President Obama has united the nation. From one end of the political spectrum to the other there is general agreement that his handling of the crisis in Syria has been singularly inept and incompetent.
Yesterday, Obama’s two first Secretaries of Defense openly derided his crisis management.
Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, a Republican and a Democrat saw clearly that their former boss had made a complete mess of the situation.
George Friedman of Stratfor recently analyzed where the Obama administration had gone wrong. Driven by ideology the administration could not develop and implement a strategy.
Friedman explained the incoherence and absurdity of the Obama threats to bomb Syria:
When President Barack Obama threatened military action in retaliation for what he claimed was the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government, he intended a limited strike that would not destroy the weapons. Destroying them all from the air would require widespread air attacks over an extensive period of time, and would risk releasing the chemicals into the atmosphere. The action also was not intended to destroy Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime. That, too, would be difficult to do from the air, and would risk creating a power vacuum that the United States was unwilling to manage. Instead, the intention was to signal to the Syrian government that the United States was displeased.
The threat of war is useful only when the threat is real and significant. This threat, however, was intended to be insignificant. Something would be destroyed, but it would not be the chemical weapons or the regime. As a gesture, therefore, what it signaled was not that it was dangerous to incur American displeasure, but rather that American displeasure did not carry significant consequences. The United States is enormously powerful militarily and its threats to make war ought to be daunting, but instead, the president chose to frame the threat such that it would be safe to disregard it.
Friedman did not mention that new UN Ambassador Samantha Power is most clearly associated with the view that American foreign policy should serve humanitarian and human rights, but not our national interest. Perhaps she is merely a symptom, but her thought is obviously influential.
Friedman explains the ideological basis for the policy:
All American administrations have a tendency to think ideologically, and there is an ideological bent heavily represented in the Obama administration that feels that U.S. military power ought to be used to prevent genocide. This feeling dates back to World War II and the Holocaust, and became particularly intense over Rwanda and Bosnia, where many believe the United States could have averted mass murder. Many advocates of American intervention in humanitarian operations would oppose the use of military force in other circumstances, but regard its use as a moral imperative to stop mass murder.
Developing a strategy based on an ideology is difficult under any circumstances. When you have an inexperienced foreign policy team led by a president who knows far less than he thinks he knows you cannot but fail.
The alignment of moral principles with national strategy is not easy under the best of circumstances. Ideologies tend to be more seductive in generalized terms, but not so coherent in specific cases. This is true throughout the political spectrum. But it is particularly intense in the Obama administration, where the ideas of humanitarian intervention, absolutism in human rights, and opposition to weapons of mass destruction collide with a strategy of limiting U.S. involvement -- particularly military involvement -- in the world. The ideologies wind up demanding judgments and actions that the strategy rejects.
The result is what we have seen over the past month with regard to Syria: A constant tension between ideology and strategy that caused the Obama administration to search for ways to do contradictory things. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States, and this case will not reduces its objective power. But it does create a sense of uncertainty about what precisely the United States intends. When that happens in a minor country, this is not problematic. In the leading power, it can be dangerous.
As everyone knows, Vladimir Putin’s Russia has emerged as the winner:
The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management. To that end, Putin's op-ed in The New York Times was brilliant.
This should not be seen merely as imagery: The image of the Russians forcing the Americans to back down resonates all along the Russian periphery. In the former Soviet satellites, the complete disarray in Europe on this and most other issues, the vacillation of the United States, and the symbolism of Kerry and Lavrov negotiating as equals will shape behavior for quite awhile.