control—and there was also the surprising news that, thanks to improved technology for extracting oil from shale deposits, America was on track to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017. So, why bother with the Middle East?

The president’s Syria policy was therefore an entirely coherent example of his larger approach to the region: Let Assad’s forces and the Sunni jihadists stomp on each other’s corpses and then YouTube it, while America provided airplane meals to a limited number of people who professed their belief in some form of democratic, nonsectarian government. The appointment of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was icing on the policy cake, ensuring that the Pulitzer Prize-winner would be too busy explaining Syria policy to her fellow delegates and Ivy League grads to write a book denouncing Obama as an accomplice to genocide. It was perfect set-up, until Putin ruined it all with a nasty poison gas attack on Obama’s face-saving “red line.”

The prize Putin is seeking for obliterating the American “red line” is not victory in Syria—since his client Assad is clearly winning anyway. The point of the attack is to publically expose Obama’s deep ambivalence about the use of force to stop Iran. If Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria can fall so easily, after the public deaths of more than 1,000 innocent people, including hundreds of children who died foaming at the mouth, how many cruise missiles might Iran’s putative acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity cost? Two hundred? One hundred? Zero? The answer now is plain: However many missiles they might fire, America has no stomach for fighting a war in Syria, let alone in Iran.

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Putin needs to make America look weak because Russia is weak. The major source of Russian weakness is Vladimir Putin—or rather, the system that Putin has imposed on Russia so that he can continue in his dual capacity as the country’s elected leader and also its richest man. When he decided to run for president again in 2012, Putin was faced with a fateful choice: He could work to make Russia an attractive destination for foreign capital by strengthening the rule of law and loosening the grip of the oligarchs, or he could choose to strengthen his own rule, according to the methods that were most familiar to him. Putin’s decision to use fraudulent means to win the presidential election, and then to clamp down hard on subsequent criticism, closing down newspapers and throwing critics in jail, made perfect sense to a man bred in an authoritarian state. It also ensured that the Russian economy would continue to be run through Putin and the oligarchs—the backbone of his political support—in ways that were unlikely to encourage rational foreign investment. The decay of the Russian economy under Putin means that foreign policy is not a moral exercise—rather, it is the only means by which Russia’s current economic leverage can be sustained.

By showing that Obama’s America is unable and unwilling to keep its promises, Putin has widened the leadership void in the Middle East—as a prelude to filling it himself. By helping to clear Iran’s path to a bomb, Putin positions himself as Iran’s most powerful ally—while paradoxically gaining greater leverage with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, who would much rather negotiate with Russia than with Iran, their sworn enemy. While the Americans were heading out of the Middle East, and the Chinese were too busy with their own internal debates about the future of their economy and society, Putin saw that something valuable had been abandoned on the world stage, and he took it. For the price of 1,000 dead civilians in Damascus, he has gained great power status in the oil-rich Middle East. Iran, for its part, gets the bomb, which isn’t great news for anyone, but was probably going to happen anyway.

If Putin baited a trap for the United States in Damascus, it was Obama who walked right into it.

The first lesson here for American policymakers is that Putin may or may not be evil, but he is obviously much smarter than they are—and he knows it. Another lesson worth learning is that American belief in promoting ostensibly universal aims like promoting democracy or halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through the limited and well-meaning use of military force is only sensible in a world of people who share American values and preferences.

Since no such world exists, at least right now, and probably ever, Americans might be better off crediting the notion that while we are thinking our thoughts, other people are thinking their own thoughts, which are shaped by very different experiences and aesthetics—and that are likely to shape a world that we no longer control, in part because we have decided that telling people in faraway places what to do is the ultimate sin. In that belief, as in many others, Obama—and not his critics on the left and on the right—accurately reflects the will of the American people, who have experienced the endless wars of the last 50 years as a pointless waste of lives and treasure whose only clear outcomes appear to be piles of corpses abroad and the diminishment of basic liberties at home.

Only time will tell whose evil is worse—Putin’s or Obama’s. While Putin delights in using the old-school KGB playbook to consolidate his one-man rule, and to expose the empty moral posturing of the West, Obama believes that he can talk his way into a workable accommodation between his own sense of morality and global reality. But the lesson of Obama’s fig leaf is that it is better to be honest about what we are doing in the world and why. If Putin baited a trap for the United States in Damascus, it was Obama who walked right into it. If Obama had stood up and declared that the United States had no vital interest in Syria but would stop Iran from getting nukes—and would prosecute the authors of the nerve-gas attack at The Hague—then Putin would have been trapped. The same would have been true if Obama had said nothing and blown up two or three of Assad’s palaces. But he did neither. Sometimes, well-meaning lies and political spin can be just as deadly, in the end, as nerve gas.

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Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?

Why the Russian president has every reason to cross Barack Obama’s “red line” on Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East

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