Moscow and Washington still are unable to see eye-to-eye on a series of important diplomatic issues, due in no small part to the Obama administration’s inability to develop a coherent foreign policy for the Middle East.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, right, chats with Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, left, during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, top, in Moscow, Dec. 15. Photo: AP
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent visit to Moscow, in which he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin, would seem to indicate the potential for an opening in U.S.-Russian relations. Will Kerry's recent Moscow visit yield any results, though? Quite predictably, there are no simple answers to this question.
Also read Russia Direct's debates: "Kerry's visit to Moscow should be met with cautious optimism"
U.S. President Barack Obama appears to understand that Russia should and inevitably will participate in the resolution of the Syrian conflict. He also understands that America's closest "allies" in the region, which include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf countries, are potentially double-dealing and engaging in some behind-the-scenes maneuvering, all the while supporting Sunni extremists.
Obama's decision to warm up to Iran also indicates that he increasingly perceives current Middle Eastern events as a conflict between the Sunnis and all other forces, including Shia and Kurdish forces. It is also important to take into account American special services' failure at forming a semblance of a "democratic" Sunni opposition alliance in Syria that cost the U.S. hundreds of millions of dollars.
What needs to happen for a breakthrough in U.S.-Russian relations
That being said, it is easy to see why Kerry’s visit to Moscow does not necessarily translate into a breakthrough in U.S.-Russia relations.
First, Washington would have to admit (at least, indirectly) that its position on Iraq and Syria was wrong and inefficient. It would also have to change its stance on the removal of al-Assad.
That is not likely to happen, since Americans refuse to admit their failures, shortcomings, or weaknesses in any international issue. Second, they always go after the ones that they have appointed the main culprits to make an example of those who dared question the American way. These idiosyncrasies of the American political course stand in the way of an effective dialogue between Russia and the U.S.
Moreover, announcing official agreements would acknowledge Russia's key role and positive influence in the Middle East, thus making a dent in Washington's global hegemony.
In spite of Turkey and Saudi Arabia's double dealing, Americans definitely do not want to see these two countries destabilized, which could happen if the Kurds form a sovereign state. The U.S. is also not seeking to take a step back in Ukraine in exchange for Russia's cooperation in Syria.
The situation is further complicated by Obama's desire to avoid sharp criticism from his Republican rivals, the press, and influential special interest groups. Nor does he want to be perceived as a weak politician by his fellow Americans.
Obama’s inability to develop a coherent foreign policy
For the first time in nearly 25 years, students and scholars alike are puzzled and perplexed when asked about the goals and methods of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
For a country where wide support of its foreign and especially military operations is virtually a given, such a response is quite unusual. American media typically are quite efficient in keeping their audiences away from alternative opinions and international news sources and work together on demonizing national leaders who do not fit well into U.S. interests (including, in particular, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as well as Iranian leaders).
One of the reasons behind the current American response to its government's foreign policies is conservatives' dislike of Obama and his unorthodox political style that does not involve public declarations of his international goals. Quite often, neither the general public nor even political elites are privy to this knowledge.
This tactic does not only apply when Obama is trying to introduce profound changes into U.S. foreign policy (for example, in Iran and Cuba), but also when the President does not agree with the traditional political course supported by most political elites and the press, but cannot openly show his disagreement (for example, on such issues as the relations with Israel and main Sunni partners in the Middle East, as well as conflicts in Syria, Egypt, and Libya in 2010-2013).
While this approach has its benefits for Obama, it often paints him as a weak and indecisive leader frequently taken advantage of by his political opponents.
However, the current situation around Syria, Iraq, and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) is drastically different. It is more about strategy than tactics, and thus it highlights the political leadership's inability to devise a comprehensive approach that would explain the nature of threats to the U.S. national interests in the region or clearly state what these interests are. It looks like the government cannot figure it out for itself, not to mention the general public.
The lack of a coherent strategy was fully exposed during the Republican presidential debate held in Las Vegas on Dec. 16. Although all 13 participants kept criticizing Obama for his indecision and the absence of a plan for the resolution of the Syrian conflict, their own ideas on the issue were strikingly controversial and incompetent.
Here is a telling example: promises to "teach Putin a lesson," shoot down Russian planes, and provide unyielding support to Saudi Arabia and Turkey (Lindsey Graham, Chris Christie, George Pataki, Marco Rubio and John Kasich) were quickly followed by the biting criticism of the traditional approach.
In particular, presidential candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz stated that they seriously doubted the existence of an effective "democratic" opposition and the necessity to remove President al-Assad. Rand Paul said that the U.S. involvement in the region was irresponsible and counterproductive. Such utterances only contribute to the confusion among American voters and the general public.
The problem with multipolarity
One of the main reasons for this confusion both at the public and the political elite levels is America's leading position in the global system of international relations. The U.S. assumed its world leader status after the end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the end of the bipolar system. And, in order to support its image both domestically and internationally, the U.S. must constantly demonstrate its ability to lead.
Sometimes, quite paradoxically, such demonstrations go against the U.S. national interests because the exercise of power requires constant excessive spending of resources compared with the countries of the "second tier" and never fails to antagonize the government and population of the countries that are experiencing this hegemonic interference.
Unpredictable influences on U.S.-Russian relations
Moreover, there is yet another unpredictable factor that eludes logical analysis: the possibility of an accidental or premeditated provocation (such as Turkey shooting down the Russian bomber) perpetrated by interested third parties and aimed at destabilizing any U.S.-Russia cooperation.
That is why we can expect to observe, on the one hand, further instances of inconsistent American policies in the region, the continuation of strong rhetoric towards Russia, and an extremely negative and biased coverage of its actions, and, on the other hand, the search for opportunities for joint military operations and the work on finding a compromise on conflict resolution.
The progress on this issue will be determined, first and foremost, by the ability to agree on the Syrian political factions that should be involved in the discussion of the country's future and the outcome of this discussion.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.