Syrian citizens trying to identify dead bodies, after the latest chemical weapons gas attack
* Mic Wright: “Bashar al-Assad didn’t look like a thug in his interview with Charlie Rose. He isn’t a thug; he has thugs and murderers who can do his dirty work for him. Like most tyrants, Assad keeps his own hands clean and leaves the blood to the butchers, like his brother Maher.”
* Maher’s record as a military strong man is long and brutal. When he crushed a prison riot in 2008 and had 25 people killed, Maher infamously snapped pictures of dismembered bodies with his mobile phone, and sent them out for fun.
* David Samuels: A Sarin gas attack like the one in Damascus requires days of preparation so that the chemical agents can be mixed and loaded into specialized delivery systems by trained handlers and troops in the region can be issued gas masks and other protective clothing. Orders must travel through a defined chain of command – a nerve-gas attack is not the kind of atrocity that a local commander can order up on a whim.
* David Samuels: “Suggesting that anyone aside from Assad gave the final order to launch a massive chemical weapons attack in the center of his own capital is tantamount to suggesting that Assad is no longer in charge of his regime – a suggestion for which there is no evidence. But the chain of military command inside Syria doesn’t end with the country’s president. The idea that Assad gave the order to carry out such a massive and politically dangerous attack without the approval of his Russian and Iranian advisers is also absurd – given the regime’s near-total reliance on Russian and Iranian strategic planning, supplies, fighters, and diplomatic backing for its week-to-week survival.”
* Tom Gross: A heading in the Financial Times today – “[Was] the use of chemical weapons a terrible mistake that the Syrian regime’s top leadership did not actually intend?” – reminds me of the useful idiots in the Western media in the last century who questioned whether Stalin actually knew about the gulags and whether Hitler actually knew about the camps.
* Tom Gross quoted in the Jerusalem Post: “President Obama’s approach toward Syria has been so muddled, so weak, over the past three years, and particularly in recent weeks, that many have failed to notice that the EU’s approach has been even worse. Over the Syria issue, as with other issues, the European Union is not showing itself to be much of a union. And yet if the Syria conflict isn’t brought to a resolution soon, its spillover effects, particularly in terms of refugees and as a potential training ground for terrorists, could have far worse repercussions for Europeans than for Americans. Yet the EU, with the exception of France, seems to want to absolve itself from playing a much-needed role in international affairs. The Americans can’t be expected to do everything alone.”
This is the latest in a series of dispatches about Syria. You can comment on it here: www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia. Please also press “Like” on that page.
1. Jon Stewart explains the origins of the Syria conflict
2. Britain’s Observer issues correction: Israel did not use chemical weapons in Gaza
3. “As to the moral question ‘Isn’t the world obligated to put an end to the mass murder in Syria?’, nobody wants to answer” (Ma’ariv, Sept. 10, 2013)
4. Why the U.S. has decided to intervene (Yediot Ahronot, Sept. 10, 2013)
5. “Assad tells Charlie Rose: Obama runs a ‘social media administration’. Shamefully, he has a point” (By Mic Wright, Daily Telegraph, Sept. 10, 2013)
6. “Has the EU abandoned the U.S. on military action in Syria?” (By Benjamin Weinthal, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 9, 2013)
7. “Did Vladimir Putin Bait a trap for the United States in Damascus?” (By David Samuels, Tablet, Sept. 3, 2013
[Notes below by Tom Gross]
JON STEWART EXPLAINS THE ORIGINS OF THE SYRIA CONFLICT
Both funny and insulting at the same time...
BRITAIN’S OBSERVER ISSUES CORRECTION: ISRAEL DID NOT USE CHEMICAL WEAPONS IN GAZA
The Observer, the Sunday sister paper of Britain’s Guardian newspaper (with which it shares a website) on Sunday published a correction admitting that its assertion the previous Sunday that Israeli forces had used chemical weapons in Gaza in 2008, was untrue.
