Peace and Pride: Obama, Putin and the Syrian Civil War

Posted by Jason Gladfelter, M.A. on September 17, 2013  /   Posted in Articles

A recent opinion editorial from Russian President Putin really irked some Americans, including many in Congress– Sen. Robert Menendez almost wanted to vomit.  This coming from the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. I think the last time vomit was included on a foreign relations piece involved President Bush and Japanese Prime Minister Miyazawa in 1992, a full twenty-three years ago. Why has it been so long since vomit received this much attention? Simple, because it does not belong in any foreign relations “sphere of influence”.  Sen. Menendez displayed exactly what President Putin highlights: American arrogance. Putin’s piece was well argued, except for the last paragraph, which was a personal aside.  Sen. Menendez et al should have ignored it.

There are many interpretations of the situation and events surrounding the Syrian civil war.  Was Obama out maneuvered by Putin? Did the rebels trick the world into almost launching a damaging strike to the Assad regime? Did President Obama suffer a major foreign affairs, and therefore political, defeat?  Is President Putin being forced to make diplomatic gestures that require him to do something he is uncomfortable doing: communicating?

Perhaps all of these are correct and only time will tell.  However, there is one thing that should be highlighted as it can signify a shift if American foreign affairs, which may ostensibly be seen as a weakness, but ultimately may prove to be a rather powerful stick…or carrot. Humility.

Obama’s “red line” for chemical use was crossed on Aug 21st, 2013 in Syria. To some this was a hard line, maybe even to the president himself. Yet, was that red line akin to Kaddafi’s Line of Death, which signified absolutely nothing? Or was the president actually prepared to launch strikes on a sovereign nation? Right now, to me, it does not matter which is true, or false, or both. What the president showed last week was patience and humility, something great leaders show.  Now, before we declare Obama a great leader, we must espouse the same attributes. Time will tell, and perhaps some may have to eat their words, including me.

But, let’s look at the current situation. There has been no strike on Syria (yet), no more chemical attacks, and Russia is actually negotiating with the U.S. on a third party concern. Syria can easily become the flash point for a larger war…I see it as Iran-supplied oil countries v. Saudi Arabia-supplied oil countries. A unilateral strike on Syria would see that flashpoint grow more volatile.

At first, I wondered the strategic and logical benefits of President Obama waiting until Tuesday September 10th to announce his plan of action. The best way to ensure a battle plan fails is to announce it and delay action. IF he were to hit Syria, Sept 10 was too late to be at all effective. Of course, it does take time to set any battle plan in motion, especially impulsively. Designating targets, while forecasting minimal collateral damage, is not something to rush. This left a natural window for other options to come into the periphery.

Enter Russia, chatting about a plan brought up months prior, but not addressed. Why was this overture not mentioned before? Did Obama forget about it, or not care? Or did Obama allow Putin this chance to gain credibility and a say in the Syrian situation?  Besides this option, Russia’s only action would be a reaction to U.S. aggression. Now, Russia is in a place of (somewhat and ostensible) control. And this has given the media, Russian politicians and Syrian leaders a chance to gloat.  They have fended off American aggression; they have won.

Well, maybe at first glance, but they know deep down that they have not. The fact is that the U.S. can launch an assault at any time with little to no resistance, and minimal backlash (not many reactions would hurt the U.S. worse than those who own such reactions). This would not be a popular international or domestic option, but if we are talking about power, there it is. So those aforementioned parties stand a lot to gain by declaring victory. What does Obama get?

Criticism for one. It is not easy for anyone to take a step back, retract a bold statement and give credence to others’ ideas (even if they may have been your own). No one likes to be (seen as) wrong, especially the world’s most powerful leader. But powerful is not the same as great. Obama took the unpopular path in refraining from assault and listening to diplomatic overtures. He is now faced with a “demand” from Russia that no military punishment exists on Syria if they refuse or fail to meet this agreement. I think this shows the limit of Putin’s victory and the strength of Obama’s humility, which is not popular with some Americans, and that highlights Putin’s claim of American non-exceptionalism.

By backing away from aggressive actions, eating his own words and looking like he was out matched, Obama has shunned pride and embraced peace (at least better options for peace). He could have easily said, “screw you guys, launch the attack”, which would have shown strength and power, but also pride and shortsightedness. In the end, he could be wrong. I think it is refreshing for a U.S. president to back off the accelerator a bit and still show strength. And that is exceptional.



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