03/26/2014 05:21 pm ET Updated Mar 27, 2014

Stay Calm Or Go Crazy: Everyone's Got Some Free Advice On The Ukraine Crisis

Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Vladimir Putin's recent incursion into the Crimean peninsula may be bad news for anyone who likes things like "democratic norms," but it's been a heyday for anyone who wants to do a little consequence-free foreign policy back-seat driving -- a field as fertile as any burgeoning bubble of American Thought Leadership. President Barack Obama finds himself with many people seeking to provide him with advice, and that advice is basically all over the map -- from the vague to the exacting, from the sensible to the lunatic. And a lot of it has seemed drawn up so as to be obvious -- thanks, everyone who suggested we kick Putin out of the G-8, you guys have been terrific!

But let's break it down anyway, shall we?


As you might expect, there's a healthy measure of "leadership surrealism" in the mix, from the sorts of people who use their perch over the media landscape to bravely bleat, "Quick, somebody do something!" Kevin Drum catches Fareed Zakaria going full Green Lantern and saying that the "crisis in Ukraine is the most significant geopolitical problem since the Cold War." Which, to my mind, is a mean thing to say about a lot of other geopolitical problems that have happened since the 1990s! Anyway, Zakaria's advice is wonderfully nebulous:

Obama must rally the world, push the Europeans and negotiate with the Russians.

Everything sounds easy when it's vague, after all! That's why I'm going to give senator and perennial talk show guest John McCain (R-Ariz.) some plaudits for at least offering a few specifics:

On the military front, McCain believes Putin needs to face a show of U.S. strength. Putin is "convinced that the United States is weak and there'll be no significant retaliation of his occupation of the Crimea and possibly eastern Ukraine," he says. He wants to see Obama revive the Bush-era missile defense plan, which would have placed U.S. missiles in the Czech Republic. He also believes that speeding up Georgia accession to NATO would send a strong message to Putin.

For what it's worth, the strong message you send to Putin by bringing Georgia into NATO is "We are now obligated to provide a military response to anything you do militarily to Georgia," a nation for which a war-weary America probably isn't too keen on going to the mattresses.

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said that if he were in charge, "I would fly the NATO flag as strongly as I could around Putin." It's hard to know what that means, exactly. Would you wave that flag really fast, back and forth? Or would you stand with that flag, resolutely, in one place? Also, it seems to be to be a strategy that's highly dependent on the vagaries of wind velocity. Besides, if you really want to impress the Russians, who dominate the world in the field of rhythmic gymnastics, you have to be good with the ball and the hoop as well as the flag.

Because Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is still thinking about running for president in 2016, he dashed off a listicle of stuff to do about Russia and sent it to Politico earlier this month. Some of what Rubio advised had the familiar aroma of barrel-bound fish, gunned down in their prime -- he wanted Secretary of State John Kerry to "show U.S. support" for the interim government in Kiev, he called for sanctions on Russian officials and he urged the White House to throw down some righteous G-8 punishment. Done and done and done!

Also done is the "condemnatory resolution in the United Nations Security Council" that Rubio called for, because a "Russian or Chinese veto would make clear to to the world the hypocrisy of these governments, since they say they oppose foreign intervention into the affairs of sovereign countries -- unless of course they are the ones invading." Yes, Rubio actually wrote that without a trace of irony or self-reflection, folks! Anyway, the Russians were so terrified of being thought of as hypocrites by another bunch of hypocrites that they immediately and without hesitation vetoed that U.N. resolution. (The Chinese, meanwhile, abstained from the vote, totally foiling Rubio's amazing plan.)


There's a whole pack of advisers who beseech the President to take the sort of calm and measured approach that never fails to anger the 'Do Whatever, Just Do It Now' set. One such adviser is Obama's former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. And where Rubio calls for the immediate cessation of all "discussions and negotiations with Moscow on any issue unrelated to this crisis," Gates points out that this is just not practical:

"From Putin's standpoint, he's in the catbird seat. He's put himself in a position where we need him in terms of the Syrian chemical (weapons) deal. We need him in terms of the Iranian nuclear program," Gates, who served as defense secretary from 2006 to 2011, said in a telephone interview with Reuters.

"We need the Russians in terms of getting our (military) equipment out of Afghanistan."

