Foreign Affairs

What Obama should have said in response to the invasion of Ukraine

What Obama should have said in response to the invasion of Ukraine

So, the Crimea is “lost,” said former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. And Ukraine stands on the precipice of being next as Russia seeks to consolidate gains around its borders. And the question in the United States is: What can we do, short of putting boots on the ground and risking World War III, which nobody wants?

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., says Russian leader Vladimir Putin has misjudged the West’s resolve. So far, it appears he has gauged the West’s resolve quite accurately. President Obama took to the microphone late on a Friday afternoon – the time in the news cycle reserved for the dumping of information that does not reflect well on the administration – to say only, “There will be costs.”

Certainly, no one supports rash action, and the whole idea is to prevent a shooting war and preserve self-determination for the peoples of Ukraine and the Crimea. But it’s also pretty clear other presidents would have approached this more boldly. President Reagan called the old Soviet Union an Evil Empire and openly worked for its demise. His point could not be argued – that Empire killed more than 20 million of its own people in its 90-year reign.

President Obama is no Reagan. But that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have set a different tone with his remarks, or reset the tone – his watchword regarding Russia – by letting Putin know where the American people stand on this.

If he were to do this, his remarks might go something like this:

“Mr.Putin, your Russia has become a pariah among nations. You suppress your own people. You imprison or execute anyone who seriously disagrees with you. You invade and seize part of the state of Georgia. You intimidate and harass Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. Now you invade the sovereign country of Ukraine. You shelter and support a mass murderer from Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych. You support and send arms to Bashar al Assad of Syria, whom all the world acknowledges to be a brutal mass murderer of his own people. You support a regime, Iran, whose stated public policy is to eradicate Israel from the face of the earth. You have become more than a common criminal or as many of your countrymen have called you, the leader of, ‘the party of crooks and thieves.’

“And you are on another path now – one that mirrors the path Hitler took when he started.  You even use the same excuse he used in Czechoslovakia – that you were protecting speakers of your native language who happen to live there.

“Your bribed oligarchs become wealthy, but most of your people suffer and don’t dare speak out. Just days ago, your puppet-controlled judicial court placed under house arrest Aleksei Navalny the brave man who ran for election as Mayor of Moscow on the anticorruption and democracy ticket and received far higher vote totals than expected. You forbade him from speaking to anyone other than members of his own family. As once was said in our Congress, have you no shame?”

These remarks would not force Putin’s hand, but they would get the attention of the Russian people, the international diplomatic corps and lovers of freedom the world over. They would provide moral clarity. And, as a bonus, they would compare Putin to the worst enemy Russia has ever known.

But this has not been the president’s MO in these situations. During the Iranian Green Revolution of 2009, the huge protests expressing a hope for change, President Obama said little or nothing until a brutal crackdown resulted in the murder on camera of a helpless young girl whose dying picture flashed round the world for all to see.

He had to be dragged into the Libyan conflict by French President Sarkozy of all people. He was leading from behind, we were told.

In Iraq, the president patted himself on the back for unilaterally withdrawing American troops. But he did so without obtaining a status-of-forces agreement, which means all that Americans bravely fought and died for in that country can and will be lost. American involvement in Iraq is over, but Iraq is now essentially a client state of Iran, and Al Qaeda again has a base from which to train, recruit and operate.

President Obama was equally unhelpful in Afghanistan. To please the peaceniks in his party, he declared a date certain for removal of troops, which signaled to the Taliban that it need only wait for Americans to leave to return to power. Again, thousands of Americans lay dead … and the president gives back what they fought to accomplish and allows another safe haven for terrorists to be resurrected.

The president has said little or nothing regarding the continuing North Korean death camps, next to nothing about the continuing imprisonment of Chinese dissidents or other human rights abuses. And of course the president was nearly silent during the mass protests against President Putin in Moscow.

The message is clear: Human rights, yearning for freedom, is no longer a principle concern of American foreign policy. No wonder 53 percent of Americans think President Obama is not respected by world leaders and only 41 percent believe he is, according to a recent Gallup poll.

He has made the same mistake most presidents of his party make – they believe if they are nice to evil people, evil people will become nice as well. This explains the “policy reset” with Russia that obviously did not happen and the attempts at engagement with the Iranians, which also have backfired. On the world stage, nice is taken for weak, and weak invites trouble.

He could still get tough with Putin. He could impose sanctions on Russian banks and financial institutions, although the Russians have indicated they would respond by freezing the substantial American assets in Russia. He could suspend all trade negotiations or even call an emergency meeting of NATO to make plans to mobilize forces if NATO members, such as Latvia or Lithuania, find themselves threatened. He could join other Group of Eight members in moving to expel Russia and cancel plans to visit Sochi for the G-8 meeting in June.

Will he? His legacy – and that of America as a country that stands up for freedom – depends on it.

Edward Dent, an investments and management expert, served in both of President Reagan’s White House campaigns and with the group that developed the Strategic Defense Initiative. He is an expert on defense and judicial issues.

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