On Thursday, Sept. 12, when Russian and American diplomats came to the negotiating table in Geneva, the Russian side came in with the upper hand. The previous night, they had sent Washington a proposal for dismantling Syria‘s stockpiles of chemical weapons. According to the Russian diplomat Alexei Pushkov, who discussed the outlines of the proposal with TIME, it includes several complicated phases and gives Syria a leading role in the destruction of its own chemical arsenal. The American side, meanwhile, has one trump card in these negotiations — the threat of a military strike against Syria. But Russia seems ready to call that a bluff. “If the US wants to play the main fiddle here, let them go ahead and occupy Syria like they did Iraq or destroy it from the air like they did in Libya,” says Pushkov, who is the chairman of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma. “Those are their only two options for taking the lead at this point.”…

But regardless of its final phase, the proposal would clearly give Syria substantial control over the process at every step. The role of the U.S. would be much more modest, says Pushkov. “As one of the leading powers in the world, they will of course influence this process,” he says. “But all of this will be done on Syrian territory. So either Obama has to put boots on the ground, occupy Syria and destroy the weapons himself, or he has to accept the necessity for negotiations with the Syrian government through the mechanisms of the United Nations.”

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Well these are the fruits of a completely incompetent, epically incompetent foreign policy, diplomacy by Obama. Here is the president of the greatest democracy on earth being lectured, insulting really, in an American newspaper about human rights, about international law, about the protection of the elderly and children in wartime. I mean the chutzpah of writing that by a KGB thug whose last adventure in the world was to invade Georgia, detach two of its provinces and declare them independent, and who for the last decade has been supplying Assad, who we are essentially calling a war criminal, with huge amounts of weaponry including the elements of poison gas.

What we’re seeing here is Putin so confident of himself after Obama had to acquiesce to this face-saving negotiation that he could actually engage in this. It’s an index of how Obama has been played and continues to be right now in Geneva.

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At dinner the other night, perusing the debacle that is Syria, a German friend observed: “It’s the post-American world — and that means chaos.” We were joined by John Kornblum, the former U.S. ambassador to Germany, whose verdict was similar: “What you’re seeing is the steady break-up of the postwar system.”…

The sight of a president who draws a red line on chemical attack and then says “I didn’t set a red line” (the world did); who has Kerry plead a powerful case for military action only to stall; who defers to Congress but seems happy enough with Congress ambling back into session more than a week later; who notes that for “nearly seven decades the United States has been the anchor of global security,” and then declares “America is not the world’s policeman” — the sight of all this has marked a moment when America signaled an inward turn that leaves the world anchorless…

In Berlin, which survived as a free city because of a U.S. red line, the change has been noted. It has also been noted in Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and Jerusalem.

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“Isolationism” is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different

I am writing this column on the 12th anniversary of the 11 September terrorist attacks which launched the US into that decade of war – justifiably, in the immediate response to al-Qaida in Afghanistan, unjustifiably and disastrously in Iraq. This is a very different America now.

Maybe after some years spent putting its own house in order it will come back as the – for all its many faults and hypocrisies – indispensable anchor of some kind of liberal international order. Yet given not just its structural domestic problems but above all the changing global power constellation around it, I doubt it. To the many critics and downright enemies of the US in Europe and across the globe, I say only this: if you didn’t like that old world in which the US regularly intervened, just see how you like the new one in which it does not.

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For more than a decade — after he replaced Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin and even during the time he had to serve as prime minister under his protege, Dmitry Medvedev — Russian President Vladimir Putin has systematically and consistently pursued a policy that can be labeled the Putin Doctrine. In a nutshell, Putin seeks to renew Russia’s status and influence in both regional and global politics and make the Russian Federation a great power again. To achieve this goal, he challenges and subverts America’s posture and interests, relying on three main components…

In the beginning of his presidency, Obama sought to “reset” relations between Washington and Moscow. He even revised some controversial plans to deploy missile systems in Eastern Europe as a trust-building measure designed to appease Putin. Yet the fundamental objectives of the Putin Doctrine made these American gestures ineffective and, in fact, only bolstered Putin’s determination and tenacity.

Putin believes that the U.S. is economically and politically declining and that it is socially degenerating. Indeed, Putin sees the wariness among the American people and their political representatives in the case of Syria and thinks that this is more proof of U.S. weakness and indecisiveness amid Russia’s growing power and influence.

