Ukraine conflict tests Obama's credibility on the world stage

By: CBS
By: CBS

Washington, DC (CBS) - The crisis in Ukraine has brought out a fresh round of critics of President Obama's foreign policy who see a pattern emerging: the president tries to assert his authority and direct events on the world stage with empty threats, which inevitably have no follow through. With each instance, U.S. power grows weaker as foreign powers view Mr. Obama as the president who cried wolf.

The latest case: Mr. Obama's public warning to Russia to stay out of Ukraine was followed by an invasion just days later.

It's just the latest failure, say critics who point to Syria as an example. As the country spiraled into civil war and evidence emerged that President Bashar Assad had used chemical weapons against his own people - a "red line" the president had laid down in the past - the president went to the Rose Garden and said he planned to seek congressional approval for a military intervention in the region. Less than two weeks later, he had to abandon the option and pursue diplomatic solutions amid low congressional interest. Even now, the Syrian regime has missed deadlines for destroying its chemical weapons stock with little more than a public scolding in return.

And Russia similarly flouted U.S. warnings by sending troops into the Crimean peninsula over the weekend in what Secretary of State John Kerry called "an incredible act of aggression."
"President Obama does have a credibility problem. He talks about a red line in Syria for chemical weapons and then he lets it be blurred. He says that Russia will have to pay costs if it intervenes in Ukraine. And then within hours, the military intervention begins," said Washington Post columnist David Ignatius on CBS News' "Face the Nation" Sunday.

The president isn't even entertaining military options in Ukraine, and is instead looking to isolate Russia and expose its inconsistent rhetoric about sovereignty rights. Kerry has threatened a variety of economic sanctions, and the U.S. has already suspended planning meetings for the June G8 conference scheduled to be held in Sochi, Russia.

Even so, some experts say President Obama is not strong enough to force Russia's hand with just a diplomatic strategy.

"I think that there are numerous non-military options for us out there. The problem is I don't think that the president right now is very credible. And I think that Putin thinks he has got Obama's number. And so he's going to do what he wants to do and dare the president for the next step," said Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Republican leaders in Congress were more blunt in their assessment of the situation on the Sunday talk shows.

"Stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators; it is not your strong suit," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. advised the president on CNN's "State of the Union." "Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., said on "Fox News Sunday" that Russia was "running circles around" the U.S.

"[Russian President Vladimir] Putin is playing chess, and I think we are playing marbles," he said. "And I don't think it's even close," he said, tracing the roots of an emboldened Russia back to the administration's 2009 decision to scrap a proposed Bush-era anti ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

But the fact that the latest crisis has put the U.S. into conflict with Russia adds a fresh dimension to the question of whether the president has a credibility problem on the world stage. Putin has a well-documented history of going to great lengths to preserve his country's sphere of influence in the region, including the use of military operations to combat separatist movements in Chechnya and Georgia, maintaining a troop presence in Moldova, and even working against western intervention in places like Syria.

It's a pattern that precedes Putin, said CBS News National Security Correspondent David Martin on "Face the Nation." He pointed to conflicts dating to the 1960s in Hungary and the former nation of Czechoslovakia, as well as the war with Georgia in 2008.

"When the Soviet Union or Russia feels like the countries on its periphery are threatened, it takes action. And I don't think it really is determined by who is in the White House," Martin said.

Mr. Obama had sought a so-called "reset" of Russian relations during his presidency, a distant memory with every day that has passed in the Ukrainian conflict. Putin's desire to maintain Russia's influence in international affairs may have accelerated a growing loss of power abroad.

"This episode ends any notion that the Russians would be swayed solely by our goodwill on issues of geopolitical import and that the conflicts and tensions of old were of our making," said CBS News senior national security analyst Juan Zarate, the author of the forthcoming book, "Treasury's War: The Unleashing of a New Era of Financial Warfare."

"Now, it will be extremely difficult to push the Russians back. It will take diplomatic and political capital and sacrifice if we are serious. I'm not sure we or the international community have proven we're willing to sacrifice much in recent years -- even in other cases when the costs are lower and the solutions less complicated," Zarate said.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine also came just days after the Obama administration unveiled plans to scale back the Army to its smallest size since the 1930s.

"I think there is perception...that the United States is stepping back, not just in some parts of the world," Pletka said on "Face the Nation."

"One of the reasons that you have a large and a capable and a multi-faceted military is not so you can fight; it's so you don't have to fight. And that deterrent power, I think, is being diminished substantially."
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