The U.S. is slouching from Syria to Ukraine

There is a perception at home and abroad that Obama is not tough or decisive enough in dealing with America’s adversaries

Hisham Melhem

Published: Updated:

Russian President Vladimir Putin is the product of the harsh geopolitical reality of Russia in the post-Soviet era, a country in political and strategic retreat in the vast Eurasian theatre. He is also the faithful son of Russia’s tormented history and its Slavic Orthodox Christian civilization which Putin believes it endows it with a unique role.

This is Putin’s version of Russian exceptionalism. For Putin, the demise of the Soviet Union did not alter the old fundamental realities of international relations, where raw power still matters, and where geography can sometimes be destiny. In the Second World War it was Russian Nationalism that blunted Hitler’s invasion, not communism. In times of crisis, Russian leaders, be they Tsars, Comrades or Presidents, always appeal to Mother Russia and her eternal endurance.

In that sense Putin’s feet are deeply planted in the 19th and 20th century. The way he framed his takeover of Crimea -- that is the protection of fellow Russian speaking citizens and preventing Ukraine’s gradual departure from Russia’s orbit -- reflect these convictions.

When Davos collided with Crimea

Putin’s view of history and geopolitics is in sharp contrast with those of President Barack Obama and his Secretary of State John Kerry. It was revealing and astonishing at the same time to hear Secretary Kerry’s description of Putin’s stealthy invasion of Crimea: “It’s a 19th-century act in the 21st century.”

President Obama’s indignation led him to a similar conclusion: “In 2014, we are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders.” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany felt that Putin’s irredentism meant that he was not in touch with reality. She reportedly told President Obama after she spoke with Putin that he is “in another world.”

The reaction of President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Chancellor Merkel assumes the inviolability of international law and that the major states, particularly members of the elite G-8 exclusive club will behave responsibly in the post-Cold War era of Globalization. After all, the demise of the Soviet Union supposedly signaled the “end of history” and with it the end of the great ideological clashes that dominated the 20th century, and brings the final triumph of liberal democracy.

For Obama, Kerry and Merkel, the problems of the world should be addressed by the G-8 and the G-20 fora, by the United Nations, the European Union, and the major International Non-Governmental Organizations. In this new brave world, Davos is the arena for intellectual, political and economic debates among an elite of “internationalist” stars, be they policy makers, opinion makers or dream makers.

In early March circa 2014, the sophisticated, even genteel world of Davos violently collided with the rough and crude world of Crimea according to Vladimir Putin. In this arena, we have president Obama, the former constitutional law professor versus President Putin, the former KGB operator.

President Obama invokes international law, the sanctity of sovereignty and appeals to the supposedly democratic universalism of 2014, while President Putin invokes the right to protect what he sees as national security interests and appeals to a deeply rooted Russian nationalism and Slavic exceptionalism.

The West and the rest

If nationalism as a dominant political force has been tamed in Western Europe since the end of WWII (Americans have been animated traditionally by a strong sense of patriotism, which is not identical with nationalism) it is still animating large swaths of the rest of the world, including major countries that have prospered from a globalized economy that was supposed to blur or weaken exclusive nationalism.

This is not only true of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), but also Japan, South Korea, Egypt and in the countries born after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. In many parts of the world, particularly the Middle East and Africa, primordial identities, including those predating nationalism such as sectarianism, tribalism and regionalism are competing with nationalism.

The collapse of the Soviet empire and the breakup of artificial political constructs like Yugoslavia and the overthrow of autocratic regimes in the Arab world, have unleashed many hitherto pent up forces including nationalism and various primordial divisions (ethnic, religious, and sectarian identities) that are still roiling these societies.

President Putin was challenged by these new forces in Georgia and in the Caucuses region and he dealt with it harshly, particularly in Chechnya. At one time the destruction of Grozny, the capital of Chechnya, was so thorough it resembled those European cities pulverized and burned during WWII. The Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has borrowed a page from Putin’s book of revenge with similar destruction on the famed Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. Putin is facing another challenge today in Ukraine.

However, the Russian president is more familiar with the complexities of nationalism and the other primordial divisions than President Obama, for he is still living in the pre-history of liberal democracy.

Taking the lead for a new order of things?

The new sanctions and visa restrictions that are being contemplated or have been applied by the U.S. and its European allies will not extract a painful “cost” from President Putin unless they become broader, aggressive and universal.

That is, having the major European economic powerhouses, particularly Germany, on board. Some Europeans live in uncomfortable proximity to Russia and depend on Russian energy supplies via Ukraine are not, nor likely to be in the immediate future, in the mood for a serious brawl with Russia’s Putin.

