Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ukraine

Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

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In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

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The Anti-Freedom Hypocrisy of Europe’s Far Right

After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

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After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the European Union supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.

“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Mr. Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.

When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Mr. Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy. The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.

Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which receives some financial support from Russian companies but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of American influence. The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc. But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.

A Eurasian union from Vladivostok to Lisbon is far, far more than even Putin could have hoped for. The story underlines a major reason Putin has been so effective at building support abroad: by shedding socialist ideology, Putin has been able to attract members of the far right without losing the support of European leftists who have retained a good dose of sympathy for Russia, believing that the West (through NATO especially) added insult to injury when the Soviet Union collapsed and proved somehow to be unworthy of its own victory. It was a consolation prize for the European left.

Another fascinating, if unoriginal, aspect to this is the role of anti-European Union populism. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that the far right has put a new spin on the traditional leftist critique of American imperialism:

The European Union, said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of the French Parliament and a niece of Marine Le Pen, is “the poodle of the United States.”

If only! (Though it wouldn’t be a “poodle,” but a far more majestic breed; some kind of retriever, perhaps.) This is where the uniting of the European far left and far right results in total incoherence. Does Le Pen really think Brussels is lacking in anti-Americanism? It isn’t. And that’s where this fight over Russia exposes the fault lines in Euro-Atlantic relations.

In the ongoing debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU, America’s position has been that it should stay in the EU because otherwise the union would be bereft of true Anglosphere voices. I have been clear that I find this argument unconvincing. What is likely is a kind of “reverse integration” in which British opinion would be submerged in a sea of Eurostatism and the free world would be compromised, not reinforced.

And here we have a perfect moment to test it. The Europeans are already skeptical of sanctions against Russia, undermining Western resolve. If there is pro-American sentiment of any real force in the EU, now would be a good time to hear it rally to the side of democracy and international law.

That last point also shows what is so counterproductive about the supposedly Euroskeptic right’s support for Putin. They may have legitimate grievances about the EU’s power grab and antidemocratic supranationalism. Indeed, they certainly do. But the Putinist model is the road to tyranny, not democracy. By throwing their support to an authoritarian thug, they are only proving just how hollow and dishonest are their claims to be standing up for freedom and democratic sovereignty.

They are hypocrites, and their hypocrisy only enables further bloodshed and the rolling back of freedom in Europe. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

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Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

In short there are some uncomfortable echoes here with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which, if allowed to stand, would have vastly bolstered Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves. It was not allowed to stand, but the annexation of Crimea already looks like a fait accompli.

This makes it all the more imperative to impose stronger sanctions on Russia to make it more difficult to deploy the technology and resources it needs to exploit its ill-gotten gains.

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What Washington Can Do for Kiev

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

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In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

So far all that has been forthcoming from Washington is some Meals, Ready to Eat. Apparently the Obama administration thinks that it would be too “provocative” to provide Ukraine with arms to defend itself. While there is a risk of Russian action to preempt weapons deliveries, in the long-run the provision of more potent weaponry to Ukraine–in particular antitank and antiaircraft missiles–would actually make war less, not more, likely.

Vladimir Putin is already visibly hesitating as he contemplates the challenge of occupying eastern Ukraine, an area where most people don’t want to be part of Russia and whose geography makes it hard to split it off from the rest of the country–it is not an archipelago like Crimea. How much more would he hesitate if he knew that Ukraine’s defenders, who already have a history of guerrilla warfare against Soviet troops in the 1950s, would be armed with the kind of sophisticated weapons that the Afghan mujahideen used against the Red Army in the 1980s.

That is the logic of deterrence–of peace through strength. Too bad the U.S. and its Western allies seem bent on a policy of appeasement when it comes to Russian aggression.

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France’s Role in Putin’s War

At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

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At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

The Obama administration has been delivering that message to Paris ever since 2010. Yet two successive French governments have turned a deaf ear to American entreaties. So much for President Obama’s vaunted powers of persuasion. President Francois Hollande has no trouble saying “non” to a Nobel Peace Prize winner–and “oui” to the new tsar in the Kremlin–because it means an extra $1.6 billion or so for the French arms industry.

At the very least France deserves to suffer international opprobrium for this reckless, short-sighted, profit-first behavior that comes at the cost of enabling further Russian aggression. And if I were in a senior leadership position in one of the states directly threatened by Russian power–states like Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic republics–I would think of taking matters into my own hands in the way that Israel would if some outside power were to deliver powerful weapons to its enemies.

Those Eastern European states should give careful consideration to using their secret services to sabotage the French ships if possible because their entry into the Russian fleet will pose a direct threat to the future independence of these former Soviet satellites. That may be a shocking suggestion, but there are precedents for attacking French naval forces before they fall into enemy hands–e.g., the Royal Navy’s attack on the French fleet off Algeria on July 3, 1940, when it was in Vichy hands. 

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Power Vacuums and Green Lights in the South China Sea

Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

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Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

So far, just as in Ukraine, so in the South China Sea, the rest of the world–led by the U.S.–is hardly a profile in courage. Vietnam tried but failed to get its neighbors, meeting last weekend at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to condemn the Chinese move; those states are too scared of China to speak up publicly. The State Department, for its part, issued a pro forma denunciation of the Chinese move and left it at that.

Beijing is unlikely to be impressed. This was widely seen as a test of American and regional resolve to stand up to Chinese attempts to dominate waters that are also claimed by its neighbors. The lesson that Beijing must take away is that, just like Moscow, it has a green light for further aggression. 

The great danger here is that, just as in Europe, the local bully may miscalculate; one of its neighbors–whether Vietnam or Japan or the Philippines or some other state–may actually stand up to China and the result could be a shooting war. 

Although this is a regional dispute, just like the ongoing events in Ukraine, it has global ramifications, because it highlights the power vacuum being left by the present administration’s ill-advised retreat from America’s global leadership.

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Putin Keeps Chipping Away at Ukraine

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

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You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

But the results serve to further muddy the waters: They undermine Kiev’s attempts to assert its sovereignty over the breakaway eastern provinces and they call into question the legitimacy of the looming May 25 election in Ukraine–how can a free and fair ballot be conducted when Russian gunmen are in control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine?

Putin is now being extra cagy. Unlike in Crimea, he is not using this rigged referendum as an excuse to immediately annex eastern Ukraine. Instead he is demanding that the government in Kiev negotiate with the “demonstrators” (really, Russian provocateurs) who have taken power in the east–as if the two forces were of equal legitimacy. Putin is thus avoiding the onus of outright annexation, which could bring about not only more costly Western sanctions but also guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. Instead he is continuing to destabilize Ukraine and preparing the way to create autonomous Russian-controlled enclaves in that country as he has previously done in Moldova and Georgia, thereby helping to undermine the independence of all these post-Soviet republics.

