The White House Needs to Shut Up

Every time the administration opens its mouth, it's only making things worse in Ukraine.    

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The Obama White House cannot resist the temptation to parade its every move in the Ukraine crisis — much to the detriment of its policy succeeding. This is an indiscipline born of self-regard: The White House thinks the president is so compelling and so central to the narrative that his every utterance is advantageous. And, of course, this is an administration in which no national security issue is assessed innocent of domestic political impact. They are failing to understand that by making the crisis so personal, the United States is doing a disservice to the people of Ukraine and making it much more difficult for the Russians to walk back their reckless grab for Crimea.

The White House not only tells reporters when the president talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but then spills the contents of the phone calls. So we know they talked for 90 minutes on Saturday, March 1, and again five days later when President Barack Obama told Putin, according to a White House readout, that "Russia’s actions are in violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which has led us to take several steps in response, in coordination with our European partners." The president himself stepped up to the mic that same day to say, "We are well beyond the days when borders can be redrawn over the heads of democratic leaders."

But it is a mystery why this White House thinks any of this will soften Putin’s resolve to see this gambit through. Maybe Obama thinks pious reassertion of Western values will cement European support for economic sanctions on Moscow (that will hit their economies, but not America’s). In any event, the White House seems not to appreciate that the president’s statement is factually untrue, as Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 actually did redraw borders over the head of a democratic leader, and this very administration did precious little to penalize a Russia with which it wanted to "reset" relations on more positive footing.

Moreover, let’s recall just how much moral, if not legal, ambiguity we face in this crisis. The United States has sided with people who just overthrew a democratically elected government — the protests in Kiev overturned a democratic process, just as the protests in Cairo ousted President Mohamed Morsi. So the administration looks to be on pretty thin ice when it touts the unassailability of democratic processes. It not only makes the United States look hypocritical — the country only respects the rules when they produce outcomes it likes — but it also gives credence to the upcoming plebiscite in Crimea. All the White House grandstanding has painted its policy into a corner: The United States is now in the position of arguing against the will of the majority in Crimea to protect the will of the majority in Kiev.

The more the administration makes the crisis in Ukraine about a conflict between the West and Russia, the less likely Moscow is to accede to Washington’s preferred outcome. Secretary of State John Kerry understands this, but the White House keeps interjecting the "President vs. Putin" story line, which only tempts journalists with "can he deliver the West?" articles. What Obama should be doing instead is putting the challenges of Ukraine in the center of the picture. This is a state that struggles to be a nation, with a deeply corrupt leadership that has bankrupted a wealthy country and with low levels of social trust between its eastern and western populations. Moreover, it’s clear the new legislature in Kiev did set off alarms in Crimea that its opening effort to outlaw the speaking of Russian; that doesn’t justify the Kremlin’s aggression, but it does give some context for fears of Ukrainians in the east of the country.

The best way forward in this crisis is to focus our immediate attention on putting Ukraine in a position to elect a legislature broadly representative of the country. That goes both at the national level, where parliamentary elections are scheduled for May 25, and regionally in Crimea, where a snap vote on separation from Ukraine will be held on March 16. In that narrow window of time we should be racing to address legitimate Crimean concerns, flood the zone with international observers of every stripe to provide information and bear witness to events, deeply engage with leaders on all sides to condition their behavior by making clear our responses to a variety of outcomes, and publicly support principled policies that reassure the losers of elections that their rights will still be respected. Rather than declaring, as Obama did, the Crimean plebiscite illegal, we should do what democracies do: win the argument.

Now is the time to unleash Jimmy Carter on Crimea! And not in terms of Obama’s policy, but in a legion of international observers who will inform the world and scold the parties to the conflict to behave consistent with international norms. Where is Code Pink putting daisies in the rifles of Russian soldiers? Where are business reports that Gazprom being an arm of the Russian state should attract more regulatory attention and less investment? We so seldom actually use these tools of free societies to our advantage. Let’s see how the Russians manage when faced with the real power of the West: not governments, but civil society.

Once Ukraine is on more stable footing we can turn our attention to the dish best served cold: retaliation against Putin and his cronies for their bare-knuckled attempt to establish "protection of Russians" as the basis for intimidating neighbors. Putin has already achieved a valuable aim: showing the region what Russia is capable of. As authoritarians understand much better than do those of us who live in secure freedom, once you instill fear in people, it actually doesn’t take much repression to sustain it. By asserting the primacy of Russians’ rights wherever they reside, he has cast a self-censoring shadow into the politics of the Baltic states. The Obama administration is to be commended for moving swiftly to reassure America’s NATO allies that the United States will defend their territorial integrity; more needs to be done to show the country will also protect their domestic politics from Russian interference.

Instead, however, the White House is madly backgrounding reporters about what the United States is privately demanding of the Russians: The White House said Obama told Putin there still was a way to resolve the situation diplomatically, which would include Kiev and Moscow holding direct talks, international monitors, and Russian forces returning to their bases. There was no indication of Putin’s response.

Putin agreeing to those things — all of which are good policy objectives — will seem a climb down and are, frankly, unlikely. Washington’s smarter move would be to allow the Russians to claim credit for things it wants to have happen. But this is a White House that can’t even give credit to allies for their work in Libya and Mali; there’s no chance this White House is able to get past the effrontery of Russian snubs to achieve bigger objectives.

The White House is still trying to outrun its self-characterization of "leading from behind" by showing the president to be an active, forceful presence in the Ukraine crisis. It’s still trying to dig him out of the embarrassment of his unwillingness to enforce his red line on Syria. In other words, the White House is fighting the last war. This political solipsism is actually making this potential war more likely and making less likely an outcome consistent with U.S. interests and those of the people of Ukraine. The president needs to discipline himself to stop talking and start doing the small things that can be done.

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake