The United States has once again twisted itself into a rhetorical pretzel. As when it threatened military action against Syria if a “red line” was crossed, the Obama administration’s rhetoric about Russia and Ukraine goes far beyond what it will be willing and able to enforce.
Earlier this month, President Obama warned that America would “isolate Russia” if it grabbed more land, and yesterday, he suggested that more sanctions were possible. Likewise, Secretary of State John Kerry said the Group of 7 nations were “prepared to go to the hilt” in order to isolate Russia.
But Washington’s rhetoric is dangerously excessive, for three main reasons: Ukraine is far more important to Vladimir V. Putin than it is to America; it will be hard for the United States and Europe to make good on their threats of crippling sanctions; and other countries could ultimately defang them…
The fundamental problem is that the Obama administration doesn’t want to bear the costs associated with an active foreign policy. That’s understandable. A December Pew poll revealed the lowest level of public support for an active American foreign policy since 1964.
This domestic pressure was on display in Syria. Mr. Obama’s error was not that he backed away from military action and accepted Russia’s proposal to rid Syria of chemical weapons. The mistake was that he drew a red line that would have been more costly to back up than the United States was willing to tolerate. America lost credibility internationally for failing to make good on its threat.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration is repeating this mistake in Ukraine…
“Isolating Russia” as if it were Iran or North Korea isn’t a threat America can feasibly make good on. Just because Mr. Putin is acting like the leader of a rogue state, his country cannot be considered as such. Russia boasts the world’s eighth-largest economy. Given the exposure of American corporations to Russia, there would be serious pushback from the private sector if Mr. Obama tried to relegate Russia to rogue-state status. The Obama administration needs to preach what it will ultimately practice. Otherwise Washington’s credibility will erode further as it walks back its words.
A more hard-line response is not the answer. Mr. Obama was right to rule out the military option; diplomacy is America’s only viable path forward…
The Obama administration should focus on supporting Kiev rather than punishing Moscow. That means using its leverage with Europe to ensure that this support sticks, and that Ukraine’s new government does nothing to provoke an extreme response. This will require an acknowledgment of Russia’s core interests and America’s limitations — and an end to empty threats.
There are about three historic levels to the context of this antagonistic complexity. Most of which is viewed with greater clarity outside the United States than within. Not unusual.
On the longest historic stage, Americans forget we acquired foreign territory much in the same way Albanians did Kosovo, Russians did Crimea. We moved in and colonized economic expansion and then used our [foreign] military might to guarantee the freedom of our colonists to secede. In case you never read a history book, that’s how we got Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Utah and a chunk of Wyoming and Colorado.
Nearer in time, lacking an adjacent border, the US invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq – especially the latter – didn’t have a damned thing to do with protecting our nation. Not on that scale, nothing to do with what we set out to accomplish and failed.
Pretending there is nothing comparable between the secession of Kosovo and the Crimea is patent leather revisionism. The voting population of Kosovo was skewed by incomers as much or more than Crimea – over a shorter period of time. The politics of each differs; but, international codes are cobbled together in an attempt to function independent of local politics. Whether they succeed at it or not.