American Elephants


Naivety And Incomprehension: What Happened to The Working Relationship? by The Elephant's Child

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Vladimir Putin just pitched the post Cold War rule-book out the window, and the European countries are understandably nervous. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s announcement that he wants to downsize the military to the size it was before World War II, may go down in history as the most inappropriate announcement ever made by a cabinet member.

The White House spin machine is telling friendly reporters that Vladimir Putin has fallen into a trap,  which may be carrying the idea of “spin” a little too far. Walter Russell Mead said “Putin is increasingly likely to go down in history as a failed state builder, a man who took Russia down the wrong path and who added to the burden of Russian history.”

But those are long term considerations that, unfortunately for the diligent White House staffers working to spin the next news cycle, won’t help the President now.  In the short term President Putin has put President Obama in an ugly spot. President Obama’s foreign policy depends on three big ideas: that a working relationship with Russia can help the United States stabilize the Middle East, that a number of American adversaries are willing to settle their differences with us on the basis of compromises that we can accept, and that President Obama has the smarts to know who we can trust.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine calls all three propositions into question. What Obama’s belief in the possibility of deals with countries like Russia and Iran leaves out is that some countries around the world may count the reduction of American power and prestige among their vital interests. They may not be hampering and thwarting us because we are unnecessarily and arbitrarily blocking their path toward a reasonable goal; they may be hampering and frustrating us because curbing our power is one of their central objectives. This is not necessarily irrational behavior from their point of view; American power is not a good thing if you hate the post-Cold War status quo, and it can make sense to sacrifice the advantages of a particular compromise with the United States if as a result you can reduce America’s ability to interfere with your broader goals.

Washington’s flat-footed, deer-in-the-headlights incomprehension about Russia’s Crimean adventure undermines President Obama’s broader credibility in a deeply damaging way. If he could be this blind and misguided about Vladimir Putin, how smart is he about the Ayatollah Khameni, a much more difficult figure to read? President Obama is about to have a difficult meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in which he will tell Netanyahu essentially that Israel should ground its national security policy on the wisdom of President Obama and his profound grasp of the forces of history. The effect will be somewhat undermined by President Obama’s failure to understand the most elementary things about Vladimir Putin.

Foreign policy is harder than it looks, and Mr. Obama’s foreign policy team is not an impressive bunch. Will the American public see this as just another case of difficult foreigners doing bad things in some little-known country, or will they see this as  clear evidence that this president is too naive and too passive and he is endangering the country?

Secretary Kerry said huffily on Face the Nation: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country. That’s not the act of somebody who’s strong, Putin is acting out of “weakness” and “desperation.”

It’s easier to threaten friends. They probably won’t do anything. Obama said essentially that if Israel wouldn’t agree to the U.S. idea of a peace deal with the Palestinians, then the U.S. won’t be able to defend Israel if the peace talks fail. Peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, which began last July, have made no visible progress. Palestine refuses to recognize the right of the Israeli state to exist, won’t stop shooting rockets into Israel, continues to teach its small children that martyrdom in the interest of killing Jews is a holy aim, and insists of the ‘right of return.’ Obama’s ideas about Israel were likely formed by his friendship with the radical Palestinian professor Rashid Khalidi. He does not change his mind.

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