“I want Russia to be successful,” President Barack Obama told reporters on Friday after chastising Vladimir Putin for his stepped-up militarism in Syria. “This is not a contest between the United States and Russia. It is in our interest for Russia to be a responsible, effective actor on the international stage that can share burdens with us, along with China, along with Europe, along with Japan, along with other countries – because the problems we have are big.”
“So, I’m hopeful,” Obama explained, “that Mr. Putin, having made this doubling-down of the support he has provided to [Syria’s strongman, Bashar Assad], recognizes that this is not going to be a good long-term strategy and that he works instead to bring about a political settlement.”
Thus, Obama argued, Washington doesn’t need to compete with Moscow in Syria. Those who worry that Russia is rising while America declines, that Moscow is beating Washington to the punch in the Middle East and beyond, are blinded by outdated thinking. Obama suggested that he knows what’s best for all nations, based on the lessons of history and the inevitable arc of the future.
As the gap between Obama’s reassuring analysis and a more troubling reality grows, even a casual observer may be tempted to recall Chico Marx’s line from “Duck Soup”: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”
In Obama’s world, as he told the United Nations last week, “The measure of strength [for nations] is no longer defined by the control of territory” but instead “depends on the success of their people.”
Thus, Russia is not rising but “isolated” over its efforts to protect Assad, as well as its earlier annexing of Crimea and continuing aggression in Ukraine. Similarly, Iran is not rising as a regional force but is, instead, “isolated” over its continued sponsorship of terrorism because it exacerbates regional mayhem.
The United States, Obama suggested, has no permanent enemies – only nations he hasn’t yet convinced to work with us. “We see in our debates about America’s role in the world,” he also told the United Nations, “a notion of strength that is defined by opposition to old enemies, perceived adversaries, a rising China, or a resurgent Russia; a revolutionary Iran or an Islam that is incompatible with peace.”
While asserting that he “will never hesitate to protect my country or our allies, unilaterally and by force where necessary,” Obama seems to believe that military force is always misguided – whether it’s deployed by the United States to oust a brutal dictator or by Russia to keep one in office.
“Russia is not going to be successful in imposing a military solution inside of Syria,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the other day, “and they’ll be no more successful in that regard than the United States was in imposing a military solution in Iraq in the last decade, and certainly no more successful than Russian efforts to impose a military solution on Afghanistan three decades ago.”
So, let’s not fret about the increasingly brazen military activities of Russia – the same nation that Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Air Force Secretary Deborah James and the new Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Gen. Joseph Dunford, agree represents the biggest threat to U.S. national security.
Let’s not worry about Russia’s expanding presence in Syria – the hundreds of soldiers; the combat aircraft, helicopters, tanks, surface-to-air missile systems and advanced artillery; and the temporary housing for 2,000 personnel. Let’s not worry about the emerging alliance of Russia, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah that Ibrahim al-Amin, who edits the pro-Hezbollah newspaper Al-Akhbar, called the 4+1 bloc.
Let’s not concern ourselves that Putin is working to keep Assad in power by reportedly bombing the U.S.-backed rebels who seek his ouster – and, thus, undercutting Obama’s efforts to force Assad out. Let’s not fret that Putin mocked Obama’s hopes that he’d make common cause with America by joining our fight against the Islamic State group.
Finally, let’s not agonize that, as I’ve noted here, Moscow is replacing Washington as the focus of regional actors – with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi all traveling there in recent weeks to consult with Putin.
Obama apparently thinks that Russia with its militarism, China with its expansionism in the Pacific and Iran with its continuing terrorism sponsorship are each on an ahistorical fool’s errand that will weaken them down the road.
Lawrence J. Haas, former communications director for Vice President Al Gore, is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council.