Obama’s Got a Squeeze Box

Can Putin sleep at night?

March 6, 2014
National Journal
Major Garrett
Add to Briefcase
See more stories about...
Major Garrett
March 6, 2014, 4:56 p.m.

“It’s sort of like an ac­cor­di­on.”

That was White House press sec­ret­ary Jay Car­ney’s de­scrip­tion of eco­nom­ic sanc­tions the ad­min­is­tra­tion might im­pose on ne­far­i­ous Rus­si­ans or Ukrain­i­an klepto­crats at the cen­ter of the Crimean crisis.

Pres­id­ent Obama is all about flex­ib­il­ity. Of course, that is a par­tic­u­larly nag­ging word in re­gard to Obama and Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Vladi­mir Putin. It re­minds con­ser­vat­ive crit­ics of Obama’s March 2012 ex­plan­a­tion to out­go­ing Rus­si­an Pres­id­ent Dmitry Med­ve­dev that he would have “more flex­ib­il­ity” to deal with Rus­sia after win­ning reelec­tion. Med­ve­dev, who kept the pres­id­en­tial seat warm for Putin’s re­turn, vowed to “trans­mit this in­form­a­tion to Vladi­mir.”

The con­text was U.S.-Rus­si­an dis­agree­ments over mis­sile-de­fense sites in Europe, but they echo un­help­fully for Obama now. They make Obama sound need­lessly pli­able. And the early stages of the Crimean saga, even White House loy­al­ists agree, did little to con­vey ac­tion, pas­sion, or strength.

Be­hind-the-scenes man­euv­er­ing with European al­lies and pal­lid, place­hold­er state­ments about the primacy of demo­cracy and sov­er­eignty rarely do (see, Bush, George W., and Geor­gia.) The big dif­fer­ence — hun­dreds were killed and thou­sands were in­jured in Geor­gia. Since Putin’s troops have ar­rived in Crimea — no deaths and no in­jur­ies. Only a lot of sneer­ing.

But even as Obama moves in­cre­ment­ally to­ward ac­tion, the concept of flex­ib­il­ity re­turns. His ex­ec­ut­ive or­der es­tab­lish­ing a “frame­work” for eco­nom­ic sanc­tions provides no end of it. Frame­works sound ri­gid but move like an ac­cor­di­on. They can ex­pand or con­tract based on cir­cum­stances, geo­pol­it­ic­al cal­cu­la­tions, and gump­tion.

As The Who sang in 1975, eco­nom­ic sanc­tions of the kind Obama has fash­ioned can “go in and out and in and out.” Flex­ibly. As a tool of state­craft, this stanza from the song “Squeeze Box,” sounds ap­pro­pri­ate.

Well the kids don’t eat

And the dog can’t sleep

There’s no es­cape from the mu­sic

In the whole damn street

What Obama does or does not do with the now-threatened sanc­tions and how Putin re­acts will form the dip­lo­mat­ic back-beat to the Crimean stan­doff (and let’s face it, as an ear­worm “Squeeze­box” beats the hell out of all the silly cable TV “crisis” dirges).

Obama’s ac­cor­di­on of sanc­tions can “go in and out” as he pleases, which is not to sug­gest Obama is the band­mas­ter in Ukraine (more on that in a minute). Obama could levy sanc­tions against one Rus­si­an, 100 Rus­si­ans, or no Rus­si­ans. He could sanc­tion Putin. He could sanc­tion Vic­tor Ya­nukovych, who used to be Ukraine’s pres­id­ent be­fore he ab­dic­ated and whose as­sets the European Uni­on sought to freeze on Thursday. Or Obama could wait and do noth­ing. Flex­ibly, he could say the threat of sanc­tions re­mains po­tent in its po­ten­ti­al­ity.