Gates urges Obama to be "mindful of his rhetoric," noting that "the stronger the rhetoric, the greater [the] expectation of strong action." And if America's European allies aren't prepared to follow along, strong reactions and high expectations could threaten to leave Obama alone on the limb.

"The challenge is to look two or three moves out and see: If you do this, what will they do? ... And will you have any allies or supporters when you do this?" [Gates] said.

Gates is not alone in calling for this sort of approach. Over at Slate, Fred Kaplan has explicitly criticized Obama for offering up even the vague notion that Putin would face "consequences" for his shenanigans in Crimea. Kaplan's advice is to hurt Putin by "ignoring" him:

Obama's policy of "resetting" relations with Russia rested on two premises. First, the United States and Russia had a lot of common interests, so it would be good to solve problems and meet challenges together. Second, Putin's predecessor, Dmitry Medvedev, seemed to be a more willing partner. They did accomplish a fair amount for a while. But now it's not working much at all. Russia plays a limited role, at best, in the various hot spots the United States is facing. Yes, it's helping to rid Syria of chemical weapons, but that's very much in Russia's interest; Putin would be doing that regardless of broader relations. Russia also helped carve the initial P5+1 talks to limit Iran's nuclear program, but Iran's main motive in continuing the talks is access to American and European economies, not Russia's.

So, given that Russia isn't helping out much in the world anyway, the best way to impose "costs" and "consequences" on Putin's behavior is to ignore him.

Kaplan might be winning the "Obama is listening to my advice" sweepstakes, by the way. In that same Slate piece, Kaplan describes Russia as "not as great a power as Putin himself likes to project." Remember how the other day, Obama described Russia as "a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors -- not out of strength but out of weakness"? Well, that seems to have been cribbed from Kaplan, who writes that Russia is "at best a regional power, with no global reach. Even [Putin's] incursion into Crimea is hardly an imperial gesture. Leonid Brezhnev sent five tank divisions into Czechoslovakia. (Now that was aggression!)"

"It's dangerous when leaders who spark armed crises start turning a little crazy," Kaplan writes. Sensible advice. Or is it?


Nixon wanted to impress upon the Soviets that the president of the United States was, in a word, mad: unstable, erratic in his decision-making, and capable of anything. The American commander-in-chief wanted the Kremlin to know that he was willing to escalate even localized conventional military conflicts to the nuclear level. Kissinger understood: "I'll tell [the Soviets] tomorrow night," he vowed. The national security advisor even rehearsed for the president specific lines from the good cop/bad cop routine he intended to put on. "The more we do now," [Kissinger] would tell his Soviet interlocutor, "the better." He was akin to saying: On the shoulders of reasonable men, like you and me, rests the responsibility of preventing a madman, like Nixon, from taking things too far.

That's from a piece over at Foreign Policy by James Rosen and Luke A. Nichter, arguing that "looking crazy can be an asset when you're staring down the Russians," based on Nixon-era reminiscences that supposedly speak to the "strategic potential of madness." The authors argue that by removing the possibility that Obama might have a psychotic break over Crimea, the White House is no longer "projecting unpredictability." Furthermore, by calling for a reasonable, "calibrated" approach to the conflict, the Obama administration is "enabling" Putin to "acclimate to ... marginal increases in pain, which in each instance will not feel markedly different from the last set of imposed 'costs.'"

Lest you think all of this can be readily dismissed because... you know, Nixon -- I'll point out that the same sort of advice has been offered up by no less than former President Jimmy Carter:

In comments Monday on "Morning Joe," Carter compared Obama's response to his own decisions at the White House in 1979, when he decided to boycott Moscow's Summer Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

The United States and its European allies, Carter said, should take the same stand today as they did back then.

"I withdrew our ambassador; I put in place a grain embargo. I began to help the freedom fighters push out the Soviet troops, and I warned Russia -- the Soviet Union then -- that, if they went into a different country, we would respond militarily with all of the weapons we had at our disposal," he said.

"All of the weapons we had at our disposal" is a not-too-subtle allusion to nukes, in case you missed that.

So that's a range of advice on offer, from classic "Realism" in the foreign policy sense to "realism" in the "when things stop being polite and start getting real" sense. I'm not sure, actually, that I have any better advice than what you've just read. But now you have a better idea of where to send the invoice if and when the White House chooses a course of action and everything goes nuts-up.

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