As if it wasn’t obvious, Gary Kasparov summarizes it very well in today’s WSJ:
Mr. Obama has already decided to continue his policy of disengagement from the Middle East, and his platitudes about cooperation and the rule of law rang hollow in the U.N.’s General Assembly hall. Of the conflict in Syria, he said, “we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.” But every listener was aware that Mr. Obama had no intention of backing his words with action.
Mr. Putin, speaking about an hour later in the same room, included his usual NATO-bashing and obvious lies. “We think it is an enormous mistake,” Mr. Putin said, “to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are valiantly fighting terrorism face to face.” He spoke of national sovereignty—which is very important to Mr. Putin, unless it’s the sovereignty of Georgia, Ukraine or another place where he wishes to meddle.
In other words, Mr. Obama’s speech was routine because he knows he will not act. Mr. Putin’s speech was routine because he knows he will act anyway.
And that final sentence is the best capsule of the two opposing foreign policies you’re likely to see. Mr. Obama has always been long on words – that is “talking the talk”. But he’s almost never bothered to “walk the walk”. In international politics that’s interpreted as a huge weakness. Consequently, his lack of action (i.e. backing up his words) has been constantly tested for reaction. And the reaction has always been … more words (or more “red lines”).
One of the major reasons for the rise of ISIS is the poorly thought out American withdrawal from Iraq after the Obama administration took over. With the withdrawal came the abandonment of the Sunni minority there that had been key to the Anbar Awakening that had helped make the surge a success and stabilize Iraq. ISIS was a direct result of that abandonment. One of the key questions asked by Sunni leaders to American commanders before they committed to the Awakening was, “are you going to stay”. Obama’s policy put the “lie” to their promises. Now, after failing to act when ISIS first rose and trying to blame others for the rise, the administration wants a part in the defeat of ISIS (which, by the way, will have to be much more of an effort that an occasional air strike, if it is to succeed).
But there’s this “words over action” problem that Obama suffers from that certainly erodes any confidence in the viability of any US involvement. In international politics, action speaks louder than words and Mr. Putin is and has taken action. Whether or not you agree with his action or want to see Russia involved in the Middle East isn’t the point. The point we should all understand is the weak and indecisive Middle Eastern policy that this administration has pursued has handed over its predominant role in the region with barely a whimper. Putin hasn’t forced his way through the door there. The US has willingly opened it and all but welcomed him in.
Kasparov has a brutal conclusion which I find hard to fault:
Mr. Putin didn’t say anything new at the U.N., because he didn’t need to. He knows that he has concrete assets that are more effective than mere words. He has tanks in Ukraine, jet fighters in Syria, and Barack Obama in the White House.