The Russian seizure of Crimea may be one of the most serious international crises in years and should stimulate serious foreign policy debate in Washington. Instead the denizens of this snowy capital are engaged in their usual political posturing and partisan bickering.
Listening to Republicans, you’d think Barack Obama had virtually invited Vladimir Putin to send his spetsnaz special forces to Ukraine. And nervous Democrats in Congress are frantically trying to avoid getting caught in the backwash from yet another Obama administration foreign policy fumble.
The Ukraine grab diverted attention from the other big foreign policy story here this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with the president and speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference. A badly burned AIPAC was trying to restore its bipartisan standing after a bruising encounter with the president over Iran sanctions legislation.
Putin grabbed most of the attention, even overshadowing the Oval Office photo op when reporters ignored Netanyahu and the Middle East as they shouted questions at the president about Ukraine.
These events illustrated an alarming tendency in Washington to focus on partisan politics instead of policy when it comes to the international scene.
The linking of the discussion of Mideast peace with the Ukraine crisis has been able to occur because of Obama’s decision last September not to bomb Syria as punishment for gassing its own people. Although Congress opposed the airstrikes, lawmakers still attacked the president for not doing it anyway.
Obama insists his threat to use force persuaded Russia and Iran to convince Bashar Assad to surrender his chemical weapons. Obama’s critics, including many in the Jewish community, claim it was a sign of American weakness and signaled to Iran that the president was bluffing when he threatened to use force if Tehran would not give up its nuclear weapons ambitions, and that it told Putin he could grab Crimea with impunity.
Any strike on Syria would have caused collateral damage (a euphemism for innocent civilians). Instead the poison gas deal — proceeding slowly but underway — saved many lives, particularly Jewish lives. That’s because Assad admitted he’d stockpiled the weapons to kill Israelis.
But that is lost on Republicans, AIPAC, Netanyahu, the president’s Jewish critics and others who thought an American strike would convince Iran that it could be next.
Up on Capitol Hill this week, the Ukraine crisis, the Iranian nukes and the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks were grist for the political mill in a town where partisan bickering and recrimination have become substitutes for serious policy debate.
There are serious Republican foreign policy thinkers in Congress, but they’ve been overshadowed by their party’s political hit men. The Democrats aren’t much better. They are confused and trying to stay out of the line of fire because they too have little idea what to do.
Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his echo, Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), are usually the first to call for a military response to a crisis, but not this time. At least not yet. McCain called the president’s foreign policy “feckless” and “naive” and said his failure to attack Syria was “an outrage.” Graham said the president is “weak and indecisive” and “invites aggression.” His solution: “Do something.” What? Didn’t say.
The absence of thoughtful debate and serious ideas hasn’t muted the critics.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) said Putin is playing chess and Obama is playing marbles. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) traced the current crisis to Obama’s decision to throw himself “into the arms of Russia” by not bombing Syria.
Look for McCain and Graham to show up in Kiev soon to trash the administration.
These critics conveniently overlook the mild U.S. response to Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, also ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians. That time, however, they didn’t attack the administration for its failure to threaten military action or impose harsh sanctions. That might be because the president then was a Republican who had looked into Putin’s eyes and seen his soul.
What seems lost in the winds blowing around Washington is what columnist David Ignatius pointed out: “This is a story about Putin’s violation of the international order” and not about “whether Obama had encouraged it by being insufficiently muscular.”
That’s painfully apparent on Capitol Hill, where serious and constructive foreign policy debate has succumbed to the epidemic of hyperpartisan squabbling.
Douglas M. Bloomfield is the president of Bloomfield Associates Inc., a Washington, D.C., lobbying and consulting firm. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.