There is at least one Republican, however, whose counsel should not be scorned, especially by his fellow Republicans. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — whose glancing criticism of Obama in his memoir was so heavily exaggerated — now clearly disdains partisan exploitation of the trouble in Ukraine to demean his former boss.
“In the middle of a major international crisis…some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president ought to be toned down, while he’s trying to handle this crisis,” said Gates on “Fox News Sunday.” He flatly rejected the notion that Obama could somehow have deterred Putin by acting more “decisively.” And having served under Bush before Obama kept him on, he bluntly recalled that other Russian invasion.
“My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force, so I think Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas. I think that…even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren’t cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it.”
Indeed, Obama is doing everything that critics like McCain and Romney would likely do in his place – pull together the allies, bolster Ukraine financially, impose sanctions, isolate and cajole Moscow. He is calibrating the response according to the broad interests of the United States and its allies, seeking to restrain Russian ambitions without incurring grave costs.
So far the hysterical Republican attacks are inflicting little harm on the president. His approach to Ukraine and Crimea is polling higher than his overall approval numbers – and the latest CNN poll showed that his ratings as a “strong and decisive leader” who “inspires confidence” are actually higher than last autumn.
What Putin will do next is hard to predict; what remains perfectly predictable is the political reaction here. If the Russians push deeper into Ukraine, Obama will be blamed again. And if they don’t, he will surely get no credit.
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