SYRIA: The Vladimir Putin Show

Vladimir Putin - Caricature

Vladimir Putin – Caricature (Photo credit: DonkeyHotey)

As indicated in my post last Monday morning the Syria issue appeared to be the Barack Obama show, one getting panned by many reviewers, but still his show.  However, that afternoon Vladimir Putin upstaged him.   As columnist Michael Gerson sums up what happened between then and the president’s Tuesday evening address:  “We have seen a Putin power play, based on a Kerry gaffe, leading to a face-saving presidential retreat — and this was apparently the best of the available options.”

After offering a hand to save our president from the embarrassment of losing a vote to back him in Congress, Putin then verbally slapped him around a bit in a NY Times editorial Wednesday, scolding him for talking about American exceptionalism and urging him to  “stop using the language of force and return to the path of civilized diplomatic and political settlement.”

The former KGB thug now the second coming of Gandhi?  It was just plain weird leaving me wondering who really wrote the column.  It seemed so well crafted for an American audience.  Like a product of an American PR firm.  Or could Edward Snowden have helped out?

In any event, over the last two days Secretary Kerry and the Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov,  accompanied by large staffs, have hurriedly been thrown together in Geneva, Switzerland to see if the initial steps of a plan to eliminate the chemical stock piles in Syria could be worked out.

If you have listened to or read any news reports you know the path forward is labyrinthian for several reasons, starting with Russia’s apparent unwillingness to put some “teeth” into a proposal that would force Assad to comply.   Even if they could work that out, there is the Rubiks Cube-like logistical issue of removing chemical weapons from numerous sites in the midst of a civil war.   To begin with, there are reports that Syrian troops are dispersing some of these weapons to sites harder to hit from the air, which is not a good faith effort to say the least.

It is hard NOT to believe this is a Russian maneuver to both buy time for the Assad regime while rubbing our noses in our own disjointed policy. But what if Putin actually wants the securing of these chemical weapons to take place as much as we do?

There are many reports that he shares with us a fear of those chemical weapons getting into the hands of  Muslim extremists of which he has his share in the southern parts of Russia.   If somehow the chemicals could be removed while Assad be kept in power, that would seem his preference.   And given our own fears of Muslim extremists among the various rebel groups, the Obama government seems in no hurry to topple Assad.  They have even been slow in giving small arms to their rebels of choice – the Free Syrian Army.

It could be a dirty deal for the rebels, but it still  might work to get rid of the chemicals and perhaps in time Assad, too.  It is not like he is Putin’s brother.  He simply suits Putin’s interests at the moment.

A second factor is Putin’s extraordinary vanity which has been allowed to flourish in recent days.  Have you seen photos  through the years of Putin’s manly, often bare chested displays, usually catching, wrestling or killing something?  He believes he is the most interesting man in the world, not that guy in the beer commercial.

Putin has long resented the fact that Russia is no longer a super power, which means he never gets top billing.   Maybe he is tired of always playing the spoiler, a character actor rather than the lead.  Over the past few days he has had the leading role in world events and I imagine he has loved it.

But he has also put his own reputation on the line by implying he could solve this chemical weapons crisis himself.   If things don’t work out, he regresses to second fiddle again.

What would be more pleasing to his ego than to become known as the peacemaker of Syria?

Every actor loves playing a role contrary to type.

What accolades he would garner!  Maybe even a Nobel Peace Prize.  He would have a better claim on one than Obama did, and what would he love more than that?

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Qualms about U. S. Strikes in Syria

Just in case anyone who has read my last two posts regarding Syria thinks I do not have qualms about U. S. military strikes in response to the avowed “red line” being crossed regarding chemical weapons, I assure you I do.

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: Jack’s LOST FILM)

I have plenty of qualms.  Fortunately, the keys ones have been expressed well in a short column by Matt Miller in the Washington Post, saving me  time and effort by just linking you to them above.

However, Qualm #6 I want to quote in full here, as it touches upon the role of American exceptionalism in the world, a concept that carries many caveats for me, but one in which I share to the extent we are not like every other nation.  A combination of circumstances have made us the world leader, whether we are keen on having that role or not.  And this produces a unique burden on our presidents.  As Miller writes in Qualm #6:

” … Syria is a reminder of how utterly unique the United States’ role remains in the world. Canadians aren’t demanding that Canada’s leaders step up and stop Assad. Swedes don’t see themselves as having a duty to enforce international law. It’s obvious but worth remembering at this moment that the power of the United States is extraordinary. As a result, so is the responsibility of the person who wins the brass ring. 

…. the enormous burden of decisions like Syria — and their unknowable chain of consequences for years, and even decades — nonetheless falls to him (Obama). The ever-grayer hair is the result. In the end, thanks to one man’s choices, countless lives will be affected for good and for bad.”

Our President made a definitive statement about the use of chemical weapons at a time when it seemed a reasonable statement to make, given international condemnation of their use.   As a result I believe some response must be made or our stature in the world will be diminished.  Our “word” will be tarnished.  How significantly, who knows?  Each nation will draw its own conclusions.

Columnist Kathleen Parker, whose opinion I respect, believes this loss overrated.

 “The United States still carries the biggest stick. We are still the bravest, most compassionate, most generous nation in the history of mankind. When our allies need us, our credibility is beyond reproach. We always act decisively when the stakes are clear. The world knows this. It is our exceptional history, not a single, transitory man, that inspires belief.”

I do not believe our “credibility is beyond reproach” in the eyes of our allies and as to our acting “decisively when the stakes are clear” I would point out how murky are the stakes in the  Middle East these days.  It is all a very messy business, so if we wait for clear stakes to crystalize, we might wait forever.

I believe our habitually gridlocked government has hurt our credibility abroad, with another example of that coming up soon in terms of raising the debt ceiling, which used to be fairly formulaic as it is necessary to pay government bills already accrued.    Now the world has to wait once again to see if we avoid the folly of turning the world’s number one economic power into a deadbeat.

I believe other nations have doubts about our capacity to come together to do anything.  I realize I am in the minority, but I would like to see us come together on this issue, supporting the President in limited strikes, a demonstration to the world that we can work together and do what “we” say we will do.