Vladimir S. Patton

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On its face, “leading from behind” always seemed an obvious oxymoron. Yet when Libya started to unravel, and the United States did very little, the White House offered up the concept as a sophisticated management tool. It was not a successful experiment: In Libya, the result was violence and anarchy, not to mention the torching of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of four Americans.

Similar evidence has arrived from other failed states. The latest case study is Syria, where the concept of exercising leadership by doing nothing has proven as ineffectual as it sounds. Just ask Vladimir Putin—or the ghost of George S. Patton.

Patton’s legend was forged when he bulldogged U.S. armies across Europe. Although America was aligned with the Soviet Union, by the end of World War II Patton had come to believe that he’d someday have to fight the Soviets. He died in a 1945 automobile accident before he could agitate further on this subject, but America’s erstwhile ally was already morphing into a bitter adversary. The upshot was the long, tense, and expensive Cold War.

Although the Soviet Union is no more, today’s Russia is controlled by a former KGB man who’s reconstituting what he considers his country’s good old days. In Barack Obama, Putin apparently believes he has a pliant partner. General Patton would not have approved. “Lead me, follow me, or get the hell out of my way,” he was fond of saying. If here were alive today, the career military man would be directing that sentiment toward the White House.

As Russian warplanes began sorties in Syria, refugees from that cursed country continued to stream into Europe, and Syrian government troops renewed barrel bomb aerial attacks on civilians, another expression employed in Patton’s Army comes to mind: FUBAR, “fouled-up beyond all recognition.”

Even as Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter sniffed that Russia’s military actions were “doomed to fail,” Secretary of State John Kerry was suggesting at the U.N. that more U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State were being planned. But no sensible person believes that airstrikes will be enough to rout the Islamic State, any more than mere talk will get rid of Assad.

But so far, that’s all the U.S. is offering.

The mixed signals from the administration date to August of 2011, when President Obama issued a statement saying that it was time for Assad to go. A year later, on August 20, 2012, the president made a surprise appearance in the White House press briefing room to draw lines in the sand, a “red” line, as it happened.

“We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized,” he said. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”

In 2013, a third August arrived with news that Assad’s army had unleashed a brutal chemical weapon attack on civilians, killing more than 1,400 people. Kerry cut short his vacation to publicly make the case for what he assumed would be the president’s inevitable next step—U.S. military strikes against Assad. What Kerry didn’t know was that Obama was undergoing a change of heart. Support on Capitol Hill for another U.S. war in the Middle East was tepid, and Obama had been critical of his predecessor for just this kind of invasion.

Then, in London, Kerry seemed to make an off-hand observation: Assad could forestall U.S. military action against him by agreeing to turn over his chemical weapons to the international community. The Russians pounced.

Sensing that the administration’s resolve was wavering, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov quickly proposed that his country could take control of Assad’s chemical weapons. Obama was being offered an out, if he wanted it. Was Kerry’s comment just an off-the-cuff remark—or a gambit to the Russians? The world didn’t have to wait long for an answer: Obama called Lavrov’s suggestion “a potentially positive development,” and just like that Russia was back in the game in the Mideast.

Obama is reluctant to admit his role in bringing America’s old adversary in from the cold. So much so that he engaged in some bald-faced revisionism on September 4 while in Sweden. “I didn’t set a red line,” he said. “The world set a red line.”

That might have surprised Mitt Romney, who watched as Obama drew that line in a campaign year and then backed away from it after being re-elected. Romney and his team were so flustered by Obama’s shiftiness that the Republican took to misattributing Patton’s quote about leadership to Thomas Paine. Perhaps that’s the kind of thing one must do in this age of the Tea Party, but when it came to Russia, Romney seems more prescient than Obama.

In 2012, Romney termed Russia American’s primary geopolitical foe. This was greeted with great hilarity among Democrats. The New York Times found it idiotic. Obama was disdainful. “The 1980s are calling for their foreign policy back,” he said in one debate, “because the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

Obama won re-election. Then Putin annexed Crimea, escalated his war against Ukraine, and began fomenting trouble in the Baltics. He’s now committed forces in Syria, a nation that was a client state of the Soviet Union when Assad’s father ran the country during the Cold War.

On Thursday, I asked Sen. Tom Cotton—the Republican most closely associated with concern about Iran’s geopolitical intentions—about Romney’s claim regarding Russia. He wouldn’t quite go where Romney had gone, but he invoked another decade in world history—one associated with appeasement.

“Barack Obama said the 1980s called and want their foreign policy back,” Cotton replied. “Well I would tell President Obama the 1930s are calling and they want their foreign policy back.”

Strictly speaking, this is not a partisan issue. Hillary Clinton has said publicly that she favored a “more robust” response in Syria. She’s been vague about the details, but administration sources have confirmed to me that Clinton personally warned the president that issuing red lines and insisting Assad must go would invite close scrutiny of U.S. follow-through.

“Leading from behind” in Libya helped create the Benghazi crisis that hurt Mrs. Clinton’s foreign policy reputation. Leading from behind in Syria has emboldened Vladimir Putin. A few days ago, one of Clinton’s State Department emails was released in which she asked what FUBAR meant. She didn’t know the acronym, but she knows the concept: It’s an apt description of Syria.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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