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The speech was left to encompass a contradiction. The president wished to reassert his credibility while engaging in a forced concession. So the beginning and end were an argument for limited military strikes based on an appeal to American exceptionalism. The rest was an explanation of why such action would not be forthcoming — and is no longer likely. A strike Obama could not effectively justify even with videos of gassed children will not be justified by news of a stalled or inconclusive inspection process.

The resulting message was boldly mixed. Assad is a moral monster — who is now our partner in negotiations. The consequences would be terrible “if we fail to act” — which now seems the most likely course. America “doesn’t do pinpricks” — especially when it does not do anything. “The burdens of leadership are often heavy” — unless they are not assumed…

[T]his remains a sad moment for the United States. We have seen a Putin power play, based on a Kerry gaffe, leading to a face-saving presidential retreat — and this was apparently the best of the available options.

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Putin’s piece is aimed at influencing American public opinion for the purpose of undermining the effectiveness of American power. It deviously reinforces both dovish and hawkish arguments against the administration’s Syria policy. It reminds the doves that military action against Syria goes against everything they believe–and that Obama as a candidate claimed to believe. It reminds the hawks that Obama has shown no inclination or capacity to lead a serious military effort…

Putin doesn’t take his readers for idiots, he takes Obama for a fool–a bumbling improviser who can be rolled by appealing to his vanity and his short-term political needs, and whose actions have no broader purpose. Even the New York Times editorial page acknowledges that last point: “The [Tuesday] speech lacked any real sense of what Mr. Obama’s long-term or even medium-term strategy might be, other than his repeated promise not to drag a nation fed up with wars into a ‘boots-on-the-ground’ fight.”…

Because America is so much mightier than Russia, the American presidency is a much stronger position than the Russian presidency. But a strong man in a position of weakness, if he is ruthless about taking advantage of his adversary’s vulnerabilities, can get the better of weak man in a position of strength. Saul Alinsky understood that, and so does Vladimir Putin.

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Vladimir Putin rose to power because of his service in the KGB, which in the 1970s was trying to exploit and manipulate the American antiwar movement. We know that while Kerry and others on the left were comparing American troops to Genghis Kahn and throwing their medals away, the KGB was working overtime to infiltrate antiwar groups and overtly propagandizing with the same messages embraced by American liberals.

Kerry has certainly changed his tune. It would appear that Putin has not

Putin was doing exactly what his bosses at the KGB showed him back in the day, especially when it comes to Democrats: tug at the pacifistic heartstrings of the left when trying to hamstring an American adversary at the negotiating table.

Kerry begins his negotiations with his Russian counterpart today, and any idea that the US was going to strike has evaporated. Obama is inert, rendering Kerry’s threats empty. As Putin’s op-ed shows, the old game can still be quite effective.

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What the president’s supporters are hoping for at this point is the same thing we all want—for the good foreign policy fairy to save President Obama (and the country) from the ugly and humiliating trap of a Syria policy he so carefully designed for himself. Luck matters, and America’s structural position in world affairs is so strong that we often manage to extricate ourselves from nasty scrapes with far fewer bruises than our enemies and rivals would like to inflict.

But even the administration’s most ardent supporters at this point must know in their heart of hearts that President Obama’s chances of being ranked as one of our great foreign policy presidents are not very high—and they are melting faster than a Himalayan glacier in an IPCC report. Like Blanche DuBois in a “Streetcar Named Desire”, President Obama has worked himself into a position in which he must depend on the kindness of strangers like Vladimir Putin. It didn’t work out very well for her; let’s hope that President Obama (and the country he leads) can somehow escape the full price of our Syria clusterfarce.

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The fact that Putin is not the most credible messenger when it comes to the rule of law or pacificism is one thing, but this has always been his strength: taking words and concepts with generally agreed upon meanings—laws, elections, constitutions—and redefining them for his own strategic benefit, and then cloaking himself in their legitimizing powers.

And if the last week has shown us anything, it is that there is one man in the game who has a strategy, and it is not Obama. So far, Putin has played it all right, and accomplished two goals: standing up to U.S. aggression, which will play nicely at home, and keeping Assad in power. Obama will maybe accomplish one—getting Assad to give up his chemical weapons—if he’s lucky. The other one—getting Assad out—well, we’ll just walk that one back, won’t we. And in terms of addressing the people, well, Putin’s now addressing yours, Mr. President.

So if you’re keeping score this week, here’s the tally: Putin 2, Obama 0.

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