Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin? Pitting a former KGB agent against a former community organizer and seeing what happens in Syria.

Has the crafty former KGB officer done a number on the former law professor and community organizer? And what does this latest turn of events tell us about each country’s ability to formulate and implement an effective foreign policy?

Who Is a Better Strategist: Obama or Putin?

Who’s the better grand strategist: Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin?

That’s not quite the right question, of course, because both leaders depend to some degree on intelligence reports and advice from trusted advisors and not just their own judgment. Accordingly, any assessment of their relative performance is to some degree an evaluation not just of the individual leaders but also their respective foreign-policy brain trusts. Still, the buck does stop at the top, and Russia’s recent move into Syria has a lot of people wondering if the Kremlin has outflanked, outwitted, and outgunned the White House once again.

Is this really true? Has the crafty former KGB officer done a number on the former law professor and community organizer? And what does this latest turn of events tell us about each country’s ability to formulate and implement an effective foreign policy?

One way to address this question is to take a broader look at how each country has fared over the past seven years or so. Putin’s record looked pretty good for awhile: The Russian economy grew rapidly through 2012 (due to high oil and commodity prices), it gained entry into the World Trade Organization, and the so-called “reset” restored a degree of cordiality to the strained relationship between Washington and Moscow. But Putin’s overall record since looks much less impressive: The Russian economy is now in a serious recession, while America’s is chugging along reasonably well. And consider this: Russia’s 2014 GDP was less than $2 trillion, so over the past six years the US economy grew by an amount larger than Russia’s entire economy. The U.S. economy is also far more diverse and resilient.

Equally important, the United States hasn’t lost any key allies over the past seven years and its relations with a number of countries (e.g., India, Vietnam, etc.) have improved significantly. Russia and China are cooperating a bit more but are hardly close allies while the Ukraine crisis has damaged relations with Europe significantly and gotten Russia suspended from the G-8. The United States just signed a massive trade deal with an array of Asian partners, whereas Putin’s efforts to build a “Eurasian Economic Union” have been mostly stillborn. And the fact that Putin felt compelled to bail out the Assad regime in Syria tells us that its overall position in the Middle East is tenuous.

By contrast, and despite some recent frictions, the United States still has close ties with Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and the UAE, and its acrimonious relationship with long-time adversary Iran is somewhat better. Bottom line: You’d much rather be playing America’s hand, and any fair-minded assessment has to give Obama and his team some grudging credit for continuing to build useful relationships abroad and for avoiding the costly quagmires that George W. Bush and the neocons plunged into with panicky and ignorant abandon. 

And yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one.

And yet, it is hard to escape the impression that Putin has been playing his weak hand better than Obama has played his strong one. These perceptions arise in part because Obama inherited several foreign-policy debacles, and it’s hard to abandon a bunch of failed projects without being accused of retreating. Obama’s main mistake was not going far enough to liquidate the unsound positions bequeathed by his predecessor: He should have gotten out of Afghanistan faster and never done regime change in Libya at all. By contrast, Putin looks successful at first glance because Russia is playing a more active role than it did back when it was largely prostrate. Given where Russia was in 1995 or even 2000, there was nowhere to go but up. 

But Putin has also done one thing right: He has pursued simple objectives that were fairly easy to achieve and that played to Russia’s modest strengths. In Ukraine, he had one overriding goal: to prevent that country from moving closer to the EU, eventually becoming a full member, and then joining NATO. He wasn’t interested in trying to reincorporate all of Ukraine or turn it into a clone of Russia, and the “frozen conflict” that now exists there is sufficient to achieve his core goal. This essentially negative objective was not that hard to accomplish because Ukraine was corrupt, internally divided, and right next door to Russia. These features made it easy for Putin to use a modest degree of force and hard for anyone else to respond without starting a cycle of escalation they could not win.

Putin’s goals in Syria are equally simple, realistic, and aligned with Russia’s limited means. He wants to preserve the Assad regime as a meaningful political entity so that it remains an avenue of Russian influence and a part of any future political settlement. He’s not trying to conquer Syria, restore the Alawites to full control over the entire country, defeat the Islamic State, or eliminate all Iranian influence. And he’s certainly not pursuing some sort of quixotic dream of building democracy there. A limited deployment of Russian airpower and a handful of “volunteers” may suffice to keep Assad from being defeated, especially if the United States and others eventually adopt a more realistic approach to the conflict as well.

