There has been a surplus of trite chess metaphors thrown around during the world’s response to the civil war in Syria. As a former world champion I would like to pull rank and ask everyone to reject all the nonsense about “Putin is playing chess and Obama is playing checkers,” or tic-tac-toe or whatever. Putin did not have to outplay or outthink anyone. He and Bashar Assad won by forfeit when President Obama, Prime Minister Cameron and the rest of the so-called leaders of the free world walked away from the table. They have all set up a new game at the negotiating table where Putin and Assad set the rules and will run the show under the protection of the U.N.
Just a few weeks ago, Assad was hiding in a bunker and worried about a wave of defections in the face of imminent strikes after he used chemical weapons to murder 1,400 of his countrymen. Putin was backing away slowly, preparing to evacuate Russian personnel from Syria and stating there would be no response to a punitive Western military strike against Assad. They assumed that strike was coming because Obama had said, almost exactly one year earlier, that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a “red line” and that there would be “enormous consequences” were it crossed.
Assad skipped over that red line and yet his position is now stronger than he could have imagined. Putin grabbed his chance to look like a global power player while doing nothing more than attempting to preserve the status quo. Syria and Iran are excellent customers for Russian weapons and expertise (including nuclear), and for years Putin has used Russia’s permanent position on the U.N. Security Council to provide both regimes with excellent customer support. What the “say no to war” anti-interventionists forget is that there is already a war in Syria. The choice is not between war and peace but between attempting to help end the slaughter of civilians sooner or ignoring it.
Putin, Assad and Ayatullah Khamenei were not the only ones keeping a close eye on Obama’s red line. Every autocrat, terrorist and thug from Beijing to Yemen is stronger in the face of inaction and impotence by the free world. And to those of us living under repressive regimes the consequences are very real. Putin will feel even less constrained about cracking down on the Russian opposition now that he has built up capital as a global diplomat. He still has an aging arsenal and economic influence based on oil and gas exports, but Putin is neither ideological nor interested in anything other than holding on to enough power to support his looting spree. He meddles abroad to keep the price of oil high and to foster his macho image at home as a protector of Russia against the countless enemies supposedly threatening our very survival.
Every dictator needs enemies to justify the suffering of his people and his own brutality. If no such enemies exist, they are invented. Putin follows this pattern, lashing out in Russia against the most vulnerable groups like gays and immigrants. His propaganda machine spews hatred and suspicion of the West, and especially America, as enemies of Russia, when in reality he and his regime are the true source of the damage to Russia’s strength and standing.
I am far from being a naive utopian, but as someone who grew up and lived over half of my 50 years in the Soviet Union I can speak to the importance of knowing that there were people outside, and entire nations of them, who cared about freedom — and my freedom — and were willing to invest in it, even fight for it. America was not a beacon of hope to so many behind the Iron Curtain because of blue jeans and McDonald’s. Its affluence was a part of it, yes, but its leaders also talked openly about rights and liberty and other ideals that mean a great deal to those who live in their absence.
With their unmatched might, the U.S. and allies like the U.K. and France have the ability to prevent genocides, to remove or at least deter dictators, and to give millions of people a fighting chance at obtaining the freedoms their own people take for granted. Unfortunately, they have decided to instead withdraw from the world. History is longer than the news cycle or a term of office. The phrase never again is reserved for allowing horrors to go unchallenged, not for failed attempts to prevent those horrors. It is reasonable to fear making things worse. It is inexcusable to allow that fear to paralyze you and to stop you from doing what you can.
Kasparov is the chairman of the New York–based Human Rights Foundation