Derek Burney was Canada’s ambassador to the United States, 1989-1993. Fen Osler Hampson is Chancellor’s Professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.
The humanitarian carnage in Aleppo will leave an indelible stain on U.S. President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. From the false-start, “red line” in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime to the futile attempts at a ceasefire, the U.S. attempts at a diplomatic resolution have been thoroughly quashed by the more deliberate, more militant and more decisive tactics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Syrian acolyte, Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Putin has always been quick to exploit Western lack of resolve. His basic objective is to gain respect at home by striking a strategic blow against the West. So far, he is well ahead.
Even Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged with more than a whiff of frustration that the Obama administration’s reluctance to back diplomacy with force has left him with little other than hand-wringing and oral denunciations about the brazen Russian bombardments of Syria’s largest and now thoroughly demolished city. It is clearly a sign that the administration is in its lame-duck phase. Also evident is the fact that the Congress has no desire to draw Mr. Obama’s chestnuts from the Middle East conflagration by sanctioning any use of force.
Diplomacy is better than the use of force, but only effective if the latter is unacceptable to both sides. Mr. Kerry’s plaintive pronouncement that ceasefire negotiations have been “suspended” simply acknowledged that the exercise had been a façade or a clever ruse from the outset because the Russians know that there is no bone in the American jaw.
The wanton destruction of Aleppo, the former commercial heart of Syria and a historical treasure, is the most glaring example of a generally hapless approach to the Middle East. The United States seems unable or unwilling to shape events, leaving many to wonder what interests it is prepared to support, other than rhetorically, in the region. Its only diplomatic achievement has been an agreement intended to forestall a nuclear Iran, but that too is on shaky ground as Iran flexes its new-found muscles with the easing of sanctions. The saving grace, perhaps, is the $38-billion (U.S.) promise of defence aid for Israel, which probably had more to do with U.S. politics than the objective of greater stability into the Mideast.
In Syria, the Russians have demonstrated consistently that they have no limits when it comes to combat support for their ally. The Americans have just as persistently failed to decide who to support and how in the ongoing strife. Calls for weapons assistance from the rag-tag opposition to Mr. al-Assad have been ignored. Instead, the U.S. focus has been on a “trickle-up” strategy to defeat Islamic State fighters in Iraq.
Leading from behind – the tactic that has characterized much of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy on hard issues – may be good for grazing sheep but it is no match for Mr. Putin or others seeking to exploit the vacuum left by the United States.
Mr. Putin’s antics are not limited to Syria or Ukraine. Russian hacking (and only Donald Trump thinks it may not have been Russian) of the Democratic National Committee’s e-mails shows that Russia will go to any lengths to challenge the United States, even to subvert it’s political system. The reluctance of Washington to respond will only lead to more of the same.
The unwillingness to lead has contributed to broad disarray in the Western alliance, which in turn is certain to drive U.S. public opinion further away from global engagement. Public condemnation and finger pointing in Geneva and at the UN may give momentary flashes of satisfaction but they have little impact on events on the ground. Noble intentions are meaningless unless backed by credible resolve.
None of this is good news for the beleaguered residents of Aleppo, or for the burgeoning numbers of refugees trying to flee from deprivation and strife in the Mideast, North Africa and Afghanistan. But with the West rudderless and no one at the helm, we are likely to see more provocation and more unilateral military interventions. Regrettably, there is little reason to believe that the global crises will be any easier to manage once the U.S. electorate has made its choice in November.
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