For five years, Obama has practiced a cautious approach to foreign
policy crises, prizing sober diplomacy and the search for consensus
over brinkmanship, in prolonged conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But the deliberative style that Obama's team sees as a statesmanlike
attitude in tune with Americans' war-weariness, was described as
dithering in the crisis over Syria, where the United States long
discussed military action without committing.
Facing his toughest test yet in Ukraine, Obama is once again finding
himself portrayed as a weak leader, outmaneuvered by a wily,
opportunistic Russian President Vladimir Putin intent on reviving
the United States' nemesis.
His popularity has already been suffering because of the disastrous
roll out of his signature healthcare plan last October and the U.S.
economy's slow recovery from recession.
Now, Republicans are using Ukraine as further ammunition against him
ahead of the November elections.
The Ukraine crisis, said Republican Senator John McCain in a speech
on Monday, is "the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy
where nobody believes in America's strengths anymore."
It's not only Republicans who are giving less than rave reviews to
Obama's strategy. The Washington Post's lead editorial on Monday was
about Obama and Ukraine and was entitled "The risks of wishful
"For five years President Obama has led a foreign policy based more
on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality," it said.
Obama seemed to have been caught off-guard by Putin's seizure of the
Crimea region of southern Ukraine. He is now scrambling to put
together a package of economic sanctions aimed at isolating Russia.
Targeted asset freezes against key Russian officials are a
possibility. A G8 summit that Obama and allies are to attend in
Sochi, Russia, in June is on hold.
"Obviously, the facts on the ground in Crimea are deeply troubling
and Russia has a large army that borders Ukraine. But what is also
true is that over time this will be a costly proposition for
Russia," Obama said on Monday.
This will not be enough to satisfy critics who fear Putin is taking
a step toward restoring the old Soviet Union that he served as a KGB
colonel. Putin's adventure in Ukraine, they say, is the final proof
that Obama's policy of resetting U.S. relations with Russia in a
search for common ground is dead.
For Obama, the Ukraine crisis is a dramatic diversion from attempts
to stay focused largely on domestic affairs in a congressional
election year that may represent his last best chance for
legacy-building achievements before Americans look past him and
focus on the 2016 presidential campaign.
The president and fellow Democrats are struggling to hang on to
control of the Senate and build up their numbers in the
Republican-controlled House of Representatives in November
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In addition to using the Ukraine crisis as another cudgel against
Democrats in this year's congressional elections, Republicans also
see it a possible line of attack in the 2016 presidential race. Some
potential Republican White House hopefuls, such as Florida Senator
Marco Rubio, have been pushing a more assertive foreign-policy
"The president must now accept that the only way to deal with
tyrants like Vladimir Putin is with a clear understanding that they
can't be trusted and that only decisive action will deter their
provocative moves," Rubio said.
White House officials frequently point out that Obama's more
cautious approach is in sync Americans' weariness of foreign wars.
"He has a leadership style for foreign policy consistent with what
the American people want to see done in the world today," said Mike
McCurry, a former State Department and White House spokesman for
President Bill Clinton. "That kind of severely limits the posture
you can have for robust foreign policy when the American people
really want us to pull back."
In the case of Ukraine, White House officials say, Obama's actions
are already hurting Russia because the threat of sanctions has
rattled financial markets there and undermined Putin's attempt to
buff the image of Russia after having hosted the Sochi Winter
"We're already seeing Russia pay a real cost for its actions in
Ukraine," White House deputy national security adviser Tony Blinken
told CNN. "All this is undermining how Putin defines his power."
This is what Thomas Alan Schwartz, a presidential historian at
Vanderbilt University, calls "an international shaming of Putin,
trying to make it seem like Putin is on the wrong side of history."
McCain said this won't be enough. The Republican senator has been
sharply critical of Putin and first raised the issue of Ukraine in a
2008 presidential debate as he ran against Obama.
McCain now says the United States should respond to Putin's move in
Ukraine by bolstering military ties with the Baltic nations,
Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, and welcome Georgia as a NATO member.
(Additional reporting by Mark Felsenthal and Thomas Ferraro;
by Caren Bohan and Peter Henderson)
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