Loose Canons

Putin Keeps Us Guessing

As Don Rumsfeld says, weakness is provocative.

By 3.24.14

UPI
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If Henry Kissinger were dead, he’d be spinning in his grave. The fact that he is very much alive is a good thing that may make us dream of the day when someone with the essential education, skills, and training will again be in charge of our foreign policy.

Unfortunately, no such person is and one of the men most observant of our sad condition is in a position to take advantage of it. Vladimir Putin, Russia’s often bare-chested strongman, has managed with very little effort and hardly a shot fired not only to destabilize Europe but to do so in a way that makes the European governments and our president believe that it is too hard, too expensive, and too dangerous to do anything about it. Putin’s managed to bring back the atmosphere of the Cold War — the intimidation that the Soviets brought about — so easily it’s almost admirable.

Putin’s swallowing of the Crimea has everyone gushing with guesses and running for cover. Where will he strike next? Is it Georgia, which he nearly took over in 2008 in an invasion of South Ossetia (which he’s kept)? Will it be the rest of Ukraine? NATO’s top military commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, told a conference the other day that “The (Russian) force that is at the Ukrainian border now to the east is very, very sizeable and very, very ready.” Will Putin strike somewhere else or not at all? How long will he wait before he tries something else?

Putin, who must be a superb poker player, has no reason to tell us. Why end the suspense when you’re positioning yourself to retake more of what used to parts of the Soviet Union without any real interference? Keeping everyone off balance is so easy, why end the fun?

That’s the most telling fact about the response to Russian aggression in the Crimean peninsula. The “sanctions” imposed by President Obama and the Europeans are diplomatic flatulence. They try to create a bad odor around some of Putin’s cronies, but they succeed only in causing laughter on both sides. When we impose travel restrictions on Putin’s pals coming here, they impose sanctions on some of our senators. Both sides, literally, laugh them off.

But that is the beauty, and the terrible consequences, of Obama’s failed foreign policy. It’s more fun and less work for him and Vichy John Kerry to scold Israel and run around the Middle East this week than to actually try to counter Putin and his ambitions.

What both Putin and Obama understand is that American presidents don’t get chosen on the basis of foreign policy or defense matters unless we’re in the midst of a war. But Putin’s understanding is far deeper than Obama’s: he understands that Americans can be pushed only so far. Which is why he is playing with the Crimea, Ukraine, and wherever else his ambitions lie as cagily as can be.

While we and the EUnuchs sit here rubbing our collective knuckles and worrying if Estonia, Moldova, or Georgia or the rest of Ukraine are next, we’re not paying attention to the rest of the world. At the risk of bringing up painful subjects, Bashar Assad’s Syrian regime is fighting it out with Saudi proxies and there’s no end of that war in sight. Putin long ago weighed in there, as did the Iranians, and Obama fell for a phony deal on Syrian chemical weapons by which the Syrians have no intention of abiding. Putin is working hard — with success — in driving up his influence in the Middle East. We are sinking from sight.

Russia is continuing to help Iran build its nuclear reactors while we pretend — under another Putin-engineered agreement — that Iran’s nuclear weapons program is stopped. Which is utterly false, as Andrew Bostom’s new book demonstrates exhaustively.

The most exquisite part of these neo-Soviet exercises is that they are so inexpensive diplomatically, economically, and militarily for Putin. And that they are accomplished at such low risk.

But let’s not mistake Putin for a statesman. Nor is Putin the blusterer that Khrushchev was or the Brezhnev-style personification of what President Reagan called the “evil empire.” He is a strong man in a time of astounding weakness among his adversaries.

To deal with Putin and end his global mischief making doesn’t require a Reagan or a Nixon or an Eisenhower. What is required, and what we lack, is a president of competence, someone who could not only speak effectively and lead effectively, but could pick a cabinet and a staff who could keep pace with the president and even do more than just stare.

Imagine that we had a president who would castigate Putin in the manner he deserves. A president who would even call Putin’s actions wrong, evil and a return to Soviet imperialism. Say it a few times in speeches. It’s true, so saying it comes at a reduced cost. Send a competent secretary of state to do the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to say the same things. That’s neither difficult nor expensive (except for the part about hiring a competent secretary of state). It won’t cost any lives. But it would show the world that America is wide awake and ready to stand up for freedom. That is entirely beyond the ken of Obama and contrary to his beliefs.

A competent president would call a NATO summit meeting, which would have the value of joining publicly with the only military alliance we have. NATO used to be worth something, and won’t be again soon. But a public display of unity would at least give heart to the nations that attended. Couple that with the economic sanctions I’ve outlined before and you’d be off to a good start.

For more than six years, we have been led by a regime that values pedigree (ideological and educational) over capability, experience, and training. We’ve seen it before and — at least in Democratic administrations — it’s old hat. Kennedy’s “best and brightest” were neither. Johnson made it a hundred times worse, his cabinet stumbling around in what was, until Afghanistan, our longest war.

Obama loves populating his crew with Ivy Leaguers, which can be fine if they have the right training and background. But these people don’t, and very few of that sort do. Obama’s team is not comprised of the best of the best: they’re the worst of the supposedly best educated. Some day we may have a Republican candidate for president who promises to hire people on the basis of competence rather than pedigree.

If that were the case, we’d have someone more like Kissinger than Kerry at State. We’d have someone unlike Janet Incompetano (or her successor, Jeh Johnson) at Homeland Security. We’d have someone a whole lot smarter and more defense-minded than Sgt. Hagel at Defense (which includes almost everybody). Obama’s choice of his team reminds me of Bill Buckley’s old comment that “I would rather be governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.” It will only grow worse as Obama’s time in office grows shorter and only those who can’t even get jobs in academia stay until the end.

Meanwhile Vladimir Putin can do what he wishes, when he wishes, and to whom he wishes. There is no tether on him. As former defense secretary Don Rumsfeld likes to say, weakness is provocative. Until 2017, at least, we will be terribly, dangerously weak.

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.