Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) at 77 years old is certainly more energetic, astute and focused on Ukraine than are most of the administration’s national security experts and many in Congress. He certainly has a better read on Vladimir Putin than does the president. Just back from a quick trip to Ukraine, where a phony election to hand over Crimea to Russia was underway, he told Candy Crowley on CNN’s “State of the Union”:
CROWLEY: [Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates] thinks Crimea belongs to Putin and that’s it.
MCCAIN: Well, I think in the short term, clearly now with the overwhelming military superiority and the actions that Putin has taken, you can’t say that there is anything but a fait accompli. . . And by the way, could I just make one comment about the so-called referendum? We have a wonderful ambassador representing the United States in Ukraine. He and I have a bet. I’m saying it’s 70 percent of the vote to join Russia. He’s saying 80 percent of the vote. We’ll see what happens. Look, it is a bogus thing. We used to call it plebecite in the days of Hitler and Stalin.
He went on to argue that “the United States of America, first of all, has to have a fundamental re-assessment of our relationship with Vladimir Putin. No more reset buttons, no more ‘tell Vladimir I’ll be more flexible.’ Treat him for what he is. That does not mean re-ignition of the Cold War, but it does mean treating him in the way that we understand an individual who believes in restoring the old Russian empire.”
He reiterated that we aren’t talking about American military action (“no boots on the ground”) and instead suggests strong economic sanctions plus other tough measures: “Get some military assistance to Ukrainians, at least so they can defend themselves. Resume the missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. Look at Moldavia and Georgia, both of whom are occupied by Russian troops as we speak, a path towards membership in NATO. . . . [W]e should be working to get energy supplies to Ukraine and other countries in Europe. We are an abundant now energy exporter. We should be using that — if it is a long-term strategy, we should be figuring out right now.”
McCain touched on a few points that deserve special emphasis, beginning with a “fundamental reassessment,” as he put it, of not only Russia but our entire foreign policy. First, Secretary of State John Kerry – who sent out the SOS to Russia on Syria – seems to think his job is to make the United States as unthreatening as possible so we won’t make foes mad. (“Nothing personal,” he tells Putin about planned sanctions. Good to know.) We can’t pass additional Iran sanctions because the mullahs might get up and leave talks. We can’t ramp up the rhetoric or send liquefied natural gas to Ukraine because Putin might feel slighted, I guess.
Kerry seems to believe that negotiations with those who have no intention of working out an acceptable deal (be it Iran, Russia, Syria or the Palestinian Authority) are for real, not a dodge for time and PR by rogue states. He never met a European conference room in which he did not think our foes would see the light and end their errant ways. It would be better, much better, if he stopped saying things in public altogether than if he continued to provide evidence to our enemies that he can be bamboozled.
Second, in emphasizing a range of options available to the president, McCain reminds us of the essential role Congress now must play, given this president’s track record and lack of credibility. That means senators don’t have the luxury of grandstanding as they did on the Ukraine sanctions bill last week.
The quota reform to which a number of Republicans objected would move a tiny amount of voting shares and economic responsibility toward emerging countries such as Brazil and China, to the detriment of European countries. The United States retains its veto and, as two experts explained it to me, “It will continue to be difficult for the American representative at the IMF to seek support from other countries for important policies, if this reform measure is not passed.” And as for cost, the actual amount is not billions but $315 million in new funds, split over two fiscal years. The objectors simply had their facts wrong; a foolish and harmful delay ensued.
In short, McCain may not be in the Oval Office, but he may remain the most important foreign policy leader we have. That says something about his own abilities, but unfortunately, even more about the administration’s total cluelessness. Let’s hope he raises the bar for his Senate colleagues as well.