A few days ago, Jonah Goldberg of National Review Online pointed out on Fox News’ Special Report with Bret Baier that the language President Barack Obama was using on the Ukraine was setting him up for failure. Specifically, Obama’s insistence that the future of the Ukraine “must be determined by the Ukrainian people” could equally be used to justify a referendum in the Crimea to let the heavily-Russian province decide its fate.
Goldberg no doubt had in mind the hazards of President Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination, which seemed like a good idea when the fractious Austro-Hungarian Empire was an enemy power, but turned out to be a major headache once the war was over. The ethnic patchwork of Europe did not lend itself easily to stark geographic divisions, and soon conflicts broke out over the rights of minority populations in new states.
It might seem odd that President Obama, who echoes Wilson in his preference for centralized planning and his contempt for constitutional restraint, as well as his idealism about the international community, would repeat the same mistakes. But then Obama has never been a keen student of history, and seems to operate on the assumption that because he himself is so exceptional, the lessons of past human experience do not really apply.
Now President Obama is opposing a referendum on the Crimea–and for good reason. Not only is it illegitimate for any transfer of territory to take place after an unjustified invasion, but there is no reason to expect that the referendum will be free or fair with Russian troops in place. Yet our president has been hoist by his own petard. If he had not deferred to self-determination, but had led more boldly from the start, we would be better off.