Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Putin

Do Dictators Care About Economies?

One of the greatest analytical mistakes that diplomats and policymakers can commit is projection: Assuming that adversaries share the same values and concerns that we do. Alas, projection was on full display today in President Obama’s remarks on Ukraine. “The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continued Russian military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia’s diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russian economy,” Obama said.

Russia’s economy has been stagnating for years and, prior to the Crimea crisis, Russians mocked Putin as a later-day Leonid Brezhnev. Fixing the anemic economy might have been too great for someone like Putin, but who cares about the economy if he can rally the people by fanning the flames of Russian nationalism? As such, finger wagging that Putin’s actions might undercut the Russian economy are risible.

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One of the greatest analytical mistakes that diplomats and policymakers can commit is projection: Assuming that adversaries share the same values and concerns that we do. Alas, projection was on full display today in President Obama’s remarks on Ukraine. “The international community will continue to stand together to oppose any violations of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and continued Russian military intervention in Ukraine will only deepen Russia’s diplomatic isolation and exact a greater toll on the Russian economy,” Obama said.

Russia’s economy has been stagnating for years and, prior to the Crimea crisis, Russians mocked Putin as a later-day Leonid Brezhnev. Fixing the anemic economy might have been too great for someone like Putin, but who cares about the economy if he can rally the people by fanning the flames of Russian nationalism? As such, finger wagging that Putin’s actions might undercut the Russian economy are risible.

The problem is not just with Obama and Putin, however. For too many years, American policy toward the Middle East has been premised on the idea that Arab leaders cared about the best interest of their countries. But if Arab leaders incorporated a desire for economic growth and trade into their calculations, there would not have been an Arab boycott, nor would states like Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Libya have invested so much money into huge armies, proxy groups, or foreign adventures. Sometimes rather than encourage responsibility, funding development projects only frees up money for regional regimes to dabble in terrorism. Likewise, when the European Union more than doubled aid to Iran during the Khatami era in the hopes of tying the Islamic Republic into the world economy, the Iranian leadership instead decided to invest the hard currency windfall into Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Obama may believe himself a level-headed, practical man and not an ideologue. That’s all well and good. But to assume that Vladimir Putin cares about the economic welfare of his people is naïve. Indeed, it’s long past time to put an end to the notion that dictators and autocrats subordinate practicalities to ideology or give any consideration to their peoples’ well-being. Refusing to recognize reality simply undercuts policy insight and crafts solutions which have no bearing on reality.

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Crimea, After the Referendum

In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

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In the annals of fixed elections, Sunday’s referendum in Crimea on Anschluss with Russia was a relatively restrained result. Vladimir Putin, the guiding intelligence behind this sham vote, was apparently content with a mere 96.7 percent vote in favor of unification with Russia. Give him props for not going for the full Castro–a 99 percent endorsement.

To say that the vote stealing was restrained is not, of course, the same thing as saying it was a fair or legal vote. Country A can’t simply invade a province of Country B and, under the guns of its army, call a snap election on unification with Country A. If that were permitted to occur, any semblance of the rule of law would be replaced with the law of the jungle. We would be back to the 1930s when predators ruled the international system.

Of course it’s always possible that Putin will refuse to annex Crimea notwithstanding the pro-unification vote. Possible, but not likely. All the signs point to Russian troops digging in for the long term–witness the paratroopers who just seized a gas plant that supplies Crimea but which is located in Ukraine proper. This could well be the first step in more annexations designed to safeguard electrical and water supplies to Crimea and perhaps even to create a land bridge back to Russia proper.

Putin’s power grab is tremendously popular among Russians who think that Crimea (given to Ukraine in 1954 by Nikita Khrushchev) and Ukraine as a whole (which only became independent in 1991) are properly part of the Russian empire. There is no doubt that there is a close historical association between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukraine is now recognized by the entire world as an independent country, and the majority of its people have no desire to be dominated much less ruled directly by the Kremlin. Putin’s power grab is, in truth, no more legitimate than Saddam Hussein’s occupation of Kuwait in 1990, which he claimed was properly Iraq’s 19th province.

Borders are disputed all over the world, and if Putin is again allowed to change borders by force this will set an incredibly dangerous precedent that can only embolden China, which abstained on a UN Security Council resolution (vetoed by Putin) condemning the Russian invasion. This is significant because of China’s abhorrence of the principle of self-determination for ethnic minorities such as the Russians in Crimea–a precedent that could apply equally well to Tibet or Xinjiang. Apparently China’s quasi-alliance with Russia, its hostility toward the West, and perhaps its desire to impose at gunpoint its own solution on disputed territories such as the Senkaku Islands weighed in the balance to prevent the Communist leaders in Beijing from breaking decisively with the former KGB agent in the Kremlin.

The bottom line is that, as I have been arguing, Putin cannot be allowed to get away with his criminal behavior with impunity. The higher the price he pays, the better the chances that he will think twice about such aggression in the future–and so will other dictators around the world. Now it’s up to the U.S. and EU to see how much courage they have to ramp up sanctions on Russia and suffer the inevitable Russian retaliation.

We don’t necessarily need a Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt leading the West today. We don’t even need a Ronald Reagan. But we could at least use a George H.W. Bush–the president who famously said, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, “This will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.”

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Putin’s Precedent: Give Siberia to China?

If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

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If Russian strongman Vladimir Putin wants to redraw the map of Russia to protect ethnic minorities, with tongue-in-cheek, perhaps it’s time that those revisions go both ways. Siberia is resource-rich and population-poor, but home to a growing Chinese minority, or at least a mixed Russian-Chinese minority. The reason is simple (and this isn’t tongue-in-cheek): Many Russian women are marrying Chinese men simply because they drink less and don’t beat them as much. Regardless, what happens in Crimea or, perhaps next, Kharkov, won’t stay in Crimea or Kharkov.

Precedent matters. Had the West not acted with such impotence in the wake of the Russian invasion and occupation of parts of Georgia, perhaps Putin would have thought twice before rehashing the same playbook in Ukraine. Certainly, the Baltic States have reason for concern given Latvia and Estonia’s Russian minorities; Lithuania’s is considerably smaller. So too does Moldova, where Russians almost equal the Moldovan population in the Transnistrian region.

Early in the Crimea crisis, Putin claimed Chinese support for Russian actions. Rather than two aspiring powers cooperating to checkmate American dominance, however, China may have played Putin by endorsing a doctrine that ultimately might justify a resurgent China’s territorial ambition.

It is too bad that the Obama doctrine continues to be one of empty redlines that the United States neither has the power nor the will to enforce, and U.S. public diplomacy emphasizes tweeting for the sake of tweeting, with absolutely no evidence that officials using twitter adds an iota of credibility or effectiveness to American diplomacy. Perhaps it is time to play hardball and suggest publicly and often that the United States respects the rights of minorities within the borders of Russia to independence or to join neighboring states if those minorities so choose.

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Putin Expects Western Inaction

Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

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Faced with the most direct military aggression in Europe since the days of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the Obama administration and our European allies have been treating Russia so far with kid gloves.

We have been afraid of imposing economic sanctions on Russia or providing military equipment to Ukraine for fear of an escalation from Moscow which could take the form of invading eastern Ukraine, seizing the property of Western companies (including Ford and Boeing) in Russia, cutting off western Europe and Ukraine from Russian natural gas, or even selling advanced air-defense systems to Iran.

