- - Tuesday, March 4, 2014

How President Obama deals with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely define his presidency in the history books. After five years of coddling Moscow and its brutal, authoritarian regime, though, there is little confidence left in his leadership.

Washington’s top political and media power centers have reacted to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s audacious military incursion in Crimea by charging that it’s the result of Mr. Obama’s foreign-policy incompetence in an increasingly dangerous world.

America faces, they say, a treacherous foe who thinks the Cold War never ended.

“Obama’s critics assert that this is largely his doing — that his willing acceptance of U.S. retrenchment abroad has opened strategic vacuums into which hostile powers rush and out of which friends tumble. There is some truth in that view,” writes The Washington Post’s veteran foreign-policy analyst Jim Hoagland.

The Obama White House, Mr. Hoagland added, has not adapted to monumental foreign-policy changes abroad — “failing to think through the consequences of ‘a world awash in change’ and devise strategies to turn this change to U.S. advantage.”

That’s pretty strong stuff, but it is evident that Mr. Obama’s foreign policy and national security team is one of the weakest in recent decades.

Remember the whispered conversation Mr. Obama had in the midst of the 2012 election year with then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, seemingly asking him to give Mr. Putin a message. “This is my last election. After my election, I have more flexibility,” Mr. Obama said with a rhetorical wink and a nod.

The president won a second term by saying that the terrorist threat from al Qaeda was no more, that its forces had been “decimated” and were “on the run.”

It turned out that al Qaeda and its allies were stronger than ever and had spread through the Middle East, North Africa and far beyond.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had been in charge of foreign policy during his first four years, but for all intents and purposes, the job was on automatic pilot.

She seemed far more interested in achieving a travel record than in dealing with any of the stormy trouble spots that worsened during her term.

Then John F. Kerry took over, only to face Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people. Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry refocused our attention on a Putin-backed deal to eliminate the weapons (most which still remain in Syria), as Mr. Assad stepped up his deadly attacks on the civilian population, killing thousands of Syrians who were being bombed and starved to death with the help of Mr. Putin’s military assistance.

“Look at what [the Russians are] doing in assisting Assad’s slaughter,” Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said this week in a fiery speech in which he said Mr. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine was “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy, where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”

If Mr. Obama thought lawmakers on Capitol Hill would rally behind him in the aftermath of Mr. Putin’s invasion, he was quickly disabused of that notion this week.

“We have a weak and indecisive president who invites aggression,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican, flatly acknowledged on “Fox News Sunday” that Mr. Putin was a cunning and dangerous adversary who wasn’t afraid of Mr. Obama’s administration. Russia “is playing chess, and I think we are playing marbles,” Mr. Rogers said.

Mr. Putin has long maintained that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 remains his greatest regret, and to this day nurtures his dream of a Greater Russia that would include Ukraine and other Soviet-bloc nations.

The former KGB agent has ruled Russia with an iron fist, imprisoning opponents and critics on trumped-up charges, and still nurtures a brutal Cold War mentality with an utter hatred of the West and the United States.

In a telephone conversation with Mr. Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel questioned whether Mr. Putin “was in touch with reality,” and said he was “living in another world.”

Mr. Obama came into office in 2009, naively promising to “reset” future relations with Russia in a new era of hope and change.

“Obama’s reset policy is partly to blame for what is unfolding in Ukraine, after giving Putin a pass on his human rights abuses, aggressive policies toward his neighbors and support for murderous regimes like the one in Syria,” writes David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for Russia and Ukraine in George W. Bush’s administration.

Last month, seven Russians who demonstrated against Mr. Putin were sentenced to up to four years in prison.

When 200 people protested outside the court building, they were detained, as were an additional 420 protesters a few days later. Mr. Putin’s prisons are filled with his foes.

“All too often, Obama and his team looked the other way. That neglect is coming home to roost in the worst way possible,” Mr. Kramer said.

Mr. Putin needs to be taught a lesson by the United States and the West that he will never forget, including sanctions against state-owned banks, an end to all trade negotiations, a boycott of the Group of Eight in Sochi, expulsion of Russia from the group, an immediate economic-aid package to Ukraine, and for good measure, a blistering U.N. condemnation of Mr. Putin and his actions.

Meantime, we need to launch a broader, long-overdue re-examination in Congress of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy to date that has led us to this shameful and sorry state of affairs.

Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.