Tuesday, 14 May 2013
Obama's One-Sided "Reset" With Russia
President Obama’s long courtship of Vladimir Putin is a persuasive rebuttal to the argument that his failures are attributable to his detached, analytical approach to politics. For in that fruitless endeavor, the president has often appeared to be as ardent and undiscerning a suitor as Jay Gatsby.
At the outset of his first term, Obama pledged that a “reset” relationship with Russia would be the cornerstone of his administration’s diplomacy. His mistaken assumption that the resetting could be undertaken unilaterally by the United States implicitly encouraged Putin’s diagnosis: namely, that the problems in the relationship had all been caused by that international bully, George W. Bush, who, among his other sins, had the audacity to support the self-determination of former Soviet republics.
Yet, after more than four years of making amends for perceived injuries to Russian pride and prestige, the man in the Oval Office still struggles to convince his unreceptive Russian counterpart that our nations have common interests and responsibilities. That’s because Vladimir Putin apparently believes his interests are advanced in opposition to ours, no matter the affect his obstinacy has on international peace and stability or the suffering of millions.
Historians and psychiatrists can debate whether Putin’s hostility is attributable to his formative experiences in the KGB, to U.S. provocations -- real or imagined -- or to a genuinely paranoid mind. But what seems inarguable is that it persists to the present day and the possibility that it can be much ameliorated by Obama’s wishful thinking is slight.
That’s not to say that the United States should cease trying to enlist Russia in efforts to make the world a safer place. They can bear fruit on occasion, as they did when Moscow acquiesced to harsher sanctions on Iran. But we had best have a Plan B ready when our appeals fail, as they usually will. And we ought to recognize the limited utility of pleading for good behavior when there isn’t an assurance of penalties for bad behavior.
Nowhere has Putin’s antagonism to the U.S. and his indifference to the dangers and suffering it can cause been more destructive than in his sustaining support for Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus. That support includes providing the weaponry the regime has used to slaughter tens of thousands of its citizens, as well as Russia’s refusal to join in any international effort to sanction the regime or achieve a resolution of the Syrian civil war that requires Assad to relinquish power.
To the detriment of U.S. interests and values, the security of Syria’s neighbors, and the suffering Syrian people, Obama has resisted calls to supply weapons to the Syrian resistance or intervene militarily. He has sought instead to deprive Assad of his Russian support, undeterred by Russia’s refusal to play along. Putin has persisted in viewing Syria as an arena of U.S.-Russian rivalry.
After two years of the regime’s atrocities and with its recent battlefield successes improving Assad’s prospects for retaining power over at least part of Syria, Putin isn’t going to change sides now. He sees Assad’s survival as a defeat for the U.S. and a victory for Russia, just as he saw the opposite result in Muammar Gadhafi’s overthrow.
Ethnic cleansing on a grand scale, 80,000 people killed, the rape and murder of children, the bombing of hospitals, the use of sarin gas, the prospect of terrorists acquiring chemical weapons, hundreds of thousands of refugees flooding into Jordan, sectarian hostilities flaring in surrounding countries and threatening region-wide violence and chaos, it’s all beside the point to Putin. Should Assad survive, Russia wins and America loses. That’s all that matters to him. He is indifferent to all other concerns.
To ensure his victory, Putin will do what he can to discourage the U.S. from acting more decisively. That’s why we should take seriously the threat that Russia will supply Assad with S-300 air defense missiles. Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has said Russia hasn’t agreed to any new contracts for defense assistance to Syria, but old contracts will be fulfilled.
If those old contracts include the delivery of S-300s, it will become much more dangerous for the U.S. and its allies to impose a no-fly zone in Syria. Obama hasn’t seemed very eager to undertake that mission. Nevertheless, I would think he would want to preserve the option in the event that he belatedly recognizes how mistaken his forbearance has proved to be.
Red lines aren’t what they used to be since Syria crossed Obama’s most recent one about using chemical weapons, and the president’s response to date is to have Secretary of State John Kerry get Lavrov’s agreement to an international conference on Syria, the time and place for which is yet to be determined -- if it ever happens at all. But now would be a good time to try drawing another one, and let Putin know that if he sends S-300s to Syria, the U.S. will accept his challenge that Russia is again a hostile adversary and we’ll resume treating it accordingly.
The world could benefit right now from a little more of the cool, analytical Obama, who assesses the efficacy of policies by their results, and a little less of the starry-eyed dreamer, who pines for the relationship that might have been.