Crimea crisis not worth taking foreign policy risks

The increasingly rocky, tense relations between the United States and Russia have provided an opening for Republicans to criticize President Barack Obama’s foreign policy strategy, or lack thereof.

There are many entirely valid criticisms of President Obama on foreign policy. Yes, he looked weak in the eyes of the international community when threatened military intervention — the so-called “red line” — against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if his regime used chemical weapons against his own citizens in a bloody civil war.

After it was revealed that chemical weapons were used, the source of which remains unclear, President Obama was pressured to seek a vote in Congress to authorize the use of military force rather than unilaterally launch military strikes, much like his administration did in Libya. Despite support from congressional leaders of both parties, the administration found a skeptical Congress and a war-weary public, and backed down.

Hawkish Republicans say that this is an example of President Obama projecting weakness to the international community, which only emboldens the United States’ foes in the world. They’re right, but only to a point.

President Obama’s error is not that he didn’t follow through on his threat of military force against Assad’s regime. The mistake he made was drawing a “red line” in the first place. The line from Republicans who wanted to take action against Assad’s regime was, basically, that the White House had to bomb Syria, involving the United States in a conflict that could escalating into a broader conflict, just to save face in the international community.

By the end of this affair, Russian President Vladimir Putin, an authoritarian and ally of Assad, had outplayed President Obama, pushing him into a questionable diplomatic deal that did indeed make the United States project weakness.

These same hawkish Republicans are now blasting President Obama for once again being outplayed by Putin and looking weak on the international stage. The Russian invasion of Crimea in late-February seemingly took the administration by surprise. The administration has tried diplomacy, but those efforts haven’t produced anything.

In response to the Russian invasion and occupation of Crimea and the subsequent vote for the region’s secession from Ukraine, President Obama announced sanctions against seven top Russian officials and threatened further sanctions if Russia doesn’t back down.

But sanctions generally don’t produce the intended result, meaning that the administration’s biggest move, outside of condemnation of Russia’s actions, won’t do much to discourage Putin. In fact, Russian officials have ostensibly shrugged off the sanctions and are planning to retaliate with meaningless measures of its own against a handful of elected officials in the United States.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants President Obama to take a tougher stand against and has recently said that the administration should provide military support to Ukraine, in addition to the $1 billion loan package being debated in Congress. Others have said that the United States should help bring Ukraine into NATO, which could have dire consequences should Russia decide to escalate.

A military response isn’t a viable option, given that it risks far too much for both Russia, the United States and NATO. Anti-ballistic missiles in Eastern Europe, while tempting, could elicit a response from Putin, one that could have ramifications for Ukraine and its economy or some other country in the region, like Georgia, for example.

While Republicans hawks may want a stronger response to Putin and Russia, there are few, if any real options for President Obama and the United States. The Kremlin will eventually annex Crimea into Russia, and the international community will have no choice but to watch helplessly.

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