New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went on PBS’s Charlie Rose show Monday night and defended President Obama’s soft foreign policy approach to the crisis in Ukraine. [Video below. MP3 audio here.]
Of that approach, which so far has consisted of sanctions against 11 Russian and Ukrainian officials, Friedman said:
I don't buy the criticism that he’s – that this manifests weakness. Ronald Reagan at his most angriest would not be going to war to reverse Putin's intervention in Ukraine, let's be honest about that, and George W. Bush didn't go to war to reverse Putin's intervention in Georgia.
That is a highly doubtful claim about Ronald Reagan. President Reagan was well-known for providing covert and overt support to anti-Communist movements around the world. He saw each of those individual struggles as part of the overall Cold War effort to roll back Soviet imperialism.
Friedman didn’t acknowledge that there is middle ground between sanctions and war. Reagan may or may not have gone to war over Crimea, but he almost certainly would have done more than impose sanctions on Russia. At his “most angriest,” the 40th president would have at least provided arms to the pro-Ukrainian forces in Crimea so as to prevent Russia from expanding its territory and influence.
As for George W. Bush, it’s true that he didn’t go to war after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, but he took action in addition to slamming sanctions on Russia (sanctions that the Obama administration lifted in 2010, by the way). President Bush also sent humanitarian supplies to Georgia by military aircraft.
Friedman also tried to defend Obama by claiming his non-interventionist decisions in Syria and Crimea only reflected the feelings of the American people:
There's a deep ambivalence about getting involved in a place like Syria in the Middle East, which really can only be resolved in my view by boots on the ground.... I think Americans are deeply wary of getting involved in a place like that.
Americans may be war-weary, but there does not have to be a groundswell of support for boots on the ground for us to ask whether President Obama’s weakness played a role in the events in Syria and Crimea. This country had a similar debate after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979. We didn’t send troops to Afghanistan back then, yet many people still argued (legitimately) that Jimmy Carter’s weakness may have contributed to the invasion.
It’s not surprising that Friedman would be rushing to Obama’s defense. In 2008, he was so eager to see the president-elect take office that he wrote that Inauguration Day should be moved up from January 20 to Thanksgiving.
Below is a transcript of the Charlie Rose segment:
CHARLIE ROSE: You said Obama is surely the first president to be accused of acting in foreign policy like Pollyanna, John Wayne, and Henry Kissinger in the same month. Which one is he required to be now?
THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Well, I think he's acted in those ways in a way because he's reflecting, I think, the feeling of the American people. There's a deep both ambivalence about getting involved in a place like Syria in the Middle East, which really can only be resolved in my view by boots on the ground, someone monopolizing the use of force there. There is no, I think, easy or leading from behind in Syria, and I think Americans are deeply wary of getting involved in a place like that. In Crimea, you have a piece of territory, a peninsula, basically, that was part of the Soviet Union, was given away in essentially '54 to Ukraine, where the people there are Russian speakers and want to be part of Russia and the question is really, you know, how deeply are you going to get involved in trying to reverse that? I mean, what are our interests there? And I think our interests there are rather limited, and I think Obama's response is measured to our interest there. In that sense it’s Kissingerian, it's quite realist. And I don't buy the criticism that he’s – that this manifests weakness. Ronald Reagan at his most angriest would not be going to war to reverse Putin's intervention in Ukraine, let's be honest about that, and George W. Bush didn't go to war to reverse Putin's intervention in Georgia. So a lot of this is what I call drive-by criticism. You drive by the White House and you say “weak” and everybody laughs, okay, but it's drive-by criticism. It has not only no connection, I think, to the real options at hand, but it doesn't reflect anything the American people really want right now.