Belmont Club

The Combat of Champions

Paul Richter and Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times argue that the Russian strongman is doing something very peculiar in modern history. He is engaging in single combat with the Leader of the Free World.  Putin is tearing down one man and not as one would expect, the entire system of a rival nation state in order to gain success. They write, “Putin is using his Syria gambit to disparage Obama”.

The outcome of Vladimir Putin’s bold military gamble in Syria is far from clear, but in the short term, one loser seems certain: President Obama.

The Kremlin raised the stakes Wednesday by firing cruise missiles into Syria from warships nearly 1,000 miles away as Obama’s critics at home and abroad said Putin’s escalating attempt to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad already has made the White House look weak and wavering.

Even the New York Times senses the Russian’s agenda.  “Is Vladimir Putin Trying to Teach the West a Lesson in Syria?” Ivan Krastev asks.  He can’t figure out the logic behind Russia’s military moves. “But what does this spoiling power actually want? Is Russia in Syria simply for the sport of watching a humiliated President Obama?”

That is because the logic is less military than psychological. Putin is in Syria to humiliate president Obama for sound strategic reasons.  Putin appears to be the darling of the hour. Radio Free Europe reports that Afghanistan’s “First Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is seeking help from an old ally — Russia.” Iraqi Shi’ite politicians, caught up in the madness of strongman adulation, have called on Putin to bomb Iraq.

Suddenly Obama’s partners for peace are going out of their way to treat him like a nobody in the most insulting way. Reuters reports that “Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Wednesday banned any further negotiations between Iran and the United States”.  This only weeks after receiving $100 billion dollars from the One and Iran won’t even take his call.  To add insult to injury, Gen. John Campbell, commander of US forces in Afghanistan  told the Senate that Tehran is arming the Taliban. Foreign Policy says that Iran has supplied Hezbollah with SA-22 SAMs and Yakhont surface-to-surface precision land attack missiles.  A hundred billion doesn’t buy much gratitude these days.  Iran couldn’t express their contempt more clearly if they took out a full page ad in the Washington Post.

Nothing changed in the correlation of forces. What changed was the correlation of prestige and now Putin’s shadow goes before all.

The Daily Beast says Russian fighters are stalking US drones over Syria. “Romania Is Starting to Freak Out About Russian Designs on Transnistria,” says Vice News. The New York Times reports NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg told the alliance to consider “the implications for NATO’s own security of the ‘troubling escalation of Russian military activities’ in Syria.” He darkly warned that “NATO is ready to deploy forces, if needed, to defend alliance member Turkey”.

All this is the fruit of the Russian’s reputational ascendancy over Obama. If Putin’s jibes were not enough, the administration seemed ready to do all it could to inflict ridicule on itself. The Brookings Institution noted president Obama recent offered to turn the Department of Defense into the logistical arm of the UN. Josh Earnest showed decisive the president was by telling reporters that after months of deliberation, the administration had yet to make up its mind on whether to establish a no-fly-zone over Syria. The Department of Defense announced it was punishing Russia with what the NYT called a “semantic downgrade” to show the administration’s displeasure.

Perhaps most bizarrely U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Michael Ratney told a Syrian-American delegation that the Russian airstrikes on Syria are a sign that U.S. policy is working.  What else could he say?

Ratney’s boast also angered some of the Syrian-American advocates and humanitarian representatives gathered at the State Department for the meeting with him earlier this week….

Ratney went even further when directly asked what the United States was doing, even diplomatically, to protect civilians from the aerial assaults led by the Assad regime. He said, in essence, that Assad’s aerial bombardment had become Russia’s problem.

“With the Russian intervention, they really own the barrel bombs now. We hope that they would use their influence to make that practice stop,” Ratney responded. “If Russians are coming in to bolster the regime, they should use their influence to stop attacks on civilians… What Russia is doing is disgusting.”

Ratney was not immediately available for comment. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain was mortified when told of Ratney’s remarks on how Russia’s intervention is a sign that U.S. policy is working.

