Myopia is epidemic in Washington, and always has been. So too is compartmentalization. When a crisis occurs in Syria, anyone who’s anyone within government stumbles over themselves to get into the crisis meetings, and everything else falls off the radar screen. Two months ago, if someone in government called a meeting about Crimea, perhaps two or three people would show up, and one of them would be an intern hoping to avoid Xerox duty; today, any Crimea meeting would be packed. Those in the meetings will look at the immediate next steps for U.S. policy with regard to the immediate belligerents, but discussion does not go broader.
The real world is the polar opposite. What happens in Crimea doesn’t stay in Crimea. In 1994, Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ukraine signed the Budapest Memorandum. In short, Russia recognized Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea, Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, and the United States and Great Britain offered Ukraine security guarantees. In hindsight, only the Ukrainians kept their promise; everyone else broke their pledge.
The problem is not simply potential Russian aggressiveness against former Soviet states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova, but rather the notion that U.S. and European security guarantees are meaningless: Russia invaded a sovereign state and Obama reacted by putting Russian President Vladimir Putin on the diplomatic equivalent of double-secret probation. Rogue states and America’s adversaries do not ignore the world around them. In Dancing With the Devil, I document how Iranian negotiators treat North Korea as an example to replicate, not a rogue to condemn. So, where might the next crisis be?
The Korean War initially broke out when Kim Il-song interpreted Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s “Defensive Perimeter” speech as a sign that the United States would no longer defend its ally on the Korean Peninsula. Is there any reason why President Obama believes Kim Jong-un, the dear leader’s grandson and new dear leader, will interpret Obama’s weakness any differently?
Likewise, Putin acted in Ukraine against the backdrop of stagnation in the Russian economy. Whipping up nationalist sentiment seems to have successfully distracted Russians from Putin’s own domestic incompetence. If sparking a crisis can distract from economic woes without fear of reprisal, why shouldn’t the Argentine government make its move against the Falkland Islands? After all, the age of Reagan and Thatcher is over. Israel, too, must recognize that American security guarantees aren’t worth the paper upon which they are written, even if Kerry returns from Geneva waving a paper and boasting that he has Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s signature upon it.
The greatest difference between left and right in America today when it comes to national security is that the left always demonizes power, while the right recognizes that power can be used for good or bad. What Obama and his supporters do not recognize, however, is the reverberations of American weakness. Altruistic powers will not fill the vacuum; dictatorships will. When a Niccolò Machiavelli challenges a Neville Chamberlain, not only will the Chamberlains not win, but death and destruction will follow.