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Obama’s Real Foreign Policy Dilemma

Walter Russell Mead reads [1] Leslie Gelb’s bizarre demand [2] to make empty military threats [3] against Russia as a sign that Obama is losing the support of Democratic foreign policy professionals:

It’s clear that the Democratic establishment is increasingly worried. Their fear is not only that poor foreign policy choices will create crises for this President, but also that decades of building democratic credibility on foreign policy will have been lost unless the White House changes direction.

The only thing that Gelb’s argument tells us is that we should not be listening to him for policy recommendations regarding Russia and Ukraine. Anyone that thinks that the U.S. response to the annexation of Crimea needs to include threatening the use of force ought to be laughed out of the room rather than being treated as someone whose opinion should be heeded. Let’s recall what Gelb thinks the U.S. should seriously consider doing:

The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection. Russian generals and even Putin surely know that the F-22s could smash the far inferior Russian air force and then punish Russian armies invading eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the region.

There’s no sense at all in making this move unless Obama unambiguously resolves to use the F-22s. The worst thing to do is bluff. Nor would the dangers end there even if Obama were not bluffing; Putin might think he was bluffing anyway and start a war. With all these complications and risks, the Obama team still should give this option a serious look [bold mine-DL]—and let Russia and our NATO partners know this tough course is under serious consideration.

If Obama has “lost” Gelb because he hasn’t been as completely irresponsible in his handling of the crisis as Gelb might want, that is a mark in the president’s favor. The public isn’t very impressed with Obama’s response, but then that is because the administration has been taking a much harder line and involving the U.S. to a much greater degree than most Americans want. The political problem for Obama in this case, as it was on Syria last year, is that he risks losing the public’s trust in his foreign policy judgment whenever he is inclined to side with pundits and supposed experts against the preferences of a large majority of Americans. As it is, Obama is already on the wrong side of public opinion on Ukraine, and this will only get worse if he follows advice from the likes of Mead and Gelb that is both politically tone-dead and wrong on the merits.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Obama’s Real Foreign Policy Dilemma"

#1 Comment By Steven D. Rennet On April 7, 2014 @ 1:14 am

“The public isn’t very impressed with Obama’s response, but then that is because the administration has been taking a much harder line and involving the U.S. to a much greater degree than most Americans want.”

This is not supported by the recent Quinnipiac University poll. [4]

Quinnipiac asked “Do you think Barack Obama is being too tough, not tough enough or about right in dealing with the situation involving Russia and Ukraine?” A grand total of six percent said “too tough” ompared to 36 percent who said not tough enough, and 45 percent who said “about right.”

The same poll asked “Overall, do you support or oppose the United States and its European allies imposing economic sanctions on Russia for its actions involving Ukraine?” 69 percent approved.

Yes, a majority said that didn’t want the US to get too involved, but that begs the question–how involved is too involved? A majority does not seem to think Obama has gotten the US too involved–at least as of now.

#2 Comment By Ken Ward On April 7, 2014 @ 3:20 am

If the president doesn’t want to follow the advice of Mead and Gelb, he can always turn to the ever-reasonable Op-ed pages of the New York Times. Bolstering its reliable team of indigenous hawks, the newspaper has today conscripted the British historian, Robert Service, to add some scholarly sheen to the weeks-old campaign it has run against Putin. Even before Service’s press-ganging, Roger Cohen was on hand to lend graciously his old world hawkishness with an English accent to the earlier, American-accented outpourings of Friedman and Kristof. Service makes the original observation that Putin is the reincarnation of Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled Russia at the outset of the Crimean War. Maybe so, but history doesn’t record that Nicholas, to adhere to constitutional niceties, took a demotion for several years, as his twenty-first century avatar has done. The original Nicholas served as tsar without a break. And will Putin, like Nicholas, send troops into the capitals of Western Europe if there is a replay of 1848?
On second thoughts, Obama should probably look elsewhere for insight into Russia. In any case, it won’t be long before Gail Collins starts using the NYT to root for Hillary.

#3 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 7, 2014 @ 5:15 am

There’s not much to say here. I don’t think you can dismiss the executives mixed messages as part of the problem.

#4 Comment By icarusr On April 7, 2014 @ 8:29 am

Because of course 50-60 F22s or whatever is all it took to dislodge Serbia, a client of Russia, from Kosovo; remove Saddam Hussein; eradicate piracy in Somalia, etc.

Gelb and Mead should not be laughed at; they should be locked up for criminal insanity. Really – someone pays these oiks to write? I’m in the wrong business.

