He’s a Card

I can only presume that this remark by Fred Hiatt at the Washington Post is intended as humor:

Even the now-ridiculed “reset” of U.S.-Russia relations was worth a try; no one knew for sure whether then-president Dmitry Medvedev might offer a viable alternative to Putinism.

Everyone knew. Except possibly Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that Putin and his policies are unpopular in Russia. He is significantly more popular there than President Obama is here. His actions in Ukraine have made him more popular.

On the meat of his column I both agree and disagree with Mr. Hiatt’s column. I agree with this:

There was no viable military option that could have discouraged Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and there is no military option to reverse it.

and I disagree with this:

The president came into office believing that military assets were a 19th-century measure of power, of dwindling relevance in the 21st century. He believed that diplomacy could solve problems that George W. Bush had ignored, created or exacerbated; that the eventual abolition of nuclear weapons was perhaps the United States’ most important goal; that economic reconstruction at home had to take precedence over — and was a necessary prerequisite for — leadership abroad.

I think that President Obama believed that foreign leaders hated George Bush for the same reason that he did—because he was George Bush—rather than because he was president of the United States.

In the end I think that barring some catastrophe the idea that President Obama will reconsider his foreign policy as Mr. Hiatt suggests is far-fetched. I think he has entered the consolidation phase of his presidency rather than a reconsideration phase.

26 comments… add one

  • Cstanley

    I think that President Obama believed that foreign leaders hated George Bush for the same reason that he did—because he was George Bush—rather than because he was president of the United States.

    I made a similar comment at a dinner party once. The sound of silverware clinking and crickets chirping in our host’s lovely garden were audible for a minute or two before someone changed the subject.

  • Andy

    “The president came into office believing that military assets were a 19th-century measure of power, of dwindling relevance in the 21st century. ”

    That’s just a plain stupid comment by Mr. Hiatt.

    OpEds in major newpapers are so full of crap these days, probably because most of them are written by people inside the DC bubble.

  • michael reynolds

    Nonsense. Foreign leaders hated George W. Bush because he was seen as a very bad president who made mistakes that dragged Europe along with him into fiascos like Iraq. The US is still more favorably seen in the world than it was at the end of Mr. Bush’s tenure. The idea that foreigners always dislike our presidents is absurd – they loved Clinton, they loved Obama at the start. They never liked Mr. Bush. It’s about policy, but also things like style. They like “cool” presidents like Kennedy, Clinton and Obama. They dislike presidents who might embarrass them at a 12 course dinner.

    Equally nonsense is the idea that Mr. Obama was isolationist or failed to appreciate hard power. Drone war anyone? SEAL team 6? Libya?

    What we have here is a bunch of columnists in search of something to say about an issue – Crimea – where they have nothing to say. No, they did not see it coming. No, they don’t know how we could have stopped it. No, they don’t know what to do about it now. No, they don’t know what’s coming next.

    So from the Right we get the inevitable calls for “More penis!” and from the Left we get apologias for Putin’s thuggery and from the serious chin-strokers we get grudging acknowledgments that Obama’s mostly doing it right but he should try more cowbell.

    They have to write 800 words, whether or not they have anything to say.

    The event has caught everyone flatfooted. Pretending it hasn’t is silly and false. Pretending that some different policy would have definitely yielded a better outcome is just a parlor game. Acting as if we’ve been outplayed by some brilliant chess master in the Kremlin is ridiculous.

  • PD Shaw

    “The event has caught everyone flatfooted. Pretending it hasn’t is silly and false. ”

    I agree, which makes it hard to use the Ukraine crisis to criticize the Administration’s foreign policy. Its worth pointing out again,the experts by and large missed it:

    “Other than Sarah Palin and certain Russian astrologers, few people foresaw that Russia would intervene militarily in the Ukraine. The Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) Project at the College of William & Mary held a snap poll among international relations scholars, which asked: “Will Russian military forces intervene in response to the political crisis in Ukraine?” The results, reported in Foreign Policy, were disheartening: only 14 percent of the 905 interviewed scholars answered affirmatively on the eve of the intervention. (The poll was conducted from 9 p.m., Feb. 24 to 11:59 p.m., Feb. 27. Russian forces controlled the Sevastopol airport on Feb. 28).”

    Also, interesting that non-realists were most likely to have predicted intervention. I assume this means that the Russian play was not seen as in Russia’s self-interest, but it was more foreseeable considering more subjective criteria.

  • I note that more Russia specialists than non-specialists thought Russia would intervene militarily. I’m honestly surprised that more of them didn’t think that would happen.