This false smear about Israel is often repeated by anti-Israeli activists on the internet, but it is shocking that a paper as reputable as The Observer should have unquestionably repeated it.
The allegation was made in The Observer in an op-ed piece by Nabilia Ramdani, who The Observer described as a “French-Arab journalist who worked extensively in Syria until the Arab Spring.” (Ramdini supports the regime.)
“AS TO THE MORAL QUESTION ‘ISN’T THE WORLD OBLIGATED TO PUT AN END TO THE MASS MURDER IN SYRIA?’, NOBODY WANTS TO ANSWER”
The Israeli press today discusses Syria and the supposed “compromise deal” suggested by the Russians yesterday.
The Israeli paper Ma’ariv writes in an editorial today (translated from Hebrew):
“The Russian compromise proposal constitutes a ladder that allows everyone to climb down from the trees they have climbed up. On the one hand, Bashar Assad will be able to stay in power in Syria, and Iran and Russia will be able to defend their network of relations in the Middle East, acquire a diplomatic reputation and strengthen their international position.
On the other hand, Israel will be out of any danger from Syria’s chemical weapons. Al-Qaida activists, whom nobody likes, will be unable to take over Syria for the time being. Members of the American Congress will not have to decide on another war in the Middle East, which they are not interested in. And Obama will not need to act against his liberal philosophy and, by the way, will justify winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Maybe John Kerry will win his own prize.
Thus all sides will be able to come down to the ground. The only ones who will not be happy over acceptance of the Russian proposal are the citizens of Syria. It is clear to everyone that accepting the proposal means the continuation of the brutal civil war in Syria.
In effect, behind the smiles and the victory photographs all around, the status-quo will be maintained, as if there was no use of chemical weapons and as if Syrian children were not being murdered every day conventional weapons. As to the moral question ‘Isn’t the world obligated to put an end to the mass murder in Syria?’, nobody wants to answer.”
YEDIOT AHRONOT: WHY THE U.S. HAS DECIDED TO INTERVENE
In its editorial today, the Israeli paper Yediot Ahronot states:
“The US did not decide to intervene in Syria because of the horrific pictures of the massacre of civilians on the outskirts of Damascus. Whoever thinks that the rebels are not perpetrating similar horrors does not properly understand the situation. The US (like Israel) does not know if the fall of Assad would lead to a better or worse regime in Syria and is not sure that after the fall of Assad, the Sunnis will not carry out massacres and revenge attacks against the Alawites that would overshadow the current murders of civilians.
The US has decided to intervene because, as the leader of the enlightened world, as the world’s acting policeman, it cannot allow any outcast to use non-conventional weapons. If the world silently overlooks this violation of norms, it will no longer be possible to maintain world order and the US will find itself facing increasingly larger problems around the globe.
This is an outstanding US interest and this is why President Obama said last year that using chemical weapons was a red line. This is also the reason why, when the time comes, if Iran crosses the nuclear red line, the US President will decide to attack its nuclear installations: Not because of the moral need to save us and because of the loving ties with our Prime Minister, but because it is in America’s interest.”
I attach three articles below.
The authors of the last two articles (Benjamin Weinthal and David Samuels) are both subscribers to this list, as are those quoted in them -- Tommy Steiner, Gerald Steinberg and Josh Block.
Several readers who are opposed to American intervention in Syria, wrote to me about the last dispatch (“No, Al-Qaeda doesn’t dominate the Syrian opposition”). They say that I should have pointed out that the author of the first article in that dispatch from the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth O’Bagy – an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War – also works with the Syrian Emergency Task Force, a nonprofit that subcontracts with the U.S. and British governments to provide aid to the Syrian opposition.
