The White House Needs to Shut Up

Every time the administration opens its mouth, it's only making things worse in Ukraine.    

The Obama White House cannot resist the temptation to parade its every move in the Ukraine crisis -- much to the detriment of its policy succeeding. This is an indiscipline born of self-regard: The White House thinks the president is so compelling and so central to the narrative that his every utterance is advantageous. And, of course, this is an administration in which no national security issue is assessed innocent of domestic political impact. They are failing to understand that by making the crisis so personal, the United States is doing a disservice to the people of Ukraine and making it much more difficult for the Russians to walk back their reckless grab for Crimea.

The White House not only tells reporters when the president talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but then spills the contents of the phone calls. So we know they talked for 90 minutes on Saturday, March 1, and again five days later when President Barack Obama told Putin, according to a White House readout, that "Russia's actions are in violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners." The president himself stepped up to the mic that same day to say, "We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

But it is a mystery why this White House thinks any of this will soften Putin's resolve to see this gambit through. Maybe Obama thinks pious reassertion of Western values will cement European support for economic sanctions on Moscow (that will hit their economies, but not America's). In any event, the White House seems not to appreciate that the president's statement is factually untrue, as Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008 actually did redraw borders over the head of a democratic leader, and this very administration did precious little to penalize a Russia with which it wanted to "reset" relations on more positive footing.

Moreover, let's recall just how much moral, if not legal, ambiguity we face in this crisis. The United States has sided with people who just overthrew a democratically elected government -- the protests in Kiev overturned a democratic process, just as the protests in Cairo ousted President Mohamed Morsi. So the administration looks to be on pretty thin ice when it touts the unassailability of democratic processes. It not only makes the United States look hypocritical -- the country only respects the rules when they produce outcomes it likes -- but it also gives credence to the upcoming plebiscite in Crimea. All the White House grandstanding has painted its policy into a corner: The United States is now in the position of arguing against the will of the majority in Crimea to protect the will of the majority in Kiev.

The more the administration makes the crisis in Ukraine about a conflict between the West and Russia, the less likely Moscow is to accede to Washington's preferred outcome. Secretary of State John Kerry understands this, but the White House keeps interjecting the "President vs. Putin" story line, which only tempts journalists with "can he deliver the West?" articles. What Obama should be doing instead is putting the challenges of Ukraine in the center of the picture. This is a state that struggles to be a nation, with a deeply corrupt leadership that has bankrupted a wealthy country and with low levels of social trust between its eastern and western populations. Moreover, it's clear the new legislature in Kiev did set off alarms in Crimea that its opening effort to outlaw the speaking of Russian; that doesn't justify the Kremlin's aggression, but it does give some context for fears of Ukrainians in the east of the country.

The best way forward in this crisis is to focus our immediate attention on putting Ukraine in a position to elect a legislature broadly representative of the country. That goes both at the national level, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 25, and regionally in Crimea, where a snap vote on separation from Ukraine will be held on March 16. In that narrow window of time we should be racing to address legitimate Crimean concerns, flood the zone with international observers of every stripe to provide information and bear witness to events, deeply engage with leaders on all sides to condition their behavior by making clear our responses to a variety of outcomes, and publicly support principled policies that reassure the losers of elections that their rights will still be respected. Rather than declaring, as Obama did, the Crimean plebiscite illegal, we should do what democracies do: win the argument.

Now is the time to unleash Jimmy Carter on Crimea! And not in terms of Obama's policy, but in a legion of international observers who will inform the world and scold the parties to the conflict to behave consistent with international norms. Where is Code Pink putting daisies in the rifles of Russian soldiers? Where are business reports that Gazprom being an arm of the Russian state should attract more regulatory attention and less investment? We so seldom actually use these tools of free societies to our advantage. Let's see how the Russians manage when faced with the real power of the West: not governments, but civil society.

