Old and busted: Smart power and reset buttons. New hotness: Cold War echoes and writing off “allies” like Russia. Both the New York Times and CBS News report that President Obama has changed strategies with Vladimir Putin and have shifted to “an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.”:
Even as the crisis in Ukraine continues to defy easy resolution, President Obama and his national security team are looking beyond the immediate conflict to forge a new long-term approach to Russia that applies an updated version of the Cold War strategy of containment.
Just as the United States resolved in the aftermath of World War II to counter the Soviet Union and its global ambitions, Mr. Obama is focused on isolating President Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia by cutting off its economic and political ties to the outside world, limiting its expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood and effectively making it a pariah state.
In other words, Obama now plans to treat Russia as America’s greatest geopolitical threat. Golly, who else said that? I’m trying my best to recall, but the Era of Hopenchange keeps calling and wants its fantasy world back.
CBS laments the end of Obama’s relationship with Putin:
In addition to sounding like he has no faith Russia will change course, the president sounds like he has no faith in his own ability to alter Russia’s behavior.
The New York Times reported over the weekend that Mr. Obama has abandoned any hope of a good relationship with Putin, less than four years after he declared a successful “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations. Now, the Times reports, the president will merely look to “minimize the disruption Mr. Putin can cause, preserve whatever marginal cooperation can be saved and otherwise ignore the master of the Kremlin in favor of other foreign policy areas where progress remains possible.”
The change comes after Mr. Obama’s attempts to coax Putin into calling off pro-Russian forces occupying buildings in eastern Ukraine led nowhere. Descriptions of the phone calls between the two men issued by the White House and the Kremlin often sounded like two entirely different conversations. It was not unlike a phone call between the president and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., earlier this week that the president described as “very pleasant” while Cantor found it to be partisan posturing.
All of this sounds a little too familiar to Ron Fournier, too. After wooing Putin and failing, Obama wants to wash his hands of the Russian relationship, just as Obama did with his professed desire for bipartisanship shortly after first taking office:
The policy shift is defensible in light of Putin’s dismissal of U.S. overtures on Ukraine and the broader attempt by Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “press the restart button” with Russia. I have been among the critics who have accused Obama of misjudging Putin and raising expectations beyond his capacity to meet them. …
The turnaround on Russia is no more remarkable than the pivot Obama took after the 2008 election, when he abandoned his post-partisan brand at the first sight of Republican intransigence and forced the Affordable Care Act through Congress without GOP backing. Once poisoned, the well went dry: The candidate who had the “audacity to hope” for a new kind of politics surrendered to the toxic culture he promised to change. Obama wrote off Republicans. He said House Speaker John Boehner can’t or won’t bargain on the budget, then wrapped the white flag of surrender around the debt, gun control, tax reform, immigration, and other issues. Obama stopped looking for compromises, and then expressed outrage when he couldn’t find them.
Fournier points out one especially resonant paragraph in Baker’s report, and calls it emblematic:
The more hawkish faction in the State and Defense departments has grown increasingly frustrated, privately worrying that Mr. Obama has come across as weak and unintentionally sent the message that he has written off Crimea after Russia’s annexation. They have pressed for faster and more expansive sanctions, only to wait while memos sit in the White House without action. Mr. Obama has not even imposed sanctions on a list of Russian human-rights violators waiting for approval since last winter.
That last paragraph reminds me of Democrats who privately gripe about Obama’s lack of engagement with Congress, his unwillingness to build meaningful relationships, his allegiance to polls and focus groups, and his cautious nature that, in their minds, holds him back from greatness. “He can’t handle Putin. He can’t handle Republicans,” said a veteran Democratic consultant and part-time adviser to both of Obama’s presidential campaigns. Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Democrat added, “He just is not a natural leader.”
Of course he isn’t. By nature, he’s a legislative backbencher and a superior campaigner, not a natural leader or even a competent executive. That’s why “smart power” has turned into such a disaster, and why domestic initiatives like ObamaCare were doomed to failure even apart from their structural flaws. The Obama administration careens from incompetence to incompetence, and until recently the media has seemed oddly uninterested in that dynamic. This is a great demonstration of why the first executive job on anyone’s resumé should not be the Leader of the Free World.
What can be done now, though? Putin has already signaled his readiness to challenge the West, emboldened by the flaccid response he’s seen thus far. If the West wants to keep Putin from forcing his way back into the Russian Empire, the US and EU had better prepare themselves to suffer some economic consequences for Russian isolation. Sanctions have to hit more than a few individuals in the Putin government, who will otherwise get compensated by Putin in order to keep his power balance in place. Only when Putin’s adventurism hits a broad swath of Russians will he find these policies unsustainable, and perhaps develop a little respect for international pressure. So far, this has been a cost-free trajectory for Putin and Russia, and the loss of his “relationship” with Obama clearly hasn’t bothered Putin one iota.