The rhetorical question is often asked: what do conservatives want president Obama to do about the Ukraine? As one commenter put it: “are you suggesting we should mobilize and take off on another foreign adventure to secure Ukraine?”
This completely misstates the problem whose roots lie in the understanding of four very common words: could, can’t, won’t and will. One way to respond to the rhetorical question above is to facetiously answer: “no it’s better to wait until Putin reaches the border of Poland or tries to take over Finland.” After all, Finland has been mentioned in the press as a future Putin target and Poland has declared itself worried.
But that is a digression. Back to the four words. If the question should ever arise: “are you suggesting we should mobilize and take off on another foreign adventure to secure Finland … or the Ukraine … or the Baltic” the first question to ask is can we?
Can is a statement of capability. The question of whether America should help secure the Ukraine is different from the issue of whether it can. What’s destabilizing is the revelation that Obama can’t. It’s a crisis of capability brought about by policy mismanagement. A policeman can shoot you with his service weapon though most people know sane policemen won’t. But if the public learned that policemen can’t shoot — because there’s no ammunition or no gun — that is a a more serious issue altogether.
As another commenter put it on this site: if the USAF didn’t have the capability to nuke Chicago there should be a Congressional investigation demanding to know why. That would indicate a failure of capability.
President Obama has made it appear that he simply chooses not to stop Putin — won’t — as if it were a question of choice. But the allies are increasingly coming to suspect that he can’t because of cuts he’s made to America’s levers of influence, including hobbling its oil industry, in order to divert those resources to domestic political constituencies. It’s not that he won’t halt Putin, but he can’t.
His inaction is a necessity. It’s like having no lifeboats on the Titanic. You don’t choose not to get into a lifeboat, there’s nothing to get into.
When a president says he undertakes to perform a certain policy act, it reflects the combination of can, should and will. The problem with the Budapest Agreement is that the should embodied in it is without the can or the will.
This analysis also applies Obama’s Red Lines. Red Lines are a combination of these four simple words.
The Red Line Obama drew in Syria is supported by the can. The US Navy and Air Force can bomb Assad out of office. But Obama lacked the should — the legal authority — and above all he lacked will or determination to do it. If you lack the will or the means, then no Red Line.
The United States can’t draw a Red Line in the Ukraine for another reason. It lacks the capability. If the United States had the capacity to intervene in Ukraine, then the discussion might revolve around the shoulds of the case. But we’re not even there since the capability to act has been traded away in any case. There’s no point invoking the Budapest agreement any more than it makes sense to ponder whether to visit St. Tropez or the Riviera for your next vacation when you can’t even afford a Greyhound ticket to Pittsburgh.
Actually if president Obama had the credible capacity intervene in the Ukraine it would draw a protective shield over it without him ever uttering a word. This is what Teddy Roosevelt meant when he said “speak softly but carry a big stick”. As it is, Obama utters lots and lots of words to no effect, a case of ‘speak for hours and carry a toothpick’.
About all one can do now is build up capacity so that if Vladimir ever came to Finland or Poland there will be an actual choice available to the US in that contingency. This is no more sinister than saving up for an air ticket so you can go to the Riviera if you want to. In the end you may choose to vacation in Pittsburgh after all. But you could go to France.
Then Obama could. Which doesn’t mean he will unless he makes the choice. But things will become so much more uncertain for Putin if Obama can. One of the most ironic things about the Obama presidency is that Yes We Can hasn’t even been replaced by No We Won’t. It has shriveled to No We Can’t.
Rebuilding the can is not enough. It is also important to reconstitute the should and the will. One of the reasons why removing the restrictions on natural gas exploration and export is so powerful is that it sends a signal to Moscow that Washington’s spine is back. The will is back. After all if Obama can nerve himself to take on the Sierra Club, there’s a better than average chance he’ll take on Putin next time. But if he won’t even drill he simply won’t do squat: not for Ukraine, not for Finland, not for Poland. If he displayed a spine it would be priced into the energy market to Putin’s detriment.
It’s amazing what you can achieve with will even if you are short on the can. What made Douglas MacArthur’s promise “I shall return” so potent was not the means he possessed upon leaving Corregidor in a PT boat, but the determination in his heart. But if Obama were standing on that pier in 1942, why bother to say anything at all? If you had a police force that had none of these four words, it would be better to disband them.
All of this is fundamental. Every schoolboy knows it. It’s a testament to the confusion surrounding Obama’s policy that this is not blindingly obvious. “Are you suggesting we should mobilize and take off on another foreign adventure to secure Ukraine?” No. But I am suggesting that we should be able to. And since there’s no means, then it’s really pointless to even ask the question.
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