When you accept a repressive Russian ruler’s offer as a political escape hatch because your own ill-considered rhetoric put you in the awkward position of being a Nobel Peace Prize winner elected president as an anti-Bush who would “nation build at home” now half-heartedly lobbying the nation to go to war in Syria, that repressive Russian ruler might not take you seriously the next time around.
A coherent foreign policy— at its best telegraphing that the United States is willing to use many tools to back good actors and punish bad, reward allies and punish enemies— is about being perceived as tough and reliable enough to prevent something like the invasion of Ukraine from happening before it happens. I don’t have such an issue with what President Obama is doing on Ukraine right this moment. Kasparov suggests that economic sanctions might not change Putin’s mind, but could scare off his cronies. What I do have an issue with is up until Friday, Obama and his staff were still deluding themselves into thinking Russia would do no such thing as entering Ukraine. Perhaps a little less mockery of Mitt Romney, who was showing the evaluation and knowledgeable prediction that is the art of foreign policymaking, and a little more policymaking was in order for the president. Putin weighed the U.S. response in Georgia, when Bush was the lamest of ducks, and found us wanting. He’s tested Obama again and again, and found absolutely no evidence that he’ll react robustly or reliably, even when he promises robustness.
The Washington Post posited today that Obama’s foreign policy is based on a fantasy. I think they’re right, but there’s another fantasy at play, here, too. Obama’s campaign pitch and much of his foreign and domestic policy were always based on the fantasy that his mere presence and his mere words would change the way the world worked. When confronted with the fact that they did not, the president does not know what to do. Some of the things the administration is considering might well be effective, but they would require Obama leading the rest of Europe and the international community to take some bold steps it might be squeamish about taking. Is anyone confident he can or will do that? I am deeply skeptical, though I wouldn’t mind being proven wrong.
On a related note, read Jamie Kirchick’s piece on misreading Russia. Being a realist isn’t always as realistic as it’s cracked up to be.