-- Tom Gross
ASSAD TELLS CHARLIE ROSE: OBAMA RUNS A ‘SOCIAL MEDIA ADMINISTRATION’. SHAMEFULLY, HE HAS A POINT
Assad tells Charlie Rose: Obama runs a ‘social media administration’. Shamefully, he has a point
By Mic Wright
Daily Telegraph (London)
September 10, 2013
Bashar al-Assad didn’t look like a thug in his interview with Charlie Rose. He isn’t a thug; he has thugs and murderers who can do his dirty work for him. His brother, Maher al-Assad, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army’s 4th Armoured Division. It is they that the opposition and Western governments both suggest were behind the chemical weapons attack on August 21. Like most tyrants, Assad keeps his own hands clean and leaves the blood to the butchers. Maher is a butcher.
Maher’s record as a military strong man is long and brutal. Most infamously, he was in charge of crushing a prison riot in 2008 where 25 people were killed. Human rights groups verified footage of Maher snapping pictures of dismembered bodies with his mobile phone. That use of technology to record his crimes sits oddly with his older brother’s jibes at the American administration during the Charlie Rose interview. Bashar al-Assad said to Rose:
“How can you talk about what happened if you don’t have evidence? We’re not like the American administration. We’re not a social media administration or government. We are a government that deals in reality.”
The fabrications of the past – fantasies about yellowcake uranium peddled by Colin Powell to the UN Security Council, the infamous 45-minute claim in the “dodgy dossier” – contributed to this situation. Assad is able to present the case for intervention against Syria as a he-said/she-said social media dispute. He is brazenly dismissing the claims of the rebels and Western governments. He’s putting the pictures of dead Syrians in the same category as a cat meme or a staged video of a fat woman falling down a hole.
By mugging to the online audience with stunts – such as when the White House tweeted a picture referencing Mean Girls – Obama’s administration has made itself open to satire. The Syrian despot tried a Jon Stewart act on Rose. He presented the US as liars – a charge also thrown at Obama by Putin. And it’s true that the lies of the past made the case for intervention unconvincing to the British public and Parliament alike.
Now Assad is able to dismiss America as a Twitter- and Facebook-obsessed group of posers. He’s identified a truth. Image is still triumphing over substance in the Syria debate. Most of the conversation is not about the lives of men, women and children but about how the narrative is playing out. It’s shameful.
(Mic Wright is the Telegraph’s chief tech blogger, specialising in technology, music and popular culture.)
“THAT A U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE HAS TO POINT OUT TO EUROPEANS THAT THIS IS A ‘MUNICH MOMENT’ IS A DISGRACE TO WHAT THE EUROPEAN UNION OUGHT TO STAND FOR”
Has the EU abandoned the US on military action in Syria?
By Benjamin Weinthal
September 9, 2013
While many European leaders have shied away from backing a US-led military strike in Syria, Obama continues to press his campaign. Now, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar supporting the strike, the EU stance may not matter.
BERLIN – US Secretary of State John Kerry’s forceful push for European countries to join a coalition to strike Syria militarily, to deter its use of chemical weapons, is stumbling.
France remains the US’s only pro-strike ally among the 28 EU member countries. And even the tough French rhetoric is melting.
President François Hollande overruled his Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s position that Paris would agree to military action before the release of the UN report on whether toxic agents were used in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21.
Hollande, who sought an accelerated track for military actions, now wants to wait on the report of the UN team, which is expected to be released in a few weeks.
Leading Israeli and international experts weighed in on the EU’s erratic and non-interventionist policies.
“The European fragmented and inconsistent response to the ongoing civil strife in Syria amounts to a moral bankruptcy. That a US secretary of state has to point out to Europeans that this is a ‘Munich Moment’ is a disgrace to what the European Union ought to stand for,” Tommy Steiner, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, wrote to The Jerusalem Post in an email on Sunday.
On the Middle East front, Europe and the US have turned inward.
Isolationist forces in the US and Europe have coalesced around a lack of appetite for intervention in the Syrian civil war.
“The entire Western take on Syria is not the finest moment in the history of the Transatlantic Community writ large. The public opinions of Europe and America are simply averse to the use of force. Their leaders have resorted to a new form of ‘leadership by public opinion polls,’” Steiner said.
“The end result is that the free and liberal world is abdicating its global moral high ground. This dismal episode might well constitute a watershed in global politics with sobering and unsettling questions for Israel and for the other Western allies in the Middle East and around the world,” he continued.
