Return Of A Cold Warrior

Cliff Smith Attorney
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Republicans have been assailed by the White House for criticizing the Obama administration’s policy toward the crisis in Ukraine without putting forward positive proposals. That criticism is increasingly untenable as a result of the efforts of an old Cold Warrior, Senator Dan Coats.

Coats, who returned to the Senate in 2010 after a long absence, brings with him his experience as a young Congressman and Senator during the Cold War, as well as a stint as Ambassador to Germany during the 2000’s. Like many Republicans, Coats criticized the Obama administration’s response to the Ukrainian crisis: “The American response must be much greater than a verbal slap if we want Putin to understand his actions in Ukraine are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

Unlike most of his recently elected colleagues, Coats’ long and varied experience in foreign policy gives him a much better handle on what has happened and what needs to be done. He recognized that, particularly as it relates to foreign policy, the American public needs to be convinced. Thus, he went about writing several editorials for local and national press alike, explaining what was at stake in Crimea, namely, the verdict of World War II, and the possibility of  such a small conflict to grow and metastasize if not confronted.

Yet speeches and editorials were not enough. As Coats himself put it, the crisis required more than a verbal slap. He worked with Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), to pass a resolution which condemned the seizure of Crimea and called on Russia to be suspended from the G-8, which passed unanimously, and also championed an amendment to a foreign aid bill which would have ratcheted up sanctions on Russian arms dealers. Coats then introduced the Crimea Annexation Non-Recognition Act of 2014, which was really the first strategic plan proposed in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The bill firmly establishes that the U.S. does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, will not be party to any international effort that gives aid to Crimea through Russia, makes illegal any investment on the part of U.S. businesses in Crimea, and cracks down on Crimean shipping. It also requires the DOJ and DOD to take steps to ensure no legal recognition occurs in related areas of domestic and international law.

Other Senators took notice, reminded that all foreign policy initiatives need not come from the White House. Coats took notice of these efforts as well, joining with Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to propose the Russian Aggression Prevention Act, which also refused to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, granted significant foreign aid to the Ukrainian military, allowed for more natural gas sales to the region, and finally greatly increases sanctions on Russian banks, pressure that has the potential to do real economic damage.

The bill was written as if the Senators “were sitting in the White House,” according to Senator Corker. Senator Coats was more direct: “The lack of a forceful, effective response by the administration and Western leaders has given Putin little reason to expect that further aggression will be punished. We are introducing tough diplomatic, economic, and financial sanctions, and I am hopeful that President Obama will support our effort.”

His experience as Ambassador to Germany has proven fortuitous too. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel met with him during a recent trip to the U.S. Coats encouraged Merkel to work with the U.S. to form a united front for tougher actions against Russia, including stiff economic sanctions, stressing that Merkel was in a unique position to speak for much of Europe and lead the efforts against Russian aggression.

If the American media hasn’t taken much notice of all this, the Russians certainly have: they banned Coats (and others) from their borders in retaliation. Having a sense of humor, Coats’ “tweeted” the top 10 things he’s now unable to do since being banned, similar to Dave Letterman’s nightly top 10 lists. Coats said a vacation in Siberia is now out.

In many ways, Coats is the best prepared member of Congress to deal with these issues. A longtime member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees during his first stint as a legislator, his experience gave him the know-how and the desire, while his long absence from electoral politics, but not diplomacy, kept him largely out of the contentious foreign policy battles of the 00’s. He doesn’t have as many enemies as some old timers who have never left. This, along with his low-key nature and reputation for trustworthiness has allowed him to be a foreign policy workhorse.

Historically, experienced Senators, ranging from Clifford Case to Henry “Scoop” Jackson, from Sam Nunn to Dick Luger, had significant influence on foreign policy. In recent years, the increasing powers of the executive and the myopic focus on domestic events have left the role of the senior legislative statesman in foreign policy behind. Coats’ return to the Senate was fortunate in that he returns with knowledge and experience, but without having undergone the same transformation as others who never left. At a spry 70 years old, Coats has not indicated if he’ll run for another term in 2016. I hope he does. The free world still needs an old Cold Warrior like him.