White House

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
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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.


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