Once Ukraine is on more stable footing we can turn our attention to the dish best served cold: retaliation against Putin and his cronies for their bare-knuckled attempt to establish "protection of Russians" as the basis for intimidating neighbors. Putin has already achieved a valuable aim: showing the region what Russia is capable of. As authoritarians understand much better than do those of us who live in secure freedom, once you instill fear in people, it actually doesn't take much repression to sustain it. By asserting the primacy of Russians' rights wherever they reside, he has cast a self-censoring shadow into the politics of the Baltic states. The Obama administration is to be commended for moving swiftly to reassure America's NATO allies that the United States will defend their territorial integrity; more needs to be done to show the country will also protect their domestic politics from Russian interference.

Instead, however, the White House is madly backgrounding reporters about what the United States is privately demanding of the Russians: The White House said Obama told Putin there still was a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which would include Kiev and Moscow holding direct talks, international monitors, and Russian forces returning to their bases. There was no indication of Putin's response.

Putin agreeing to those things -- all of which are good policy objectives -- will seem a climb down and are, frankly, unlikely. Washington's smarter move would be to allow the Russians to claim credit for things it wants to have happen. But this is a White House that can't even give credit to allies for their work in Libya and Mali; there's no chance this White House is able to get past the effrontery of Russian snubs to achieve bigger objectives.

The White House is still trying to outrun its self-characterization of "leading from behind" by showing the president to be an active, forceful presence in the Ukraine crisis. It's still trying to dig him out of the embarrassment of his unwillingness to enforce his red line on Syria. In other words, the White House is fighting the last war. This political solipsism is actually making this potential war more likely and making less likely an outcome consistent with U.S. interests and those of the people of Ukraine. The president needs to discipline himself to stop talking and start doing the small things that can be done.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images


Obama's Not Carter -- He's Eisenhower

And he's prepared to let Putin win the battle, knowing that the West will win the war.

On Nov. 4, 1956, Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest after Hungarian authorities announced that they would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. A last, desperate teletype message from Hungarian insurgents read, "They just brought us a rumor that the American troops will be here within one or two hours.… We are well and fighting." Troops were not on the way. U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who had vowed to roll back Soviet control of Eastern Europe, did nothing, and the Hungarian uprising was crushed. Leaders of both U.S. parties accused Eisenhower of kowtowing to the Soviets. Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate for president, alleged that the incumbent had "brought the coalition of the free nations to a point where even its survival has been threatened."

Russia has invaded a border nation once again, and once again the American president stands accused of vacillation. Barack Obama is not the former supreme commander of Allied forces, so the darts fired his way penetrate much deeper than they did into Eisenhower, who coasted to re-election. Obama's cautious response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of the Ukrainian region of Crimea has confirmed his growing reputation as a weak-willed figure whose faltering leadership has sent a message of impunity to the world's bullies. Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham recently tweeted that Obama's failure to attack the Libyans who killed U.S. diplomat Chris Stevens in 2012 invited "this type of aggression." Graham has a partisan ax to grind, but much of the commentariat has followed suit. My colleague David Rothkopf, straining for terms of abuse sufficient to the moment, has written that comparing Obama to Jimmy Carter, the gold standard for presidential weakness, may be "unfair to Carter."

There is an implicit analogy here to the world of human relations. Since the only language a bully understands is intimidation, he can be deterred only if he knows in advance that he'll pay an intolerable price for his behavior: beat up my little brother and you'll answer to me. In the realm of foreign relations, this logic dictates Donald Rumsfeld's famous truism, "Weakness is provocative." Rumsfeld believed that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would serve as a demonstration project for bullies all over the Middle East, who would now think twice before testing American resolve. That experience taught many people, though not the former defense secretary, that bellicosity can be even more provocative than weakness.

The impulse to chestiness is hard to resist, whether in life or in foreign affairs. There is something glamorous and enviable about the freedom of action a bully enjoys. He swaggers, while lesser souls cower. We yearn to emulate that freedom without indulging in that cruelty -- thus our Walter Mitty fantasies. Bullying behavior seems even more intolerable when, like the United States, you're the most powerful kid on the playground. We thrill at the big brother who balls up his fist in the name of justice. Ronald Reagan got vastly more credit with the American people for crying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall!" than his successor George H.W. Bush did for helping Mikhail Gorbachev end the Soviet empire peacefully. But the world owes Bush a much greater debt of gratitude.

