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Shadow Government

How to Negotiate with a Bully

President Obama needs to learn that there's only one language a leader like Putin understands: strength.


On Oct. 7, RT reported that four Russian missile ships in the Caspian Sea attacked 11 targets inside Syria with 26 cruise missiles. “According to objective control data, all the targets were destroyed. No civilian objects sustained damage,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. The missile barrage — and, one might argue, the whole Russian adventure in Syria — illustrates Russian bullying. When a former University of Chicago professor encounters a former KGB agent, one plays a “win-win” game where both stand to benefit while the other plays, “I win, you lose.”

It’s time President Obama learned how to negotiate with a bully.

First, the president needs to negotiate like one because President Vladimir Putin is a bully. Obama has to see Putin as mainly an opponent not primarily a partner; Putin is the KGB agent fostering a new Cold War on the horizon. (But Europe is not the only theater where bullying is occurring. Think East and South China seas involving China, the Philippines, Japan, and Southeast Asia.).

Second, negotiating from strength means slowing down withdrawals and reinserting American military forces into Europe and the Middle East. It also means using the bully pulpit, and then supplementing words with military moves. Otherwise, America loses and our adversaries win.

Third, in the air, Obama should transfer F-22s to Israel to counter state of the art Russian Su-34s now in Syria. On the ground, have an “Islamic State no-go zone” in northern Syria, with U.S. air and limited land presence, as James Jeffrey, former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey and now at The Washington Institute, suggested.

On Jan. 9, President Obama’s former NSC Senior Director and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul acknowledged Obama looked for common interests between Russia and America. These included preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and denying the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. As Iran helps the Taliban in Afghanistan, Obama’s dream is turning into his nightmare.

Meanwhile, the Sept. 28 U.N. addresses by Obama and Putin suggested Obama was losing the battle for worldwide public opinion and actions in the Middle East. In a readout of the speeches by Obama and Putin on Sept. 28 by Anna Borshchevskaya, a fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Russia’s policy toward the Middle East, in Forbes, Borshchevskaya showed how Obama played into Putin’s hands at the U.N. She held that the Putin U.N. speech repeated his longstanding narrative of moral equivalence and the “blatant hypocrisy of his foreign and domestic policy has gone largely unchallenged by the Obama administration.”

Obama did not do well with either the public optics or with results in their private session. He gave Putin a propaganda platform to go head-to-head with an American president and obtained a stamp of approval that Russia was a player on the international stage. By setting up a foursome of Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Syria without Obama’s knowledge or U.S. inclusion, Putin seized the advantage in the Middle East. The road to war and peace now goes through Moscow.

On Aug. 30, 2014, Reuters reported that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko pushed to join NATO when Putin compared Poroshenko’s military maneuvers to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. By associating Ukraine with the Nazis Putin rewrote history and ignored the Molotov-Ribbentrop accord that linked the Soviet Union with Nazi Germany. Putin thereby snatched the initiative in Europe. And by saying on Sept. 24, 2014, he could “take Kiev in two weeks,” Putin was dismissive of NATO in general and Obama in particular.

Putin plays to win and for Obama to lose and is continuing to do so today. As a part of his playbook, Putin supported his allies in Iran and Syria and expected Obama to do the same, favoring those whom Putin backed.

While the Obama and Putin sidebar took place, thousands of moderate Syrian rebels and Iranian dissidents met near the U.N. in an anti-Rouhani rally that highlighted Iran’s violations of human rights.

Reuel Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, provided the backstory for that protest of the supposedly moderate President Rouhani. On July 31, Gerecht lambasted the search for a moderate in Iran because it ignored Iranian street protests, the assassination of expatriates, and the mass executions of political prisoners. On July 27, Gerecht decried absence of human source intelligence on the ground in Iran that indicated a coming failure of intelligence. By dancing to the tune of “Putin Rules,” Obama loses Iranian Street intelligence as a new Cold War heats up.

How was a post-Cold War professor gamed by a Cold Warrior from the KGB? Russian aircraft entered Syrian airspace with their transponders off to prevent U.S. intelligence from detecting them. Robert Munks, editor of IHS Jane’s Intelligence Review, said the imagery from mid-September demonstrated construction of a weapons depot and military facility north of Latakia, suggesting Russia was placing troops there.

The planes were not to augment the fight against the Islamic State, as Obama wished. On September 27, The Wall Street Journal presented a map that showed Russia and Iran have stepped up coordination in Syria to safeguard Assad’s stronghold of Latakia. And in recent days, Russian airstrikes in Syria have largely been targeted against the American-supported moderate rebel groups — not against the Islamic State.

Rather than repeating American policy that Tehran risked confrontation, the Obama administration changed to a post-Cold War narrative of emphasizing “parallel interests,” as Wendy Sherman, Obama’s point person on the Iran talks said. Such happy talk sounded suspiciously like a “common ground” post-Cold War approach with Moscow.

McFaul told the story about why a bully engaged in such behavior. The answer was, “Because I can.” Obama was correct when he described Russia as an intimidator in his backyard and unable to project power on a world stage. Absent pushback from the United States in Putin’s neighborhood, however, offers Putin outsized influence. Obama’s drawdown of U.S. military forces in Europe did not pay heed to the dictum that military power casts a long political-diplomatic shadow.

Sanctions alone may not be sufficient to get Putin’s attention. They need to be reinforced by military actions. NATO was on the right track holding Allied Shield exercises in June that brought together 15,000 service members from 19 member nations and three partners. To deter potential Kremlin aggression, NATO stepped up exercises in reaction to Russian threats. Lethal equipment and enhanced sanctions would raise the cost of a Russian attack on Eastern Ukraine.

On Sept. 18, Peter Feaver and Eric Lorber pointed out that flip-flopping on the rationale for the nuclear deal with Iran weakened the credibility of the sanctions regime. They called for legislation that would prohibit U.S. and some European companies from doing business with any terrorist-related Iranian organizations to keep the up the pressure.

On Sept. 30, Emanuele Ottolenghi, a leading expert on sanctions stated that, “If Congress and the Treasury were to designate hundreds of IRGC firms before Implementation Day [of the nuclear deal with Iran], it would send a strong message to the international business community as it contemplates Iranian contracts.”

When a player repeats the same approach in the face of failure, it is makes no sense. Obama’s pursuit of “win-win” when Putin follows “win-lose” is a recipe for U.S. failure. Our coercive diplomacy requires military forces to backstop diplomatic initiatives. For Obama to negotiate from strength means arresting his cutbacks in the defense budget, slowing down troop withdrawals, and reinserting American military forces in the Middle East and in Europe, (with forces able to maintain deterrence and defense in Asia regarding China). Unless our opponents and allies perceive there is an American will to employ those forces, the partners must receive means they require to deter and defend. How to negotiate with a bully? Use the bully pulpit with words complemented by military moves. Otherwise, we lose and our adversaries win.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Raymond Tanter served as a senior member on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration and is now professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.

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