John McCain had nothing left to say. So he sighed.
“A couple of my favorites,” he told the thousands of activists gathered at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference. The 2008 Republican nominee for president put on his best sarcastic face. “Tell Vladimir I’ll be more flexible when I’m re-elected.”
McCain’s eyes bugged out; he repeated the sentence: “Tell Vladimir I’ll be more flexible when I’m re-elected”? The senator issued a deep and mournful sigh, like some disappointed math teacher watching his student fail to carry the one for the umpteenth time.
His crowd got the joke, though McCain had slightly bowdlerized the reference. In March 2012, at a summit in South Korea, President Barack Obama had one of his last meetings with outgoing Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. He was the only Russian head of state Obama had ever worked with, a placeholder from 2008 to 2012 until Vladimir Putin could legally return to power. Obama wanted him to tell Putin, who’d be back in a couple months, that he’d have “more flexibility” to oppose expanded missile defense in NATO nations once he’d dispatched Mitt Romney.
Even at the time, Republicans didn’t allow the remark to be about missile defense. It came to encompass everything Obama was surely hiding from the American voter. “There’s no time for our president to be pulling his punches with the American people,” said Romney, “and not telling us what he’s intending to do with regards to our missile defense system, with regards to our military might and with regards to our commitment to Israel, and with regards to our absolute conviction that Iran must not have a nuclear weapon.”
The Obama campaign swatted away the criticism. It was forgotten, like a lot of what McCain and Romney said about Russia, until Putin’s soldiers started showing up on the Crimean peninsula. The Crimean crisis has retroactively proved right every critic of Obama foreign policies—name ’em, any of ’em. Obama has been shamed, rightfully so, for insisting that al-Qaida was obviously America’s greatest geopolitical adversary and that anyone who doubted this lacked the wisdom to serve. He would say this right before claiming that al-Qaida had been “decimated” and sent “on the run.” The media never caught the paradox because in the heat of a campaign, the quality of a zinger is only tangentially related to the truth of a zinger.
Turns out the same thing is true in a war. The conflict in Ukraine has micced-up and emboldened anyone who warned that Obama’s foreign policy would (or maybe was intended to) destroy America’s clout. Count the ways.
He didn’t commit to missile defense in Europe. “The Poles and the Czechs are already upset with the administration for pulling out our anti-ballistic missile defensive program that we were working on with them,” said California Rep. Ed Royce on CNN this week. “That gave us some real credibility with the Russians because we were setting up a program there to help defend Europe and the United States against Iran. The fact that we signaled that we were willing to do that in the face of Russian pressure makes the administration look weak.”
He let sequestration happen. Ohio Rep. Mike Turner dropped that bomb in a Monday interview with Bloomberg TV. “This is a result of what the United States is projecting,” he said, “imposing the sequester on our Department of Defense and cutting the military. This is a president that is retracting the U.S. policy at a time when obviously Russia sees an opportunity.”
He didn’t strike Syria. That’s a bipartisan hawk complaint, one that came from Delaware Sen. Chris Coons at AIPAC and came again from Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a young Republican from whom the party expects great things. “When you put a red line down—as done in Syria—and you fail to enforce that red line, this is the result you get,” he said. “People that are willing to test you.”
He left men behind in Benghazi. It took South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to go there, though it took long enough. “It started with Benghazi,” Graham wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression. Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt—everything Obama has been engaged in—he’s a weak indecisive leader.”
He wears mom jeans. That was the succinct assessment of Sarah Palin, who had been derided in 2008 for saying that Obama’s weakness would spur Russia to invade Ukraine and whose subsequent gloating has been calibrated for maximum liberal hate-clicking. “People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil,” Palin told Sean Hannity, the most sympathetic conservative interviewer in the history of live television. “They look at our president as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates.”
He let in too many Russian tourists. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio came up with this one, part of a very good week for a politician who thrives when he gets to question the tyranny-fighting mettle of the other side. “The Obama administration should immediately add more Russian officials to the Magnitsky list,” wrote Rubio in a quick Politico piece about America’s options, “which places travel bans and other sanctions on them—something President Obama failed to do in December.”
In the Washington Convention Center, cheered on by AIPAC members, McCain was suggesting the very same thing. If it wanted to, “the most powerful and biggest and strongest nation in the world” could add some of these “kleptocrats, these corruption people” to a no-go list. “It’d be their last trip to Las Vegas,” he said.
Decent line, depressing context. In that speech, just like in the interviews he’d done since the conflict started, McCain admitted that there was no military option that made sense in the Crimea. It was true when the tanks rolled into Budapest in 1956 and into Prague in 1968 and into Georgia in 2008. There were no mom jeans in the White House then; the invasions happened anyway. There was, by 2008, molecular-level fatigue about the war in Iraq, which limited America’s options in the region and helped make a less interventionist candidate than McCain into the president of the United States. But Republicans can’t say that.