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LYONS: Obama’s foreign-policy ‘flexibility’ seen as weakness

U.S. adversaries are watching the timid response in Ukraine

- - Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The administration Kabuki dance we're witnessing featuring U.S. refusal to provide nonlethal support equipment for Ukraine is President Obama displaying the new "flexibility" he promised Vladimir Putin he would have after his re-election. In short, it is capitulation.

The administration is trying to make the case that by showing restraint, Mr. Obma will encourage Mr. Putin, the Russian president, to be more willing to negotiate. The mind boggles. What's taking place in Ukraine has far-reaching implications for the United States and our allies in both Europe and the Far East.

The apparent lack of support from NATO's political leadership to help Ukraine maintain its sovereignty is clearly tied to its dependence on Russia for more than 30 percent of their energy requirements. This compromised position was accepted based on the assumption that European security after the Cold War could be guaranteed (with reduced defense budgets) by engaging Russia, not confronting it.

This now appears to be a costly error, since it has been known for some time that NATO's engagement policies have not required Russia's reciprocity. However, one positive outcome of the current crisis should be an unmistakable wake-up call for NATO, as its credibility is clearly being challenged.

The administration's rationale for not providing nonlethal equipment, such as night-vision devices, body armor, medical kits, uniforms, boots and military socks to the "victim" is that it could be perceived by Russia as "destabilizing" and as a "force-multiplier," and, therefore, too provocative. This is nonsense. Russia has deployed 40,000 fully equipped, modernized troops backed up by tanks, aircraft and helicopters, plus paid KGB goon squads that are creating havoc in Eastern Ukraine.

Mr. Obama responds by debating whether to provide what amounts to humanitarian aid because he doesn't want to encourage Ukraine's leadership to take more aggressive action to protect its sovereignty. With this type of convoluted thinking, we'd better hope that this administration and its national security team never gets us into a war that requires real leadership.

What is behind such thinking? Is Mr. Obama concerned that Mr. Putin will somehow scuttle his precious P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations — the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain and France — plus Germany) negotiations with Iran over its nuclear-weapons program? We can only hope that Mr. Putin would take such an action, as those negotiations are nothing but a sham. According to Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in about two weeks, once the order is given.

Symptomatic of the Ukraine crisis, no matter where you look, the United States is seen as being in retreat. The stability that America brought to the global strategic equation is being systematically dismantled by the Obama administration, principally by the unilateral disarmament of our military forces.

The Ukraine situation is far from being resolved. China is flexing its military muscle in the Far East. The Middle East remains in chaos. Iran's nuclear-weapons capability is almost a certainty. With the unpredictability of North Korea, why would the Obama administration at this time make the shocking announcement of deep cuts to the U.S. nuclear forces, four years ahead of the 2010 New START treaty schedule?

Our most secure deterrent, our strategic ballistic-missile submarines, will be reduced by 28 percent by having the capability of 56 launch strikes disabled. Thirty B-52 strategic bombers will be converted to conventional use, which represents a 38 percent reduction in capability, and 50 missiles will be removed from our underground silos, which is the most vulnerable leg of the triad.

With every nuclear power in the world modernizing its strategic forces, particularly Russia and China, plus the known fact that Russia has been cheating on existing treaties, making such a dramatic force-reduction announcement now is more than troubling.

The Obama administration is taking the United States down a course that will put us in an absolute nuclear inferiority position with regard to Russia and perhaps China. It is jeopardizing our national security.

With the United States' strategic policy adrift, Mr. Putin is controlling events in the Ukraine. With basically no opposition, he will certainly seek more opportunities. In the Far East, we can anticipate that China, seeing our basic inability to respond to the Ukraine crisis, will seize the opportunity to absorb some low-hanging fruit in the South China Sea, most likely contested Philippine islands.

What will it take to make Congress exercise its constitutional responsibilities and maintain its legitimacy by acting in the best interest of the United States? We are being challenged, and we cannot afford to continue to embrace a fantasy foreign policy.

James A. Lyons, U.S. Navy retired admiral, was commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and senior U.S. military representative to the United Nations.