    Note, too, that I don’t fault what the administration has done WRT the Ukrainian crisis. My only criticism has been that they’ve said too much and that’s a pretty mild criticism. I’m not as enthusiastic about arming the Ukrainians as the administration seems to be. On the other hand I don’t think that will have much impact one way or another.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds & PD Shaw

    The event has caught everyone flatfooted. Pretending it hasn’t is silly and false.

    The timing is usually unpredictable, but the general direction can be gleaned. Anybody paying attention for the last 8 – 10 years would know that rebuilding the Russian Empire was Putin’s goal, but you need to keep up on sources other than the typical pundits.

    Stratfor and Jane’s are excellent sources. You need to keep up with people who understand the issues and have access to those sources among others. There is a lot of open source information, but it is not what the mainstream pundits write about. By the time it hits the mainstream, it is at least 5 years old.

    The Chinese military buildup has been going on for years, and this has implications for the present US Chinese foreign policy. The reason I am consistently dismissive of the hawks is because they have no idea of the actual issues involved.

  • As I’ve said in slightly different circumstances I think too much emphasis is being placed on Putin just as too much attention was paid to Yeltsin. We should be much more attentive to conditions in Russia than we are to who the leader is there at any given time.

    If it weren’t Putin it would be some other ex-military or ex-KGB doing the same things.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    The problem with believing that Putin was bound to pursue an enlarged empire is that it argues that the Western attempt to seduce the Ukraine made sense. If an irredentist Russia is a threat to stability, then blocking moves would be logical. Right?

    I don’t think this was foreseeable. The EU made a half-hearted bid, Russia made a robust counter offer. That was perhaps predictable. That the mob would rise up and manage to evict the staggeringly corrupt pro-Russian government and make it stick, and that Putin would react by seizing Crimea – an act I continue to believe was really dumb and panicky – was not.

    Now what is Putin to do? He just sliced away a bunch of pro-Russian Ukrainians, leaving a more pro-Western Ukraine. Now he either takes eastern Ukraine, splitting the country and possibly starting an actual shooting war, or he accepts the fact that the Ukraine is going our way.

    I think there’s a 50/50 chance he goes all-in and takes more of Ukraine. I don’t know the geography well enough to guess at the precise fault lines, but the mess he’s made thus far leaves him weaker, not stronger. So I expect another panic move. His alternative is his worst fear: a virulently anti-Russian Ukraine nestled right up in his underbelly.

  • I don’t know the geography well enough to guess at the precise fault lines

    I posted topographic and ethnological maps of Ukraine over at OTB a few weeks back. The only natural boundary is the Dnieper. The steppes of Russia lead right to the steppes of Poland. That’s one of the problems in the region—no natural boundaries.

    The ethnological divisions roughly follow the natural boundaries. Most of the Russophones are east of the Dnieper (as are most Tatars) with the highest concentration in Crimea. However, just as in the Balkans you could find a Serbian home right next to a Bosnian home, in Western Ukraine you can find Russians living next to Ukrainians living next to Ukrainians whose primary language is Russian. You’re as likely to hear Russian spoken on the streets of Kiev as you are Ukrainian.

  • jan

    George Bush was disliked even hated abroad not only because he was POTUS, but was a republican to boot, an espouser of conservative ideology. Europe’s political fabric has always been more favorable to, having greater commonality with, democratic progressivism. After all, their nanny state, collective inclinations are social practices which many social progressives here yearn to duplicate, as being more conducive to cultivating a better society in which to manage and care for people.

    Consequently, no matter what GWB did or said, it was ridiculed and considered ‘dumb’ and unsophisticated, by standards set by Europeans. Ever worse, they saw his behavior as one they couldn’t necessarily manipulate and/or control. Therefore, he was labeled a “cowboy,” and dissed even further. However, as much as Europeans may have sneered at this uncivilized, plain-spoken man, he held their attention, provoked fear, and begrudgingly gained some respect from many foreign leaders. Additionally, this right-leaning ‘Will Rogers’ kind of figure, his self-deprecating but steely nature, provided greater world glue in holding together like-minded coalitions and allies than our now smooth-talking, intellectual, professorial President has even done.

    Furthermore, the ability to freely criticize GWB’s presidency, without having to bridge racial animus claims from his party, made the preceding presidency more accessible and transparent for media oversight and the public at large. Left and right-sided peoples now admit we are in the midst of one of the most closed-off, inaccessible administrations, ever! And, locked into an executive branch, who frequently waves off questions and bars doors on informational requests, we have the one dissenting part of government, the House, shunned and denigrated for any imposition it might show in exercising it’s separation of powers corrective authority, while the Senate refuses to bring House legislation up for debate that doesn’t pass the WH’s own predisposed agenda first.

    We are essentially a domestic mess, and are seen as a dysfunctional country abroad as well, having little credibility, scant follow-though, and literally paralyzed by indecisive, erratic, weak leadership — one that refuses to recalculate it’s positions or try new paths in order to reach better solutions to our many problems.

