HAVING BOLDLY deployed troops and planes on behalf of Syria’s bloodstained dictatorship, Russian President Vladimir Putin mounted the podium of the U.N. General Assembly on Monday and called on the nations of the world to join him in a broad coalition to defeat the Islamic State and similar groups across the Middle East. Like the World War II “anti-Hitler” alliance, Mr. Putin observed, such a coalition would unite governments of all varieties: democracies, dictatorships and theocracies alike. Only by shoring up existing governments — including undemocratic ones like that headed by Bashar al-Assad in Damascus — and restoring the principle of “state sovereignty” could the threat of revolutionary upheaval be banished and international stability restored, Mr. Putin asserted. He invoked the bygone days in which the “Yalta system” kept the peace.
May the nations of the world resist this siren song. What Mr. Putin leaves out of his little tale is the fact that the United States and its allies were fighting not only against fascism but also for democracy. The alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union was a necessary evil; and the peace kept by Yalta (as mendaciously implemented by the Soviet dictator) was a poor, liberty-less one for half of Europe. As the events of 1989 were to prove, that order was, in fact, quite unstable due to its sacrifice of human liberty.
Mr. Putin is just as wrong to blame all the troubles of Syria, and, seemingly, the world on Western pro-democracy meddling. To the contrary, as President Obama ringingly declared in his speech to the General Assembly, the mass killing in Syria began when Mr. Assad brutally crushed a peaceful pro-democracy uprising of domestic origin. There can be no lasting peace in Syria or anywhere else on the basis of tyranny restored. “Catastrophes, like what we are seeing in Syria, do not take place in countries where there is genuine democracy and respect for the universal values this institution is supposed to defend,” he said. Mr. Obama’s vision, in short, was not only morally preferable to Mr. Putin’s but also, as a statement about humanity’s long-term needs, more realistic.
Unfortunately, Mr. Obama lacks any strategy to back up this vision or to counter Mr. Putin, who is backing his words with a show of military “hard power” and a flurry of alliance-building in Syria, Iraq and Iran. Mr. Obama failed to lend timely, effective support to Syria’s rebellion before extremists took it over. Then he laid down a blurry “red line” against Mr. Assad’s chemical weapons use, threatening to enforce it with airstrikes before backing down in return for a Russian-brokered disarmament deal that kept Mr. Assad in power. At the United Nations, Mr. Obama now offers to cooperate with Russia, and Iran, on a “compromise” solution to Syria whose goal — “a managed transition” to a post-Assad government — is incompatible with Russian and Iranian principles to the extent it doesn’t violate Washington’s own.
“Plan beats no plan,” as former treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner used to say. Shortsighted and cynical as it may be, at least Mr. Putin has a plan for Syria. After all this time, Mr. Obama still does not.