By GARRY KASPAROV
Sept. 9, 2015 7:30 p.m. ET
A quick glance at the latest headlines suggests a jarring disconnect from the stream of foreign-policy successes touted by the Obama White House and its allies. President Obama has been hailed by many as a peacemaker for eschewing the use of military force and for signing accords with several of America’s worst enemies. The idea that things will work out better if the U.S. declines to act in the world also obeys Mr. Obama’s keen political instincts. A perpetual campaigner in office, he realizes that it is much harder to criticize an act not taken.
But what is good for Mr. Obama’s media coverage is not necessarily good for America or the world. From the unceasing violence in eastern Ukraine to the thousands of Syrian refugees streaming into Europe, it is clear that inaction can also have terrible consequences. The nuclear agreement with Iran is also likely to have disastrous and far-reaching effects. But in every case of Mr. Obama’s timidity and procrastination, the response to criticism amounts to this: It could have been worse.
Looking at the wreckage of the Middle East, including the flourishing of Islamic State, it takes great imagination to see how things would be worse today if the U.S. had acted on Mr. Obama’s “red line” threat in 2013 and moved against Syria’s Bashar Assad after he defied the U.S. president and used chemical weapons.
Or farther east, one would need to have believed Moscow’s overheated nuclear threats to think that Ukraine would be worse off now if NATO had moved immediately to secure the Ukrainian border with Russia as soon as Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea in 2014.
Over the past year, especially in the past few months, Mr. Obama’s belief that American force in the world should be constrained and reduced has reached its ultimate manifestation in U.S. relations with Iran, Russia and Cuba. Each of these American adversaries has been on the receiving end of the president’s helping hand: normalization with Cuba, releasing Iran from sanctions, treating the Putin Ukraine-invasion force as a partner for peace in the futile Minsk cease-fire agreements.
In exchange for giving up precisely nothing, these countries have been rewarded with the international legitimacy and domestic credibility dictatorships crave—along with more-concrete economic benefits.
When dealing with a regime that won’t negotiate in good faith, the best approach is to use a position of strength to pry concessions from the other side. But instead the White House keeps offering concessions—while helping its enemies off the mat. That such naïveté will result in positive behavior from the likes of Ayatollah Khamenei, Vladimir Putin and the Castro brothers should be beyond even Mr. Obama’s belief in hope and change.
Dictatorships, especially the one-man variety like Russia’s, are unpredictable, but they do operate on logical underlying principles. They often come to power with popular support and a mandate to solve a crisis. Once a firm grip on power is achieved, the junta or supreme leader blames his predecessors for any problems, and he cracks down on rights. With democracy dead and civil society hunted to extinction, the only way left to make a legitimate claim on power is confrontation and conflict. Propaganda is ratcheted up against mythical fifth columnists and the usual scapegoats, like immigrants and minorities.
The next and usually final phase arrives when other tricks have become stale. Domestic enemies are never threatening enough—and eventually there is no one left to persecute, as in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin—so the dictator looks abroad, inevitably finding a “national interest” to defend across a convenient border.
This external-conflict phase is especially dangerous because there are very few examples of aggressor nations moving away from it peacefully. War and revolution are the more frequent ways it burns itself out. The Soviet Union altered its confrontational course after Stalin’s death, but it was a unique and gigantic superpower with enough resources for its leadership to believe that it could compete with the Free World instead of declaring war on it.
As it turned out, the Soviets were wrong, something that more-recent autocrats, including Mr. Putin, no doubt understand. They have watched and learned that their people will eventually begin to compare living standards and see the truth if left unmolested by war and strife. This window on the Free World is even larger in the Internet age, so the conflicts and propaganda have to be even more extreme.
Iran has been operating in the confrontational phase for years, with America and Israel as the main targets, in addition to Tehran’s regional Sunni rivals. Mr. Putin moved into confrontation mode with the invasion of Ukraine and he cannot afford to back down.
The dictatorship that Nicolás Maduro inherited from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is approaching the final stage as well, as seen from the country’s recent launch of a border and immigrant conflict with Colombia. The emptier the shelves in Venezuelan supermarkets, the more threatening the Colombians must be made to seem. China has relied on tremendous growth to forestall internal unrest for human rights, but if its economy falters substantially, last week’s giant military parade in Beijing will be seen as prelude, not posturing. Taiwan, always in China’s sights, has good reason to be troubled by the West’s feeble responses in Syria and Ukraine.
Power abhors a vacuum, and as the U.S. retreats the space is being filled. After years of the White House leading from behind, Secretary of State John Kerry’s timid warning to the Kremlin this week to stay out of Syria will be as effective as Mr. Obama’s “red line.” Soon Iran—flush with billions of dollars liberated by the nuclear deal—will add even more heft to its support for Mr. Assad.
Dead refugee children are on the shores of Europe, bringing home the Syrian crisis that has been in full bloom for years. There could be no more tragic symbol that it is time to stop being paralyzed by the Obama-era mantra that things could be worse—and to start acting instead to make things better.
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 PublicAffairs.