What’s cru­cial to un­der­stand about the go-slow ap­proach is there is evid­ence to sug­gest it’s work­ing or — at min­im­um — isn’t the cata­strophe crit­ics have al­leged. Even the im­plied threat of ac­cor­di­on-like sanc­tions has yiel­ded res­ults. Obama an­nounced the sanc­tions and visa re­voc­a­tions, and they did not chill on­go­ing talks between Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry and Rus­si­an For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lav­rov.

Later in the day, Obama and Putin talked for an hour. That means Putin chose to ne­go­ti­ate in­stead of es­cal­ate.

In Thursday’s phone con­ver­sa­tion, Obama for the second time in less than a week out­lined a pos­sible res­ol­u­tion in Crimea: Rus­si­an troops re­turn to their treaty-le­git­im­ized bases, Putin agrees to al­low in­ter­na­tion­al ob­serv­ers in­to Crimea, and Rus­sia aban­dons a se­ces­sion­ist ref­er­en­dum and com­mits to the glob­al co­ali­tion back­ing the May 26 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. Obama first raised this more gen­er­ally in his 90-minute phone call Sat­urday with Putin. That both lead­ers re­vis­ited the top­ic and the Krem­lin did not de­nounce it after Thursday’s call sug­gests it’s a live op­tion.

Obama knows his op­tions are lim­ited but also that in­ter­na­tion­al pres­sure gath­ers in­cre­ment­ally, if it gath­ers at all. Obama ran as an in­ter­na­tion­al­ist spe­cial­iz­ing in the subtle sua­sion of soft power. That this ap­proach con­trasts un­help­fully (at least in terms of op­tics and among some pun­dits) with Putin’s na­tion­al­ist para­noia and an­ti­demo­crat­ic tend­en­cies means noth­ing to Obama. There are no U.S. mil­it­ary op­tions, merely mil­it­ary muscle flex­ing in the gen­er­al neigh­bor­hood (hello, Balt­ic States and Po­land).

Now, to the ques­tion of who is call­ing the tune in Crimea.

Obama has cal­cu­lated from the start that Putin looks stronger than he ac­tu­ally is and his mil­it­ary for­ay has real and prac­tic­al lim­its. Putin entered the only re­gion of Ukraine where there was no risk of mil­it­ary con­front­a­tion or mis­un­der­stand­ing — Crimea. From that perch, Obama and his team be­lieve Putin is im­pro­vising as much as he is strategiz­ing. The goal, they as­sume, is that Putin wants to use the threat of an ad hoc and il­leg­al an­nex­ing of Crimea to ex­ert some in­flu­ence over Ukraine’s new polit­ic­al fu­ture and keep his Black Sea fleet in a safe, warm-wa­ter port. This gam­bit is all that’s left to Putin, the White House be­lieves, after hav­ing con­spicu­ously and em­bar­rass­ingly lost Ukraine as a cli­ent-state with a genu­inely pli­able pup­pet pres­id­ent.

The White House be­lieves Putin cares more about Rus­sia’s eco­nom­ic health and dip­lo­mat­ic clout than it does about Crimea. Oth­er ana­lysts dis­agree. This as­sump­tion drives Obama’s policy. Yes, Putin has changed the facts on the ground in Crimea — but only by jeop­ard­iz­ing the bal­ance sheets of Rus­si­an ol­ig­archs and risk­ing in­ter­na­tion­al isol­a­tion. Even China, which might have been as­sumed to be nom­in­ally sup­port­ive, has been equi­voc­al. (Beijing, after all, has deep eco­nom­ic ties with Ukraine and ab­hors in­ter­fer­ence in in­tern­al mat­ters.) Putin’s about to lose his G-8 sum­mit in So­chi, and the White House, seni­or of­fi­cials tell me, is now push­ing for an al­tern­ate G-7 sum­mit to un­der­cut Putin’s cher­ished stand­ing among the world’s lead­ing eco­nom­ies.

And Rus­sia will have some ex­plain­ing to do if the Crimea crisis is still go­ing and 58 na­tions con­vene in The Hag­ue for the Nuc­le­ar Se­cur­ity Sum­mit and Putin will have vi­ol­ated one of the sig­na­ture post-Cold War non­pro­lif­er­a­tion agree­ments — the Bud­apest Memor­andum.

