President Theodore Roosevelt perfected the foreign policy of “speak softly and carry a big stick.” President Obama is trying a radically new approach of speak loudly and carry a small stick. If early results are any indication it is failing miserably.
The latest application of the Obama Doctrine—if you can call it that—is playing out in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, which Vladimir Putin’s Russia has just taken by force. Putin’s move to carve up and parcel out Ukraine occurred in the vacuum following former President Viktor Yanukovych—a demonstrably terrible, albeit democratically elected official—deposition in a popular uprising.
Russia’s move was quick, decisive and left a clear indication of its ambitions: To spread its zone of influence. Obama’s response has been, well, doddering.
The best our president could muster was to say that the U.S. “condemns” the takeover of Crimea and said it was a “breach of international law.” “There will be costs,” Obama said, of any Russian intervention. Secretary of State John Kerry added that a military move would cost Moscow “hugely” and would be a “grave mistake.”
And when will the U.S. extract those costs? White House Press Secretary Jay Carney attempted to clear that up in disastrous fashion.
“[W]e’re watching very closely to see if Russia is acting in any way that would cross the line when it comes to intervention in the affairs of a foreign state,” Carney told reporters.
It’s as if the White House completely failed to learn from the mistakes it made in dealing with Syria. Setting a “red line” when you have no intent to act, then watching Bashar Al-Assad inexorably cross that red line, only to suffer no real consequences, served to show how weak the U.S. was. The Obama Administration demonstrated its willingness to talk loudly, but carry a small stick.
The question now becomes: What on earth is an “intervention line”? Or perhaps more to the point, hasn’t Russia crossed it? After all, Russian forces have already seized Crimea after they surrounded Ukrainian military outposts and demanded their surrender. And although Putin is currently saying he sees no reason for Russian forces to intervene in Ukraine, he left open the possibility of future military action. He’s also following the exact same playbook—right down to offering Russian passports to ethnic Russians in Crimea—as he used in Georgia, right before he started a one-sided war.
“The Russians raised the stakes and baited [former Georgia President Mikheil] Saakashvili…by effecting a ‘soft annexation of South Ossetia,” wrote Thomas de Waal, a regional expert. “Moscow handed out Russian passports to the South Ossetians and installed its official in government posts there. Russian soldiers, although notionally peacekeepers, have acted as an informal occupying army.”
And although the parallels are too much to ignore, President Obama keeps right on ignoring them, apparently learning nothing from the impacts of President George W. Bush’s inaction. Our weakness has now become evident to the point that our posturing is laughable. And as the far-left leaning Washington Post editorial board writes, that’s making the world, and America, less safe:
For five years, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which “the tide of war is receding” and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Other leaders, in this vision, would behave rationally and in the interest of their people and the world. Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past. Secretary of State John F. Kerry displayed this mindset on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday when he said, of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, “It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century.”
Unfortunately, as the Post’s editorialists note, Russian President Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and others haven’t gotten the memo on what it means to be a global power in the 21st century. To them the economy matters, but so does military might and geopolitical power. And to effectively check these misanthropes requires a more convincing display of American authority than President Obama has thus far given.
The White House often responds by accusing critics of being warmongers who want American “boots on the ground” all over the world and have yet to learn the lessons of Iraq. So let’s stipulate: We don’t want U.S. troops in Syria, and we don’t want U.S. troops in Crimea. But it’s also true that, as long as some leaders play by what Mr. Kerry dismisses as 19th-century rules, the United States can’t pretend that the only game is in another arena altogether. Military strength, trustworthiness as an ally, staying power in difficult corners of the world such as Afghanistan — these still matter, much as we might wish they did not. While the United States has been retrenching, the tide of democracy in the world, which once seemed inexorable, has been receding. In the long run, that’s harmful to U.S. national security, too.
In other words, either stop talking so loudly, or start carrying a bigger stick.