Thomas Friedman, read your Chomsky: The New York Times gets Putin/Obama all wrong, again

"Do you realize now what you've done?" The best question about our Middle East disasters actually comes from Putin

Published October 6, 2015 10:59PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jorge Dan)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Jorge Dan)

A lot of good people are asking a lot of good questions these days, and this is an excellent thing. On the foreign policy side, it happens the best of these questions are posed by non-Americans, for the simple reason most Americans are not ready to think clearly about our moment and how we have come to it. We do not ask because we cannot answer.

My three favorite questions of late, it also happens, have to do with Syria. And let there be no doubt: It is all over for the Obama administration, the Pentagon, the spooks and all others still pretending there is a “moderate opposition” that will carry the day in the many-sided Syrian conflict. Washington has slipped its grip. Others are in charge now, and as they pursue a solution to this crisis the only choice open to the U.S. is whether or not to join in the effort. It will be interesting to see which alternative the White House and the State Department choose.

“I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, Do you realize now what you’ve done?” This is the first good question.

Vladimir Putin posed it in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly 10 days ago. Sensibly, the Russian president added, “But I am afraid no one is going to answer that.” To offer modest assistance, Mr. Putin, the U.S. leadership knows exactly what it has done, and this is why you are correct: Your query will go without reply.

The second and third good questions came from Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. For my money Zarif is among the ablest diplomats now on the scene. He addressed the U.S. on the Syria crisis during a conference in New York on Monday, and he asked, “Why are you there? Who gave you the right to be there?”

Wow, wow and wow.

I love these questions. The subtext in the three of them together is that the Obama administration’s failure in Syria is now complete. Washington is no longer in charge. If there is a better example of language as power, I cannot think of what it is.

Putin forces us to consider the Syria crisis as history. This is the equivalent of dropping a neutron bomb on our nation’s capital: All the Greek facades are intact, but the narrative incessantly spun behind them is dead. Read Putin’s U.N. speech here. Read a few others and you recognize that the Russian leader has long understood history’s potency, especially when deployed against the messes resulting from America’s imperial adventures.

As to Zarif’s line of inquiry, both parts are of interest. To ask why the U.S. is in Syria is to brush aside all the customary bunkum about Washington’s humane outrage over the Assad regime’s brutalities. Underneath we find an obsession with “regime change” in Damascus so as to convert Syria from outlier to another Middle Eastern client. Left to the U.S., Assad’s successor, as in the case of al-Sisi in Egypt, would be welcome to all the brutalities he may find necessary. Almost certainly he would enjoy an arms package similar to Egypt’s now-restored $5 billion annually—most of which is now deployed against Egyptians.

“Who gave you the right to be there?” What a simple, pithy question. I have not heard any American other than people such as Noam Chomsky ever consider such a thing. Throughout Washington’s long effort to arm anti-Assad militias on the ground and more recently to drop bombs on Syrian soil—roughly 4,000 sorties to date—the illegality of U.S. policy simply never comes up.

Zarif thus forces two bitter truths upon us. One, we have been breaking the law from the first. We may not have anything to say about this, as we have not to date, but the silence will be conspicuous from here on out, given that others are now prepared openly to challenge the U.S. on the point. Two, whatever one may think of the Assad government, those now committed to backing it as part of their strategy to defeat radical Islamists in Syria do so in accordance with international law. Like it or not, this counts.

Speaking strictly for myself, I like the idea of a global community that proceeds lawfully. It tends to reduce the incidence of disorder and anarchy created by such entities as the Islamic State and the Pentagon.


It is now several weeks since Russia let it be known that it would reinforce its long-standing support of Bashar al-Assad with new military commitments. First came the materiél. Bombing runs began a week ago. On Monday, a senior military official in Moscow announced that Russian troops are to join the fight against the Islamic State.

We are always encouraged to find anything Putin does devious and the outcome of hidden motives and some obscure agenda having to do with his pouting ambition to be seen as a first-rank world leader. From the government-supervised New York Times on down, this is what you read in the newspapers and hear on the radio and television broadcasts. I urge readers to pay no attention to this stuff. It is all about Washington’s agenda to obscure.

