Chas' Compilation

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Monday, October 19, 2015

Who's got the better plan for Syria?

One could argue, Russia has the more realistic one:

Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin?
[...] And yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one. These perceptions arise in part because Obama inherited several foreign-policy debacles, and it’s hard to abandon a bunch of failed projects without being accused of retreating. Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up.

But Putin has also done one thing right: He has pursued simple objectives that were fairly easy to achieve and that played to Russia’s modest strengths. In Ukraine, he had one overriding goal: to prevent that country from moving closer to the EU, eventually becoming a full member, and then joining NATO. He wasn’t interested in trying to reincorporate all of Ukraine or turn it into a clone of Russia, and the “frozen conflict” that now exists there is sufficient to achieve his core goal. This essentially negative objective was not that hard to accomplish because Ukraine was corrupt, internally divided, and right next door to Russia. These features made it easy for Putin to use a modest degree of force and hard for anyone else to respond without starting a cycle of escalation they could not win.

Putin’s goals in Syria are equally simple, realistic, and aligned with Russia’s limited means. He wants to preserve the Assad regime as a meaningful political entity so that it remains an avenue of Russian influence and a part of any future political settlement. He’s not trying to conquer Syria, restore the Alawites to full control over the entire country, defeat the Islamic State, or eliminate all Iranian influence. And he’s certainly not pursuing some sort of quixotic dream of building democracy there. A limited deployment of Russian airpower and a handful of “volunteers” may suffice to keep Assad from being defeated, especially if the United States and others eventually adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict as well.

By contrast, U.S. goals toward both of these conflicts have been a combination of wishful thinking and strategic contradictions. In Ukraine, a familiar alliance of neocon fantasists (e.g., Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland) and liberal internationalists convinced themselves that the EU Accession Agreement was a purely benign act whose virtues and alleged neutrality no one could possibly misconstrue. As a result, they were completely blindsided when Moscow kept using the realpolitik playbook and saw the whole matter very differently. (There was an element of hypocrisy and blindness here, too; Russia was simply acting the same way the United States has long acted when dealing with the Western Hemisphere, but somehow U.S. officials managed to ignore the clear warnings that Moscow had given.) Moreover, the core Western objective — creating a well-functioning democratic Ukrainian state — was a laudable but hugely demanding task from the very beginning, whereas Putin’s far more limited goal — keeping Ukraine out of NATO — was comparatively easy.

Needless to say, U.S. policy in Syria has been even more muddled. Since the uprising first began, Washington has been vainly trying to achieve a series of difficult and incompatible goals. It says, “Assad must go,” but it doesn’t want any jihadi groups (i.e., the only people who are really fighting Assad) to replace him. It wants to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” but it also wants to make sure anti-Islamic State groups like al-Nusra Front don’t succeed. It is relying on Kurdish fighters to help deal with the Islamic State, but it wants Turkey to help, too, and Turkey opposes any steps that might stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism. So the United States has been searching in vain for “politically correct” Syrian rebels — those ever-elusive “moderates” — and it has yet to find more than a handful. And apart from wanting Assad gone, the long-term U.S. vision for Syria’s future was never clear. Given all this muddled direction, is it any wonder Putin’s actions look bold and decisive while Obama’s seem confused?

This difference is partly structural: Because Russia is much weaker than the United States (and destined to grow even weaker over time), it has to play its remaining cards carefully and pursue only vital objectives that are achievable at modest cost. The United States has vastly more resources to throw at global problems, and its favorable geopolitical position allows it to avoid most of the repercussions of its mistakes. Add to that the tendency of both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists to believe that spreading the gospel of “freedom” around the world is necessary, easy to do, and won’t generate unintended consequences or serious resistance, and you have a recipe for an overly ambitious yet under-resourced set of policy initiatives. Needless to say, this is the perfect recipe for recurring failure. [...]
Having a strong hand is not perhaps as important as playing well the hand you have.
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