So what has the Western policy of restraint gotten us so far? Nothing, as far as I can tell. Crimea is preparing to vote this Sunday on an illegal referendum under the guns of Russian occupiers which will result in a predetermined endorsement of Anschluss with Russia. Meanwhile Russian troops are massing for maneuvers on Ukraine’s border, raising fears that Vladimir Putin is planning to annex more of that unfortunate country which most Russians regard as part of their empire. Oh and to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic criticism, Putin has just blocked the websites used by his critics Garry Kasparov and Alexei Navalny.

Only those who are unfamiliar with history can be surprised by Putin’s actions. Autocrats like him habitually keep pushing further and further as long as they sense weakness on the other side–and Putin obviously senses that today since he, like Bashar Assad, is able to violate our red lines with impunity. First we told him not to invade Georgia and he did. Then we told him to abide by a ceasefire and he did not; far from pulling his troops back, Putin has maintained effective control of significant chunks of Georgian territory. More recently we told him not to invade Crimea and he did. We told him not to annex Crimea and he seems to be in the process of doing just that.

It is well past time for the West to respond with serious sanctions that will inflict real damage on the Russian economy. For a start, block Russian financial institutions from access to dollar-denominated trades. Freeze the assets, held in the West, of so many of Putin’s oligarch pals. And block those same oligarchs from visiting their properties and families in the West. Already the Russian stock market is down more than 20 percent this year; that could be only the beginning of a free fall that will slice billions of dollars out of the value of Russian companies, most of them (given the nature of the crony capitalism in Russia) closely linked to the Kremlin.

None of that is likely to make Putin disgorge Crimea, which he sees as Russia’s historic territory, and unfortunately it will also inflict some pain on Western economies. But at least it will make him think twice about going any further. At the moment, the tyrant in the Kremlin no doubt feels like he has a green light for further aggression.

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Was Russia’s WTO Membership a Mistake?

A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

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A couple of years ago I was having a discussion with a critic of Putin’s Russia–who was expelled for his trouble–who noted with alarm the Russian-owned gas companies dotting American highways. I said I saw that as a good sign: at the very least the economic integration meant Russia had more skin in the game, and would probably be less abusive to Western companies doing business in Russia.

In the broader sense, though, the benefits were potentially endless, in large part because the more that Russian citizens dealt directly with Americans the better for both countries. My interlocutor saw it differently, because America will play by the rules whether Russia does or not. I thought of his warning, and dismissed it, in the debate over Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization. Russia’s membership in the WTO, I argued repeatedly, was overdue and would benefit American companies, and the increased trade would restrain Putin’s ability to manipulate American policy while boosting American leverage over Russia.

I was sure I was right. I’m not so sure now. But it’s not because Russia doesn’t “deserve” to be in the WTO or that the benefits were a mirage. And it’s not because of the push to “punish” Russia for its invasion of Ukraine–though sanctions are surely appropriate. It’s because the economic integration of Russia has done precisely the opposite of what it was expected to do in one crucial regard: the recent events in Ukraine and the West’s unsteady response indicate Russia’s increased leverage instead. Today’s New York Times story on the Obama administration’s internal debate over Ukraine demonstrates this perfectly.

It reveals that there are two sides in the administration: those who want to swiftly punish Russia and those who want to show extreme caution toward something that could reverberate throughout the economy. That’s why, the Times explains, “Obama has the power to go much further even without new legislation from Congress” but hasn’t done so. And the roster of administration advisors line up pretty much exactly where you’d expect them to on this, with those like Victoria Nuland supporting more aggressive sanctions and Treasury Secretary Jack Lew opposed. The Times continues:

But American businesses are warning against overreaction. Representatives of groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the United States-Russia Business Council have been holding meetings at the White House or in Congress to share their views.

They are urging policy makers to be sure that any sanctions would actually have an impact on Russian behavior, that the costs not outweigh the benefits and that they be multilateral. “We are working closely with policy makers on both sides of the aisle to safeguard manufacturing employees and manufacturers’ investments around the world,” said Jay Timmons, president of the manufacturers association.

Although the United States does only $40 billion in trade with Russia each year, American businesses argue that the amount understates the real economic ties. Ford, for instance, has two assembly plants in Russia that make cars with material that comes from Europe, so that would not be reflected in import-export figures.

Boeing has sold or leased hundreds of planes in Russia and projects that the republics of the former Soviet Union will need an additional 1,170 planes worth nearly $140 billion over the next 20 years. Moreover, the company has a design center in Moscow, has just announced new manufacturing and training facilities in Russia and depends on Russia for 35 percent of its titanium.

“There’s no doubt that key economic groups, especially energy, don’t want us to act,” said James B. Steinberg, a former deputy secretary of state under Mr. Obama and now dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.

I’m not suggesting that U.S.-Russia trade suddenly materialized out of nowhere when Russia joined the WTO–of course that’s not the case. But it does raise questions about authoritarian actors joining international institutions that don’t require more sturdy political liberalization (like NATO). I’ve written in the past about “reverse integration,” James Mann’s theory of how China could take advantage of economic integration not to play by international rules but to weaken the threshold for rogue regimes to be granted increased international legitimacy and thus dilute, not enhance, global democracy.

That is not quite the concern here with Putin (or at least not the main concern). Russia’s membership in the WTO doesn’t seem to be de-democratizing economic institutions here or abroad. Rather, Putin has taken advantage of economic integration with the U.S. to dull any American response to his adventuresome foreign policy. Because that response already had virtually no military component, weakening or greatly delaying any financial sanctions would tie both the West’s hands behind its back while he did what he wanted.

There has been some talk of how a more proactive energy policy, in terms of American production and export, could have already put a more effective sanctions infrastructure in place. But it’s also worth pondering if, with the best of intentions, we’ve not only depleted our own sanctions arsenal but bolstered Putin’s.

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Snowden’s Hypocritical Show

Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

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Imagine a prominent foe of Vladimir Putin—someone who had been forced to flee Russia for fear of a jail sentence—appearing via video hookup from abroad to address a large audience in St. Petersburg to deliver withering criticisms of Putin’s attacks on civil liberties. Imagine, moreover, this personage receiving raucous applause from the Russian audience.

Hard to imagine, no? Precisely because there are no civil liberties in Russia, such a spectacle would be unlikely to occur, and if it did, everyone involved would face the danger of jail time.

Yet Edward Snowden has no problem speaking from an undisclosed location in Russian to address the South by Southwest Festival in Austin—and receiving a standing ovation from the audience and softball questions from his ACLU questioners on stage. What’s wrong with this picture?

No one apparently asked Snowden about the obvious hypocrisy involved of defending Internet freedom—with a copy of the Constitution superimposed behind him—even as he enjoys the hospitality of a despot who tramples on every freedom the Founding Fathers held dear. Instead the audience seemed to treat Snowden as if he were just another libertarian professor or writer—rather than one of the most damaging traitors in our country’s long history.

Too bad none of Snowden’s questioners had the wit or courage to ask him what he thinks about Internet controls in Russia or Putin’s power grab in Crimea. The answer would expose him either as a craven lackey of a dictator or leave him in danger of being booted out of his gilded exile.

It is hard to know what is more revolting: Snowden’s hubris in delivering his self-righteous lecture or his audience’s gullibility in according him oracular status that he earned by doing dire damage to the government which protects them, and the rest of us, from threats like al-Qaeda and, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.

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Why Politics Can’t Stop At the Water’s Edge

 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

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 Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has led many Americans to re-evaluate President Obama’s mockery of those Republicans like Mitt Romney and Sarah Palin’s warnings about the geo-strategic threat that Vladimir Putin’s regime posed to the West. It turns out that the administration’s assumptions about not only Russia but also about the basic principles of U.S. foreign policy were mistaken. Not only did the magic of Barack Obama’s personality fail to tame Putin, Iran, Syria or North Korea. As our Abe Greenwald noted yesterday, the administration’s belief that America had transcended history and that the use of force was ineffective has again been thoroughly exploded.

