Obama: Not tough enough to deter Putin?
Critics accuse President Obama of not being tough enough with the Russian president, but how exactly was he supposed to be “tougher”?
When President Obama warned last week that there would be “consequences” if Russia invaded Ukraine, said Marc Thiessen in The Washington Post, “you could hear the laughter” all the way from the Kremlin—followed by the rumbling of Russian military vehicles rolling into Crimea. Russian President Vladimir Putin knew Obama did not have “the intestinal fortitude to stand up to him,” and that he would “talk tough” but then seize on any opportunity to avoid a confrontation. That’s exactly what Obama did in drawing “a red line” on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons—a threat that he eagerly dropped when Putin offered to broker a deal with Assad. Putin further humiliated Obama when he gave asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowden, said John Fund in NationalReview.com. Whenever they’ve held joint public meetings, Putin’s lack of respect for Obama has been blatant, as he dismissively looks away whenever the president speaks, “treating him as someone he could dupe or roll over at will.”
These criticisms have an absurd premise, said Fred Kaplan in Slate.com.Short of starting a nuclear World War III, how exactly was Obama supposed to be “tougher” with Putin? The U.S. has little economic or political leverage over Russia, and since Putin’s great fear is that he’ll keep losing former Soviet republics to the West, there are no credible consequences “that would keep Putin from doing whatever it takes to hang on to Ukraine.” Back in 2008, Putin told the ostensibly tougher President George W. Bush that Ukraine was a Russian “territory,” as opposed to a sovereign nation, and Bush meekly shelved his pledge to invite Ukraine into NATO. That same year, Putin brutally invaded Georgia and gave two Russian-leaning provinces within Georgia their “independence”—while Bush did nothing to stop him. Don’t tell that to the “muscle-bound manly men of the Right,” said Paul Waldman in Prospect.org. Hawkish Republicans like Sen. John McCain and the chicken hawks on conservative talk radio are now ecstatically blaming Putin’s aggression on Obama’s weakness. “Action! They demand. We have to show Putin who’s boss!” What action? It doesn’t matter. “We must be strong! Strong strong strong!”
You don’t have to go to war to project strength, said Jonathan Tobin in CommentaryMagazine.com. In the five years since Obama took office, U.S. foreign policy has undergone a “general drift toward retreat” and disengagement. Americans are “war weary” and increasingly isolationist. So autocratic thugs don’t worry when Obama frowns and claims that all options are “on the table,” because everyone knows his heart isn’t in it.
“From where Putin sits, American power hardly seems in retreat,” said Peter Beinart in TheAtlantic.com. A dozen former Soviet bloc countries have joined NATO, and the European Union is knocking at Ukraine’s door. In short, recent history looks to Putin like “one long march by America and its allies closer and closer to the border of Russia itself.” It’s this deepening sense of his own weakness, not of Obama’s, that inspired Putin’s desperate lunge to keep Ukraine. A display of “muscularity” that makes Putin feel even more threatened could backfire, said Benjamin Wallace-Wells in NYMag.com.Even the hawks admit that the only way to deter Putin from invading the rest of Ukraine is with economic and political pressure from a unified multinational coalition. The “toughest” policy we can adopt right now, in other words, “looks an awful lot like the kind Obama has always advocated.”