You have to give Putin points for cleverly if amorally pursuing his realpolitik objectives. If only the leaders of the West were half as clever in stopping him. But they’re not. While Putin is playing geopolitical chess like a grandmaster, his opponents are playing checkers with the skill of not-overly-bright six-year-olds. No wonder pieces of the map keep falling to Russia.

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Putin’s NATO Justification

To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

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To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

But it is disingenuous to suggest that Putin’s desire to reassemble the Russian empire is fueled by fear of NATO, a purely defensive alliance. Only someone who has been binge-watching RT (formerly Russia Today)–the Kremlin’s propaganda organ–could possibly imagine that, absent NATO’s expansion, Putin would be behaving in a more neighborly fashion toward Georgia, Ukraine, or other neighboring states that he still considers to be Russian satrapies. 

NATO expansion may be an excuse for Russian aggression but it is not its cause. Actually, NATO expansion has been a great force for peace and stability, helping to lock in the democratic gains in Eastern Europe and to impose limitations on Russian bullying. 

Far from backing away from NATO, the U.S. and its allies should double down. Ukraine and Georgia may not be ready for membership, but Sweden and Finland could easily be absorbed into the alliance as Swedish commentator Jan Joel Andersson argues in Foreign Affairs. “From a military standpoint, Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance,” he argues, and “it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences.” 

Such a bold step makes eminent sense to counter Russian aggression and to signal that the West will not accept Putin’s attempts to blame NATO for his own misconduct.

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Obama Invades Strawmanistan While Rubio and Others Offer Ideas

President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

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President Obama’s now infamous press conference in Manila last week was marked by the president making two accusations of his critics. First, they are warmongers who would immediately resort to force: “most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures.” Second, those who don’t want to invade don’t offer alternatives; when asked for specifics, their criticism suddenly “kind of trails off,” the president said.

To emphasize precisely what he meant, the president brought up the Iraq war, so that the audience knew he was specifically and clearly designating his critics as warmongers. This bit of theater no doubt fooled some of the president’s more devoted, and less discerning, fans. But in truth it proved just how insulated the president is from the informed discussion taking place in the public sphere. There are plenty of serious ideas being proposed; it’s a shame the president isn’t aware of them.

Take Ukraine, for example. While there have been debates about sanctions, another idea comes today from Senator Marco Rubio, writing in the Wall Street Journal. Rubio notes that while the ruble has fallen since the beginning of the conflict, the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has been falling even faster, raising the possibility that Vladimir Putin will be willing to take a financial hit to Russia if it means the complete collapse of Ukraine’s economy.

He proposes anchoring the hryvnia to a stable currency:

We should encourage the establishment of a Ukrainian currency board, an institutional arrangement that anchors the value of national money to a more stable currency. Under a currency board, the hryvnia would be convertible into the dollar or the euro at a fixed rate, and backed by Ukraine’s own hard currency reserves. The International Monetary Fund would supplement the reserves with a special-purpose loan arrangement.

A currency board would help Ukraine’s money become as reliable and stable as the world’s dominant reserve currencies. The effects would ripple throughout the economy: Foreign investors could have confidence that the hryvnia is not in a death spiral, and Ukrainians would know that Mr. Putin cannot annihilate the value of their personal savings. Such stability would encourage the nation under siege to maintain its faith in free people and free markets.

Equally important: Moscow would immediately face the dismaying reality that Ukraine’s money is suddenly far more dependable than its own. Russia is already on a spending blowout to save the ruble as economic conditions deteriorate: Russia’s central bank has spent more than $23 billion intervening in foreign exchange markets since January. On April 25, the bank raised its key interest rate by 50 basis points to 7.5%, a desperate attempt to tamp down the inflationary effects of a weakening ruble. Monetary policy is not Russia’s forte in global affairs, and so the U.S. and Europe should use their advantage strategically to hurt a vulnerable adversary.

Such a plan would get Europe and the U.S. working with the International Monetary Fund to not only help stabilize Ukraine’s economy but ensure that financial aid to Kiev wouldn’t be obliterated by a collapsing currency. If someone in the White House passes this along to the president, he might be amazed not only at the options at his disposal but the fact that Rubio was able to explain all this without invading any countries. Again, this is a fact that bears repeating: it is Obama, not his conservative opposition, who thinks war is the only alternative.

Another suggestion comes from the Swedish Institute of International Affairs’ Jan Joel Andersson–probably not someone the president blames for America’s intervention in Iraq. Andersson goes back to the question of how to channel a response to Russia through NATO. It’s not an easy question to answer, because it’s not as though Ukraine is in any shape to join NATO now nor does the new government appear interested in doing so anyway. But Andersson has come up with a twist on the idea of expanding NATO: add Sweden and Finland. Andersson explains:

Expanding NATO to Sweden and Finland would achieve several important aims. From a political standpoint, it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences. Sweden and Finland’s nonalignment has offered Russia a comforting buffer zone along its northwestern border ever since the end of World War II. If Sweden and Finland were to join NATO now, that buffer would be gone, and the alliance would gain two of the world’s most democratic, politically stable, and economically successful countries. NATO would also pick up two very active proponents of transatlanticism that have consistently argued for strong U.S. involvement in Europe.

“From a military standpoint,” Andersson continues, “Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance.” Nor would the historical significance of Sweden and Finland joining the Atlantic alliance be lost on Russia. “Given the upsides, bringing Sweden and Finland into NATO seems like a no-brainer,” Andersson writes. “But the two countries have to agree to it.”

These are but two examples of policy choices on offer that would strengthen alliances and forge transatlantic cooperation without being too costly (or warmongering). They are also examples of the growing chorus of politicians and analysts who seem to be taking the Ukraine crisis far more seriously than the president is.

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Israeli Independence Day and the New Reality for World Jewry

As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

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As fighting picked up in Ukraine and the government in Kiev proved helpless to stop its spread, it was easy to miss a three-paragraph story in Haaretz about the Jews caught up in the unrest. And once reading the story, it was just as easy to forget it. The news item was about Israeli security experts being dispatched to Ukraine to train the Jewish community, because of the fear that should anti-Semitism–not exactly alien to Ukraine–bubble back to the surface, the government would be unable (or unwilling) to protect them.

The fact that the story of Israeli-facilitated self-defense passed without much notice says much about the way the existence of the State of Israel has completely changed the conversation about the world’s Jews. It’s a point especially worth remembering today on Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, the year preceding which we saw speculation on the once-unthinkable notion that French Jews might have to take up an “aliyah of rescue”–a development that serves as an alarming reminder of the status of European Jewry.

