Monday, January 18, 2016
Mr. President, Do You Know which Side You’re On?
And they ridiculed George W. Bush during the 2000 presidential campaign for not knowing who the presidents of Chechnya, Taiwan and Pakistan were.
Last week, during his last State of the Union, President Barack Obama became the latest president to flub a major foreign policy issue.
With two references to Ukraine in his annual speech, President Obama’s second reference was acceptable on the surface: “When we help Ukraine defend its democracy, or Colombia resolve a decades-long war, that strengthens the international order we depend upon.”
Obama at least acknowledged that the US is helping Ukraine defend its democracy and defending Ukraine means that international order, peace, stability and security will be strengthened – a point that I’ve promoted. The statement would have been stronger if he, speaking from such a visible pulpit, named the offender – Russia. The global community may be aware that for almost 24 months, Russia has been waging a war against its neighbor in defiance of numerous international charters. But emphasizing the name of the belligerent perpetrator once more in the presence of all three branches of the American government, the Joint Chiefs, and Chief Justices, as well as the public would have sent a clear message to the world: Russia can run but it can’t hide from the truth and, hopefully, the consequences.
As President Poroshenko, global observers, Ukrainians and Ukrainian American voters painfully know, America can do a lot more to help Ukraine defend its democracy, independence and sovereignty. Washington can abandon its lukewarm support and send arms and advisers to Ukraine to help stem the unlawful flow of Russian troops, mercenaries and arms into Ukraine, and ultimately, unconditionally push back Russia from Ukraine. The US can also intensify economic sanctions against Russia until the oligarchs and people feel the pain and ignobility of Putin’s aggression.
However, it was President Obama’s first reference to Ukraine that was deplorable and quickly sent shockwaves around the world: “Even as their economy contracts, Russia is pouring resources to prop up Ukraine and Syria — client states they see slipping away from their orbit.”
Twitter sphere lit up with comments, ridicule, criticism and condemnations even before the speech concluded, with my tweets also being mixed into that political caldron.
The first question that erupted was what, according to the President, is Russia attempting to prop up in Ukraine? Does President Obama mean to say that Russia is propping up Russian rebels, terrorists, secessionists in Ukraine? He certainly can’t mean that Russia is propping up legitimate Ukraine with its capital in Kyiv and President Poroshenko? What did the President mean by saying Ukraine is a client state of Russia? And is Ukraine merely slipping away from Russia’s orbit or has it already left in favor of moving to the west, the EU and NATO?
Before the White House issued its public clarification, officials in Ukraine were magnanimously quick to soothe the wound saying that Obama’s wording should not be taken as a sign that US policy on Ukraine has shifted. A fair assessment because the policy basically hasn’t shifted but rather the President’s words called into question the Administration’s command of the issues.
“It is important to make the right emphasis in assessing this comment,” Svitlana Zalishchuk, a member of the Verkhovna Rada’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. “This is an error on the expression level, a failed impromptu. It shouldn’t be considered as the position of the US president on Ukraine.”
Zalishchuk was gratified that Obama mentioned Ukraine twice in the speech, noting that the second reference showed US support for Ukraine and other countries transitioning to democracy helped make the world more stable.
Kyiv was diplomatically correct not to aggravate Obama’s lapsus by publically reprimanding him and US policy toward Ukraine. But all others can have at him.
President Obama, with a few misguided words, managed to create a negative legacy of his and Washington’s miscomprehension about Russia’s global threat and Ukraine’s quest for self-determination, independence and sovereignty. While he has a few solid, astute members of his cabinet who understand what’s at stake in Russia’s war with Ukraine, such as Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Permanent Representative of Ukraine to UN Ambassador Samantha Power, President Obama needs a refresher course about Ukrainian history.
President Obama’s thoughtless remarks about Ukraine brought to mind President Gerald Ford’s comment during a debate with Jimmy Carter on October 6, 1976, that the USSR is not dominating Eastern Europe. Ford talked himself into a corner by declaring “there is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford administration.”
