What Obama Learned From Syria: Say Nothing

Far from drawing a “red line,” the president has said little since Putin expanded his reach into Crimea. It’s not a bad strategy, so far.

President Barack Obama makes a statement to the news media about Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 6, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
March 7, 2014, 8:51 a.m.

A week ago, when Pres­id­ent Obama de­livered his first mes­sage on the crisis in Crimea, pun­dits were quick to cri­ti­cize him for lack of sub­stance. “Pres­id­ent Obama Speaks on Ukraine, Says Vir­tu­ally Noth­ing,” read the head­line at Slate.

A few days later, he warned there would be “costs” for any mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Ukraine. It was a vague threat, and Obama showed no in­terest in ex­pand­ing on it or spelling out ex­actly what he meant by Rus­si­an mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion.

For this he’s been cri­ti­cized by con­ser­vat­ives like The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Marc Thiessen, who wrote in a Monday column that “Obama’s weak­ness em­boldens Putin.” So far, however, aside from Thiessen and the Sarah Pal­in types in­tent on mak­ing petty at­tacks on the pres­id­ent’s mach­ismo, his ap­proach seems to be go­ing pretty well.

If Obama learned any­thing from the con­front­a­tion with Syr­ia this fall, it’s that it’s best not to box your ad­min­is­tra­tion in with rhet­or­ic. Obama fam­ously backed him­self in­to a corner with re­gard to mil­it­ary in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia’s civil war back in Au­gust  2012 with his re­portedly un­scrip­ted “red line” ut­ter­ance. If “we start­ing see­ing a whole bunch of chem­ic­al weapons mov­ing around or be­ing util­ized,” that would be a “red line” that would “change my equa­tion,” Obama said at the time.

A year later, that red line prom­ise would come back to haunt him. In a piece titled “Obama’s For­eign Policy by Faux Pas,” Na­tion­al Journ­al de­scribed how that “red line” be­came the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s of­fi­cial po­s­i­tion and that “the genie couldn’t be put back in­to the bottle.” (That is, un­til an­oth­er un­scrip­ted re­mark, this one from Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry, mi­ra­cu­lously saved the day.)

In fact, Obama was still tak­ing flak for his hand­ling of the situ­ation in Syr­ia as re­cently as Fri­day morn­ing, when Oliv­er North, a con­trib­ut­or on Fox News, made a jab at the pres­id­ent dur­ing his speech at the Con­ser­vat­ive Polit­ic­al Ac­tion Con­fer­ence, ac­cus­ing Obama of draw­ing “phony red lines with a pink cray­on.”

He isn’t mak­ing the mis­take again. Thursday night Obama and Vladi­mir Putin had what The New Re­pub­lic deemed “a very un­pro­duct­ive phone call” in which Obama em­phas­ized resolv­ing the situ­ation dip­lo­mat­ic­ally and co­ordin­at­ing with his European part­ners.

Obama, it’s clear, is very will­ing to sit back and let a lar­ger net­work of forces take their toll on Rus­sia. He isn’t the first Amer­ic­an pres­id­ent to be con­fron­ted by pro­voca­tions and mil­it­ary ac­tions from Mo­scow but he is, as Na­tion­al Journ­al noted on Thursday, the first to have a broad range of highly ef­fect­ive non­mil­it­ary re­sponses at his dis­pos­al.

Putin has brushed off the threat of sanc­tions and the sus­pen­sion of pre­par­a­tions for a G-8 or­gan­iz­a­tion sum­mit in So­chi in June. But that dis­play of con­fid­ence is already ringing hol­low.

Rus­sia is more eco­nom­ic­ally isol­ated than ever be­fore and that means, des­pite Putin’s re­sound­ing shrug, the coun­try is vul­ner­able. Rus­si­an mar­kets have plummeted since Putin ex­pan­ded forces in­to Crimea and the ruble is down more than 8 per­cent since the be­gin­ning of the year.

With num­bers like those, Obama is per­fectly happy to keep play­ing the wait­ing game.

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