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.