How To Think About Obama, Putin, And Toughness

On Monday President Obama expanded the sanctions against Russia, which, of course, still won’t quiet his critics, many of whom think he should, even without help from reluctant Europeans, do much, much more to try to keep Vladimir Putin from destabilizing and perhaps eventually annexing parts or all of Eastern Ukraine.

What that “much, much more” entails is never made clear, since it is obvious the Europeans—whose interests clearly run much deeper than ours—want to go slow in terms of putting pressure on the Russians. For some of the President’s most virulent critics, there is nothing our wussy President could do, short of starting a war, that would shut them up.

In that context, White House correspondent Ed Henry, pretending to be an objective journalist on a cable network pretending to do the news, did us all a favor yesterday by asking President Obama, who was in the Philippines, a question that only a Fox addict could appropriately love:

ED HENRY, FOX “NEWS”: …as you end this trip, I don’t think I have to remind you there have been a lot of unflattering portraits of your foreign policy right now.  And rather than get into all the details or red lines, et cetera, I’d like to give you a chance to lay out what your vision is more than five years into office, what you think the Obama doctrine is in terms of what your guiding principle is on all of these crises and how you answer those critics who say they think the doctrine is weakness. 

Asking his question, the fair and balanced Fox correspondent managed to get in:

1. The whole “red lines” controversy that right-wingers have used to bash the President.
2. The idea that Obama does not have a “guiding principle” for his foreign policy, another criticism that right-wingers hurl at him constantly.
3. And most important, the notion that President Obama lacks toughness and is a weakling on the world stage.

All of that must have pleased Henry’s bosses and earned him a bonus. But, as I said, we should also thank him because his loaded question allowed President Obama to demonstrate to sane Americans how lucky we are to have him in charge rather than some tough guy blabbing on cable TV or pecking on a keyboard at The Weekly Standard. First he began with a shot at Fox:

PRESIDENT OBAMA:  Well, Ed, I doubt that I’m going to have time to lay out my entire foreign policy doctrine.  And there are actually some complimentary pieces as well about my foreign policy, but I’m not sure you ran them.

No, Ed didn’t run them. Fox didn’t run them. And for one good reason: There isn’t anyone at Fox who would dare say anything complimentary about President Obama. That would be a good way to get yourself on the wrong side of the Republican’s War on the Unemployed. But the real attack on his critics on Fox and elsewhere—finally and decisively from the lips of the President—was directed at those who constantly say his balls are too small for the job. I will quote Obama extensively and all Americans should read all of the following with thankfulness in their hearts:

Typically, criticism of our foreign policy has been directed at the failure to use military force.  And the question I think I would have is, why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?  And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?

My job as Commander-in-Chief is to deploy military force as a last resort, and to deploy it wisely.  And, frankly, most of the foreign policy commentators that have questioned our policies would go headlong into a bunch of military adventures that the American people had no interest in participating in and would not advance our core security interests. 

So if you look at Syria, for example, our interest is in helping the Syrian people, but nobody suggests that us being involved in a land war in Syria would necessarily accomplish this goal.  And I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops.  Well, what do you mean?  Well, you should be assisting the opposition — well, we’re assisting the opposition.  What else do you mean?  Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria.  Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike.  So what else are you talking about?  And at that point it kind of trails off.

In Ukraine, what we’ve done is mobilize the international community.  Russia has never been more isolated.  A country that used to be clearly in its orbit now is looking much more towards Europe and the West, because they’ve seen that the arrangements that have existed for the last 20 years weren’t working for them.  And Russia is having to engage in activities that have been rejected uniformly around the world.  And we’ve been able to mobilize the international community to not only put diplomatic pressure on Russia, but also we’ve been able to organize European countries who many were skeptical would do anything to work with us in applying sanctions to Russia.  Well, what else should we be doing?  Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in, the critics will say.  That’s not what we mean.  Well, okay, what are you saying?  Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.  Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?  Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economcost of iraq waric pressure that we’re applying?

The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again.  Why?  I don’t know.  But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it.  There are going to be times where there are disasters and difficulties and challenges all around the world, and not all of those are going to be immediately solvable by us. 

