The light on the discussions on Syria in Geneva between the U.S. and Russian foreign ministers is dim and flickering and may well be snuffed out. But at least there’s a light.
For the light to become brighter, world powers must declare war not on each other, but on noxious geopolitics. It is time to end the zero-sum game. World leaders are magnetized to its bare calculus: if you’re up, I’m down. It’s not a pleasant equation, but it’s terribly hard to give up.
Vladimir Putin is a great aficionado of the game, partly because he was trained to be, as a KGB officer. All secret service people think that way. In their often brutal world, when your enemy wins, you are pretty sure to have lost. It’s likely that Putin enjoys his success in delaying the U.S.-led putative strike against President Assad of Syria as a move that establishes himself as a world figure with the future of Syria in his hands, while President Obama flails about, seeking to keep the military option on the table while constrained to follow Putin’s way. The Russian autocrat has put himself in tune with public opinion in the U.S. and Europe, and put a shine both on himself and on autocracy.
The op-ed he wrote this week, published in the New York Times, and placed there by the PR company Ketchum, was artfully crafted for Western popular assent — right down to the final sentence, an injunction that “we must not forget that God created us equal.”
Putin’s proposing himself as an angel of peace is rich. The last Times op-ed he published, in 1999, justified his flattening of much of Chechnya in pursuit of peace — which was indeed largely achieved — in the rebel Russian province. But the pleasures of cynicism are shallow. In the zero-sum game he has improved his position — and Obama is left with wails of anguish over his “weakness” and “indecision” from every quarter, liberal and conservative, domestic and foreign.