The soggy EU support for a bare minimum statement calling for a “strong international response” was underscored at the G20 meeting in Russia on Saturday. Germany initially refused to approve the statement, but a day later added its signature to the document.
France, Britain, Italy and Spain signed the statement. However, Spain is not a member of the G20 group of major economies.
Gerald Steinberg, a professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and head of the Jerusalem-based NGO Monitor, told the Post, “EU officials point to soft power based on moral principles and mobilization of public opinion, but their inaction on Syria highlights the moral and political failure of soft power. As the British Parliament vote [against authorizing a strike in principle] revealed, the rhetoric of support for human rights is not backed by a readiness to take risks and pay a price to implement these principles.”
Steinberg, who has written extensively about EU-Israel relations, added “For over a decade, officials from the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) distributed tens of millions of euros to political NGOs that target Israel, while ignoring Syria and other Arab totalitarian regimes. As a result, the European public and their representatives are not prepared to take action in order to enforce moral principles.”
Josh Block, head of The Israel Project and a veteran Middle East commentator, told the Post, “Given the Assad-Iran-Hezbollah axis that threatens not only Europe’s Arab allies but international peace and security, as well as the global consensus banning the use of chemical weapons – not to mention the continent’s historical experience with gassing of innocent men, women and children – it would seem clearly to be in the EU’s security and moral interest to take a firm stand, and rally in support of President Obama’s policy.”
Tom Gross, a British-born political commentator with expertise on the Middle East, told the Post, “President Obama’s approach toward Syria has been so muddled, so weak, over the past three years, and particularly in recent weeks, that many have failed to notice that the EU’s approach has been even worse.”
He continued, “Over the Syria issue, as with other issues, the European Union is not showing itself to be much of a union. And yet if the Syria conflict isn’t brought to a resolution soon, its spillover effects, particularly in terms of refugees and as a potential training ground for terrorists, could have far worse repercussions for Europeans than for Americans. Yet the EU, with the exception of France, seems to want to absolve itself from playing a much-needed role in international affairs. The Americans can’t be expected to do everything alone.”
The momentum for military action could pick up speed. After all, Saudi Arabia and Qatar came out on Sunday in favor of strikes.
The US might very well not find itself alone.
“SOMETIMES, WELL-MEANING LIES AND POLITICAL SPIN CAN BE JUST AS DEADLY, IN THE END, AS NERVE GAS”
Did Vladimir Putin Bait a Trap for the United States in Damascus?
By David Samuels
Tablet (online magazine)
September 3, 2013
The nerve-gas attack that left an estimated 1,000 or more dead civilians foaming at the mouth last month in Damascus constitutes a national security risk that the United States cannot afford to ignore, President Barack Obama argued in his televised remarks on Saturday, because it “risks making a mockery of the global prohibition on the use of chemical weapons.” A more precise description of the attack in Damascus was that it made a mockery of Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons – a line that Obama appears to have laid down precisely because he believed that it would never be crossed, thus providing America with a bullet-proof excuse for staying out of Syria’s bloody civil war.
So, who in their right mind would aim to force Obama into a conflict he obviously wants to avoid? Syria has little military or political interest in being bombed by the United States – especially now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is clearly winning the war for primacy in Syria. In the context of the regime’s recent military gains, a chemical weapons attack on a civilian neighborhood in the middle of Damascus served no strategic purpose even remotely commensurate with the risk it entailed. The same goes for Syria’s regional allies: Hezbollah has little interest in their Syrian ally appearing to be even more of a monster, and Iran’s chief interest would appear to lie in encouraging the rest of the world to forget about WMD threats until they actually acquire a nuclear bomb.