But we can continue to speak out clearly about what we believe.  Where we can make a difference using all the tools we’ve got in the toolkit, well, we should do so.  And if there are occasions where targeted, clear actions can be taken that would make a difference, then we should take them.  We don’t do them because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong.  That’s not how we make foreign policy.  And if you look at the results of what we’ve done over the last five years, it is fair to say that our alliances are stronger, our partnerships are stronger, and in the Asia Pacific region, just to take one example, we are much better positioned to work with the peoples here on a whole range of issues of mutual interest.

And that may not always be sexy.  That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows.  But it avoids errors.  You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.  But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.

As far as I’m concerned, with that answer President Obama executed a perfect spinning headlock elbow drop on his war-hungry critics. Which ain’t too bad for a supposedly weak leader. We picked the right man for the job after all.ambassador mcfaul

Related to that, Michael McFaul, former United States Ambassador to Russia (who is now a Professor of Political Science at Stanford), said something important this morning on MSNBC regarding Obama’s alleged lack of toughness toward Vladimir Putin:

This talk of toughness, if I could just add a little historical perspective, do you know how many government officials the Bush administration sanctioned? Zero. Do you know many Ronald Reagan sanctioned after the crackdown in Poland? Zero. General Eisenhower, President Eisenhower, who ran on “roll back Communism”? Zero. So, you know, let’s have a little perspective here…

Okay. Will do. Since I’ve previously discussed George W. Bush’s failure to do anything about Putin’s invasion of Georgia in 2008,  let’s get some perspective on Eisenhower and Reagan in relation to the Russians during the Cold War.

Eisenhower agreed to hold, in 1955, the first meeting between Soviet and Western leaders since Potsdam in 1945, where, as the Miller Center put it,  he proposed “an ‘Open Skies’ program that would have allowed both sides to use aerial air surveillance to gather information about each other’s military capabilities.” Khrushchev rejected the idea, but can you imagine if President Obama had been the first to propose such a thing? What would his critics have said? (The idea was later taken up by President George H. W. Bush in 1989 and an “Open Skies Treaty” was signed in 1992, with Russia as one of the signatories.)

A little more than a year after that Eisenhower-blessed 1955 meeting, the Soviets invaded Hungary, bombing Budapest and moving in armored units to put down a revolt against the country’s oppressive Communist government. Over 2500 Hungarians were killed. And what did Eisenhower, our national war hero, do? Nothing. Thankfully, he sort of had an idea that wars were easy to start and hard to end.

Turning to Ronald Reagan, let’s remember that, like Eisenhower, the conservative president vigorously pursued arms control treaties designed to limit nuclear weapons. Reagan fiercely hated nukes and actually wanted to make a deal with the Soviets to get rid of them altogether. (According to the Heritage Foundation, “Reagan came to believe that the biblical story of Armageddon foretold a nuclear war.” Yikes.) To that end, he proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (dubbed by its critics as “Star Wars”), which included a space-based laser that was supposed to shoot down incoming missiles. (Some say he got the idea from a movie he made in 1940 called “Murder in the Air,” which introduced an “inertia projector” attached to a dirigible. The inertia projector eventually shot down the bad guy’s plane. Yikes, again.) Famously, and quite surprisingly, Reagan repeatedly offered to share the new missile defense technology with the Russians. If Obama had done that, he would have been excoriated and likely impeached. (Sarah Palin attacked him anyway out of ignorance or stupidity, your choice.)

