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
Add to Briefcase
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.

×