President Barack Obama is at the Hague trying to build unity among European allies for tough sanctions against Russia for its abuse of Ukraine. Hanging over his effort will be the question of why Obama didn’t shore up support at home for his foreign policy with Congress?
Surely he would be in a much stronger position in talking to European leaders, many wary of endangering trade, commercial and energy ties with Moscow, if he could point to a public display of bipartisan resolve with leaders of Congress. In times of overseas crisis — and Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea is that — a president is wise to orchestrate homefront solidarity before launching foreign policy initiatives.
All evidence points to Russian President Vladimir Putin doing just that before he ordered troops to take over Crimea and organized a sham vote of residents of the peninsula, a majority of them ethnic Russians, asking for Moscow to annex Crimea. Putin had Russia’s media, most of it friendly or controlled by him, to whip up passions among Russians against America and for retaking an area long Russian until given by the Soviet Union to Ukraine in 1954. Being an authoritarian ruler, Putin had his secret police suppress dissenting voices.
Obama has his own problems with war-weary Americans cautious about venturing into a fight far away. A CNN poll found 75 percent of Americans against sending military weapons and supplies to Ukraine and 52 percent opposed to even providing economic aid to the beleaguered government in Kiev.
Clearly Obama left the home front less than completely secured before heading to Europe.
Americans tend to rally behind a president during times of foreign trouble. Polling does show majority support for diplomatic and economic sanctions against Moscow.
Yet Obama has done little to mobilize public opinion, mostly confining himself to public warnings to Putin, with little effect. Putin annexed Crimea, had his troops overwhelm Ukrainian forces there and massed Russian soldiers along Ukraine’s eastern border, raising fears of a further invasion.
Calling leaders from Capitol Hill to the White House is an obvious way to build support. But Obama has only disdain for Republicans, and they reciprocate the feeling. Still, strong bipartisan sentiment against Russia’s violation of international norms exists and Obama could have harnessed it.
Not doing so has had the unhappy effect of seeing an economic aid package to Kiev stall in the Senate. The House passed a bill authorizing a $1 billion loan guarantee. But the usual stalemate ensued when Obama and Senate Democrats insisted on adding a provision to achieve a long-sought goal to overhaul the International Monetary Fund, which Republicans oppose.
The unfortunate result was that Obama traveled to Europe seeking unity there without exercising the leadership required to demonstrate unity at home.
European nations already were bickering behind the scenes over how to apportion the economic pain sure to come from tough sanctions against Russia. Ukraine is disappointed Obama turned down its request that the United States supply its forces with small arms. Obama is taking hits from Republicans who see weakness in his response to overseas crises.
Only Putin can take pleasure from such disarray.
Strength, like charity, begins at home.