Russian President Vladimir Putin, so isolated on the issue at the London G-8 summit in June, placed Syria at the top of the agenda when he opened the G-20 summit in his native St. Petersburg on Thursday. This time around, it was not Putin who was isolated on Syria but President Barack Obama, who canceled their mini-summit in Moscow after Russia granted ex-NSA analyst Edward Snowden temporary asylum.
After Putin conducted a dinner discussion of the Syrian civil war, much of which Obama reportedly missed, it turned out that only the U.S., France, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and Turkey support the proposed U.S. military strikes against Syria's Assad regime for its claimed internal use of chemical weapons. (Israel is keen on America attacking Syria, but is too small to be part of the G-20.) But there was also the head of government who backs the U.S. while his government does not. That's British Prime Minister David Cameron. He continues to argue for the attack on Syria, but his government has rebuked his position, with the British Parliament voting to prohibit any U.K. involvement in a military intervention, the first such vote against a prime minister pushing the use of military force since the 1782 vote which ended Britain's resistance to the American Revolution.
Blind quotes from a top German official about the dinner and Syria in general make it clear that, if anything, we are losing support on the Syria attack, not gaining it, with only France in the European Union on board with the U.S. strikes.
I'm baffled by what Obama is doing and have been for more than a week. If he had determined to attack, which I think is highly questionable strategy, he should have done it right away, fast and hard. The U.S. Navy had the ships on station to carry out the strikes.
Not only has Obama allowed this to become both an ongoing domestic and global political spectacle -- with him losing now in both arenas -- the delay caused by Obama's decision to seek congressional approval he never previously thought he needed allows Assad to redistribute his forces and materiel. That creates a much greater challenge for intelligence analysts and presents the likelihood of greater collateral damage when the strikes do take place.
If the strikes take place, that is.
I expected Putin to get the best of things at this summit, and he has.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but Obama got schooled a bit at the G-20 summit in Putin's home town of Saint Petersburg by ye not-so-olde spymaster himself. Saint Petersburg, the glittering former imperial capital, repository of many of Russia's greatest cultural treasures, is where the Russian Revolution began. It's also where Putin began his post-KGB civilian career, working as international advisor and deputy mayor for modernizing reformer Anatoly Sobchak, a lawyer and professor who was the city's first democratically elected mayor and co-author of Russia's constitution.
It was clear four years ago, when Obama made his big visit to Moscow, that he and Putin were never going to be close, especially with the Obama Administration making a major miscalculation about who could really run Russia. Putin, then serving as prime minister (and, notably, head of the ruling United Russia party) after stepping away from the presidency for a term in favor of former chief of staff Dmitry Medvedev -- so as not to have to make a Bloomberg-style change in the Russian constitution -- made a point of making Obama late for his own big speech by lecturing him at length on the ways of the world, as I reported at the time. When Obama left Putin's dacha and went back into Moscow to deliver his speech, Putin didn't bother to attend. Instead, he joined a motorcycle club setting off for Ukraine, a country Putin was very intent on keeping out of NATO. (After a variety of machinations, America's post-Cold War bipartisan push for NATO expansion came up very short in Ukraine.)
As I wrote at the time, laying out in "Obama Does Moscow, and Vice Versa" and what would prove to be Obama's deep difficulties in dealing with Russia, Obama's own scheduling had already made it clear that he wanted as little as possible to do with Putin, indeed that his administration's strategy was to build Medvedev up to ensure he could prevail over Putin in the future. Which, since Putin was the most powerful person in Russia and was going to remain the most powerful person in Russia, was a bit of a mistake.
It's not exactly like someone preferring to deal with and build up that charming Sutter Brown rather than the sometimes prickly Jerry Brown, but it's not entirely dissimilar, either. Unlike the cordial Corgi gifted to the California governor by his mischievous sister, Medvedev is no lap dog. He's a very smart and appealing guy, with the easy charm that the rather forbidding Putin either lacks entirely or has chosen to squelch. But he was and is entirely dependent upon Putin for his quite glittering career. (He's the current prime minister, having traded posts with Putin again.)
With Medvedev, with whom Obama famously shared a Washington "Cheeseburger Summit" just three years ago, nowhere to be seen, Putin opened big at the summit in his home town. He and Chinese President Xi Jinping, about whom Obama had many hopes prior to their June summit in California, met for a chummy confab, after which the two leaders made note of their alliance on many matters. They especially focused on their opposition to a US attack against the Assad regime in Syria.
Putin then announced that Syria would be the principal topic of discussion at the evening's working dinner. With the supposedly dour Putin proving to be a very active host throughout the day and evening, Obama showed up half an hour late, and alone, to the dinner in St. Petersburg's imposing Konstantinovsky Palace, which contains collections from the Hermitage Museum. He didn't make any headway.
Obama may also have been distracted by the need to make nice with Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff. The leader of the world's fifth largest country is scheduled to visit Washington for Obama's only state dinner of the year in late October. But she and her government are very perturbed by the Snowden revelations of massive American spying on her and her people by the U.S. National Security Agency. If she doesn't get answers she likes, she will cancel and Obama's efforts with the biggest country in Latin America will be in deep trouble.
Almost needless to say, with everything that has happened since 9/11, America has a big credibility problem. And this year, with his own fingerprints proving to be on too many things, it's all catching up to President Obama.
Where do things go now?
Well, Obama canceled his Monday trip to Los Angeles, where he was to appear at a labor convention and a big Democratic fundraiser, in favor of what looks like a desperate bid to line up votes in Congress for the attack on Syria. He will need all the help he can get from veteran Democratic congressional leaders Harry Reid of Nevada and Nancy Pelosi of California, neither of whom would do anything like this if it were George W. Bush pushing the attack.
On Tuesday, Obama will address a very skeptical nation to make his pitch for the Syria attack. Thus further raising the stakes on an issue few Americans were paying much attention to.
Putin has no such internal problems around Syria. The Russian public mostly loves how he cordially slaps around Obama, to whom they never really warmed in the first place.
So Putin is moving more naval forces into the eastern Mediterranean around Syria, where Russia already has a naval base. And he may be making more highly sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons systems available to Syria as well.
Russian sources are careful to describe the ship movements as "monitoring" behavior, perhaps for purposes of evacuating Russian civilians. As for the more advanced weapons, the threat of which is already keeping U.S. Navy guided missile destroyers far off shore, they're simply potential help for old friends threatened by the greatest power in the world.
But the ships being sent are warships, not passenger liners, and the potentially available anti-air and anti-ship systems could prevent any big escalation by the U.S. beyond a flurry of cruise missiles.
As I write this, one question keeps occurring: Why is Syria, a sideshow tangent of an issue for years, suddenly something that may make or break Obama's second term? It seems bizarre.
But that is another story. For now, we have the tale of two presidents and, for now at least, one verdict: Advantage Putin.