Picking up on a theme I wrote about (wow!) ten years ago . . . the press and talking heads still seem to be obsessed with "signalling" and "messages" and "perceived weakness" as if global politics were Kibuki theater and not a pursuit of real, material advantages.
Part of this is because theater is something we all understand. We all watch TV and we all are familiar with the images of power and gamesmanship we've seen on shows like the West Wing. Very few of us are familiar with the real stakes in international politics and the cards in the hands of the multitudinous players. So it is far easier for us and far easier for our hired storytellers to tell the story of international conflict as a continuation of West Side Story, where there are no stakes to speak of, just posturing, pointless risks and revenge. Conflict boiled down to pure image is something we can all understand.
And there is another side to this as well. International politics, like poker, is about maturely accepting the right losses. For a long time the US had such strong hands that it seldom had to do this--we could chase most pots, because we had the good cards. Today, the good cards are spread around the table. We've still getting good hands, but we have be a bit more careful how we play.
This conflicts pretty seriously with our self-image, though. We usually think of ourselves not as a player at the table, but as above the game--as an officiator or policeman who governs the game. Well, we're not. We cannot control how other people play their hands. Which means that we will lose some pots. We have to accept this.
We also have to accept that the behavior of others is NOT a mere reflection of our behavior, of our "perceived weakness" or "perceived strength." The other players have hands that they can play and multiple interest groups and audiences to whom they are playing.
Did Putin invade Ukraine because he thought the US was weak? The way you answer that question isn't to ask "Well do I think we look weak?" The question is about Putin, about Putin's interests and Putin's perceptions. So, assuming Putin wanted to act to keep Ukraine within his sphere of influence, what had he to fear from the United States? Chest thumping from the President? I am skeptical that Putin actually fears that. Armed intervention? Well that's be something to fear, but clearly that has never been in the cards anyhow. Not under Bush, not under Obama. Sanctions? Well, only a moron would have expected these not to come, and they will. And as the Europeans begin to really consider what a belligerent and expansionist Russia means to their interests, we will see those sanctions get pretty tough, particularly if Russia pushes its advantage in the region (they're already there, we & the Europeans aren't) too far.
So why now? Because we look weak now? No:Because up until now, Russia had a compliant regime in place in the Ukraine. They had been using all sorts of covert means to ensure that was the case. Why didn't they intervene during the last pro-Western regime was in power--they did, refusing to sell gas to the Ukraine. But during the last pro-Western regime nothing of a lasting change was made as the pro-Western forces spent a great deal of time fighting each other.
Now the Ukraine–European Union Association Agreement is on the table. That could turn into a lasting change of orientation for Ukraine. That changes things. That makes Putin willing to seize the pretext of constitutional crisis in Ukraine to take what he can, in spite of the risk of sanctions. Taking this opportunity has shored up his power base at home and may get him a naval base and, perhaps, in the end, a satellite country to his west. The cost for all of this will be more or less the same cost he'd have paid under Bush--sanctions and a more hostile posture from the US and many of its allies.
Under either President, the maintenance of that hostile posture would have been difficult--the Europeans have complicated interests and fears in regard to Russia. Under Bush that would have been compounded by the fact that they despised him and his chest-thumping. (See, for instance, the amount of cooperation he attained for his Iraq invasion).
Bush's approach would probably have been to loudly declare that any Europeans not going along with the strictest possible sanctions regime were miserable appeasers and we'd no doubt seen plenty of tiresome clips of Neville Chamberlain and "Peace in Our Time." We'd have looked like "leaders." Administration officials would have taken every opportunity to bask in their Churchill, but such an approach would have distracted the Europeans: their hate and resentment of us coming to the forefront just as we'd like them to be focused on their fear and loathing of Putin. Our image: tough guy defenders of freedom. Their image: vacillators. End result: Russia goes largely unpunished. So if image is your be all, end all. We win. But if the point is to discourage people like Putin from misbehaving . . . we haven't accomplished the goal, we've only covered over our failure with a lot of posturing.
Obama takes a quieter approach, and in this case that's all for the good. By NOT being the leader, by NOT calling attention to our brave opposition stance, by NOT calling any who disagree miserable appeasers, by NOT becoming the issue, he lets the Europeans concentrate on Russia and come to their own conclusions. And they are: Putin is scary.
Probable result: US image: lots of hand-wringing over not "leading"; European image: determined; probable result: some pretty stiff sanctions, significant cooperation between US & the rest of NATO to stem the threat posed by Russia.
If you are concerned only about image, this is bad. We aren't leading (to a failed outcome), we're merely influencing (to a desirable outcome).
Always playing to our self-image is like going all-in on every hand in poker. It's a stupid way to play. Image is only one factor in winning at this game. Over the long haul you win by advancing your interest with reasonable expenditure of resources. That means walking away from some pots; that means letting the bad guys win sometimes; that means letting YOUR calculation of interest determine your behavior, and not being a predictable slave to some notion of credibility that is easily manipulated by the other players.
All of the hand-wringing over our "image" and how, apparently that's all that matters in foreign policy is hand-wringing by cynics (who know better, but who also know that most people DO NOT know better) and the many naifs who can only understand cheap melodrama, not actual politics.