Washington Watch: Fumbling foreign policy

Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and his echo, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), are usually the first to call for a military response to a crisis, but not this time.

Kiev, Ukraine, February 22, 2014 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Kiev, Ukraine, February 22, 2014
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Russian seizure of the 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 here you’d think Barack Obama had virtually invited Vladimir Putin to send his Spetsnaz special forces to the 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, Prime Minister Binyamin 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. But it ran into pressure from Republicans and conservatives, both on the Hill and in its own ranks, urging confrontation with the administration, insisting “the stakes with Iran are too high to consider Democratic sensibilities,” JTA reported.
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.
But not before Netanyahu delivered another one of his abrasive public lectures on the peace talks, telling the president, “Israel has been doing its part, and I regret to say that the Palestinians haven’t.” He then took that message to Capitol Hill and to AIPAC.
His “it’s all the other side’s fault” will go down well with Republicans and Obama’s Jewish critics who leave no doubt there is nothing Obama can do in the Middle East that would satisfy them.
These events illustrated an alarming tendency in Washington to focus on partisan politics instead of policy when it comes to the international scene.
Linking the discussion of Middle East peace and the Ukraine crisis was Obama’s decision last September not to bomb Syria as punishment for gassing its own people.
Although Congress opposed the air strikes, that didn’t stop lawmakers from attacking 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 that was a sign of American weakness and signaled Iran 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 the Crimea with impunity.
Any strike on Syria would have killed some Syrian soldiers and possibly 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 them for the purpose of killing 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 a substitute for serious policy debate.
There are serious Republican foreign policy thinkers in the Congress these days 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 have little idea what to do, either. Most want to support their president, but they worry about his sinking approval ratings so they are joining the chorus of calling for a tough response.
Sounds good, but like the Republicans, they have little idea what that means. It’s like a certain Jewish Democratic congressman who always intones about the need to “hold the Palestinians’ feet to the fire” without ever defining just what that means.
The administration is considering a menu of economic sanctions, canceled projects and other measures, and Congress is likely to go along because it has no alternatives beyond its rhetoric.
Senators John McCain (R-Arizona) and his echo, Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), are usually the first to call for a military response to a crisis, but not this time. At lest not yet. They have no solutions of their own, but that hasn’t stopped their anti-Obama rhetoric. McCain called the president’s foreign policy “feckless” and “naïve” 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.
That was typical.
The absence of thoughtful debate and serious ideas hasn’t muted the critics, who are big on sound bites and weak on ideas.
House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) said Putin is playing chess and Obama is playing marbles. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) wants to increase defense spending. Another called for building a missile defense shield. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) 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.
Washington Post’s Dana Milbank noted that Republicans condemn Obama as an “imperial” tyrant on domestic front and a “feckless” weakling on foreign policy. That dichotomy suggests to him the president’s critics are “so convinced that he is wrong about everything” they they’re blind to their own inconsistency.
These critics conveniently overlook the mild US 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 hyper-partisan squabbling.
©2014 Douglas M. Bloomfield [email protected]