President Obama’s West Point commencement speech flunked the civics test. Presidents should be teachers. Because they command public attention as no one else does, they have a unique capacity and therefore a special responsibility to instruct us. They can and should teach us about the circumstances we are in, the problems we face and the principles that ought to guide public action. Such presidential lessons are even more important regarding international affairs because those are indeed ‘foreign’ to us. They deal with issues occurring thousands of miles away in places we barely know exist. Before Putin invaded, how many of us even knew where Crimea was or that it was part of Ukraine?
Ron Paul asked “who cares about the Ukraine?” Obama’s teaching assignment should have been to answer Paul’s question. The West Point speech was billed as a statement of the president’s foreign policy vision. It was prompted in no small measure by the intense criticism his silence on the Ukraine has engendered. Yet Obama taught us nothing about what Putin’s actions mean and what this new crisis signifies. He told us what the Ukraine crisis is not: “this isn’t the Cold War.” But he did not explain what it is.
Perhaps Obama’s reticence stemmed from a desire not to tip the American hand. Too many specifics about what he will and will not do could hamper his negotiating flexibility. But in dealing with the Russians, flexibility can be a hindrance as well as a help. Indeed the chief lesson Obama needed to impart to Americans about dealing with Russia is about how strategic resolve must undergird tactical flexibility. Putin is wily and dealing with him may often require us to act opportunistically. But the remarkable success that the U.S. and its allies have enjoyed in containing Russian aggression since WWII is essentially the result of strategic steadfastness. The NATO allies made an ironclad pledge to attack the Soviets if it committed aggression against any one of them and they have never wavered from that promise.
Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has enlarged beyond the North Atlantic to encompass nations in Eastern Europe previously under Soviet thrall. Ukraine is not a member of NATO but what Putin has done there places nearby NATO members under grave threat. Poland is Ukraine’s next door neighbor. Every inch of Ukrainian territory that Russia gobbles up lessens the distance Russian tanks would have to travel to invade it. Like Eastern Ukraine, the Baltic States, also NATO members, contain large numbers of ethnic Russians. Putin’s rationale for aiding the Russian speaking Eastern Ukrainian separatists was that they were being oppressed by the Ukrainian government. He could well use the same rationale as an excuse for committing aggression in the Baltics. At West Point Obama should have told Americans that as much as we empathize with the Ukrainians, our deepest reason for punishing Putin is to protect our Eastern European NATO allies.
In this crisis, Obama has proven to be a better commander than educator in chief. He has taken several significant steps to punish Putin and aid Ukraine. But he has not helped Americans to understand the full significance of those policies. He has not explained to them that these actions constitute but one episode in an ongoing saga, the education of Vladimir Putin. To help us grasp the full import of this story, he should characterize Putin for us. He should make clear that Putin is power hungry but not crazy. Putin will not take crazy risks. If Putin pays a sufficiently high price for his Ukraine gambit he will be far more cautious in his approach to the other nations he craves to conquer. Obama should help Americans understand that teaching Putin tough lessons in Ukraine is the best way to deter Russian aggression against Poland and the Baltics. Our NATO pledge must indeed remain sacred, but Obama should teach Americans that their unswerving support for strong containment policies today is the best insurance against having to take truly dangerous and dire actions tomorrow.