In retrospect, one of the most ominous signs of how Barack Obama intended to govern in the White House was his admission in the autumn of 2009 that he rejected the very notion of power politics.
“In an era when our destiny is shared, power is no longer a zero-sum game,” the president told the assembled delegates at the United Nations General Assembly. “No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation. No world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will succeed.”
This rogues’ gallery must have salivated at the revelation that the naiveté of Wilsonian internationalism had once again come to power in the United States. The results of the president’s pathological mistrust of American power and his unfounded faith in multilateralism are on display today. One of those incredible gifts to the world’s revisionist powers has been the president’s paralysis in the face of ever-worsening conflict in Syria.
As Bashar al-Assad’s regime’s hold on power weakened, the chemical weapons-deploying dictator compelled his last remaining allies to come to his aid. First, Iranian-backed Hezbollah spilled over the Lebanese border and established buffer zones to preserve Damascus’s hold in the South. Later, Iranian military officials, regular troops, and hardware began augmenting Tehran’s presence in Syria’s north along the Mediterranean. Finally, Russian troops and equipment have come pouring into the country. Backed by Russian airpower, the Iran-Russia-Syria nexus has successfully managed to reshape the status quo on the ground in Syria. A rump Syrian state in control of perhaps one-third of the country is all that remains of the nation Assad inherited from his father.
Bereft of any new ideas, the administration has retreated to its safe place: the negotiating table.
Last week, the Russian gambit in Ukraine at least partially paid off when the United States rewarded the revanchist power for its intervention in Syria by awarding it a seat at the table. The United States, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Russia all participated in multilateral discussions on Syria’s future. Those talks were, of course, fruitless. From a self-serving diplomatic perspective, there can only be one solution when multilateral talks reach an impasse: more talks with more participants.
“The top diplomats from the four countries agreed to meet again in an expanded format with representatives from other nations next week, but the only concrete result of this week’s talks appeared to be an agreement between Jordan and Russia to coordinate military operations in Syria,” ABC News reported. Secretary of State John Kerry revealed that there was no consensus on whether to invite Iran, another major revisionist power that has flagrantly propped up Assad, to participate in talks, but that consensus soon developed. On Tuesday, the White House relented. American officials announced that Iran would for the first time be invited to participate in multilateral talks on Syria’s future.
This is America’s response to a Tehran that immediately violated the terms of the nuclear accord by flouting international sanctions that prohibited the Islamic Republic from sending General Qasem Soleimani abroad or testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. For flagrantly defying the United States and the West by propping up Assad, and by brazenly creating a military dimension to their support for that rogue regime and directly challenging American military supremacy in the region, Tehran and Moscow have been rewarded with renewed legitimacy.
Simultaneously, reports indicated that the United States was considering revising its strategy for combating ISIS in Iraq and Syria – revisions that might include abandoning this White House’s commitment to the fictional notion that there are no “boots on the ground” in either hotspot. Some of those measures include the creation of buffer zones on the ground and no-fly zones in the air. “Senior U.S. officials, however, warned that such measures had the potential to put the United States in direct conflict with the Syrian regime and the Russian and Iranian forces backing it,” the Washington Post warned.
Indeed, this demonstrates the extent of the West’s troubles. Washington cannot invite Iran and Russia to the negotiating table without alienating the Syrian rebels that those two nations are bombing (to say nothing of the Syrian Kurds who find themselves in Turkish crosshairs). To now do what is necessary in order to meet this administration’s stated goals in Iraq and Syria — the degradation and destruction of ISIS being the latest and the removal of Assad from power being an earlier ideal – they must necessarily put U.S. troop in harm’s way and increase tensions with America’s negotiating partners in Tehran and Moscow.
When American presidential candidates are asked what they would do about the crisis in Syria, those candidates often begin with a backward-looking indictment of Barack Obama’s approach to the crisis. This is not a dodge, per se, but an explanation for why there is no good, clean, inexpensive, bloodless approach to the crisis today. That condition is due, in part, to the conflict’s rapid and continuous evolution. With each passing day, the situation in Syria grows worse and worse for the next president. One thing that the next commander-in-chief can do is to forcefully denounce Obama’s childish and fanciful notion that the game of great power politics, which has been played in the same way by the same rules since the Peloponnesian War, can be amended by fiat. Only then will the world’s revisionist powers that seek to roll back United States influence in the world lose the benefit of American complicity.