How Putin Bullies Obama

The U.S. president declares a lack of interest in the Russian’s motives — and it shows.

President Barack Obama (R) meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin (L) in Los Cabos, Mexico, on June 18, 2012, during the G20 leaders Summit.   
National Journal
Ron Fournier
March 26, 2014, 5:39 a.m.

On a play­ground or in a bar, the most im­port­ant thing to know about a bully is his mo­tiv­a­tion. What ticks him off? Who’s his next vic­tim? If it’s you, how do you avoid a butt-kick­ing?

On the world stage, Vladi­mir Putin is a bully — and Pres­id­ent Obama not only seems clue­less about the Rus­si­an lead­er’s in­ner drive, he em­braces his am­bi­val­ence. “I’m less in­ter­ested in mo­tiv­a­tion,” Obama said Monday in The Hag­ue, “and more in­ter­ested in the facts and the prin­ciples that not only the United States but the en­tire in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity are look­ing to up­hold.”

Taken at face value, it’s a dis­turb­ing re­sponse from a world lead­er who should lie awake at night con­cerned about the mo­tiv­a­tion of U.S. ad­versar­ies, whose first meet­ing of every day in­volves an in­tel­li­gence brief­ing on the mo­tiv­a­tions of glob­al act­ors.

It could be that Obama is play­ing mind games with Putin, look­ing in­to the soul that trans­fixed Pres­id­ent Bush 13 years ago and see­ing a man whose greatest weak­ness is pa­ro­chi­al hubris. Want to hurt Putin? Say you don’t care about him. In a verbal equi­val­ent of a groin punch, Obama might dis­miss Rus­sia as a “re­gion­al power” that ant­ag­on­izes its neigh­bors “out of weak­ness.”

But it’s hard to cred­it Obama with such savvy cal­cu­la­tion. I take him at his word: He doesn’t care.

First, his hand­ling of lead­ers in Ir­aq, Afgh­anistan, Ir­an, Syr­ia, China and most re­cently Rus­sia ex­poses a lack of em­pathy and soph­ist­ic­a­tion. As Ju­lie Pace of the As­so­ci­ated Press put it in her ques­tion to Obama at The Hag­ue, “You’ve been cri­ti­cized dur­ing this dis­pute with Rus­sia as not un­der­stand­ing Pres­id­ent Putin’s mo­tiv­a­tions. As re­cently as last month, you and oth­ers in your ad­min­is­tra­tion said you thought Putin was re­flect­ing or paus­ing his in­cur­sion in­to Crimea. Did you mis­read Putin’s in­ten­tions? And what do you think his mo­tiv­a­tions are now?”

After con­fess­ing that he’s less in­ter­ested in Putin’s mo­tiv­a­tions than the prin­ciples that Putin is flout­ing, Obama said the Rus­si­an wants to con­trol events in Ukraine. “That’s not new,” he said, spelling out a policy that ef­fect­ively cedes Crimea to Putin with no fur­ther con­sequences and threatens ac­tions if he moves deep­er in­to Ukraine or in­to NATO na­tions.

“So I think that will be a bad choice for Pres­id­ent Putin to make,” Obama said, “but, ul­ti­mately, he is the pres­id­ent of Rus­sia, and he’s the one who’s go­ing to be mak­ing that de­cision. He just has to un­der­stand there’s a choice to be made here.”

In oth­er words, the bully has stolen your lunch money without a fight and now you’re telling him, “It would be a bad choice to take one more penny from any­body in this lun­ch­room, Buster!”

Second, caring little about the mo­tiv­a­tion of his rivals seems to be a trait of Obama’s lead­er­ship that has hurt him in Con­gress, where the op­pos­i­tion party is stub­bornly op­posed to his agenda. Rather than un­der­stand­ing why the GOP is mov­ing right­ward, help­ing its lead­er­ship tame party ex­trem­ists (as he must do with the Left), and find­ing is­sues that help both sides claim vic­tor­ies, Obama sur­rendered to po­lar­iz­a­tion and grid­lock. Ac­tu­ally, he is a cham­pi­on of it.  

