Did Obama’s ‘red line’ invite Putin’s power play?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In a fallen world, we tend to oscillate between two foreign policy strategies: Get involved in the world and sometimes mess it up, or bury our heads in the sand and watch it burn.

For most of my life, we have done the former; for the last five years, we have pursued the latter.

In both cases, we have eventually arrived at predictable results.

But some strategies fall apart sooner than others, and it’s logical to assume America’s anemic reaction to Georgia and Syria has informed Putin’s calculus in Ukraine. While some would like to cast Putin as an unpredictable loose cannon, the Russian leader is behaving rationally (at least, in terms of how one might expect a nationalistic K.G.B. colonel to exploit perceived weakness and opportunity).

In fairness, the non-interventionist zeitgeist has certainly been a bipartisan phenomenon in a war-weary America, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and assign a lot of blame to President Obama. This is for a few reasons. First, he is the president, and (rightly or wrongly) the actions (and rhetoric) of a commander-in-chief carry an outsized and symbolic import. Second, because Obama hasn’t merely chosen non-intervention, he has also telegraphed his wavering and vacillations.

We saw this when he drew a red line in Syria that was trampled over — and we saw this when his Secretary of State John Kerry painted intervention in Syria as a moral imperative tantamount to World War II.

Choosing not to intervene in someone else’s civil war (especially when there are no good guys to support) is not a sign of weakness. But when a president draws a red line, and then fails to act, his credibility is on the line as well.

And it’s not as if President Obama demonstrated political courage in deciding not to intervene in Syria. Going to Congress may or may not have been the right thing to do, but it was certainly inconsistent with the established pretext.

His actions belied his words, and when a leader’s rhetoric and actions are incongruous, it invites more provocation — more testing. And that is exactly what appears to have happened regarding the Russian occupation of Crimea.

Robin Williams used to joke about the London cops who don’t carry guns, and must resort to saying: “Stop! — or I’ll stay stop again.” This is where the leader of the free world finds himself — in terms of international credibility, at least.

As the New York Times notes, “First, the pro-Russian government in Kiev, now deposed, defied his warnings not to shoot protesters, and now Mr. Putin has ignored his admonitions to stay out of Ukraine.”

Now, if history is a guide, President Obama will downplay and dismiss this sort of criticism. He will do so in a tone that mocks the notion that words matter — that other nations take their cues from his rhetoric and actions. He might even push back at the very notion that what happened in Crimea was all that provocative. (Even if he doesn’t say it, his tone may betray this worldview.)

In the past, unpopular presidents have been accused of saber rattling and the lobbing of cruise missiles — a sort of “wag the dog” method of ginning up public support, even if the impact was largely symbolic. That’s not Obama’s style. The public soon lost interest with Syria, and we were back to talking about income inequality and the “war on women” — topics Obama is both more interested in — and more likely to gain from politically (it’s much easier to beat up Republicans than Russia.) Who’s to say that won’t happen again?

The “no drama” Obama style of public relations is to feign confident boredom, as if to say: “If we’re not freaked out about this, then you shouldn’t be.”


If we were to move on to another topic after the president issues a few pro forma words of condemnation, and perhaps issues a few sanctions, I suspect that would be just fine with both Putin and Obama (for different reasons, of course.)

Obama may yet be able to run out the clock, kicking the geopolitical can down the road for his successor. For this reason, while it’s impossible to predict which issues will be at the forefront of the 2016 elections, it’s probably safe to say that foreign policy will at least play a more important role than we might have thought a year or two ago.

No, I don’t expect Republicans to fully embrace the sort of hawkish foreign policy or Wilsonian objectives of the Bush era, but I do expect the nominee to be someone who embraces the importance of projecting strength, consistency, and moral clarity. Political analysts and handicappers should take this into account when ranking the GOP field.