Russia’s favored strategy in Syria has long been very clear. It is a question of distinguishing the primary and secondary contradictions, as the Marxists say. The Assad regime is to be kept in place so as to preserve those political institutions still functioning as the basis of a reconstructed national government. Once the threat of Islamic terror is defeated, a political transition into a post-Assad reconstruction can be negotiated.

For a time it appeared that Washington was prepared to buy into this set of expedients. This impression derived from the very frequent contacts between John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, with whom the American secretary of state has often worked closely.

Then came the fateful encounter between Obama and Putin at the U.N. Obama spoke first, Putin afterward. Then the two met privately.

A few days ago a source in Moscow with good lines into Kremlin thinking wrote a long note on the Obama-Putin encounter in New York. Here is some of what this source said:

The meeting with Obama in New York did not go well. It was extremely contentious, and Obama did not engage. Putin made the case that the important first priority had to be to eliminate Daesh [the Islamic State], and that after more than a year of the U.S. campaign there has been no significant success. Indeed, the contrary is the case.

Putin’s point was that air power alone will not succeed, and that now the only real boots on the ground are the Kurds and the armies of Syria and its supporters—Hezbollah and some Iranians, but the Iranians troops involved in the struggle with Daesh are operating mostly in Iraq.

Putin proposed creating a coalition, the equivalent of the anti-Hitler alliance, to focus on Daesh, and then focusing in Round 2 on the transition of Syria into a form of decentralized federation of highly autonomous regions—Kurdish, Sunni, Alawite-Christian and a few others—which all work together now.

Putin had been led to believe through the Lavrov /Kerry channel… that there would be a broader agreement to work together. So he was surprised that Obama did not seize the opportunity to engage the battle in a coordinated way…. In the end they agreed only on coordination between the two militaries to avoid running into each other.

Putin left New York with the view that it is now much more important to support the government in Syria than he had thought before he went, because he came convinced that the U.S., left to its present course, is going to create another Libya, this time in Syria. Israel has a similar view, as does Egypt, Iran, and, increasingly, countries in Europe. With Daesh already so deeply implanted, this would lead to vast crisis—military, political, economic, humanitarian—that would spread across all of the Middle East, into the Caucasus and across North Africa, with millions of refugees….

There are four things to say about this account straight off the top. One, the subtext is that Putin reached the point in New York when he effectively threw up his hands and said, “I’m fed up.” Two, Obama went into that meeting more or less befuddled as to what to say. In a word, he was outclassed.

Three, the strategy Putin presented to Obama is clear, logical, lawful and has a good chance of working. In other words, it is everything the Obama administration’s is not, Kerry’s efforts to work with Lavrov notwithstanding.

Four and most important, the history books may well conclude that the U.N. on Sept. 27 was the very place and the very day the U.S. ceded the initiative to Russia on the Syria crisis. This is my read as of now, although in circumstances this kinetic it is too perilous to anticipate what may come next.

The American press has been slightly berserk subsequent to the U.N. encounter, putting more spin on the new Russian policy than a gyroscope has in space. Putin is weak and desperate, he is making Syria more violent, Russian jets are bombing CIA-backed “moderates” and not ISIS, this is Russia’s second Afghanistan, nothing can work so long as Assad remains in power.

“Putin stupidly went into Syria looking for a cheap sugar high to show his people that Russia is still a world power,” Tom Friedman, a standout in this line, wrote in the Times last week. “Watch him become public enemy No. 1 in the Sunni Muslim world. ‘Yo, Vladimir, how’s that working for you?’”

I read all this with a mirror: It is nothing more than a reflection of how far below its knees the Obama administration’s pants have just fallen. Who went stupidly into Syria, Tom? Yo, Tom, your lump-them-together prejudices are showing: Most of “the Sunni Muslim world” is as appalled by the Islamic State as the non-Sunni Muslim world.