By contrast, U.S. goals toward both of these conflicts have been a combination of wishful thinking and strategic contradictions. In Ukraine, a familiar alliance of neocon fantasists (e.g., Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland) and liberal internationalists convinced themselves that the EU Accession Agreement was a purely benign act whose virtues and alleged neutrality no one could possibly misconstrue. As a result, they were completely blindsided when Moscow kept using the realpolitik playbook and saw the whole matter very differently. (There was an element of hypocrisy and blindness here, too; Russia was simply acting the same way the United States has long acted when dealing with the Western Hemisphere, but somehow U.S. officials managed to ignore the clear warnings that Moscow had given.) Moreover, the core Western objective — creating a well-functioning democratic Ukrainian state — was a laudable but hugely demanding task from the very beginning, whereas Putin’s far more limited goal — keeping Ukraine out of NATO — was comparatively easy.

Needless to say, U.S. policy in Syria has been even more muddled. Since the uprising first began, Washington has been vainly trying to achieve a series of difficult and incompatible goals. It says, “Assad must go,” but it doesn’t want any jihadi groups (i.e., the only people who are really fighting Assad) to replace him. It wants to “degrade and destroy ISIS,” but it also wants to make sure anti-Islamic State groups like al-Nusra Front don’t succeed. It is relying on Kurdish fighters to help deal with the Islamic State, but it wants Turkey to help, too, and Turkey opposes any steps that might stoke the fires of Kurdish nationalism. So the United States has been searching in vain for “politically correct” Syrian rebels — those ever-elusive “moderates” — and it has yet to find more than a handful. And apart from wanting Assad gone, the long-term U.S. vision for Syria’s future was never clear. Given all this muddled direction, is it any wonder Putin’s actions look bold and decisive while Obama’s seem confused?

This difference is partly structural: Because Russia is much weaker than the United States (and destined to grow even weaker over time), it has to play its remaining cards carefully and pursue only vital objectives that are achievable at modest cost. The United States has vastly more resources to throw at global problems, and its favorable geopolitical position allows it to avoid most of the repercussions of its mistakes. Add to that the tendency of both neoconservatives and liberal internationalists to believe that spreading the gospel of “freedom” around the world is necessary, easy to do, and won’t generate unintended consequences or serious resistance, and you have a recipe for an overly ambitious yet under-resourced set of policy initiatives. Needless to say, this is the perfect recipe for recurring failure.

In other words, Putin looks more successful because his goals are commensurate with his limited resources. He likes to complain about American hegemony, but you don’t hear him making highfalutin speeches about how it is Russia’s destiny to exert “leadership” over the entire planet. America’s power and core geographic security allow its leaders to set ambitious goals, but actually achieving most of them isn’t essential to U.S. security or prosperity. Sometimes U.S. diplomacy succeeds in spite of ourselves (e.g., the Iran nuclear deal, TPP, etc.), but often it drags us into conflicts and complications that we can neither win nor walk away from.

So who’s the better strategist? On one side, Obama does have an underlying sense of realism and understands that U.S. interests in many places are limited. He also grasps that our capacity to dictate outcomes is equally constrained, especially when it involves complicated matters of social engineering in divided societies very different from our own. In other words: Nation-building is expensive, goddamn hard, and for the most part unnecessary. But he has to lead a foreign-policy establishment that is addicted to “global leadership” — if only to keep giving itself something to do — and he faces an opposition party that derides any form of “inaction,” even when its proposed alternatives are “mumbo-jumbo.”

Putin, by contrast, has done a better job of matching his goals to the resources he has available, which is one of the hallmarks of a good strategist. His failing is that it’s all short-term and essentially defensive; he is fighting a series of rearguard actions designed to prevent Russia’s global position from deteriorating further, instead of pursuing a program that might enhance Russia’s power and status over the longer term.

So let’s call it a tie. The real losers, alas, are the unfortunate people in Ukraine, Syria, and several other places.

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