In 1961, President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the Soviet Union sat down to hammer out the foreign policy differences between the two superpowers, which were locked into the Cold War. Kennedy’s aides warned the president that the meeting was a bad idea and that Khrushchev would immediately seize on any mistake for his own propagandistic purposes.
The experienced Khrushchev used the meeting to verbally pummel his young counterpart, criticizing America’s support of “old, moribund, reactionary regimes” and warning that it was “very unwise” for the U.S. to surround the Soviet Union with military bases. The New York Times reflected on the meeting in 2008:
Paul Nitze, the assistant secretary of defense, said the meeting was “just a disaster.” Khrushchev’s aide, after the first day, said the American president seemed “very inexperienced, even immature.” Khrushchev agreed, noting that the youthful Kennedy was “too intelligent and too weak.” The Soviet leader left Vienna elated — and with a very low opinion of the leader of the free world.
Kennedy’s assessment of his own performance was no less severe. Only a few minutes after parting with Khrushchev, Kennedy, a World War II veteran, told James Reston of The New York Times that the summit meeting had been the “roughest thing in my life.” Kennedy went on: “He just beat the hell out of me. I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts. Until we remove those ideas we won’t get anywhere with him.”
President Obama’s meeting with Vladimir Putin this week feels much the same. Putin is absolutely driven to restore Russia’s place as a geopolitical force and he seems to believe that in the zero-sum-game of geopolitics his country’s growing strength can only occur by weakening the United States. He aims to be forceful and decisive, if for no other reason than to stand in sharp contrast to President Obama’s slow, analytical approach.
The unwillingness to rock the boat was on display this week. POLITICO reported “the two presidents today are in greater alignment than they have been in years on what do to about the threat from Syria.” As a result of the growing trust, the paper reports, “U.S. officials this week notably backed away from opportunities to condemn the stepped-up Russian military intervention in Syria.”
“[Obama] made clear that we do not have—we are not opposed to Russia playing a constructive role in the fight against ISIL,” a senior administration official said on a conference call with reporters. “We just want to make sure that, number one, we are de-conflicting any activities within Syria, and number two, we are working in tandem to address the political reality that is fueling the conflict.”
Yet since those all-too trusting comments, Russia has targeted its air raids not just at ISIS, but at U.S.-backed rebel groups who have been a thorn in the side of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. David Axe reports for The Daily Beast:
“There is no other way to settle the Syrian conflict other than by strengthening the existing legitimate government agencies, support them in their fight against terrorism,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said Sept. 28.
But it was quickly evident that Russian air strikes weren’t bombing many, or any, terrorists, at least not using the U.S. government’s definition of “terrorist.”
The air raids on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1 hit areas outside of ISIS’s control—and instead struck towns occupied by U.S.-backed secular rebels who also threaten Assad’s rule. “I want to be careful about confirming information, but it does appear that [Russian attacks] were in areas where there probably were not ISIL forces,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter told reporters, using another acronym for ISIS.
What was the White House’s response? Why to send Secretary of State John Kerry out to stand next to Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, of course!
“We agreed on the imperative of as soon as possible, perhaps even as soon as tomorrow, but as soon as possible, having a military to military deconfliction meeting,” Kerry said.
Kerry went on to say that the two countries would work together to come to a solution about Syria. Of course, not much of consequence was said, but at that point the visual of Kerry standing side by side with Lavrov, nodding when the other talked, and appearing relatively chummy, had already done enough damage.
As Foreign Policy’s David Kenner wrote on Twitter, “[The] US has really done a remarkable job convincing Russia/Iran it supports Syria’s opposition, and the opposition that it supports Russia/Iran.”
How did we end up in this situation? One in which we cordially stand beside our unabashed foes, fail to call them account for their lies, and indeed provide them legitimacy for their brazen attempt to further destabilize the Middle East and destroy America’s few allies in Syria.
This is the young, boy-faced Kennedy going up against the ruddy, resolute Khrushchev all over again. There is no doubt that President Obama is thinking deeply and strategically, plotting his moves carefully, and talking to a lot of people about what to do. But eventually he needs to realize what Kennedy did: “I’ve got a terrible problem if he thinks I’m inexperienced and have no guts.”
And for now, that’s not only exactly what Putin and Middle Eastern leaders think, it’s what they should think.