By all appearances, Vladimir Putin has taken command of American foreign policy.President Obama had backed himself into a corner; Congress was about to vote down his plan to bomb Syria.
So, he was almost visibly relieved that Vladimir Putin came riding to the rescue.
No one, not even Thomas Friedman and Maureen Dowd, thinks that the Obama administration has been doing foreign policy well.
On the reliably liberal site, Slate, William Dobson wrote:
But if your foreign policy has to be rescued by a dictator, you are doing it wrong. That’s where President Obama finds himself today. Putin is providing Obama an out he couldn’t find for himself.
Maureen Dowd was less charitable:
Just as Obama and Kerry — with assists from Hillary and some senators — were huffing and puffing that it was their military threat that led to the breakthrough, Putin moved to neuter them, saying they’d have to drop their military threat before any deal could proceed. The administration’s saber-rattling felt more like knees rattling. Oh, for the good old days when Obama was leading from behind. Now these guys are leading by slip-of-the-tongue.
Amateur hour started when Obama dithered on Syria and failed to explain the stakes there. It escalated last August with a slip by the methodical wordsmith about “a red line for us” — which the president and Kerry later tried to blur as the world’s red line, except the world was averting its eyes.
Obama’s flip-flopping, ambivalent leadership led him to the exact place he never wanted to be: unilateral instead of unified. Once again, as with gun control and other issues, he had not done the groundwork necessary to line up support. The bumbling approach climaxed with two off-the-cuff remarks by Kerry, hitting a rough patch in the role of a lifetime, during a London press conference Monday; he offered to forgo an attack if Assad turned over “every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community” and promised, if they did strike, that it would be an “unbelievably small” effort.
Tom Friedman could muster only the most perfunctory rationalization for the botched policy:
If all of this sounds incredibly messy and confusing, it is. And while Obama and his team have contributed to this mess by way too much loose talk, in fairness, there is also a deep structural reason for it. Obama is dealing with an Arab world that no modern president has had to confront.
One expects very little from Friedman and one is rarely disappointed. One is not surprised that he fails to notice that President Obama bears some considerable responsibility for the “mess” in the Middle East. Remember how poorly the Obama-Clinton foreign policy team handled the Arab Spring?
As for the action going forward, Stratfor set the guidelines. If you were tempted to see the Russian proposal as a serious way out of the crisis, Stratfor recommends that you curb your enthusiasm:
Russian President Vladimir Putin saw an opportunity to assert Russia as a great power with the influence to make the United States bend and its allies quiver. Moscow's bluff came in the form of a well-timed proposal to secure, seize and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. To the relief of many, the move actually seemed to extinguish the military threat to Syria. In reality, Russia's proposal was a non-starter. Sending hundreds of U.N. inspectors and technicians to secure 1,000 metric tons of chemical weapons stockpiles spread across at least 50 sites in a country embroiled in a brutal civil war is a long, arduous and highly complicated process – a mission that would require ground troops at a time when no country, not even Russia, appears prepared to take that risk. Still, the proposal sounded good enough for the White House and its European allies to apply the brakes to the military option and shift to the diplomatic route.
It should be fairly obvious to everyone that in the current diplomatic game the Russians are trying to enhance their stature and status at the expense of the United States.
In an analytic report distributed today Stratfor explains:
The issue has morphed into a U.S.-Russian confrontation. Russia's goal is to be seen as an equal of the United States. It wins if it can be seen as a protagonist of the United States. If it can appear that Washington has refrained from an attack because of Russian maneuvers, Moscow's weight increases dramatically. This is particularly the case along Russia's periphery, where doubts of American power abound and concern over Russian power abides.
This is not merely appearance. After all that has been said, if the United States buys into some Russian framework, it will not be seen as a triumph of diplomacy; it will be seen as the United States lacking the will to act and being pushed away out of concern for the Russians.
The Russian ploy on weapons controls was followed by the brilliant move of abandoning strike options. Obama's speech the night of Sept. 10 was addressed to the U.S. public and Obama's highly fractured base; some of his support base opposes and some -- a particular audience -- demands action.
The idea that this imbroglio will somehow disappear is certainly one that Obama is considering. But the Russians will not want that to happen. They do not want to let Obama off the hook and their view is that he will not act. Against this backdrop, they can appear to be the nemesis of the United States, its equal in power and its superior in cunning and diplomacy.
Dobson offered a similar analysis:
Of course, Syria has not yet pledged to hand over its chemical weapons. If it does, it would truly be one of the happiest accidents of this entire episode. (Whatever the administration says about its threatened use of force, this outcome was unforeseen.) Never mind that the United States has no idea where Assad has squirreled away his chemical munitions. For now we will engage the likely fiction that Assad will self-disarm his most potent weapon for ensuring his future survival—the only thing a dictator craves—because it allows all sides to stand down. The argument will now turn to how credible the Russian plan truly is, whether any agreement can be backed by a future use of force, and whether Assad will comply.
If Putin’s maneuver doesn’t pan out, Obama’s foreign policy will still likely fall victim to the vicissitudes of a dictator. Because one message is already clear in Damascus: The Obama administration will do everything in its power to do nothing at all. If Assad finds himself up against the wall, he will likely gas his fellow Syrians again. Maybe he will reduce the scale and scope, but it is doubtful that he will abandon the weapons. How will President Obama respond then? It is hard to say. Because no one knows what the president is doing. At least he has the element of surprise.
The Obama administration must think that it has dodged a bullet. Yet, it has been hemorrhaging credibility, at home and abroad. The Syria crisis feels like the moment where even the president’s supporters can no longer sustain the illusion that he is competent.
It’s not a good thing.