While the situation is no laughing matter, with all Russian moves pointing towards an indefinite Russian occupation of Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and perhaps an eventual annexation, Ukraine is treated like a game by many leaders in the US – a partisan game.
Consider Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina yesterday.
The connection of Benghazi to Russian President Vladimir Putin's decision to invade Crimea, in particular, is risible. Senator Graham's implication is that if President Barack Obama had extracted a "price" over the terrorist attack that left the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead in 2013 then Mr. Putin would have responded to the ouster of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych differently.
Why on earth would he? Mr. Graham doesn't say. But the suggestion – which just sort of lies there without him coming right out and saying it – is that if Obama was more willing to use force in foreign affairs, then Putin would have feared an American reaction to his taking control of Crimea, home to a major Russian naval base and a large number of citizens who view themselves as Russian. The place is also on Russia's doorstep.
There is no logical reason to think Graham is right. The US under Obama, after all, stretched a United Nations Security Council resolution on protecting civilians in Libya beyond the breaking point to support an air campaign that helped Libya's ragtag militias overthrow Muammar Qaddafi. Had Obama, say, sent a bunch of cruise missiles to Benghazi or Derna, another city in eastern Libya, in response to a terrorist attack, it would have hardly done much to burnish the national reputation for bellicosity.
But so what if it had? Russia has a vast nuclear arsenal, pretty much immunizing it from attack by the US or any other fellow nuclear power (leaving aside the question of what vital US interest is in Ukraine worth going to war with Russia).
Syria? As with Libya, and unlike Russia, the US could use force there with reasonable impunity. Arguments can be made that the US should have used force in Syria, as can counterarguments. But to go from that to saying Putin would have calculated Russia's interests in its own near abroad differently is a stretch even greater than the stretching of UNSC 1973 over Libya (which heightened Putin's belief that the US and its allies are deceitful).
The fact is any US president from either party would be reacting to unfolding events in Ukraine much as Obama has. Were diplomatic and intelligence mistakes made over this issue? Almost certainly. Just as diplomatic and intelligence mistakes have been made in the American approach to Russia with great regularity since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago.
But the imperative to avoid military escalation between countries with vast nuclear arsenals remains as clear today as always. Graham undoubtedly knows this, which is why code words like "weak" and "indecisive" are used rather than direct calls for military action.
Nevertheless, bellicosity from powerful US leaders can escalate tensions. And end up making the US look weaker in the long run than a careful, sober approach that asks before speaking: "What can we realistically do?"
The Washington Post's David Ignatius asked Robert Gates, the former defense secretary and CIA veteran, what he makes of the tough talk from the likes of Graham and Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona:
“I think considerable care needs to be taken in terms of what is said, so that the rhetoric doesn’t threaten what policy can’t deliver,” Gates explained in a telephone interview. Russian President Vladimir Putin “holds most of the high cards” in Crimea and Ukraine as a whole. US policy should work to reinforce the security of neighboring states without fomenting a deeper crisis in which Putin will have the advantage.
...I asked Gates what he thought about the criticism of Obama by McCain and Graham. “They’re egging him on” to take actions that may not be effective, Gates warned. He said he “discounted” their deeper argument that Obama had invited the Ukraine crisis by not taking a firmer stand on Syria or other foreign policy issues. Even if Obama had bombed Syria or kept troops in Iraq or otherwise shown a tougher face, “he still would have the same options in Ukraine. Putin would have the same high cards.”
Ukraine is no game. Or rather, it's a game with incredibly high stakes. Expert players required.