On Friday, as Russian forces invaded — and that is what it is, an invasion — U.S. ally Ukraine, we saw just how bad President Obama’s foreign policy leadership is, how it could be even worse and how with a different party in the White House, it how it could be better.
When the president spoke on Friday afternoon one had the same sense as when President George W. Bush would take to the airwaves during the 2008 financial meltdown (only to see on the split screen the stock market plunge with every syllable). Better to say nothing. Hearing you speak convinces us events are spinning out of control.
President Obama, whose Syria about-face has unnerved even liberal foreign policy experts, recounted how he had just spoken to Vladimir Putin a few days ago. (A lot of good, that did.) But now — with his words entirely ignored and forces rolling into Ukraine — he told us that “we are now deeply concerned by reports of military movements taken by the Russian Federation inside of Ukraine.” The dreaded “deeply concerned.” And what an odd phrase to be concerned about “reports” — doesn’t the United States know this has occurred? He continued, as if Putin hadn’t already defied his warnings, “[A]ny violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would be deeply destabilizing, which is not in the interests of Ukraine, Russia or Europe. It would represent a profound interference in matters that must be determined by the Ukrainian people.” It “would“? It does. So what consequences befall the Russian bear now? Umm, well: “We will continue to coordinate closely with our European allies, we will continue to communicate directly with the Russian government, and we will continue to keep all of you in the press corps and the American people informed as events develop.” Take that, Mr. Putin! The Russians were so unimpressed that less than 24 hours later the Russian parliament unanimously approved the use of force.
All in all the president’s Friday performance was cringe-worthy and totally ill-advised. It was essentially an advertisement of his own fecklessness. But as bad as the president’s empty words were, they were Churchillian compared to the remarks from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.). You will recall he flummoxed almost every Republican literate in foreign policy when he previously chided Republicans for wanting to “tweak” Russia. Maybe sensing he had badly messed up and given fodder to critics who think he is utterly unfit to be commander in chief, he attempted to backpedal on Friday with this, entirely unintelligible statement:
We live in an interconnected world and the United States has a vital role in the stability of that world. The United States should make it abundantly clear to Russia that we expect them to honor the December 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the U.S., Russia, and the United Kingdom reaffirmed their commitment ‘to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.’ Russia should also be reminded that stability and territorial integrity go hand in hand with prosperity. Economic incentives align against Russian military involvement in Ukraine. Russia, which has begun to experience the benefits of expanded trade with World Trade Organization accession, should think long and hard about honoring their treaty obligations and fostering the stability that creates prosperity for its citizens. Most importantly, Russian intervention in Ukraine would be dangerous for both nations, and for the rest of the world.
What?! Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute dubbed it “A bizarre agglomeration of buzzwords — interconnected world??” David Adesnik, a scholar on the history of isolationism in the United States, scoffed, “This is exactly in line with the absurdity of his last foreign policy speech, which suggested that shared economic interests can prevent conflict with China. He’s lost and confused.” Paul seems to have the same Hillary Clinton-esque faith in “reset” — as if by cuddling up to the Russians and trying to integrate them economically into the West we will end their aggression. Everything that has occurred in the last five years should inform Paul and others this was naïve and simply wrong. And to argue that Russia should merely “think long and hard about honoring their treaty obligations,” suggests compliance with international law is optional. In the wake of the Russian vote on Saturday, Paul looks, once again, buffoonish.
If Obama’s remarks were bad and Paul’s even worse, how could the United States have responded more cogently? Fortunately several Republican lawmakers issued appropriately tough statements.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s statement read, in part: “It is essential that the United States, our European and NATO partners, and the international community stand up to any aggression. We need strong American and European leadership now to forestall any further threats to international peace and stability. Russia’s leaders must understand that military intervention and further interference in Ukraine’s affairs are unacceptable, and would result in significant consequences for Russia. As there have been for Ukrainians who used force against unarmed protesters, there should also be sanctions against Russian individuals and entities who use force or interfere in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner struck a similar tone: “Both the administration and the European Union have a responsibility to work together to maximize the economic and political pressure on Russia to withdraw its troops and work in a constructive manner to promote an inclusive government in Ukraine and to stabilize the Ukrainian economy.” Both pledged that the House would work with the White House to provide economic aid to Ukraine.
Unfortunately, even if the president said these things the world has learned not to take him seriously.
Other Republicans such as Rep. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) issued statements recommending specific diplomatic and economic actions. Cotton urged that we “revoke travel visas and freeze assets of senior Russian officials and Putin cronies, freeze assets of Ukrainian oligarchs who assist the Russian invasion, stop transfers of assets out of Ukraine, support the Ukrainian transitional government and military as it defends Ukraine’s territorial integrity, recall our ambassador to Russia, reschedule the upcoming G-8 meeting from Russia to Western Europe or the U.S., and suspend Russia from the G-8.”
Retired Admiral James Stavridis set forth a list of steps NATO should be taking, including providing military advice to Ukraine and putting “the NATO Response Force, a 25,000 man sea, air, land, special forces capability to a higher state of alert.” As he put it, “[T]he stakes are high and the Russians are moving. Sitting idle, without at least looking at options, is a mistake for NATO and would itself constitute a signal to Putin — one that he would welcome.” (The center-right Foreign Policy Initiative also has spelled out a menu of actions the president can take.)
There is no shortage of options. It is painfully obvious, however, that Obama had not thought beyond his original (ignored) warnings. If there is a plan or even the desire to check Russian aggression he keeps it well hidden. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Jimmy Carter finally woke up to their international intentions. When will Obama get a clue that not much has changed in 30-plus years?