Leaders and Followers in Foreign Affairs

On August 16, in a similarly titled blog, I wrote how strikingly powerless was the American president not only at the national level, but at the international level as well. “American power has waned dramatically even in recent years, which means that the White House, the State Department, and even the Pentagon are generally unable to bend either individuals or institutions to their will.” I added that the American foreign policy establishment has been slow to understand how radical the changes to which I referred – and that with presidential power and authority so severely depleted, the only arrow remaining in Obama’s quiver was influence.

Little did I know then what I know now: that one month later, on September 14, would be announced an agreement between the United States and Russia, calling for the destruction or removal of Syria’s chemical arsenal within nine months. I will leave it to history to render a verdict on the agreement. I will leave to experts on weapons to determine whether the agreement is even feasible. And I will leave it to those more knowledgeable in foreign affairs than I to decide if the agreement is in the national interest.

However so far as leaders and followers are concerned, I will weigh in. Some preliminary conclusions:

• The Kremlin should be celebrating. Never in a million years would anyone have predicted that from one week to the next Putin would be transformed from a national figure in evident decline, to an international superstar who the U.S. was hustling to the negotiating table. Here was the view from Moscow a week or so ago: the regime was weakening, the economy was suffering, Putin’s popularity was dropping, and the Olympics (to take place in Russia next year) were being threatened by human rights activists. Now everything is different. Why? Because the American president has handed the Russian president a big fat gift: legitimization as full partner of the U. S. in a major international initiative. As Leon Aron summarized it in the Wall Street Journal: “Domestically, this turn of events has bolstered Mr. Putin’s image as someone who not only has unflinchingly confronted the U.S. – still the nation most feared and respected by Russians – but forced it to change its course. Internationally, it has established Mr. Putin as a kind of go-to broker who has scuttled a seemingly imminent military strike by the U. S. Most importantly, from Moscow’s perspective, Mr. Obama’s move has delayed or perhaps eliminated what Russia sees as the worst possible outcome: regime change in a faithful major client in a geostrategically crucial region.”
• The White House should be grieving. Never in a million years would anyone have predicted that from one week to the next Obama would be transformed from a figure of some stature into a something of a weakling – apparently feeling obliged by the situation of his own making into breaking bread with Putin. By entering into negotiation with the Russian autocrat, the U.S. lost ground on each of the following: 1) Though we insist that the possibility of unilateral American military force remains, in order for the Russians to agree even to begin to talk, the Americans took force off the table, leaving whatever the relevant language on the cutting room floor. 2) Obama was never able to persuade either the Congress or the American people that chemical weapons (which so far have killed fewer than 2,000 Syrians) are so much more atrocious than other sorts of weapons (which so far have killed more than 100,000 Syrians). Why, in other words, did he decide to enter into an agreement with the Russians at this time, over this issue, when he failed to do much of anything at earlier points, when so much bloodshed and heartache might have been avoided? 3) Whoever the Syrian rebels are or are not – we know that there are many different factions, some of them extremists, others moderate Syrians still desperate to get rid of their dictator – we just did them in, at least for now. By cozying up to the Kremlin, Assad’s ally, we have turned our backs on any and all Syrians who want nothing so much as for their president to disappear. 4) Given that Putin is our new found friend, various anti-Putin initiatives will suffer. They range from human rights activism to the U.N. as the court of last resort. The Russians have long threatened to veto any American proposal to the Security Council to check Assad. Now, suddenly, they’re amenable to talking about the Syrian problem, but only outside the parameters of the world body. 5) For the time being at least, Assad, who arguably is single-handedly responsible for the misery of millions (two million Syrian refugees alone), can rest easy. His friend, Putin, has morphed into our friend, which provides Assad with protection.

Look, I have no idea how any of this will turn out – just as I had no idea one month ago how in no time flat Putin would whistle and Obama would come. But what I do know is this. For the moment at least, Putin has been elevated and Obama denigrated. Not a pretty picture.

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