But rather than prompt a far-reaching debate about the lessons to be drawn from this episode, many pundits, not all of whom are knee-jerk Obama defenders are calling for Americans to pipe down about whether the policies of the past five years are partly responsible for the mess in Eastern Europe as well as the fiasco in Syria, not to mention the ongoing administration attempt to forge a new détente with Iran. Instead, we are being told to be quiet and to let America speak with one voice, lest Putin or any other foe be encouraged by criticism of Obama. Not for the first time, Arthur Vandenberg’s famous 1947 quote in which he chided Republican critics of President Harry Truman’s foreign policy that “we must stop partisan politics at the water’s edge” is being disinterred in order to give the 44th president some respite from the beating he has been taking from conservatives about his policies. Though, as Robert Lieber wrote last month in the Washington Post, Democrats have ignored that principle in the last decade, Joe Scarborough, MSNBC’s token conservative is sounding that bipartisan theme both on “Morning Joe” and in a Politico op-ed. Scarborough argues that, “There is nothing more frightening to our enemies than a strong, unified American voice.” That’s true. But in the absence of leadership from the president and the administration, such a stance is impossible. Though loyalty to country must always trump partisanship, the effort to suppress a debate about foreign policy at a time when it is desperately needed is antithetical to the cause of creating that “strong, unified American voice.”

Scarborough is right that “political broadsides” are out of place “when the tanks are rolling.” But what’s happening in the Ukraine is not a replay of the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets about Berlin or the Cuban Missile Crisis, let alone a crisis when U.S. troops are on the move. The point about what is happening in the Ukraine is that both America’s friends and its foes take it for granted that the U.S. is out of the business of trying to defend freedom, whether in places where our military can make a difference or those, like in Ukraine, where we know it is not possible.

Given the hyper-partisan nature of our current political culture that is exacerbated by an equally divided media, it is hard to imagine the revival of the kind of bipartisanship that Vandenberg embodied under any circumstances. But in the absence of either strong leadership or an articulation of core American principles by the president it is impossible.

Were President Obama showing the kind of courage in standing up to Putin that other presidents of both political parties demonstrated in past disputes with the Russians, criticism of his foreign policy could and would be put off until later. But asking critics to be silent when no such effort to unify the country or to stand up for the interests of U.S. friends and allies is being put forward by the administration is itself mere partisan hogwash.

A debate about foreign policy is needed precisely because what we are witnessing is the product of a feckless foreign policy that primarily views geostrategic foes such as Russia and Iran as candidates for appeasement rather than dangerous enemies to be faced down with strength. For many liberals, Obama’s weakness is an asset to be applauded as they support his vision of a world in which American exceptionalism is mere chauvinism. However, this unilateral moral disarmament has severe consequences. Putin doesn’t need to listen to conservative criticisms of the president’s foreign policy to understand that Obama’s naïve conception of global politics to be encouraged to violate international law. He already came to that conclusion before he invaded the Ukraine.

Politics must now extend beyond the water’s edge not because conservatives wish to cripple administration efforts to defend American interests — as was so often the case in the past when the left treated anti-American forces as victims to be sympathized with rather than enemies to be despised — but because they want Obama to start behaving like someone who believes in his nation’s cause.

Far from undermining the president’s ability to deal with Putin or Iran, a debate about his policies is the starting point for a recovery of American strength. What Putin expects, indeed, what he is counting on, is the kind of apathy about Obama’s foreign policy that has allowed the president to evade accountability for stances that undermined allies and appeased foes for years. After years of being told, both by the left and some on the right that America can afford to retreat from the world stage, a vigorous discussion of foreign policy and the mistakes made by this administration isn’t a political luxury; it’s a necessity.

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Back to the Confines of History

Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

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Americans occasionally indulge a certain progressive notion about world affairs: that humanity has become so enlightened and sophisticated as to have outgrown its brutal and tragic nature. The idea that we can transcend our blood-soaked past was behind the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sought to outlaw war altogether. Eighty-five years and millions of war dead later, it’s also behind Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comment that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a  “19th century act in the 21st century.” Invasions, you see, belong to that buried thing called history. We’re now in something else.

Unfortunately that something else doesn’t look much better. A Russian strongman is gluing together the pieces of a smashed empire, underwriting biblical slaughter in the Middle East, and standing with a nuclear-aspirant, exterminationist regime. Doubtless, Putin took Kerry’s characterization as a supreme compliment, an indication that he’s a great man of history and a belated product of Russia’s Golden Age.

Pointing out Putin’s aspirations is becoming risky. There’s been much talk lately of conservatives who idolize the Russian leader. But aside from a handful of marginalized eccentrics, the very opposite is the case. It was the last Republican presidential candidate who called Putin’s Russia our “number-one political foe,” and it was the entire Democratic establishment that supported Obama’s five-year-long attempt to be more accommodating to Moscow. Reconciling these facts has been unpleasant for progressives who’ve only just discovered, via gay-rights activism, that Putin is an unapologetic human-rights abuser. One hopes that similar clarity on Iran is soon to follow.

As Americans reacquaint themselves with living inside history and not beyond it, they’ll head in one of two directions:  They’ll either accept the challenge of making the world a safer, freer place, or they’ll decide that recommitting to the fight against brutality is too burdensome after all. I’m betting they take the challenge. For the idealism that led to post-historic fantasy cuts both ways. If we were idealistic enough to think we’ve moved beyond large-scale injustice then we’re also idealistic enough to go out into the world and do something about the bad guys.  That’s why America and her allies are the planet’s first defense against tyranny and oppression.

To be sure, there is much to shake off this time round: We’re hobbled by the civilian-grade PTSD of the war on terror and by the keystroke complacency of Internet utopianism. We are also enervated by self-congratulation, first for having elected Barack Obama president and then for embracing same-sex marriage. But if the growing, non-partisan disgust with Putinism is any indication, we are already well on our way to re-engaging the world on realistic terms.

Barack Obama often reassured us that we’d moved past “a long gone Cold War,” but the world doesn’t wait on his interpretation before shaping itself. And Obama may have finally realized as much. One strong indication of renewed clarity is the Defense Department’s announcement on Wednesday that the United States will expand military cooperation with Baltic countries in light of Putin’s aggression. This doesn’t mean a “new Cold War” is upon us; it’s just an overdue acknowledgment of whose side we’re on in the continuous fight for liberty.

Contrary to most, I think Putin made an excellent point about American exceptionalism in his September 11 New York Times op-ed. He wrote, “It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional.” Quite right. It’s time, once again, for us to be extremely dangerous to men like Vladimir Putin.

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Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Putin Problem

Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

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Hillary Clinton wasn’t wrong to point out today the loose similarities between Vladimir Putin’s rationale for aggression in the Ukraine and what Nazi Germany did in the 1930s in using ethnic Germans to justify their campaign to overrun Central and Eastern Europe. But overcompensating for something is usually a sign of weakness. Thus, Clinton’s use of language that is far stronger than even that employed by some of President Obama’s fiercest critics raises questions not only about her distancing herself from the administration she served for four years but about whether her record as secretary of state is as much of a political asset as many of her supporters believe it to be.

