By Chris Stirewalt
John Kerry can finally say he knows how Richard Nixon felt.
Kerry rose to power because of his leading role in the American antiwar movement of the 1970s. His testimony accusing, sometimes wrongly, American soldiers of atrocities in Vietnam launched a political career that took him to the Senate, the Democratic nomination for the presidency and, now, to the top post in President Obama’s cabinet.
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.
Kerry, more than any other American, can take credit for bringing the country to the cusp of entering the Syrian civil war on the side of Islamist rebels. His relentless sales pitch in speeches, in internal administration debates and to members of Congress very nearly precipitated U.S. airstrikes against Syria in reprisal for the use of chemical weapons last month in that country’s years-long civil war.
When President Obama opted to duck the decision on launching the strikes, Kerry chased the war plan down Pennsylvania Avenue to Congress. There, relying on what we have since learned is some intelligence from at least one questionable source, Kerry vainly sought congressional approval for going to war.
But the same dovish tendencies inside the Democratic Party that made Kerry famous and powerful also made his task impossible. Since most Republicans opposed the Obama plan for a “shot across the bow” in Syria as being simultaneously weak and provocative, Democratic support was made more crucial. Since the president was unwilling to strongarm his fellow Democrats, observing that he was “elected to end wars, not start them,” hawkish hopes for action flitted away.
Obama shoved the Syria strikes onto Congress in a move one of his advisers publicly bragged would leave Republicans to blame for the resulting action or inaction. Instead, Obama found himself “the dog who caught the car.” A bipartisan defeat for his war plea would be a humiliation at home and abroad and leave his already tattered second-term agenda in ruins. Obama was stuck by his own escape plan.
A frustrated Kerry headed overseas to try to win allies that might convince anxious Democrats that this was not the start of a new quagmire for America. While abroad, Kerry gave a sardonic response to a question about a diplomatic solution. The gist: Oh sure, whenever Bashar al Assad gives up his weapons I’ll quit trying to bomb him.
It was very Louis Winthorp III.
The Russians, however, played it straight. And while Kerry was trying to make his own coalition of the willing, Vladimir Putin found the sweet spot with Obama. Putin offered Obama a way out of a political jam of his own making and allowed Obama to take a little credit for preventing, not starting another war.
Obama jumped at the chance and now, well, let’s let Putin tell the tale, via his New York Times OpEd today: “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal.”
This is a double slap at Obama who early in his presidency tried to redefine American exceptionalism, saying: “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” Once he was beating half a war drum, Obama reverted to the more traditional, empowered sense of the term. Putin here reminds American liberals how much they liked the old Obama, champion of Greek exceptionalism.
Worst of all, Putin called Obama George W. Bush, dropping in buzz phrases Obama used to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency. The Cold War Kremlin tropes tailored for the American left about insufficient communication and the need for international equality got gussied up for the 21st century.
But 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.