The other half of the president’s Syria dilemma is ISIS. Here again he needs to appear to be doing something, given the effect ISIS has had on American opinion. But his goal appears to be to look busy while doing as little as possible. A few random bombs here, some drone strikes there, a flashy-sounding train-and-equip program (that nevertheless peskily throws some truly embarrassing stories every so often into the daily news flow)—basically a PR effort that keeps the political heat off but doesn’t amount to more than the absolute minimum response.
But one can tread water like this for only so long. The Sunni Arabs, who smell a betrayal of historic proportions, want him to concentrate on kicking the Shi’a power out of Syria. If he isn’t doing that, anything he does against ISIS without also taking on Assad underlines the degree to which he seems to be shifting U.S. support from the Sunnis to the Shi’a, enflaming the region in unpredictable ways. If the Russians and Iranians will do Obama the favor of getting rid of Assad—even if it is just setting him up in a lovely dacha outside Moscow for permanent retirement—then Obama has something to show to the Sunnis. He can then continue his desultory campaign against ISIS while hoping that, for reasons of their own, the Russians and Iranians will also help him turn the tide in that fight.
So in practical terms, however it looks to the schedulers, yes, Obama needs the meeting more than Putin. The question won’t be what price will Putin pay Obama for help. It is exactly the other way around: How much will Putin charge Obama to help him out of the hole that an incoherent Syria and regional Middle East policies have left him in? One thing we can be fairly sure of, with respect to that question, is that Putin isn’t interested in helping Obama in any serious way. Dividing America’s alliances, undermining its prestige, and weakening its global position remains the pole star of Putin’s foreign policy. Lucy hasn’t asked to see Charlie Brown, that is, to apologize for pulling the football away.