To hear the Republicans shrieking about Crimea — from those howling simpletons on Fox News to the churlish statesmen of the United States Senate – all blame rests with Barack Obama. In the midst of a real and potentially dangerous crisis, every opportunistic politician and pundit on the right excoriates him as a president so “weak” that he practically invited Vladimir Putin’s aggression.
Aggression is an apt description of the Russian takeover of the Crimean peninsula, despite the complexity of the events and history that led here – and despite the evident enthusiasm of the Crimean population. Like many borders drawn on maps, this one was far from indisputable in moral or political terms. And without endorsing Russia’s questionable version of events, it is also true that the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime and the inclusion of neo-fascist elements in Kiev’s new government raised real issues of legitimacy and security.
Yet those questions cannot excuse Russia’s military intimidation of Ukraine or the staged and stampeded referendum that led to annexation. What Putin is doing violates basic international norms, which demand respect for national sovereignty and democratic processes.
The problem faced by the Obama administration and its European allies is how to discourage further imperialistic adventures by Moscow without destructive economic and diplomatic consequences for the world. Among the complicating factors are the Russian roles in Iran, Syria, the Mideast peace process, and Europe’s energy economy – any of which could devolve into something far worse than the annexation of Crimea. In short, Ukraine presents a tricky and perilous situation that leaves the United States with limited options.
Which is why the Republicans have almost nothing to say about what Obama should do now, and so much to say about why this trouble is his fault. All the usual suspects have piped up to tell the world about the president’s supposed frailty.
Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggests that he was right to pillory Russia in 2012 as “the number one geopolitical foe” of the United States –and that Obama was wrong to mockingly demur. But the president’s responsibilities required him to seek Putin’s diplomatic cooperation — not to bait the Russian leader for partisan advantage. Arizona Senator John McCain has been sputtering with rage, berating Obama as “the most naïve president in history.” His Senate sidekick Lindsey Graham, seeking reelection in South Carolina, went much further: “It started with Benghazi,” he tweeted. “When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression.”
Only Dick Cheney could be expected to exceed Graham’s slur. Not only does the former vice president indict Obama for “weakness and indecisiveness” that have supposedly damaged American prestige around the world, but he urges provocative military actions that could rapidly worsen the crisis.
If Putin was tempted by American vacillation, that process started well before Obama entered the White House, when his troops invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia – and the Republicans now shrieking about “weakness” said nothing when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did nothing. When reminded about that episode, Cheney now says that episode occurred “at the end of the Bush administration, the beginning of the Obama administration” – in August 2008. Nobody should expect honesty, after all, from the man whose deceptions pushed this country into a disastrous war – and who singlehandedly did more lasting damage to American prestige than any vice president in history.