Monday, March 3, 2014

Breaking News: Washington Post Tells Obama to Get Tough or Something!

The Post says Obama do something. Do what? The Post doesn't know.

The Washington Post delivered a stinging criticism to Barack Obama for living in a "fantasy" concerning Russia and its actions in Crimea. Then, to drive the point home the Post's editorial board tells Obama he should, uh,uh...they don't say. Bold!

Okay, maybe I'm not being fair. They tell the president to not do the following things:
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. A great power can become overextended, and if its economy falters, so will its ability to lead. None of this is simple.
OMG, that's it. The Post doesn't know what to tell the president to do because none of this is simple. Wow. That's helpful.

This Post op-ed by Johns Hopkins professor Eliot A. Cohen is also not helpful, since all is recommends is doing something "persistently and  decisively." And what would that be? It doesn't say.

Funny thing is, the Post's leading foreign policy voice, David Ignatius, pens an op-ed in which he calls the Russian moves in Crimea "miscalculations" typical of Putin:
Putin’s Russia may well make more mistakes: We may see a cascading chain of error that brings Russian troops deeper into Ukraine and sets the stage for civil war. Those are the kind of miscalculations that lead to catastrophic consequences, and Obama would be wise to seek to deter Russian aggression without specifying too clearly what the U.S. ladder of escalation might be.
But Americans and Europeans should agree that this is a story about Putin’s violation of the international order. I’d be happy if we could interrupt Russia’s mistakes, but so far Putin insists on doing the wrong thing.
See the startling thing that Ignatius does there? America and Europe need to drive the point that "this is a story about Putin's violation of the international order." From that starting point, grown-ups issue warnings, then diplomacy, and when that fails, move to censure, boycotts, and sanctions. If the West moves as one -- and face it, China and the East are not loving Putin's moves either -- then a united front can affect the outcome.

By all accounts, though, Putin can be counted on to do the wrong thing in most cases, especially if he feels squeezed by NATO and fearful of the EU expanding and taking away Russian markets. So if the wrong thing is spreading his troops beyond Crimea, we can expect that's what Putin will do.

But calling Obama's cautious foreign policy a "fantasy" -- without saying why, other than an amorphous "Come on, lead the world!" -- isn't what we expect from our Capitol's leading paper. But then, what am I saying? That's all we can expect from the Post lately.

Washington-Post-owned Slate offers a number of interesting pieces about why Putin is doing what he's doing. Fred Kaplan says there's damned little we can or should do about it but,  does make some interesting recommendations, like promising Putin the West won't push for NATO or EU membership for Ukraine, for example, if Putin allows Ukrainian autonomy. That might work without using bombs (sorry, John McCain). Joshua Keating gives a good round-up of Ukrainian issues.

One point that Kaplan drives home -- and that I agree with -- is that President Obama erred when he drew his "red line" in Syria over chemical weapons. True, it led to a Russian-brokered agreement that Assad destroy its chemical weapons stockpile -- a pledge he's severely dragging his heels on. Obama may yet prove that he got results the West can be satisfied with.

The problem, however, with red-line rhetoric -- like Obama's threat of "consequences" over Ukraine -- is that they look like squishy measures, adding some merit to otherwise baseless claims that Obama is weak. There's a difference between having no good options and actually being weak. The president's opponents will mercilessly pound Obama regardless what he does. The moral? Never act bellicose unless you've already set the stage for real action.

If there's one thing that would be helpful is for everyone, especially the WaPo editorial board, to shut up and let diplomacy have its day. Fat chance.

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