Those two stories, one about the concept of an aliyah of rescue and the other about Israel dispatching trained security professionals to Jews in isolated communities, demonstrate a crucial point about Israel’s value to the Jewish world: not only do Jews feel safer in Israel than in most places in the world, but Jews feel safer all around the world simply because of Israel. Compare the situation in Ukraine, for example, to previous episodes in Jewish history. In 1881, Tsar Alexander II was assassinated by revolutionaries, some of whom were Jews. In her new history of Israel, Anita Shapira describes what happened next:

The tsar’s assassination sent shock waves throughout the Russian Empire, as well as a spate of pogroms in Ukraine. The Church and the government made no effort to rein in the mob, and Jews suspected both of collaborating with the rioters. While the damage was mainly to property, the shock was great: mass rioting against Jews had not occurred in Eastern Europe during the previous century. The assumption had been that the strengthening of the absolutist state ensured public order and security. Now it suddenly appeared that, whereas in most of Europe and in America the Jews were citizens with equal rights, the Russian masses could still go on the rampage while the government either stood passively by or was itself involved in the rioting.

Even after educational reforms brought the Jews far more inclusion into society, and even after the Jews of the Russian Empire thought they had solved the riddle of how to establish themselves as a protected minority, pogroms broke out in Ukraine–coincidentally, the riots began on today’s date on the Jewish calendar–from which they were left indefensible. Back to the Haaretz story about violence in the wake of the fall of the Ukrainian power structure:

Three instructors from Ozma — a special project supported by the forum that sends Israeli security specialists to communities around the world where local Jews are under threat – will run the workshop. A similar workshop was held in Brussels last month.

The Ozma instructors are all former members of the Israeli security services with training in first aid. About thirty members of the Kiev Jewish community are expected to participate in the workshop. Besides teaching them self-defense techniques, the instructors will also focus on crisis management tactics required in emergency situations.

There is a prosperous, strong, democratic Jewish state that answers the call when Jews are in danger anywhere in the world. This gets at why, in addition to the obvious reasons, the noxious accusations of dual loyalty or undue Jewish influence on politics in the West ring so false. Among the great many things that Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists like to ignore is the fact that when they argue for a weaker, more isolated Israel they are arguing for weaker Jews around the world.

They may not intend this to be the case; it’s quite likely that their ignorance of politics and history has left them plainly unaware of the implications of their own ideas. But that’s the reality. When you combine this with the religious implications of the existence of Jewish sovereignty in Israel–a concept that pervades much of Jewish practice, from rituals to prayer services to religious education–you can begin to understand what Israel’s Independence Day means even for those who have yet to step within its borders.

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Assessing John Kerry

Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

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Almost all secretaries of state believe they shine but for most, their legacy is at best basic competence. Amidst all their ceremonial trips, with hindsight it is clear that for the majority, their legacy is simply to have done no harm. This certainly would be the case for Hillary Clinton, a woman who famously cannot name her accomplishments as secretary, as well as Bush-era secretaries Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice. Rice’s whole strategy was to make no waves and while Powell’s detractors point to his speech before the United Nations laying out the rationale for war against Iraq, that was less his initiative than the consensus policy of the Bush administration. Warren Christopher’s tenure was largely forgettable, and his successor Madeleine Albright was likewise just a manager. While I disagree with them on many issues, James Baker and Henry Kissinger set themselves apart, although for Baker, his success may have been less because of personal abilities and more the result of being in the right place at the right time.

Secretary of State John Kerry may be the exception: He has defined himself as a truly lousy secretary of state, with almost everything he touches turning to vinegar: The Middle East peace process is in shambles. Had Kerry simply ignored the process, the hurdles facing the two sides would be less. And, because of some ill-chosen and self-defeating words, there is virtually no choice to revive such talks under Kerry. While Vladimir Putin is the villain when it comes to the situation in Eastern Europe, the reverberations which the United States will feel for the impotency under Kerry’s watch will be felt for years to come. Libya continues to disintegrate; the Egyptians remain furious at American waffling; freedom-seeking Venezuelans wonder what American silence means; Argentina salivates over the Falklands; and a whole host of allies from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia fear what American weakness means in East Asia.

The Iran deal seems to be shaping up to be predicated on a willingness to sacrifice its substance rather than to win an agreement that bolsters regional or national security. Regardless, it’s hard to count as a success an agreement that has yet to be struck, especially with Tehran’s penchant for throwing a last-minute wrench into the cogs.

Perhaps the only success to which Kerry can point is the deal for Syria to forfeit its chemical-weapons arsenal, never mind that a cynic could see the precedent as rogue leaders getting a free shot to kill 1,400 civilians before coming in from the cold. In recent weeks, however, even that deal appears to be less than meets the eye. Last month, the Syrian regime apparently again used chemical weapons, an incident blogged about at the time and an attack subsequently acknowledged by the State Department, even if the State Department spokesman declined to assess blame.

Subsequently, the Brown Moses Blog, which tends to be the most careful and credible open source resource on Syrian chemical weapons, has posted video outlining claims of a new attack in Al-Tamanah. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) says Syria has complied with the removal or disposal of Syrian chemical material, it is important to remember that is based on what Syria has declared, and there is no way of knowing whether it includes all Syrian chemical munitions. Meanwhile, the OPCW has concluded “sizeable and unambiguous traces of chlorine and ammonia” in the aftermath of apparent regime attacks on civilians in northern Syria. And so, while Kerry celebrates, Syrians suffocate.

Let us hope that Kerry can redeem himself. But if there’s one lesson he might learn as he assesses his tenure so far, it’s that he isn’t the center of the world and desire and rhetoric aren’t enough to win success. Perhaps he might look at his failures and recognize that many problems are more complicated than he—or the staff charged with preparing him—seems to recognize. In the meantime, while he assesses where the United States was diplomatically when he took office and where it is today, he might remember the maxim for doctors could just as easily apply to himself: First, do no harm.

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The Business of Statecraft and the Abandonment of Ukraine

The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

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The news in Ukraine gets bleaker, but a Rubicon of sorts has been crossed. What has turned into a civil war in eastern Ukraine cannot go back to its designation as a series of “protests,” nor can Vladimir Putin’s Russia plausibly go back to feigning nonintervention. Pro-Russian forces have reportedly shot down two Ukrainian government helicopters, at least one of them with shoulder-fired missiles.

The Ukrainian intelligence service is claiming that those “separatists” probably didn’t have shoulder-fired missile launchers stocked away in the linen closet for a rainy day, a sentiment based on some pretty sound logic. This is not Occupy Slavyansk. And yet, the West–especially Europe, quelle surprise–is acting as if it were. As Angela Merkel meets today with President Obama in Washington to discuss the next steps in the synchronized frowning that has characterized the response to Russian aggression thus far, the Wall Street Journal reports she is delivering some bad news for Kiev, with a predictable explanation.

