President Barack Obama spoke from the White House Friday to address the attack on Malaysian Airline Flight MH17 and outline what role the United States will take going forward, as well as what we know so far about events. However, his speech is unlikely to sooth the flood of criticism he’s been taking over how he’s handled relations with Russia in light of conflict in Ukraine.
The flight, carrying almost 300 passengers — most of whom were from the Netherlands, but who spanned multiple nationalities — included a number of big Australian names in AIDS research. The President stated that he has had calls to heads of state from involved nations, and will continue to do so. He emphasized the need to avoid getting “out ahead of the facts,” given misinformation already running rampant in the region in question, but noted that the surface to air missile that was fired came from a territory under the control of Russian separatists and that, “The separatists are heavily armed and trained, and that’s not an accident … it’s happening because of Russian support.” Going forward, he stated that a “credible international investigation” would be needed to seek out the truth of what happened, noting that this is a move the UN security council has agreed on. The FBI and the National Transportation Safety Board both have been offered to aid in the efforts.
But as for how the U.S. interactions with Russia will change going forward, President Obama made it clear that diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions remain the sole method America will continue to use in handling Russian hostilities. “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic states, giving them reassurance” of support as dictated by U.S. alliances there, said Obama. Many have been highly critical of Obama’s tactics with Russia so far, saying his sanctions are ineffective. Let’s take a look at some of the arguments being made against his current strategy.
1. Chair Mike Rogers
“Putin is playing chess and I think we are playing marbles, and I don’t think it’s even close,” said House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) in March as Russia moved troops toward Ukraine. “They’ve been running circles around us and I believe it’s the naive position on the National Security Council and the president’s advisers that if we just keep giving things to Russia, they’ll wake up and say, ‘The United States is not that bad.’ That is completely missing the motivations of why Russia does what Russia does,” he said, according to The Huffington Post.
U.S. and Russian relations have historically been tense, but former president George W. Bush enjoyed a far more cordial relationship with the Russian President — a fact that Republicans especially like to bring up given Obama’s current struggles. A large part of this may have to do with the international conditions the U.S. is facing at present. However, there is an argument to be made that President Obama has made some bad moves in handling relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The New York Times gives a good list of highs and lows over Obama’s time in leadership.
2. Senator John McCain
Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued on the Senate floor that Obama has not fully appreciated the danger that Russia and Putin both represent. He was particularly critical of an essay Obama wrote in college for a campus magazine, which was dug up by USA Today. In the essay, Obama had criticized President Reagan for escalating the crisis, saying it showed “distorted national priorities,” an oversimplified viewpoint McCain appears concerned has spread into his policy today.
“I say it’s time we woke up about Vladimir Putin. It’s time that this administration got real,” said MCCain, according to ABC. “This president does not understand Vladimir Putin. He does not understand his ambitions. This president has never understood it. This president is the one who ridiculed Mitt Romney when Mitt Romney said the great enemy was Russia and its geopolitical threats.”
3. Mitt Romney
That brings us, of course, to Mitt Romney. Romney claimed, in an interview with CBS on Face the Nation, that had Obama better predicted Russia’s likely actions against Ukraine, the U.S. and other nations could have joined together in preventing the aggression we’re now seeing — though he admits Putin may have acted as he did regardless.
“There’s no question but that the president’s naïveté with regards to Russia, and his faulty judgment about Russia’s intentions and objectives, has led to a number of foreign policy challenges that we face,” said Romney. “And unfortunately, not having anticipated Russia’s intentions, the president wasn’t able to shape the kinds of events that may have been able to prevent the kinds of circumstances that you’re seeing in the Ukraine, as well as the things that you’re seeing in Syria. We really need to understand that Russia has very different interests than ours. This is not fantasy land, this is reality where they are a geopolitical adversary.”
4. Dick Cheney
The former Vice President under G.W. Bush, Cheney didn’t pull any punches, calling Obama flat out “weak” in an interview with Fox News. “He’s demonstrated repeatedly, I think, that he in fact can be pushed around, if you will, by Putin,” said Cheney, according to Press TV. However, it’s notable that he did not have a strong answer when asked how Bush’s response to the Russian interference in Georgia (2008) compared. Georgia is thought to have lost that battle, and though the U.S. did give supplies and position ships in the Black Sea, some use the argument to call the Bush-Obama comparison hypocritical.
The president’s position is a difficult one. Sanctions at present, while harmful, are not controlling Putin’s actions or pushing Russia in hoped for directions — a reality that Obama admitted in his speech Friday. Yet there is a precarious line that needs to be walked here. Russia has economic support from China; the two signed a major gas deal in recent months; and Russia holds Europe in a difficult position resulting from energy industry dependence. Putting military might behind diplomatic rhetoric would bring conflict to a head far more quickly, and embroil the as yet distant U.S. into the conflict. The U.S. is still recovering from the recession, and the public is far more concerned with internal conditions, especially economic health. Tipping a deeply divided nation in another overseas conflict would be an unpopular and expensive venture. On the one hand, U.S. rhetoric without effective action — at least so far — makes it look weak in some eyes, and Ukraine is fighting a battle that some believe deserves U.S. aid beyond talk and money.
On the other hand, the president is encouraging more regional powers to consider the potential dangers of a conflict in their neighborhood, noting today that the attack on Flight MH17 is a global issue: an Asian plane and an attack in European airspace. “This certainly will be a wake up call for Europe and the world that there are consequences to [the conflict in Ukraine],” said the president, saying that it is “not localized; not going to be contained,” and brings home the degree to which the stakes are high for Europe (i.e. Europe needs to take the lead on this one.)
America is often considered a bully, invasive, and controlling as one of the more powerful nations across the globe. Now, Obama emphasizes the right of Ukraine to decide it’s own future. But while he may demonize Russia for standing in the way of Ukraine’s self determination, some see his unwillingness to enforce as a symptom of impotence in the face of a crisis.
More From Wall St. Cheat Sheet:
- The Impact of Russia-Ukraine Tensions on Oil & Gas
- Is the U.S. Using Oil to Fight Russian Gas Politics in Ukraine?
- Cold War Reminders: Russia and China Gas Deal Highlights U.S. Tensions
Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS