Echoes Of History
Published on TheHill.com on March 4, 2014
While many are justifiably criticizing President Obama’s weak response to the Russian invasion of Crimea, we should dig deeper and ask if his undermining of our defense readiness and his policy of soft diplomacy have actually enabled Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the peninsula.
History suggests that when American presidents show weakness, Russia is swift to move in and exploit it. An obvious example is former President Carter’s failure to cope with the Iranian hostage crisis, which played a role in encouraging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev to believe he could get away with invading Afghanistan. But another, even more personal metaphor comes to mind: the way Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev felt he could have his way with the inexperienced new president he faced in 1961.
The first few months of his presidency were not kind to John F. Kennedy. Three months in, he had shown weakness by ordering Cuban exiles to attack at the Bay of Pigs and then failed to order aerial support to the forces trapped on the beach. Then, two months later, President Kennedy met the Soviet leader in Vienna for a summit conference. The new young leader was no match for the wily Soviet tactician. Used to maneuvering around the likes of Stalin, Khrushchev was less than impressed by the young man who confronted him.
After their first session together, Kennedy complained that he had not done well and, reportedly, ordered his doctor to give him shots to improve his energy level. He left Khrushchev with the distinct impression that he was not ready for prime time.
This initial impression of weakness and even naiveté was to have grave consequences that almost plunged the world into war. Within a few months of the Vienna summit, Khrushchev threatened to close the access routes to West Berlin that crossed East German territory. Had he followed through on his threat, the West would have had no alternative but to shoot its way through to supply the isolated but highly symbolic city.
As long as Eisenhower had been president, Khrushchev did not dare to take this fateful step. The former World War II commander could hardly have been accused of naiveté, and a nuclear response was likely to follow any such provocation. But with Kennedy, Khrushchev felt he could take the chance.
The crisis in Berlin forced Kennedy to increase defense spending, call up reserves and threaten a military response, should Khrushchev carry out his threat. The confrontation exposed Soviet weakness and, specifically, its inability to hit the U.S. with nuclear weapons. The resulting outrage among the members of the Soviet Politburo forced Khrushchev’s hand and led to the Cuban missile crisis, which put the world on the brink of nuclear war.
Eventually, Kennedy found his sea legs and adjusted to the powers of his office. Khrushchev was forced to revise his opinion of the young president when Kennedy faced him down and forced him to pull missiles out of Cuba.
Has Putin’s estimate of Obama led directly to his decision to invade Crimea? Did Obama’s inability to stand up to Syrian President Bashar Assad leave the Russian leader with doubts about the American’s strength? Did his decision, right after taking office, to scrap American missile deployment in Eastern Europe — handing Putin his cheapest victory — lead the Russians to question our president’s strategic sense? Did Obama’s cave-in to Iran cause Putin to think he could get away with aggression?
Does Obama’s weakness invite aggression as surely as Neville Chamberlain’s did?
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