Let’s start by acknowledging that Clinton has always come across as a lot more clear-headed about Russia and most foreign policy problems than the president or her successor John Kerry, let alone Vice President Joe Biden. But the idea that she is “Hillary the hawk” is a nickname she has earned only by the comparison to the rest of the cast of characters in the Obama administration. This is, after all, the same Hillary Clinton who earned a spot in the all-time foreign policy bloopers reel with her comic presentation of a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian counterpart and who dutifully carried out the president’s orders to make nice with Putin whenever possible rather than treating him as a regional bully and clear threat to peace. So as much as she may wish to thump her chest a bit today with regards to Russian misbehavior in order to reinforce the notion that she is not an Obama clone on foreign policy, the conflict in Ukraine is a reminder that she will have to answer for more than Benghazi when running for president in 2016.

Clinton is heading toward 2016 in an even stronger position vis-à-vis her potential rivals for the president than the formidable advantage she possessed in 2008. This time there is no Barack Obama-type challenger waiting in the wings to steal the prize from her. After eight years of our first African-American president, the desire to follow that up with our first female commander-in-chief provides a compelling story line to the election that will be difficult for any Republican, let alone a fellow Democrat, to try to override.

But she will discover that running for president as a U.S. Senator who could talk about every issue but had responsibility for nothing is a lot easier than having to defend a less-than-stellar record as secretary of state. Though she spent her four years at Foggy Bottom as an administration cipher with little will of her own as President Obama imposed his own foreign policy views on the department and then left it praising him, things have since gotten complicated. The debacle over Syria and now Ukraine as well as the unraveling of the American position in Iraq and Afghanistan undermines the notion that she was a successful secretary of state. Merely accumulating frequent-flyer miles — her claim to fame as a public official — is no substitute for success.

But the deterioration of American relations with the dictator that Obama promised that he would treat with more “flexibility” if he were re-elected in 2012 poses a unique problem for Clinton. If pictures are worth a thousand words, a viral video must be valued at an infinite number of printed pages. The film clip of Clinton and the “reset” button will be played over and over again in the next three years and, fairly or not, may paint her as even more of a dupe for the Russians than Obama or Kerry.

Calling Putin a new Hitler seems like a smart way to distance herself from a lame duck president who looks weak. Hence, the always-savvy Clinton machine is already rolling into action seeking to demonstrate that Hillary is as tough as she would like us to think she is. But like so much of her 2008 campaign, the chest beating Clinton will always be seen as lacking in authenticity. The stronger she tries to appear, the weaker her supposedly invincible campaign machine may start to look. 

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Obama’s Afghan Strategy Helps Putin

Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

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Vladimir Putin is Machiavelli. He waited until he had a strong hand and he played it. President Obama and his European counterparts might hem and haw, but the worst Putin likely expects from them is being put on double secret probation. Europe has always been mercantile, unwilling to give up short-term profit for the sake of long-term security, hence the constant efforts by countries like Germany and Italy to dilute Iran. Putin, however, also has leverage over Europe because many European countries depend on Russian pipelines for their gas.

Such leverage is bad enough, but Obama has enabled Putin to turn his full house into a royal flush. By imposing a political timeline for withdrawal on Afghanistan, Obama has given Putin sway over the ability of American forces to withdrawal their equipment from Afghanistan. Obama now faces a choice: Risk American equipment transiting Russia, or succumb to Pakistani blackmail which can be just as costly. There will be many reverberations and second order effects because of Obama’s shortsightedness. Emboldening Putin is only the first.

Of course, just as Putin has called Obama’s bluff, it is possible that Obama could call Putin’s. Rather than withdrawing from Afghanistan in the midst of an election when security is most needed, and rather than slash defense to pre-World War II levels against the backdrop of international chaos, Obama could reconsider the investment needed to secure America’s place in the world and, indeed, to secure greater peace in the world. If Obama altered his arbitrary deadline in Afghanistan, he would instantly undercut Putin’s leverage. That would assume, however, that Obama cared about America’s place in the world or the freedom of its allies. That he does not—and that he gratuitously increases the power and position of American adversaries—is becoming hard to deny.

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Neo-Con Derangement Syndrome and Putin

These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

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These are hard times for liberal foreign policy analysts and pundits. The collapse of American credibility abroad in the last year after President Obama’s Syria debacle has now been compounded by the spectacle in the Ukraine as Vladimir Putin confidently dares the West to do something about his theft of Crimea from the Ukraine while knowing full well that they have neither the inclination or the ability to make him pay for aggression. Liberals don’t want to look honestly at the weakness and indecision that routinely paralyzes this administration. Nor can they, as perhaps some liberals might have in the past when Russian aggressors flew the flag of socialism and anti-imperialism, start rationalizing Putin’s actions as defensible. So what do they do? Attack neo-conservatives, of course.

In today’s Daily Beast, Michael Tomasky attempts the near impossible by seeking to turn the facts on their head by claiming those conservatives who rightly warned about the need to pay closer attention to are actually admirers of the Russian authoritarian. Yes, I’m not kidding. The conceit of this piece is so preposterous that it is almost a waste of time to refute it since it claims that those who were and are right about Putin are his secret admirers if not doppelgangers. Coming from the same crowd that mocked Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney for talking about the geostrategic threat from Putin’s Russia, this is what psychologists call deflection. Like all behaviors aimed at blaming others for your own mistakes, it is as false as it is weak. But it tells us a lot about the mindset on the left as they view a dangerous world that can’t be tamed by the magic of Barack Obama’s personality or Hillary Clinton’s comic “reset” button. Having profited from attacks on neoconservatives who were blamed for America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, now that these conflicts are off the front burner and the U.S. must deal with other challenges, all liberals have left is a strange form of neo-con derangement syndrome.

When conservatives contrast Obama’s weakness with Putin’s decisive action, they are not expressing admiration for the Russian dictator. What they are pointing out is that when faced with a ruthless opponent, the president’s Hamlet routine isn’t merely unimpressive; it’s a standing invitation to the bad guys to do their worst. And that is exactly what has happened in the Middle East as Iran has helped Bashar Assad hang on in Syria with a crucial assist from Russia despite President Obama’s occasional comments about him having to go and warnings that he will face retribution if he crosses a “red line” and uses chemical weapons on his own people. The foolish and probably futile pursuit of engagement, if not détente, with Iran over its nuclear program is illustrating the same principle. That’s also true of the prelude to what happened in the Ukraine as Putin decided that the U.S. is a paper tiger whose warnings can be flouted with impunity.

What conservatives want is a president who isn’t foolhardy but who is taken seriously when he issues warnings. Tomasky and liberals know Obama isn’t such a leader and they are uncomfortable about the growing evidence that life in an era where the U.S. thinks it is just another Western nation rather than the leader of the free world is a lot more dangerous than it needs to be.

Contrary to Tomasky, neoconservatives aren’t hyping the crisis in Ukraine to regain relevance. The liberal problem is that Obama’s failures are a reminder that his simplistic view of the world and obsessive belief in multilateral diplomacy is no substitute for American strength.

It’s true there’s no knowing what a President McCain or Romney would have done about Putin and no guarantee that they would have succeeded in thwarting his efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist/Soviet empire. But we do know they were thinking carefully about the potential for trouble with Moscow. That is obviously more than one can say about Obama when he dismissed Romney’s comments about Russia with a crack about the 1980’s.

What America needs isn’t another Putin but a tough president who believes in spreading freedom but is pragmatic enough to know when and how to stand up to dictators. While one can fault George W. Bush for his mistakes in Iraq and question whether McCain or Romney or any other conservative would have done better in this crisis, the one thing we do know is that Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry made egregious mistakes in their handling of Russia and that the people of Ukraine are paying the price for those blunders. Along with Putin, they are the ones who should be held accountable for their failures. Whatever blame necons get for Iraq, this is one debacle that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the Democrats and their liberal cheerleaders.

