American Interest

Kerry Accepts the Unacceptable

Walter Russell Mead on the Obama Administration's Russia policy

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry talking during an International Syria Support Group meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel. (Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry talking during an International Syria Support Group meeting at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel. (Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)

With the Syrian ceasefire deal brokered by the United States and Russia coming apart in a spectacular fashion earlier this week, Russian bombers went into action around Aleppo in support of a sustained assault against rebel positions inside Aleppo. As of today, much to the consternation of Secretary of State John Kerry, it appears they have made real progress at pushing rebels back. The New York Times:

At the United Nations on Saturday, Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, said the army was “making great strides in its war against terrorism,” thanks to support from Russia, Iran and fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. […]

The United States has blamed President Bashar al-Assad for most of his citizens’ deaths, but has not launched a direct military intervention against him. Nor has the United States found a diplomatic means to end the violence or ensure aid reaches besieged civilians.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday called the situation in Aleppo “unacceptable.”

“It is beyond the pale,” Mr. Kerry said at Tufts University, before a meeting with European foreign ministers. “If people are serious about wanting a peaceful outcome to this war, then they should cease and desist bombing innocent women and children, cease cutting off water and laying siege to an entire community, and work with the international community in order to be able to bring peace to people who are starving.”

Kerry calls it "unacceptable", but accepting any atrocity, any aggression that Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons and paymasters commit is the essence of Obama’s Syria policy. However, because the administration doesn’t want to admit—perhaps not even to itself—just what its policy really is, it masks the policy of abject surrender with a pretense of diplomacy. This allows Kerry and others to make beautiful speeches about peaceful solutions, the need for compromise and the horrors of Assad atrocities. It is as if Chamberlain came home from Munich to make a tough speech about how Hitler’s occupation of the Sudetenland is unacceptable, and how Herr Hitler must go. Like virtually all the decisions this administration has taken since the Syria war first erupted, it is a decision that looks like the path of least resistance at the moment but that stores up the maximum amount of pain for the Syrian people, trouble for the international order, and humiliation for the Obama administration (and, unfortunately, the United States) in the slightly longer run.

“There is no alternative,” to humiliating negotiations with arrogant and vindictive Russians, say Obama Administration spokespeople when challenged. What that means is that the White House wrung its hands haplessly as its options narrowed and its choices worsened, never really thinking through one of the most basic ideas in foreign policy: while you never really can know in advance how something will turn out, if your choices get better and more numerous as time goes on, you are on the right track. If your choices keep narrowing, and the remaining options keep looking uglier, that is a pretty good sign that you are doing it wrong.

Putin has many more choices, and many more attractive choices than he did four years ago in Syria. Obama is in just the opposite situation. Having condescendingly warned the Russians that they were getting into a quagmire in Syria, even as they proceeded to inflict one painful humiliation on the Condescender in Chief after another, Obama’s Syria policy has now lost whatever appearance of coherence he has tried to preserve.

Putin has reaped the reward of his "rescue" of President Obama over the chemical weapons fiasco many times over. That episode, which allowed Obama to slink away from his "red line" comments with—he and his defenders bragged—a victory thanks to the Administration’s foresight in opening doors to Putin, served to lock in the administration’s mistaken belief that Putin was a potential partner. But while Putin may have wanted to clear out Syria’s chemical warfare materials before the Sunni jihadis got their hands on them, he also wanted to hurt Obama and weaken the United States. In practice, the much vaunted chemical weapon deal, which Obama sees as a turning point in his presidency, liberating him from such old fashioned shibboleths as "credibility", was just the first act in a con. Putin was like the three card monte dealer who lets the mark win a small initial bet. Obama has been laying more and more money down on the table ever since, but somehow the marker is never under the cup that he guesses.

Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, let’s strengthen our partnership. That is the spirit animating America’s Syria diplomacy these days, and a more miserable failure of diplomacy would be hard to find. And there is no sound that echoes so beautifully through the halls of the Kremlin as the telephone when John Kerry is calling to propose a new round of talks.