How Putin and Rouhani outmaneuvered the president on Syria

Timothy Philen Freelance writer
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After two weeks of collective cringing as President Obama’s Syria “strategy” unraveled, even his own public relations firm — the mainstream American news media — was forced to offer some serious, albeit tepid, criticism.

MSNBC’s Richard Wolffe — an Obama apparatchik of Matthewsian proportion — was uncomfortably somber as he confessed to Charlie Rose that harsh assessments of an administration adrift, lacking “energy and ideas,” and a president “confused and confusing” on the handling of Syria, were not unreasonable in describing Obama’s bungled attempt to threaten military retaliation for President Bashar al-Assad’s chemical attacks that killed more than 1,400 of his own men, women and children in August.

Mercifully, these painful admissions were short lived. A flurry of breaking news stories gave Obama the cover he needed to bury the Syrian crisis. The latest round of Chicago gang violence, the Navy Yard massacre in Washington, D.C., and the Somali al-Shabab slaughter of shoppers in a Nairobi, Kenya mall flooded the airwaves, and were quickly teed up by the media to drive home another round of rhetoric about the evil of firearms.

One problem, of course, was that all three stories involved black men committing senseless acts of violence against innocent bystanders — another public relations nightmare for the left’s racial grievance industry — particularly in the case of the Navy Yard shooter.

He was the impeccably credentialed liberal Aaron Alexis, a self-described victim-of-racism-turned-meditating-Buddhist who not only had the conscientiousness to rent a Prius to drive to the scene of the crime, but entered the building armed only with an old-fashioned “Biden Blaster” shotgun — which the vice-president had encouraged Americans to purchase as their weapon of choice — presumably one of the “voices” in his head Alexis claimed to be hearing days before the carnage began.

Unfortunately, the diversionary value of this story was brief. Given the velocity of the 24/7 cable news cycle, the Syria debacle was bound to come back around to the top of the news in short order.

Fortunately, the luck of our orator-in-chief had already manifested a few days earlier as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and the newly minted president of our arch-enemy Iran, Hassan Rouhani, both turned suddenly from adversary to ally when they realized Obama’s foreign policy plight.

Their stunning conversions on the road to Damascus made for an unprecedented Samaritan outpouring. They proactively offered to pressure Syria’s Assad, their beloved armaments client, to permit the destruction of his chemical weapon stockpiles by the United Nations and, in the process, extricate Mr. Obama from a potentially humiliating defeat by his own legislature.

But they went even further, allowing the Obama administration to claim that the President’s “tough stance” on Syria — the threat of imminent military intervention — was the “big stick” that had brought Assad and his global handlers to the proverbial table.

Putin even turned the other cheek when Obama surrogates insisted that, rather than a loss of leadership nerve at the eleventh hour, Obama’s hand-off to Congress for a final decision on his “tough stance” was, in reality, a Machiavellian masterstroke aimed at forcing consensus at home and baiting Putin and Company into “owning” the Syrian crisis on the world stage.

Add to this the UN’s formal repudiation of Russia’s theory that anti-Assad forces were responsible for the chemical weapons attacks and you have to ask: Why are Putin and Rouhani standing patiently by and suffering the slings and arrows of what they must believe are outrageous distortions? What’s in it for them at this point?

Ask Russia’s American public relations firm Ketchum and they’ll probably tell you that, “there is nothing they want except the solemn satisfaction of promoting stability in the region and facilitating the flourishing of peace among the worldwide family of nations for generations to come.”

Actually, there is.

They’re going to want a guarantee from the U.S. and the UN that Obama’s promised military action will never be initiated against the Assad regime for the gas attacks or for Syria’s future non-compliance with chemical weapons identification and disposal, and that Assad will be allowed to remain in power with immunity from international prosecution for activities associated with his valiant struggle against the Al-Qaeda/Al-Nusra terrorists who are trying to unseat him.

And if Assad should need to kill another 100,000 people to keep those terrorists from coming to power in Syria and destabilizing the entire near and Middle East, the UN must not do anything to deter that noble effort.

And in return for this UN Resolution, Putin and Rouhani will guarantee that Assad uses only conventional — and not chemical — weapons to get the job done.

Yes, Mr. President. They’re trying to mess with you. Why? Because they can.

Ever since President Obama’s intoxicating campaign swing through Europe in 2008 and subsequent apology tour, he’s been focused on what’s in the best interest of ‘the world.’ These men, on the other hand, are focused on what’s in the best interest of their own nations, as they should be. And as Obama should be.

Just as Nikita Kruschev sized up President Kennedy as weak and coercible during that first summit in Vienna in 1961, emboldening him to place ballistic missiles in Cuba, so too has Vladimir Putin sized up Barack Obama, evidently finding him a glib, unseasoned empty suit susceptible to intimidation. And he’s so sure of his calculation, Putin’s been wagering his own reputation on Obama’s weaknesses at every turn, from Snowden to Syria.

So far, he’s been right.

And that’s embarrassing. And Putin’s actions are, of course, unconscionable. But that’s not the problem. The problem is that this administration’s inability to implement a clear foreign policy vision is dangerous to the security of the United States.

Whether our leanings are interventionist or isolationist, we must agree that there is no room for vacillation in a president’s projection of American principles, power and resolve once our national interest has been defined in any particular case.

When we waver, we bring the “consequences” meant for our enemies onto ourselves and our allies. When we send mixed signals — as we did in the Iranian uprising of 2009 — we degrade our future capacity to act credibly and consistently in the eyes of both our friends and our foes.

It’s a red line we can’t afford to cross. But, tragically, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry already have.

Timothy Philen is the author of “You CAN Run Away From It!” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology. He is currently at work on a latter-day “Walden,” a collection of essays on post-modern American culture.