Putin is running diplomacy regarding Syria

By Dale R. Herspring

Leading from the rear can be dangerous. When a country vacates the leadership position, it doesn’t take long for another country to step in. That is what has happened in the Syrian crisis. The United States is no longer calling the shots. 

If someone had said last month that Russian President Vladimir Putin would appear as the oracle of peace, I would have suggested a visit with a psychiatrist. Putin’s New York Times column has shaken Washington like few others have in recent years. Indeed, it elicited the ultimate reaction when several senators said it caused them to throw up.  Others were astounded that Putin could come up with such an article, one that blew the wind out of President Barack Obama’s sails. 

It may be helpful to take a look at how Putin pulled this off. Indeed, I would argue that he could not have succeeded without Obama’s unwitting help — the way the White House has handled matters. First was the “red line” comment that Obama tried to step away from; an action that did much to discredit him in the eyes of Americans and citizens of other countries.

Another factor is Obama’s decision-making style. I think Obama did not want to launch missiles into Syria. It would have caused collateral damage,  increased violence in the region, ignited a new wave of terrorism, and in the worst case, could have led to a major war in the already unstable region. 

The problem is that in this case, Obama seemed unable to make decisions. Secretary of State John Kerry has been wrongly criticized because it is difficult for any diplomat to keep in step with a leader who is constantly changing his position. First Kerry was warning that it was a mater of time before the United States unleashed cruise missiles from warships off Syria’s coast. Then Obama learned that our closest ally, the United Kingdom, would not be in-volved. Then questions began to pop up about the willingness of France to participate.

Obama could still have acted, but he drew back and decided to ask Congress for its approval.  It soon became clear that Congress was not about to support him.  Obama was now in a bind of his own making. What chance did he have but to continue to threaten to fire missiles to Syria?

It was at this point that Putin entered the picture. And why not? Kerry had suggested this type of arrangement to Russia’s foreign minister… so Putin comes out the winner by seizing upon an American idea.  And as Obama has lost credibility Putin has gained it. He is now calling the shots. 

Putin is probably not acting out of kindness. That is not his nature. Rather, he has long been worried about Russia’s image and influence in the region.  It was not so long ago that the Russian representative at the United Nations abstained on the vote to permit NATO to help topple Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. That cost Moscow a considerable amount of money in lost contracts as well as influence and prestige in that part of the world. Now Putin had a chance to increase Russian prestige while gaining control over chemical weapons and averting a potential regional war. Putin is now indispensable to peace in Syria and perhaps to the region as well.

There will be a price for Washington. As anyone who has engaged in negotiations knows, they can often go on forever. I suspect that this is what Putin has in mind.

Finally, while it infuriated many Americans, Putin’s criticism of American “exceptionalism” is a common criticism by many in the world. It was not original. He also criticized the United States for intervening militarily around the world which, he said, “has become commonplace.” Putin felt se-cure enough to include such a criticism knowing that Obama would not like it.

It is hard to know how long Putin will hold his current position; there have even been calls for him to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Stranger things have happened.

If there is a lesson in all this, it is that leading from the front is more effective than leading from behind. To do that, however, one must have a coherent policy and be able to make timely decisions. Also, it is critical that threats be made only when absolutely necessary and that they are carried out. When they are ignored with impunity, that diminishes credibility.

Dale R. Herspring, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.

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