Saturday, March 1, 2014

Can Obama recover his own and American reputation through a resolution of the Ukraine crisis?

There was a moment outside the White House earlier this week, during which Republican Governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal, used the phrase, "Minimum Wage President" to describe what he perceives as a reductionistic interpretation of the Obama administration's mere vestige of power and influence. It made the news first because normally partisan comments are not the norm on White House property immediately following meetings with the President. Connecticut Governor Molloy, also an attendee at the same meeting with Jindal and the President, immediately jumped all over the Jindal comments, pointing to many other subjects that were discussed and strongly objecting to the reductionistic views of the president coming from Jindal.
We have been consistent and even sometimes combative supporters of the president, especially given the kind of obstruction and head winds he has faced since the day of his first inauguration in 2009, from the Republican party, both the establishment and the Tea Party radicals. We have lauded his achievement of the Affordable Care Act, the measured responses to Middle East uprisings, his collaborative attempts to work with his contemporary world leaders  on all issues including economic, social unrest, inequality, fiscal crises and two wars he inherited from his predecessor, George W. Bush.
However, in his exemplary attempt to modify the United States responses to world events, to move toward diplomacy and away from the military, something the whole world can and should be thankful for, Obama may have relinquished what had been considered a fact of geopolitical reality: that the United States was a super-power in both diplomacy and in military might. In fact, inside the outside the United States, the world took it as a matter of "faith" that the military always had the back of the diplomats, even if and when the rest of the world thought such deployment might be over the top, unjustified and unworthy of the good name and reputation of the United States, especially with regard to Iraq. Obama, in fact, was first elected primarily because of his strong opposition to the Iraq war, although he was later to enhance U.S. forces in Afghanistan and expand on the use of drones against terrorist enemies started by Dubya. His bona fides on the use of hard power, contrary to the views of his opponents, have been consistently and persistently earned, and one solid piece of the evidence to support that view came with the capture and the killing of Osama bin Laden, even secretly without official Pakistan knowing or being engaged as a partner in the expedition.
The incident in Benghazi, in which the U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered along with four of his compatriots, may have exposed some failures of omission (as opposed to those of commission) on the part of the State Department for not providing military and intelligence support for the Ambassador and his staff, in spite of his clear wish to live and work close to the people of Lybia, without an armed "wall" separating him from the people and the street. That incident also may prove, when examined by researchers in the future, as the pivotal point at which the fortunes of the Obama administration turned downward, even though there is no clear evidence that no one in the administration, including then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a former political foe, deliberately turned a blind eye and a deaf ear to requests for additional military and intelligence support for Stephens.
Perhaps it was the preceding flow of constant and vicious critical onslaught on all issues that culminated in a perceived loss of trust by the American people in the president's capacity to deliver on his responsibilities, capped by the public relations fiasco that the very word Benghazi has become, along with the depressing and persistent bad numbers on economic recovery at home linked also to a slow drop in the unemployment rate, and the consistent defiance of presidential proposals from the Republicans that has generated a perception deeply embedded in the American body politic, that the president has lost the confidence of the majority of the people.
And anyone who says or thinks that what happens at home does not impact what happens on the world stage is simply out of touch with the reality of that complex interface. If Obama is perceived at home as wanderingly decent but indecisive, such a perception could possibly impact directly, or certainly indirectly, how the United States is treated by foreign leaders, especially those with the name Putin, whose preening capacity and ambition, both personal and for his country's reaching the top of the diplomatic mountain of world respect, culminated in the Sochi Olympics.
After Syria, with the Russian proposal to negotiate an agreement to dispose of chemical weapons, weapons that Assad had previously denied even possessing, now in considerable disarray given Assad's failure to meet deadlines to which he committed, and given Putin's "cover" for his failures, and after Putin's support of Iran's ambitions to develop nuclear power, currently under another cloud of uncertainty as to the verifiability and trustworthiness of any Iranian commitment to cap the enrichment at levels appropriate only for energy and not for nuclear weapons development, another cloud "covered" by Putin's protection...now Obama and the west face a deepening crisis in Ukraine, and especially in the Crimea.
There is a danger that Obama is and will be perceived both by Putin and the people of the Ukraine as a very decent, but impotent, American president who has very few options to provide support and a counter-punch to the military intervention of the Crimea "to protect Russian people living in that region" already voted on and vetted in advance by the Russian parliament, at Putin's request.
A $1 billion cheque from the U.S. Treasury, for example will do little to meet the Ukraine's current need for some $35+billions to escape national bankruptcy. Even if all of the oligarchs who have profited from the corruption that flowed into their bank accounts under Yanukovich were forced to turn that money over to the government in Kiev, and the IMF were to write a sizeable cheque in support of an international bail-out, the U.S. contribution would still look feeble and somewhat insulting, not only to the people of Ukraine, but also to the fading reputation of the Obama administration. There is also little if any likelihood that the U.S. will engage Russia militarily over the Crimea, or over the stabilizing of the Ukraine itself. Obama faces a serious challenge not only in the Ukraine crisis, but to the historic legacy and reputation of his presidency.
And, if he were ever moved and motivated to dig deeply into his imagination and his reservoir of courage, wisdom, insight and foresight, this is the time for him to commit all of his many talents and personal and professional resources to the resolution of the huge risk and opportunity that faces him and his country and the world in Putin and the Ukraine.
And the Taiwan model of a independent Crimea still attached to both Ukraine and to Russia, is not the best outcome of this crisis. Obama needs to provide strong, decisive and significant American "innovation and leadership" that demonstrate both his command of the situation and his capacity to rise above the "micro" politics of the minimum wage on the international stage.
The world needs the best and the most creative and the most courageous Obama, just as the world needed the best, most creative and most courageous Kennedy over Cuba....and there not an unlimited time frame for him to act.
The whole world is watching...and waiting...and wondering if there is a Kennedy spine still occupying the desk in the Oval Office...clearly there is more than a Kruschev in the Kremlin.

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