America has become a paper tiger with cardboard teeth, and nobody knows this better than Vladimir Putin. Who can blame him? Some of Barack Obama’s red lines are missing, and he can’t remember where he put them.
He drew a red line across Iran and warned that a nuclear weapon in the hands of the mullahs in Iran “is unacceptable.” Since he didn’t say what the meaning of “is” is, or the meaning of “unacceptable,” either, he left it to others to define what he meant with his defiant language.
The president likes words, and can spin them together better than most, but words, however heroic and inspiring, are cheap in the hands of a man who doesn’t believe a word of them.
Mr. Putin’s adventuring into Ukraine was clearly carefully thought out. He looked for evidence that Mr. Obama was merely a blowhard and a con man, fooling most of the people most of the time.
He might fool enough foolish American voters to give him two terms in the office once held by Lincoln, two Roosevelts, Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan, but he wouldn’t fool an old KGB hand, who, evil or not, is experienced in recognizing the weak spot inviting attack.
Mr. Obama’s fondness for heroic rhetoric — in crises in Egypt, Iran, Syria and now Ukraine and Crimea — backed up by nothing more than a smile and a shoeshine (and not even a necktie), represents a target too rich for a villain to ignore.
Mr. Obama warned everybody to behave, telling Viktor Yanukovych, president of Ukraine before he was driven from office by democracy protesters, that “there will be consequences if people step over the line.”
He dispatched a national security adviser to say that brutal repression in Ukraine is “completely outrageous” (which is apparently worse than merely “outrageous”).
Mr. Obama thinks his words are enough to slow down evildoers, with no follow-through necessary. He never learned, because he is neither a student of America, nor of the American presidency.
He’s just not very interested in the America he was elected to govern. He arrived at the White House promising a “reset” of relations with Mr. Putin and the Russians, apparently unaware of what he wanted to reset, and unaware that Russia dreams of restoring itself as a great power and is willing to do anything to achieve it.
It’s barely conceivable that Mr. Putin wants a war in Ukraine or Crimea. Nor should anyone here. Mr. Obama is not dealing with crazy Muslims, drunk on their notions of a perverted religion. But just as in the Cold War, neither East nor West dreams of mutual suicide.
Mr. Putin has driven Mr. Obama into a corner, there to contemplate his Chicken Kiev moment, with the fox circling the chicken house. Like it or not, Mr. Obama is the fox.
Mr. Obama can’t believe that he’s the spurned lover; nothing like this has happened to the prince of Hawaii before. He has dreamed for years of a romance with Russia.
When the Russians put the squeeze on Georgia in 2008, and John McCain said Georgia was where he would draw the line against Russia’s attempt to restore the old Soviet Union under new branding and management, Mr. Obama had a better idea. He would change everything, there would be no more conflict at home, the races would lie down together with the lions and lambs, all rough places would be made smooth and all hard things would be easy forever more.
How could Vlad resist him? America swooned, and for a long time did not notice what a snow job it was. But Vlad did, and bided his time.
Only the foolish wants a military response, however much Mr. Putin deserves his comeuppance. There are other things the West could do, with sanctions and the like.
Mr. Obama imagines himself a wielder of deft diplomacy, though he has never demonstrated a particular skill at diplomacy, either.
He could start by looking like he’s interested in what his administration is doing. He has allowed the Pentagon and the State Department to come up with competing policies about what to do in Egypt, confusing everybody, and the president appears to not have a clue about what to do there any more than what to do in Iran or Syria.
The job is so fatiguing. He could attend meetings with his security chiefs, as if he were really interested. He might even fool the evildoers.
Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.