Conservatives are crowing. Yes, Mitt Romney said Russia was our “number one geopolitical foe” in 2012, and was guffawed at from the left. Yes, Sarah Palin said in the 2008 campaign that Obama’s “indecision and moral equivalence” in response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia “would only encourage Russia’s Putin to invade Ukraine next” (a few seconds after mocking Obama for planning to send “our US military into Pakistan without the approval of the Pakistani government, invading the sovereign territory of a troubled partner in the war against terrorism.”)
And yes, Russia today is bedeviling President Obama’s foreign policy agenda and has now occupied part of Ukraine.
But he wasn’t. And neither was Palin.
1. Freezing Out Russia Would Have Doomed Libya
Romney’s comment was part of a larger critique first lobbied in 2010 that slammed Obama as naive for forging an arms control treaty with Russia, claiming Obama got no help from Russia in return. But his characterization of the treaty was riddled with inaccuracies.
More relevant to the question of Romney’s clairvoyance, in 2012 Romney never recalibrated his comments after Russia acquiesced to Obama’s call for the UN to back his plan for military intervention in Libya. Instead he wrote, “Moscow has rewarded these gifts with nothing but obstructionism at the United Nations on a whole raft of issues” completely ignoring Obama’s big Libya win.
That’s no mere oversight. By not adopting a knee-jerk Cold War mentality that treated Russia as an implacable foe, Obama was able to prevent Qaddafi from massacring his own people.
In fact, Obama was able to exploit a difference in opinion between Putin, who was not president of Russia at the time, and Dmitri Medvedev who was. If Romney was president, and he lumped all Russian leaders into one sinister Cold War package, Qaddafi would still be in power today and thousands of Libyans would be dead from his orders.
2. Shifts In Missile Defense Plans Didn’t Change Russian Behavior
One thing that Romney was complaining about in 2012 was that Obama scrapped Bush’s plans to put long-range missile defense systems in Poland, presumably to appease Russia. (The Obama administration had said last year its missile defense decisions have been driven by the desire to contain Iran and North Korea, and better relations with Russia only were a potential side benefit.)
But remember, those plans were on track in 2008 when — while Bush was still president — Russia invaded Georgia and picked off the South Ossetia and Abkhazia provinces. Yet Romney ignored that in 2012.
Similarly in 2008, Palin found a way to attack Obama’s response to Russia’s Georgian invasion and not the person still in the Oval Office. That would have involved grappling with how Bush’s supposed “strength” — after dropping a lot of bombs on Iraq and pushing those missile defense systems over Russia’s objections — didn’t deter Russia one bit.
Also of note, Putin (again, not president of Russia at the time) even had the audacity to blame Bush for the conflict, arguing America didn’t do enough to restrain the Georgian government, thereby forcing Russia’s hand. Yet Palin and other conservatives did not harangue Bush for weakness they way they treat Obama today when Putin makes similarly ridiculous claims.
3. Putin Reacted To Obama’s Moral Principles, Not Moral Equivalence
Obama’s 2008 response, despite Palin’s insinuation of “indecision and moral equivalence,” condemned Russian aggression and threatened Russian entry into the World Trade Organization. And as President, he followed through on that statement holding up the WTO agreement for over two years until Russia forged a border agreement with Georgia, and Georgia subsequently blessed the trade deal.
And today, Obama’s Ukraine policy was not based on naiveté and amorality towards Russia, but on the moral belief that America should stand by the popular will of Ukrainians.
His administration had been pressuring the former Russian-backed Ukrainian government to accept the people’s demand for stronger economic ties to Europe, which means moving away from Russia’s orbit, and to share power with opposition parties.
In response, Russia tried to undermine Obama and the Ukrainian opposition by tapping the phone of an American diplomat and leaking the contents of a phone call discussing power-sharing possibilities.
Russian lost that battle. The Ukrainian opposition was emboldened and flat ousted the president. And the opposition leader Obama’s diplomats wanted in the Ukrainian government, as the leaked phone call revealed, is now Prime Minister.
Now Russia is trying to save face by picking off a piece of the Ukraine through military force. It may or may not succeed. But whatever happens, Russia will almost certainly have lost the vast majority of the Ukraine to Europe, and have damaged its efforts to be a respected global power. And that’s partly because Obama did not seek to junk American democratic values, appease Russia or naively treat Russia as an ally.
The bottom line is that the Obama administration has never had a soft approach to Russia, but a utilitarian one. It has sought Russian cooperation when deemed necessary to resolve problems regarding areas in which Russia has influence, and has squared off against Russia when deemed necessary to uphold our principles. An agreement to solve one problem has not pre-determined the approach for the next problem.
Such “complexity” seems to blow the synapses of Romney, Palin and other conservatives nostalgic for the Cold War. Since Russia is bad, we should treat them badly at all times, and then Russia will submit to our will.
Nothing that has transpired over the last week validates this view. Romney and Palin were wrong then and are wrong now.