Another week, another round of sanctions, as the United States and its main European allies seek to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further moves to destabilize Ukraine and other one-time Soviet satellites.
The latest moves are stronger than prior ones, not only focused appropriately on companies linked to close Putin aides but including firms supplying technology to the Russian military.
But once again, their likely impact is questionable, in part because Putin doesn’t seem to believe the West would react more strongly, including militarily, if Ukraine’s independence is threatened. That’s because this crisis came against the backdrop of President Barack Obama’s larger efforts to reduce the U.S. military role overseas.
He defended that policy strongly Tuesday in the Philippines where, in words clearly directed at GOP critics like Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, he asked, “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous costs to our troops and to our budget?”
Still, such comments raise the question of whether even Obama’s most appropriate and sensible presidential actions have created skepticism among both friendly and adversarial foreign leaders about his pledges of strong responses in world trouble spots.
As the world’s leading super power, the United States remains the key player in such situations. Major European powers like Germany have always been reluctant to act outside their borders, as was evident when President George W. Bush sought to mobilize international backing for U.S.-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan. But as the American public began to resist overseas commitments, even Bush acquiesced in withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
As for Obama, one of his major 2008 campaign commitments was his pledge to reduce the U.S. military role overseas, starting by ending the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that have cost the United States billions of dollars plus thousands of dead and wounded combatants and civilians.
Polls have consistently shown the American people support that course and Obama’s subsequent moves to avoid becoming enmeshed in the downfall of Moammar Gadhafy in Libya and the brutal civil war in Syria.
Just this week, three separate polls indicated far more Americans want to reduce the U.S. role overseas than want to expand it. More explicitly, a Pew Research Center Poll showed that, while Americans support economic sanctions against Russia, they oppose military intervention in Ukraine.
Despite those signs that Obama and the American people are in sync on a restrained overseas course, the president has created problems for himself and the United States by how he dealt with some trouble spots.
His decision to avoid any direct military action in Libya except air cover to protect civilians was accompanied by the devastating quote, which The New Yorker magazine’s Ryan Lizza attributed to an unnamed White House official, that the administration was “leading from behind” by letting other countries take the lead, with U.S. behind-the-scenes backing.
The administration rejected criticism that such language represented actual policy, but it failed to dispel the appearance of weakness.
Perhaps Obama’s greatest problem came from his August 2012 statement that, while avoiding military intervention in Syria, “a red line for us is (when) we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
A year later, when Syrian President Bashar Assad launched a chemical attack against civilians that killed many children, Obama said that “red line” had been crossed and vowed retaliation. But he said he would not act without congressional support.
And when that support seemed unlikely, Obama faced a major embarrassment until he was bailed out by Syria’s acceptance of a U.S.-Russian agreement to scrap its chemical weapons. Still, the incident strengthened the impression of a president who talked more strongly than he acted.
Since Putin precipitated the Ukraine crisis, Obama has moved more slowly than GOP critics prefer, in part because of reluctance to act without the support of major European allies like Germany, who rely on energy and other Russian resources.
And with polls showing Americans favor a less active U.S. overseas role, Obama seems certain to maintain his more restrained global course, even though critics contend that its openly anti-interventionist tenor has weakened the nation’s international standing.
Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.