  • michael reynolds

    However, just as in the Balkans you could find a Serbian home right next to a Bosnian home, in Western Ukraine you can find Russians living next to Ukrainians living next to Ukrainians whose primary language is Russian.

    Sigh.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    … then blocking moves would be logical. Right?

    Hopefully, you are being funny, but if not, I would suggest to start by putting Iran or N. Korea in a box. Otherwise, you are sounding like a delusional hawk.

    Ukraine is never going to be part of NATO or the EU. You are correct that this was not planned, and Putin chose Crimea over Ukraine. The long term method would be to establish an alliance and trade agreements. Eventually, Ukraine would be a part of the Russian Union.

    Claiming that nobody could have known may make you feel better, but like most things, people who refused to know did not know.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    Are you of the opinion that Russian irredentism is both inevitable and acceptable? If acceptable, then how far? Is Estonia to be surrendered to Putin if he wants it?

    If you say that Estonia is not Mr. Putin’s to take because it is in NATO, then aren’t you in effect making the point that blocking moves can be successful?

    What’s the underlying notion here? That we should have no concerns over a Russia that may decide to use military threats to push its borders right up against the West?

    There’s understanding Russia and then there’s appeasing Russia. I understand that Russia is a serious power and has its own legitimate concerns. But so do we and the Europeans. Feeding territory to hungry thugs has a bad history. It’s hard to satisfy that kind of hunger.

    I am not at all clear in my mind that Putin is that reckless or ambitious. I don’t think we know. I think the EU was ham-handed and feckless (like that needs saying) but EU moves do not in my opinion justify Putin’s military adventurism. He had other options. This situation was negotiable. Instead Putin panicked and did the macho thing rather than the smart thing. (Which should endear him to Jan.) How dumb is he? I don’t think we know yet. But I don’t think we want to be too considerate of Tsar Vladimir’s feelings. Diplomatic and economic countermoves, as well as military strengthening of his potential targets makes sense.

    Putin’s the one who turned a loud argument into a knife fight. He escalated. We should be clear that we do not approve or accept that.

  • Putin’s the one who turned a loud argument into a knife fight. He escalated. We should be clear that we do not approve or accept that.

    I agree with that. What I don’t agree with is the many voices outside the administration and some within it who want to signal our disapproval by escalating it ourselves.

    We’re holding a bullhorn. We can’t put it down. Even when we speak as softly as we can, it’s still loud. I don’t think a lot of Americans, even those who should know better, realize that.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    All this assumes that the EU remains intact. Presently, the best course would be to wait for the EU to collapse or breakup, and after the Libya and Ukraine fiascoes, NATO cannot provide much protection either.

    Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, and possibly Lithuania will eventually become part of the Russian Empire or a “Russian Union”. It is not necessary to take them by force, but it is not necessarily ruled out. There would need to be a corresponding military buildup among other things.

    (NOTE: That last sentence is important. The delusional hawks never consider it. Putin cannot roll into Poland anytime soon, and before he could, many things need to be in place. This applies to the US trying to place China in check. There is military hardware, logistics, signals intelligence equipment, repair facilities, agreements, etc. that need to be taken care of first.)

    The new social media coup is the new military coup. Facebook has legitimized overthrowing a democratically elected government. You have your guys in-place ready to save the day from the evil repressive government. The US and Russia have used the same playbook for 60 years, but what once was contemptible is now commendable.

    With the new less oppressive government establish military and economic ties with Russia. Rinse and repeat.

    As for punishment, sanctions, etc., it does not matter to me. I do not think they work, but if it makes everybody happy, go for it. As for military action, Europe cannot even defend itself, and the US does not have the will to start another war. I realize it offends the delusional hawks, but Putin and the world know this.

  • PD Shaw

    One of the better essays I’ve read on Ukraine is from Anatol Lieven, which has criticism for both Russia and the West, and expectations that Ukraine actually has its own steps to take.

    Its on Jack Matlock’s website, but I cannot find where Lieven posted the essay originally.

  • PD Shaw

    @Tastybits, the poll I linked to is not of pundits, but international relations scholars, including experts in Russia and Security issues. That only 16% of them predicted an invasion a few days in advance is quite striking, it either means that expert judgments are deeply flawed, or that Russian’s actions were completely unexpected, or a mix of both.

    The lack of predictability of Russian behavior will agitate people more, perhaps creating overreaction. The explanation that Russia’s are predictable, because Putin is Genghis Khan will have the same effect. The group that did best in the poll were non-realists, which probably means they personalized Russia’s behavior through Putin.

