There is little left to be written about the discordant integration of reality television and The Gong Show that President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and their collaborators produced over the past three weeks over Syria. Like an unpredictably bouncing American football, this story moved in diagonals and backward and forward until the target became peacemaker, the villain the benefactor, and the means to achieve the end shrank “unbelievably” and then vanished, as the wrongdoer surrendered the forbidden weapons he claimed not to have to those who denied he had used them and had probably supplied them in the first place. And then, the presidential entourage launched a Twitter and spin offensive vastly more complicated than anything that the commander-in-chief, after he abdicated that role to the Congress, had contemplated asking, unsuccessfully, for the Congress, which had no constitutional standing to do anything of the kind, to authorize.
Even if history were ransacked to produce a greater sequence of fiascos in a place more frequently occupied by effective foreign- and security-policy specialists, it could not do so, and we would have to plunge deep into comic fiction to find a precedent. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol was on the right track when he linked his comments on Syria to a video of “the other Marx,” the one with the silent brother. (It is time for Chico to complain about “the sanity clause,” as he did in A Night at the Opera.) It has come to this.
Lamentations and fault-finding have had a well-deserved innings, but I am scouring these events for something positive. It seems that this process makes it less likely that embattled Syrian president Bashar Assad will revert to this sort of weapon again. He may have come fairly close to a tiny retaliation from the United States, and in the event that he gasses his own civilian population again, there is a respectable chance that Obama will not abdicate as commander-in-chief; that all the imbeciles in Congress who lined up at television and broadcasting studios like food-stamp applicants to say that they did “not want to go to war” — as if that were what launching a couple of cruise missiles at no risk to those who fire them actually involved — will not obstruct him; and that the commander-in-chief will actually command that something proportionate and effective be done to punish what his secretary of state has already emptied his rhetorical clip describing as, inter alia, “a moral obscenity,” and so forth.
In that sense, enlisting the Russians, even in this charade of a contrived handover (or hand-back) of chemicals of potential mass murder, is probably a more effective deterrence to recidivism by Assad than the pathetic tokenism that the commander-in-chief was beseeching the reluctant fantasist warriors in the Congress to approve would have been. And having conferred, preposterously, the role of peacemaking deus ex machina on Vladimir Putin, the administration has endowed the Kremlin with a vested interest not to allow itself to be made a fool of by its protégé. Assad could probably reasonably infer that Putin, given his nostalgic KGB-alumnus ethos, might not be as philosophical about appearing to be an asinine stooge to the whole astonished world, as President Obama has, and that the consequences of casting Putin as one could be hazardous to Assad’s health. Putin’s former oligarchic partners in the pillaging of Mother Russia regularly come to a violent end, in the highest tradition of almost all the old Bolsheviks (except Stalin, of course, ex officio as executioner). And even the Russian leader’s frequent lapses into professed Christian religiosity for the benefit of gullible Americans (such as George W. Bush) do not mean that he would, if provoked, scruple to assist Assad into the Great Beyond so many of the Syrian president’s co-religionists claim to crave.
And there are some positive aspects to Putin’s op-ed piece in the New York Times on September 9. First, I must strenuously congratulate the Times on obtaining and running the piece; it is very newsworthy and interesting and every newspaper or other media outlet in the world would be happy to run anything by the president of Russia in such circumstances. The incompleteness of my editorial admiration of the Times is well known to anyone who cursorily looks at what I write about current events, but the complaints directed against it on this subject are just priggery and humbug.
Putin’s respectful references to the United Nations are useful, as, contrary to what he implies, Stalin, though a founder of the U.N., regarded it as nonsense and never understood why Roosevelt wanted it. (The answer was to make the defeat of the isolationists easier domestically and to disguise American dominance in the world behind the anticipated docility of the Latin American countries and solidarity of the constituent nations of the British Commonwealth. It served those purposes for a time.) In defending Russia’s right to a veto, Putin was also upholding the same right in the hands of the other founding members (U.S., U.K., France, and China), and was effectively saying that the punishment of offending states would have to be undertaken by the aggrieved state, as he did with Georgia, even as he decries any such trend as likely to lead to an impotence of the U.N. similar to that which afflicted the League of Nations.
It is possible to construe this as meaning that he advocates old-fashioned deal-making between the Great Powers. The submissive attitude of the Obama administration may cause him to think that he can exercise the influence in the world of the old Soviet Union. Who, given the record of the current regime in Washington, can claim that such an ambition is unfounded? But at least Putin is not apparently seeking any demotion of the U.S., even if it has temporarily demoted itself.
While Putin decries the violence in Syria that he has certainly helped to foment, he also warns of the terrorist character of the opposition to Assad. This incites an “unbelievably small” hope that he may be prepared, now that he is bucking to join Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, and Barack Obama as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, to cooperate in the discouragement of terrorism more generally, including in those areas where Assad’s Syria has been an enthusiastic conduit, for Iran, to Hezbollah and Hamas. Similarly, while his espousal of international law is piffle, it may mean that if he is facilitated in his desire to strut and preen before his countrymen as the restorer of the standing of Russia in the world to Peter and Catherine the Great and Stalin levels, he would be prepared to make regional deals with the West and China, out of which something better than the vacuous chaos created by the recent disorderly retreat of America could come.
More positive still is his suggestion in the Times that if international law is flouted, nuclear proliferation results, which he considers a bad thing. This is a bit rich for someone who has been so helpful to Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear military capacity. If Putin means that Russia, under terms the West could live with, is prepared to assist in keeping the nuclear-capable countries to a number that excludes Iran and North Korea, this is a very positive development. That leaves China, which, not having sustained such a terrible setback as the Russians did with the defection of the 14 non-Russian republics when the USSR disintegrated, is somewhat less unreasonable to deal with in such matters (and would be the first loser if North Korea became a fully capable nuclear power).
Putin’s railings against American exceptionalism should not offend anyone. He is claiming that all countries are morally equal, even if some are small and some are “still finding their way to democracy” (such as his, and with no help from him). When the nature of the U.N. General Assembly was explained at the Tehran Conference, Stalin responded that the USSR had not fought through the Russo-German War, with its many millions of deaths and vast devastation, “to have a voice in the councils of the world equal to Albania’s.” Putin is claiming a respect for the rights of states that Russia — Romanov, Communist, or post-Communist — has never practiced; this is not believable but it is not bad. The same can be said of the lip service he gives to democracy, unusual for a Russian leader. But he is right that what is exceptional about America is its size and importance. Thanks mainly to the American prodigies in support and defense of democracy in World War II and the Cold War, democracy and a somewhat free market are the prevailing world systems. The United States is not exceptional in its performance now, by either democratic or free-market criteria. But it remains an exceptionally important country. There is nothing to suggest that Putin would fail to respect the United States as a Great Power, when it returns to its previously well-established practice of behaving like one.
— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and the recently published Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].