Syria-ously? Obama pushes gay rights in Russia while lobbying Putin on Syria

Neil Munro | White House Correspondent

President Barack Obama is rhetorically waving the gay-rights flag on his visit to Russia, even as he is working to soften or bypass opposition from Russia’s president to a strike on Syria.

The St. Petersburg summit is hosted by Vladimir Putin, who signed a law in July curbing political advocacy by gays and lesbians. He’s also opposing Obama’s effort to build U.S. and international support for a strike against the Syrian military.

Obama is meeting with numerous foreign leaders at the summit to get their support for a Syrian strike, but he will also take time to meet with Russian gay rights groups during the two-day G-20 international summit in St. Petersburg Sept. 5.

“Obama may be too vain to acknowledge the failure of his [Russia diplomatic] reset policy, but he’s vain enough to poke a finger in Putin’s eye,” said Michael Rubin, an expert on the Middle East at the American Enterprise Institute.

“If Obama can score domestic political points with his core Democratic constituency, why not?” said Rubin.

Obama’s support for gay advocacy groups in Russia is also a high-profile demonstration of support to well-funded U.S. gay rights groups, who are rallying an international campaign against the new Russian anti-gay laws.

Those groups and donors are an important part of Obama’s plan to regain a Democratic majority in the House in 2014. The House’s GOP majority has proved to be a major problem Obama. For example, GOP members soon may reject Obama’s request for approval to use military forces against Syria.

Obama’s aides defended his involvement in Russia’s domestic politics.

“Given our serious concerns with some of the recent laws that have been passed and restrictions on activity for gays and lesbians within Russia, we felt it was important to ensure that we were including their voices in a discussion with the President,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s national security communications advisor, told reporters Sept 5 while flying to St. Petersburg from Sweden.

White House officials suggest there’s little chance of overcome Putin’s loud opposition to a planned U.S. strike on Syria, announced by Obama after the Aug. 21 gas attack against rebel-held districts in Syria’s capital city.

Putin is standing by Syria, partly because Syria has long been one of Russia’s closest allies in the Middle East.

“We’ve arguably wasted too much time working through Putin,” said Robert Zarate, policy director at the Foreign Policy Institute, which is backing Obama’s Syrian intervention. “It is clear that over the last two and half years, Putin has been much more interested in bolstering the Assad regime rather than trying to move the crisis in Syria towards… a post-Assad future.”

But if Obama can persuade Congress to approve the us of force, ”it will be a lot easier to get more [foreign governments] on board,” said Zarate.

Putin has recently suggested that the United States cannot prove that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack. Rhodes dismissed that suggestion.

“What we do not want to see is some ongoing debate about whether or not a chemical weapons attack took place that everybody saw with their own eyes on Aug. 21 and similarly, we don’t want to entertain implausible theories,’ Rhodes said.

Obama’s focus on gay rights in Russia matches the advocacy by some U.S. gay groups, such as the D.C.-based Human Rights Campaign, which provides much money to Democratic candidates.

“Last month, HRC asked its members and supporters to call on the International Olympic Committee to condemn the repressive [Russian] anti-LGBT law… we will not quit pushing the IOC until they have done everything in their power to help reverse the dangerous course that the Russian government has chartered,” said a Sept. 3 statement from the group.

“It is clear that this issue is important to some of President Obama’s domestic constituents, which is why he raised it,” said Zarate. “It is a costless thing to do because Putin’s decision on Syria will not hinge on the president’s raising this issue,” he added.

The Russian law bars “propaganda [that endorses] nontraditional sexual relations” to children. Russian violators can be fined, while foreign violators can be jailed for 15 days.

Obama already showcased his opposition to these laws in early August.

During an Aug. 6 appearance on NBC’s “The Tonight Show,” Obama told host Jay Leno said he has “no patience for countries that try to treat gays and lesbians and transgendered persons in ways that intimidate them or are harmful to them.”

He also suggested that the Russian laws could cause problems at the 2014 winter Olympics in southern Russia. “I think Putin and Russia have a big stake in making sure the Olympics work,” he said.

“I think they understand that for most of the countries that participate in the Olympics, we wouldn’t tolerate gays and lesbians being treated differently — they’re athletes” he said.

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