Opinion

Jed Babbin: Why Putin's anti-American gambits succeed

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Opinion,Op-Eds,Jed Babbin,Russia,Vladimir Putin,Foreign Policy

Thanks to an assortment of White House spokesmen, we know that President Obama wasn't talking with then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta or then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the night of the Benghazi terrorist attack.

It doesn't matter where he was, we are told, because he was talking to other people on his national security staff. We can only wonder who he's talking to about how Russian strongman Vladimir Putin is thwarting his diplomacy.

Presumably, he'd be talking to the current secretary of state, John Kerry. But Putin's sense of irony and cynicism are probably as lost on Kerry as they were on his predecessor.

Neither the president nor his successive foreign policy chiefs have been able to cope with Putin, who has effectively made a habit of stymying American diplomacy.

Putin's record of thwarting Obama is built on substantive success. For example, in the 2010 arms agreement with Russia (signed by Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, Putin's temporary alter ego), he achieved a success that had eluded every Russian leader since Ronald Reagan first proposed a missile defense for America.

Putin got the U.S. to agree that missile defenses should not "undermine the viability and effectiveness of the strategic offensive arms" of the two nations. In short, that means we are supposed to give the Russians the means of defeating our missile defenses.

Russia is engaged in building Iran's nuclear program, an AK-47 factory in Venezuela and otherwise opposing American policy wherever the opportunity arises.

Putin's most recent maneuver may result in another coup. More than three years into the Syrian civil war, Kerry went to Moscow to meet with Putin to follow up on an already failed peace plan that came out of a conference in Geneva a year ago.

Putin beggared Kerry by making him wait three hours for an audience and then said nothing publicly about Syria. Undaunted, Kerry told Putin, "The United States believes that we share some very significant common interests with respect to Syria -- stability in the region, not having extremists creating problems throughout the region and elsewhere."

To Putin, stability in the region apparently means keeping Bashar Assad in power. The U.S. and Russia agreed to host a "peace conference" on Syria about a week after Kerry's statement.

But that was followed -- after another week -- by the announcement that Russia was selling Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria. They can deliver a 440-pound warhead about 185 miles at a reported speed of Mach 2.5.

There is much behind Putin's continued success and Obama's accompanying failure. Russia is no longer a global power, but Putin wants that power restored. He realizes that if Russia is perceived to be that powerful, his goal can be realized.

For now, Russia can only assert such power at the United Nations, where it has a Security Council veto.

American-Russian relations have been rocky for more than a year. When we passed a law targeting Russian human rights violators, Russia responded by barring American adoption of Russian children.

Obama will want to put that behind him at the G-8 summit next month. There, he'll meet privately with Putin and try to show a foreign policy success to take the heat off his scandal-ridden administration.

But nothing Putin could promise -- be it Russian support for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan or, after the Boston Marathon bombing, better intelligence cooperation on terrorists -- could fill that bill. Obama's need for perceived success will be far greater than Putin's, which puts Obama in a terrible bargaining position. We can be certain only that what Obama gives will be vastly more important than what he gets in return from Putin.

Jed Babbin was appointed deputy under secretary of defense by President George H.W. Bush. He is the author of such best-selling books as "Inside the Asylum" and "In the Words of Our Enemies."

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