No, Obama's Ukraine Policy Isn't "Muddled"

| Wed Sep. 3, 2014 2:44 PM EDT

Time's Michael Scherer writes today about President Obama's foreign policy:

“NATO must send an unmistakable message in support of Ukraine,” Obama said. “Ukraine needs more than words.”

The rhetoric hit its marks. The message, however, was muddled.

As he finished his speaking engagements, several questions remained about how he intends to deal with the multiple foreign policy crises facing his administration. He again condemned Russian incursions into Ukraine, and promised new U.S. and European help to train, modernize and strengthen the Ukrainian military. But his “unmistakable message” of support stopped short of defining or ruling out any additional U.S. military role should Russian aggression continue.

While he pointedly promised to defend those countries in the region who are signatories to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Obama offered no similar assurances to Ukraine, even as he highlighted that country’s voluntary contributions to NATO military efforts. Instead, Obama asked for a focus on a peace process that seems, for the moment, elusive.

“Since ultimately there’s no military solution to this crisis, we will continue to support [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko’s efforts to achieve peace because, like all independent nations, Ukraine must be free to decide its own destiny,” he said, minutes after the Kremlin denied reports it had reached a ceasefire with Ukraine. As NATO leaders gather to consider imposing additional economic sanctions on Russia, Obama hailed the success of the U.S.-led sanctions regime, which has hurt the Russian economy but without stopping additional Russian military aggression in Ukraine.

This was not the only issue on which he left gray areas.

For excellent reasons, foreign policy statements nearly always include gray areas, so it would hardly be news if that were the case here. But it's not. In fact Obama's statement was unusually straightforward. He said the same thing he's been saying for months about Ukraine, and it's really pretty clear:

  • We are committed to the defense of NATO signatories.
  • Ukraine is not part of NATO, which means we will not defend them militarily.
  • However, we will continue to seek a peaceful settlement; we will continue to provide military aid to Ukraine; and we will continue to ratchet up sanctions on Russia if they continue their aggression in eastern Ukraine.

You might not like this policy. And maybe it will change in the future. But for now it's pretty straightforward and easy to understand. The closest Obama came to a gray area is the precise composition of the sanctions Russia faces, but obviously that depends on negotiations with European leaders. You're not going to get a unilateral laundry list from Obama at a press conference.

The rest of Scherer's piece is about ISIS, and it's at least a little fairer to say that policy in this area is still fuzzy. But Obama has been pretty forthright about that, and also pretty clear that a lot depends on negotiations with allies and commitments from the Iraqi government. That's going to take some time, and there's nothing wrong with that.

I should add that nobody on the planet—not even John McCain!—knows how to destroy ISIS. Everybody wants some kind of magic bullet that will put them out of business without committing any ground troops, but nobody knows what that is. So until one of the blowhard hawks comes up with an actual plan that might actually work, I'll stick with Obama's more cautious approach. I figure he'll do something, but only when politics and military strategy align to provide a plausible chance of success. In the meantime, mindlessly demanding more bombs—the only action that most of Washington's A-list apparently considers worthy of a commander-in-chief—is just stupid.

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