Putin isn't humiliating Obama in Syria. He's doing the U.S. a favor.

Recent years have shown that the U.S. is just not very good at establishing order in war-torn countries. Maybe the Russians can do a better job.

Presidents Putin and Obama meet.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

If you want to get a sense of how neoconservatives express despair, you could do worse than read the Twitter feeds of Max Boot of The Council on Foreign Relations and William Kristol of The Weekly Standard.

Earlier this week, Boot tweeted out a link to an article he'd written for Commentary magazine about how Vladimir Putin has "humiliated" the U.S. by flexing Russia's muscles in the Middle East. Boot concluded that we're in the midst of "the most confused or dispiriting moment in American foreign policy since the 1970s." To which Kristol responded by proclaiming in a tweet of his own that it's "actually worse than the '70s."

Worse than the '70s? For the neocons, that's as bad as it gets.

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The '70s, they never tire of rehearsing, were a demoralizing decade for America — marked by defeat in Vietnam, feckless detente with the Soviet Union, and American military retrenchment around the globe. Thankfully, it didn't last long. Soon Reagan won the White House and showed the world that the U.S. had regained its nerve and was once again ready to stand toe to toe with the Evil Empire.

Before you knew it, we'd won the Cold War and were launched into the Unipolar Moment, with America standing astride the globe like a colossus, unchallenged in its supremacy. Sure, we had 9/11 and a couple of sloppy small wars in some out-of-the-way places. But everything was humming along just fine until…

Barack Obama — the president who made a treasonous choice to pursue American decline.

First he cut and ran in Iraq. Then he set us up to do the same in Afghanistan. Along the way, we failed to respond to Bashar al-Assad's aggression against his own people in Syria. We made a similar mistake in Libya, going in with force for a short time but then failing to back it up and take charge. Our response to Putin's treachery in Ukraine was more of the same. Meanwhile, we engaged in unforced capitulation to dictators in Havana and Tehran while treating the elected leader of the Middle East's only representative democracy like a pariah.

And the predictable result? Putin's been empowered, our allies feel betrayed, the Islamic State is on the march across Iraq, and the Taliban look poised to make a serious push to challenge the authority of the Afghan government.

It's quite a story. (For an early, tendentious version of it, you can read Charles Krauthammer. For a more recent, high-minded account, look to Robert Kagan. Boot's Commentary essay brings it all down to the present.)

It certainly sounds like a humiliation for America and a disaster for the world. I don't doubt that the neocons — and the Republican presidential candidates who unfailingly rely on them for their foreign policy talking points — believe every word of it. Repeating the same interpretation of events over and over again for years on end will have that effect.

And yet, it's possible to read these events in a very different way — one that vindicates Obama's general approach to foreign policy and even views Russia's recent moves in a positive, or at least ambiguous, light. Rather than a tale of America choosing to embrace decline, this alternative story is one in which the U.S., after a period of foolish overreaching, comes to terms with reality — above all with the very real limits of its knowledge and power.

When al Qaeda struck at the U.S. on Sept. 11, 2001, the country was indeed at the peak of its global dominance. No other nation on Earth could come close to challenging us. But al Qaeda showed that 19 meagerly armed religious fanatics could do exactly that. No, the attacks didn't change the balance of power among states. But it did show that even the most powerful nation on the planet was vulnerable to a ragtag bunch of stateless terrorists armed with nothing more than box-cutters and the will to destroy.

How would we respond? One option was to strike back hard at the group behind the attacks and work with governments around the world to choke off its funds and deprive it of safe havens. That would have been a measured, targeted response. Since Afghanistan harbored al Qaeda and refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, we needed to go to war with precisely one country to fulfill these limited goals.

This was roughly the plan laid out by George W. Bush's address to the nation on Sept. 20, 2001. But by the 2002 State of the Union address, the president's goals had changed. In order to lay the groundwork for taking out Saddam Hussein, which Bush's advisers wanted to do long before 9/11, the president greatly expanded our aims. By the time the Iraq War got underway 14 months later, they had expanded still further to include the transformation of Iraq into a democracy.

Now we were in the nation-building business.

At first Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld proved himself ignorant of one of the most elemental lessons of political philosophy, which is that order is a necessary condition for politics of any kind. By the time of Bush's troop surge in 2007, the administration had finally learned the lesson. But the Republican Party and its neocon cheerleaders overlearned it — to the exclusion of all else.

Yes, if we send enough troops to a chaotic war zone and keep them there, we can tamp down an insurgency, prop up a government, and keep a semblance of order. But without teaching the people who live there how to keep order for themselves, we will be trapped there in perpetuity.

And here's the thing: We don't have the faintest idea of how to teach people to keep order for themselves.

Oh sure, we do in theory. We know we need to train their armed forces and ensure that they remain under civilian control. And get members of deeply divided ethnic and religious groups to affirm an overriding national identity. And help the population write a constitution. And foster the creation of a vibrant economy and civil society. And instill respect for the rule of law. And convince factions and parties that when they lose an election, they need to relinquish power and tolerate disagreement.

That's the agenda in theory. But in practice?

It's an incantation repeated among Obama's neocon critics: the Iraq surge worked; things were going swimmingly until we withdrew; the same thing will happen in Afghanistan if we pull out completely.

Let's assume it's true, that we could keep peace and order in these countries if we kept tens of thousands of troops (or more) on the ground. Here's my question: Why on Earth would we do such a thing? How does it serve American interests to spend vast quantities of blood and treasure serving as a national police force for countries on the other side of the globe with no end in sight?

These are the questions that we must keep in mind as we assess Obama's foreign policy.

It's easy to say we should have done "something" in Syria three years ago. That "something" usually means helping supposedly moderate rebels to overthrow Assad and form a decent, democratic government. Sounds lovely. Except for the fact that everything we've learned since 2001 tells us that it wouldn't have gone like that at all.

Overthrow Assad and the place will tear itself apart even more thoroughly than it already has.

Don't believe me? Look at Libya, the one place where Obama, worn down by bleeding-heart advisers, momentarily lost his way. Gadhafi was going to crush the rebels in Benghazi, so we intervened on their side and helped to topple the dictator. And didn't it make us feel good! Except that the country, like Iraq, has ended up in anarchy.

Once again we hear: It could have ended so much better if only Obama had shown the requisite will! And once again, let's say it's true: If we'd sent in enormous numbers of troops to occupy the country, we could have imposed order in Libya.

But then what? We've been in Afghanistan for 14 years, and still the government is vulnerable to the Taliban. How long should we have stayed at full troop strength? Another five years? Ten? Twenty? More?

And that brings us back, finally, to Putin's recent, brutal moves in Syria — and whether they should be seen as a "humiliation" for the United States and President Obama.

The Syrian civil war has claimed more than 200,000 lives so far. It has spawned, in ISIS, the most horrific revolutionary movement since the Khmer Rouge rampaged its way across Cambodia. It has produced a refugee crisis that could destabilize the EU. We've spent over a year and half-a-billion dollars trying to train moderate rebels to fight both Assad and ISIS. That effort has been an unalloyed failure.

Once again, we've shown ourselves incapable of moving a nation from chaos to political decency. Short of occupying the country with overwhelming military force, we simply don't know how.

There is no realistic path to a just peace in Syria. There is only a need for peace. For order. For an end to the killing.

If our moral scruples and democratic commitments prevent us from propping up the dictator in Damascus, maybe we should be grateful that Putin is willing to do the dirty work for us.

That's not a humiliation. It's a favor.

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