Max Frankel, associate editor of the New York Times, in disbelief gave Ford the opportunity to take back his declaration: “I’m sorry, I – could I just follow – did I understand you to say, sir, that the Russians are not using Eastern Europe as their own sphere of influence in occupying mo- most of the countries there and in – and making sure with their troops that it's a – that it’s a Communist zone, whereas on our side of the line the Italians and the French are still flirting with the possibility of Communism?”
Ford didn’t take advantage of the opportunity and failed to exonerate himself. He repeated the mistake: “I don't believe that the Rumanians consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. I don't believe that the Poles consider themselves dominated by the Soviet Union. Each of those countries is independent, autonomous.”
Jimmy Carter finally replied softly: “I would like to see Mr. Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don't live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron - uh - Curtain.”
Certainly, during this 2016 election year, Ukrainian Americans will listen attentively to what Democratic and Republican hopefuls have to say about the Russo-Ukraine War of 2014-16 and make their decisions accordingly.
In both instances, the critical reaction was quick and the administrations’ excuses were immediate but equally preposterous.
Four decades ago, Al Haig, Ford’s chief of staff, futilely tried to clean the dirt from the President’s face by coming to the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s quadrennial convention to explain that the President’s words were a lapsus linguae.
Last week, Obama’s staff and the State Department, feeling the critics’ hot air on the backs of their necks, mobilized a defense.
The State Department officially responded the next day to a request by an Ukrinform reporter for a comment on Obama’s statement about Ukraine during his address.
The response was signed by deputy State Department spokesperson Mark Toner.
“The President was referring in his remarks to Russia’s previous long-term efforts to bolster the regime of former President Yanukovych as a way to prevent Ukraine from pursuing further integration with Europe, and its current occupation of Crimea, extensive efforts to support armed groups operating in eastern Ukraine, and other efforts to destabilize the country,” the statement read.
So, in other words, President Obama and his key advisors forgot that Russian lapdog Yanukovych was deposed in January 2014, 100 Ukrainians paid with their lives to ensure the success of the Revolution of Dignity, Ukraine is seeking its rightful place among EU countries, Petro Poroshenko is President, and Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago.
The explanation also highlighted Washington’s support for Ukraine during the past two years by pointing out that “the United States has worked closely with our European and international partners to help Ukraine defend its democracy and territorial integrity.”
The State Department then assured the reporter that Washington “remains firmly committed to helping the Ukrainian people build a country that is peaceful, prosperous, and free to chart its own destiny.”
That same day, January 13, Obama called Vladimir Putin in an effort to find a solution to what Washington stubbornly calls a “crisis.” This crisis has claimed the lives of more than 9,000 Ukrainian civilians and soldiers.
The official readout of the call stated: “President Obama spoke today by phone with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. President Obama emphasized the importance of working towards a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine through full implementation of the Minsk agreements by all parties.”
I have addressed the hopelessness of a diplomatic solution as well as the pointlessness of the Minsk agreements in previous blogs.
The readout further states: “The President underscored that the key next step is for the sides to reach agreement on the modalities of local elections in the Donbas region of Ukraine, which must meet Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe standards.”
President Obama’s support for dubious local elections in eastern Ukraine undercuts anything that Kyiv and supportive global leaders might initiate for first expelling Russia from Ukraine and then returning the oblasts and Ukraine to normalcy.
Speaking with reporters, press secretary Josh Earnest revealed without explanation that what was missing from the readout was that Putin and Obama “spent a significant portion” of the time discussing the need for Russians to live up to the Minsk commitments. A waste of time because Russia is not known for living up to its commitments, especially if they don’t ultimately favor its goals.
President Obama plainly shouldn’t talk about Ukraine without a great deal of coaching. The State of the Union 2016 demonstrated that Ukraine is not top of mind in the White House, where the feeling is throw Ukraine, Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans a bone by merely uttering the word “Ukraine” without consideration for facts or consequences.President Obama must weigh each word he says about Ukraine and other vital issues because he doesn’t have the luxury of explanations, excuses, exonerations, clarifications or corrections. Allies, foes and voters are listening. After all, he is the President of the United States, not Freedonia.