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Hugo Chavez, One Year On

 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

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 Today marks the first anniversary of Hugo Chavez’s death, and the world’s tyrants are mourning appropriately. The Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short break from invading Ukraine to send a message of sympathy to Nicolas Maduro, Chavez’s handpicked successor. “A year has passed since the demise of the extraordinary Venezuelan leader and great friend of mine, Hugo Chavez,” Putin wrote. “Through joint efforts, we can continue to put the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

 As I noted in a COMMENTARY post on this day last year, Chavez’s death was announced on the 60th anniversary of Joseph Stalin’s passing. “It took 37 years for the USSR to finally dissolve following Stalin’s death,” I said. “One shudders at the thought that chavismo will last as long.” In the intervening months, we have witnessed Maduro come to power through a fraudulent election, the emergence of a siege economy with its attendant price controls and currency devaluations and, finally, the eruption of a student-led protest movement that seeks to point the chavistas to la Salida – the Exit. Surely, time is running out when it comes to putting “the comandante‘s ideas into practice.”

Except that, in periods of acute crisis, authoritarian regimes are far better equipped to retain power than the democratic counterparts. Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq outlasted more than a decade of punishing sanctions. Ditto for the mullahs in Iran and for Robert Mugabe, another “great friend” of Chavez, who has just embarked on his seventh term as president of Zimbabwe.

These regimes stay in power chiefly because of their willingness to deploy brute force against their own populations, along with their readiness to enrich themselves and their cronies through systematic corruption and lucrative criminal activities (narcotics trafficking is a favored pursuit of the chavista Generals.) Crisis, when it descends, is explained to their subjects as deliberate sabotage on the part of an external predator, most often the United States. Hence Maduro’s constant refrain that the Venezuelan protests are the work of a few “fascists” acting under instructions from Washington.

It also helps to have a celebratory or commemorative occasion close at hand. Last week, Maduro attempted to take the wind out of the protests by announcing that the annual Carnival holiday had come early. Today, a slew of foreign leaders, including Cuban President Raul Castro, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Nicaragua’s unrepentant Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega, have arrived in Caracas to add an extra layer of gravitas to the official Chavez commemorations.

 What is now happening, as the respected Venezuelan writer Ibsen Martinez argues in a piece for the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, is a shift from the “Washington consensus” to the “Havana consensus.” The Washington consensus refers to American-backed economic and democratic reforms that are denounced by opponents as “neoliberalism.” Contrastingly, the Havana consensus–so-called because of last month’s meeting of Latin American nations in the Cuban capital where absolute national sovereignty was affirmed as the continent’s guiding principle–essentially enables leaders like Maduro to fix elections and imprison dissidents at will.

 ”Today, there’s no point shouting ‘Don’t leave us on our own!’ Martinez says. “The Venezuelan people can expect nothing of the regions leaders, everything depends on us.” He is right. No outside agency–not the UN, not the Organization of American States, and certainly not the United States government–is going to take charge of a rescue operation for Venezuela.

 Yet, despite outside indifference and Maduro’s best efforts to marginalize the opposition, the protests continue. Barricades erected by opposition activists have been reported all over Caracas and further demonstrations are planned in San Cristobal, the opposition stronghold in the west of the country. None of this, of course, portends the imminent death of chavismo, one year after Chavez’s end. But the anger on the streets of the country should remind Maduro that the growing numbers of Venezuelans opposed to his rule aren’t idly waiting for a foreign cavalry to arrive.  

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Obama Wasn’t Alone Misreading Putin

Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

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Blame for the Ukraine mess lies with Russian President Vladimir Putin. But, the failure to recognize Putin’s true character has infected American officials under both the Bush and Obama administrations. President George W. Bush gazed into Putin’s eyes and assured the Russian leader had a soul. Hillary Clinton had her reset. But, it was with the inauguration of President Barack Obama that so many senior diplomats and journalists engaged in an orgy of endorsement of Obama’s policy of blind engagement. “We will be no worse off if we try diplomacy and fail,” former undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in a May 2009 hearing to justify Obama’s initiatives, for example. Within the State Department, diplomats cheered the end of Bush, and Obama’s new approach. Scholars concurred. Charles Kupchan, a Council on Foreign Relations scholar, likewise endorsed Obama’s approach in a March/April 2010 Foreign Affairs article. “Barack Obama owned Bush-Cheney in one day and got more concessions from Iran in 7½ hours than the former administration got in 8 years of saber-rattling,” wrote Juan Cole, a leftist blogger and professor at University of Michigan.

It’s important to recognize that Obama did not lead the echo chamber. He reflected it. He embraced policies widely supported by the academics and diplomats never mind that those policies completely misunderstand the realities of international relations. The culture that has led Obama to fail completely in his assessment of Vladimir Putin isn’t going to end in 2016, when Obama exits the White House. It persists throughout the Foreign Service and, indeed, continues to be drilled into every new class of diplomats who join the State Department.

One of the revelations learned while writing my new book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes, a study of a history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the U.S. military spends more time in the classroom identifying and discussing mistakes than they often do in the field so that they can become better soldiers, sailors, and pilots. The State Department, however, has never convened a lessons learned exercise to determine why its approach on any episode has failed. If John Kerry is truly serious about being a diplomatic leader, he could do nothing better than convene a deep review of the “Reset” with Russia, its origins, the metrics by which the State Department planned to judge it, if they even bothered with metrics, and where they might have caught Putin’s insincerity. It’s not shameful to examine mistakes; it is crucial.

Alas, absent such a measure, expect the United States to get played far more in the coming years by enemies like Putin not because of the current occupant of the Oval Office, but rather because the philosophy he represents is taken as unquestioned wisdom among America’s professional diplomats.

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Are Markets Right About Ukraine Inaction?

The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

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The big news today on the Russian seizure of the Crimea from the Ukraine was that Europeans are feeling a lot calmer about the prospect of conflict. To the extent that the uptick in the markets this reflected relief that Russian President Vladimir Putin had not further escalated the conflict with new military actions aimed at seizing more territory that is a sentiment that is universally shared. But as the days pass since Russian troops took control of the Crimea, those jumping to the conclusion that the West will soon be going back to business as usual with Russia may have a firmer grip on reality than those who assume that all of the exemplary rhetoric coming from both the United States and its European allies about their concern may not be followed up by the sort of economic sanctions that would, as President Obama said, make Putin pay a price for his aggression.

Gauging the intensity level of this crisis is a difficult job in large measure because the assumption that Putin will perform some new outrage in the coming days may be misplaced. While Russia’s planned ballistic missile test and the actions of Russian troops (that Putin is still pretending are not Russian) are scary, the action phase of this crisis may have already passed as far as Moscow is concerned. Having taken control of the Crimea, the big unanswered question for Russia revolves around whether Putin will annex the region (something the Russian Parliament is already considering) or allow his puppets to create a new buffer state there. The only other variable is how robust the Western response to this crime will be. While Ukrainians can certainly take comfort from Secretary of State John Kerry’s much needed visit to Kiev today and the laudable vows of help coming from Washington and European capitals, they may be forgiven for wondering whether Western investors who are betting today against serious sanctions or a disruption of Russia’s oil and gas sales are right.

