When Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops and aircraft to Syria last fall, Barack Obama scoffed.
The U.S. President, who two years earlier had scrapped his own plan to intervene directly in Syria's civil war, predicted that Russia's move was "just going to get them stuck in a quagmire."
Six months later, Mr. Putin's surprise decision to gradually withdraw Russian forces and planes from the region not only has disproved Mr. Obama's prediction. It also has foreign policy experts around the world saluting Mr. Putin's savvy deployment of Russian force and singular propaganda victory.
By entering the Syrian war, Russia displaced the United States as "the indispensable nation." No longer was it possible to resolve the Syrian conflict – which had grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran for Middle East dominance and contributed to the Islamic State's rise – without Russia's leadership.
Overnight, Mr. Putin neutralized Western attempts to isolate him for Russia's seizure of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine. He steered the Syrian civil war decisively in President Bashar al-Assad's favour – a horrible outcome in many respects, but perhaps the only one that can bring an end to the conflict. And Mr. Putin got to showcase Russia's newest military hardware and newfound might.
In short, Mr. Putin got to prove that "Russia is back."
That's still not how Mr. Obama sees it, however. The Atlantic magazine's 20,000-word opus, "The Obama Doctrine," released last week, reveals a President supremely confident in his world view, fatalistic about the Mideast and finally liberated from feeling responsible for its fate.
To suggest that Mr. Putin has strengthened his hand in Syria, Mr. Obama tells The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, is to "fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally." Russia, ravaged by low oil prices, "is overextended. They're bleeding."
Only time will tell which interpretation of Mr. Putin's actions proves accurate. The same goes for most of Mr. Obama's own foreign policy moves, from his widely criticized about-face on intervening early in Syria, to his historic deal with Iran to curb that country's nuclear ambitions.
Mr. Obama's 2013 decision to abandon his stated plan to bomb Mr. al-Assad's forces, after the Syrian dictator crossed the U.S. President's "red line" by using chemical weapons, seriously damaged U.S. credibility and rattled its allies. It will go down, Mr. Goldberg concludes, as the day Mr. Obama "prevented the U.S. from entering yet another disastrous Muslim civil war" or "as the day he let the Middle East slip from America's grasp, into the hands of Russia, Iran" and the Islamic State.
Gideon Rose, editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, called Mr. Obama's last-minute reversal "a case study in embarrassingly amateurish intervention." French Prime Minister Manuel Valls tells Mr. Goldberg: "By not intervening early [in Syria], we have created a monster … If we had bombed as planned, I think things would be different today."
Vice-President Joe Biden warned his boss: "Big nations don't bluff."
The criticism bothers Mr. Obama, but it reinforces his certitudes. He declares himself "very proud" of his decision to stand down on bombing Mr. al-Assad's forces. It may have earned him ridicule from Washington's foreign policy establishment – which (quelle surprise?) Mr. Goldberg tells us Mr. Obama "secretly disdains." But it finally broke a pattern of U.S. presidents being "trapped" into intervening in foreign conflicts.
Mr. Obama was thus "trapped" early on in his presidency. He was pushed by advisers into his 2009 troop surge in Afghanistan and 2011 military intervention in Libya. He blames the disastrous Libyan aftermath on "free riding" allies, particularly Britain and France. The misadventure persuaded him that there is little that the United States can do to bring order to a region dominated by tribal instincts, anyway.
The Iranian nuclear deal, then, is Mr. Obama's way of telling the Saudis – Washington's long-standing Arab ally in the Mideast and Iran's arch enemy – that they're basically on their own. Iran and Saudi Arabia "need to find an effective way to share the neighbourhood and institute some sort of cold peace," Mr. Obama tells The Atlantic, throwing decades of U.S. foreign policy givens out the window.
Mr. Obama did not start out this way. He began his presidency calling for a "new dawn" in the Muslim world, believing he could "trigger a discussion" in the region on human rights and democracy. But the Arab Spring soured him on the feasibility of such a mission.
If Mr. Obama has always been more of a realist than idealist in foreign policy matters, his presidency has made him a fatalist, willing to give Mr. Putin as much rope as he wants.