Even a strong leader with an unrivaled record of attention to European sensibilities and an unchallenged reputation for standing resolved in a crisis would struggle to marshal a robust response to Russia's provocation in the Ukraine. President Obama's ongoing struggles thus far to muster such a united front, despite a slow ratcheting up of sanctions, owes as much to Europe's own contradictory incentives as it does to Obama's weakness as a leader.
It is also true, however, as Scott Wilson underscores in his piece on Biden's trip to Eastern Europe, that Obama's contradictory record has complicated matters. And by record, I mean not only Obama's policy actions but also his campaign rhetoric, which he has allowed to contaminate his governing rhetoric.
In his piece, Wilson recounts Obama's campaign-era talking points about Bush-era foreign policy: "Obama believed upon taking office that it was his immediate predecessor's go-it-alone approach, particularly in Iraq, that worried traditional U.S. allies in Europe and beyond."
Wilson is right that Obama did, and has continued to, talk that way, and he may even be right that Obama believes it to be true. But, of course, that is not true -- President George W. Bush had the opposite of a "go-it-alone approach," especially in Iraq. Far from going alone, Bush mustered a large number of allies -- the much-derided "coalition of the willing" -- who actually risked the lives of their troops in Iraq and, in too many cases, paid the human toll with combat casualties. Yet Obama and his aides repeatedly mocked or disregarded these sacrifices by claiming Bush conducted the Iraq war unilaterally, without any allies.
What do the following European countries have in common: Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Turkey, Ukraine, and United Kingdom?
- 1. Their contribution to the Iraq war has been alternately mocked or ignored by the Obama Administration.
- 2. They are some of the countries that Obama must now persuade to impose serious sanctions on Putin.
- 3. They are most of the countries that Obama must reassure that he will stand firm with them against Russia, should Putin's ambitions range beyond seizing the Crimea.
Wilson also reminds us of Obama's boast about repairing transatlantic relations. As anyone who has interacted with European policymakers knows, those relations have in fact suffered considerably in the past five years, and well before the Snowden leaks took them to a new depth. Obama's personal celebrity boosted approval ratings but masked the underlying tensions, which were readily apparent and reportable.
Moreover, this is not the only bit of Obama campaign rhetoric that was rewarded back in the day but now, in hindsight, looks painfully unfortunate. The Post's Fact Checker was bestirred to call out Obama's mocking and tendentious dismissal of Governor Mitt Romney's concerns about Russia as a geopolitical foe. And, of course, Putin's actions now seem to confirm Republican complaints about Obama's fateful decision to sacrifice Poland's interests in missile defense on behalf of a pursuit of a pyrrhic strategic arms control deal with Russia.
That is a lot of self-inflicted wounds to bring into any crisis, let alone one as daunting as this one. Still, I wonder if the systematic misunderstanding about coalition politics that the tired "unilateralism" canard reveals might not be the most unfortunate.
For Obama to succeed in marshaling a united front against Putin, he may have to do more than just show uncharacteristic resolve. He may have to show an even more uncharacteristic willingness to admit where he has been wrong in the past. Getting Europe to take painful steps now is hard under the best of circumstances, but it is harder still -- and needlessly so -- unless he is unwilling to give greater regard to their earlier sacrifices.
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