Ukraine: U.S. hawks regain their voice

By Bill Schneider
March 21, 2014

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression is having an unintended effect on U.S. politics. It is generating a backlash against America’s retreat from world leadership.

That retreat was itself a backlash against President George W. Bush’s overextension of U.S. military power in Iraq and Afghanistan. Putin’s actions spotlight the consequences of America’s world wariness. Internationalists in both parties are expressing alarm about the shrinking U.S. role around the globe.

Republican hawks, long on the defensive after the war in Iraq and the missing weapons of mass destruction, have found their voice again. They are attacking President Barack Obama as weak and feckless. Even some Democrats are calling for a tougher response.

They point to Ukraine, where there is no evidence that U.S. sanctions are forcing Russia out. To Syria, where the Obama administration drew a “red line” and then had to back down. To Egypt, where the United States seemed powerless to influence events.

“There are no consequences when you defy what Obama’s telling you to do,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said on CNN, echoing a growing chorus of criticism.

Last month, Obama warned the Russian government, “There will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” Russia intervened, the United States imposed sanctions and Russians responded with mockery. “I think the decree of the president of the United States was written by some joker,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dimitry Rogozin tweeted.

When there is no direct threat to the United States, Americans fall into a pattern of complacency. That’s what happened in the 1990s — the interwar period between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001. When Obama threatened missile strikes in Syria last fall, the public rose in revolt and Congress effectively blocked military action. Now Russia threatens the post-Soviet order in Europe. But Americans see no communist threat and no threat of radical Islamic terrorism. “There is still a path to resolve this situation diplomatically,” Obama said on March 17.

The problem is not Obama. Bush responded with similar caution after Russia invaded the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008. In fact, the sanctions that Obama has now imposed are stronger than those imposed by Bush in 2008. And Russian troops are still in Georgia. The problem is that, after two unpopular foreign wars in the last decade, Americans are wary of military involvement abroad.

Foreign policy was Obama’s strong suit in 2012 — in part because of the raid that took out Osama bin Laden. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney got no traction when he argued in the third 2012 debate, “Nowhere in the world is America’s influence greater today than it was four years ago.” Russia’s aggression in Ukraine appears to back up Romney’s criticism. And encouraging others to denounce U.S. weakness.

During the Cold War, hawkishness was bipartisan. A Democratic president, Harry S. Truman, committed the United States to an activist policy of world leadership after World War Two. The Truman Doctrine was devised in 1947, at the beginning of the Cold War. Washington pledged to lead the free world in containing the spread of communism — using military intervention if necessary.

By the 1960s, the Truman Doctrine had become Democratic Party orthodoxy. When it led to the tragic blunder in Vietnam, however, the anti-war wing of the Democratic Party rose up and repudiated it.

The Reagan Doctrine of the 1980s went beyond containment. It committed the United States to “rolling back” communism — using military intervention if necessary. It worked. But when the new threat of Islamic radicalism emerged in 2001, a Republican president over-extended U.S. military commitments. The country rose up against the war in Iraq. Reckless interventionism began to be criticized even by the right. After all, big war means big government

Not all Republicans are worried about diminished U.S. influence in the world. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) responded to the Ukrainian crisis by saying, “Some on our side are so stuck in the Cold War era that they want to tweak Russia all the time, and I don’t think that is a good idea.”

But hawkish Republicans are harshly critical of Obama. “Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles,’’ House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said on Fox News. “They’ve been running circles around us.’’ These Hawkish Republicans are just as critical of right-wing isolationists.

When congressional conservatives held up a package of military aid and sanctions, Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) exploded in outrage. “Don’t call yourselves Reagan Republicans,” McCain declared. “Ronald Reagan would never — would never — let this kind of aggression go unresponded to by the American people.”

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton, Obama’s former secretary of state, put some distance between herself and Obama with her strong denunciation of Putin. “This is a clash of values,” Clinton said, “and it’s an effort by Putin to rewrite the boundaries of post-World War Two Europe …  If he’s allowed to get away with that, you’ll see a lot of other countries either directly facing Russian aggression or  . . . transformed into vassals, not sovereign democracies.”

A perfect echo of the Truman Doctrine.

Neither Clinton nor McCain has called for U.S. military intervention.  There’s no need to “be rattling sabers, that’s not useful,” Clinton said. McCain issued a statement saying, “There is a range of serious options at our disposal at this time — without the use of military force.”

Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Bush were too quick to use force.  Obama and Paul are now facing criticism for being too quick to rule it out.

Is there a third way? Yes, there is.  It’s called deterrence.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the most successful military alliance in history. Since 1949, it has succeeded in deterring first Soviet and now Russian aggression against member countries. Neither Georgia not Ukraine is a member of NATO.  If Russia were to attack a NATO ally, like Latvia or Romania, can we be certain that Washington would fulfill its treaty obligations and respond militarily?

Actually, we can’t.  But here’s the point: The Russians can never be sure what we would do.

Deterrence works because of uncertainty. The United States cannot respond to every international crisis with military intervention. But we can never rule it out either.

There has to be real uncertainty about the U.S response.  That’s what deters aggression.


PHOTO (TOP): President Barack Obama pauses while answering a question about the situation in Ukraine, following remarks on the budget at Powell Elementary School in Washington, March 4, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

PHOTO (INSERT 1): President George W. Bush looks down during a meeting about Iraq with current and former secretaries of state and defense at the White House in Washington, May 12, 2006. From left are Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President Harry S. Truman. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS.

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk (L) meets with Senator John McCain in Kiev, March 15, 2014. REUTERS/Andrew Kravchenko/Pool 


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