It’s clear to me, and I have it on good authority, that Russia’s leaders sized up President Obama very early on as a lightweight. How else would you expect hardened autocrats and former KGB types to view a president so simultaneously naïve and arrogant as to believe he could conduct a successful “charm offensive” on them. How else would you expect them to view a president who came to Russia hat in hand, apologizing for past American policy and offering important material concessions, while asking only for general “assurances” in return?
These days, Putin must think that Obama is lighter than air, and who could blame him? Consider the meeting between the two that took place today in Mexico. Obama’s mission, according to the New York Times, was to persuade Putin to help him ease Bashar Assad out of power Syria. But, as the Times points out, Syria is Russia’s strategic ally and its last real bastion of influence in the Middle East. Why then would Russia want to help topple the Syrian government?
Obama reportedly claimed once again that the U.S. doesn’t want to come between Russia and Syria. Back home, Putin would probably jail anyone who insulted his intelligence to this degree. Whatever Obama may want, the overthrow of Assad would create an enormous risk that Russia, having been so closely allied with Assad, would lose its influence in Syria.
Putin reportedly tried to explain this to Obama:
During the meeting, American officials said, Mr. Putin spent considerable time pointing to what the Russians view as failed examples of political transition in Egypt and Libya as well as their concern that the West does not have a credible plan for what would happen to Syria’s various battling factions and ethnic groups if Mr. Assad stepped down from power.
If Putin needed to spend more than five minutes explaining this to Obama, then his contempt for our president must be complete. And that contempt was confirmed by Putin’s unmistakable post-meeting body language, and unwillingness to talk to, or even look at, Obama while the two were waiting for reporters to file out of their presser.
As for Obama, I’ve never seen him look so glum. He appeared to be sulking. It’s an understandable reaction. No one likes to realize that he’s being taken for a fool.
But a healthier reaction would be to learn from Putin. A serious nation doesn’t lightly abandon powerful forces that are its friends, or at least the enemy of its enemy, in nations of high strategic importance. Yet some are advising Obama to do just that in Egypt. In evaluating that advice, Obama should give serious consideration to the more pragmatic and worldly approach that Russia follows in these matters.
It’s too late to gain Putin’s respect, but its not too late to avoid a full Jimmy Carter.