Stephens: Anatomy of a Feckless Presidency
Gone are the days when the American president was capable of articulating the American interest.
March 3, 2014 6:57 p.m. ET
V ladimir Putin seized Ukraine's Crimean peninsula on Thursday, and Barack Obama delivered a short statement about it on Friday. The former tells us nothing we didn't know already about Russia's strongman. The latter tells us everything we need to know about a weak president's feckless foreign policy.
Let's take a look at what Mr. Obama had to say:
"I also spoke several days ago with President Putin, and my administration has been in daily contact with Russian officials."
OK, but why? What's the point of talking if you won't even make use of what's said?
On Oct. 18, 1962, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko visited President Kennedy in the Oval Office and told him that the Soviet Union would never deploy offensive military capabilities in Cuba. This was a lie, as Kennedy already knew, and four days later he called Gromyko out on the lie in his famous "quarantine" speech, usefully embarrassing the Soviets and rallying U.S. public opinion at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Fifty-plus years later, Mr. Putin told Mr. Obama that Russia had intervened in Crimea because "the lives and health of Russian citizens and the many compatriots" were at imminent risk. That, too, was a transparent lie, as every report out of Crimea attests. The difference this time is an American president who registers no public complaint about being brazenly lied to by a Russian thug.
"We've made clear that they can be part of an international community's effort to support the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward, which is not only in the interest of the people of Ukraine and the international community, but also in Russia's interest."
In case Mr. Obama hadn't noticed, Mr. Putin isn't exactly keen on "the stability and success of a united Ukraine going forward." It is precisely because a stable, successful and united Ukraine is inimical to Russia's ethnic, ideological and geopolitical interests that Mr. Putin seized the moment to strike.
Give the Russian president this much: He pursues Russia's national interests, baldly and expediently, as he sees them. The American president, by contrast, does nothing more than patronizingly lecture other countries about where their respective interests should lie.
Yet at no point in his statement did Mr. Obama make an effort to define, much less explain, the U.S. interest in all this. Why should Americans be alarmed that Russia is carving territory from a country they know little, and care even less, about? It would be good to hear the president give an account of just what is at stake for the American people. Instead, the closest he gets to identifying the American interest is to refer to the views of "the international community." Why should U.S. foreign policy be conducted according to the imaginary views of an imagined community?
"The United States will stand with the international community in affirming that there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine."
Is there any reason for Russia to think Mr. Obama means business? What were the costs to Russia for harboring Edward Snowden ? When the Kremlin was considering in June what to do with the fugitive NSA contractor living in a Moscow transit lounge, Mr. Kerry warned that there would be "consequences" for giving him asylum. He got asylum; there were no consequences.
Global View columnist Bret Stephens on why President Putin ordered a surprise military exercise amid upheaval in Crimea. Photo credit: Associated Press.
Two months later, Mr. Obama was happy to accept Russian mediation for a face-saving deal on Syria's chemical weapons rather than impose the consequences he had promised if Bashar Assad used them. A few months after that, the administration quietly eased its enforcement of the Magnitsky Act sanctioning corrupt Russian officials.
It's probably asking too much of this president to see a connection between his Syria capitulation and this month's events in Ukraine. But Republicans who contributed to last September's fiasco might consider where their isolationist dalliance has led.
"I also commend the Ukrainian government's restraint."
The Ukrainian government isn't showing restraint; it is merely tragically impotent in the face of blunt aggression and domestic disarray. It used to be that defiance, not restraint, was considered the appropriate response to a foreign invasion.
The liberal press is now filled with news analyses about America's limited policy options, beyond perhaps expelling Russia from the G-8. Nonsense. "In Russia," the historian Dietrich Geyer once wrote, "expansion was an expression of economic weakness, not exuberant strength." Mr. Putin's Russia is a petro-oligarchy whose survival depends on high oil prices and privileged access to the West for the politically connected elite. Raise interest rates, investigate the finances of Mr. Putin's inner circle, impose travel bans on Putin's cronies and broaden the scope of the Magnitsky Act, and we'll see just how resilient the Moscow regime really is. Only a president as inept as Barack Obama could fail to seize the opportunity to win, or even wage, the new Cold War all over again.