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Kristof: The villain in Ukraine is Putin, not Obama

Shrewd reporting about the Ukraine crisis comes from the Onion, which declared that American reaction is evenly divided — between the "wholly indifferent" and the "grossly misinformed."

In the latter category, it seems, belong the chest-thumpers who blame the Crimea catastrophe on President Barack Obama.

"We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression," scolded Sen. Lindsey Graham (revealing his own weakness: grammar). "President Obama needs to do something!"

Likewise, Sen. John McCain complains that Obama's foreign policy is "feckless," so that "nobody believes in America's strength anymore."

Rep. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, worries that Russia is "running circles around us." The Washington Post warns in a stinging editorial that "President Obama's foreign policy is based on fantasy." The Wall Street Journal cautions that the basic problem is "Obama's retreat from global leadership."

Oh, come on! The villain here is named Putin, not Obama, and we should have learned to feel nervous when hawks jump up and down and say "do something!" We tried that in Iraq. When there are no good options, a flexing of muscles by NATO or by U.S. warships in the Black Sea would only reinforce President Vladimir Putin's narrative to his home audience while raising the risk of conflict by accident or miscalculation.

Look, it's true that Obama's foreign policy has often been disappointing. Tripling the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was a mistake. So was rejecting the advice of Hillary Clinton and David Petraeus to arm the moderate Syrian opposition. The Obama pivot to Asia has stalled, serious engagement with Pakistan ended with the death of Richard Holbrooke, and Obama has appointed some appallingly uninformed campaign donors to be ambassadors.

Then again, Obama's focus on nation-building at home is a nice change of pace from the Bush years. Moreover, Middle East peace talks are a plus, and talking to Iran is preferable to loose talk about bombing Natanz.

The basic constraint is that there are more problems in international relations than solutions. The critics I cite often rely on two fallacies: first, that Putin is driven by Obama's weakness; second, that the seizure of Crimea is a great win for Russia.

The Soviet Union didn't invade Hungary because of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's weakness, nor Czechoslovakia because of President Lyndon B. Johnson's weakness. Russia didn't help dismember Moldova because of President George H.W. Bush's weakness or invade Georgia because of President George W. Bush's.


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