“Angela Merkel is carrying a clear message from Germany’s business lobby to the White House: No more sanctions,” according to the Journal. “Several of the biggest names in German business,” including Siemens, Adidas, Volkswagen, and Deutsche Bank, “have made their opposition to broader economic sanctions against Russia clear in recent weeks, both in public and in private.” The Journal goes on to explain that, essentially, we have a new answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question. If you want to talk to Europe, call the CEO of Adidas:

In most countries, it would be highly unusual for corporate executives to inject themselves into geopolitics and matters of national security with the forcefulness that a number of German business leaders have. But many of Germany’s largest companies have substantial Russian operations, built in some cases over decades, and worry that tough economic sanctions would rob them of a key growth market when their home market—Europe—is stagnant.

That has led to intense pressure on Berlin. Germany’s chancellor has repeatedly criticized Russia for its actions in Ukraine and warned the Kremlin it would face serious consequences if it doesn’t change course. Yet Ms. Merkel has stopped short of endorsing broader economic sanctions, opting instead to impose travel bans and asset freezes on individuals with close ties to the Kremlin.

It’s easy to begin, at least, with some sympathy for Merkel. Thanks to the EU’s fiscal troubles, Germany has taken the role of Europe’s financial backstop. It’s a mostly thankless job that earns the German government, when they try to fix the messes caused by other reckless European countries, obnoxious and offensive Nazi comparisons. This resistance to German hegemony is, for obvious reasons, coded into the continent’s DNA. Germany’s response has often been resignation to the role: to simply sign the checks while letting France command Europe’s military decisions.

Because of all that, Germany’s economic policy does not exist in a vacuum. Whether as penance for past sins or a paternal responsibility to Europe’s wayward sons, Germany must consider others when setting policy, ever mindful that Berlin can absorb losses others cannot.

However: there’s a limit to such excuses, and it’s not clear that long-term this would even be the right economic approach, let alone the right moral approach, which it plainly is not. After all, is constant political and military turmoil in major energy producers good for global markets and trade in the long run? And how will it affect European markets for expansionist powers to continue encroaching on Europe’s borders? (There are concerns Russia could target Moldova next, which is west of Ukraine.)

The state system in place is far from perfect, but allowing it to be undermined is unlikely to be good for business. After all, Merkel surely remembers how Germany came to be economically successful and the EU common market broadly integrated, and it began with throwing off the yoke of Russian tyranny and imperialism.

Merkel knows this not only because she is the head of government of the country that has basically become Europe’s central banker. She knows this because she grew up in East Germany. And here is where the moral and the material meet. It can’t be good for Europe’s economic future to yawn at Europe’s steady destabilization. But it certainly isn’t right. Merkel is where she is because there is no more East Germany, no more suffocating control by Moscow. Other independent states with sovereign borders deserve the same, no matter what the management at Adidas thinks.

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The Benghazi Distraction

The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

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The Obama administration has committed more foreign-policy blunders than you can count on one hand. Off the top of my head, and in no particular order, I would list the failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq post-2011; the failure to give surge troops in Afghanistan more time to succeed; the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process; the failure to do more to protect Ukraine; the failure to better manage the transition in Egypt; the failure to do anything about the Syrian civil war; the failure to help stabilize Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi; the failure to stop the Iranian nuclear program; the failure to prevent al-Qaeda from expanding its operations; the failure to maintain American military strength; and the general failure to maintain American credibility as a result of letting “red lines” be crossed with impunity. 

That’s eleven failures–and I would not put the Benghazi “scandal” on the list except as a subset of the broader failure to stabilize Libya. Yet Republicans seem intent on focusing a disproportionate amount of their criticism of the administration on the events in Bengahzi–and not even the failure to better protect the U.S. consulate or to more swiftly respond with military force when it was attacked or to exact swift retribution on the terrorists who killed our ambassador and three other Americans. No, Republicans seem intent on focusing on the micro-issue of why administration spokesmen, led by Susan Rice, insisted at first on ascribing the attack to a spontaneous demonstration rather than to a planned act by terrorists who may have been affiliated with al-Qaeda. 

Granted, those early talking points were off base. I will even grant that they may have been off-base for political rather than policy reasons: With an election two months away, and Obama doing his utmost to take credit for killing Osama bin Laden and finishing off al-Qaeda, the White House did not want to be blamed for a major terrorist attack. But this is not Watergate. It’s not even Iran-Contra. Unless something radically new emerges, it looks to me like the same old Washington spinning that every administration engages in–a bit reminiscent of Bush administration denials in the summer of 2003 that Iraq faced a growing insurgency. 

If you listened to Bush spokesmen, you would have been told that Iraq only faced a few random attacks from “dead-enders” and they were of little broader concern. This was not just a question of PR–it was also a policy misjudgment with serious consequences because the Bush administration failed to adequately respond to a growing insurgency. But it wasn’t an impeachable offense and neither are the far less consequential Benghazi talking points. 

Republicans should focus on the shameful failures of Obama’s defense and foreign policy but Benghazi, in my view, is a distraction from the real issues–and it’s not even likely to help Republicans politically. It certainly did little good for Mitt Romney and I suspect Republicans are now dreaming if they think it will help a GOP nominee defeat Hillary Clinton. I just don’t see much evidence that most Americans–as opposed to Fox News Channel viewers–are focused on, or care about, this issue. Republicans would be better advised to focus on the bigger issues and rebuild their tattered foreign policy credibility, which is being damaged by the isolationist pronouncements of Rand Paul and his ilk.

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Ukraine Admits Defeat

Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

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Ukraine’s acting president yesterday confirmed what is now appallingly obvious: Russia has succeeded in invading and occupying eastern Ukraine. Ukraine’s security forces have been helpless to dislodge the “green men”–a combination of local pro-Russian militants and Russian security forces–who have occupied many of the important public buildings in the east.

“Inactivity, helplessness and even criminal betrayal” plague the security forces, the acting leader, Oleksandr V. Turchynov, acknowledged. “It is hard to accept but it’s the truth. The majority of law enforcers in the east are incapable of performing their duties.”

Now Putin and his minions are pressing their advantage by announcing a May 11 referendum on autonomy or possibly independence for the east. This is designed to preempt Ukraine’s presidential election at the end of May by presenting a fait accompli to whoever is elected Ukraine’s next president. In case Kiev gets any funny ideas about trying to retake its country, Putin is keeping more than 40,000 Russian troops on high alert close to the border and now he is demanding that “Ukraine must remove its military from the southeastern region of the country.” Or else.