Un­der that agree­ment, Ukraine gave up its en­tire nuc­le­ar stock­pile (then the world’s third largest) in ex­change for a prom­ise from Rus­sia and the United States that neither na­tion will in­ter­fere with it eco­nom­ic­ally or at­tempt to in­tim­id­ate it polit­ic­ally. This may sound like a lot of dip­lo­mat­ic fluff, but Rus­sia, which re­tains for­mid­able nuc­le­ar stock­piles, craves a seat at the non­pro­lif­er­a­tion table — if for no oth­er reas­on that it re­minds oth­er na­tions to re­spect/fear Rus­sia’s ar­sen­al.

Yes, flex­ib­il­ity is a word that works against Obama. Ac­cor­di­on-like sanc­tions look and sound puny. Putin’s troops are patrolling Crimea il­leg­ally and con­trolling loc­al tele­vi­sion — also il­leg­ally. Troops and para­mil­it­ary sym­path­izers men­ace out­siders. This has the po­ten­tial to ex­plode. But that’s been true for days, and it hasn’t. Mean­while, Putin con­tin­ues talk­ing, not es­cal­at­ing.

And that might sug­gest Obama’s squeeze box is keep­ing Putin up at night.

The au­thor is Na­tion­al Journ­al Cor­res­pond­ent-at-Large and Chief White House Cor­res­pond­ent for CBS News. He is also a dis­tin­guished fel­low at the George Wash­ing­ton Uni­versity School of Me­dia and Pub­lic Af­fairs.

What We're Following See More »
TRUMP CONTINUES TO LAWYER UP
Kasowitz Out, John Dowd In
3 days ago
THE LATEST

As the Russia investigation heats up, "the role of Marc E. Kasowitz, the president’s longtime New York lawyer, will be significantly reduced. Mr. Trump liked Mr. Kasowitz’s blunt, aggressive style, but he was not a natural fit in the delicate, politically charged criminal investigation. The veteran Washington defense lawyer John Dowd will take the lead in representing Mr. Trump for the Russia inquiry."

Source:
ALSO INQUIRES ABOUT PARDON POWER
Trump Looking to Discredit Mueller
3 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump's attorneys are "actively compiling a list of Mueller’s alleged potential conflicts of interest, which they say could serve as a way to stymie his work." They plan to argued that Mueller is going outside the scope of his investigation, in inquiring into Trump's finances. They're also playing small ball, highlighting "donations to Democrats by some of" Mueller's team, and "an allegation that Mueller and Trump National Golf Club in Northern Virginia had a dispute over membership fees when Mueller resigned as a member in 2011." Trump is said to be incensed that Mueller may see his tax returns, and has been asking about his power to pardon his family members.

Source:
INCLUDES NY PROBE INTO MANAFORT
Why Yes, Mueller Is Looking into Trump Businesses
3 days ago
THE LATEST

In addition to ties between Russia and the Trump campaign, Robert Mueller's team is also "examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates, according to a person familiar with the probe. FBI investigators and others are looking at Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow, and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008, the person said. The investigation also has absorbed a money-laundering probe begun by federal prosecutors in New York into Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort."

Source:
Mueller Expands Probe to Trump Business Transactions
3 days ago
THE DETAILS

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team is "is examining a broad range of transactions involving Trump’s businesses as well as those of his associates", including "Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008."

Source:
ANALYSIS FROM CBO
32 Million More Uninsured by 2026 if Obamacare Repealed
3 days ago
THE LATEST

"A Senate bill to gut Obamacare would increase the number of uninsured people by 32 million and double premiums on Obamacare's exchanges by 2026, according to an analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The analysis is of a bill that passed Congress in 2015 that would repeal Obamacare's taxes and some of the mandates. Republicans intend to leave Obamacare in place for two years while a replacement is crafted and implemented."

Source:
×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login