Sanctions levied against Russia and against individual members of the Putin regime are necessary and can’t be put into effect too soon. But the problem with this effort is that everyone knows that there is nothing the West can do now to reverse what has happened and Putin knows it. Since a Western military response against a nuclear power is unthinkable, Russia knows it will never be forced to give back the Crimea even if it has been torn from Ukraine in a blatantly illegal act of aggression.

Moreover, for all of the righteous rhetoric flowing from Western leaders this week, Putin also knows that Europe is unlikely to want to have to kick its Russian oil and gas habit cold turkey. That’s why he dared to invade a sovereign nation secure in the knowledge that he could get away with it.

It goes without saying that the only way to have prevented this from happening was an American foreign policy that was more concerned with restraining Putin than in making nice with him. It cannot be stressed enough former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Kerry bear the lion’s share of blame for this disaster for their comical Russian policy “reset.” President Obama and his media cheering section that openly mocked first Sarah Palin and then Mitt Romney for their focus on the threat from Russia also need to apologize.

But though anger at Putin is running high today, he is counting on it all fading away rather quickly. The Obama administration’s strong suit is “engagement” and diplomacy for its own sake, not principled confrontation. Moreover, if European countries can’t be trusted to stick to sanctions against the Islamist regime in Iran, how can we possibly expect them to hang tough against Russia when the economic stakes involved in any punishment for aggression against Ukraine are so much higher?

Ukraine and all the other independent states — including NATO members in the Baltic and Poland—that stand between Putin and his cherished dream of reassembling the old Tsarist/Soviet empire are looking to Washington, London, Paris and Berlin for stiff economic action against Russia this week. But it’s hard to argue with those who are betting their bankrolls on the proposition that neither Obama nor the Western Europeans intend to disrupt the Russian gravy train for the sake of Ukraine.

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Liars Like Putin Capable of Anything

It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

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It’s hard to know what’s more unsettling: to imagine that Vladimir Putin actually believes what he said at a press conference today–or that he doesn’t. Either way, his remarks make clear that the West is dealing with a crafty, ruthless autocrat who isn’t afraid to bend reality to his own will. The only question is whether he secretly knows the difference between his castles in the air and the world inhabited by the rest of us.

His comments were so far-fetched as to be almost comical. Let’s see…

He claimed that the troops who have taken over Crimea were not Russian–merely local self-defense forces that happened to buy some Russian uniforms: “Look at former Soviet republics,” he said. “You can go to a store and buy a uniform. Were these Russian soldiers? No, they’re very well-trained self-defense forces.” (Makes you wonder, if the troops in Ukraine, went shopping for their own uniforms, why they didn’t buy German fatigues or American ones?)

He claimed that the anti-Yanukovych demonstrators in Kiev were all fascists and anti-Semites: “Our major concern is the orgy of nationalists, and extremists and anti-Semites on the streets of Kiev.” (If that’s the case, it’s odd, as Timothy Snyder notes in the New York Review of Books, that it was the Yanukovych regime “rather than its opponents that resorts to anti-Semitism, instructing its riot police that the opposition is led by Jews.”)

He claimed that snipers firing on demonstrators were not Ukrainian security forces but rather “provocateurs from an opposition party.” (So the opposition forces are killing themselves! How crafty.)

He claimed that Russia’s past treaty obligations to respect Ukrainian sovereignty are no longer operative because there is a “new state” in Ukraine. (How convenient, in case the “local self defense forces” currently annexing Crimea to Russia decide to do the same with all of eastern Ukraine.)

And of course for his grand finale he claimed that the whole thing is the fault of America: “They sit there across the pond as if in a lab running all kinds of experiments on the rats,” Putin said. “Why would they do it? No one can explain it.” (If Washington is so powerful it’s a wonder how Moscow managed to take over Crimea so easily.)

For good measure he claimed that Washington was being hypocritical in criticizing Russia’s incursion into Ukraine: “Let’s remember what the U.S. did in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.”

Never mind that Russia actually voted at the UN to authorize the military mission to Afghanistan and abstained from vetoing the one to Libya, or that the U.S.-led operation in Iraq had infinitely more international support than the Russian intervention in Ukraine which is supported by not a single other country.

Presumably Putin says such things to provide some rationale, however flimsy and far-fetched, to his own people to justify his aggression against a neighboring Slavic state. The very bizarreness of his assertions is further cause for alarm, however. A leader who utters one whopping big lie after another with a perfectly straight face–indeed with an air of utter conviction–is capable of anything.

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Obama’s Journey from Arrogance to Incompetence

In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

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In a post last week, I wrote that near the end of his autobiography, the great French journalist and intellectual Raymond Aron, in a chapter on the tenure of Secretary of State Kissinger, wrote, “For a half century, I have limited my freedom of criticism by asking the question; in his place, what would I do?”

Aron’s overall point is that governing is harder than criticizing those attempting to govern and therefore ought to temper a bit one’s denunciations of those in power. This applies to those of us who are critics of President Obama. 

But this, too, needs to be said. When he ran for the presidency, it was Barack Obama who never put limits on his criticisms of others. He spoke as if the problems of the world would disappear with two events: the removal from office of his predecessor and his arrival as president of the United States. Even in a profession not known for attracting modest individuals, Mr. Obama’s arrogance set him apart.

In 2008 his campaign aides referred to him as the “black Jesus.” He told congressional Democrats during the 2008 campaign, “I have become a symbol of the possibility of America returning to our best traditions.” During that campaign, while still a one-term senator, Obama decided he wanted to give a speech in Germany– and he wanted to deliver it at the Brandenburg Gate. 

“I think that I’m a better speechwriter than my speechwriters,” Mr. Obama told Patrick Gaspard, his political director, at the start of the 2008 campaign, according to The New Yorker. “I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m going to think I’m a better political director than my political director.” A convention speech wasn’t enough for Mr. Obama; Greek columns needed to be added. During an interview with “60 Minutes,” Obama said, “I would put our legislative and foreign policy accomplishments in our first two years against any president — with the possible exceptions of Johnson, FDR, and Lincoln.” (The use of the word “possible” is priceless.) Mr. Obama has compared himself to LeBron James; his aides compared him to Michael Jordan. He clearly conceived of himself as a world-historical figure. Nothing, it seemed, was beyond his power. (If you think I’m exaggerating, I’d urge you to watch this 30-second clip from an Obama speech in 2008.)

In foreign policy, Obama would wage a successful war in Afghanistan. He would convince dictators and adversaries why they should bow to his wishes. He would solve decades-long conflicts. American prestige would rise in all corners of the globe. “Instead of retreating from the world,” Obama said, “I will personally lead a new chapter of American engagement.” There would be the “reset” with Russia, the “new beginning” in the Middle East, the end of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and so much more. Mr. Obama would practice “smart diplomacy.” After all, he understood things the rest of us did not. And if you didn’t accept his view of the world, you weren’t simply mistaken; you were an ideologue, a hyper-partisan, a dullard, perhaps a fool, and/or someone whose thinking belonged to bygone era. Watch the contemptuous way the president dismissed Mitt Romney in a presidential debate on the topic of Russia — despite the fact that events have proven Romney right and Obama wrong.

And that’s the point, isn’t it? Our relations with nation after nation – from Afghanistan and Iraq to Russia and China, from Turkey, Jordan and Pakistan to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, from Japan, Taiwan and South Korea to India and Australia, from Honduras to Brazil, from Poland and the Czech Republic to Germany, Great Britain, Canada and more – are worse now than they were when Mr. Obama was sworn in as president in 2009. I’m not asking people to measure Mr. Obama against a standard of perfection; I’m asking them to measure him against his own promises, his own speeches, his own words.