Just as depressing as Russia’s aggression is the toothless response from the West. The U.S. has been willing to sanction a few more Russians than the EU, but neither the U.S. nor EU is willing to target entire sectors of the Russian economy–not even the financial sector, which is especially vulnerable to being barred from doing business in the West. Thus the targets of the sanctions react with insouciance. Typical is this throwaway line:

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest the U.S. delivers its astronauts to the ISS with a trampoline,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, the recipient of a U.S. asset freeze and travel ban, said Tuesday, referring to the international space station. The United States relies on Russian space shuttle flights to launch astronauts into orbit.

Ha-ha. But the fact that Putin and his cronies are laughing at us tells us why they’re winning. They are not afraid of us, and we–especially the Europeans–are afraid of them. 

At this rate, the Baltic republics can expect their existence as independent and sovereign states to be threatened before long, notwithstanding their membership in NATO. In fact their very membership in NATO could prove a lure to Putin who may be tempted to confront the Western alliance with a fresh crisis to expose its haplessness. 

It’s still not too late to impose sanctions with bite. Whatever happens in Ukraine, it is vitally important to make Russia pay a steep price for its aggression if only to deter potential imitators around the world.

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Ronald Asmus’s Extraordinary Legacy

Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

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Three years ago today, Ronald Asmus died at the very young age of 53 from cancer-related illnesses. Asmus was NATO’s champion in the Clinton administration, where his ideas about expanding NATO to eventually include a broad array of European countries but especially, as soon as was feasible, the trio of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, were heterodox. The story of how he accomplished it holds immediate relevance to the current conflict in Ukraine and lessons for American officials debating our role in fostering European stability.

Perhaps most of all, it’s worth recalling simply because history has vindicated Asmus. It is easy to forget just how unthinkable Asmus’s ideas were less than a decade before they came to fruition. Asmus was undeterred in part because his ideas about European unity and Western alliances had been pooh-poohed before. As he wrote in his book, Opening NATO’s Door:

I was part of a generation of Western academics raised with the conventional wisdom that a divided Germany and continent was a more or less permanent feature of Europe’s geopolitical landscape. When I opted to write my doctoral dissertation on overcoming the division of Germany in the mid-1980s, several colleagues suggested that I consider a less esoteric and more topical issue. No one imagined that by the time I had completed my thesis that division would be no more. Conventional wisdom not only underestimated Moscow’s willingness to let go of its satellites. It also misjudged the strong desire among the people of what was then still called Eastern Europe to liberate themselves and become part of the West. It was a lesson I would remember in the years ahead as the NATO enlargement debate raged and cautious diplomats argued that fulfilling Central and East European aspirations to join the Alliance was simply not politically or strategically feasible.

Asmus’s crucial insight into NATO enlargement was that independent states should be treated as just that–independent. It’s common to think of the postwar order as consisting, at a simplified level, of large states and small states. That’s certainly how the great powers spoke when drawing lines after the Second World War. But it would be more helpful to think of them as power states and peripheral states. Asmus thought the peripheral states–though he doesn’t use that term–deserved the right to chart their own path.

After the Cold War, the very reasonable desire on behalf of first the Bush administration then the Clinton administration was to maintain stability in Europe. But the system that underpinned that stability was outdated and, in some respects, unjust. Asmus realized that. In Central and Eastern Europe, he noted, “Yalta” was a watchword not only for Western abandonment of Poland but the relegation of peripheral states to second-class status. He even writes of working with allies at one point to formulate “a strategy to overcome Yalta.” That chapter is titled “Dismantling Yalta.” It’s an indication of just how much conventional wisdom Asmus was seeking to subvert.

Part of the reason NATO was an option at all in the early days was that the existing European structures were simply not up to the task of integrating and protecting the post-Soviet states. Initial hopes were that the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) could take stewardship of such an integration. But it was heavy on the cooperation and light on the security. Then there was the European Union, but France was opposed to opening its doors to full membership. “That left NATO,” Asmus writes.

There were a few turning points in NATO’s favor, some more famous than others. For Asmus, it was the Foreign Affairs article he authored along with two other colleagues at RAND in 1993 making the case for NATO enlargement. Another was a speech given around that time by Volker Ruehe, an up-and-coming German politician who had taken the defense portfolio in the German governing coalition. Ruehe, apparently without even telling the country’s foreign minister, gave a speech calling for NATO and the EU to put Central and Eastern European countries on the path to full membership. Asmus writes:

On the plane during the flight back to Cologne, one of Ruehe’s top military advisors remarked that it had been a mistake to give the speech and it would take Germany years to recover from the damage caused by the Minister’s comments. He was mistaken. Within several years every one of Ruehe’s core ideas would be embraced by the U.S. and would become official Alliance policy.

It was one of many examples that showed support for the alliance was always higher than it appeared, but also that the West (especially Europe) needed a good shove in the right direction every so often. The rest is, as they say, history.

Bill Clinton, too, deserves a fair amount of credit. Not only was he receptive to the ideas that led to NATO expansion, but he was a compelling spokesman for the cause. As the events in Ukraine this year and Georgia a few years ago showed, the countries most likely to be attacked by Russia are those without security guarantees from the West. Clinton made this point repeatedly. In 1997, Asmus notes, Clinton gave a speech to West Point graduates and declared that he wanted to expand NATO “to make it less likely that you will ever be called to fight in another war across the Atlantic.” Later that year Clinton met privately with a group of senators to gauge their support. “Extending a security guarantee is important,” Clinton told them. “No NATO member has ever been attacked.”

Joe Biden, too, made a powerful argument, telling skeptics like Jack Matlock and Michael Mandelbaum that not to enlarge NATO simply because there was no immediate threat from Russia was “a prescription for paralysis.” As we’ve seen in recent years, such complacency does indeed set in and grind progress to a halt.

And that is key to truly grasping the significance of what Asmus accomplished. Letting opportunities slip by, when it comes to European integration, often means there will be no second chance. Asmus saw an opportunity, made his case, and accomplished something historic before it was buried in bureaucratic inertia.

After the Senate overwhelmingly approved the expansion, Jan Nowak, the famed courier between the Polish underground resistance and Allied governments who was 84 years old at the time of the vote, approached Asmus from the Senate’s visitor’s galley. “I never thought,” he said with broad smile, “that I would live to see the day when Poland is not only free—but safe.” That was Asmus’s monumental achievement, and thanks to his determination it is America’s legacy.

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Why Americans Seem So Torn on Foreign Policy

Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

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Though comparisons between Russian leaders today and 20th century monsters like Hitler and Stalin are generally–and rightfully–resisted or corrected when used in the U.S., it’s impossible to understand the conflict in Ukraine without making room for the sense of history that hangs over Europe. Der Spiegel reports on German veterans who recognize too much of the scenes in Ukraine from their own time serving there seventy years ago (though the Germans were the invaders that time). And the New York Times notices a once-forgotten Moscow Cold War museum now swamped by visitors “drawn as much by history as by the sense that the combustible, post-World War II conflict between East and West has come roaring back to life.”

