With the help of an impatient news media, a global taste for drama and Russia’s provocative posturing in the Ukraine, the White House is now wedged in the put up or shut up position. Are we in a Cold War now? A Cool War? Maybe it’s just tepid.
War and the rumors of war, like relationships, are complicated these days. Choices are many. Threats of economic sanctions, stern warnings and the withdrawal of diplomatic officials may or may not dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin. Blunt force is effective, but not always efficient.
The mere suggestion of blunt force and dire consequences, however, has been helpful in the past. Recall that strategic deterrence and the old Strategic Air Command’s “peace through strength” motto persevered in difficult decades, back when Russia was the Soviet Union. But wait. There’s already some strategic deterrence afoot. Consider that when Mr. Putin simply parks a warship in Cuba or assembles black-clad, unidentified troops somewhere, he gets much press, and worries challengers plenty. The Russian president is tactically image-minded: Mr. Putin shaped the opening and closing ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics, which proved to be both global spectacle and handy political vehicle.
Another factor. A little saber rattling goes a long way: It is instantly magnified in the press, and even more so on social media. Why, imagine if Hollywood were to craft a buzzworthy, tweetable message that America’s arsenal and resolve are fully intact. So uh, look out.
“Putin has been very lucky both in his domestic and foreign endeavors, in part because of objective factors — when he took over as acting president in 1999, a barrel of crude averaged around $17 a barrel — and in large measure because his opponents, at home and abroad, were politically or economically handicapped,” points out Leon Aron, director of Russian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in an op-ed for CNN.
“As a result, Putin has trusted his luck and his smarts while counting on his opponents’ weaknesses. This means he has operated in accordance with Napoleon’s principle: On s’engage and puis on voit, which I would translate as ‘First get into a fight, and then decide what to do.’”
Journalists and pundits are already busy crafting the narrative of a possible war, a dress rehearsal, a quagmire, or spat. A sampling of headlines in the last 24 hours: “Who blinks first?” (Reuters); “Make Russia pay? It’s not so simple” (New York Times); “Diplomatic language on Ukraine is short of specifics” (CNN); “Ruble set to weaken” (Businessweek); “Muscovites rally for and against Russia’s move into Ukraine” (Wall Street Journal); “Ukraine’s lesson for Russia” (The Daily Beast); “Ukraine is hopeless but not serious” (PJ Media); and “Why Russia no longer fears the West” (Politico).
JUST SO-SO ON THE THREAT METER
A Gallup poll released Friday reveals that Americans rank Russian military power eighth on a list of nine threats to the vital interests of the U.S., behind international terrorism, Iran’s nuclear weapons and “Islamic fundamentalism,” among other things.
“Russia’s military power is viewed as less of a threat, though the belief that it is a critical threat has been rising over the past decade. Americans are nearly twice as likely to view Russia’s military power as a critical threat now (32 percent) as they were 10 years ago, when 18 percent of Americans said Russian military power was a critical threat, 50 percent said it was important but not critical, and 29 percent said it was not important,” says Gallup analyst Art Swift.
He adds, “Predicting the future is always difficult. Unforeseen crises often occur, while feared, expected events often never materialize.”
CPAC STARTS WITH A PRAYER
Snow has not deterred the Conservative Political Action Conference, now 72 hours away. Indeed, the bodacious three-day CPAC begins each day with a solemn prayer, the presentation of colors and the national anthem, the 12-hour days played out at a dramatic resort on the banks of the Potomac River, just eight miles south of the White House.
The 200 speakers are heavy with conservative icons, outspoken lawmakers and officials, strategists, entrepreneurs, creatives, authors and eager activists, including the young and very hungry.
CPAC’s got some intriguing topics on the agenda. Here’s just three, among dozens: “Falling in Love with America Again” (Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint); “What we can all do to save America’s future” (author Ben Carson); “Conservatives are alive in Hollywood” (filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza, actor Fred Thompson).