With the Middle East in chaos and a belligerent Russian regime stoking the turmoil, the dueling speeches at the United Nations on Monday by presidents Barack Obama andVladimir Putin might have offered new insight. What the world saw instead was entirely predictable.
Mr. Obama has already decided to continue his policy of disengagement from the Middle East, and his platitudes about cooperation and the rule of law rang hollow in the U.N.’s General Assembly hall. Of the conflict in Syria, he said, “we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.” But every listener was aware that Mr. Obama had no intention of backing his words with action.
Mr. Putin, speaking about an hour later in the same room, included his usual NATO-bashing and obvious lies. “We think it is an enormous mistake,” Mr. Putin said, “to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.” He spoke of national sovereignty—which is very important to Mr. Putin, unless it’s the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine or another place where he wishes to meddle.
In other words, Mr. Obama’s speech was routine because he knows he will not act. Mr. Putin’s speech was routine because he knows he will act anyway.
The content of the speeches was irrelevant to Mr. Putin before he even opened his mouth. He made his first U.N. address in 10 years because looking like a big man on the international stage is the only ploy he has left to justify his rule in Russia. His devil’s bargain with the Russian people a decade ago was to provide prosperity in exchange for their giving up their rights and democracy. Now we have none of the above. Mr. Putin’s only remaining gambit is to claim that he is defending Russian greatness while surrounded by enemies (whom that he is an expert at creating). With his offensive in Ukraine sputtering along, new fronts were needed. He has found them in Syria and at the U.N.
In this light, the much-hyped private meeting between Messrs. Obama and Putin was the biggest possible prize. The only statement to come out of the meeting was that the U.S. and Russia would consider working together against Islamic State, also known as ISIS. Not that Mr. Putin cares about cooperation, as long as his goal of preserving Bashar Assad’s murderous dictatorship in Syria isn’t interfered with.
Yet the images of the two leaders together are being splashed across the Russian media as a huge triumph for Mr. Putin. The narrative, which began circulating as soon as the meeting was announced, is that not only did the valiant Mr. Putin confront and condemn the weak Mr. Obama and the evil United States, he did so in New York City, the belly of the beast itself. As soon as the first pictures were taken, the meeting became a great success for Mr. Putin, and another self-inflicted defeat for American foreign policy—and for stability and democracy in the Middle East.
No matter how well-intentioned and popular the U.S. exit from Iraq was, or how well the White House spun its concessions to Mr. Assad in 2013, the results clearly have been disastrous. A look at a map of Iraq and Syria shows that the rise of ISIS was a logical response to American abandonment of the region’s Sunnis. A group like ISIS cannot thrive without support from locals, in this case Sunnis who see no other way to defend against the Shiite forces of Iran and Syria that are slaughtering them by the hundreds of thousands.
In world affairs, as in chess, you have to play the position that’s on the board when you sit down. Criticizing George W. Bush for starting the Iraq war in 2003 does not change the fact that in 2008 there was no mass refugee crisis or massive ISIS army on the march. Support for al Qaeda had been undercut by negotiations with Sunni groups in Anbar province, a game-changing policy that was as responsible for reduced violence as the surge of new American forces.
The American exit and Mr. Obama’s refusal to deter Mr. Assad ended any possibility of security. The people had to fight, flee or die, and they are doing all three in horrific numbers. It’s important to remember that the waves of refugees reaching Europe are not running from ISIS. They are fleeing Mr. Assad—who counts on active support from Iran and now Russia.
No deal is going to change that. Iran and Russia have their own agendas in the region, and peace is not on either of them. Iran is the world’s leading state supporter of terrorism. Mr. Putin’s method of fighting the war on terror in Chechnya was carpet bombing. When that didn’t succeed, he bought off the region’s most brutal warlord, Ramzan Kadyrov.
The continued slaughter of Sunnis in the region will draw in more support from the Saudis and more foreign fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Russia. The situation will metastasize like a cancer, which suits Mr. Putin fine. War and chaos create more enemies and more opportunities for him to look like a tough guy on Russian state TV. Iran’s regime needs conflict for similar reasons, which is why it can never give up “Death to America.” A growing war will also drive up the price of oil, a benefit that isn’t lost on Tehran or Moscow.
These consequences may be acceptable to Mr. Obama, but he cannot pretend to be ignorant of his role in creating them. I, too, would like to live in the world of diplomacy and law that Mr. Obama seems to believe we inhabit. But unfortunately we do not. Power and action still matter, and in places like Syria and Iraq you cannot have power without action.
Mr. Putin didn’t say anything new at the U.N., because he didn’t need to. He knows that he has concrete assets that are more effective than mere words. He has tanks in Ukraine, jet fighters in Syria, and Barack Obama in the White House.
Mr. Kasparov, chairman of the New York-based Human Rights Foundation, is the author of “Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped,” out next month from Public Affairs.