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David Paul Headshot

Rebuking Vladimir Putin in Public Will Not Solve Obama's Problems

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It was two years ago this month that President Barack Obama pronounced that Syrian President Bashir Assad must step down. "Lead," the president said, "or get out of the way." Needless to say, President Assad chose not to heed the words of the American president.

A friend of mine, a Lebanese scholar of Middle East politics, commented a few months ago that regardless of what the outcomes are in the region, America will bear the blame. The simple reality, he commented, is that America -- along with its ally Israel -- orchestrates the events on the ground. This is not a matter of suspicion or conspiracy theory, he assured me -- reflecting a common refrain in the Arab world -- we know this to be true.

Even as my friend admonished me for American failures across the region, he asserted that the one place America got it right was Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood was in power, and the peace treaties would not be abrogated. Realpolitik reigned, and it was good.

Two weeks later, General Sisi moved against Egyptian President Morsi.

When President Obama admonished Bashir Assad to step down. One had to imagine he had a plan in mind. One had to imagine that his national security team had gamed out a range potential responses by the Syrian President, including the most likely, that Assad would decline to acquiesce to American demands. After watching the predations suffered by leaders in the region pushed out of office by Arab Spring uprisings, Assad understood that giving up power was a path to public humiliation, if not death.

It remains unclear what our strategy has been in Syria and what President Obama's intentions were when he uttered those words. The president's ambitions in the region have been constrained by what he sees as the lessons of Afghanistan. He has been determined to not set the wheels in motion that would lead to American involvement in another war on Muslim soil, and he has been determined as well to not send American arms to support a Sunni insurgency that could ultimately become captive of anti-democratic Islamists and Jihadis.

Against that backdrop, the coherence of our Syria policy remains opaque. Constrained by a reluctance to act, did we sanction Saudi Arabia to provide support to the Syrian opposition in our stead? If so, did we cede our influence over pro-democratic events in Syria to the least democratic force in the region, and effectively open the door for the Saudis and their Wahhabi allies to recruit non-Syrian, Sunni Islamist fighters and broaden the Syrian civil war into a regional sectarian conflict? The alternative may not be any better. If we did not sanction the Saudi actions in Syria, then we sat by and allowed the Saudis to pursue their own ambitions in the region without our go ahead, an even worse indictment of American power and leadership in the region.

Even if one knew then what one knows today, it is not clear what an ideal policy would have been. In the wake of his description of American failures in the region, I asked my friend what we should have done. His response was vague, he referenced support for democratic elements and civil society, but did not seem to have an answer that was equal to the magnitude of the challenge. But the challenges in Syria today are vastly different than they were early on, when the conflict seemed localized and filled with real possibilities. Even as the administration wants to point to others to blame for the evolution of events there, my friend's words are haunting, and we may bear far greater responsibility that we care to acknowledge.

The deteriorating situation in Syria bears directly on the president's decision to cancel his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Our recent disagreements with Russia have focused on two very public issues, Russia's continued support for the Assad regime and its unwillingness to extradite former NSA contractor Edward Snowden. As the president suggested in his press conference this week, if Russia was not going to "cooperate" on these issues, there was nothing to talk about.

Over the past several months, the public rhetoric surrounding these disputes escalated as the Obama administration alternately berated the Russians for not falling in line with our demands and pleading with them to acquiesce to our requests. Yet there was no reason to expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to accede to our demands in either case. The Assad regime is one of Russia's few remaining allies in the region and the opposition in Syria is increasingly under the influence of Islamist groups that Russia feels can destabilize its own southern border and restive Muslim minority. With respect to the Snowden affair, Russia has never had an extradition treaty with the United States, and protection of our national security secrets is our problem, not theirs.

Both of these responses were both rational on the part of the Russians and predictable, which made the decision to try to jawbone Putin in public rather than negotiate in private so implausible. Absent a deal on issues that matter to the Russians, Putin had little reason to fall in line.

Nonetheless, in each case, the Russians remained unperturbed, and appeared to make efforts to find alternative paths forward. In Syria, President Assad proposed that he would stay through the end of his current term in May of 2014 -- a path that aligned with the Russian preference for resolutions within a legal framework -- leaving open the prospect that the United States could respond by insisting on internationally supervised elections next year. This alternative may well have been be the only path forward that, if accepted, could have deescalated the conflict and forced foreign fighters -- Sunni jihadists and Shia Hezbollah -- to leave the country and returned the conflict to the control of the Syrian people. When this was rejected by the Syrian opposition and the United States, one had to wonder what alternative we had in mind that offered the prospect of an end of the conflict within the next nine months.

With respect to the Snowden case, the Russians were quite clear from the beginning that they had no intention of simply putting Snowden on a plane home. However, Putin essentially offered to silence him in deference to the interest of his American "partner." But as each day passed with new administration protestations of their "disappointment" with Putin, the chances to make a deal withered and the public embarrassment of the administration increased.

President Obama's decision last week to cancel his meeting with President Putin reeked of petulance. At his press conference this week, President Obama continued to publicly rebuke Putin for not cooperating with American requests. He chastised Putin for thinking "backward" on issues rather than "forward," and for opposing things just because we were for them. But in all his comments, he never seemed to recognize that Putin is a national leader in his own right, with positions on issues grounded in his country's own priorities and interests.

If the president wants to reboot our relationship with Russia, as he has suggested, a good starting point might be to pay a little bit less attention to our own words, and a bit more to theirs. Negotiations begin with knowing what matters to the person on the other side of the table. If you are only paying attention to yourself, you will never get anywhere.