Eisenhower understood that bullies often cannot be deterred without threatening a response that would be catastrophic for one and all. This is especially the case when the aggressor cares much more about the victim than we do. Nikita Khrushchev could not afford to lose Hungary, just as Putin believes that he cannot afford to lose Crimea to a Western-oriented Ukrainian government. That's no secret. Crimea was historically Russian, serves as the home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet, and satisfies Moscow's age-old drive for warm-water ports. A thug like Putin responds to a threat of this magnitude the only way he knows how -- with brute force. The idea that a more resolute American president would have made Putin stay his hand seems fanciful, on the order of "Who lost China?" or all the other places weak-willed American leaders are said to have lost to the communists. Today's version is "Who lost Benghazi?" -- or Syria.

Eisenhower felt confident that, in the end, the Soviets would not dance on the grave of the West, but that it would turn out the other way around. I suspect that Obama thinks about Putin in much the same way. Those who sneer at Obama now laud Putin as a strategic mastermind, playing Risk, as FP contributing editor Will Inboden puts it, while Obama plays Candy Land. Yet Putin has turned Russia into Saudi Arabia with nukes, a petrostate incapable of exporting anything that doesn't come out of the ground. He's playing with a switchblade while the rest of the world learns how to operate a laser.

As a foreign-policy president, Obama deserves to be compared to Eisenhower at least as much as he does to Carter. Like Obama, Eisenhower inherited a vast military budget that he viewed as an unsustainable burden on the national economy. He tried, not always successfully, to do more, or as much, with less. (In Maximalist, Stephen Sestanovich describes both as "retrenchment" presidents.) Obama's great goal in foreign policy is to wind down inherited conflicts -- including the war on terror, as I wrote last week -- in order to give his activist domestic agenda a fighting chance.

The besetting flaw of Obama's foreign policy is not that it's irresolute but rather that it has become so single-mindedly, unimaginatively subtractive. Obama entered office with great hopes of reorganizing the world order around global issues like nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. But he learned over time that he could not wish away the intractable conflicts he had inherited and that the American people had little appetite for his transformative vision, and so his enthusiasm sagged and his horizons contracted. He chose instead to make sure that America wasn't singed by the world's conflagrations -- above all in Syria, where he seems quite content to make empathic gestures in the face of the worst atrocities in a generation.

That's bad enough, of course. The distance between the hopes Obama once raised and the comfort zone he has chosen to occupy is far greater than was the gap between Eisenhower's rhetorical anti-communism and his pragmatic accommodations. Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress, which functions as the White House's think tank, recently commented that Obama has stopped telling Americans why the world matters. He may have concluded that he can't win the argument.

My point, then, is not that Obama's detractors don't realize what a fine job he's doing, but that his failures are not failures of nerve. Had he followed a more confrontational policy toward Russia from the outset, as conservative critics wish he had, he might not have gained the cooperation he got on arms control, Afghanistan, and Iran -- and he would have played into Putin's fantasy of a battle of equals between the two countries, which in turn would have helped him gin up even more vociferous Russian nationalism in the face of unacceptable threats like the incorporation of Ukraine into Europe. I dearly wish that Obama had agreed two years ago to train, fund, and equip the Syrian rebels, and I believe his failure to intervene there will be a lasting stain on his presidency. But I wish he had done so to rescue the Syrian people from a monster, not to create a demonstration project for Putin.

Obama will now do what he can to isolate Russia through some combination of sanctions and the cancellation of events like the G-8 meeting scheduled for Sochi in June. None of that will have much of an effect so long as Putin's cult of personality continues to transfix ordinary Russian citizens; isolation will probably only strengthen his standing. A new era of East-West confrontation may loom, though if so it would be a much more lopsided one in which Russia has neither allies nor a legitimating ideology. Even more than the last time around, therefore, the West can afford to be steady and patient, secure in the knowledge that the future lies with the liberal democracies.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images