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Syria and Ukraine: Worse than ever

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In case you thought President Obama’s foreign policy had hit rock bottom, there are signs things are getting worse. Still.

The administration admits Syria isn’t living up to its promises to divest itself of weapons of mass destruction. The Post reports: “The months-long effort to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons program has ground to a halt because Syria is holding on to 27 tons of sarin precursor chemicals as leverage in a dispute with the international community over the future of facilities used to store the deadly agents, according to U.S. officials.”

No doubt, Bashar al-Assad has correctly figured out there is no downside to violating the deal. What’s Obama going to do — bomb him? We crossed that bridge last year. Assad has demonstrated for the world, and especially for his overlords in Tehran, that you can use WMDs, stay in power, promise to give them up and then keep some. The article reports: “This says more about the determination of the regime to intimidate, kill, defeat the rebels,” said David Kay, a former U.N. weapons inspector now at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. “It says a lot about their lack of fear of consequences. What’s the West going to do? It’s done nothing so far.”

Speaking of consequences, Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t fear any either, as The Post reports:

Russian President Vladi­mir Putin demanded Thursday that the Ukrainian government withdraw its troops from the troubled eastern part of the country, where pro-Russian separatists have been gaining ground.
Putin made the demand in a conversation with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the Russian leader Thursday about the deteriorating security situation in eastern Ukraine. She reached out to Putin a day after Ukraine’s acting president said he had lost control of that portion of his country.

Both these developments highlight some critical aspects of Obama’s serial foreign policy disasters.

First, the notion that the United States is the problem — or that the United States makes it worse or others can handle crises better than the United States — has been blown to smithereens. The mainstay of the anti-interventionist left and the isolationist right, a repudiation of American power, proves to be a disaster. The humanitarian and geopolitical nightmare in Syria resulted from the lack of American will to stop aggression. Meanwhile, “a Europe, free and whole” is crumbling after decades because an aggressor is not checked by the United States and its allies. We’ve systematically removed the fear of adverse consequences so bad actors feel free to take what they can grab.

Second, these debacles represent a failure of “soft power.” In the years leading up to Assad’s use of WMDs to kill thousands, we failed diplomatically and economically to punish Assad; we refused to sufficiently back rebels when the total dead was less than 1,000. Now the death toll may hit 200,000. Likewise, Putin didn’t wake up one morning and decide to take Crimea and then eastern Ukraine. He witnessed five years of American vacillation. He bullied Obama into removing missile defenses from Eastern Europe and cheated on arms deals with impunity. Had we taken steps to remove the impression of fecklessness Putin might have calculated differently. Conservatives have long argued that soft power without the threat of hard power is ineffective; Obama has shown that the failure of soft power increases our foes’ confidence, making the use of hard power more dangerous and our risks much higher.

Third, at this stage, the president doesn’t seem to have a clue what to do. He still has not enacted sector-wide sanctions against Russia or given defensive weapons to Ukraine so it can protect itself. At the State Department yesterday there was this candid exchange:

QUESTION: Is there anything new to report on Ukraine and Russian de-escalation or non-de-escalation?
MS. HARF: Certainly not de-escalation, no. Not much new today. We’ve seen more bad behavior from the Russians, not taking any steps to de-escalate, still causing problems, the [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] monitors still being held, as are a number of other hostages.
MS. HARF: Nothing’s changed.

How-hum, another day that the United States is being ignored on the international stage. Aggressors press on. We finger-wag. Allies are on their own.

Kerry gave a speech earlier this week in which he conceded that after signing an agreement with the West, “I have to say to you, not one single step has been taken by Russia in any public way that seriously attempts to live by the spirit or the law of what was signed in that agreement.” Yet, with perfect seriousness, he proclaimed that actions we’ve taken “are already forcing Russia to pay a steep price for its efforts to create this instability. And I mean that.” (Did he stamp his foot at that point?) Obviously, whatever actions we’ve taken and whatever conversations the president has had with Putin have been thoroughly useless. Putin isn’t stopping.

Kerry intones: “The Russians have a clear choice: Leave Ukraine in peace and work with us together to create a strong Ukraine, a Ukraine that is not a pawn, pulled and tugged at between East and West, but a Ukraine that could be a bridge to both,  with the ability to have an open trading mechanism on all degrees, 360 around Ukraine.” Oddly he didn’t lay out the other choice: Grab eastern Ukraine and risk conflict? Be cut off from the West’s economies? He doesn’t say because he cannot credibly say what will befall Russia if it gobbles up eastern Ukraine. And after eastern Ukraine the question will become which country does Putin grab next.

This is what American failure and decline look like. Ironically, a decade of war isn’t coming to an end; violence, instability and repression all spread when the U.S. averts its eyes.