Just a month after canceling a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin over behavior that President Obama characterized as childish, the White House said Wednesday that the U.S. is counting on Russia’s “prestige” to deliver a diplomatic solution to avert a military attack on Syria.
The spectacle of Mr. Putin tossing a diplomatic lifeline to the president highlights Mr. Obama’s persistent disadvantage in his dealings with Mr. Putin and Russia’s rising clout in the Middle East. The Russian leader also seemed to be rubbing Mr. Obama’s nose in it with a Thursday op-ed piece in the New York Times that lectured Mr. Obama on international law, the role of the United Nations and American exceptionalism.
“I can’t help but to think that the image of the United States in the region has deteriorated,” said Andrew Kuchins, director of the Russia and Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “We just don’t look resolute. The president is moving all over the place.”
Secretary of State John F. Kerry is scheduled to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday in Switzerland to try to reach a deal on a U.N. Security Council resolution that would require Syria to give up its chemical weapons or face consequences.
Russia’s offer Monday to broker the deal allowed Mr. Obama to request an indefinite postponement of a vote in Congress to authorize military force against Syria, a vote he likely would have lost. Mr. Obama requested the vote 10 days earlier, saying the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad had to be punished for a chemical weapons attack and that going to the United Nations was a futile exercise.
Given Russia’s history of blocking U.N. sanctions of Syria, its longtime ally, Moscow’s status on the international stage hangs in the balance with the success or failure of its proposal, White House press secretary Jay Carney said Wednesday.
“Russia is now putting its prestige on the line when it comes to moving further along this diplomatic avenue,” Mr. Carney said. “Russia is Assad’s and Syria’s closest ally. Russia has played the role of blocking international efforts, thus far, to hold Assad accountable.”
Mr. Kuchins scoffed at the argument.
“To say that this hinges on Russian prestige just seems kind of ridiculous,” he said. “The Russians could respond in all kinds of ways about what’s happened to U.S. prestige in the region over the course of weeks, months, two years of hardly successful Syria policy.
“It gets to the bad calculation the Obama administration made in underestimating the staying power of Assad.”
The White House’s attempt to appeal to Russia’s stature is particularly stunning because Mr. Obama a month ago canceled a meeting with Mr. Putin in a pique over Russia’s granting asylum to fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.
The president and his aides said there was no point in meeting because the two countries failed to make any progress on a swath of issues such as missile defense, in which the U.S. scaled back its deployments in Eastern Europe to assuage Russia but got little in return, and gay rights, on which Mr. Obama said he had “no patience for countries” that enacts laws to suppress gay-rights campaigns as Russia has.
“Our lack of progress on issues such as missile defense and arms control, trade and commercial relations, global security issues, and human rights and civil society in the last 12 months, we have informed the Russian government that we believe it would be more constructive to postpone the summit,” Mr. Carney said in August.
Russia has been a thorn in the side of the U.S. on several diplomatic issues apart from harboring Mr. Snowden, including using its U.N. Security Council veto to water down sanctions against Iran and North Korea and stifling any efforts to punish Syria even before the chemical attacks. Damascus has been a Kremlin ally and major arms customer for almost a half-century, whether “the Kremlin” has referred to Russia or to the Soviet Union.
But on Tuesday night, Mr. Obama seized on the escape hatch that Mr. Putin offered. In an address to the nation, Mr. Obama said he was delaying military action because the potential diplomatic solution was encouraging.
Newspaper editorials around the world were critical of Mr. Obama’s speech, in which he argued that Mr. Assad must be punished but asked for Congress to delay a vote. Le Figaro in France said that even if the diplomatic solution fails, it could at least allow Mr. Obama and his ally, French President Francois Hollande, to save face in their misadventure against Syria.
“It could suffice to extricate them from the mire into which they have placed themselves. Obama and Hollande have the opportunity to backtrack with their heads held high,” the paper said.
In an editorial headlined “Stop Dithering,” Qatar’s Peninsula online described Mr. Obama as “confused, uncertain, wobbly and timid” on Syria. The U.S.-based Investor’s Business Daily went a step further, saying the developments with Syria show that “Russia is filling the U.S. power vacuum on its way back to superpower status.” Its editorial lamented “the inexcusable transfer of geopolitical prestige from America to Putin’s Russia” in the Middle East.
Mr. Carney said Wednesday that U.S. prestige in the region is not at risk.
“The United States leads in these situations, and it’s not always popular, and it’s not always comfortable,” he said. “The responsibilities that we bear when there are crises around the world are unique. But it is also part of our democratic process, in the president’s views, that we have an open debate about it, that we have a debate in Congress and a vote potentially on authorization of military force.”
But critics of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East point to an inconsistent strategy: abandoning Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a longtime U.S. ally; bringing about the ouster and subsequent death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi after he cooperated with the U.S. in giving up his weapons of mass destruction; and the wavering on Mr. Obama’s “red line” in Syria that called for a tough U.S. response to chemical weapons use.
“For those that don’t want to see a U.S. military strike, Putin’s and the Russians’ status has been seriously enhanced in the Middle East, and I think in the world at large,” Mr. Kuchins said. “I try to be objective about this, but I think the Russians have had a better feel for this than the Obama administration. I think that Putin to some extent is trying to convey, ‘Look, Russia defends and stands by its friends and allies.’”
In another display of Mr. Putin’s influence, the Russian leader even wrote an op-ed in Thursday’s New York Times about Syria, saying he wanted to “speak directly to the American people and their political leaders.”
He said a military strike by the U.S. “would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism.”
“It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa,” Mr. Putin said. “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
The Russian leader said America’s military intervention in other countries’ internal disputes has become “commonplace” but ineffective.
“We must stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement,” he wrote.
Mr. Putin said he watched Mr. Obama’s address Tuesday night and that he disagreed with the president’s comment that U.S. policy is “what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.”
“It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation,” Mr. Putin said. “There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”