Belmont Club

Trapped in a Little Box

When the administration warned Russian president Putin he was foolishly stumbling into a Syrian quagmire, it spoke from its customary vantage of intellectual superiority.  It has been constantly waving the Russian away from what they describe as an unwise choice the way an only adult in the room might speak to a child. Peter Baker and Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times describe the president’s latest attempt to dissuade Russia from making a terrible mistake:

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire and it won’t work,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference at the White House on Friday, referring to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a longtime ally of both Russia and Iran. “And they will be there for a while if they don’t take a different course.”

Obama, while acknowledging some setbacks, reaffirmed confidence in his Syria policy saying that he would “build on that”.  Having reassured himself of the correctness of his fundamentals, the Washington Post reported that the president decided  not to confront Russia directly. Instead the Obama ridiculed Putin for thinking this is “some superpower chessboard contest” and appeared content to wait until Moscow discovered the error of its ways.

We’re not going to make Syria into a proxy war between the United States and Russia. That would be a bad strategy on our part,” Obama said. “This is a battle between Russia, Iran and Assad against the overwhelming majority of the Syrian people. Our battle is with ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State.

President Obama has the habit of offering advice to other leaders,  explaining how they should think. In 2014 he told Iran that an “Iraq in chaos on their borders is probably not in their interests”. Later in 2014 he told Vladimir Putin that a standoff in Ukraine was  not in the interests of either country”. In September of that same year he told Turkey that “it’s certainly not in their interest for all that instability and violence to be occurring so close to their border”.

Surely they see it; and just as surely they will respond as he has foreseen. It must come as a cruel disappointment that so many world leaders disregarded his counsel in 2015, often doing the opposite of what he suggested. Iran is deeply enmeshed in Iraq. Russia is building up forces in the Ukraine.  Turkey is in a renewed fight with the Kurds upon its borders.

So much for their interests.

Nevertheless, Samantha Power kept tweeting helpful advice to Russian target planners who have targeted CIA-trained Syrian rebels. “We call on #Russia to immediately cease attacks on Syrian oppo & civilians & to focus on ISIL “.   Alas, the New York Times article observes, the administration’s well intentioned advice  advice has fallen on deaf ears:

Neither Russia nor Iran showed signs of listening. While Moscow widened its airstrikes to hit Islamic State territory for the first time, Russian troops have unloaded a major long-range artillery system to add more firepower to its deployment in Syria, according to an American official. At the same time, American officials said Iran had sent additional ground troops to bolster Mr. Assad’s government.

Foreign leaders don’t seem to get Obama’s words.  Putin has not recoiled from the proferred shadow of Vietnam.  Foreign leaders continue to act in what Obama would regard as an irrational way. Ted Cruz noted in his recent Senate speech that they had a habit of doing that.  He noted president Obama’s nuclear deal was premised on the idea that Tehran will act as he would.  But when did it do that?

“Now, the Administration claims that the deal will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Why? Because they promise not to do it. We have learned from Iran they break their promises over and over and over again. And what we do know is that they will have an extra $100 billion to develop nuclear weapons with now — I will say the Administration has laughingly suggested, well, they will use that on infrastructure to rebuild their roads, to rebuild their energy industry. Right now, they’re sending vast sums to Hamas and Hezbollah, funding terrorism across the world, and they have those same infrastructure needs. With another $100 billion, you don’t think they’re going to funnel an awful lot of it to developing nuclear weapons?”

Speeches are the president’s chosen weapon.  However, The Daily Beast notes now that the administration’s word and tweet campaign has failed, it has been left “helpless”.

Putin’s warplanes are targeting the CIA’s rebel friends. And the U.S. doesn’t know yet if there’s any way to respond.

United States officials conceded Thursday that there is little the they could do in Syria to protect CIA-vetted rebels, the very people the American government trained and armed, who are now coming under fire from Russian airstrikes.

The military isn’t willing to intervene on behalf of the rebels, given the potentially disastrous consequences of an escalation with Russian forces, U.S. defense officials and top lawmakers told The Daily Beast. No one wants to accidentally touch off a showdown between superpowers.

The president’s frustration and anger are palpable. It is as if the world were playing a dirty trick on him.  His scholarly estimate of other leaders’ behavior seem all off — and he can’t figure out where his calculations have gone wrong.   The NYT writes, “bristling at criticism of his own Syria policy, he rejected domestic opponents who offer ‘half-baked ideas’ that amount to ‘a bunch of mumbo-jumbo.'”

There’s a simpler answer. President Obama may be a victim of mirror imaging, which is the mistake of thinking rivals will behave just as he would, using thought processes symmetrical to his.  The facts are that Russia, Iran and Turkey — to name just a few countries — appear to operate under a completely different calculus from his.  They use one metric, he uses another. This puts him all out of reckoning time after time.

For example Obama conceded that it would not operate in Russian air space in Syria without its permission.  Yet paradoxically Russia seems in no way similarly constrained.  Josh Rogin at Bloomberg News noted that Russia had simply declared a USAF-out zone, something Obama would never dream of doing to the Russians.

NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe, General Philip Breedlove, was the first top Western official to publicly state that Russia’s new military infrastructure inside Syria, which includes anti-aircraft defense systems, was a de facto no-fly zone. He warned on Tuesday that Russia had created a new anti-access/area-denial bubble in Syria where U.S. planes could no longer travel.

Why can Russia’s midget air force high handedly block off the mighty USAF while the reverse is impossible?  Because Obama is faced with a dissimilar, asymmetric set of threats. He acts under one set of incentives and Putin acts under another, which the very definition of asymmetry.

The incentives could not be more different. The United States is like the system administrator of the international system and values order, predictability and stability. For this reason, president Obama frequently invokes his submission to a “rule based international order”. On the other hand, Russia far from being a system administrator, is actually like a hacker trying to bring down the system. It does not value order in the same way as Obama. In fact, it gains from chaos.

The Council for Foreign Relations notes that Vladimir Putin tried to tell Obama to his face in this year’s General Assembly address that they are as different as chalk and cheese. But the president wasn’t listening.

For the past six years, President Barack Obama has dominated the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, his words and initiatives driving the agenda and media coverage. This year, it was Russian President Vladimir Putin, making his first UN appearance in a decade, who stole the diplomatic show. …

Putin’s address underscored how different the world looks from Moscow’s vantage point—and how inconsistent Russian authoritarianism and realpolitik is with President Obama’s dream of an open, rule-based international order.

This is why the president keeps getting it wrong.  “Vietnam” from Moscow’s point of view was a victory, not the epitome of a quagmire that haunts the Democratic Party. “Quagmire” may not even be a word Moscow understands.  Many things Obama thinks are, ain’t. The reason is asymmetry.

Unlike the US which was the hegemon, Russia’s historical role in the Middle East has been one of provocateur. Adam Taylor at the Washington Post recalls how the Soviet Union used Egypt to smash up Yemen in the 1960s with great success.  Then it pulled out.  Russia had no obligation to clean up after its mess.  Only the hegemon has the responsibility to leave order behind.

In the 1960s, what was then North Yemen was stuck in a lengthy civil war

Moscow had sided with North Yemen’s republican forces in the conflict, encouraged by what it saw as an anti-imperial pan-Arabism. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev is said to have cabled Abdullah al-Sallal, the president of the Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), to tell him: “Any act of aggression against Yemen will be considered an act of aggression against the Soviet Union.”…

The Soviets’ sudden withdrawal of their fighters may sound disastrous, but the republicans held on to Sanaa and eventually emerged victorious in North Yemen, thanks in no small part to disagreements among the royalists and the outside powers supporting them. Katz explains that he can’t help think of the Soviet involvement in Yemen when he looks at Syria today.

“It strikes me that Moscow may be aiming at something similar,” he explained. Like the Soviets before him, Putin may hope to “prevent the downfall of its client and hope that its opponents and their external supporters fall out with one another to the point where they are no longer focusing effectively on toppling the regime,” Katz said.

This asymmetry between a hacker and a system administrator explains why Russia and America don’t play by the same rules.  The mistake is to think that they do.  Yet this is a mistake Obama constantly makes. Putin can roam free at will while Obama is trapped in his little rule-based box.  Thus Obama has to maintain order while  Putin can concentrate on making troiuble. Obama can focus on avoiding Russian aircraft. Putin can steal F-22 secrets  at leisure using his Syria-based radars and ELINT. Samantha Power can keep sending tweets. And Putin can keep bombing American allies on the ground.

If he’s being taken to the cleaners every single day it does not seem to bother him one bit.  According to Jack Martinez of Newsweek the president shrugged off the Russian challenge by declaring: the world is on our side.  “Iran and Assad make up Mr. Putin’s coalition at the moment. The rest of the world makes up ours,” he said.

Yet through this ongoing rout Obama may keep insisting that his policy calculations are correct; that his domestic opponents are nothing but ‘half-baked’ amateurs stuffed full of ‘mumbo-jumbo”.  Despite these pretentions he will unaccountably keep losing to Putin, Iran and even ISIS without being able to understand it. Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal called him the “unteachable president”, the man perpetually convinced of his infallibility and yet whose predictions were “one hundred percent wrong. The professor president who loves to talk about teachable moments is himself unteachable. Why is that?”

The short, plainspoken answer is because he hasn’t got a lick of common sense. Therefore he is doomed to keep losing to vastly weaker enemies, stumbling into catastrophes serially without ever knowing why. It’s a sad sight. America so powerful and yet so helpless.

It also raises the question: who’s in the quagmire? For while president Obama seems obsessed with keeping Putin from the bog, he may be in the soup himself.  There are quicksands of the mind as well as the earth.  By the looks of it Obama is neck deep in the swamp of his own illusions. Up to his chin in mud which began in 1968 and extends in time through the dark mental places of the Western elite as far as the eye can see.

But why should Putin put him wise? All he has to do is wait and watch the intellectual dinosaur drown himself.

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