WASHINGTON, September 3, 2013 — President Obama will meet with Russian President Putin this week in St. Petersburg at the G20 Summit. The official agenda is the world economy; the real agenda will be Syria.
Putin has a clear policy on Syria, and he has pursued it with cold determination; Obama’s actions have been hesitant, and his policy objectives are general and obscure. Putin knows clearly which side he wants to win in Syria and why; Obama can’t begin to explain why America should want jihadists to take control of Syria.
Each man will justify his policy and actions at the G20 summit, and Obama, despite America’s enormous military power and vastly larger economy, will be at a disadvantage against Putin. If this is a staring contest, Obama has already blinked.
Obama’s problems this week are partly due to his August 7 decision to cancel the one-on-one summit he’d scheduled with Putin to precede the G20 gathering. That was a deliberate snub following Putin’s decision to grant former NSA contractor Edward Snowden temporary sanctuary. But in snubbing Putin, Obama allowed his embarrassment over the Snowden affair to derail a yearlong effort to build a dialogue with Russia.
When it decided to snub Putin, the Obama Administration failed to see that Syria would be an important issue at the St. Petersburg summit, which Putin is hosting. At the least it threw away an opportunity to reduce public disagreements with Russia before the G20 gets underway, and perhaps even to defuse the situation in Syria.
That failure is hard to explain. Obama said two years ago that the Assad regime must go. There were demands four months ago to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria. It should have been clear before Obama snubbed Putin that Putin would use the summit to push back at Obama on Syria, and now the political momentum is in Putin’s favor.
In the month since August 7, someone attacked civilians in Damascus with nerve gas, blatantly crossing Obama’s arbitrary and foolishly-drawn red line. The British Parliament decided not to join the U.S. in military moves against Syria. The U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, announced that it will be several weeks before U.N. investigators can identify the perpetrators of the Damascus attack. French President Hollande decided that French lawmakers should be consulted before an attack.
If Obama ever needed cooperation from Putin, it is now. Instead he is getting mockery, both for his foreign policy and for his Nobel Prize.
Obama must act forcefully against the Assad regime or lose all credibility with Iran and Israel that the United States will do anything at all to block Iran from building nuclear weapons. He should have acted quickly if he wanted people to believe that this was about punishing a gross violation of international law, not about covering his own backside.
But if Obama does act now, it will be without England, without the U.N., and almost certainly without the U.S. Congress, in clear repudiation of Obama’s own forcefully-stated views on the conditions for launching military action. Putin’s mockery is loud and clear.
“I am certain this was only a provocation by those who want to pull other countries into the conflict and obtain the support of powerful international players, particularly the United States.”
Putin called the claim that Assad launched the attack “complete nonsense.” Assad’s forces are winning, and do not need to use chemical weapons. Putin says it makes more sense to blame “criminal” elements fighting in Syria, including al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaeda, for the attack. “In such conditions, to give a trump card to those who are calling for foreign military intervention is foolish nonsense.”
Referring to western claims of positive proof that Assad is responsible, Putin said, “Claims that proof exists but is classified and cannot be shown are beneath criticism.” He added, “If the U.S. says that the al-Assad regime is responsible for that attack and that they have proof, then let them submit it to the U.N. Security Council.”
Putin said that his remarks are directed at Obama the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, not at Obama the American president. “We should remember what has happened in the last decade, the number of times the United States has initiated armed conflicts in various parts of the world. Has it solved a single problem? Afghanistan, Iraq … There is no peace there, no democracy, which our partners allegedly sought.”
Obama goes to St. Petersburg to face a man who holds him in contempt, who knows what he wants, and who has the political support to pursue his course without compromise. Obama goes without political support for his own policy either at home or among America’s allies. He goes to sell a policy that, whatever its moral justification, has almost no legal justification, and that has no benefit to American foreign policy except to salvage credibility that Obama himself put at risk.
James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.
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