REPRISE—Appeasement in the West: Clueless Obama assures Russia the U.S. rules out the use of force in Ukraine

First published on March 20, 2014

President Barack Obama and top military leaders in the U.S. know nothing of the “coercive diplomacy” which Stanford political scientist Alexander George persuasively demonstrated has helped the U.S. avoid armed conflict on a number of occasions.

In his efforts to influence Putin’s calculus, Obama does not believe it is useful to maintain doubt in Putin’s mind as to whether the U.S. or NATO might respond with military force if, for example, Russia were to invade the rest of the Ukraine.

Obama pursued the same course in Syria, repeatedly reassuring his opponents (in Damascus, Moscow and Tehran), through his own statements or those of top U.S. and NATO military officials, that the U.S. and NATO would not use military force to halt the atrocities in that country.

When pushed into a corner by his own rhetoric about his “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, and his own inaction in the face of smaller-scale attacks with chemical weapons in the months leading up to al-Assad’s attack at Ghouta on August 21, 2014, he made preparations to launch cruise missile and other attacks against Syria. In the weeks leading up to the point of decision, the press was full of leaks about the nature of the strikes being contemplated, including assurances that they would not involve major or extended military action.

When the moment came to launch even these self-described minimal strikes, Obama flinched, and did not order the strikes. Instead, without consulting his top military and civilian advisors, he threw the hot potato to Congress for authorization, which he had to know was unlikely, while grasping at the lifeline Russia threw to him to remove chemical weapons from Syria. The agreement brokered by John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov in Geneva and subsequently endorsed by the U.N. Security Counci, was reached in exchange for what has amounted to a policy of allowing al-Assad to remain in power and to continue his commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity on a very broad scale.

Obama apparently never heard of the old boxer’s maxim, “Never telegraph your punches.”

We are left with a leadership in the U.S, and Europe (except for France) of “hybrid” pacifists, who are unwilling to even think of the use of force to defend fundamental principles of the U.N. Charter and international law, and the Enlightenment values of individual freedom and respect for fundamental human rights (e.g., the right not to be tortured, or the right to trial by an independent judge), or indeed against the military seizure and annexation of the territory of another state.

They are “hybrid” pacifists because they will use force on a limited scale in Africa with Security Council authorization, but remain unwilling to consider the use of force in a major way to defend their most important national interests.

As the pacifists in Washington and Europe reassure Putin that they are not even considering the use of military force, no matter what he does, an entire civilization opens itself to the depredations of authoritarian rogue states like Russia, and a brutal reshaping of the political and economic order established and maintained for the last 70 years following plans for and the establishment of the United Nations.

Ronald Reagan in Berlin challenged the Soviet Union to “Tear down this wall!” Now Obama and the other pacifist leaders of the West reassure Putin and Russia (and China) that they will not even consider using force to defend their vital interests, no matter what Russia does, as new walls go up.

The sanctions for the miltary takeover of the Crimea hardly amounted to “a slap on the wrist”. The expansion of those sanctions to include additional targeted individuals and now a bank are more serious, but still unlikely to prevent Putin from further mischief in the Ukraine and with its economy over the next year or so, when the concentrated attention of the West has dissipated and things have returned to business as usual. There is no leverage to force Russia through negotiations to disgorge the Crimea. Thus, a military invasion and anexation of the territory of another state is likely to be left standing, in Europe.

Appeasement continues, as Russia and China urgently work on a treaty of alliance that would profoundly disrupt and reshape the postwar political and legal order. Meanwhile, the President of the European Parliament urgently warns of war in Europe if stiffer sanctions against Russia are not adopted.

Russian aggression. Tanks and rockets, and in the background rockets with nuclear weapons. Pacifist and clueless leaders in the West, determined to pursue–and to telegraph to Russia–a policy of appeasement in the face of Putin’s military threats.

The Trenchant Observer

Der Scharfsinniger Beobachter
L’Obervateur Incisif
El Observador Incisivo

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.