In Monday’s National Interest, Brent Sasley argues that our view of America’s deal with Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons —insofar as it is a “deal” at all—is unnecessarily alarmist. “It’s not clear,” Professor Sasley writes, “that Russia [poses] a challenge to the United States in the Middle East.” He also claims that our “argument rests on a single case—Syria.” While we welcome Prof. Sasley to this debate, we obviously disagree, as we see a clear and long standing Russian challenge in the region that goes far beyond “one case.” We regard Prof. Sasley’s reading of the current situation as naively optimistic; worse, despite his descriptive listing of Soviet involvements in the region, we find his larger analysis of Moscow’s influence in the region to be remarkably ahistorical and crippled by a serious lack of understanding regarding Russian foreign policy, its inner workings, or its goals.
Prof. Sasley’s attempt to snatch victory from the jaws of the Obama administration’s defeat rests on a series of improbable guesses and bald assertions: that Putin didn’t outfox Kerry; that the Russian deal had been under consideration for some time before Lavrov seized it; that the use of force was never (and still is not) off the table. Indeed, Sasley tells us confidently, it was almost certainly President Obama’s putative show of force and a consequent danger of regime change that forced Moscow’s hand. Unfortunately, there is no evidence to support any of this; in fact, the events that actually took place point to the opposite conclusion, since the Kerry-Lavrov “deal” happened as the U.S. president’s threat of force was imploding into a domestic political morass back in the United States and the American position was crumbling into incoherence.
Prof. Sasley’s reasoning requires us to believe several things, each of which is improbable in itself, but when taken together defies both the available evidence and plain common sense.
First, if the Kerry-Lavrov deal was such a good idea, why didn’t anyone try it a year ago? To say that the administration “discussed” diplomatic solutions with Putin is to say almost nothing, other than to grant the obvious fact that the normal channels of contact between Moscow and Washington were not completely closed. Of course diplomatic solutions were “discussed.” They always are, and they almost always founder on the rocks of reality when it comes to outlaw states like Syria. (Just ask the leaders of the newest nuclear regime in Pyongyang about the various “deals” made with them back in the 1990s.)
Had something like the Kerry-Lavrov solution emerged at the start of the Syrian mess, rather than at its barbaric apogee, we might have thought differently about it, especially if it had encouraged the Russians to restrain their client before the chemical genie was let loose with such ghastly consequences. Prof. Sasley, however, is writing as though the Kerry-Lavrov deal was in the works for months. (It wasn’t.) He also has a serenity about the deal as if it has already come to a satisfactory conclusion. (It hasn’t.) Sadly, this is all just so much wishful thinking, and it should be no surprise (at least it isn’t to us) that the Russians are already backpedaling and issuing nasty charges of American “blackmail” while protecting their client from further meddling by the West.
Prof. Sasley makes a legalistic observation that there has been no explicit promise from Obama to Putin about the use of force. The absence of such a vow, like so much of the symbolism in this foreign-policy train wreck, is meaningless. If there is any danger at all of U.S. action still hanging in the air—and we believe there is not—then it is an uncomfortable option hanging over President Obama’s head, not President Putin’s. Americans, reacting in part to past U.S. military excursions as well as to the uncertain trumpet blared by their own national leaders about Syria, have quickly backed away from any further consideration of military force. Congress clearly did not want the hot potato of U.S. military force dropped in its lap , and trying to send this decision down Pennsylvania Avenue was a huge and unforced political error. Barring some kind of horrible misstep by Bashar Assad, we suspect that the administration will not repeat that mistake.
Prof. Sasley’s political arguments are difficult enough to swallow. His historical analysis, however, is completely detached from the realities of both Soviet and Russian foreign policy.
Ironically, in seeking to rebut our arguments, Prof. Sasley ends up accidentally (or so we must assume) confirming our own reasoning. Soviet influence during the Cold War, he argues, was never all that significant, he says, so why worry about Russian influence now?
This reflects a complacency that completely misses the point: the reason Soviet influence in the Middle East was limited during the Cold War is because American policymakers of all political persuasions and parties made every effort to curtail it and keep it that way . If Prof. Sasley had looked carefully at our piece, he would have seen that we were not arguing that Russia is being allowed to return to a position of prominence, but rather that it is being given one, thus fulfilling a long-standing aim of Russian foreign policy. In other words, we are all in heated agreement: Moscow has not been this powerful in the Middle East in at least a century. It is now enjoying a new status because Washington has chosen to confer it.