If the United States is truly determined to make Russia pay for its transgression in Ukraine it must start by asserting its leadership of the West and its allies in the rest of the world, including those in the Middle East. It has been said repeatedly that the Ukraine crisis represents by far President Obama’s most difficult and potentially lethal test.

Hisham Melhem

If the United States is truly determined to make Russia pay for its transgression in Ukraine it must start by asserting its leadership of the West and its allies in the rest of the world, including those in the Middle East. It has been said repeatedly that the Ukraine crisis represents by far President Obama’s most difficult and potentially lethal test.

Asserting leadership in the Crimean context requires dumping the naïve notion of providing Putin with an “off ramp,” to defuse the crisis, which assumes erroneously, that Putin blundered his way into Crimea and he may be looking for a way out. Putin is not trying to resurrect the Soviet Union, but rather to draw a red line in Ukraine, the only former Soviet republic he believes and knows that he cannot afford to lose or to see slipping from his hand gradually and drift towards the West.

And yes, he is daring the U.S. and Europe to cross that line. He is not necessarily trying to revive the Cold War, but at the same time he does not shy away from using Cold War tactics to reassert Russia’s role as a major player on the European theatre. His control of Crimea and his influence in the rest of Ukraine will allow him to play that role.

It is useful to remember, that people like Putin, still remember fondly, that during the Cold War, Russia was perceived by the West as a superpower, and was treated with respect and in fact, feared.

Machiavelli’s advice

Yet, whether fair or unfair, president Obama has a serious leadership problem. There is a perception at home and abroad that he is not tough or decisive enough in dealing with America’s adversaries; that he dithers and does not deliver on his own threats, as was the case in his humiliating retreat from his commitment to punish the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people.

The fact that President Obama is allergic to the use of force, except against al-Qaeda (from the beginning he knew that one successful terror attack, will end his political career, hence his extensive use of drone attacks).

His almost obsession with disengaging from the wars that former President Bush began in Afghanistan and Iraq, his willingness to avoid potentially costly political fights with the likes of Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu, as well as his failure to provide strong leadership to rally European and Middle Eastern countries to contains the fires in Iraq and Syria, have deepened Obama’s leadership problem.

The challenge facing President Obama today was succinctly summarized by a brilliant Florentine sage named Niccolo Machiavelli : “He who wishes to be obeyed must know how to command.”

Slouching from Syria to Ukraine

President Obama’s critics claim that President Putin was emboldened to take his brazen actions in Ukraine by the perception of Obama’s “leadership problem” and his alleged weakness in dealing with the Syrian tragedy last summer. We may never know for sure if Putin’s decisions in Ukraine were encouraged by Obama’s passivity in Syria. What we know for sure, is that the Russian president was not deterred because of anything the American President did in Syria.

Those less charitable to President Obama would say that if he did not scare Assad - who since the chemical weapon standoff last summer has savagely escalated his aerial bombardment of civilians in Aleppo, Homs and the suburbs of Damascus - how could he scare Vladimir Putin?

For more than a year, U.S. diplomacy was focused on convening the Geneva 2 convention in conjunction with Russia to seek a peaceful resolution to the war in Syria. A naïve assumption was at the core of these American moves. U.S. officials believed that when Russia realized that Assad’s insistence on remaining in power would derail the conference, it will distance itself from Assad and seek an accommodation that will lead to a transition to a post-Assad Syria while maintaining the overall structure of the Syrian state.

After two disastrous sessions during which Russia stood firmly with its Syrian ally, even when Assad’s brutality was being escalated, it seems that American officials, including Secretary Kerry, have given up on Russia playing a positive role in Syria. The collapse of the Geneva process on Syria is a serious defeat for U.S. diplomacy that will not go unnoticed in the region and beyond.

The Ukraine crisis will eliminate any chances of U.S.-Russian collaboration on Syria. The crisis could even endanger one of Washington’s “achievements” in Syria, that is the agreement to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapon arsenal. The tension between Moscow and Washington over Ukraine, which will not be solved any time soon, means that Assad will not feel any meaningful American or Western pressure to desist from continuing his objective of achieving a military victory, even if not decisive.

In the first year of the conflict, U.S. officials from Obama on down kept saying that Assad’s days as president of Syria are numbered. Three years into one of the bloodiest conflicts in recent years, it is in the realm of the possible that the most brutal Arab despot since Saddam Hussein could be “elected’ to a third seven year term in a country that he has transformed into a huge pyramid of rubble.

Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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