Russia’s aggressive military campaign in Syria proves Vladimir Putin has out-maneuvered Barack Obama and if he is not stopped he will continue to upend the expressed will of the United States. Contrary to the ‘Inside-the-Beltway’ insistence that the President’s powerlessness, and therefore the collective humiliation of the American people, is wrought out of his inexperience as an executive, it is actually due to at least two underlying false premises on which the President has built his foreign policy.
The first false premise is that the world is more stable if the United States leads less. The global economy, the ease of communications and international travel, and the moral standards that are central to the character of the United States, does not permit American ambivalence. The late professor and strategist Harold W. Rood insisted ‘You run the show or the show runs you.’ Where there is indecision on the part of the United States, others will make decisions, and those decisions will more often than not work against American priorities. If the United States fails to bend world events to American ends, the United States will be constantly reacting to an unending, merciless cycle of events that do not result with terms favorable to the United States.
What we have seen is that American ambivalence permits mass persecution of Christians and other minorities by Islamist militants. It does nothing to slow let alone stop child sex slavery, beheadings, and the torture of Western journalists and humanitarians. Those same perpetrators are recruiting from the West, gaining and holding huge swaths of territory, and opposing legitimate governments. It has allowed the kind of chaos and human suffering that prompts the Syrian refugee crisis. It has failed to deter China from claiming sovereignty over the international waters of the South China Sea, of which$5.3 trillion of global trade annually passes, $1.2 trillion of that American. And it has failed to convince Russia that the punishment for invading an ally of the United States is not worth the gains.
The other false premise is that diplomatic agreements are the hallmarks of effective American leadership. President Obama has racked up agreement after agreement during his presidency as though each one provides incontrovertible proof that he is a peacemaker. And yet, these agreements have not brought peace; instead, they have proven the United States foolish, our adversaries—especially Russia— shrewd, and have left the world increasingly volatile.
The New Start Treaty was the first such example. In it the United States agreed to reduce the number of its nuclear weapons as well as delivery platforms. It did not require the Russians to reduce the number of tactical nuclear weapons, those very weapons Putin and other senior Russian leaders have recently used to explicitly and implicitly threaten NATO. Nor did President Obama and Secretary Clinton take into consideration that the treaty disproportionally affected the United States’ nuclear deterrent when one acknowledges that the United States has a self-imposed testing prohibition on nuclear weapons, that the United States does not MIRV (place multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles on) its ICBMS, and has sworn off creating new nuclear weapons. The Russians test nuclear weapons, MIRV their ICBMs, and have no qualms about developing new nuclear weapons. While the U.S. moves away from nuclear deterrence in its defense strategy, Russia moves nuclear deterrence front and center. And all the while the Obama-Clinton team negotiated the New START Treaty Russia was violating the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. To date, nothing of substance has come of the INF violation.
The second example of an agreement that did not further American objectives was the one arranged by Russia to remove Syria’s Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons. When President Obama drew his now infamous “redline” with Assad regarding the use of chemical weapons, and then Assad crossed that line at least once, Obama panicked and dithered publicly. Congress didn’t support using force in Syria because the President was unable to persuade it that he had an effective plan. At this point Putin saw an opportunity to both empower his ally Assad and thwart the strategic objectives of the United States. He struck the deal to have the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) remove Assad’s declared chemical weapons. And now, Assad remains comfortably in power and there is mounting evidence that shows he continues to allow or direct the use of chemical weapons against his opponents.
The third such example is the Iran deal. Even supporters of the Iran deal admit the United States conceded too much. One of the worst concessions was the lifting of the conventional arms and ballistic missile embargo. There is little doubt Russia was behind this 11th hour concession. Russia is the primary benefactor and because of it, the alliance between Russia, Iran, and as we are now seeing—Syria, grows more powerful and more capable. The Administration’s original position that “no deal is better than a bad deal” quickly turned into the blatantly false dilemma “it is this deal or war” when it realized a good deal was simply unachievable.
Russia’s claim to legitimate military intervention in Syria is the latest embarrassing and disastrous event in the unfolding of a series of events that lay bare the waning of U.S influence. But let us not chalk up the upending of American objectives to inexperience. It is the false premises the President holds true, and the American people would be wise to ensure the next Commander in Chief doesn’t hold the same ones.