Thursday, September 12, 2013

Putin's "long game"

Sandy Levinson

Why has Vladimir Putin emerged as the potential savior of Barack Obama's presidency?  Let me offer two possible reasons.  The first is tied to my hobbyhorse:  He is well aware of the United States Constitution, and he realizes that Barack Obama will be President until January 20, 2017.  Even if it might be tempting for Putin to set Obama up to be a failed (second term) President, via a stunning rebuff by a bi-partisan majority in both the House and Senate against a policy that still makes little sense when carefully analyzed, or by the political/constitutional crisis that would be created if Obama ignored the congressional rebuff, he may well calculate that it's even more in his interest to have a highly intelligent, nuanced President who retains some genuine power and authority, which will certainly be the case if Assad agrees to the deal.

But wait, there's more:  What will the US do when Russia introduces a Security Council resolution calling on Israel to ratify the Chemical Weapons Treaty (that it signed, but never ratified) and, indeed, calling on Israel to turn over its chemical weapons to its patron, the US, for supervised destruction?  It is clearly treated as irrelevant that Syria never signed the Treaty; instead, we have been told that the ban on chemical weapons is now jus cogens, so that anyone in defiance is an enemy of all humanity.  Israel had very good reason to hope that the Syria issue would simply go away, without American intervention.  But, thanks to Putin, chemical weapons are more on the table than ever, with the US posturing that it might have to attack after all (on the basis of what authority?) if we are not satisfied with the terms of Syria's giving over its stock and subsequent destruction.  Why should it really make such a difference that Israel (arguably) has not used chemical weapons (assuming that phosphorous bombs do not count)?  The only reason to possess any weapon is to scare other countries with the possibility that one might use it. (This is why we're panicked about Iran's getting a nuclear weapon, even though Kenneth Pollock has apparently made a cogent argument--and he is not the only one--that containment would work as well with Iran as it did with the Soviet Union.)  So to possess chemical weapons, in terms of the Obama speech, is simply to announce that one is prepared to be a war criminal.  Must one wait for the overt act of criminality, or isn't possession enough to count as manifesting the requisite bad character?

No doubt it gives a lot of politicians and pundits genuine pleasure to bash Putin, pointing out his various hypocrisies and proclaiming that we really and truly are "exceptional" and proud of it.  But he turns out, not surprisingly, to be a truly acute politician--and we may well be grateful that that is the case.


Syria's actions will also put pressure on Israel to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty and permit greater scrutiny of its anything-but-secret nuclear-weapon stockpile. (India and Pakistan, too.) The NPT has been been ratified by 190 states -- two more than have ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Kevin may well be right about the NPT, but, perhaps bizarrely, nuclear weapons aren't regarded as "enemies of humankind" the way that chemical weapons are, so that apparently sane people can bloviate about the potential use of nuclear weapons when vital interests are at stake. The obvious difference between the NPT and the Chemical Weapons treaty is that the possessors of nuclear weapons are doing little or nothing to get rid of their own stockpiles of same. I'm offering this as a descriptive, not a normative, point.


Excellent points, all. Very insightful.


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It is sad, really, that Obama would have a "failed" second term if he lost a single vote on a limited use of force against Syria, even though many against it don't deny that U.S. does have an interest here, but state disagreement on the means.

Is executive power so fragile these days? Our resident Colbert fan is not here yet, but his bit about how Congress can never say "no" to a request to use force comes to mind. If they do, it will just lead to ruin!

I think like "dictator," the word "failed" should be used a bit less loosely. Putin didn't last this long without being an astute (or acute) politician, that is true. Those who bash him are aware of that.

As to the long game here, it is long, and each step will be small. Russians (or Soviets) do have something to teach us about that.

Many people have speculated on Putin's motives and aims, and Sandy's speculation is as good as any (though personally I would be skeptical that Putin is ooncerned about maintaining Obama's political viability). But it strikes me that Putin may have no grand scheme in mind. He saw a power vacuum and filled it, and he will decide how to exploit this new position as time unfolds. Its possible that this will work out for the general good, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Its possible that this will work out for the general good, but I wouldn't bet on it.
# posted by Blogger mls : 2:03 PM

As long as it keeps us out of that mess, it's all good.

With the threats of yesterday over (until December), here's my comment on a 9/10/13 post at Econospeak "What Lies Behind The Syria Deal?":


Might Putin be aiming for a Nobel Peace Prize?

Muslim nations in Central Asia that were part of the USSR have many corruptions issues, perhaps with dissenters rising. These sovereign nations, which are considered part of the Greater Middle East, may create problems for Russia, especially since Russia has huge economic energy ties with them, including pipelines, that may cause Russia to seek actions/approvals by the UN Security Council at which the US might exercise a veto.

Russia has problems in the Caucuses with muslim groups. Russia may realize that chaos in Syriamayl do long run damage to Russia's economy.

And Russia may be concerned that if it does not act as a broker, its shaky reputation on human rights will suffer from Syria's use of chemical weapons. Remember the upcoming Olympics and safety issues Russia will have to address.

Will it all work out? Only if there is give and take, balancing, by all parties, without chest-beating of victory by one or more of the parties. At some point the peoples of the Greater Middle East should understand that they are the ones primarily suffering from sectarian clashes.

September 11, 2013 at 10:25 AM


That was before Putin's "Black Hand" NYTimes Op-Ed. His attack on American Exceptionalism pales in comparison to domestic challenges based on real history. Rasputin had forecast that the world would end on August 23, 2013. He was wrong. Perhaps his current diminutive counterpart (without the "Ras") saw this failure of forecast as an opportunity for future fame, to be illustrated with shirtless poses of his past.

Just to be clear: The "failed second term" wouldn't result from his losing the vote on congressional authorization, but, rather, his possible defiance of the vote by taking unilateral action in Syria. Though it certainly wouldn't have helped his reputation for acuity in providing "leadership" had Obama been thoroughly rebuffed by a bi-partisan majority in both houses of Congress. Now, thanks to Putin's intervention, Obama has the real prospect of being able to point to a truly significant accomplishment re the possession of chemical weapons by Syria. (Perhaps this will turn out to be another example of Obama's luck, which began with the fact that Hillary's campaign geniuses in 2008 had almost literally no idea of how the caucus system worked to McCain's pick of Palin (plus the economic meltdown and McCain's obvious cluelessness) and then the remarkable campaign run by Mitt (who cares about the 47%) Romney.

The "vote" would likely be a rejection of a positive authorization. A vote on a resolution that clearly blocked him from using force would be quite different.

Clinton's use of force in the Balkans comes to mind here. It is unclear that Obama would unilaterally use force w/o congressional authorization anyway. Finally, Putin's efforts is part of a process in which Obama's credible threat to use force played a major role.

Any "saving" looks to be one as a result of Obama's active role and it is as much about helping Putin's position as anything else. It can be seen, actually, as Putin saving himself as compared to the U.S. using force in a way that threatens Russia's power in Syria.


There is much to what Joe says about Obama and Putin being mutually useful to one another at this time.

I believe that a vote against authorizing a strike is equivalent to a vote stating that the President has no such power. And I believe that the Balkan air war was fraught with constitutional problems that were basically swept under the rug by a combination of liberal interventionists and conservatives who still liked strong executive power. For better or worse, liberals have become more gun (or bomber) shy and conservatives are now much more likely to take direction from the neo-isolationist Rand Paul than John (I never met a war I didn't want the US to participate in) McCain.

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