Who actually benefited from breaching Obama’s “red line”? A compelling answer can be found in the nature of the attack itself. A Sarin gas attack like the one in Damascus requires days of preparation so that the chemical agents can be mixed and loaded into specialized delivery systems by trained handlers and troops in the region can be issued gas masks and other protective clothing. Orders must travel through a defined chain of command – allowing them to be intercepted, as they apparently were by Israeli intelligence, which put them in American hands before the attack was even launched. In other words, a nerve-gas attack is not the kind of atrocity that a local commander can order up on a whim to please his goons or terrify the locals into obedience. Except in the most extreme instances of Col. Kurtz-like madness or institutional disintegration, orders to use such weapons necessarily come from the top.
Clearly, suggesting that anyone aside from Assad gave the final order to launch a massive chemical weapons attack in the center of his own capital is tantamount to suggesting that Assad is no longer in charge of his regime – a suggestion for which there is no evidence. But the chain of military command inside Syria doesn’t end with the country’s president. The idea that Assad gave the order to carry out such a massive and politically dangerous attack without the approval of his Russian and Iranian advisers is also absurd – given the regime’s near-total reliance on Russian and Iranian strategic planning, supplies, fighters, and diplomatic backing for its week-to-week survival. Ditto for the idea that Russian or Iranian officers inside Syria gave their approval for such an attack without the blessing of the men at the top of their own chains of command: Ali Khamenei in Iran, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.
So, who – Khamenei or Putin – gave the OK? A reading of public statements by Iranian leaders suggests that they were at the least discomfited by the Syrian government’s actions, if not blind-sided by them. Both current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and former Iranian President Rafsanjani condemned the attack, with Rafsanjani openly naming the Syrian government as the perpetrator. Rouhani, for his part, called on “the international community to use all its might to prevent the use of these weapons anywhere in the world, especially in Syria” – which hardly seem like the words of a man whose immediate boss just OKed the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Which leaves the more influential and powerful authority figure in the room by nearly every conceivable measure, including disposable wealth, diplomatic throw-weight, and advanced weapons systems: Vladimir Putin.
The most illuminating way of understanding why Putin would greenlight a nerve-gas attack that would cross America’s “red lines” in Syria is therefore to ask how the Russian president understands U.S. policy toward the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – a policy whose real focus is not Syria but Iran.
Among students of the rougher techniques used by fascists, communists, and other old-fashioned political actors whose names rarely appear on ballots in contemporary Western democracies, the nerve-gas attack in Damascus is what’s known as a provocation. In the aesthetics of power that Putin learned from his instructors in the KGB, and that they learned from both their Leninist teachers and the Nazi enemy in WWII, a good provocation is a thing of beauty – a sinister and mind-bending event designed to elicit a response that will serve as a pretext for a predetermined course of action directed toward a larger strategic goal.
One of the classic aims of provocation as a technique is to alter the context in which future action takes place; the aggressor looks like he is defending himself, while the injured party looks like the aggressor. One major aim of this reversal is to disorient and demoralize the victim as well as anyone who is watching, a situation that often leads to paralysis, which further augments the aggressor’s tactical advantage. Some classic examples of provocation include the burning of the Reichstag, which was provoked by the Gestapo and led to Hitler’s formal seizure of power in Germany, or attacks on ethnic Germans in Czechoslovakia and Poland that were staged or provoked by Nazi agents and then used as pretexts for the Nazi invasions of those countries. A more recent example of the technique can arguably be found in the 1999 bombings of apartment buildings in Moscow by Chechen terrorists – attacks that may have been sanctioned by the FSB for the purpose of bringing Putin to power.
And while Hezbollah is silent and the Iranians condemn their ally’s actions, Putin appears to be enjoying himself at his victim’s expense. Calling claims of a Syrian nerve-gas strike “utter nonsense,” Putin told the Ria Novosti news agency last week that he had not seen even the slightest proof that the Syrian government was behind any use of chemical weapons, ever – or that chemical weapons had been used at all. “If they say that the governmental forces used weapons of mass destruction … and that they have proof of it, let them present it to the U.N. inspectors and the Security Council,” Putin opined, adding, “Claims that the proof exists but is classified and cannot be presented to anybody are below criticism.” Putin also seemed to delight in personally tweaking Obama – addressing him not as President of the United States but as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and urging him to embrace nonviolence.
