Last week an Obama administration official bragged that the White House’s Syria policy is working out just as planned. Special envoy for Syria Michael Ratney said that the “Russians wouldn’t have to help [Bashar al-]Assad if we didn’t weaken him.”
His audience, a group of Syrian-American anti-Assad activists, was understandably appalled. Ratney’s remarks were roundly mocked and left critics of Obama’s Middle East policy shaking their heads in disbelief. Just three months after signing a deal to limit Iran’s nuclear weapons program—the only alternative to war, we were told—the war in Syria has escalated dangerously.
Contrary to some reports, though, the White House has known for months that Russian premier Vladimir Putin was building up his forces in Syria. Much of the Russian materiel moved through the Bosphorus, so NATO watched Putin’s buildup from a front-row seat in Turkey. All through the spring and summer sessions of the negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration could see what Moscow was up to. When the Russians demanded in July that the arms embargo on Iran be lifted, the American negotiating team conceded the point, facilitating the Russian-Iranian project in Syria. The $150 billion freed up for Iran as a “signing bonus” is the fund from which Tehran is drawing the $21 billion it pledged to Russia in exchange for arms, technology, and troops in Syria. Laugh if you will at Ratney’s remarks, but he’s not too far from the truth. The way Obama sees it, things really are working out as he planned.
It’s important to understand that the Iran deal was never solely about Tehran’s nuclear program. Ending 36 years of hostility, as Obama understands it, is supposed to relieve the United States of its overwhelming burden to ensure Middle East stability and compel other stakeholders to shoulder some of the burden. From Obama’s perspective, that’s a benign interpretation of what Putin is now doing in Syria.
What’s more, to reach a deal, Obama decided he needed to show Iran that he was in earnest about a new beginning. That meant granting the mullahs their nuclear weapons program a few years down the road and hobbling Iran’s enemies. Obama sought to weaken Israel and Saudi Arabia, America’s traditional allies, not to punish them, but as part of his grand strategy for the Middle East, a “new geopolitical equilibrium” that would bring more stability to a volatile part of the world. Sure, Obama understands that the Iranians sponsor terrorism and act badly. But that doesn’t mean America should have to come running any time the Arabs get scared. In May, Obama told a group of Arab officials that maybe they should take a page out of Iran’s playbook and build their own Quds Force—and learn how to defend and advance their own interests.
As for Obama’s view of Israel, well, it’s a democracy, to be sure, and a cherished friend, but its unending conflict with the Palestinians fuels anti-American terrorism. Also, every time Israel gets in a shooting war with one of its neighbors—Hamas, Hezbollah—American policymakers have to get their hands dirty at the U.N. Can’t have that.
A new geopolitical equilibrium in the Middle East would rein in America’s troublesome partners and bring Iran in from the cold. It was precisely because none of them liked each other that the idea was so attractive. Obama would ensure a region where there was no victor and no vanquished. This wouldn’t eliminate war from the Middle East, but it would calm things down considerably and let America go home. For years, liberal internationalists had been talking about getting the rest of the world to share the burden, but Obama actually had a big idea about how to get everyone else to pitch in.
One problem for Obama was that most people wouldn’t get it. And they wouldn’t like large parts if they did get it. You can imagine him in front of pro-Israel groups answering questions about his Iran deal. __So when you talk about acknowledging Iranian interests in Syria, Mr. President, you mean we are acknowledging Tehran’s right to ship Hezbollah missiles and point them at the Jewish state?__
George W. Bush had it easy, Obama must have thought. He could get up and speak openly about promoting democracy in the Middle East because Americans like feel-good stuff. That doesn’t hold for Obama’s big idea. For instance, the American public wouldn’t like the idea of rapprochement with Iran. Polls show they hate Iran. It seems the only thing they like less is the prospect of America getting involved in another war in the Middle East. So tell them your deal is the only alternative to war.
Even Obama’s cabinet didn’t understand what he was doing. Two years ago they all wanted to back Syrian rebels as a proxy force against Iran and its Syrian allies. Obama’s former CIA director David Petraeus and ex-secretary of state Hillary Clinton still want to set up a no-fly zone for Syria. It’s a typical Cold War idea—but as Obama explained, “Syria isn’t some Cold War chessboard.”
There is no more Cold War and no more chessboards—the future is not about competition between rival powers but coordination. As Hudson Institute scholar Michael Doran puts it, “what Obama envisions is a concert system, where every international actor does its part.”
From Obama’s point of view, this is what Putin is doing in Syria, hands-on management of the balance of power—and it’s about time someone else got their hands dirty. Let Putin do it, Obama thinks. It’s not going to work perfectly. It’s going to take some time before the world gets used to the new system. More people will die before the world learns how to sing together. But make no mistake: Putin’s escalation is precisely the sort of thing Obama had planned.
The problem, as always with Obama, is the world doesn’t work the way he thinks it does. It’s not a chess game and it’s not a concert hall. The world, as America’s greatest Cold War poet Wallace Stevens reminds us, is ugly / and the people are sad. What we are really watching in Syria is Obama’s grand theory exposed to reality and shattering on contact. The next administration will have to pick up the pieces, starting immediately.