  • TastyBits

    In Libya, the Europeans stabbed Russia in the back. If I were Putin, I would be leery of any Facebook coups.

    Coups are not engineered by Facebook and Twitter users. This is a fairy tale we tell children.

    Egypt 1 & 2, Libya, Syria, and Ukraine were all engineered by somebody, and they used Facebook and Twitter idiots to facilitate the action. Egypt 2 was obviously arranged by the military.

  • Cstanley

    That only 16% of them predicted an invasion a few days in advance is quite striking, it either means that expert judgments are deeply flawed, or that Russian’s actions were completely unexpected, or a mix of both.

    I didn’t get a chance to read carefully, but saw a report this morning that claimed that Russia had been evading the NSA wiretaps- with some speculation that Snowden may be either willingly or unwillingly helping them to do this. I don’t know how reliable that story is, but if true it would explain why our intel community not only missed the imminent invasion, but were confident that it wouldn’t happen (they saw troop movement but didn’t hear the exchanges that normally would be going on, and mistakenly believed that they had the access to hear them if they were happening.)

  • TastyBits

    @PD Shaw

    What was known before:

    Putin was put in place to restore Russia. Putin was restoring Russia. Ukraine is vital to restoring Russia. In Libya, Russia was stabbed in the back. In Syria, Russia was not going to be stabbed in the back. Russia has military and economic interests in Syria, and Russia has been protecting those interests without regard for world opinion. Russia has military and economic interests in Ukraine. The democratically elected president was overthrown in a coup engineered by an unknown source, but the Russians may know who the source is. (NOTE: This was not overexcited Facebook and Twitter users.)

    From this I think it is fairly easy to deduce that Russia is going to protect its military interests at least. Therefore, Crimea is going to be controlled by Russia, and if necessary, Putin will send forces into Ukraine. NATO is one instance of necessary, but there could be others.

    When I want to keep up on a subject, I rarely use the experts. The problem with most of these people is that they rely on each other.

  • michael reynolds

    Dave:

    We’re holding a bullhorn. We can’t put it down. Even when we speak as softly as we can, it’s still loud. I don’t think a lot of Americans, even those who should know better, realize that.

    This is so true. Many people want this to be domestic politics. There are surely big differences in performance between one president or another, but we are Rome regardless of who is Caesar.

    I don’t think Obama has overstepped on this yet. I think we all agree that we’re not jumping in our tanks and driving east. But we have to make our displeasure known, and if Putin takes more we’re going to have to register still more displeasure. And if he’s lost his mind and is thinking of the Baltics we could have a really bad situation.

    Of course I think we should hold all this until June 28, so we can make the centennial really special.

  • michael reynolds

    Tasty:

    Actually Europe could defend itself quite well against the Russians, even without us, assuming they have the political will – and I don’t see Angela Merkel as a pushover. Germany, France and the UK together outspend Russia by quite a bit – without even counting Poland, Italy, Spain, etc…. They have better equipment, they have the advantage of playing defense and unlike Russia they don’t have a billion miles of hostile border to defend with those same dollars.

    This is not the old USSR. Russia has the GDP of Italy, and just a bit more than Canada.

    But on top of that, there’s us, and Russia has no superpower backing its play. They are economically weak, they are militarily a generation behind, they are geographically vulnerable and they contain multiple restive minority groups. In a war game you would not want to be playing their hand.

    The question now is just how dumb and reckless Putin is. He’s made a big mistake. Will he dig that hole still deeper? Or will he sober up and take a serious look at his prospects.

  • TastyBits

    @michael reynolds

    In Libya, the Europeans were running out of munitions. You need to have arms, equipment, replacement parts, repair facilities, ammo, logistics assets, trained soldiers, training facilities, trainers, production facilities, fuel, etc. Without these, you are defenseless.

    This is why the US spends a lot of money on defense. It takes a lot of money to support a military able to fight.

  • steve

    And the Russians had trouble with Georgia. I dont see them as wanting a shooting war with NATO, even without the US. They might push to test things, but it looks like they now have logistics issues unless they go through Belarus, and I have no idea how well they supply through there.

    Steve

  • Michael Reynolds

    Actually all you need in this day and age to prevail on the defense is air superiority. How well have Russian weapons systems fared in proxy wars against US-armed forces? Not well. Not well at all.

  • Andy

    “Actually Europe could defend itself quite well against the Russians, even without us, assuming they have the political will – and I don’t see Angela Merkel as a pushover.”

    That really depends on the circumstances. Europe can defend itself if Russia opted to try to, for instance, retake all of Eastern Europe. On the other hand, if Russia quickly invaded, for instance, Estonia, and presented a fait accompli, then Europe would have a challenging time enforcing NATO’s chapter 5 provisions without significant US support.

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