WASHINGTON — The president’s demeanor is worrying a lot of people. From the immigration crisis on the Mexican border to the Islamic State rising in Mesopotamia, Barack Obama seems totally detached. When he does interrupt his endless rounds of golf, fundraising and photo ops, it’s for some affectless, mechanical, almost forced public statement.
Regarding Ukraine, his detachment — the rote, impassive voice — borders on dissociation. His U.N. ambassador, Samantha Power, delivers an impassioned denunciation of Russia. Obama cautions that we not “get out ahead of the facts,” as if the facts of this case — Vladimir Putin’s proxies shooting down a civilian airliner — are in doubt.
The preferred explanation for the president’s detachment is psychological. He’s checked out. Given up. Let down and disappointed by the world, he is in withdrawal.
Perhaps. But I’d propose an alternate theory that gives him more credit: Obama’s passivity stems from an idea. When Obama says Putin has placed himself on the wrong side of history in Ukraine, he actually believes it. He disdains realpolitik because he believes that, in the end, such primitive 19th-century notions as conquest are self-defeating. History sees to their defeat.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” is one of Obama’s favorite sayings. Ultimately, injustice and aggression don’t pay. The Soviets saw their 20th-century empire dissolve. More proximally, U.S. gains in Iraq and Afghanistan were, in time, liquidated. Ozymandias lies forever buried and forgotten in desert sands.
Remember when, at the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Obama tried to construct for Putin “an offramp” from Crimea? Absurd as this idea was, I think Obama was sincere. He actually imagined that he’d be saving Putin from himself, that Crimea could only redound against Russia in the long run.
If you really believe this, then there is no need for forceful, potentially risky U.S. counteractions. Which explains everything since: Obama’s pinprick sanctions; his failure to rally a craven Europe; his refusal to supply Ukraine with the weapons it has been begging for.
The shooting down of a civilian airliner seemed to validate Obama’s passivity. “Violence and conflict inevitably lead to unforeseen consequences,” explained Obama. See. You play with fire, it will blow up in your face. Just as I warned. Now world opinion will turn against Putin.
To which I say: So what? World opinion, by itself, is useless: malleable, ephemeral and, unless mobilized by leadership, powerless. History doesn’t act autonomously. It needs agency.
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