Putin plays chess while Obama plays marbles
House Intelligence Chair Mike Rogers (R-MI) summed the Ukraine crisis up perfectly on Fox News Sunday by saying “Putin is playing chess, and I think we’re playing marbles.” The degree of disconnect between reality on the ground in the Crimean region, and the Obama Administration’s hapless stream of babble and bluster, is amazing. The message other global leaders and miscreants must be taking from the confrontation is profoundly disturbing.
Rogers relates an old geo-strategic saying: “Russia without the Ukraine is a country. Russia with the Ukraine is an empire.” The scary thing is that nobody in the Obama Administration seems familiar with that saying, or much of anything else about the region. The fallback position for nervous Obama apologists at this point is to snarl at critics, “Well, what do you think he should do, nuke Moscow?” The point is not that a better President would be on a war footing against the Russian empire, but that a better President might have kept this crisis from bubbling over the way it has, or at least avoided further damage to American diplomatic prestige by fumbling the response so badly.
Team Obama has been agonizingly slow to realize that Russia had an empire, and wants it back. The universal Administration expression of shock and awe as Russia first violated international law by slipping forces out of regular uniform into key positions, and then just rolled in thousands of regular military forces – within hours of saying no, of course they would never do any such thing! – makes Obama and his people look ridiculous. It is very important not to look ridiculous at times such as these.
But this is the same team that wears a similar expression of numb incomprehension when their rigid ideology fails to predict domestic economic developments. Obama Administration dogma viewed Russia as a somewhat grumpy, but basically friendly, entity that was scarcely worth paying attention to, beyond some concessions here and there to make them happy. Remember how Obama and his equally clueless media allies derided Mitt Romney for naming Russia as a top geopolitical foe? Remember the clueless Obama badgering Romney with preschool taunts like, “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back?” during a presidential debate?
Mitt Romney knew what he was talking about. Barack Obama did not. Obama twice managed to secure electoral victory against far better informed people than himself, given that 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin foresaw a Russian move on the Ukraine as a consequence of then-Senator Obama’s reaction of “indecision and moral equivalence” to similar Russian action in Georgia. As ABC News put it on Sunday, “Sarah Palin may be having a bragging-rights moment.” Palin herself had a bit of fun with the Left’s nasty pop-culture caricature of her on Facebook, writing “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska.”
The point is that Romney and Palin understood something like the current crisis was possible, and they understood the reasons why. Barack Obama didn’t. Everything transpiring over the past week was utterly inconceivable to him. The Administration’s response made it clear they have been totally blindsided; as Mike Rogers put it, they didn’t even understand what game they were playing. Fumbling half-measures continue even as 6,000 Russian air and naval forces disarm Ukrainian troops in the Crimea, lay siege to Ukrainian military bases, and literally pull out shovels to dig in for the next play.
A key element of the Obama mindset is his conviction that every day brings him a clean slate. His domestic media allies and loyal followers never hold him accountable for anything he said more than two days ago. He has never been made to accept responsibility for a single thing he’s done in five years of occupying the White House. Obama is a parody of the fast-talking politician who thinks chumps are at fault for believing campaign promises, not the hucksters who make them. Consequently, he doesn’t understand how his foreign policy disasters snowball. He doesn’t get why his actions in Egypt influenced the resolution of Syria, or how the fallout from Syria leaves him looking impotent and foolish as Putin rolls through the Crimea. That’s why he didn’t understand Sarah Palin’s point about how weakness transmitted over George would make the Russians feel their oats today. How could anyone possibly remember anything Barack Obama said six years ago, much less use his obsolete remarks to predict his future behavior? He’s waiting for friendly media to give him the kind of amnesia “reset” he gets after every domestic policy disaster.
We’ve already seen Obama’s (and, let it never be forgotten during the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton’s) studied ignorance toward Russia lead to disaster in Syria, with a buffoonish Secretary of State John Kerry helplessly flapping his gums like a Muppet while the Russians tossed him out of the region. Everyone in this Administration thought for sure their pals in Moscow would help them enforce Obama’s thoughtless “red line” and get rid of that gas-spewing tyrant Bashar Assad. It never occurred to them that Russia would desire precisely the outcome it engineered, with Assad more firmly seated in Damascus than ever, at the cost of a few skull-and-crossbones barrels wheeled out for U.N. inspectors to fuss over.