If what happened in Damascus was a provocation, authored by Putin and intended to display American weakness to the world – the next question then becomes, why? Or, to put a finer point on things, what purpose, apart from the obvious pleasure of making Obama look like a sissy, was worth the risk of being held responsible – even partially responsible – for killing more than 1,000 people with weapons whose names are bywords for horror and whose use is a heinous crime under international law.
A worthy prize is not hard to find. While Obama was making his calculations about staying out of Syria – calculations that appear in retrospect to have been both reasonable and false – Putin was making his own calculations about the power vacuum that Obama had left behind in the Middle East. His first conclusion from studying that vacuum appears to have been that Obama wasn’t serious about stopping Iran from getting a nuclear bomb – since that would mean involvement in another shooting war in the region. His second conclusion was that the best way to make that conclusion obvious was by crossing Obama’s “red line” in Syria – in response to which the U.S. president would probably do nothing, or next to nothing. What made the “red line” a perfect target for a provocation was that the line was never serious; it was a fig-leaf for excusing American inaction in a bloody civil war while keeping alive the president’s stated commitment to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb.
It is also worth noting that the nerve-gas attack in Syria is simply the latest and biggest in a series of incidents in which Putin has chosen to publicly confront the United States and stick his finger in Obama’s eye. First, Putin chose to give NSA leaker Edward Snowden refuge in Moscow’s airport and then in Moscow itself – a decision that led Obama to cancel his planned summit meeting with the Russian president, which presumably was a consequence that Putin both predicted and welcomed. Second, Putin decided to criminalize homosexuality at the Sochi Olympics – a thumb in the eye to an American government that prided itself on its acceptance of gay marriage. The U.S. press treated each of these incidents as indications that Putin is a difficult, ornery person – when in retrospect, they appear to be part of an ongoing global campaign to put Moscow on one side and Washington on the other. Applying the wedge tactics in the global arena that were so successful in Putin’s use of the Pussy Riot incident at home was an interesting novelty, it seemed, but nothing more. What was missing was any sense of why Putin would suddenly find it to Russia’s advantage to stoke conflict with Washington.
Evidence for why Putin might have gambled on America backing down is again easy to find. Obama made it plain that his only real interest in the Middle East was to get American troops out of the region as fast as possible. His famous Cairo speech, which so excited global commentators, pro and con, was a rhetorical signal that America was taking a new direction after eight years of war. The direction Obama clearly favored was “out” – out of Iraq, out of Afghanistan, out of the business of backing Hosni Mubarak and other regional dictators, out of attempts to overthrow or destabilize the regime in Iran, out of any real effort to create a Palestinian state or force Israel to leave the West Bank.
For Washington policymakers on both sides of the aisle, Obama’s new direction for Mideast policy made plenty of sense. The American economy was weakened by a decade of wars, the American people were tired, and the Pentagon was broke. Attempts at using limited force in Libya had created a mess that made even reasonable people long for the days of Muammar al-Qaddafi. Egypt, where Obama hoped for an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, slid into economic chaos and hopeless misrule. On the plus side, what was left of al-Qaida seemed more or less under control – and there was also the surprising news that, thanks to improved technology for extracting oil from shale deposits, America was on track to become the world’s largest oil producer by 2017. So, why bother with the Middle East?
The president’s Syria policy was therefore an entirely coherent example of his larger approach to the region: Let Assad’s forces and the Sunni jihadists stomp on each other’s corpses and then YouTube it, while America provided airplane meals to a limited number of people who professed their belief in some form of democratic, nonsectarian government. The appointment of Samantha Power as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations was icing on the policy cake, ensuring that the Pulitzer Prize-winner would be too busy explaining Syria policy to her fellow delegates and Ivy League grads to write a book denouncing Obama as an accomplice to genocide. It was perfect set-up, until Putin ruined it all with a nasty poison gas attack on Obama’s face-saving “red line.”
