The Realist Prism: On Ukraine, Obama Tethered to Domestic Politics

The Realist Prism: On Ukraine, Obama Tethered to Domestic Politics
Photo: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Washington D.C., March 12, 2014 (U.S. State Department photo).
Acting Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk traveled to Washington on Wednesday to plead for urgent U.S. help for his country, especially emergency assistance in coping with the country’s dire economic straits. Yet two polls of U.S. public opinion released this week will be little comfort to those pundits who advocate a more assertive American foreign policy, particularly in dealing with the current crisis in Ukraine. The Pew Center released data indicating that 56 percent of Americans eschew any major U.S. involvement in Ukraine, especially in confronting Russia over the situation in Crimea. A related CNN poll reveals only 6 percent agreeing with the proposition that the United States would face a crisis if Crimea were to be annexed by Russia—and 52 percent are against giving U.S. economic aid to the new administration in Kiev. This does not mean that Americans believe that Russia should pay no price for what has transpired; the CNN poll indicated that 59 percent of Americans would support imposing sanctions on Moscow. The flip side is that nearly 40 percent opposed even these measures, not surprising given that some major U.S. companies, particularly in the energy, automotive and consumer goods sectors, either have large investments in Russia or have benefited from the growing demand of a rising Russian middle class. And despite a steady stream of U.S. politicians and opinion leaders proclaiming Russian President Vladimir Putin to be the next Hitler and ominously warning of the grave danger in letting Russian actions in Crimea go unchallenged, interrupting commerce seems to be as far as most Americans are willing to go. There is almost no appetite for risking a military confrontation over something that most Americans do not see as a vital interest. There is, of course, a silver lining. The Pew poll indicates that respondents who indicated that they are closely following the news from Ukraine are more likely to support a more robust response, with 47 percent favoring strong action. Yet those who considered Ukraine to be the most important story of the week—28 percent—were still outweighed by those who see domestic issues as paramount; 50 percent indicated that the news that keeps them up at night is the state of the economy or how Obamacare will play out. This tracks with the CNN data; only 28 percent agreed with the proposition that the primary goal of U.S. foreign policy ought to be the maintenance of international peace and security. Instead, nearly 70 percent chose the response that it should be about protecting the U.S. homeland. What is striking about these numbers is that they correspond with where public opinion stood on the eve of planned U.S. military operations against Syria last fall in response to the use of chemical weapons. Only a minority were in favor of direct action, with most inclined to the view that the matter did not directly impact U.S. interests—and thus worried that American involvement in the Syrian conflict might carry significant costs. Domestic political considerations ultimately led the White House to abandon its plans for air strikes, to drop efforts to get Congress to share responsibility for any intervention in Syria and finally to embrace the Russian proposal for Syrian chemical disarmament. Today, the discussion of an aid package for Ukraine and what measures to take against Russia is also occurring against the backdrop of domestic politics. It appears to be very difficult to generate enthusiasm for a large bailout package for Ukraine when so much attention has been paid to slashing spending for domestic projects at home, trimming the military and reducing the deficit. So far, the aid package proposed by the administration that is making its way through Congress consists mainly of loan guarantees—not direct, unrestricted aid and certainly nowhere near what Ukraine needs. (The hope is that the European Union and the IMF can provide most of the funds.) On a separate note, talk about using the shale gas boom in the United States to undercut Russian gas supplies to Europe also runs into domestic issues—from the unwillingness of many localities in the U.S. to build gas export terminals to the desire to save that gas for domestic manufacturing. This domestic political element was brought into even sharper relief by Tuesday’s special congressional election in Florida’s 13th district, which many saw as a bellwether for the 2014 midterm elections. A very strong Democratic candidate, former gubernatorial contender Alex Sink, was defeated by a Republican lobbyist, David Jolly, in a district that appeared to favor the Democratic camp. The loss was a wake-up call to both the Democratic Party and the White House, which is counting on holding its majority in the Senate and retaking control of the House of Representatives. It highlights the difficulties other Democrats will face this November, especially in “swing” districts. Crimea, Ukraine and Syria did not feature in the special election campaign. The focus was overwhelmingly domestic issues—the slow economic recovery and the problems associated with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, the political team in the White House, which last September changed the course of Syria policy, is going to closely monitor how U.S. public opinion trends when it comes to Ukraine—and push against any policy options that might be seen as damaging to the overarching goal of retaking Congress. To some extent, the Obama administration has been trapped by its own rhetoric. The president’s 2011 call for winding down overseas interventions in order to concentrate on “nation building at home” resonates with many Americans. Moreover, the old rhetorical standbys that have rallied public opinion for overseas action in the past—stopping the next Hitler, imminent peril for the homeland and the chance to spread democracy—have lost their luster. Disillusionment with the Libya venture—where despite early talk about leading from behind the U.S. bore most of the costs, and where the initial sense of victory quickly faded—has soured the public on further adventures. When it came to Syria, or now to Ukraine, many want to see the immediate neighbors in Europe and the Middle East do more. Americans are not turning isolationist, despite the cries of alarm from some pundits, but they are becoming much more selective in where and when they want the U.S. to be engaged. If the Obama administration wants to embark on a more activist foreign policy when it comes to Ukraine, or any other part of the world, it will have to make a more compelling case. So far, an increasingly skeptical public is not buying. Nikolas K. Gvosdev is the former editor of the National Interest and a frequent foreign policy commentator in both the print and broadcast media. He is currently on the faculty of the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own and do not reflect those of the Navy or the U.S. government. His weekly WPR column, The Realist Prism, appears every Friday.

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