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March 03, 2014 10:48 AM No Win

By Ed Kilgore

Whatever happens in the latest confrontation over Russia’s relationship with its former colony Ukraine, the one sure thing is this: Barack Obama will be blamed by critics domestic and international for any results deemed adverse, whether or not they were actually avoidable. Check out this passage from Peter Baker’s “foreign policy crisis” piece in the New York Times:

The crisis has trained a harsh spotlight on Mr. Obama’s foreign policy, with critics asserting that he has been too passive.
Mr. [Bob] Corker traced the origins of Mr. Putin’s brash invasion to September when, in the face of bipartisan opposition in Congress, Mr. Obama pulled back from plans to conduct an airstrike on Syria in retaliation for a chemical-weapons attack on civilians. Instead, he accepted a Russian offer to work jointly to remove the chemical weapons.
“Ever since the administration threw themselves into the arms of Russia in Syria to keep from carrying out what they said they would carry out, I think, he saw weakness,” Mr. Corker said of Mr. Putin. “These are the consequences.”

So the let’s-blame-Obama meme is following the trajectory Kevin Drum laid out on Saturday:

1. Vladimir Putin will do something belligerent. (Already done.)
2. Republicans will demand that we show strength in the face of Putin’s provocation. Whatever it is that we’re doing, we should do more.
3. President Obama will denounce whatever it is that Putin does. But regardless of how unequivocal his condemnation is, Bill Kristol will insist that he’s failing to support the democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people.
4. Journalists will write a variety of thumbsuckers pointing out that our options are extremely limited, what with Ukraine being 5,000 miles away and all.
5. John McCain will appear on a bunch of Sunday chat shows to bemoan the fact that Obama is weak and no one fears America anymore.
6. Having written all the “options are limited” thumbsuckers, journalists and columnists will follow McCain’s lead and start declaring that the crisis in Ukraine is the greatest foreign policy test of Obama’s presidency. It will thus supplant Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iran, and North Korea for this honor.
7. In spite of all the trees felled and words spoken about this, nobody will have any good ideas about what kind of action might actually make a difference. There will be scattered calls to impose a few sanctions here and there, introduce a ban on Russian vodka imports, convene NATO, demand a UN Security Council vote, etc. None of this will have any material effect.
8. Obama will continue to denounce Putin. Perhaps he will convene NATO. For their part, Republicans will continue to insist that he’s showing weakness and needs to get serious.
This will all continue for a while.

Actually, Obama administration figures John Kerry and Chuck Hagel largely preempted Republicans on yesterday’s Sunday shows, but the Loyal Opposition is definitely out there howling about “weakness,” as the Corker quote, and various comments by the Amigos McCain and Graham (“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression”), are illustrating. As for Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard is featuring a podcast with the calm and balanced headline: “Ukraine After Five Years of Weakness.”

To extend Kevin’s line of prophecy, if Obama and Kerry continue to do exactly what Republicans are asking them to do in threatening concrete actions against Russia, they will then be accused of promising more than they are willing to deliver—you know, being so notoriously “weak” and all.

It is truly a no-win situation for the administration.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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