Empty Tough Talk from U.S. Hawks

From Ukraine to Iran to the East China Sea, the "tougher" option proposed has always been worse.

You would think it’s self-evident that Ukraine’s current crisis and the controversies sparked before its eruption by Iran’s nuclear program, China’s muscle-flexing against Japan and the Philippines over disputed tiny islands, and Syria’s continuing carnage are distinct—that they have little, if anything, in common. Well, you’d be wrong, at least in the eyes of the staunchest critics of American foreign policy under Barack Obama. In their mind, what connects these conflicts, which are so far apart spatially, is that each has been aggravated, perhaps even enabled, by Obama’s fecklessness, which projects to adversaries America’s weakness instead of its strength. In this reading, America’s friends have lost confidence in wayward Washington, while its foes have developed a contempt for American will, which inclines them to brazenness because they believe there’s no price to be paid. In this portrayal Obama is a stick figure evoking memories of Neville Chamberlain.

Let’s start with Ukraine, skipping the details, which have been explored in numerous pieces published recently on this site. Here’s where we are: Following the ouster of the inept, corrupt Viktor Yanukovych and his regime and the triumph of the Maidan protest movement the proclivity in the West has been to cheer what is hailed as a popular revolution that promises a new beginning—a democratic Ukraine integrated with Europe.

Well, Vladimir Putin, who had been watching Ukraine while attending the Sochi Winter Olympics, has an altogether different assessment. He regards the protest movement’s overthrow of Yanukovych as a coup against an elected president who in December exercised his lawful right to mothball the Association Agreement he had been negotiating with the EU and to opt for a deal with Russia: a $15 billion credit line and a one-third cut in the price of Russian natural gas, which Ukraine relies on to meet its 60 percent of its needs.

Once the curtain fell on the Sochi spectacular, and the tensions between pro-Europe and pro-Russian forces flared, notably in Crimea, which has a near-60 percent Russian majority and is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Putin, no longer worried about bad publicity that would overshadow or tarnish the games, wasted no time. Russian troops stationed in the Crimean port of Sevastopol fanned out, and Putin secured parliamentary approval—no trouble there—to deploy additional forces in Ukraine, ostensibly to protect endangered ethnic Russians.

Enter the spineless-Obama, American-weakness-tempts-tyrants tropes. As the president’s critics have it, Putin, who smells weakness a mile away, would have been deterred were someone made of sterner stuff occupying the Oval Office. The problem, in short, has been a failure of American leadership. The complexities of Ukraine’s situation, none subject to Washington’s control, seem secondary. The solipsism embedded in this thesis, which is trotted out whenever its adherents see anything that they find objectionable occurring in the world, is staggering. It is a weird mix of self-flagellation and an American variant of the Middle Kingdom syndrome.

Neoconservatives are scarcely the only ones to be in its thrall. So are liberal internationalists. They embraced a providential view of America’s role in the world long beforeMadeleine Albright reduced it to bite-size proportions with her “indispensable nation” quip.

We’ll come to the latter camp in a bit, but on Ukraine it’s the neoconservatives who’ve been beating the appeasement drum the loudest. Evident in their analyses is passion and sanctimoniousness; absent is any sense of proportion or strategic acumen.

Consider the context. Ukraine lies on Russia’s doorstep, and one need not buy Putin’s worldview to understand that that country occupies an essential place in his conception of Russia’s security and standing. (Moscow was set to loan $15 billion—more if one counts the gas subsidy—and has since mobilized its troops. What have Washington and Brussels put on the table until just recently?) Ukraine, the cradle of eastern Slavic civilization, borders Russia and is the main corridor for pipelines carrying Russian gas to Europe. It also has a substantial Russian, or Russophone, population, not just in Crimea but also in the Donbass.