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Friday, September 23, 2016

Don’t Try to Imitate the Russians in Syria

Don’t Try to Imitate the Russians in Syria

by Paul R. Pillar
Among the latest in the Washington Post editorial page’s unrelenting drumbeat of criticism on Syria—which often does not make clear exactly what the United States should be doing there, except that whatever it does should involve more military force than it is using now—is a signed column by deputy editorial page editor Jackson Diehl, who says President Obama ought to emulate Vladimir Putin. Diehl says that events in Syria since Russia directly intervened militarily have demonstrated that Mr. Obama was wrong in refraining from a comparable intervention. “Putin has proved,” writes Diehl,”that the concept Obama rejected—that a limited use of force could change the political outcome, without large costs—was right all along.”
Some of the biggest problems in Diehl’s argument are ones that he and his colleagues have displayed all along in beating their drum. Among these is an incredibly rigid and oversimplified view of what is at stake in Syria. The apparent assumption is that the only thing that should matter to the United States is whether pro-regime or anti-regime players are forcefully gaining an advantage over the other. This complex and multidimensional civil war is treated as primitively as a schoolyard contest in toughness. “The United States is far stronger than Putin’s Russia,” Diehl writes. “U.S. fecklessness is a choice.”
Diehl’s assumption of a zero-sum game is as absolute as the most Manichean views of U.S.-Soviet competition ever were during the Cold War. Putin intervened in Syria, says Diehl, “and it has made Barack Obama the loser.” The result is “a victory for Russia, Iran and the Assad regime, at the expense of the United States and its Arab, Israeli and Turkish friends.” Such a statement masks not only the non-zero-sum nature of interests that cross the divide that Diehl postulates but also the significant differences in interests among the players on each side of that divide.

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