Extraordinary Show of Weakness
Stephen F. Hayes
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
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.
Al Qaeda was said to be on the run, even as it strengthened.
ISIS was alleged to be junior varsity terrorists, even as it amassed territory.
Iran was treated as a diplomatic partner, even as its leaders shouted “Death
to America.” China was feted at a state dinner, even as it escalated
cyberattacks against the United States. Russia was said to want peace, even as
it made war. And on it goes.
Historians may well record the last day of September in the
seventh year of the Obama presidency as the nadir of the Obama
administration’s foreign policy, a day that illustrated the weakness and
self-delusion of the administration perhaps better than any other.
Unfortunately, the consequences of this weakness and self-delusion won’t end
with the exit of this president. They will pose a challenge to the next
president the magnitude of which we haven’t seen in a long time.