Ukraine Just The Latest Example of Obama’s Limited Global Influence

From Kiev to Kabul to Cairo, the U.S. president is a frustrated bystander

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama speaks about Ukraine in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, Feb. 28, 2014.

Russia’s escalating intervention in Ukraine once again confronts Barack Obama with a foreign policy crisis over which his options are painfully limited, forcing him into a reactive posture that relies on tough, but largely hollow rhetoric.

Appearing on short notice in the White House briefing room yesterday, Obama warned Russian president Vladimir Putin that “there will be costs for any military intervention in Ukraine.” Within hours, Putin had requested and received from Russia’s parliament the authority to use force in its western neighbor, whose capital city Kiev saw an uprising against Moscow last month.

Putin appears to have calculated that the benefits of maintaining control of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, home to a large ethnic Russian population and a major naval base, would outweigh any costs that Obama and the West can impose.

He’s probably right. The prospect of a U.S. or NATO military response is roughly nil. The West has limited, if any, economic leverage over Russia. In fact, the leverage may work in the opposite direction as Russia is a major oil exporter at a time of already-high crude prices. Rhetorical shaming? Putin has endured months of it over his support of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, without budging from his position. Western support for Putin’s domestic opposition would likely undermine its recipients and allow Putin to dismiss all protest as foreign intervention.

So Obama is left to issue tough statements and place overseas phone calls, to little likely effect. By now it’s a familiar story—and a particularly frustrating one, given the American public’s unrealistically high expectations for presidential problem-solving. Consider several other crises that have left him stumped:

In Syria, Obama stubbornly refuses to wade more than ankle-deep into the bloody fight against al-Assad’s regime. He doubts whether the U.S. can influence the course of the war and worries that the risks of action—including an Iraq-style quagmire—outweigh the costs of inaction. His critics argue that he’s wrong about that, a debatable proposition. But the practical result is Obama’s pursuit a diplomatic solution that has gone nowhere, along with rhetorical condemnations of Putin, who supports Assad, that achieve nothing.

In Afghanistan, president Hamid Karzai refused to sign a carefully negotiated agreement that would allow a residual U.S. military force in his country after 2014, saying he would leave that decision to his successor, who will be chosen in elections this spring. Obama has threatened that such a delay might require scrapping plans for a residual force. But with the stability of the Afghan government uncertain and al-Qaeda operatives just across the border in Pakistan, he wants to avoid a total withdrawal. Lacking any real leverage over an Afghan leader who seems willing to let the Americans exit for good, Obama endures Karzai’s bluster and false accusations, while letting his deadline slide for deciding on a full withdrawal.

And in Egypt, Obama has largely been a spectator to that country’s ongoing political turmoil. His condemnations of a July 2013 coup—though he won’t actually use the word—hasn’t rattled the generals in Cairo, whose military aid he can’t bring himself to sever. Meanwhile, bolstered by financial and political support from wealthy Arab neighbors, Egypt’s military regime has ignored U.S. pleas for restraint and waged a brutal crackdown. Libya, Iraq, Sudan — all are places where terrible things happen that the U.S. can do little about.

Obama’s critics say he’s been risk-averse, reactive and lacking vision. But even they would have to concede that American power is not what it was before two costly foreign wars and a budget-wrecking economic crisis. The result is a frustrated president whose foreign policy often amounts to tough statements which fall on deaf ears.