#5 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 7, 2014 @ 10:01 am

My gut tells me that the numbers quoted by poster Rennet are correct. Most folks want “something” done. But not war. Sanctions are “something.” Most folks also realize that the too tough talk has been accompanied by not so tough actions. Hence, the Obama response, on balance, has been more or less right.

Obama can never please the neo cons, lib interventionists, and other war mongers, and so they, and those they, and the idiots/stooges in the MSM, have managed to convince, amounting to 36 per cent, think he hasn’t done enough. Since he hasn’t really done all that much, despite the tough talk, only a handful of folks think he has done too much (6 per cent) and a plurality thinks he has got it “just right” (45 per cent).

#6 Comment By Barry On April 7, 2014 @ 10:04 am

‘Walter Russell Mead is full of it again’ is the only thing which should ever be said about him and anything he writes.

#7 Comment By balconesfault On April 7, 2014 @ 10:36 am

The boldest and riskiest course would be to dispatch 50 or 60 of the incredibly potent F-22s to Poland plus Patriot batteries and appropriate ground support and protection.

Anyone who thinks Putin’s response to this escalation would be to turn tail and pull out of Crimea is delusional to a remarkable degree. Meanwhile, the concept “Democratic foreign policy professionals” is really annoying … why is it that our country has built such a massive infrastructure of “foreign policy professionals” in the first place? Don’t our society have better things to do with our money than provide financial support to wankers like this to be wrong 7 times out of 10?

#8 Comment By sglover On April 7, 2014 @ 11:07 am

@philadelphialawyer — You’ve persuaded (though not yet convinced) me that Obama’s essentially play-acting, making pleasing noises and gestures for the audience back home. It’s light-years better than actually following through on the idiotic schemes being pushed by Beltway “strategists” like Gelb.

But it’s still late. He’d be much better off, we all would be, if he’d purged his administration of creatures like Victoria Nuland, and a whole phalanx of Dem dinosaurs. At a minimum, he never should have allowed Hillary Clinton (who promoted Nuland) in his government.

Of course, Obama’s the guy who put Samantha Power and Susan Rice in positions of responsibility, so I’m just wish-thinking…

#9 Comment By Bill H On April 7, 2014 @ 11:17 am

Gelb is right, though, I think when he says that “The worst thing to do is bluff.”

I remain convinced that Obama was led blindly into the ill considered “red line” thing in Syria and was frantically looking for a way out when Putin offered the desl for Syria’s surrender of CW. The decision to submit it to a vote of Congress was his “last resort” because he was so desperate for a way to bail out of his bluff to drop bombs that he was willing to hand off the blame for not doing so to Congress.

#10 Comment By James Canning On April 7, 2014 @ 1:22 pm

Great piece, Daniel. Gelb’s advice is atrocious.

#11 Comment By philadelphialawyer On April 7, 2014 @ 5:33 pm


I agree that Obama has surrounded himself with too many war mongering lib interventionists…Hillary, Kerry, Rice, Power, etc. Perhaps a partial defense for him might be that the only lib non interventionists are “dinosaurs” like Biden, and that lib non interventionist FP “experts” are pretty thin on the ground. Plenty of radical anti interventionists, a few libertarian ones, but not many liberals, anymore, though I hate to admit it (I myself am an anti inverventionist lib).

That still doesn’t excuse Obama not only for Nuland’s antics, but for getting the Ukraine thing so wrong, though. Perhaps he simply is not engaged as much as he should be, and lets the State Dept run itself, including entrenched interventionists like Nuland. Perhaps he simply got the calculus wrong and never thought Putin might react as he did. He thought that he could do what most of the Europeans seemed to want (as he did in Libya and tried to do in Syria), as well as shut up the neo cons and lib interventionists in the USA, without there being any cost.

And now he has to walk it back, but at the same time make a big noise to cover his tracks.

#12 Comment By Ken_L On April 7, 2014 @ 10:30 pm

It is nice of Gelb to recommend giving NATO forewarning that America intends to start a war with Russia from European bases. It shows he’s not totally unaware of the need for proactive diplomacy.

Whether the F-22s would remain welcome in Poland after getting the news is, of course, another question. I rather think not.

#13 Comment By Fast Jimmy On April 7, 2014 @ 11:59 pm

When a dolt like Gelb decides that ‘war with Russia’ is a roughly equivalent cost to ‘not being bold enough’ for the mere sake of boldness then we are left with the question.

Who’s paying this guy? Why?