Many of us have known someone who after showing signs of illness, has laughed it off as a “bout of the flu”, overwork or worry. Only when the effects of weight loss, falling hair and lack of energy have become too pronounced to ignore, does he finally consult with doctors to announce the doleful news that ‘either I have my left lung out now with a 30 percent chance of recovery or I am dead in six months’. That could be a metaphor for the situation the Obama administration finds itself facing in the Ukraine — and to a lesser extent in the Middle East.
After years of similarly claiming that its foreign policy was fine — never better in fact — the administration is facing its own moment of mortality. It has gone from a Reset With Russia, to a slight malaise caused by a “hiccup in relations“, to an urgent need to decide on whether to embark on a proxy war in Eastern Europe against Vladimir Putin.
There was a palpable tone shift in U.S. policy toward Ukraine this week, when the Obama administration signaled that it was ready to consider sending the country lethal military aid. A confluence of factors is pushing President Obama toward this decision. The fragile ceasefire brokered in September between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists has failed, manifested in the series of recent and high-profile separatist advances against the Ukrainian military this week. Bipartisan congressional support for sending weapons to Ukraine, championed by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), as well as a newly released report by former senior U.S. and European officials recommending lethal military aid for the embattled country, have also contributed to Obama and his tight inner circle of foreign policy advisers reconsidering the lethal aid option.
Events in Eastern Europe — even the loss of whole countries in the Middle East — were dismissed as only a “flesh wound”, something easily borne with “strategic patience”. But now the hurts have grown too obvious to hide. Three weeks ago the editorial board of the Washington Post described the fantasy world of the Obama administration as it entered its last phase of self-deception.
By Tuesday, the Ukrainian government and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine were reporting that fresh Russian army units were crossing the border and attacking Ukrainian positions north of the city of Luhansk and at the Donetsk airport. “The situation,” European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini told us shortly after arriving in Washington, “is not going in the right direction.” Appropriately, the European ministers concluded there were no grounds for altering the existing sanctions on Russia, some of which will come up for renewal at a summit meeting in March — and the plan for detente came under heavy criticism.
The episode illustrates a pervasive disconnect in Western thinking about the regime of Vladimir Putin. As Kadri Liik of the European Council on Foreign Relations pointed out recently , many Western leaders persist in seeing the Ukraine invasion as a hiccup in relations with Russia that can be smoothed over, rather than as a demonstration that Mr. Putin’s agenda is fundamentally at odds with Europe’s security interests and its values. Because of their attachment to the hiccup theory, governments — including the Obama administration — have refused to take steps, such as providing the Ukrainian government with defensive weapons, that could help stop Mr. Putin’s aggression. Instead, they concoct futile schemes for “reengaging” the Russian ruler.
Pervasive disconnect is the Obama administration’s standard operating procedure. The full-moon extent of the Obama world view still survives in his second National Security Strategy which lists among its national security priorities the need to “be a champion for … people with disabilities; Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) individuals; displaced persons; and migrant workers”. It is something that looks curiously out of place in a national security document — until you read the rest of it.
Even the document’s regrets over the Ukraine crisis are a requiem for the dream; it is for the collapse of the administration’s cherished international rule-book that tears are shed. “In the realm of inter-state conflict, Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity — as well as its belligerent stance toward other neighboring countries — endangers international norms that have largely been taken for granted since the end of the Cold War.”
It is almost as if the administration’s last words as the light fades out and the riverboat sinks are “the norms. Marlowe, the norms!” Ironically it was the belief in the permanence of those “international norms” gave the Obama foreign policy team the a false sense that they had all the time in the world to address threats such as terrorism. His national security document notes “we are now pursuing a more sustainable approach that prioritizes targeted counterterrorism operations, collective action with responsible partners, and increased efforts to prevent the growth of violent extremism and radicalization that drives increased threats.”
It is something which with minor alterations a hamburger sales chain manager might have authored. It has ‘business as usual’ written all over it. But Obama has misjudged the acute illnesses as a chronic nuisance for too long. Now, alert to the possibility his policy may be desperately in trouble, and under bipartisan and institutional pressure to arm the Ukraine — an option akin to taking the long-shot lung operation — Obama faces an appeal from France and Germany to try one last dose of Doctor Zoltan’s Elixir of Appeasement to banish the pains.
Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande flew to Moscow last week, some say, to attempt a separate peace with Vladimir Putin. The Guardian wrote, “the sudden and unusual decision by the chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the president, François Hollande, to travel to Moscow, with the French leader talking of decisions of war and peace, increased the stakes in the crisis while also raising suspicions that the Kremlin was seeking to split Europe and the US. Putin was said to have made ‘initiatives’ to the European leaders in recent days.”
Doubtless Putin told the EU leaders what he wanted and demanded a third signature to the deal. Merkel duly flew to Washington and Obama announced that, why, he will take one more swig of the bottle. If it fails to bring relief well then he might think about trying something else.
U.S. President Barack Obama signaled on Monday he will wait for the results of high-stakes talks on Ukraine before deciding whether to arm the Kiev government, saying diplomacy and sanctions remain his preferred tools to resolve the crisis.
Obama, at a White House news conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said providing weapons to Ukraine was among the options he and his advisors were considering.
But he made clear he had reservations about upping the ante in Ukraine and endangering U.S.-European unity in the contest of wills with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Merkel opposes sending weapons to Kiev to help it fight Russian-backed separatists.
“It is true that if, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options,” Obama said. “But I have not made a decision about that yet.”
Despite his bluster there is no concealing the deer caught in the headlights. In a sense Obama can’t move. He is crushed by the cumulative weight of his own previous miscalculations. No rush program of arming the Ukraine can now offset the years of deconstruction the Western alliance saddled itself with. Having put their trust in “international norms” and discovering that Putin cares not a whit for it, Obama and the EU establishment have been totally faked out. Putin, like the Islamic Jihad, can play him for a fool certain in the knowledge that the West has no cards to play because they have handed them all to him.
John Schindler wrote that the West’s enemies are behaving so far outside the predictions of their foreign policy model that the establishments are literally paralyzed. To Obama Putin literally does not compute, an object with which he cannot cope without repudiating his own world view which he cannot do.
It seems to have never occurred to them, nor Obama and his national security staff either, that crushing the Russian economy with sanctions might bring more, not less, aggression from Putin, even though that was an obvious possibility. Jaws dropped this week when Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who until recently was NATO’s civilian head, stated that it is highly likely that Russia will soon stage a violent provocation against a Baltic state, which being NATO countries, will cause a crisis over the Alliance’s Article 5 provision for collective self-defense. Rasmussen merely said what all defense experts who understand Putin already know, but this was not the sort of reality-based assessment that Western politicians are used to hearing.
There are two core reasons for Western collapse of will before Putin’s decidedly modest aggression in Ukraine. The first is that Western and Central Europe have so substantially disarmed since the end of the Cold War. Hardly any European NATO countries spend the “required” two percent of GDP on defense, and no amount of American scolding about it seems to make any difference. As a result, European NATO militaries, with few exceptions, possess a mere shadow of the combat power they had two decades ago. Several of them have abandoned tanks altogether, while even Germany has so cut back its combat power that there are only four battalions each of armor and artillery in the whole Bundeswehr.
In Obama’s world he is the center of the universe. Yet paradoxically the man who billed himself a messiah has become the talk show president, like a minor celebrity hound seeking the company of YouTube personalities to add luster to his own persona. He still pretends he is in control. The jaw still juts, and the chest still puffs out. Recently he told Vox in an interview how tough he is. Asked whether he can handle the world’s bad guys he said, “I get a thick book full of death, destruction, strife, and chaos. That’s what I take with my morning tea.”
With his morning tea. No doubt he can impress tame journalists from Vox with this story but his ability to impress the bad guys of the world is manifestly less. Perhaps that is why Obama’s national security plan focuses incongruously on taking up the cause of (LGBT) individuals. White gun-clinging, bible-thumping, NASCAR-watching people are about the limit of what he will take on. As for the Putins all he can seem to mutter is: won’t they obey the rules? Obama may end his term as the champion of same-sex marriage and similar minor causes because that is after all, the true limit of his abilities.
For those who want defense from China, Russia, ISIS and other dangers; who seek sanctuary from Biblical scale dangers which presidents formerly dealt with, then repeat after me, “Our Father who art …”
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