Having been president for more than five years, we can now render some reasonable and informed judgments about Mr. Obama, including this one: he is an amateur on par with Jimmy Carter. And to see the crude and brutish Putin run circles around Obama—on negotiations over nuclear weapons, on granting asylum to Edward Snowden, on convincing Obama to undercut our allies in Poland and the Czech Republic, on establishing ties with Egypt, on strengthening the murderous Syrian regime, and now invading Crimea and threatening the rest of Ukraine—is painful for any American to witness. As House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers put it, “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close.” 

Governing is harder than Barack Obama ever imagined. But it isn’t that much harder.

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Ukraine, Isolationism and the Republicans

The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

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The Russian invasion of the Ukraine poses a tremendous challenge to President Obama as his feckless attempts at “resets” of relations with Russia and record of weakness abroad have put him a position where he is forced to respond to a crisis for which he clearly has no appetite but can’t ignore. But he isn’t the only one American politician who should be worrying about Vladimir Putin’s ability to overturn the applecart of Washington politics. Kentucky Senator Rand Paul should be just as concerned about how events abroad have a way of upsetting our assumptions about U.S. politics.

During the last year, Paul’s stock has risen within Republican circles as concerns over U.S. spying tactics, drone attacks and government scandals have propelled the libertarian into what might be considered the front runner’s spot for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. While Paul’s strong performance in his drone filibuster and clever distancing of himself from his father’s extremism has enabled him to expand his libertarian base, this was only made possible by the complete absence of a debate on foreign policy among Republicans. Where once support for a strong defense and a robust U.S. presence abroad was mainstream GOP thinking, war weariness after Iraq and Afghanistan and cynicism about President Obama has made Paul’s neo-isolationism to become acceptable and perhaps even popular on the right.

But Putin’s seizure of the Crimea is forcing Republicans as well as the administration to think seriously about foreign policy in a way they haven’t for years. In response, some on both the right and the left are responding by asking why the fate of the Ukraine should interest Americans. While they may sympathize with Putin’s victims, they say the question of sovereignty over Crimea or even the possible reconstruction of the old Soviet empire by the new Tsar in the Kremlin has nothing to do with American security or our interests. Though they self-consciously avoid echoing Neville Chamberlain’s characterization of Czechoslovakia in 1938 after Munich as a “faraway country” when distancing themselves from Ukraine’s peril, there’s little question that they are just as willing to have the West abandon it as it did the Czechs. But such thinking is not only callous; it is irresponsible. Ukraine can only be ignored at the cost of America’s credibility as a world power and to the detriment of the cause of liberty that people like Paul claim to support.

Obama’s fecklessness on Syria, Iran and now Ukraine have made the world a much more dangerous place. Unless you are prepared to retreat back to fortress America, a planet where tyrants feel free to act against U.S. allies and friends is one in which the U.S. is reduced to a second-rate nation with no power to protect its interests or its friends. We’ve already started to see that happen in the Middle East where both Israelis and Arabs now have good reason to be afraid of Iran, and in Europe where Putin is demonstrating that Western-oriented democracies can now be subjected to aggression with impunity. If history teaches us anything it is that such a situation is one in which the U.S. must demonstrate strength or watch as thugs like Putin misinterpret American apathy for a license to do as they like. That often creates unintended consequences for those who think they can ignore the world. To allow the Russians to lie about the Ukrainian protesters who deposed Putin’s puppet regime and to call them Nazis is highly ironic when it is Moscow that is committing aggression in a manner that is highly reminiscent of Europe’s tragic past.

Ron Paul and the libertarian core never demonstrated much interest in pushing back against foreign tyrants because they share the far left’s belief that it is U.S. “imperialism” that is primarily to blame for foreign strife. Rand Paul has benefited from the support from such people but now seeks to have it both ways and convince mainstream Republicans that he can be trusted to defend U.S. security. But there’s no defending American interests or a stable international order while the U.S. full retreat. Just as George W. Bush’s less than robust response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia set the stage for today’s events in the Ukraine, a weak performance by President Obama could mean that Putin’s next victims could be NATO members in the Baltic republics.

Republicans who claim to value freedom above all values should be capable of understanding that isolationism means treating that word as irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy. Conservatives who remember that concern for the fate of the enslaved people of the Soviet empire was a core principle for Ronald Reagan’s GOP cannot abandon the same people now with a clean conscience. The United States isn’t France. It is the sole superpower democracy and when it abandons its principles abroad the world has a tendency to unravel. That not only hurts the U.S. economy. It will also involve us in conflicts that are not yet on our radar and we won’t be able to ignore no matter how much we’d like to. The return of foreign policy to the front burner of American politics should be the beginning of a process that returns Paul’s libertarians to the margins of American politics.

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How Quickly Will It Be Back to Business As Usual For Relations With Russia?

It’s good to hear that John Kerry is going to Kiev. It’s good to hear that Russia’s G-8 Summit might be canceled and that Russia might be booted out of the G-8 altogether. And good to hear, as Kerry said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans.”

The problem is the words “could be.” They suggest an escape clause—namely that none of this may actually come to pass or, if it does, it will be for only a short period of time and then it will be back to business as normal with Russia.

Certainly Vladimir Putin did not suffer any lasting consequences the last time he violated one of the most basic norms in international law by invading a neighboring state. His 2008 invasion of Georgia, which occurred in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, caused no more than temporary consternation in Washington. Within a few months President Obama took office, promising a “reset” of relations with Russia.

The benefits of this “reset” are hard to find, unless one counts the Russian-orchestrated deal on Syrian chemical weapons which Bashar Assad is not carrying out on the agreed upon schedule. The costs of the “reset” are more obvious–it has convinced Putin that no matter how brazenly and unlawfully and thuggishly he acts, the U.S. will look the other way because semi-amicable relations with Russia are so important to whoever occupies the White House.

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It’s good to hear that John Kerry is going to Kiev. It’s good to hear that Russia’s G-8 Summit might be canceled and that Russia might be booted out of the G-8 altogether. And good to hear, as Kerry said Sunday, “there could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans.”

The problem is the words “could be.” They suggest an escape clause—namely that none of this may actually come to pass or, if it does, it will be for only a short period of time and then it will be back to business as normal with Russia.

Certainly Vladimir Putin did not suffer any lasting consequences the last time he violated one of the most basic norms in international law by invading a neighboring state. His 2008 invasion of Georgia, which occurred in the waning days of the George W. Bush administration, caused no more than temporary consternation in Washington. Within a few months President Obama took office, promising a “reset” of relations with Russia.

The benefits of this “reset” are hard to find, unless one counts the Russian-orchestrated deal on Syrian chemical weapons which Bashar Assad is not carrying out on the agreed upon schedule. The costs of the “reset” are more obvious–it has convinced Putin that no matter how brazenly and unlawfully and thuggishly he acts, the U.S. will look the other way because semi-amicable relations with Russia are so important to whoever occupies the White House.

It is no coincidence that Putin has now invaded a second neighbor, taking control of Crimea and threatening to do the same with other parts of eastern Ukraine. For the second time Putin has committed armed aggression against a neighboring state. He will do it again in the future–and so too will other predators who are watching carefully what happens in the present instance–unless it is clear there is a real price to be paid for his flagrant misconduct.

Admittedly our options to make Russia pay a price are limited, but they are not nonexistent. John Kerry outlined some steps that can inflict a small but significant cost on the Russian elite–a cost that will grow if Russian financial institutions are banned from the U.S. banking system and if assets controlled by Putin and his cronies in the West are frozen and if their ability to travel in the West is curtailed. All this is within the power of the president of the Untied State to achieve–some of it can be done unilaterally, while other steps will recover winning the support of allies, which is difficult but not impossible.

