When American presidents are perceived as weak, bad things tend to happen. This reaction went through my mind last September when President Obama, after drawing a "line in the sand" on Assad's use of chemical weapons in Syria, decided against a limited military strike in favor of Vladimir Putin's offer to get Syria to destroy its chemical weapons stocks. Match point went to Putin.
Unfortunately, President Obama has suffered a series of incidents since the outset of his presidency that, cumulatively, have left him looking weak and ineffective. There was the ill-advised flight to Copenhagen in October 2009 to lobby Olympic officials to award the 2016 Olympic Summer Games to Chicago. His request was rejected even before Air Force One had left Danish airspace. An American president just doesn't put himself in such a position. Send the first lady, the secretary of Commerce, or the mayor of Chicago -- not the president.
Likewise, a proposed missile defense shield planned for Eastern Europe has been uncertain in the context of President Obama's strategic "reset" with Russia. Russia adamantly opposes such a shield. We should move forward to implement it with our partners who want it. And finally, there has been the reluctance to support democratic movements in Iran, Syria, Egypt, and, until recently, Ukraine.
Now is the time to stop "leading from behind." Americans may be tired of two expensive wars, but most Americans have not abandoned our national commitment to democracy, human rights, and international law.
Barack Obama was once a constitutional law professor. Vladimir Putin was once a KGB thug. A "come, let us reason together" approach will not work against an opponent who only respects power and who responds only to strength. Barack Obama is steeped in Saul Alinsky. Vladimir Putin is a student of Niccolò Machiavelli and Lavrentiy Beria.
So, here are some suggestions for President Obama to consider in handling the Ukraine crisis:
- Cancel this summer's G-8 summit in Sochi. Instead, invite the G-7 leaders to convene in Kiev.
- Work with Congress immediately to grant $10 billion to the new Ukrainian government and work with Nato and other allied nations to make a total of $20 billion in grant assistance available.
- Expedite IMF loans and other financial support without crippling "austerity" demands.
- Force a series of UN votes where Russia will have to exercise its veto power against commonly accepted principles of international law.
- Suspend processing of all visas of Russians to the US.
- Block all Russian banks and bank accounts in the US and in overseas branches of US banks.
- Withdraw all but essential personnel from the US embassy in Moscow.
- Send the Russian ambassador to the US back to Moscow. Close all Russian consulates and reduce the Russian embassy in Washington to essential personnel only.
- Publicly denounce the Russians for each of their treaty and other agreement violations (i.e., Intermediate Nuclear-Range Forces, Georgia, the Budapest Memorandum, etc.)
- Suspend direct flights from all US airports and on all US carriers to cities in Russia, and urge our allies to follow suit.
- Provide military materiel to the Ukrainian government upon request.
- Offer training to the Ukrainian government in establishing elite SEAL commando teams and enhanced cyber capability.
- Urge the European Union to reduce its purchases of Russian natural gas.
President Obama will probably not follow through on these suggestions, but he needs to demonstrate his determination that Putin's military invasion cannot stand. Back-channel diplomacy can, and will, continue to try to resolve the crisis. Obama now has to act -- or face a steady escalation of challenges to this country, our interests, and our values.
Over the weekend, Secretary of State John Kerry noted the interests of Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine. These interests -- to the extent that they are legitimate and not trumped-up Russian pretexts -- should be considered, and, as Secretary Kerry proposed, Russia has other means and forums for raising these issues besides a military invasion of Ukraine. Ronald Reagan demonstrated repeatedly that people respond to incentives. Putin only respects power. Obama should use it.
Charles Kolb served in the first Bush White House from 1990-1992 as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy. From 1997 until 2012, he was President of the Committee for Economic Development, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank that helped design the Marshall Plan. The views in this article are solely the author's.