The United States and Russia have now averted U.S. military action against the Syrian regime for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons against civilians. Is the agreement reached by Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov on September 9 a diplomatic triumph for the Obama administration, or was it, as retired British ambassador Charles Crawford called it , “the worst day for U.S. and wider Western diplomacy since records began?”
While perhaps not as bad as Ambassador Crawford suggests, we agree that the outcome is one of the worst defeats for U.S. foreign policy in decades. We write as two scholars and former national-security practitioners who agree on almost nothing else regarding Syria: one is a traditional realist who opposed military action against Assad , and the other is a recent arrival in the camp of the post-Cold War liberal internationalists who supported striking the Syrian regime . We come not only from diverging views but also from different academic disciplines (history and political science), and while both of us have served in positions relevant to American foreign and security policy, we speak on our own behalf, especially since we ourselves are otherwise so deeply divided about U.S. intervention overseas.
We share, however, a background in the study of Russia, and it is here that we find the outcome of the Syrian crisis to be so disastrous. For nearly seven decades, American efforts in the Middle East have been based on a bipartisan consensus—one of the few to be found in U.S. foreign policy—aimed at limiting Moscow’s influence in that region. This is a core interest of American foreign policy: it reflects the strategic importance of the region to us and to our allies, as well as the historical reality Russia has continually sought clients there who would oppose both Western interests and ideals. In less than a week, an unguarded utterance by a U.S. Secretary of State has undone those efforts. Not only is Moscow now Washington’s peer in the Middle East, but the United States has effectively outsourced any further management of security problems in the region to Russian president Vladimir Putin.
We both deplore the hyperpartisanship that has required too many Republicans and Democrats to support or oppose this new agreement based on domestic political calculations. We recognize, however, that more sincere defenders of the September 9 deal see great virtue in it. They argue, for example, that it will avert the need for military force (a threat most Americans did not want carried out anyway), that it will strip Assad of his chemical arms without fighting, and that it will force Putin to take ownership of the WMD question in Syria and thus obligate Russia to live up to better standards of global citizenship.
We find these to be optimistic and hopelessly naïve interpretations. It will be nearly impossible to move chemical weapons anywhere in the midst of a pitched civil war; moreover, the idea that the Putin regime cares anything for international norms or global citizenship beyond its own crudely defined interests is laughable on its face. By gaining American certification of the most important role Moscow has ever played in the Middle East, Putin has achieved in a week what no Soviet or Russian leader managed to do in a century. There should be little wonder that Putin pressed his advantage with a shameless lecture to America in the pages of The New York Times in one of the most appalling and hypocritical public relations stunts by a Kremlin boss since the Soviet era.
Of course, we do not blame President Putin for seizing this opportunity. The Russians are behaving as we would expect them to. Rather, we are dismayed primarily because U.S. diplomacy seems to have forgotten the innate ruthlessness of Russian foreign policy. The President and his advisers may have earned their stripes in Chicago’s tough political hothouse, but the games of the Midwest do not compare to the hardball played in Moscow.
The repercussions of the Kerry-Lavrov deal will be with us for years to come, and so we had best recognize them realistically before we proceed another step.
First, the United States has now effectively abandoned its previous policy on Assad: recall that President Obama publicly called for regime change in Syria in August 2011, and the White House and Congress together later toughened sanctions designed to force Assad out. Supporters of the Kerry-Lavrov deal claim that regime change was never a part of the administration’s plans for striking Syria. Perhaps not, but U.S. policy has now been completely reversed, with a de facto acknowledgment of Assad as the leader of Syria and a pledge to leave him alone under his strengthened Russian protection. The opposite of “regime change” need not be “regime recognition,” but that is in effect the deal the Russians have wrested from us.