Having studied Russia for more than 50 years, I never thought I would say that a Russian leader has outsmarted a United States president. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.
When it comes to foreign policy, the most important element behind any leader is credibility. It is no surprise that questions have repeatedly risen about President Barack Obama’s credibility. I wish I had a dollar for each time he has threatened the Iranians: “They either stop their efforts to produce a nuclear weapons or else… All options are on the table!” If these threats have had an impact on Tehran, it has been to speed up Iran’s efforts to produce a bomb.
A number of pundits have argued that Obama cannot talk without a teleprompter. I understand the feeling. Having been a diplomat, I know it is critical to have your talking points in order. The moment one begins to think for oneself, one is in trouble. The job of senior government officials is to spout the administration line. One can go overnight from pushing the foreign policy of Jimmy Carter to that of Ronald Rea-gan.
If there was a point at which Obama not only damaged, but severely undercut his credibility, it was with his now famous “red line.” A year ago he drew a “red line,” saying that if Syria either used or even began moving chemical weapons around, the United States would respond.
Recently he chang-ed his tune and said that the international community drew the “red line.” That is not only nonsense, it is a clear indication of his inability to deal with foreign policy issues. Imagine you are an official in a foreign government that is critical of U.S. policy and you have to try to convince your senior officials that Obama is a serious player in the international arena. Who will take you seriously as you try to convince them that Obama will take action? Where is his leadership?
A critical aspect of leadership is personal accountability. Leaders make mistakes. While I disagreed with Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy, I respect his decision to accept personal responsibility for the failed attempt to free our embassy staff in Tehran.
Obama has repeatedly refused to accept responsibility for his policies. It is the Republicans, Russian President Vladimir Putin or someone else who is responsible. If he is not able to work out a coherent policy on Syria, it will be Putin’s fault.
It is too early to know how things will turn out. Will he bomb Syria without the permission of Congress? It doesn’t matter, be-cause not only has his credibility been damaged, the United States also is not being taken seriously. This was an issue that should have been decided weeks ago.
By not acting, Obama has given Assad ample time to move his missiles and weapons into hospitals and mosques. The Pentagon has reportedly had to change its operational plans “50 times.” This is the ultimate of politicization of the military. Obama’s actions remind one of LBJ calling the shots in Vietnam. Who knows what he will order the military to do if he decides to bomb Syria?
If we do not bomb Syria, we will be seen as a paper tiger; encouraging Iran, North Korea and other terrorist states to push further against the United States. There is no fear of consequences, and that encourages the ambitious, the aggrieved and the just plain jealous to act. The United States is long on rhetoric but short on action.
On the other hand, if Obama does bomb Syria, he will have given the other side sufficient time to push back. We have reports that the Iranians have already set up attacks against our embassies, making me very happy I am not in an embassy in the Middle East.
To return to Putin, if I believed in conspiracies, I would almost believe that Putin was working behind the scenes to make all of this happen. More surprising is that Obama is playing along like a puppet on a string. Putin has a weak hand, but he is a leader. KGB officers like Putin were trained to know the enemy. Putin understands that Obama leads from the rear, and that he can can fill the leadership vacuum left by Obama.
Putin comes out of this looking strong and clearly in charge. He put on a very good conference in St. Petersburg and left the impression that it is not the Kremlin that wants to challenge world peace. It is Obama.
Dale R. Herspring, a University Distinguished Professor and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, is a retired U.S. diplomat and Navy captain.