Obama, Putin, and the ‘what if’ of Ukraine

Cliff Smith Attorney
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The late Sen. Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson, a hawkish Democrat, famously said that, “’In matters of national security, the best politics is no politics.” Scoop was referring to domestic, partisan politics, of course. He practiced what he preached: many of his top foreign policy aides became part of the Reagan administration. Yet this was always more aspirational than real, predicated on the belief that everyone basically agreed that a strong, assertive America was best for peace, freedom and security. While everyone pays lip-service to this point of view on the stump, alternative views hold that excessive American strength is provocative and inclines us into unwise adventurism. Better to work with the “international community” to gain “consensus.”  These differences are not explicitly partisan, but they do tend to overlap.

Obama’s recent speech in Brussels concerning the crisis in Ukraine is a good example of this. While saying “What we will do always is uphold our solemn obligation, our Article 5 duty, to defend the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our allies,” he also said “Nor will Russia be dislodged from Crimea or deterred from further escalation by military force.”

In one sense he’s correct. Invading Ukraine to free Crimea from the Russians would be reckless. The U.S. has neither the political nor military will to sustain a major war at this point, and it would obviously risk cascading into a much larger conflict. They are also right that options are limited and that nothing we can realistically do at this point can force Russia out. The immediate outcome is largely out of U.S. hands since diplomatic, political or economic payback probably won’t change what happens in Crimea in the short run.

The Obama administration and their allies have continuously howled at criticism, mostly but not exclusively from Republicans, for that reason. Critics were outraged by Russia’s invasion and perhaps equally outraged at what they call Obama’s “weakness” by allowing it to happen. The administration and its allies have accused Republicans and others advocating a stronger line of putting party before country, and wanting a reckless war. They argue that options are limited. Some have also cited Russia’s temporary invasion of Georgia during the later days of the Bush administration of proof of hypocrisy. Others have even gone so far as to accuse the president’s critics of admiring Putin’s thuggishness.

However, the entire line of defense is a dodge. Obama’s critics don’t blame him for not invading Crimea or launching ICBM’s. They blame him for letting us get to this point by consistently taking options off the table, consistently taking half measures, and consistently neglecting to employ American power to assist our friends and allies. With a different foreign policy, recent events would have been very different.

What might have happened if, in 2009, Obama had not withdrawn from a planned missile defense shield from Poland and Czech Republic as part of his “reset” policy with Russia? While the missile shield itself wouldn’t have stopped the invasion of Crimea, having American troops on the ground in Ukraine’s neighbors’ territory would have likely given Putin pause.

What if Obama had not explained to Russian diplomats he’d have greater “flexibility” after his re-election, and instead said, ‘Once re-elected I’ll be in a position of strength, give me a fair shake now while you still can’? What if instead of allowing Russia to brazenly take Edward Snowden under their wing and exploit him, Obama had told Russia “If you don’t give him back, I’ll be angry. You won’t like me when I’m angry,” and showed he meant it with actions? It would have been heard very differently by Russian ears than “flexibility” and dismissing Snowden as nothing but “a hacker.”

What if, when Syria breached Obama’s “red line,” instead of blaming Republicans for opposing his “incredibly small” strike — they were actually more supportive than most Democrats — the administration had worked strongly with both Republicans and Democrats, to force real pain on the Syrian government, a Russian ally? It would not have resulted in Putin having to bail Obama out with a face-saving but ineffectual agreement that Russia would control Syria’s chemical weapons, that’s for certain.

What if the administration and its allies, instead of pointing to Bush’s actions in Georgia as proof of what cannot be done, said “We can do better,” and took immediate and aggressive military, diplomatic and economic measures when Russia annexed Crimea?  Remember, in Georgia, Russia backed off fairly quickly even when Bush was at the nadir of his power with only a few months left in office, dealing with a financial crisis, and dealing with an openly hostile Congress.

What if, instead of whining that Republicans admire Putin’s authoritarianism, a petty, churlish claim if I’ve ever heard one, Obama and his allies admitted Putin is an effective bully, and stood up to him? What if, the same week Russia invaded Crimea, Obama hadn’t proposed the smallest Army since before World War 2?

Had this path been taken Obama would have approached this situation from strength instead of weakness.  Putin would have been much less likely to roll the dice in the Ukraine, and if he had, we’d be in a much better position to cause Putin pain and hold back further aggression.  Some of Obama’s partisan critics might be opportunistic, but that doesn’t make them wrong.