Friday, September 13, 2013

Too Machiavellian by half

For wishful thinking and strained rationalization, it would be hard to beat this Andrew Sullivan post: "Vladimir Putin, Meet Niccolo Machiavelli." The idea is that Obama, far from being outsmarted by Putin, has brilliantly handed over responsibility for the mess to the Russian president. Excerpt:
But the upshot right now – so far as I can see – is that Russia and not America now owns this conflict. It is Putin who is on the hook now – and the more Putin brags about his diplomatic achievement the more entrenched his responsibility for its success will become. And that is perfectly in line with Russia’s core interests: Putin is much closer to Syria than we are; he must be scared shitless of Sunni Jihadists who now loathe him and Russia more than even the Great Satan getting control of WMDs. Those chemical weapons could show up in Dagestan or Chechnya or the Moscow subway. It is Putin – and not Obama – who is therefore much more firmly stuck between the Sunnis and the Shia in Syria – not to speak of the Christians.

Of course, this argument only makes sense if you don’t believe the US is best served by being responsible for the entire Middle East, and by being the only major power seriously invested there. If your goal is US global hegemony, this was a very bad week. But if your goal is to avoid the catastrophe that occurred in Iraq, to focus on the much more important foreign policy area, Asia, and to execute vital domestic goals such as immigration reform and entrenching universal healthcare … then the result looks pretty damn good. Or at least perfectly good enough.
Me: No.That argument doesn't make sense by any standard. First, the U.S. hasn't extracted itself from the Syria problem, but retains the difficult task of trying to influence Syria's decisions about chemical weapons, only now with less leverage than before the recent erratic responses. Second, the idea that Putin "owns" the Syria problem--as in, he would be upset if chemical weapons are used again--is naive. (The Munich analogy the administration was touting may be instructive after all: "Hitler now owns that Czechoslovakia problem.") No. What Putin wants is for his client state to survive and have a free hand to use chemical weapons in the future while pretending it will get rid of them; Putin also wants, more importantly, to humiliate the United States and make U.S. allies everywhere doubt the solidity of U.S. commitments. Let's just say he had a good week.

And what, for that matter, would Machiavelli have said about the administration's performance? Maybe something like this: “All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it's impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.”

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