Homegrown perils for Obama in Ukraine crisis

Listen to this article


The first week of the Ukraine crisis has produced a wave of Republican criticism alleging that Barack Obama’s “weak” foreign policy has emboldened Vladimir Putin to take military control of Crimea.

But Mr Obama’s critics unwittingly articulated at the same time the difficulty of scoring points on the conflict, as they struggled to find ways to punish Moscow that differ substantially from the actions the White House is already rolling out.

The cost and lives lost in Iraq and Afghanistan has even produced quiet unanimity on one point, with ardent hawks like John McCain, the Republican senator, opposing direct US military involvement in Ukraine.

The first test in Congress on Ukraine was overwhelmingly bipartisan, with the Republican-dominated House voting 385-23 on Thursday to pass a package of loan guarantees to the new Kiev government.

Danger still lurks for Mr Obama, who has battled to shrug off the label that Republicans have tried to pin on Democrats for decades, that they do not believe in muscular global leadership from the US.

Hillary Clinton, who oversaw the “reset” of relations with Russia as secretary of state for four years from 2009, a policy now widely regarded as a failure, is also in the Republicans’ sights, as the leading Democratic candidate for president in 2016.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican South Carolina senator, was the most explicit in targeting Mrs Clinton, connecting the deadly assault on the US consulate in Libya in 2012 to Ukraine.

“When you tell the world we’re going find the people who killed our four Americans in Libya, including the ambassador, and you do nothing about it, it sets in motion exactly what you see,” he said.

Mr Graham tempered his tone on Thursday, offering support for Mr Obama’s decision to impose sanctions on Russian officials, but added: “Iran, Syria, North Korea, and others are watching – the outcome in Crimea will have far-reaching consequences for US national security.”

Many well-worn historical analogies used for modern confrontations, especially ones involving Russia, have been taken off the shelf by politicians and commentators grasping to describe the situation.

Mrs Clinton and Mr McCain drew a comparison with Mr Putin’s pretext to protect Russian minorities in Crimea with Adolf Hitler’s similar claim to stand up for ethnic Germans in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the 1930s.

The conflict has also been branded a “new cold war” although that conflict was seen through the prism of a nuclear stand-off, which is not the case now. Despite calls for Mr Obama to act, the US had little influence on Soviet borders during that period.

“The US never really lifted a finger to help eastern European satellite states until the Soviet Union fell apart,” said John Lewis Gaddis, the historian, at Yale University.

Henry Kissinger, born in Germany more than 90 years ago, but still a perennial presence in US foreign policy debates, also weighed in, warning in an article in the Washington Post against treating Ukraine “as a showdown.”

While admonishing Moscow’s use of force, he said: “The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country.”

Mr Kissinger criticised what he called the European Union’s “bureaucratic dilatoriness and subordination” of strategy to domestic politics in negotiating its deal with Ukraine, thereby helping set off the current crisis.

Left largely unsaid is that Mr Obama’s cautious approach is largely in line with popular opinion, and that of his own Democratic base, which has no appetite for foreign conflict.

“There is a very strong sense that we as a country have been overstretched,” said Mr Gaddis.

The Republican attacks also mask growing support among libertarian conservatives, clustered around their champion in Congress, Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator, to dial back America’s global role.

Mr Paul branded Russia’s actions as “dangerous” but did not urge Mr Obama to take any specific action in retaliation.

The White House itself is resisting the hyperbole that Ukraine represents “the greatest test” so far of Mr Obama’s presidency, pointing out that the same formulation had been used often in the past.

“Some of them were very great tests,” Dan Pfeiffer, Mr Obama’s chief adviser, said on Thursday. “And some of them went away pretty quickly.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.