Skip to content

Op-ed: The Language of Fools

Why President Obama's mealymouthed response to Ukraine only invites Putin's aggression.

From Foreign Policy:

Vladimir Putin running rampant in Ukraine showcases how the Obama administration's abdication of global leadership is making the world a more dangerous place.

Instead of providing clarity to our nation and our allies, the Obama administration offers tortured semantics. "Kinetic action" glamorizes the failed policy of leading from behind in Libya. A "spontaneous protest" explains the coordinated al Qaeda attack on American officials in Benghazi. The interim agreement over Iran's nuclear program -- described by one of our closest allies as a "historic mistake" -- is in this universe referred to as a display of "international unity." And on Friday, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was euphemistically designated "an uncontested arrival."

This is the language of fools. Appeasement, historically, leads to more and more violence.

Bullies and tyrants are only encouraged when the United States uses words that willfully ignore the reality of the threats the United States and our allies face.

Ironically, this administration's effort to avoid conflict at all costs makes conflict all the more likely. Putin knows there will be no serious reprisals for aggression from an American president who was only waiting for his re-election to give him the "flexibility" to make additional concessions at the negotiating table. Putin's disdain for Washington has been on full display as he barely waited for the Olympic flame at Sochi to be extinguished before he turned his attention to long-suffering Ukraine.

Careful observers could see this coming. When Putin invaded Georgia in 2008, ultimately occupying some 20 percent of that nation's sovereign territory, at least one observer predicted that if this move went unchallenged, it was only a matter of time before other former Soviet satellites, namely Ukraine, were in the crosshairs. Only it wasn't a foreign-policy expert from Washington -- it was former governor of Alaska and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who wasimmediately derided as "insipid" for her observation. "Prescient" would have been a better word.

As it turns out, Palin understood that Putin and his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, are not interested in diplomatic initiatives like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's "reset." They are predators ready to pounce on the obvious weakness of the most naive foreign-policy team since the Carter administration.

Only that is unfair to former President Jimmy Carter. At least Carter withdrew his ambassador from Russia and delayed Senate consideration of the SALT II treaty when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The United States doesn't even have an ambassador in place to withdraw, since the Obama administration hasn't bothered to put forward a nominee after our former ambassador, Mike McFaul, tendered his resignation and departed Moscow on Feb. 26 -- at a time when Ukraine was going through a revolution, and it might have been predictable that such a crisis might arise that would benefit from our having a senior diplomat in place.

Since Washington doesn't have the option of recalling our ambassador, the question then arises of what we can do. On Friday, President Barack Obama spoke of "costs" for aggressive Russian behavior, and Saturday an anonymous senior U.S. official announced: "We are monitoring the situation closely, consulting with our partners, and considering the potential costs the president spoke about yesterday." Because actually specifying these costs might do something to deter escalating Russian aggression towards Ukraine, here are some ideas:

  • The United States should urge the G8 to suspend Russia immediately on the grounds that it is not contributing to a civil international order. Obama should cancel his planned trip to Sochi for the G8 meeting in June, and suggest our allies do the same.
  • The administration should immediately and fully comply with the Magnitsky act passed by Congress in 2012, which the White House chose to ignore in late 2013 out of fears compliance would be offensive to Russia.
  • Congress should start a formal review of the options for U.S. withdrawal from arms control treaties with Russia such as the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Agreement, and the 2011 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which the United States entered into without full understanding of Russian violations.
  • The secretary of defense should consider the immediate restoration of the full missile defense installations originally planned for Poland and the Czech Republic that were canceled by the Obama administration in 2009, and consider a full re-posturing of our missile defense programs in Eastern Europe.
  • The president should immediately offer the government of Ukraine in Kiev a free trade agreement indicating that goods are welcome in the United States, and explore other options to assist them in their economic recovery that are consistent with free market principles, including access to U.S. energy exports and assistance to develop Ukraine's own energy resources so as to allow them to be independent of energy blackmail by Russia.

The last point, in particular, would not only send the message to Putin that the United States is displeased with his aggression, but that the United States is intent on turning this situation to our advantage rather than seeing it as an abstract violation of international law.

For the last 40 years, the United States has had to make security decisions in the context of our energy needs, and this has been used as blackmail against us, has constrained our actions, and has forced us into partnerships with bad actors. But now, as an extraordinary American energy renaissance materializes, this country is finally in a new position to use its technological and natural resources to win friends and thwart enemies -- from Kiev to Caracas.

Vladimir Putin might even learn a thing or two about how international leadership can be more effective when it comes not through coercion and intimidation, but with the promise of freedom and prosperity.