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The Strategy That Dares Not Speak Its Name

Walter Russell Mead

Outlines of a Russian-mediated grand bargain on Syria are slowly emerging, with the deal allowing Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to remain in power during a transitional period while a coalition to combat ISIS is put together. Some kind of bargain, whether it looks like Russia’s or not, may get international support. Murkily sourced reports suggest that both Saudi Arabia and Iran are guardedly open to some kind of compromise solution. Then yesterday afternoon, Germany’s Angela Merkel broke with the standing European consensus and stated that some kind of negotiated solution to Syria would include Assad, while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara was open to Assad remaining in power during a transition phase, as long as the opposition was also included, and Assad stepped down at the end of the process. Now France, too, may be hopping on the bandwagon.

But the biggest question will be what happens when President Obama sits down with President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly on Monday. There, the Administration seems to be pursuing an odd strategy: It is insulting Putin even as it agrees to meet with him. As this NYT story illustrates, the White House is going to great lengths to make it look as if Putin is desperate to meet with Obama. This is probably one more triumph of short-term PR thinking over any kind of strategic approach—an attempt at trying to make President Obama “look” strong.

Meanwhile, the West Wing’s core strategy in Syria is looking more and more like an attempt to keep the U.S. out no matter what happens—while making it look as if we care. What that strategy boils down to is letting Iran and Russia do pretty much what they want in the Middle East in the belief that the fight is too dirty for the U.S. to gain anything by participating in it. But because this strategy telegraphs weakness globally and threatens to destabilize the Middle East even more than we’ve already seen, it would go over very poorly in the U.S. if it dared to speak its own name.

Perhaps Obama is hoping that Syria will become a quagmire for Iran and Russia that ultimately does to them what Afghanistan did to the Soviet Union. Perhaps he doesn’t think anything the U.S. can do will lead to a better result at an acceptable price, and so he is resigned to letting whatever hellish horrors erupt in Syria take their course. “Let the black flower blossom as it may”, as Hawthorne wrote in The Scarlet Letter.

However, it really is Obama who needs the meeting more than Putin. At earlier stages in the crisis, mostly for PR reasons (and to quiet the anguished wails of people like Samantha Power who presumably objected to becoming a bystander in the worst case of mass murder since Rwanda), President Obama and his cabinet, believing that Assad’s regime would soon collapse on its own, unwisely publicly demanded that “Assad must go.” As it turned out, Assad didn’t really have to go. He just kept murdering people by the truckload, and Obama sat passively by. Now the president needs a fig leaf, and it would help Obama a great deal if Putin and the Iranians would do him the favor of getting rid of their Syrian ally.

The other half of the president’s Syria dilemma is ISIS. Here again he needs to appear to be doing something, given the effect ISIS has had on American opinion. But his goal appears to be to look busy while doing as little as possible. A few random bombs here, some drone strikes there, a flashy-sounding train-and-equip program (that nevertheless peskily throws some truly embarrassing stories every so often into the daily news flow)—basically a PR effort that keeps the political heat off but doesn’t amount to more than the absolute minimum response.

But one can tread water like this for only so long. The Sunni Arabs, who smell a betrayal of historic proportions, want him to concentrate on kicking the Shi’a power out of Syria. If he isn’t doing that, anything he does against ISIS without also taking on Assad underlines the degree to which he seems to be shifting U.S. support from the Sunnis to the Shi’a, enflaming the region in unpredictable ways. If the Russians and Iranians will do Obama the favor of getting rid of Assad—even if it is just setting him up in a lovely dacha outside Moscow for permanent retirement—then Obama has something to show to the Sunnis. He can then continue his desultory campaign against ISIS while hoping that, for reasons of their own, the Russians and Iranians will also help him turn the tide in that fight.

So in practical terms, however it looks to the schedulers, yes, Obama needs the meeting more than Putin. The question won’t be what price will Putin pay Obama for help. It is exactly the other way around: How much will Putin charge Obama to help him out of the hole that an incoherent Syria and regional Middle East policies have left him in? One thing we can be fairly sure of, with respect to that question, is that Putin isn’t interested in helping Obama in any serious way. Dividing America’s alliances, undermining its prestige, and weakening its global position remains the pole star of Putin’s foreign policy. Lucy hasn’t asked to see Charlie Brown, that is, to apologize for pulling the football away.

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