04/08/2014 10:05 am ET Updated Jun 08, 2014

God and History Won't Help Us in Ukraine

Whenever presidents start talking about God or history, watch out. They're probably trying to avoid responsibility for their actions, or for the lack of them.

I thought about this when President Obama said that Russia was on the 'wrong side of history' after President Putin seized Crimea. Our president's comments were surprising. He's usually more thoughtful. Even more unfortunate was his later assertion that Russia is threatening its neighbours "not out of strength, but out of weakness."

You can almost hear Putin laughing. Oh really, he might say. I'll be thinking about my weakness when I'm kickin it with my Spetsnaz broz down on the Crimean coast.

Like ancient shamans dancing to make it rain, presidents often seem to believe that God and history will clean up the messes they have made or do what they dare not.

In his 2009 Farewell Address, George W. Bush said that "freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God." So as long as he believed himself to be advancing the cause of freedom, he was implementing the will of God. If things go wrong and innocents die? Hey, blame God.

The examples of both Bush and President Obama form a pattern. When conservatives want to avoid responsibility for their actions, they start talking about God. And when liberals want to do the same, they talk about history.

The problem, of course, is that most everyone thinks they have a monopoly on God and history.

As president, Dubya thought God had his back. The Taliban insist God's on their side, as grotesque as their outrages are.

For his part, President Obama says history will roll up its sleeves and show Putin what's what. Fine. But while Obama thinks Putin's on the wrong side of history, he's on the right side of power. And unlike us, Putin has tens of thousands of highly trained and deployable troops on Ukraine's borders ready to strike. Those boys could bitch-smack history around pretty good.

You get Obama's point -- yes, the Russian stock market might fall. Yes, the oligarchs might feel some pain. Yes, the rest of Ukraine -- at least, what remains of Ukraine -- could join the West. But soft power without hard power isn't power. It's weakness with a loud, whiny voice.

It's comforting to assume that somehow things will work out because God or history wants it that way. It's harder to do something about the problem. After all, shaping the world takes work. It takes knowledge. It takes patience. It takes money.

But here's a rule of thumb. If you can't formulate a geopolitical strategy without using God or history as a fail-safe, then you don't have a strategy. You have wishful thinking masquerading as one.

Putin's strategy is to create a sphere of influence in Eurasia. He isn't relying on invisible figures and forces but on real armed forces and figures in fatigues. In defiance of autocrats, we have to match our principles with purpose and power. We can depend on our faith when we're dead. That is, when we're history.