We conservatives are overdue for a bit of gloating at President Barack Obama and the liberal media on foreign policy. It feels good see the Smartest President Ever™ schooled by “Caribou Barbie,” who actually predicted the Russian invasion of Ukraine five years ago, as well as by Willard Mitt Romney, who earned spitballs of snark for daring to suggest in 2012 that Russia was our number one geopolitical enemy. But… but… Binders of Women!
Yet once we’ve gotten that out of our system, we have to get serious about the challenges before us. Serious does not mean tweeting, as Sen. Lindsey Graham did, that America’s passivity in Benghazi invited Russia’s actions. In truth, the U.S. has been underestimating Vladimir Putin’s ambitions since the early days of the last Republican administration, when W. said: “I looked the man in the eye. I was able to get a sense of his soul.”
(To invert a favorite conservative quip: Imagine if Obama had said it.) But that was in June 2001, before 9/11 forced a complete rethinking of American foreign policy. Bush was then pursuing a new, non-interventionist path. It worked about as well as Obama’s “new equilibrium” is working now. After 9/11, conservatives rallied around a muscular foreign policy designed to eliminate terror threats, through regime change if necessary.
Today, however, conservatives have begun to sink back into skepticism–less as a result of ideological change than as an expression of mistrust in President Obama. His own interventions abroad have been disasters. Yet we cannot forget that his withdrawals have been even worse disasters. And we cannot let the GOP’s newfound (and welcome) enthusiasm for smaller government obscure national security–government’s first priority.
The question that faces the U.S. in the Crimea is similar to the one that faced us in Kuwait in 1990. Like it or not, we have a stake in an international system in which countries do not invade each other on false pretexts. And while our strategic interest in oil is less directly implicated here, it is worth remembering that we went to war for a small, benighted authoritarian regime. Shall we leave a fledgling democracy to suffer alone?
If so, then we must understand what else we are accepting. We are sending a message that the U.S. will not defend other distant democracies–e.g. Israel–from invasion. We are inviting Russia to expand its military influence in the Middle East and its political involvement in Cuba and Venezuela. We are emboldening Russia to continue building nuclear facilities for Iran, which uses the technology to support its weapons program.
In short: the U.S. cannot accept Russian occupation of the Crimea. Any resolution to the crisis that does not involve a full Russian withdrawal will be a failure, and will be interpreted as such. Western diplomats comfort themselves with the thought that Putin is “in another world,” and looking for a face-saving way to backtrack. After all, he must be so embarrassed to know that his foreign counterparts mock his tactics: so 19th century.
The collapse of the international system that led, inexorably, to the Second World War began with Italy’s war in Abyssinia, a place about which few Americans cared. It is said that the west has no cards to play in Ukraine–that Europe depends on Russia for fuel, for example. Yet we still have a major asset in the U.S. military–which Obama has chosen this moment to cut. Will conservatives find the courage to argue for its expansion–and use?