The Misplaced Question of Obama’s ‘Toughness’

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In this handout image provided by Host Photo Agency, Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) greets US President Barack Obama during an official welcome of G20 heads of state and government, heads of invited states and international organizations at the G20 summit on September 5, 2013 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  The G20 summit is expected to be dominated by the issue of military action in Syria while issues surrounding the global economy, including tax avoidance by multinationals, will also be discussed during the two-day summit.
Photo: Alexey Kudenko/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images

The consensus over the past two days has been that Vladimir Putin's military occupation of part of Ukraine poses a challenge to Obama's "toughness." That word — toughness — has been everywhere, as if the two men were actually wrestling for the future of far eastern Europe. Peter Baker, surveying foreign-policy insiders this morning's New York Times, found his sources returning repeatedly to this theme: "At its heart," Baker wrote, "the advice seemed to pose the same question: Is Mr Obama tough enough to take on the former KGB colonel in the Kremlin? It is no easy task." The Washington Post's editorial board lectured Obama about the need to face "reality." On Meet the Press, the panel was unanimous: "No more just issuing harshly worded statements," admonished Chuck Todd. "It's almost as if Putin is brilliant, really — he's outfoxing Obama all the time," said Tina Brown. "I think Putin looked into Obama's eyes and saw his soul. And President Obama doesn't like conflict at all," reported Kathleen Parker. Now, few complicated policy dilemmas ever really turn on which politician is more blustery. (Let alone on trans-oceanic soul-gazing.) But this particular bit of pining seems especially misguided. It is strange to wish that President Obama would, in this episode, become something he is not — a bit more like his predecessor, George W. Bush, perhaps a bit more like Putin himself — when the crisis in the Ukraine, perhaps more than any other in his presidency, is perfectly suited to Obama himself.

What would more toughness mean, anyway? Everyone concedes that there are no plausible military alternatives — "there has been a conspicuous absence of saber-rattling," Politico allowed this morning, almost reluctantly. What remains is a range of punitive policy options, which the foreign-policy experts seem more or less to agree on: Obama could ask Congress and our allies to impose economic sanctions on Russia; he could push to cancel the upcoming G-8 summit in Sochi or to expel Russia from the G-8 entirely; he could build support for a large package of economic aid designed to support the fledgling government in Kiev, or even for a symbolic U.N. security council condemning Putin. But each of these steps would require something other than toughness. They require diplomacy, the careful construction of a consensus among allies, a politically united West, a rhetoric that is morally clear without suggesting American imperialism, a precise identification of which Ukrainian politicians we might support without enormous misgivings later on. Which is simply to say that while Washington is questioning Obama's "toughness," it is also suggesting a policy that looks an awful lot like the kind Obama has always advocated — an awful lot like leading from behind.
 
Now, Leading From Behind was always an atrocious slogan, and the morality-by-consensus approach to foreign policy it suggested has seemed especially weak during the past year, as the West has failed to address the rolling horrors in Syria, and Obama has been reduced to griping about the Europeans: "A lot of people think something should be done, but nobody seems willing to do it," he explained late this summer, a bit passively. But in the Ukraine crisis, Obama seems to have something that he hasn't in Syria, or Libya, or Afghanistan, or Iraq: European allies who, seeing in Putin something close to an existential threat, are unambiguously on the American side. The English foreign minister was in Kiev even before John Kerry. German Prime Minister Angela Merkel, having phoned Putin to try to understand his perspective, returned alarmed. "She was not sure he was in touch with reality," is how White House officials explained the content of her subsequent call with Obama to reporters. Merkel described Putin as "in another world."
 
Politically speaking, Obama and Putin are each other's perfect villain. The Russian's narrow, brutal, and backwards-gazing nationalism flatters Obama's universalism and promise of freedom and the future; Obama's rhetoric of compromise and alliances flatters Putin's image of his own strength. Commentators have a tendency to become trapped in that metaphor, and to conclude that Putin's "strength" will always defeat Obama's "weakness." During the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, Bob Costas asked the president about the cold shoulder Putin seemed to turn toward the Americans, and Obama just about smirked. That was just, the president said, Putin's "bored, tough-guy shtick."
 
That seems, in retrospect, like a shrewd insight. It's worth recalling how this episode started. (Timothy Snyder's account is excellent.) The Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych operated a regime whose profound corruption helped to bankrupt the country. In need of funds, Yanukovych rejected an agreement to associate with the European Union and announced instead that he would be accepting an economic bailout from the Russian government and closer ties with Moscow in general. Protestors — organized in part on social media — occupied Kiev's central square so consistently and in such large numbers that eventually, Ukrainian security forces began to fire on them and kill them. Yanukovych lost his majority in Parliament; eventually, he had to flee the country while opposition figures, among them many far more hostile to Russian influence, took over. After which Putin intervened — perhaps to try to win through force what he could not through politics, perhaps to simply grab some ethnically isolated pockets of Ukraine and reattach them to Russia. It was, in other words, not Putin's preferred policy, but a reaction in some part to the Ukraine beginning to slip a little further away from him.
 
None of which is to diminish the imminent threat that Putin's soldiers pose to Ukrainians, or the longer-term threat that his politics and designs pose to much of the former Soviet sphere — both are palpable, and it is hard to see how this episode will end without Russia annexing at least the Crimea and perhaps other sections of Eastern Ukraine in which ethnic Russians predominate. But it does suggest that the softer form of diplomacy that Obama has long espoused — a careful cultivation of allies, faith that an increasingly interconnected world will be an increasingly free one, an enthusiasm for native political movements to unseat despots but a reluctance to support them militarily — can offer quite a lot to the Ukrainians.
 
There is something odd about commentators who denounce Putin in the strongest terms and yet pine for a more Putin-like figure in the White House. Obama may not manage this episode perfectly; there are many opportunities for peril. But it is hard to see what more "toughness" would do to improve the situation. The challenge Obama faces in the Ukraine is centrally diplomatic — it is a problem of organizing a coalition, and picking the right allies within the Ukraine, the right economic and symbolic measures against Putin, the careful shaping of moral and political rhetoric. The president is, far more than has been acknowledged, on familiar ground.