The games of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, have ended and the war games have begun.
Not games really, since soldiers in uniforms without insignia have entered Crimea, in the southeastern part of Ukraine, and not withstanding President Obama’s warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The area now called Ukraine has had its ups and downs over the years. At its heights in the 10th and 11th centuries, it was presided over by a bunch of Vladimirs. It has been alternately allied with, and antagonistic to, its neighbors. Since the early 1900s, the major partner in its relationship has been Russia.
In 1991, Ukraine broke away from Russia as part of what many, myself included, thought was the end of the Cold War, the end of the Soviet Union, and the triumph of capitalism over communism. But independence was not all peace and prosperity.
Ukraine experienced recession, inflation and corruption. Since 2004, power has passed back and forth between the Russian-allied Viktor Yanukovych and the Western-oriented Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko. Most recently, Yanukovych is out and Tymoshenko is in.
Russia wants to keep Ukraine in its sphere in part because it is a fertile bread basket, because its city of Sevastopol is home to the Russian Navy’s Black Sea Fleet, and because its capital, Kiev, is central to the concept of Russian identity. Hence the war games and entrance of Russian troops into Crimea.
We have seen this scene before. In 2008, the former Soviet Republic of Georgia was jousting with Russia over regions that were closer to Russia on one hand, or NATO and western Europe on the other. Putin invaded. During the Beijing Olympics. President Bush sent warships and humanitarian aid, and achieved an uneasy stalemate.
We are beginning the sixth year since President Obama reset our foreign policy. Under the Obama Administration, we did get Osama Bin Laden, and the continuing drone campaign seems to be effective in eliminating terrorists.
But we abandoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Then we watched as Egypt first swung to the Muslim Brotherhood and then back to the military. We have largely withdrawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. While we intervened in Libya to help remove Muammar Gaddafi, we have largely left the country alone to disintegrate ever since.
Last August, President Obama seemed to have reached his limit when Syria President Bashir Assad used chemical weapons against his own people. Obama called for Assad to go. In September the administration sought Congressional approval for an attack.
But then Secretary of State John Kerry made an ill-considered remark about giving Assad a week to give up his chemical weapons. Assad seized the lifeline. The administration tried to spin it as a brilliant diplomatic coup. This February, peace talks collapsed as the parties couldn’t even agree what to talk about. In the meantime, many more Syrians died.
Last November, we agreed to ease economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for a freeze of their nuclear development program, while we work toward a long-term agreement. In doing so, we caused much consternation to Israel, our closest and most reliable ally in the Middle East.
Foreign policy is tricky business, full of compromises. Contrary to the pronouncements of political partisans, there are few clear, right and wrong, good and bad, options. President Obama was elected on a platform of resetting the foreign policy of his predecessor. Fair enough. But not necessarily better.
The guiding principle of our current policy appears to be not to risk American involvement. I worry that principle is not in our best interests or the world’s, that if we don’t address problems today, they will be bigger tomorrow; and that if we don’t support our allies and democracy today, they won’t be around tomorrow.