Short answer: bad leadership. Let’s look at a similar situation from history—JFK and Nikita Krushchev’s standoff over Cuba. Even though many people cite the Cuban Missile Crisis as a token of JFK’s ability to negotiate tense and difficult international situations, what most people don’t point out is what got JFK into that situation in the first place—his pathetic performance at the Vienna summit he himself had called for.
Krushchev just beat the garbage out of him verbally for a few days, and left the summit very pleased with himself. In Krushchev’s mind, JFK was someone he could easily outwit. JFK came off as “too intelligent and too weak,” as a boyish political amateur with little experience and no stones.
Krushchev would probably never have instigated the Cuban Missile Crisis, or built the Berlin Wall, if he had not been sure that JFK’s numerous insinuations of retribution were ultimately hollow. In 2008, long before Putin started rattling his sabers over Crimea and the Ukraine, Obama regularly quoted one of JFK’s time-tested phrases: “Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate.” In fact, an article in the New York Times from 2008 points out the unflattering similarities between the negotiation styles of Obama and JFK. The article concludes with a prescient warning:
. . . While there were many factors that led to the missile crisis, it is no exaggeration to say that the impression Khrushchev formed at Vienna — of Kennedy as ineffective — was among them.
If Barack Obama wants to follow in Kennedy’s footsteps, he should heed the lesson that Kennedy learned in his first year in office: sometimes there is good reason to fear to negotiate.
Well, I can say with confidence that even after a term and a half in office, Obama has not learned that lesson. And we’re losing the new Cold War because of it. Obama’s threats mean nothing. As an article in the Wall Street Journal makes clear:
Is there any reason for Russia to think Mr. Obama means business? What were the costs to Russia for harboring Edward Snowden? When the Kremlin was considering in June what to do with the fugitive NSA contractor living in a Moscow transit lounge, Mr. Kerry warned that there would be “consequences” for giving him asylum. He got asylum; there were no consequences.
Two months later, Mr. Obama was happy to accept Russian mediation for a face-saving deal on Syria’s chemical weapons rather than impose the consequences he had promised if Bashar Assad used them. A few months after that, the administration quietly eased its enforcement of the Magnitsky Act sanctioning corrupt Russian officials.
It’s probably asking too much of this president to see a connection between his Syria capitulation and this month’s events in Ukraine.
It’s not just Syria. It’s everything. Obama thinks he can outsmart the universe. Kind of like JFK. But when it comes down to it, he doesn’t have the courage or the conviction to follow through—unlike JFK (whatever his faults). Obama is weak. And he makes the US look weak. And in this new Cold War scenario, the other world powers vying for a shot at hegemony are much more likely to play chicken. And when they do, you can bet the Presidency we’ll lose.