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Putin Didn't Save Obama, He Beat Him

With the Russian proposal on Syrian chemical weapons, the United States is being escorted out of the Middle East.

12:20 PM, Sep 10, 2013 • By LEE SMITH
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It’s hard not to be impressed with Putin. A man who up until yesterday seemed merely crass, has revealed himself to be capable of great subtlety. For years his method was so transparent, so obvious, his vulgarities intended to appall and shock the White House. He accused one secretary of state of plotting against him, and another he calls a liar. He gave Edward Snowden refuge. He dispatches his thugs to beat up LGBT teenagers. After a while, the administration learned not to be surprised by anything Putin does. He’s a bully, smitten with his own macho self-image. That’s all true, but now we see that Putin was testing Obama and looking for openings.

The president’s supporters and publicists in the press know how to package Obama’s weakness. The fear that everyone else in the world smells emanating from him like a wounded animal is really just humility and modesty—fitting attributes for the leader of a superpower that needs to make amends for having meddled so long in the affairs of others. And besides, this talk of strength and weakness is juvenile—the world is not a schoolyard. And so Obama ignored Putin’s slights and held his head high. This revealed to Putin Obama’s real liability, his vanity. Obama always needs to look good. He will embrace defeat so long as he can still imagine himself a handsome princeling. After pushing Obama around for five years, now Putin escorts him out of the Middle East. Here, friend, take my hand. Let me help you to the sidelines.

As David Samuels wrote last week, Putin’s goal is to replace the United States as the regional power broker. Sure, Russia is less a state than a criminal enterprise with lots of energy to sell, while the United States drives the global economy, but so what? What good are American aircraft carriers if you don’t have the will to use them? Putin will use anything he has to win, while Obama is looking for a reason not to fire a few cruise missiles into the Syrian desert. There is absolutely no chance Obama would risk a shooting war with Iran.

The Russian proposal not only saves Obama from having to do something about Syria, it also, and much more important, shows the way forward with Iran. From the White House’s point of view, its credible threat of force made Syria buckle and will similarly bring Iran to the negotiating table. Putin has shown his bona fides as a credible interlocutor with Damascus and will do the same with Iran. Obama can relax now and imagine that he has finally earned his Nobel Peace Prize and that that sound he hears is the tide of war receding.

In fact, it is the sound of American allies around the world—the Poles and Czechs, the Japanese and the South Koreans, the Saudis, Jordanians and Israelis, among others—gnashing their teeth. They now see that they are on their own, and that  the word of the United States means nothing.

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