From fights with Con­gress over the fed­er­al budget and his nom­in­a­tions, to gun con­trol, im­mig­ra­tion re­form, health care, and Syr­ia, the pres­id­ent has been (to bor­row the lan­guage he used on Putin) more in­ter­ested in the facts and the prin­ciples than in GOP mo­tiv­a­tions. He of­ten seems more con­cerned about be­ing right than be­ing ef­fect­ive.

In the case of Putin, know­ing and caring about the Rus­si­an’s point of view might not have pre­ven­ted the Ukraine crisis, but it would have kept Obama a step ahead of it. In­stead, like Bush dur­ing Rus­si­an ad­vances on Geor­gia in 2008, Obama got blind­sided and then stumbled blindly. Putin knows his en­emies. Obama dis­misses his.

And the world no­tices. So when Obama tells the world that “Rus­sia is act­ing out of weak­ness,” he risks sound­ing like the guy who gets beat up in a bar then brags about the bully’s bloody knuckles.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4843) }}

What We're Following See More »
TAKING A LONG VIEW TO SOUTHERN STATES
In Dropout Speech, Santorum Endorses Rubio
2 days ago
THE DETAILS

As expected after earlier reports on Wednesday, Rick Santorum ended his presidential bid. But less expected: he threw his support to Marco Rubio. After noting he spoke with Rubio the day before for an hour, he said, “Someone who has a real understanding of the threat of ISIS, real understanding of the threat of fundamentalist Islam, and has experience, one of the things I wanted was someone who has experience in this area, and that’s why we decided to support Marco Rubio.” It doesn’t figure to help Rubio much in New Hampshire, but the Santorum nod could pay dividends down the road in southern states.

Source:
‘PITTING PEOPLE AGAINST EACH OTHER’
Rubio, Trump Question Obama’s Mosque Visit
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

President Obama’s decision to visit a mosque in Baltimore today was never going to be completely uncontroversial. And Donald Trump and Marco Rubio proved it. “Maybe he feels comfortable there,” Trump told interviewer Greta van Susteren on Fox News. “There are a lot of places he can go, and he chose a mosque.” And in New Hampshire, Rubio said of Obama, “Always pitting people against each other. Always. Look at today – he gave a speech at a mosque. Oh, you know, basically implying that America is discriminating against Muslims.”

Source:
THE TIME IS NOW, TED
Cruz Must Max Out on Evangelical Support through Early March
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

For Ted Cruz, a strong showing in New Hampshire would be nice, but not necessary. That’s because evangelical voters only make up 21% of the Granite State’s population. “But from the February 20 South Carolina primary through March 15, there are nine states (South Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, and North Carolina) with an estimated white-Evangelical percentage of the GOP electorate over 60 percent, and another four (Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, and Missouri) that come in over 50 percent.” But after that, he better be in the catbird’s seat, because only four smaller states remain with evangelical voter majorities.

Source:
CHRISTIE, BUSH TRYING TO TAKE HIM DOWN
Rubio Now Winning the ‘Endorsement Primary’
2 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Since his strong third-place finish in Iowa, Marco Rubio has won endorsement by two sitting senators and two congressmen, putting him in the lead for the first time of FiveThirtyEight‘s Endorsement Tracker. “Some politicians had put early support behind Jeb Bush — he had led [their] list since August — but since January the only new endorsement he has received was from former presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham.” Meanwhile, the New York Times reports that fueled by resentment, “members of the Bush and Christie campaigns have communicated about their mutual desire to halt … Rubio’s rise in the polls.”

Source:
ARE YOU THE GATEKEEPER?
Sanders: Obama Is a Progressive
1 days ago
THE LATEST

“Do I think President Obama is a progressive? Yeah, I do,” said Bernie Sanders, in response to a direct question in tonight’s debate. “I think they’ve done a great job.” But Hillary Clinton wasn’t content to sit out the latest chapter in the great debate over the definition of progressivism. “In your definition, with you being the gatekeeper of progressivism, I don’t think anyone else fits that definition,” she told Sanders.

×