Our Strategic Incompetence
The U.S.’s ineffective foreign policy can’t be covered up by our power forever.

Secretary of State John Kerry


Michael Auslin

Last weekend, Bashar Assad’s government formally met its first deadline in the Russian-brokered plan to have Syrian chemical weapons turned over to international authorities. Just hours before the deadline, Damascus turned over a list of chemical weapons. That undoubtedly buys it points with the Obama administration, which was willing to delay the timing for this first stage. However, as foreign news outlets have reported, the list is far from complete, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s much-touted demand that a full and comprehensive accounting be provided in just a week’s time.

Worse still, in the days leading up to the declaration, Syria was credibly accused of yet again moving around its chemical-weapons stores. So far, however, this hasn’t perturbed either the Obama administration or America’s mainstream media. While the blogosphere breaks news about the moving around of weapons, CNN optimistically reported that an unnamed U.S. official said that the proffered Syrian list “was more complete than what [U.S.] officials had expected.”

In other words, the administration fully expected to be lied to, but went ahead anyway with a diplomatic process that ties its hands and will entangle it in months of suspect negotiations. Now, Washington is accepting a meaningless U.N. resolution that demands that Syria surrender all its chemical weapons, but shrinks from authorizing the use of force if Damascus refuses to comply. Such a weak-willed international statement perfectly suits both Assad and his main patron, Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government and media are eager to publicize the “overtures” of new Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, despite the existence of little solid evidence that he intends to change any of Tehran’s hardline policies. Indeed, President Obama has rushed to call Rouhani, and the two sides are to begin “substantive talks” on Iran’s nuclear program. All this came about once John Kerry met his Iranian counterpart in New York and optimistically praised the “very different tone” that Iran was using with the Americans. This would be the same Iranian regime whose arms shipments to insurgents led to the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, an act of war for which it has neither apologized nor admitted its guilt.  

The real issue here is the fantasyland in which U.S. diplomacy increasingly finds itself. For all we know, the Syrian agreement may well work out, and Rouhani may indeed be committed to peace. But believing that requires a superhuman suspension of disbelief. Instead of increasing stability throughout the world, the United States has attempted to accommodate aggressive regimes. Both the Taliban and Saddam Hussein stand as exceptions to Washington’s efforts to get along with some of the most disruptive actors since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Over the past two decades, the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations have all consistently lowered the standards of U.S. diplomacy, particularly in relations with North Korea (which went from a basket case to a fully nuclear basket case), Afghanistan (which went from a rescued state to the land of “green on blue” killings), China (which feels ever freer to bully its neighbors), Iran, Russia, and now Syria. Moreover, in the past 20 years, our friends and allies have been whiplashed by unserious U.S. red lines, Washington’s desperate outreach to authoritarian regimes, and muddled goals.


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