What a weird sensation it is to agree with Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington’s Post’s too-numerous right-wing opinion-page writers. It is like traveling in a strange, badly run country where something always seems about to go wrong.

“If it had the wit, the Obama administration would be not angered, but appropriately humiliated,” Krauthammer wrote in last Thursday’s paper. “President Obama has, once again, been totally outmaneuvered by Vladimir Putin.”

It is a lot better than Tom Friedman’s driveling defense of the president. Somewhere, at least, a spade is still a spade. But with this observation the common ground with Krauthammer begins and ends. Obama has got it radically wrong in Syria—and indeed across the Middle East—but not in the ways we are encouraged to think. Where lie the errors, then?

The first and biggest of them is his willingness to inherit the vision bequeathed by 117 years of American ambition abroad. In the American imperium it is all about us, always. Syria is not Syria, a land of 23 million people (before the exodus we prompted) just as Egypt as it aspired to democracy during the Arab Spring was not Egypt. These are squares on the geopolitical game board. In the Syria case, Russia has a strategy that is prima facie rational and right, but we must object because it is Russia’s. Certainly we cannot join Moscow to make common cause.

Putin and Zarif and others now posing questions are telling Washington something it will have to hear if it is to get off the destructive course of American foreign policy: This is not about you, as many things in the world are not. This is about a political, social and cultural crisis that requires the disinterested attention of those capable of contributing to a solution.

Think about the united front Putin proposes and Obama declines to join. It is already in motion, in case you did not notice. Moscow, Tehran, Baghdad and Damascus are all now committed to cooperating—not least by way of intelligence sharing, which is a big one—in the fight to subdue the Islamic State.

But isn’t it true that Russia is bombing targets other than the Islamic State, some of which are rebel groups the CIA has backed? Possibly, although I have not taken the Pentagon’s word for anything since 1966 or so. In my read Russian jets are probably hitting those groups most immediately threatening Damascus—no surprise, given the stated mission is to keep Assad in the presidential palace until the fighting stops. Why, in any case, should Russia discriminate between one rebel group and another, when “moderate opposition” is nothing but a fantasy out of the Reaganists’ old “freedom fighter” narrative?

But isn’t Putin about to reclaim influence in the Middle East that the Soviet Union lost long ago? This may be, but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar: Putin sees the Syria crisis spinning out of control and wants it resolved before it spreads just as the Kremlin now fears. In my read, reclaimed influence in the region will be a follow-on consequence. To the extent it materializes, we will have to get used to calling it multipolarity. If you think the record of American primacy in the Middle East is something worth preserving at the exorbitant cost it exacts, please use the comment box and enlighten all of us.

Obama’s second big mistake has to do with his response to the problem of American exceptionalism. One had a sense late during his first term and into his second that he understood it was time to lance this boil on the American consciousness, but in the breach he seems to have demurred.

The result has been his commitment to keep American troops out of conflict zones but to maintain the posture by way of Air Force bombers and supposedly surgical drone attacks. He thus altered only method, not purpose, the desired outcome—as, again, he inherited it. Not only has it failed to achieve any result in Syria; the grotesque bombing of a Médicins sans Frontière hospital in Kanduz, Afghanistan, last weekend reveals the strategy to be a bust on any kind of life-saving, humanitarian grounds, as well.

There is no having your cake and eating it, in short.

We are now going to get earfuls as to how the answer in Syria now is to make greater military commitments, all on our own—Obama’s sin being his gingerly thinking. It is upside down. A good president—and this is why one finds it hard to line up behind Hillary—needs to take on America’s intentions as well as its tactics.

In my read, Russia and Iran have just popped open the door to a solution in Syria. All the pieces are in place but one: Washington’s capacity to acknowledge the strategic failure now so evident and to see beyond the narrowest definition of where its interests lie.

This brings us to the paradox embedded in those questions Putin and Zarif and a few others now pose: American primacy is no longer in America’s interest. Get your mind around this and you have arrived in the 21st century.

What Can We Expect From Obama & Putin's Meeting In The Years To Come?

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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