It was the middle of the night in Washington, D.C.—the early morning of September 30, 2015, in Iraq—when a three-star Russian general walked into the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, announced that Russian jets would soon begin airstrikes in Syria, and demanded that the United States stop flying combat missions in the country.
Several hours later, in remarks at the United Nations, Secretary of State John Kerry signaled approval of this Russian military action. The Russians had told their American counterparts that their efforts would be directed against ISIS, and that, apparently, was good enough. If the Russians are targeting ISIS, Kerry said, “we are prepared to welcome those efforts.”
The Russians were not, in fact, targeting ISIS. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter acknowledged this in a late-morning press conference at the Pentagon, saying that none of the Russian strikes had taken place in ISIS-controlled areas. And yet when reporters pointed out the inescapable conclusion—the Russians had lied—Carter refused to accept it. “I take the Russians at their word,” he said.
The bad news soon got worse. Reports out of Syria made clear that not only were the Russians not targeting ISIS, they were methodically attacking and destroying positions held by opponents of ISIS and of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, including rebels supported by the United States. They weren’t going after our enemy in Syria, as they’d said; they were targeting our friends.
U.S. officials might have been expected to condemn the Russian aggression in the strongest terms. They might have been expected to confront directly the Russians who had misled them. They might have been expected to threaten to respond swiftly in the event of further provocation. Instead, Kerry appeared alongside his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and announced that the United States and Russia had many “big agreements” about the right course in Syria. Kerry gently raised “concerns” about “the nature of the targets, the type of targets, and the need for clarity with respect to them,” but he went out of his way to emphasize the goodwill in their “constructive meeting.”
So at precisely the time the Russians were undertaking military action that they’d forsworn, senior Obama administration officials were downplaying the importance of those actions and the breach of faith they represented. It was an extraordinary show of weakness. And it was all the more remarkable because the very same thing had happened before, involving some of the very same officials.
On February 28, 2014, Kerry briefed reporters after a phone call with Lavrov to discuss developments in Ukraine, where the Russians were infiltrating the military and menacing their neighbor. Kerry conveyed assurances he’d received from Lavrov, who insisted Russia’s motives were benign. Kerry said Lavrov had told him “that they are prepared to be engaged and be involved in helping to deal with the economic transition that needs to take place at this point.”
What was actually taking place, just as Kerry offered reassuring words about Russia’s intentions, was a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Within hours, news channels across the world broadcast images of Russian soldiers moving across the Crimean Peninsula and Russian artillery rolling through Sevastopol. An Obama administration official told CNN’s Barbara Starr that the incursion was not so much “an invasion” as an “uncontested arrival” and that understanding this distinction was crucial to making sense of the developments.
Then, as now, Obama administration officials downplayed the reality of Russian aggression by arguing feebly that such actions wouldn’t be in Russia’s interest. Five days before Russian troops poured into Ukraine, National Security Adviser Susan Rice dodged a question about a possible invasion, saying on Meet the Press that a return to a “Cold War construct” would be counterproductive because such thinking is “out of date” and “doesn’t reflect the realities of the 21st century.” A week before Russian fighter jets pounded targets in Syria, administration officials shrugged off warnings about possible military action by Moscow, and Kerry dismissed the Russian buildup as a mere “force protection” measure.
It has become perhaps the defining characteristic of the Obama administration’s foreign and national security policy—a stubborn insistence on seeing the world not as it is but as the president wishes it to be.