Elliot Abrams writing in the National Review noted that the administration was actually beyond parody recalling that Obama’s idea of genocide prevention was to establish “a new government body called the Atrocity Prevention Board“.   People see this and laugh.  Obama might survive antipathy.  He cannot survive contempt.

The reason why Putin is focusing his efforts to humiliate and mock one single man is simple. President Obama’s penchant for personal rule has created a weakness that the Russian strongman will ruthlessly exploit. Ordinarily presidential prestige wouldn’t be much of a target if the republic’s institutions were working. A president is just another politician who can be replaced if he dies, is incapacitated or is discredited.  After all America survived Franklin Roosevelt’s death at the height of World War 2 without a hitch — a transition which astonished Hitler no end. In a constitutional government the president is just another man, replaceable in a way that Russia supreme leader could never be.

Why should Obama’s ego represent such a target of vulnerability? Because Obama has thrown away the gigantic American institutional advantage by pursuing an opaque  strategy from the narrowest of White House circles.  He has taken foreign policy away from institutions, deprived it of bipartisan consensus in order to centralize it on his desk.   Where it should have been diffuse it has become a cult of personality, a weak spot that Putin is relentlessly attacking.   He knows that when a Messiah is shown  in an ridiculous light, the cult falls.

As Bret Stephens pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, Obama set himself up unwittingly by ridiculing  everyone in American government who disagreed with him. He turned the Democratic Party into aging collection of doddering has-beens and demonized all Republican rivals. He closed the doors on his colleagues turning a broad-based system of government into a pogo stick with himself hopping about on it. Now all Putin has to do is kick out the base and down he goes.

David Petraeus testified last month to the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. policy in the Middle East. Regarding Syria, the former general and CIA director urged a credible threat to destroy Bashar Assad’s air force if it continues to bomb its own people. He also recommended “the establishment of enclaves in Syria protected by coalition air power, where a moderate Sunni force could be supported and where additional forces could be trained, internally displaced persons could find refuge, and the Syrian opposition could organize.”

But Barack Obama does not agree. At his Friday press conference, the president described such views as “mumbo-jumbo,” “half-baked ideas,” “as-if” solutions, a willful effort to “downplay the challenges involved in the situation.” He says the critics have no answers to the questions of “what exactly would you do and how would you fund it and how would you sustain it.”

America’s greatest living general might as well have been testifying to his shower drain for all the difference his views are going to make in this administration.

So it is with this president. It’s not enough for him to stake and defend his positions. He wants you to know that he thinks deeper, sees further, knows better, operates from a purer motive. His preferred method for dealing with disagreement is denigration. If Republicans want a tougher line in Syria, they’re warmongers. If Hillary Clinton thinks a no-fly zone is a good idea, she’s playing politics: “There is obviously a difference,” the president tut-tutted about his former secretary of state’s position, “between running for president and being president.”

In so doing he narrowed down the image of great United States to the compass of his own person. This created a lucrative target for the ex-KGB operative. Putin knows it is impossible to upend the American colossus, but easy to trip up the tinpot messiah. Having grown to manhood in the Soviet Union, Putin had an exquisite sense of the strengths and weaknesses of the cult of personality.

Clearly Obama can turn aside most of Putin’s psychological schwerpunkt by simply being more humble. There is nothing to prevent the president from returning the formulation of policy to the organs of the Republic — through the Departments, the professional military and the committees of Congress.  He  can gather input on the widest possible basis, and create as Winston Churchill did in 1940, a national goverment rather than a cabal of one.  By so doing he will turn the contest from Obama vs Putin — which he cannot win — to America vs Putin, which he cannot lose.

But if achieving an American victory were so simple to achieve the possibility must also have crossed the wily Russian’s mind. Does he not stay up nights thinking: suppose Obama has an attack of humility? Then I’m sunk.  But he probably took one look at his foe and said: “nah”.

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