During Reagan’s first year as president, in December of 1981, the Soviets finally forced the Polish government to squash Solidarity, the anti-Soviet trade union movement led by Lech Walesa. The government imposed martial law, arrested the movement’s leaders, and fired on Polish strikers and demonstrators, killing and injuring many. And what was tough-guy Reagan’s response? Some rather mild sanctions against Poland and the Soviet Union. The Europeans weren’t eager to do too much (sound familiar?) and the Reagan administration, as noted by Arthur Rachwald, “favored a flexible approach to Poland—a policy of carrots and sticks…” Rachwald writes:

..the Reagan administration’s considerable restraint made Warsaw hopeful that an improvement in relations was possible. The real test of Reagan’s long-term intentions toward Poland came at the beginning of February 1982, when the United States had to decided whether to pay $71.3 million in interest to U.S. banks that had made government-guaranteed loans to Poland. Several senators, including Patrick Moynihan, argued in favor of declaring Poland bankrupt. Such a decision would eliminate Polish exports to the West and make the Jaruzelski regime a financial ward of Moscow. This step would be the ultimate form of economic pressure on Warsaw and Moscow.

The Reagan administration, however, believed that declaring Poland insolvent would have irreversible consequences on Polish-U.S. relations.

Thus, Ronaldus Magnus paid the interest due and limited the damage inflicted on the two countries in hopes that future progress could be achieved. (Does that sound familiar, too?) Rachwald says:

The decision not to declare Poland bankrupt was a clear message to Warsaw that mutual relations were not beyond repair, and that the key to Poland’s access to Western markets and credits was in General Jaruzelski’s hands.

Well, as we know, it took eight years after that Polish crack-down on Solidarity before the Soviet Union began to disintegrate. Eight bleeping years. Sometimes it is hard to judge what toughness is. Sometimes being tough involves resisting the desire to be seen as tough. Sometimes it is, as President Obama suggested, settling for singles and doubles and only the occasional home run, as we try to “steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.” Regarding the present crisis in Ukraine, former ambassador Mike McFaul said quite wisely this morning,

I think we should judge this by what happens eight years from now, not by what happens eight days from now.





  1. An excellent perspective on historical foreign policies. You performed a very useful service, Mr. Graham.

    I believe that holding the office of president must be a sobering thing for most, and that being confronted with the consequences of your decisions moves most people to carefully weigh choices. It seems to me that President Obama brings to bear as much careful consideration as any president and more than many brought.



    • Thank you, my friend. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of President Obama’s decision-making process. As I said, I think we are very luck to have him in such times as these, when so many decisions could lead to more protracted wars.


  2. This post is an outstanding summary of the opposition’s foreign policy criticisms, Duane.

    Obama’s ability to so ably and extemporaneously defend himself could only derive from deep thought beforehand. The mind boggles at what messes some of the possible GOP contenders might have made of the Ukraine affair. A brief review is sobering. With speculation:

    Michelle Bachmann (pray the problem away?)
    Herman Cain (can’t pronounce it or find it on a map?)
    Rick Perry (attack, attack, attack?)
    Rick Santorum (ignore it, it doesn’t involve abortion?)
    Newt Gingrich (launch a new Star Wars program from the moon?)
    Ron Paul (ignore it and resign from NATO and the UN?)
    Mitt Romney (bribe the Russians to leave it alone?)


    • Excellent, all, Jim. I have to say, though, that of all the ones on the list, Ron Paul (as now expressed by his son in the Senate who is running for president) has what is a fairly mainstream view on the Tea Party right these days. This may be one of the most divisive issues in the GOP primary in 2016.


  3. ansonburlingame

     /  May 4, 2014

    I agree that the blog exemplifies disdain, or at least distrust, for the “opposition’s foreign policy”. But I disagree that it provides insight into how to improve our foreign policy positions around the world to better protect American interests. In other words, can we have an apolitical discussion of how best to conduct foreign policy in the best interests of America?

    There is no doubt that Obama has long abhored the use of military power. Recall, before the economic collapse in the summer of 2008 that his whole campaign was focused on removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. But once he took office it was much harder to remove troops from Iraq than expected AND he escalated the troop count in Afghanistan, with very questionable results in both places. Hmm, so what to do?

    Then Cairo, probably the most definitive speech I have yet to hear from Obama, a foreign policy emphasising the “ties that bind” but saying little about what to do with divisive ideas and the forces behind them, like terrorism a la Iran, etc. Then Libya, then Benghazi, then Syria, and now the Ukraine. Oh, I forgot Egypt as well. Hmmm, what to do about …….

