President Obama is taking his sweet time deciding if he will respond to Kiev’s urgent pleas for help in the face of Russian advances into eastern Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin seized the Crimean Peninsula to test the West’s resolve and got away with it, dismissing Mr. Obama’s economic sanctions as meaningless. Emboldened by how easy it was, he sent forces deeper into Ukrainian territory last summer, bragging he could take over the country if he wanted to.
The poorly equipped Ukrainian army was no match for the armed-to-the-teeth, Russian-backed rebels. The Kiev government needs anti-tank weapons and other arms from the United States. But Mr. Obama resisted, saying he preferred a kinder, diplomatic approach to dealing with Moscow.
This must have elicited a big laugh in the Kremlin, where Mr. Putin was calling the shots while Mr. Obama dilly-dallied over how to respond to the worst military crisis in Europe since the Cold War.
As Russian-led forces seized more ground, there were growing calls for Mr. Obama to come to the aid of the Ukraine in its desperate hour of need. “For God’s sake, give the Ukrainians weapons,” Arizona Sen. John McCain said last August on the Senate floor.
Fast-forward to 2015 as Mr. Obama still refuses to give the Ukrainians the arms to defend themselves from Mr. Putin’s naked aggression.
At a news conference here this week after meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the president indicated that he hasn’t budged on the issue one iota. Though he insists he’s still studying the problem, he clings to the naive hope that a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine hammered out Thursday by France and Germany will hold.
But if it doesn’t, then what?
“If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is look at all the options — what other means can we put in place to change Mr. Putin’s calculus — and the possibility of lethal defensive weapons is one of those options that’s being examined,” he said.
Just in case someone might mistakenly get the idea in their head that he was actually nearing a decision, Mr. Obama added this: “I want to emphasize that a decision has not yet been made.”
As we learned from the fat, tell-all books written by his first two secretaries of defense, Mr. Obama obviously has a hard time making up his mind on critical national security issues. Both Robert Gates and Leon Panetta admitted to being frustrated by Mr. Obama’s procrastinating, complaining that swift, decisive, military leadership was not his strong suit.
He certainly wasn’t in any hurry to respond to the lethal threat posed by the reinforced Islamic State and al Qaeda terrorist armies that seized large swath’s of territory in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and across North Africa.
He won a second term by telling voters that he had crushed terrorism, that al Qaeda’s leadership had been “decimated,” and that he had the terrorists “on the run.”
Since then, however, he’s learned that no such thing ever happened. Al Qaeda terrorists metastasized into a far more deadly army that had rolled across Iraq to the gates of Baghdad, seized parts of Syria and have spread across North Africa.
As their blood-soaked reign of terror shocked the world, Mr. Obama resisted calls for a U.S. bombing campaign until the mass executions and beheadings forced his hand and the bombings began, but without the strategic impact that was hoped.
The president has been criticized for “leading from behind,” and in the war on terrorism that’s been the case for a long time. In Iraq, it looks like a case of too little, too late. In Syria, the bombings have not tamed the Islamic State’s well-financed armies, just sent them into hiding, or into adjoining countries, biding their time for the next offensives.
“You’re not going to win this just with airstrikes,” a U.S. official in Baghdad said this week.
Elsewhere, the United States is in retreat. Shiite rebels have seized control of the government of Yemen and the State Department says it has shut its embassy because it’s too dangerous there. The West Wing doesn’t want another Benghazi.
Meantime, long after the Islamic State group has rampaged across the region, Mr. Obama belatedly sent a formal request to Capitol Hill Wednesday seeking authority for the use of military force against the Islamic State’s armies.
Mr. Obama has other objectives in mind with his late legislative gambit. The war-making authority he presumably wants would continue the U.S. airstrikes and military training of local forces in Iraq and Syria, authority he already has under existing law.
A troublesome new provision, though, would prohibit “enduring offensive ground combat operations.” Why send this signal to an enemy that is in this war for the long duration?
Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, who has offered his own authorization bill, may have inadvertently explained the real purpose behind Mr. Obama’s proposal: “This is not going to be a war-strategy document,” he told military analyst Karen DeYoung, “It’s going to be a checks-and-balances document that sets congressional limits on what we want our president to be doing.”
Meantime, it is clear by now that Mr. Obama’s prosecution of the war in the beginning was all about rapid withdrawal — especially in Iraq. That led to the Islamic State’s brutal, unimpeded, military conquests across the region and a far more serious terrorist threat in Europe and, possibly, here at home.
Clearly, the president’s war strategies are not working, and there are signs of second thoughts about his approach to the war. This week, it was reported that the White House was considering “slowing its planned withdrawal from Afghanistan for the second time.”
As for Mr. Obama’s reluctance to arm Ukraine, high-level Democrats are now urging him to do just that, including Ashton Carter, his choice to be secretary of defense.
• Donald Lambro is a syndicated columnist and contributor to The Washington Times.