The Ugly, Pointless Domestic Fight Over Ukraine

Legitimate critiques notwithstanding, it is long past time to stop carping over the Obama administration’s initial response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military incursion into Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula has generated a storm of commentary and analysis on virtually every question under the sun. What is driving Putin to act in such an aggressive manner? What does Russia’s speedy intervention in Ukraine tell us about the strength of the new government in Kiev? And what can NATO and the European Union possibly do in response?

All of these questions strike at the heart of the manner, and the answers will determine whether the Ukrainian crisis can be resolved through a process of de-escalation—Washington and NATO’s first preference—or made worse by ill-timed and uninformed decisions.

Back in Washington, there is an entirely different set of questions that are being batted around. Historically, a crisis of international proportions would band Republican and Democratic lawmakers together. Yet in an age of rapid partisanship on seemingly every major policy issue, that tradition has been relegated to the sidelines. Moscow’s adventure in Crimea is instead resurrecting a divisive and politically-charged debate on foreign policy that has often clouded the Obama administration’s legacy since the moment it assumed office five years ago. The central question is and remains: Is the United States under President Obama being too passive on the international stage and abdicating global leadership?

“Weak, soft, unprincipled,” and “naïve” are words that President Obama and his national security aides in the White House now well; from the administration’s early decision to “reset” America’s bilateral relationship with Russia to Obama’s personal determination for a comprehensive nuclear settlement with Iran, Republicans of all ideological stripes have used the “America-is-weak” argument as a way to rile their base and diminish the president’s credibility on matters of foreign policy.

Putin’s quick and unchallenged military invasion of Ukraine’s strategic Crimea Peninsula—an area that has a majority Russian population and has traditionally been a part of Russian territory—has provided these same Republicans with a great talking point to buttress their claims. Speaking to the CBS program Face the Nation on Sunday, March 9, former vice president Dick Cheney connected Putin’s actions in Ukraine directly to what he views as America’s inability to lead the world since the Obama team entered the White House. “We have created an image around the world,” Cheney stated, “not just for the Russians, of weakness, of indecisiveness.” Former Republican vice presidential nominee (and rumored 2016 presidential candidate) Paul Ryan immediately picked up where Cheney left off on the same program, categorizing the earlier U.S.-Russia reset policy as “naïve, wishful thinking,” while at the same time encouraging the administration to revisit a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic that was scrapped as costly and strategically useless in 2009. Even Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration, entered the discussion with an op-ed in The Washington Post, urging renewed American global leadership in order to ensure that an already tense situation in Ukraine doesn’t get worse.

Conservatives are right, however, about one point: in the opening hours of Russia’s intervention in Crimea, Washington was caught a bit flat-footed. Part of the surprise can be chalked up to the initial confusion over the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation, where there appeared to be a stark difference of opinion on whether Putin would send troops into Ukraine. In an ideal world, the Obama administration could have been more prepared during the first forty-eight hours of the crisis, perhaps by ensuring that the White House, State Department, and Pentagon had a ready-to-go policy package that they could have quickly employed to deal with such a contingency.

Legitimate critiques notwithstanding, it is long past time to stop carping over the Obama administration’s initial response. Instead, Republicans and Democrats alike need to work together in a rare act of bipartisanship to implement a unified policy that is helpful to Ukraine’s future, punishes Russia for its clear violation of the United Nations Charter and highlights U.S. resolve during a time of international crisis.