    Duane overlooks the policies of the Cold War and praises the presidents that did not lead us into another world war. Yet for all intents and purposes, we were in a Cold War and a strong line of defense, a do not cross under any circumstances, was right before our eyes, going down the middle of Berlin for about 50 years. As well we fought two major wars to contain communism, Korea and Vietnam, and both were either stalemates (Korea) or a failure (Vietnam) that still affects America foreign policies, the fear of “another Vietnam”, which we go into in Iraq and Afghanistan at GOP insistence and cries of disdain (after the fact in both wars) in both countries. Amidst those cries from the left there were also no innovative solutions, other than just “don’t go there and do THAT”.

    Did containment work, allow communism to die a natural economic death in the Soviet Union. Yes it did if you conclude no world war a success, a nuclear war between “communism and the rest of the world”. But look at the money and lives spent to achieve that “win” by Western society over about 60 years of constant stuggle, mostly behind the headlines of mass media. Hell the first 23 years of my own professional career was a very focused effort using military power against the Soviet Union. But none of you “read about it” until Hunt for Red October hit the bookshelves!

    No only did containment work against the Soviet Union, deterrence of the nuclear sort worked as well as evidenced by NO use of nuclear weapons since 1945. Close calls, occassional disasters caused by mishandling such weapons, etc., sure. but again, no Armagendon of the Nuclear Winter sort envisioned by Carl Sagan and scared Americans to near death when published.

    I don’t blame any government leader to “want to rid the world of nuclear weapons”, by the way. But I have yet hear one find a way to do so, safely, meaning no further use of such weapons, anytime, anywhere, by anyone. Have you heard such a way to do so?

    One more point. Obama has always said that military power should only be used as a “last resort”. What he means of course is boots on the ground with our troops killing others to take geographical positions favorable to American interests and futher governments in place to protect American interests in such locations.

    I submit there are many other ways to use military power, other than just putting boots on the ground or in the skies overhead to kill other people. During the Cold War America did exactly that, projected military power without putting boots in the Soviet Union or China. And we won that round with communism, did we not? Military power is not one isolated tool in any nations foreign policy tool box. It is part of the whole tool box and can be asserted in many different ways. Instead Obama keeps that one tool isolated and disdained as an effective part of the American tool box.

    He most clearly showed that “policy” in Benghanzi and my view and we as a nation will not recover from that error until someone replaces Obama as President of these United States.

    Want just one example of what I am writing. IF we had a full up anti-ballistic missile defense system in Eastern Europe (not the moon for Christ’s sake) I wonder if all the military bluster on Putin’s part of late would have happened?

    Want another example? Why has Israel avoided conquest by surrounding Arab nations for now some 60 plus years?



    • Why is it that everyone thinks there should be specific rules for conducting our foreign policy? Seems to me that is what got us into places like Vietnam. As I have argued before, no one doctrine suffices to govern our foreign policy and military decisions. I don’t think there is any doubt that an ad hoc approach, especially these days, is necessary. A one-size-fits-all policy would be disastrous. It’s pretty simple really: What are our interests and what price would we pay in any given scenario to achieve or protect them? Whether that price is worth it is up to the Commander-in-Chief ultimately.

      You mentioned Israel. Really? How did they avoid conquest? How about with a lot of help from their very important friend, namely us? There likely wouldn’t exist today a nation of Israel if it weren’t for the United States. Now that they have nukes, they apparently believe that they can thumb there noses at our entreaties to get them to listen to reason and stop doing things like building settlements in occupied territories. And if they keep telling us to go to hell (oh so quietly), then even we won’t be able to save them from a constant threat of attack or from blowing up the region with a nuke. As for their foreign policy, Israel’s very existence is at stake, Anson, which is why they have a very different foreign policy schemata than ours. Outside of a nuclear attack, no country threatens our existence and our foreign policy should not be governed by any specific doctrine that is applied in every case.


  4. ansonburlingame

     /  May 8, 2014

    This is my third attempt to respond herein. I keep hitting the wrong buttons and losing my comment. My fault I am sure.