This also makes it easier to understand European nerves over American inaction. If they see the possibility of a massive war engulfing Europe’s major powers, they must also see American war-weariness and retrenchment chic as distinct but not tangibly different, for their own purposes, from the American isolationism they remember as well. So in one sense, they could be heartened by the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll which, as Max notes, shows an American public confused and hesitant about America’s role in the world but not isolationist. But that optimism is based on the sense that Americans are open to persuasion on foreign involvement, which leads to the crucial question: who is doing the persuading?

Max notes the central contradiction in the results: the pollsters asked Americans what they thought (in addition to a bevy of other issues) about foreign policy, and Americans responded, essentially, that they have no idea. They succumbed to a kind of magical thinking on foreign policy in which they want the U.S. to pull back from the world without creating a vacuum–a logical impossibility. They appear frustrated that when America plays a reduced role in world affairs its influence is replaced by Vladimir Putin instead of unicorns and labradoodles (I’m paraphrasing slightly).

But on some level that confusion is understandable because the president of the United States is arguing out loud with the straw men in his head, claiming that the alternative to toothless sanctions is total world war. Americans at home may see this as the amusing inanity of an ideologue who is losing an argument, but it’s doubtful the Europeans are laughing. It turns out there is some middle ground between treating Putin like Gilly from Saturday Night Live and nuking Moscow, though you wouldn’t know it from the commander in chief.

The fact of the matter is, as I’ve noted from time to time, the president has a unique ability to shape public opinion on foreign policy, more so than on domestic policy. Americans have internalized the president as both the leader of the free world and the commander in chief of the armed forces of the planet’s only superpower. So the public is not going to be easily persuaded on the goodness of American power projection by this administration.

Looking forward, again, Europeans are probably not too encouraged. The Democrats are seeking to succeed Obama with Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state who presided over the failed Russian “reset,” chewed out allies like Israel, and expressed regret to Pakistan–which cooperates with anti-American terrorists and sheltered Osama bin Laden–for past American policy. On the right, the debate looks to be more interesting, not least because unlike the Democrats the Republicans do want to have an actual debate, not a coronation.

Sentiments like those expressed in the poll are reflected in the way the Republican race for the nomination has taken shape so far. The president’s abject failures have opened space for those who can present a serious alternative. That means that Republicans with the most success so far have been those like Scott Walker and Rand Paul, with the former proving conservative governance can fix even deep and costly liberal mismanagement and the latter making a thoughtful case for individual liberty in the face of liberal attacks on basic freedoms.

But the effect on the foreign-policy debate has been muted. Paul advocates retrenchment (though without the apology tour, one suspects) and has warned not to “tweak Russia.” Others like Walker seem to disagree with Paul on foreign policy but as the governor of a Midwestern state locked in a battle with government unions in the midst of the dismal Obama economy, the issue doesn’t exactly come up very often. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who possesses one of the stronger resumes of the potential 2016 class, has started branching out a bit more into foreign affairs but remains mired in a debate over education policy back home. Others are facing similar circumstances, with the high-profile exception of Marco Rubio. The Florida senator has dropped a bit in the polls recently, but he has not shied away from displaying his fluency in foreign affairs or striking a contrast to Paul’s perspective.

So yes, Americans are inclined toward the maintenance of a peaceable world order, and they are persuadable on the need for America to protect that order with a robust presence on the world stage. But they’re not going to get there on their own.

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Americans’ Foreign-Policy Contradictions

There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

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There is an interesting anomaly in the new Wall Street Journal poll. The headline finding is that most Americans want to pull away from the world: “The 47% of respondents who called for a less-active role in world affairs marked a larger share than in similar polling in 2001, 1997 and 1995.” On the other hand respondents disapprove of President Obama’s foreign policy by a margin of 53 percent to 38 percent, making the president’s approval rating in foreign policy worse than in economic policy (where 42 percent approve of his conduct). 

How can this be, given that Obama’s foreign policy is all about having America take a less-active role in the world? Isn’t Obama giving the public what it wants? The answer, I believe, is that most Americans are ambivalent. On the one hand, they like the idea of doing less, and that impulse has been reinforced by five years of presidential rhetoric about “nation building begins at home” and “the tide of war is receding.” On the other hand, most Americans also want a vigorous defense of American interests abroad and they are uneasy about the image of weakness we currently project. 

The pollsters read two questions to those surveyed and asked them which one more closely reflected their view of the world. “Statement A: We need a president who will present an image that America has a more open approach and is willing to negotiate with friends and foes alike. Statement B: We need a president who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” It turns out that Statement B–reflecting a desire to show strength–won 55 percent support, whereas Statement A–calling for a more “open approach,” whatever that means–won the support of only 39 percent. The number opting for strength actually increased by five points since the question was asked in 2008 at the conclusion of the Bush presidency. 

Further buttressing the impression that Americans respond to strength, respondents disapproved of Obama’s weak handling of the Ukraine crisis by a margin of 45 percent to 37 percent. 

My takeaway? Americans may have mixed impulses in foreign policy but they are not dedicated isolationists. In fact they are ready to be led toward a stronger and more active foreign policy–a project that is likely to await Obama’s successor, whoever he or she may be.

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A Bad Metaphor, But an Even Worse Excuse

Apparently the criticism of his foreign policy is beginning to sting President Obama. But he is not going to convince any skeptics with the tortuous defense of his record that he and his spinmeister, Ben Rhodes, put forth on their Asian trip.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said at a news conference. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Thank you, Mr. President, for setting up every late night comedian for jokes about how you’re shanking balls or whiffing strikeouts.

To further defend the indefensible–namely his foreign-policy record–Obama reverted to the old caricature of himself as the peacemaker and his critics as warmongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

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Apparently the criticism of his foreign policy is beginning to sting President Obama. But he is not going to convince any skeptics with the tortuous defense of his record that he and his spinmeister, Ben Rhodes, put forth on their Asian trip.

“You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run,” Obama said at a news conference. “But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Thank you, Mr. President, for setting up every late night comedian for jokes about how you’re shanking balls or whiffing strikeouts.

To further defend the indefensible–namely his foreign-policy record–Obama reverted to the old caricature of himself as the peacemaker and his critics as warmongers:

“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” Mr. Obama said, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget. And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”

Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser who no doubt helped formulate the above attack line, chimed in with a line of his own: “If we took all of the actions that our critics have demanded, we’d lose count of the number of military conflicts that America would be engaged in.”

