WASHINGTON -- Ever since Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea, U.S. conservatives have gleefully recalled how President Barack Obama condescendingly dismissed Mitt Romney during the 2012 campaign for labeling Russia as America's number one geopolitical foe.
Current events had revealed the former Massachusetts governor as a foreign policy oracle and the president as an overwhelmed naïf, they argued. Any pundit who had noted at the time that Romney's vision of world conflict seemed a bit outdated (see: this reporter) was brusquely ridiculed.
It's been several weeks since the invasion happened. Crimea has been annexed. The world community has responded with sanctions and isolation. But few see the Russian president reversing course. Romney himself has felt secure enough to take the equivalent of a victory lap -- first with a Wall Street Journal op-ed saying that Obama's tentativeness was to blame for a bevy of world crises; then with an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation," in which he waxed critical about Obama's "faulty judgment" and "naivete with regards to Russia."
The told-you-so-ism has frustrated a number of Democrats who argue that people are either ignoring the vaster complexities of world affairs and/or seeing a largely regional conflict in more alarming terms. Russia, after all, invaded Crimea when Putin ally, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, was forced to flee that country because the masses had turned against Russia and toward Europe. How does that make Russia the world's foremost geopolitical threat? As Slate's Brian Beutler wrote:
[T]he fact that this supposedly great adversary keeps making a menace of itself in bordering, former Soviet republics more or less demonstrates the opposite of what the revisionists think it proves.
At a press conference at The Hague on Tuesday, Obama echoed this exact point. Asked if Romney had been right all along, he responded:
With respect to Mr. Romney's assertion that Russia is our number one geopolitical foe, the truth of the matter is that America has got a whole lot of challenges. Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country, [over] which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. We have considerable influence on our neighbors; we generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates [that they have] less influence, not more.
And so my response then continues to be what I believe today, which is Russia's actions are a problem. They don't pose the number one national security threat to the United States. I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan, which is part of the reason why the United States, showing its continued international leadership, has organized a forum over the last several years that has been able to help eliminate that threat in a consistent way.
Calling Russia a "regional power" was, in all likelihood, a well-intentioned slight. As for the other part of the response, this wasn't the president simply declining to say that his 2012 opponent had it right. This was him saying that Romney missed the point and continues to do so.
The president "actually said [Romney] was wrong [because] he was," tweeted top Obama adviser Dan Pfeiffer.