The prize Putin is seeking for obliterating the American “red line” is not victory in Syria – since his client Assad is clearly winning anyway. The point of the attack is to publically expose Obama’s deep ambivalence about the use of force to stop Iran. If Obama’s red line against the use of chemical weapons in Syria can fall so easily, after the public deaths of more than 1,000 innocent people, including hundreds of children who died foaming at the mouth, how many cruise missiles might Iran’s putative acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity cost? Two hundred? One hundred? Zero? The answer now is plain: However many missiles they might fire, America has no stomach for fighting a war in Syria, let alone in Iran.
Putin needs to make America look weak because Russia is weak. The major source of Russian weakness is Vladimir Putin – or rather, the system that Putin has imposed on Russia so that he can continue in his dual capacity as the country’s elected leader and also its richest man. When he decided to run for president again in 2012, Putin was faced with a fateful choice: He could work to make Russia an attractive destination for foreign capital by strengthening the rule of law and loosening the grip of the oligarchs, or he could choose to strengthen his own rule, according to the methods that were most familiar to him. Putin’s decision to use fraudulent means to win the presidential election, and then to clamp down hard on subsequent criticism, closing down newspapers and throwing critics in jail, made perfect sense to a man bred in an authoritarian state. It also ensured that the Russian economy would continue to be run through Putin and the oligarchs – the backbone of his political support – in ways that were unlikely to encourage rational foreign investment. The decay of the Russian economy under Putin means that foreign policy is not a moral exercise – rather, it is the only means by which Russia’s current economic leverage can be sustained.
By showing that Obama’s America is unable and unwilling to keep its promises, Putin has widened the leadership void in the Middle East – as a prelude to filling it himself. By helping to clear Iran’s path to a bomb, Putin positions himself as Iran’s most powerful ally – while paradoxically gaining greater leverage with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States, who would much rather negotiate with Russia than with Iran, their sworn enemy. While the Americans were heading out of the Middle East, and the Chinese were too busy with their own internal debates about the future of their economy and society, Putin saw that something valuable had been abandoned on the world stage, and he took it. For the price of 1,000 dead civilians in Damascus, he has gained great power status in the oil-rich Middle East. Iran, for its part, gets the bomb, which isn’t great news for anyone, but was probably going to happen anyway.
The first lesson here for American policymakers is that Putin may or may not be evil, but he is obviously much smarter than they are – and he knows it. Another lesson worth learning is that American belief in promoting ostensibly universal aims like promoting democracy or halting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction through the limited and well-meaning use of military force is only sensible in a world of people who share American values and preferences.
Since no such world exists, at least right now, and probably ever, Americans might be better off crediting the notion that while we are thinking our thoughts, other people are thinking their own thoughts, which are shaped by very different experiences and aesthetics – and that are likely to shape a world that we no longer control, in part because we have decided that telling people in faraway places what to do is the ultimate sin. In that belief, as in many others, Obama – and not his critics on the left and on the right – accurately reflects the will of the American people, who have experienced the endless wars of the last 50 years as a pointless waste of lives and treasure whose only clear outcomes appear to be piles of corpses abroad and the diminishment of basic liberties at home.
Only time will tell whose evil is worse – Putin’s or Obama’s. While Putin delights in using the old-school KGB playbook to consolidate his one-man rule, and to expose the empty moral posturing of the West, Obama believes that he can talk his way into a workable accommodation between his own sense of morality and global reality. But the lesson of Obama’s fig leaf is that it is better to be honest about what we are doing in the world and why. If Putin baited a trap for the United States in Damascus, it was Obama who walked right into it. If Obama had stood up and declared that the United States had no vital interest in Syria but would stop Iran from getting nukes – and would prosecute the authors of the nerve-gas attack at The Hague – then Putin would have been trapped. The same would have been true if Obama had said nothing and blown up two or three of Assad’s palaces. But he did neither. Sometimes, well-meaning lies and political spin can be just as deadly, in the end, as nerve gas.