We are only five days or so into the Russian invasion of Crimea, so the most acute question is still how the Obama administration explains its policies in its wake. So far, the response has been muddled, weak, and disconnected from American allies in Europe. However, with American politics being what they are, the question of Hillary Clinton’s ambitions in 2016 and the foreign policy she quarterbacked for Barack Obama — called a “fantasy” by none other than the Washington Post — would arise sooner or later.
[A]s President Barack Obama grapples to resolve the expanding crisis in Ukraine, the situation underscores Clinton’s dilemma as she looks toward a potential presidential run in 2016: Separating from the White House is a very difficult proposition, if it’s possible at all.
As secretary of state through Obama’s first term, Clinton was in many ways the face of the administration’s “reset” policy with Russia, an effort to establish a new relationship that focused heavily on fostering the relationship with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
The administration’s allies argue that some positives emerged from the reset, and that trouble began with Vladimir Putin’s returned to the Russian presidency in 2012. Skeptics of the “reset” believe Putin never actually left the stage.
Either way, the conflict is another instance in which Clinton is tethered to the administration’s decisions heading into 2016 — more so than any other Democrat, with the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden, who would be a heavy underdog against Clinton.
The “reset” button (which was mistranslated at State and actually read “overcharge) assumed that the issues between the US and Russia came from George W. Bush’s arrogance and hostility toward Moscow, and that talking sweet would fix the entire relationship. This approach came after Vladimir Putin had invaded Georgia and seized South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which should have stripped all illusions from anyone paying attention to Putin’s clear desire to rebuild the empire lost in 1989, as Putin himself lamented in 2005.
So far, Team Clinton wants to spin the question as a failure in the final year of her term at State — which probably won’t do as much as they hope. Maggie Haberman writes that Clinton’s team wants people to think that she had little to do with the formation of that “reset” policy, but that she just took orders from Obama. Even at that, though, Clinton will try to claim credit for forcing Putin out of the presidency, and that the problem arose after his return in 2012:
P.J. Crowley, the assistant secretary for public affairs during Clinton’s tenure, argued that the reset not only worked but also helped lay the groundwork for improving negotiations on Mideast issues while Medvedev was in power.
“The reset died when Putin returned to the presidency, and obviously it’s been a prickly and now deteriorating relationship in light of recent events,” said Crowley, adding that Obama’s reset perspective was the result of an inherited situation when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008.
That’s a laughable load of effluvium. Putin never left power; he just installed Medvedev into the presidency for show while he wielded power from the position of Prime Minister. Surely no one at State could have been that naïve and clueless to have bought that kabuki-theater move?
One senior Obama administration official called Vladimir Putin’s actions in the Ukraine “outrageous.” A second described them as an “outlaw act.” A third said his brazen use of military force harked back to a past century.
“What we see here are distinctly 19th and 20th century decisions made by President Putin,” said the official who spoke on condition of anonymity to a group of reporters. “But what he needs to understand is that in terms of his economy, he lives in the 21st century world, an interdependent world.”
James Jeffrey, a retired career U.S. diplomat, said that view of Putin’s mindset cripples the United States’ response to the Russian leader. The issue is not that Putin fails to grasp the promise of western-style democratic capitalism. It is that he and other American rivals flatly reject it.
“All of us that have been in the last four administrations have drunk the Kool-Aid,” Jeffrey said, referring to the belief that they could talk Putin into seeing the western system as beneficial. “‘If they would just understand that it can be a win-win, if we can only convince them’ – Putin doesn’t see it,” Jeffrey said. “The Chinese don’t see it. And I think the Iranians don’t see it.”
How does Hillary explain Ukraine? Don’t expect her to do so. Instead, she’ll spin yarns about how she faced down Putin and Sergei Lavrov, armed with nothing but a mistranslated reset button, and shift responsibility back to Obama while still hailing her four years at State as evidence of her ability to lead. The real question will be how well the media will carry water for that narrative.