Talk about swinging–and missing–at a straw man! (Yes those are the kinds of mixed metaphors that Obama’s baseball analogy elicits.) This is a pretty poor excuse for the drift of the world on Obama’s watch.

There hasn’t been a substantial foreign-policy victory since Osama bin Laden and Moammar Gaddafi were killed in 2011. As I note in the Wall Street Journal today, “Hopes for a peace accord between the Israelis and Palestinians have been dashed, the civil war continues to rage in Syria, chaos engulfs Libya, Russia has invaded Ukraine and China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has leaders in Japan and the Philippines drawing analogies to the 1930s.”

That’s actually only a partial listing of the setbacks we have suffered. I had no room to list other bad news: the emergence of a new military dictatorship in Egypt, a crackdown on civil liberties in Turkey, growing instability in Lebanon, new reports of chemical-weapons use in Syria, advances of Islamic insurgents in Pakistan, crumbling economic sanctions on Iran in return for empty promises to slow down their nuclear program, new North Korean belligerence, and declining American credibility from allowing red lines to be crossed from Syria to Crimea and (an overlooked issue) from allowing our defense budget to be slashed precipitously.

Perhaps worst of all is the resurgence of al-Qaeda. As the New York Times notes today: “Experts and officials are beginning to speak of a vast territory that stretches from Aleppo in Syria through Anbar Province and up to the doorstep of Baghdad that is controlled by Islamist extremists.”

To be sure, not all of this can be laid at Obama’s doorstep. Some of it would have happened no matter who was president–although it’s hard to imagine despots like Putin and Assad taking advantage of a President McCain the way they have taken advantage of President Obama.

The downward spiral of Iraq and Syria is  a particularly avoidable and inter-related tragedy that might well have been avoided if (a) we had kept troops in Iraq after 2011 and (b) if we had done more to provide arms and air power to the secular Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime. This would not have embroiled America in any new ground wars and in fact it would have prevented wars from getting much worse in both countries, to the detriment of America’s interests and those of our allies.

In other countries–such as Ukraine and Egypt–not even Obama can accuse his critics of advocating the use of military force. What those of us who are critical of the administration’s foreign policy advocate is the robust use of all the levers at America’s disposal, which in the case of Ukraine means we should have imposed much more wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia and in the case of Egypt that we should have done a much more principled and robust job of defending civil liberties whether they were threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood or the military.

Perhaps the most unconvincing defense that Ben Rhodes offered was this: “There is a tendency to view all of American foreign policy through the prism of the most difficult crisis of the day, rather than taking the longer view.”

Sorry, Mr. Rhodes: U.S. presidents are judged on how they handle crises. FDR was judged on his record after Pearl Harbor, Truman on his record after the start of the Cold War, JFK on his record in the Cuban Missile Crisis, LBJ on Vietnam, Carter on the Iranian Hostage Crisis and the invasion of Afghanistan, George H.W. Bush on the invasion of Kuwait, George W. Bush on 9/11, and so on.

Obama has been judged and found wanting and lame baseball metaphors are not going to save his record from the critical scrutiny it is now rightly receiving.

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Will Latest Russia Revelation Prompt Tougher Response from Obama?

Now they know that we know that they know. That’s the takeaway from Josh Rogin’s follow-up scoop on John Kerry’s address to the Trilateral Commission (this one co-authored with Eli Lake), in which Kerry reveals the administration has proof Russian officials are closely involved in fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. The question is, will it impact the administration’s policy now that the White House knows that the public knows that the White House knows Russia is involved?

Of course, Russia’s involvement is not a surprise; everyone “knew,” on some level, precisely what Vladimir Putin was up to. But having proof is different, and having that proof in the hands of the administration is different as well, and so is the public knowing that the proof is in the hands of the administration, and that any policy recommendations are made with the full knowledge of Russian interventionism in Ukraine. Here’s Rogin with the crux of Kerry’s condemnation of Russia:

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Now they know that we know that they know. That’s the takeaway from Josh Rogin’s follow-up scoop on John Kerry’s address to the Trilateral Commission (this one co-authored with Eli Lake), in which Kerry reveals the administration has proof Russian officials are closely involved in fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine. The question is, will it impact the administration’s policy now that the White House knows that the public knows that the White House knows Russia is involved?

Of course, Russia’s involvement is not a surprise; everyone “knew,” on some level, precisely what Vladimir Putin was up to. But having proof is different, and having that proof in the hands of the administration is different as well, and so is the public knowing that the proof is in the hands of the administration, and that any policy recommendations are made with the full knowledge of Russian interventionism in Ukraine. Here’s Rogin with the crux of Kerry’s condemnation of Russia:

“Intel is producing taped conversations of intelligence operatives taking their orders from Moscow and everybody can tell the difference in the accents, in the idioms, in the language. We know exactly who’s giving those orders, we know where they are coming from,” Kerry said at a private meeting of the Trilateral Commission in Washington. A recording of Kerry’s remarks was obtained by The Daily Beast.

Kerry didn’t name specific Russian officials implicated in the recordings. But he claimed that the intercepts provided proof of the Russians deliberately fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine—and lying about it to U.S. officials and the public.

“It’s not an accident that you have some of the same people identified who were in Crimea and in Georgia and who are now in east Ukraine,” said Kerry. “This is insulting to everybody’s intelligence, let alone to our notions about how we ought to be behaving in the 21st century. It’s thuggism, it’s rogue state-ism. It’s the worst order of behavior.”

The proof, as Kerry describes it, is helpful in a strategic sense since it would be easier to identify Russian troublemakers elsewhere in Moscow’s near abroad–Moldova, say–if they move on to other targets the way they did in invading Georgia and then Ukraine. And that latter point raises another issue here. This is about more than dueling protests and raising voices.

The New York Times illustrates the escalation of the conflict in a tale of two Ukrainian cities–Kharkiv, where the mayor was left in critical condition after an assassination attempt, and Konstantinovka, where power seemingly switched hands. The disturbing aspect to this is that neither of these two cities is a locus of violence compared to other parts of eastern Ukraine. The Times reports:

The crisis in eastern Ukraine took dark turns on Monday as the mayor of the country’s second-largest city was gravely wounded in an assassination attempt and masked antigovernment militants seized control of this city almost effortlessly, laying bare the limits of the interim government’s control.

The violence was followed by a pro-government rally in the eastern city of Donetsk that was broken up by a rival pro-Russian crowd that beat and scattered the demonstrators shortly after they gathered, while the police stepped aside and looked on.

One Ukrainian soldier was killed by an explosion in the Donetsk region and another wounded as they cleared an obstacle, the Defense Ministry said, in a statement suggesting its troops may have for the first time been struck by an improvised roadside bomb.