Obama clearly believed the Ukrainian situation would play out over a span of months, perhaps years, while the new government got itself sorted out, the heavily Russian Crimea argued about making a bid for independence, and Russia conducted a bidding war against American and the European Union for influence. While Obama fiddled with his marbles, Putin slid pawns, rooks, and bishops into the territory he wasn’t about to risk losing, and he didn’t much care what any Sunday-show talking head in the Western world thought about it. If there’s going to be a Crimean vote for independence or outright incorporation into the Russian Federation, Putin knows the sight of heavily armed Russian squads on every street corner will ensure the vote goes his way.
Obama, who as late as Friday was still blowing off his national security meetings - remember when he pretended to take those seriously for a week or so, after he got caught napping in Benghazi? – belatedly reacted with some more thoughtless bluster that came dangerously close to red-line-in-Syria absurdity. The White House muttered something about an “intervention line” Russia dare not cross, or else “there will be costs.” But it’s okay, because the Russian incursion was an “uncontested arrival” – evidently the intervention line is only crossed if someone on the far side of it chooses to open fire on the invaders.
Putin, meanwhile, was securing parliamentary approval for the use of troops anywhere in Ukraine, which sends a very different message than watching Obama and his bobbleheads fuss over the precise definition of the word “intervention,” or dispatching John Kerry to call Putin a big mean old nasty bully who only invades other countries to mask his “weakness” and “desperation.”
The stage is set for Russia to do whatever it wants, without having to put a lot of work into cooking up pretexts. The Russian foreign minister told a U.N. human rights conference in Geneva that Putin’s latest troop movements were made because “information is coming in about preparations for new provocations, including against the Black Sea Fleet.” There is also talk about the urgent need to protect ethnic Russians throughout the Ukraine from the “fascist” demonstrators who ousted kleptocrat Viktor Yanukovych. That’s the kind of mission that could easily be stretched to put Russian troops on the Polish border. The Ukrainians are calling up reserves and declaring that they plan to make the next Russian arrival a bit more contested. Whatever comes next, you can rest assured it will be a big surprise to Barack Obama and his team, who thought everything happening today was absolutely impossible one week ago.
Update: The Washington Post (!) says “President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy,” which is a pretty damning headline, although I think the content of the article supports my use of the term “ideology” instead of fantasy:
For five years, President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality. It was a world in which “the tide of war is receding” and the United States could, without much risk, radically reduce the size of its armed forces. Other leaders, in this vision, would behave rationally and in the interest of their people and the world. Invasions, brute force, great-power games and shifting alliances — these were things of the past. Secretary of State John F. Kerry displayed this mindset on ABC’s “This Week” Sunday when he said, of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine, “It’s a 19th century act in the 21st century.”
That’s a nice thought, and we all know what he means. A country’s standing is no longer measured in throw-weight or battalions. The world is too interconnected to break into blocs. A small country that plugs into cyberspace can deliver more prosperity to its people (think Singapore or Estonia) than a giant with natural resources and standing armies.
Unfortunately, Russian President Vladimir Putin has not received the memo on 21st-century behavior. Neither has China’s president, Xi Jinping, who is engaging in gunboat diplomacy against Japan and the weaker nations of Southeast Asia. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is waging a very 20th-century war against his own people, sending helicopters to drop exploding barrels full of screws, nails and other shrapnel onto apartment buildings where families cower in basements. These men will not be deterred by the disapproval of their peers, the weight of world opinion or even disinvestment by Silicon Valley companies. They are concerned primarily with maintaining their holds on power.
Remember, Obama defended this ideology in 2012 with childish taunts, and the supreme arrogance that can only be displayed by an absolute fool. He’s not living in a daydream bubble that popped last week, or when Putin threw him out of Syria. He’s been deliberately ignoring all the evidence that contradicts his ideological hypothesis that Obama speeches can rewrite history, that all the world is an audience waiting for him to show up with his teleprompter. He approaches foreign policy the same way he buys into global warming mythology: keep shouting “the science is settled!” and ignore every bit of unsettled data that floats past your nose.