Ideology Trumps American Strategy in Syria

By George Friedman
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There were undoubtedly other matters discussed, including the future of Syria. The United States and Russia both want the al Assad regime in place to block the Sunnis. They both want the civil war to end, the Americans to reduce the pressure on themselves to aid the Sunnis, the Russians to reduce the chances of the al Assad regime collapsing. Allowing Syria to become another Lebanon (historically, they are one country) with multiple warlords -- or more precisely, acknowledging that this has already happened -- is the logical outcome of all of this.

Consequences

The most important outcome globally is that the Russians sat with the Americans as equals for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, the Russians sat as mentors, positioning themselves as appearing to instruct the immature Americans in crisis management. To that end, Putin's op-ed in The New York Times was brilliant.

This should not be seen merely as imagery: The image of the Russians forcing the Americans to back down resonates all along the Russian periphery. In the former Soviet satellites, the complete disarray in Europe on this and most other issues, the vacillation of the United States, and the symbolism of Kerry and Lavrov negotiating as equals will shape behavior for quite awhile.

This will also be the case in countries like Azerbaijan, a key alternative to Russian energy that borders Russia and Iran. Azerbaijan faces a second consequence of the administration's ideology, one we have seen during the Arab Spring. The Obama administration has demonstrated a tendency to judge regimes that are potential allies on the basis of human rights without careful consideration of whether the alternative might be far worse. Coupled with an image of weakness, this could cause countries like Azerbaijan to reconsider their positions vis-a-vis the Russians.

The alignment of moral principles with national strategy is not easy under the best of circumstances. Ideologies tend to be more seductive in generalized terms, but not so coherent in specific cases. This is true throughout the political spectrum. But it is particularly intense in the Obama administration, where the ideas of humanitarian intervention, absolutism in human rights, and opposition to weapons of mass destruction collide with a strategy of limiting U.S. involvement -- particularly military involvement -- in the world. The ideologies wind up demanding judgments and actions that the strategy rejects.

The result is what we have seen over the past month with regard to Syria: A constant tension between ideology and strategy that caused the Obama administration to search for ways to do contradictory things. This is not a new phenomenon in the United States, and this case will not reduces its objective power. But it does create a sense of uncertainty about what precisely the United States intends. When that happens in a minor country, this is not problematic. In the leading power, it can be dangerous.

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George Friedman is chairman of Stratfor. Reprinted with permission.

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