Obama And Putin's Danse Macabre: Obama Fixes "Red Lines" And Talks A Good Talk
31 August 2013
By Amir Taheri
Is Vladimir Putin working for Barack Obama? Despite
its provocative tone, the question is not fanciful.
When faced with a tough foreign policy decision, Obama
tends to try and wiggle his way out of it.
That tendency has three reasons.
The first is that, despite his African, Asian and
American background, Obama has little understanding of
how international politics works. The second reason is
that Obama built his career around an isolationist
theme by portraying the liberation of Afghanistan and
Iraq under President George W. Bush as a political
version of the original sin. Finally, Obama's aversion
to foreign "adventures" reflects the mood in the
United States. Polls show that a majority of Americans
are fed up with the outside world and do not wish to
be sucked into other people's quarrels—quarrels they
often don't understand.
The problem Obama faces, however, is that the US
remains a superpower with vital and/or important
interests across the globe; it cannot simply crawl
back into its isolationist carapace. So, how could he
appear to be maintaining America's position of global
leadership without doing anything even remotely risky?
Enter Putin to furnish an answer.
Obama fixes "red lines" and talks a good talk on this
or that issue, but ends up doing nothing because of
Putin's veto—or, better still, Putin's threat of veto.
Both men benefit from this pas-de-deux. Obama can
project himself as a principled leader, ready to use
the United States' might in support of just causes
but, sadly, thwarted by Russia's abuse of its position
in the UN Security Council.
For his part, Putin can pose as the leader who has
restored part of the prestige that Russia enjoyed in
its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union.
Putin is obsessed with a craving for parity of
prestige between the US and Russia. He knows that he
cannot do that in terms of tangible power. Russia's
GDP of USD 2.2 trillion cannot compare with that of
the US's 16 trillion. In terms of GDP per capita,
Russia stands 77th in the world, while the US is 14th.
In military terms, Russia has little to compete with
the United States' global reach, thanks to a massive
blue-water navy and a network of bases in more than 60
countries across the world. Worse still, Russia is
caught in a downward demographic trend while the US
has one of the healthiest in the world.
Putin uses rhetoric to bridge part of that gap. In a
recent talk with one of the satellite television
channels he controls through the Kremlin, Putin
offered a glimpse of his deep hatred for the United
States. He talked of the US as the product of ethnic
cleansing carried out against America's native
"Indian" tribes and recalled "the ravages of slavery"
before grudgingly admitting that the Americans "had to
create a sort of democracy" because "settlers from
Europe" had to find a way of living together. Putin
then made an even more astonishing claim. Stalin, he
said, would not have used the nuclear bomb against
Germany as the US did against Japan in the penultimate
phase of the Second World War. In other words, Stalin
was more touched by human feelings than President
Harry S. Truman, who ordered the atomic attacks
against Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Part of Putin's anti-Americanism may be due to
relative powerlessness. However, it is also possible
that he believes that Russia can regain its
international standing only by assuming the leadership
of an anti-American bloc.
Adopting a macho posture, Putin can hide the fact
that, today, Russia has virtually no influence in the
Middle East—not even in Syria. Putin is trying to use
what strategists call "denial capacity": denying an
advantage to your real or imagined adversary even
though you get nothing out of it. Thus, even if Assad
were to win and survive in Syria, Russia will reap
hardly any benefit. However, the fact that Assad's
victory and survival could be a setback for the US and
its allies is enough to satisfy a Kremlin that is
doing anything for glory.
Knowingly or not, Obama and Putin complement each
other. This is why they agreed on a cynical project: a
Geneva conference on Syria.
The absurdity of that project is self-evident. Why
should two powers who cannot agree on the mildest of
resolutions at the Security Council—where they hold
the initiative—do any better in the uncertain
atmosphere of a Geneva conference, where they will be
two players among scores of others?
But what happens if Obama is forced to "do something,"
something that part of the US establishment is
clamoring for today?
My guess is that Putin will put up with a bellicose
pirouette from Obama as long as that does not lead to
regime change in Damascus. If Obama lobs a few cruise
missiles against meaningless targets—as Bill Clinton
did against Sudan and Afghanistan—Putin will make
little noise. For him, the best scenario would be for
Obama to use a bit of saber-rattling, supported by
declamatory outbursts of the kind that John Kerry
indulged himself in this week, but ultimately do
nothing that could tip the balance in favor of the
There is, of course, a possibility that Obama and
Putin—partners in this danse macabre—may use the
threat of American "military action" to persuade the
Syrian rebels to attend Geneva II at the same time
that the big talking shop of the United Nations opens
its new season next month.
And then, in Geneva and New York, people will talk and
talk and talk—while in Syria, people die and die and
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and
educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive
Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79).
In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday
Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the
Executive Board of the International Press Institute (IPI).
Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the
Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, the New York
Times, the London Times, the French magazine Politique
Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between
1989 and 2005, he was editorial writer for the German
daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11 books, some of
which have been translated into 20 languages. He has
been a columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987.
Taheri's latest book "The Persian Night" is published
by Encounter Books in London and New York.