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How Obama Should Have Handled the Crimea Crisis

crimea_russiaHere are the steps a strong leader would have taken.

by Peter Roff

If America had a robust foreign policy, “the crisis in the Crimea” might never have come to pass. If America had a strong president, someone the world regarded as capable and decisive, Russian President Vladimir Putin might have thought twice about sending troops into the region with orders to make it officially a part of the Russian Federation once again.

Unfortunately, America at the moment has neither. Instead, a weak and feckless president who has chosen to surround himself with an ideological and inexperienced national security team is standing by, hands in pockets, because there is likely nothing the United States can do to change the outcome.

A strong president, a Jack Kennedy or a Ronald Reagan — someone who had command of the nation’s policymaking machine and a clear worldview that involved America as the guardian of world freedom against a dark, evil, expansionist regime in Moscow — would have already committed to a series of steps designed to demonstrate the seriousness of America, speaking on behalf of the western world, to recent events.

Were Obama taken more seriously on the world stage, he could have announced that he had determined the need to revive the plan to place anti-ballistic missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic that he unilaterally cancelled early in his first term. For him to do so now would be seen as an act of desperation and, frankly, few would blame the eastern Europeans if they refused to go along at this stage of the game.

Another action loaded with symbolism that would show the Russians America meant business would be the immediate approval of the Keystone XL pipeline over which Obama has dithered for far too long. It would provide a major boost to the U.S. energy business that, along with the announcement of expedited permitting for those seeking to enter the liquefied natural gas business, could only be interpreted as the establishment of a lifeline to Eastern Europe which now depends on natural gas coming from Russia to provide much of its heat and electricity. America as an energy exporter is a threat to Russian influence on both sides of the Urals and the Caucusus.

A foreign policy leader would have immediately invited the Turkish prime minster to Washington for a summit and sent him home with peace-keeping protocols and the promise of an influx of U.S.-made armaments and airplanes to better police the region and keep the conflict from spreading.

It goes without saying that a U.S. president looking to lay down markers would have moved that Russian membership in the G-8 and G-20 would have been immediately suspended rather than waving it about like a limp carrot. There’s also plenty of opportunities on the world currency markets and in other areas of international exchange that the U.S. could have marshaled the world into acting authoritatively in as part of a unified expression of its displeasure that Putin had invaded Crimea and, as we have seen develop over the last week, would attempt to break it off from Ukraine and make it part of Mother Russia. Because Obama has been weak, however, and because he has preferred to bask in the sunlight reflecting off the Nobel Peace Prize he won but did not earn, the United States is weak and is in no position to stand up to anyone, let alone the world’s other nuclear superpower.

Writing in Monday’s Washington Post, Condoleezza Rice, who served as United States secretary of state from 2005 to 2009, said this: “The immediate concern must be to show Russia that further moves will not be tolerated and that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct. Diplomatic isolation, asset freezes and travel bans against oligarchs are appropriate. The announcement of air defense exercises with the Baltic States and the movement of a U.S. destroyer to the Black Sea bolster our allies, as does economic help for Ukraine’s embattled leaders, who must put aside their internal divisions and govern their country.” She is correct, as she is when she adds that “The longer-term task is to answer Putin’s statement about Europe’s post-Cold War future,” as the Russian leader will “turn the clock back as far as intimidation through military power, economic leverage and Western inaction will allow.”

Up to this point, Obama has played into his hands. He has taken the United States off the world stage without grooming a successor, without even allowing for regional powers to assume the role of referee America once played. There are those here at home who cheered along as he did this, all the while failing to realize that someone would step into the role the U.S. had vacated. As Putin consolidates his hold over Crimea, they can see for themselves the consequences of this kind of muddle-headed thinking.

The world is not naturally a peaceful place. It seems that way only because the democracies are not afraid to act to make it appear so. Sometimes, as in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, it requires real leadership to commit to doing the hard things, the unpopular things, in order to keep the general peace. It is easy to back away from a fight, as Obama has shown time and again. It is not always easy to live with the consequences. Unchecked in Crimea, Putin will want more. It is just a matter of time, time America may not have.

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Peter Roff is a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report. Formerly a senior political writer for United Press International, he’s now affiliated with Frontiers of Freedom. His writing has appeared in National Review, Fox News’ opinion section, The Daily Caller, Politico and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @PeterRoff.