Russian President Vladimir Putin has dramatically outplayed President Barack Obama in his current invasion of Crimea. That’s largely thanks to Obama’s ideological reluctance to cite American interests as a rationale for opposition to Putin’s imperialism; instead, Obama has variously cited international law, self-determination, protection of human rights, and the necessity for negotiation. And Putin, being a smart politician, has doubled down on each of those rationales in defense of his invasion of Crimea.
Here are four statements Vladimir Putin has made about the Russian invasion of Ukraine – and here’s how President Obama paved the way for them.
International Law. This week, Putin gave a speech before the Russian Duma in which he stated:
“As it declared independence and decided to hold a referendum, the Supreme Council of Crimea referred to the United Nations Charter, which speaks of the right of nations to self-determination. Incidentally, I would like to remind you that when Ukraine seceded from the USSR it did exactly the same thing, almost word for word.”
Author Leon Uris once wrote, “international law is that thing which the evil ignore and the righteous refuse to enforce.” But the truth is that international law is intensely malleable, as Putin is pointing out here. In his speech, Putin pointed out that international law provided for the breakup of Serbia and Kosovo under international auspices, approved by the United States. Then the kicker:
“They say we are violating norms of international law. Firstly, it’s a good thing that they at least remember that there exists such a thing as international law – better late than never.”
President Obama has created the image of an America under President Bush that routinely violated international law. In April 2008, Obama said that he wanted his Department of Justice to investigate whether “crime shave been committed.” Just before he took office, the then-President-Elect stated that Bush administration officials could be prosecuted for violating torture and warrantless wiretapping provisions. “We’re still evaluating how we’re going to approach the whole issue of interrogations, detentions, and so forth,” Obama said. “And obviously we’re going to be looking at past practices and I don’t believe that anybody is above the law.” Obama then continued use of those same surveillance tactics and actually deepened them.
Dialogue. In his speech this week, Putin claimed that he wanted negotiations:
“Russia strived to engage in dialogue with our colleagues in the West. We are constantly proposing cooperation on all key issues; we want to strengthen our level of trust and for our relations to be equal, open and fair. But we saw no reciprocal steps.”
Of course, Putin means that he wanted negotiations to continue while he pursued force. But in using the language of diplomacy, he was simply spitting Obama’s own words back at him. President Obama has pledged that diplomacy will be not only the first line of defense against American foes, but also the last line of defense with regard to Ukraine. He immediately took force off the table. That fits with his long-term pattern of ripping the threat of military force as bourgeois, a Bush-era “cowboy” style that demeans international negotiations. The problem is that when negotiations break down, Obama has nothing left to do. Putin knows that, and is taking advantage.
Self-Determination. In his speech to the Duma, Putin expressly reached out to the population of the United States to appeal to our expressed concern for freedom and human rights:
“Today, I would like to address the people of the United States of America, the people who, since the foundation of their nation and adoption of the Declaration of Independence, have been proud to hold freedom above all else. Isn’t the desire of Crimea’s residents to freely choose their fate such a value? Please understand us.”
President Obama has stated that the people of Ukraine should decide their own future – but there is little doubt that the coup that took place in Ukraine overthrew a democratically-elected government, albeit a deeply corrupt and nasty one. Now, Obama has been put in the position of claiming that a popular coup should trump a corrupt plebiscite. That’s especially odd given Obama’s tepid opposition to the popular coup in Egypt, which toppled a dictatorial and deeply evil Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Opposition to American Exceptionalism. Last week, Putin said:
“Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law in their practical policies, but by the rule of the gun. They have come to believe in their exclusivity and exceptionalism, that they can decide the destinies of the world, that only they can ever be right. They act as they please: here and there, they use force against sovereign states, building coalitions based on the principle “If you are not with us, you are against us.”
Putin has made this a hallmark of his rhetoric; during the Syria crisis late last year, Putin wrote an op-ed blasting American exceptionalism. The problem for President Obama is that Obama has said much the same thing. During his so-called “apology tour” shortly after his election, Obama stated, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” In that same vein, he talked about America’s history of international arrogance, the “darker periods in our history,” our sporadic disengagement and desire to “dictate our terms.” This is language Putin likes and can use – and is using to great effect.
Defending American interests is the job of the American president. The fact that President Obama runs headlong from any defense of American interests, instead citing other, less concrete objectives, gives our enemies room to operate in the public relations sphere. And that “flexibility” grants them the leeway to take aggressive action against an American administration unwilling to fight back.
Ben Shapiro is Senior Editor-At-Large of Breitbart News and author of the New York Times bestseller “Bullies: How the Left’s Culture of Fear and Intimidation Silences America” (Threshold Editions, January 8, 2013). He is also Editor-in-Chief of TruthRevolt.org. Follow Ben Shapiro on Twitter @benshapiro.