Taken together, the events pointed to the further enfeeblement of the interim government in Kiev, which came to power after chasing President Viktor F. Yanukovych from office in February.

They also provided further evidence of the near irrelevance of a diplomatic agreement reached in Geneva this month aimed at defusing what remains a still escalating crisis.

As Jonathan wrote earlier, the situation in Ukraine seems to be a drag on President Obama’s approval ratings, with his handling of the crisis finding fewer takers than his handling of the ObamaCare fiasco. The Times story offers a clue why that is. The president has taken to insisting he has neither the time nor the inclination to explain himself before launching into bizarre rants accusing his critics of being warmongers. The alternative to total war, according to the president and his allies, is the administration’s “smart diplomacy.”

But even his fellow antiwar voices in the press are ridiculing the deal his administration struck in Ukraine as being of “near irrelevance” and the government the White House is supposedly helping to stand up showing signs of “further enfeeblement.” The whole thing is a very sad, very dangerous, and increasingly bloody saga of American diffidence.

And Kerry’s comments (should) complicate this further for the White House because the Post/ABC poll was conducted before Rogin’s latest scoop. The public was already dissatisfied with the Obama administration’s response to Russia’s provocations, but now they’ve been told that the administration knew how much of this Moscow was directly responsible for.

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Sinking Poll Results Debunk Dem Optimism

Earlier this month Democrats were sounding more optimistic about their political prospects than they had been in more than a year. Though their credibility was doubtful, the ObamaCare enrollment figures were enough to cause the president to do not one, but two separate touchdown dances over the fact that the government had managed to cajole several million Americans to sign up on the Healthcare.gov website. All this was enough to cause many left-leaning pundits to rethink their pessimism about the Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the Senate. But, like the upbeat stories about ObamaCare that will look pretty silly once the delayed unpopular mandates are put into place and insurance costs start skyrocketing, the liberal happy talk about 2014 was always bound to crash and burn sooner rather than later. As the new Washington Post/ABC News poll published today illustrates, the administration is actually more unpopular than ever.

The Post/ABC poll shows President Obama’s approval rating sinking to a new low—41 percent—and a clear majority of voters stating that they believe Republicans should control Congress to act as a check on the administration’s agenda. This is a significant blow to Democratic hopes of building some momentum to derail a big midterm victory for the GOP. But what is truly interesting about the numbers is that they show that it is not just ObamaCare that is hurting the Democrats. The president’s foreign-policy failures are now starting to impact his standing with the public in a manner they haven’t done before.

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Earlier this month Democrats were sounding more optimistic about their political prospects than they had been in more than a year. Though their credibility was doubtful, the ObamaCare enrollment figures were enough to cause the president to do not one, but two separate touchdown dances over the fact that the government had managed to cajole several million Americans to sign up on the Healthcare.gov website. All this was enough to cause many left-leaning pundits to rethink their pessimism about the Democrats’ chances of retaining control of the Senate. But, like the upbeat stories about ObamaCare that will look pretty silly once the delayed unpopular mandates are put into place and insurance costs start skyrocketing, the liberal happy talk about 2014 was always bound to crash and burn sooner rather than later. As the new Washington Post/ABC News poll published today illustrates, the administration is actually more unpopular than ever.

The Post/ABC poll shows President Obama’s approval rating sinking to a new low—41 percent—and a clear majority of voters stating that they believe Republicans should control Congress to act as a check on the administration’s agenda. This is a significant blow to Democratic hopes of building some momentum to derail a big midterm victory for the GOP. But what is truly interesting about the numbers is that they show that it is not just ObamaCare that is hurting the Democrats. The president’s foreign-policy failures are now starting to impact his standing with the public in a manner they haven’t done before.

Breaking the numbers down on an issue-by-issue analysis, it’s clear that the country’s chronic problems are still damaging the president’s poll numbers. The 54-42 percent margin of disapproval for Obama’s handling of the economy remains the Democrats’ big problem heading into a congressional election where they are already at a disadvantage because of the need to defend so many of the Senate seats won in the president’s 2008 victory. The 57-37 percent result with respect to disapproval of the way Obama handled the rollout of the misnamed Affordable Care Act is also, despite the early April happy talk, an impenetrable obstacle to Democrats seeking votes in non-blue states. Given that the poll was conducted in the aftermath of the administration’s efforts to hype what they considered to be the success of the health-care law, this is a staggering blow to those liberals who have been insisting that its popularity would finally begin to grow after years of the majority of Americans opposing the measure.

Nor can Democrats take their usual solace from the unpopularity of Congress and their faith that House Republicans will always be blamed more for the country’s problems than the administration. When asked to apportion responsibility for the country not being on the right track (respondents said the country was heading in the wrong direction by a staggering 66-30 percent margin), 40 percent said it was both parties’ fault with 18 percent blaming the president and the Democrats and only six percent saying it was the fault of the Republicans in Congress. This dovetails with the answers to the question about whether it was necessary to have the Congress in the hands of Obama’s opponents so as to put a brake on his agenda.

The poll also should dispel Democratic optimism about ObamaCare’s popularity growing.  As the Post’s Dan Balz and Peyton M. Craighill report:

The Post-ABC poll found that 44 percent say they support the law while 48 percent say they oppose it, which is about where it was at the end of last year and in January. Half of all Americans also say they think implementation is worse than expected.

Last month, a Post-ABC poll found 49 percent of Americans saying they supported the new law compared with 48 percent who opposed it. That finding was more positive for the administration than most other polls at the time. Democrats saw it as a possible leading indicator of a shift in public opinion, but that has not materialized.

But what is also interesting is that foreign and defense policy—issues that have been a source of strength for the president—may now be a distinct liability. Whereas the president was able to portray himself as tougher than Mitt Romney in 2012 by reminding voters who was the one who ordered Osama bin Laden’s killing, the humiliations he has suffered on Syria and now Ukraine have undermined that narrative. Indeed, fewer Americans approve of the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis (34 percent) than of the way he managed the ObamaCare rollout (37 percent) with large majorities disapproving of both.

The Democrats are not without assets heading into November. Their dominance on social issues as they beat the drums for their faux “war on women” campaign against the GOP is something they hope to exploit. Their embrace of a populist message on income inequality may be economic snake oil but it also has traction with much of the public. But, as the Post points out, Obama’s popularity is now roughly comparable to that of George W. Bush at the same point in his presidency. That is a depressing reminder for Democrats who have been seeking a reason to believe that they would somehow beat the odds and history and not suffer the usual walloping that the party in power gets during the midterm election of a second-term presidency. Despite the early April optimism about the Democrats that the administration’s media cheerleaders have been feeding the public, the outlook remains grim for a president sinking inevitably into lame duck irrelevance.

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