    Duane, foreign policy must always be fundamentally consistent, constant if you will at a fundamental level. America foreign policy has achieved that consistency twice. First, for about 150 years, up to the beginning of the 20th Century, it was “no foreign entanglements”, meaning no foreign wars. The Monroe Doctrine, basically said leave us alone and when that was violated we went to war.

    The 20th Century ushered in fundamental change to American foreign “entanglements” and we went to war “over there” on several occasions. During the last half of that century it was only a “cold war” however as technology, nuclear weapons, forced major confrontations to only “secret” confrontations. But I assure you that military power was a fundamental part of that “secret” but still “cold” war. I was on the front lines of that war along with thousands of others on just submarines alone (forget the CIA and other forms of “force” used during that period) to project and protect American interests.

    It made no difference whatsoever, whether a dem or a GOPer was in the White House. Submarines, the CIA, etc. “fought” a very intense “battle” for about 50 years in secret to hold the line at the “iron curtain” to prevent the further advance of Soviet communism.

    Welcome to the 21st Century. I assert we lack consistency in our foreign policy now. Who can now predict what America might do in today’s world? I sure cannot do so. I only know that if a dem is in the White House we will do something different than if a GOPer was in that position. That is politically motivated and thus “ad hoc” foreign policy, in my view.

    That, politically motivated and thus uncertain foreign policy is dangerous. Leaders such as Putin ( and countless terrorists) calculate America’s reaction when they initiate actions to spread their influence outside of national limits. When uncertainty is present, well any concept of deterrence fails, miserably. No I am not talking about nuclear deterrence. Instead I speak of deterrence to prevent non-nuclear threats to American interests which abound today, far more than in my lifetime.

    That is the reason why I have been and remain very concerned about Benghazi. When an American President’s reaction, live and on TV is to try to blame ourselves for causing an attack on American’s, a blatant attack on American lives, facilities and interests, and refuses to even try to use available military power in the face of such an attack, well when will such a president react forcefully, I wonder, And now so does the rest of the world, they remain uncertain, friends and foe alike, how America will react.

    Again, that is dangerous, to the world at large.


    PS: Such a view in no way supports the bluster of right wingers calling for ….. every time we don’t get our way. Putin on the other hand has decided with a degree of certainty how America will react. We will “talk” only and bluster a lot in such talk but that is the new American limit it seems to me. Does anyone think anything “secret” is going on to pursuade Russia to change their approach in the Ukraine, today? Are women and children still be slaughtered in Syria, today? I wonder how long before Iran has a “secret” nuclear stockpile, just like the “secret” one in Israel, today?


    • I find the following statement you made regarding your concern about Benghazi utterly strange:

      When an American President’s reaction, live and on TV is to try to blame ourselves for causing an attack on American’s…

      You can look from now until Sean Hannity’s brain phones home and you will not see a word from President Obama about blaming “ourselves” for what happen in Benghazi. Just because he and others in the Administration pointed out the obvious (it was in The New York Times, too) that someone here in America produced a video that pissed off extremists in all kinds of places in the Middle East doesn’t mean that anyone is blaming “ourselves” for what happened. It was just a statement of fact that some Muslims were upset over the film. No one said it was our fault for permitting such to happen. In fact, here is part of what President Obama said on September 12 (emphasis mine):

      The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack.  We’re working with the government of Libya to secure our diplomats.  I’ve also directed my administration to increase our security at diplomatic posts around the world.  And make no mistake, we will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.

      Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths.  We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.  None.  The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.

      Get that? No blame on ourselves. And Hilllary Clinton said the same day:

      We are working to determine the precise motivations and methods of those who carried out this assault. Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is no justification for this; none.

      No justification. No blaming ourselves. So, I don’t have the slightest idea what you meant when you said,

      When an American President’s reaction, live and on TV is to try to blame ourselves for causing an attack on American’s…

      Maybe if you realize that the President didn’t do what you said he did you will stop worrying so much about how “dangerous” such non-behavior is “to the world at large.”


      Liked by 1 person

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