September 12, 2013

The humiliation of the U.S. president and his conscious ceding of leadership to the thuggish Vladimir Putin makes for a defining moment in our country’s foreign policy. Democrats and Republicans alike are hard-pressed to think of an analogous moment. The Iran hostage crisis? Maybe, but WMDs weren’t in the picture. Afghanistan? Well, at least it opened Jimmy Carter’s eyes.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama
Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Obama during the G20 summit. (Guneev Sergey/Getty Images)

The New York Times headline says it all: “As Obama pauses action, Putin takes center stage.” That is a headline few ever expected to see after the end of the Cold War, but the recognition of the current state of international power politics by the liberal paper of record emphasizes the gravity of the situation. This is the Times, mind you, not a conservative outlet:

Although circumstances could shift yet again, Mr. Putin appears to have achieved several objectives, largely at Washington’s expense. He has handed a diplomatic lifeline to his longtime ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad, who not long ago appeared at risk of losing power and who President Obama twice said must step down. He has stopped Mr. Obama from going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia holds a veto, to assert American priorities unilaterally.

More generally, Russia has at least for now made itself indispensable in containing the conflict in Syria, which Mr. Putin has argued could ignite Islamic unrest around the region, even as far as Russia’s own restive Muslim regions, if it is mismanaged. He has boxed Mr. Obama into treating Moscow as an essential partner for much of the next year, if Pentagon estimates of the time it will take to secure Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile are accurate.

If merely Syria were at stake this would be bad enough, but consider the wider implications for Iran, Israel and places beyond, such as Pyongyang. Again, the Times: “Backing of Russian Plan Leaves a Wary Israel Focusing on Self-Reliance.” The Israelis see the writing on the wall and understand the power vacuum left by the U.S.:

“When the Iranians see this, they don’t fear a military threat,” Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli lawmaker with security expertise who is close to the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, told Israel Radio. “To the contrary, they feel the international coalition is weak and stuttering and not enough of a reason to give up their nuclear program.”

Dan Gillerman, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said the message to Iran was that “America’s allies cannot rely on it, that its enemies can do what they want and nothing will happen to them.” Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s former foreign minister and Mr. Netanyahu’s political partner, reacted to the developments with what has become practically a mantra here, “We rely only on ourselves.”

Those who think American power and our ability to project our values is critical to the West are glum, very glum in the wake of the president’s humiliation. Not only Syria and Russia but the whole world saw Obama’s speech. He conveyed massive ambivalence, fine for a Shakespearean tragedy but a modern catastrophe in the making. His speech and his policy were without purpose other than personal political survival. It was a sobering, frightful moment for the United States and, more generally, the West.

The U.S. cannot be a superpower by sacrificing its interests and that of our allies. A Middle East in which a Russia despot calls the shots is a danger that should stir bipartisan concern.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), reacting to Putin’s op-ed in the Times, said it made him want to “vomit.” Instead of getting nauseous, he should get angry about the events that precipitated the op-ed. He should, with other like-minded Dems and Republicans, consider how to restore American influence and prestige and how to reassert our influence in the Middle East. It’s going to take a lot of people a very long time to repair the damage wrought by this president.

In a couple of weeks, the U.N. General Assembly will convene. The new Iranian president, sophisticated in the ways of the West, will arrive and talk about negotiation, respect for his country and the need at all cost to avoid violence and war. He’ll meet with Obama, most likely. In private, what will they say? What opportunity will they both see to use “negotiation,” as we see with Syria, as a cover for WMDs? How will Obama evade international responsibilities this time? We can only imagine.

Clarity may be the silver-lining here. But, really, there is nothing promising about the state of American foreign policy right now. Nothing.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.