And the possible American response does not have to be limited to sanctions. There are other steps that can be taken such as rushing military, intelligence, and economic aid to Kiev, and agreeing to station U.S. troops in Eastern European NATO members such as Poland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to make clear that they will never share the fate of Ukraine. Such a step is guaranteed to cause considerable consternation in the Kremlin.

Western European states, which are dependent on Russian natural gas, might fear retaliation from Moscow but there are sharp limits on Russia’s ability to stop selling its gas–it cannot afford the loss of revenue for long. In any case, Russia exercises much less leverage over the US which correspondingly has the ability to take a sterner line with Moscow’s misconduct, provided the president has the willpower for a showdown. That is what we are about to find out in the next few days.

If I had to guess I would say that relations with Russia will be back to “normal” within a year but I hope to be proven wrong, because if my hunch is right, Putin will become even more brazen in the future–and so too will other autocrats.

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Obama, Ukraine and the Price of Weakness

There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

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There may be no way for the United States to reverse the Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine. The Obama administration still has the opportunity to send a strong message to Russian President Vladimir Putin to punish Moscow for this aggression in response to the ouster of one of their stooge in Kiev by a popular uprising. Indeed, he would do well to listen to the advice of Senator Marco Rubio who outlined eight steps the U.S. should take in response to the crisis. But whether or not the president acts appropriately now, it’s probably too late to preserve the territorial integrity of Ukraine from a predatory Russia. As he did in Georgia in 2008, Putin counted on both America and Europe being too weak and irresolute to stop him from aggression carried on in his own backyard even if meant violating international law by carrying out a unilateral partition of Ukraine to either annex part of that country to Russia or, as is more likely, set up another puppet state in the strategic Crimea. At this moment, there’s little reason to believe that calculation was incorrect.

But even if we take for granted that it’s too late to save Ukraine, the spectacle of Russian aggression should provoke a re-examination of the direction of U.S. foreign policy under President Obama. It should also cause us to think again about the assumption that the American people are, as Senator Rand Paul and a growing chorus of isolationists on both the right and the left have advocated, perfectly happy to retreat from the world stage and let aggressors such as Putin ‘s Russia or Iran have their way.  The lessons of the tragedy unfolding in the Crimea are many, but surely the first of them must be that when dictators don’t fear the warnings of the leader of the free world and when America demonstrates that it is war weary and won’t, on almost any account, take firm action, to defend its interests and to restrain aggression, mayhem is almost certainly always going to follow.

No doubt there will be many, whether they call themselves realists or isolationists, who will in the coming days argue that what happens in the Ukraine is none of our business. Americans who are sick of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan say they want no part of foreign wars or even a strong foreign policy that carries with it the chance of engaging in conflict. They may not cheer when Barack Obama speaks of “leading from behind” but they are entirely comfortable with the general drift toward retreat that has taken place in the last five years under his leadership. But, as we have seen in Syria and now in the Ukraine, there is a price to pay for such weakness and it is not one that will be paid by Bashar Assad or Putin. Nor will others who seek to test the mettle of American resolve, such as the leaders of Iran, fail to observe that the free world is led by a paper tiger. U.S. allies will draw the same conclusion.

A world in which dictators do as they like despite clear American warnings — as President Obama did first in Syria and then again this week about attacks on Ukraine — is not only a far more dangerous place. It also creates a dynamic in which every such American warning or diplomatic initiative is discounted as mere rhetoric, even if those daring to defy the United States are not so well situated as Putin is with his bold stroke in the Crimea. That is especially true with regards to the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program.

The circumstances of the U.S. diplomatic effort to restrain Iran’s nuclear ambitions are starkly different from those in the territories of the former Soviet Union. But the basic formula of a bold rogue regime that has no reason to fear the threats or the blandishments of either the U.S. or Europe is present in the P5+1 talks. Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy. The Obama administration gave up the formidable military, political and economic leverage they had over Iran last fall by signing an interim agreement with Iran that gave Tehran what it wanted in terms of recognizing their right to enrich uranium as well as loosening sanctions in exchange for almost nothing. If the Iranians had good reason to think they had nothing to fear from the Obama administration before this latest humiliation of the president at the hands of Putin, their conviction that they can be as tough as they like with him without worrying about a strong American response can only be greater today.

It is too late to save Ukraine from the theft of its territory. But it is not too late to reverse the U.S. retreat from the world stage that has been going on in the last years. President Obama can begin to regain some of his credibility by taking a strong stand on sanctions against Russia and sticking to it. But if he doesn’t no one should be under the illusion that it won’t affect Obama’s ability to prevail in the Iran talks. The cost of Obama-style weakness and isolationism will not be cheap, either for U.S. allies or for an American people who must now understand what it is like to live in a world where no one respects or fears their government.

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Russian Aggression Merits a Response

Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

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Men in military fatigues, armed with assault rifles, don’t magically appear out of nowhere. The fact that such individuals have taken control of two key airports in Crimea—a majority Russian-ethnic part of Ukraine—is not an indication of spontaneous protests against the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev. Rather it is a barely covert Russian military offensive designed, one assumes, to separate Crimea from the rest of Ukraine and bring it under de facto Russian sovereignty.

This would not be a new strategy for Vladimir Putin and Russia—it is similar to the way that Moscow has backed the breakaway regions of Transnistria in Moldova and South Ossetia in Georgia, in the latter case justifying an outright invasion of a sovereign neighbor based on the excuse that action was necessary to protect poor abused ethnic Russians. This also recalls how Hitler justified his invasions of Czechoslovakia and Poland on the grounds of protecting ethnic Germans.

Indeed the Russian fingerprints are blatantly obvious all over the Crimea operation even if the men in military uniforms—presumably affiliated with the Russian military, the Interior Ministry special forces, the FSB or some other branch of the Russian state—are not wearing any identification or taking any questions from reporters. Elsewhere in Crimea armored personnel carriers with Russian markings have been spotted on the roads. Russia does not even have to undertake a formal invasion of Ukraine; through such semi-covert action it can make massive trouble for the new pro-Western government in Kiev.

The question now is how the West—assuming such a thing still exists—will respond to Russian aggression. Based on the experience of Georgia in 2008—the last time Russia invaded one of its neighbors, that time using columns of tanks rather than rifle-wielding mystery men—the response will be scant.

Certainly John Kerry’s warnings about Russia “crossing a line in any way” cannot carry much weight with Putin, who remembers all too well how President Obama allowed Bashar Assad to cross a previous “red line” on the use of chemical weapons. But the issue is not just Obama’s credibility or lack thereof; George W. Bush was still president in 2008 and he did precious little about Russia’s invasion of Georgia.

The more general issue is that Russia, while no longer a superpower, remains an important power that Washington hesitates to antagonize because of a general feeling that we need Russian help to deal with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and other important issues—and a sense that there is not much we can do anyway against a nuclear-armed state. Such sentiments are understandable but they should not be a bar to serious non-military action—for example imposing sanctions on either the Russian economy as a whole or on particular individuals, i.e., senior members of the government and their business world cronies who have built up hefty bank accounts and real estate portfolios in the West. At the very least the Russian elite must be made to pay a price if Putin does not stop his aggression against yet another former Soviet republic. More than that, the West must rally to the cause of the new government in Ukraine and provide the kind of support it needs–beginning with a financial lifeline–to withstand Russian intimidation.

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