White House/Pete Souza

To hear the Republicans shrieking about Crimea — from those howling simpletons on Fox News to the churlish statesmen of the United States Senate — all blame rests with President Barack Obama. In the midst of a real and potentially dangerous crisis, every opportunistic politician and pundit on the right excoriates him as a president so “weak” that he practically invited Vladimir Putin’s aggression.

Aggression is an apt description of the Russian takeover of the Crimean Peninsula, despite the complexity of the events and history that led here — and despite the evident enthusiasm of the Crimean population. Like many borders drawn on maps, this one was far from indisputable in moral or political terms. And without endorsing Russia’s questionable version of events, it is also true that the overthrow of the Yanukovych regime and the inclusion of neo-fascist elements in Kiev’s new government raised real issues of legitimacy and security.

Yet those questions cannot excuse Russia’s military intimidation of Ukraine or the staged and stampeded referendum that led to annexation. What Putin is doing violates basic international norms, which demand respect for national sovereignty and democratic processes.

The problem faced by the Obama administration and its European allies is how to discourage further imperialistic adventures by Moscow without destructive economic and diplomatic consequences for the world. Among the complicating factors are the Russian roles in Iran, Syria, the Mideast peace process and Europe’s energy economy — any of which could devolve into something far worse than the annexation of Crimea. In short, Ukraine presents a tricky and perilous situation that leaves the United States with limited options.

Which is why the Republicans have almost nothing to say about what Obama should do now, and so much to say about why this trouble is his fault. All the usual suspects have piped up to tell the world about the president’s supposed frailty.

Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney suggests that he was right to pillory Russia in 2012 as “the number one geopolitical foe” of the United States — and that Obama was wrong to mockingly demur. But the president’s responsibilities required him to seek Putin’s diplomatic cooperation — not to bait the Russian leader for partisan advantage. Arizona Sen. John McCain has been sputtering with rage, berating Obama as “the most naive president in history.” His Senate sidekick Lindsey Graham, seeking reelection in South Carolina, went much further: “It started with Benghazi,” he tweeted. “When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression.”

Only Dick Cheney could be expected to exceed Graham’s slur. Not only does the former vice president indict Obama for “weakness and indecisiveness” that have supposedly damaged American prestige around the world, but he urges provocative military actions that could rapidly worsen the crisis.

If Putin was tempted by American vacillation, that process started well before Obama entered the White House, when his troops invaded the former Soviet republic of Georgia — and the Republicans now shrieking about “weakness” said nothing when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney did nothing. When reminded about that episode, Cheney now says it occurred “at the end of the Bush administration, the beginning of the Obama administration” — in August 2008. Nobody should expect honesty, after all, from the man whose deceptions pushed this country into a disastrous war — and who single-handedly did more lasting damage to American prestige than any vice president in history.

There is at least one Republican, however, whose counsel should not be scorned, especially by his fellow Republicans. Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates — whose glancing criticism of Obama in his memoir was so heavily exaggerated — now clearly disdains partisan exploitation of the trouble in Ukraine to demean his former boss.

“In the middle of a major international crisis, that some of the criticism, domestic criticism of the president ought to be toned down, while he’s trying to handle this crisis,” said Gates on “Fox News Sunday.” He flatly rejected the notion that Obama could somehow have deterred Putin by acting more “decisively.” And having served under Bush before Obama kept him on, he bluntly recalled that other Russian invasion.

“My own view is, after all, Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force, so I think Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas. I think that … even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren’t cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it.”

Indeed, Obama is doing everything that critics like McCain and Romney would likely do in his place — pull together the allies, financially bolster Ukraine, impose sanctions, isolate and cajole Moscow. He is calibrating the response according to the broad interests of the United States and its allies, seeking to restrain Russian ambitions without incurring grave costs.

So far, the hysterical Republican attacks are inflicting little harm on the president. His approach to Ukraine and Crimea is polling higher than his overall approval numbers — and the latest CNN poll showed that his ratings as a “strong and decisive leader” who “inspires confidence” are actually higher than last autumn.

What Putin will do next is hard to predict; what remains perfectly predictable is the political reaction here. If the Russians push deeper into Ukraine, Obama will be blamed again. And if they don’t, he will surely get no credit.


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