Richard Cohen has finally gotten around to writing about President Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg that was the impetus for so much discussion almost a month ago. In doing so, he demonstrates exactly what the President referred to as the “Washington playbook.” As a reminder, here is what Obama said to Goldberg about that.
“Where am I controversial? When it comes to the use of military power,” he said. “That is the source of the controversy. There’s a playbook in Washington that presidents are supposed to follow. It’s a playbook that comes out of the foreign-policy establishment. And the playbook prescribes responses to different events, and these responses tend to be militarized responses. Where America is directly threatened, the playbook works. But the playbook can also be a trap that can lead to bad decisions. In the midst of an international challenge like Syria, you get judged harshly if you don’t follow the playbook, even if there are good reasons why it does not apply.”
Cohen doesn’t so much champion the Washington playbook as we criticizes Obama for not employing it. For example, here is what he writes on the President’s statement about Russia’s incursion into Ukraine.
It’s a rule that Obama himself should have followed. He speaks the unspeakable, conceding that eastern Ukraine, Moldova and Crimea are Russia’s for the taking. “Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it,” he told Goldberg.
Ambiguity is not Obama’s forte. Rather than keeping Vladimir Putin guessing — and maybe restrained — he signals the Russian president not to worry. Putin already has Crimea. He’s got eastern Ukraine. Will Moldova be next? Just a matter of time, it seems to me.
The playbook Cohen is working from assumes that the only possible response to Russia is a war. If President Obama isn’t willing to do that in response to Crimea and eastern Ukraine, it’s just a matter of time before Putin goes into Moldova.
What that completely ignores is that there are other possible responses – like economic sanctions that are coordinated with our international partners and the European Union.
Cohen also doesn’t seem to think that President Obama is doing anything about the situation in Syria.
But the Syrian civil war has produced a humanitarian calamity, at least 250,000 dead and an almost unprecedented refugee crisis that is destabilizing Europe. Obama acts as though this is a minor matter, just another Middle Eastern dust-up, but the Syrian mess is an example of the slippery slope he does not mention when he mentions the one he wants to avoid. Like, possibly, Moldova, it is the consequence of inaction that may matter more than any action itself.
It seems as though Cohen is unaware of the fact that the U.S. is engaging in air strikes against ISIS in Syria. But even more importantly, Sec. of State John Kerry has been working tirelessly on the multilateral peace negotiations that are seeking an end to the Syrian civil war.
For people like Cohen, if the U.S. isn’t using military intervention to wield it’s way around the globe, it’s not doing anything. That pretty much sums up the Washington playbook that President Obama refuses to implement.