The repercussions of the Kerry-Lavrov deal will be with us for years to come, and so we had best recognize them realistically before we proceed another step.
First, the United States has now effectively abandoned its previous policy on Assad: recall that President Obama publicly called for regime change in Syria in August 2011, and the White House and Congress together later toughened sanctions designed to force Assad out. Supporters of the Kerry-Lavrov deal claim that regime change was never a part of the administration’s plans for striking Syria. Perhaps not, but U.S. policy has now been completely reversed, with a de facto acknowledgment of Assad as the leader of Syria and a pledge to leave him alone under his strengthened Russian protection. The opposite of “regime change” need not be “regime recognition,” but that is in effect the deal the Russians have wrested from us.
This is crucially important because we have risked sending a message to our allies from Seoul to Warsaw and beyond that our commitments are based on political expediency and short-term public opinion rather than principle. Who can blame uncertain governments around the world if they now conclude that Moscow, not Washington, is the reliable and trustworthy partner? Assad counted on the Russians and has survived to rule another day, which is more than our deposed Egyptian ally Hosni Mubarak can say. Franklin Roosevelt once famously said of a Central American dictator that he was a son of a bitch, but that he was our son of a bitch; Vladimir Putin has now made it clear that when Moscow says someone is their son of a bitch, they really mean it, in every way, and that the Kremlin will stand tough on his behalf. This is a message that will especially resonate in the Middle East, where perceptions of strength matter far more than the niceties of UN resolutions that will never be observed. Islamists who have argued all along that America is Osama bin Laden’s “weak horse” will not fail to note our retreat.
Finally, the U.S. has now been defeated in a major attempt to universalize even a barely minimal norm regarding the use of WMD.