For years, there has been a competition on many levels between the president of the United States and the president or top leader of Russia and the Soviet Union. Today, it's Barack Obama vs. Vladimir Putin, and the latest round went to Putin.
The Kremlin leader outmaneuvered Obama in the Syrian crisis and came across as a peacemaker while Obama looked like a politician who was too eager to throw America's weight around. Putin announced earlier this week a surprise initiative to persuade Syrian President Bashar Assad to give up his chemical weapons and transfer them to international control.
This defused, at least temporarily, the showdown that Obama had precipitated by declaring his intention to strike militarily at Assad's regime as punishment for the alleged use of chemical weapons that killed more than 1,400 people including hundreds of children last month.
After Putin's initiative was announced, Obama said he would hold off on striking, and Congress delayed votes on Obama's request to authorize the use of force against Syria.
Neither Obama nor congressional leaders are sure that the Russian offer should be taken seriously, and some U.S. officials suspect it's a ploy to throw the Americans off balance and stall or derail any military intervention. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Putin had lured Obama into a game of "rope-a-dope," and had scored a political and PR coup.
The Russians apparently want to widen their influence in the Middle East and cement ties to Syria and Iran, and, more broadly, appear to be peacemakers. They also don't want chemical weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists who could use them against Russia. So placing those weapons under international control is in Russia's self interest.
Putin added to the dismay of his U.S. adversaries by jumping into the American media wars with an op-ed essay in The New York Times, posted online Wednesday night. Attempting to counter the specific arguments Obama made in his speech on Syria Thursday evening, Putin wrote:
"The potential strike by the United States against Syria, despite strong opposition from many countries and major political and religious leaders, including the pope, will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria's borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance."
Putin's essay cleverly focused on the concerns and fears of Americans, showing a nuanced understanding of U.S. politics. "It is alarming that military intervention in internal conflicts in foreign countries has become commonplace for the United States," Putin wrote. "Is it in America's long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around the world increasingly see America not as a model of democracy but as relying solely on brute force, cobbling coalitions together under the slogan 'you're either with us or against us.'"
Putin also said, "No one doubts that poison gas was used in Syria. But there is every reason to believe it was used not by the Syrian Army, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful foreign patrons, who would be siding with the fundamentalists. Reports that militants are preparing another attack--this time against Israel--cannot be ignored."
Obama and Putin have a troubled relationship that reached a new low at the recent Group of 20 international conference in Russia. Obama canceled his formal meeting with Putin in response to Russia's granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the U.S. government contractor who leaked classified information about U.S. surveillance to the media and has fled from the United States to escape prosecution.
Russia has also blocked support in the United Nations for U.S.-led actions against Syria, a longtime Russian ally.
The competition between the American and Russian leaders has a long history. For years, it was Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Joseph Stalin. They were allies in World War II but they jousted over how to divide the post-war world at Yalta and other conferences. FDR's critics say he gave too much away to Stalin in what amounted to appeasement.
There was John F. Kennedy vs. Nikita Khrushchev, most notably in the Cuban missile crisis when the world was one miscalculation away from nuclear Armageddon.
There was Jimmy Carter vs. Leonid Brezhnev in a relationship that soured badly when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979.
There was Ronald Reagan vs. Mikhail Gorbachev, which ended up as a useful partnership that reduced Cold War tensions and led to the end of the Soviet empire. But Reagan and Gorbachev could never get completely past their rivalry and they competed over who could come across to the world as the more appealing leader.
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Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com and "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He is the author of the new book "Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership." Ken Walsh can be reached at email@example.com and on Facebook and Twitter.