Russian “Invasion” or Incursion” in Ukraine? Obama and the primacy of words over actions

Barack Obama, as noted here before, places the highest priority on words, and conducting foreign policy through words, not actions.

See “ISIS or ISIL? A telling tale of the primacy of words over actions in Obama’s foreign policy,” The Trenchant Observer, uJune 19, 2014.

Now, with respect to the Ukraine, Obama is trying to be cute with words, refusing to characterize Russia’s invasion of the eastern Ukraine as an “invasion”, because of the pressures the use of that term could generate for him to take forceful action against Russia.

See Erin McCarthy, “So Far, NATO and U.S. Avoid ‘Invasion’ Talk,” Wall street Journal, August 28, 2014 (6:49 pm ET).

Peter Baker of the New York times quoted some of the president’s statements before the press Thursday, and also described differences between Obama and some of his key advisors.

Mr. Obama seemed equally intent on managing expectations about what the United States may do in response to reports that Russia has sent forces into Ukraine. Although he said he expected to impose additional sanctions, he declined to call Russia’s latest moves an invasion, as Ukraine and others have, saying they were “not really a shift” but just “a little more overt” form of longstanding Russian violations of Ukrainian sovereignty.

“I consider the actions that we’ve seen in the last week a continuation of what’s been taking place for months now,” Mr. Obama said. “The separatists are backed, trained, armed, financed by Russia. Throughout this process, we’ve seen deep Russian involvement in everything that they’ve done.”

In both cases, Mr. Obama took a strikingly different tone than his own advisers….

–Peter Baker, “Obama Urges Calm in Face of Crises in Ukraine and Syria,” New York Times, August 28, 2014.

Does the President understand what has been going on in the Ukraine while he was on vacation?

The point he is making here, however revealing it may be of Obama’s proclivities toward pacifism and appeasement in the face of Russian aggression, is totally irrelevant in terms of the prohibition against the threat or use of force in the United Nations Charter and international law.

There can be no doubt that the Russian “invasion” or “incursion”, or whatever you want to call it, constitutes an “armed attack” within the meaning of Article 51 of the U.N. Charter, giving rise to the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense” through the use of force.

Any impartial international lawyer would agree that a flagrant violation of the Charter’s prohibitions has been and is taking place.

So what are we to make of the Obama administration’s trying to be cute with words?

One is reminded of Hillary Clinton’s refusal to characterize the genocide by the Sudanese government in the western Darfur region of the country as “genocide”, because to do so would create imperatives to do something about it.

While Obama is being cute with words, he is also not taking meaningful actions to halt and roll back Russian aggression in the Ukraine.

And despite his tough talk on ISIS, or “ISIL” as he prefers to call what has now morphed into what calls itself “the Islamic State”, the White House is now leaking that the bombing campaign against ISIS isn’t going to start any time soon.

Obama not only fails to connect the dots, not understanding how his actions or temporizing on military action against ISIS might affect Putin’s perceptions of his resolve, but also fails to understand the relative importance of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine in comparison with the recent actions of ISIS.

On a day when the U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the invasion in progress by regular Russian troops of the eastern Ukraine, Obama can’t even focus the world’s attention on that enormous development.

The invasion of the Ukraine is by far the most significant challenge facing the West and the civilized nations of the world which don’t invade each other, or want to.

So, what does the President do?

He quibbles about the word “invasion”, while failng to address the impications for the world of Russia’s actions, or to lay out the harsh sanctions the U.S. should be planning to impose on Russia.

His continued use of the vocabulary of cost-benefit analysis (saying Russia will pay additional “costs”) reveals he is still firmly in the grip of “the rational actor fallacy” in dealing with Russia, a country now full of xenophobic nationalism and enthusiasm for aggression, which is under the cunning but demented authoritarian leadership of a former KGB operative who dreams of making history through conquering territories that were formerly part of the Soviet Union (read Russian Empire).

As if this were not proof enough of the President’s cluelessness, and the incompetence of his White House foreign policy team, Obama also admitted today before the cameras that the U.S. does not have a policy on how to deal with ISIS.

This was a shocking admission.

It is hardly excused by the fact that the president has been on vacation for the last two weeks. ISIS took Falluja months ago, and Mosul on June 10, 2014.

When might we expect the Obama administration to come up with a policy?

Democratic political leaders should be gravely concerned. If they don’t do something to reverse the current course of appeasement toward Russia, or the temporizing response to ISIS, they will be extremely vulnerable to a Republican candidate on strong national security platform in the 2016 presidential elections.

Obama lives in his own world, which is hermetically sealed from hearing and having to respond to criticism.

Ask Obama what his three greatest mistakes in foreign policy have been, and he would probably give a carefully calibrated response meant to be politically clever but which is wholly lacking in any genuine admission of error.

He cannot admit that he has made mistakes, because he believes that like a god his analysis and decisions are superior and not susceptible to error. He has thought everything through, or is still in the process, and none of his judgments have been wrong. His critics just don’t understand things as well as he does.

He can’t see or understand the foreign policy mistakes he has made. As a result, there are few grounds for hope that he can correct them.

Because Obama doesn’t respond to criticism, many critics have simply given up. What’s the point?

The point is that an educated citizenry is required for a democracy to work, particularly in the area of foreign policy where voters’ bread and butter concerns are usually not directly related to issues and decisions.

Criticism where due, and praise, are the fuel of democracy, the essential combustible on which it runs.

The Trenchant Observer

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.

Comments are closed.