By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — President Obama is such a weak strongman. What’s more, he is a feeble dictator and a timid tyrant.
That, at any rate, is Republicans’ critique of him. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Obama’s critics pivoted seamlessly from complaining about his overreach to fretting that he is being too cautious. Call it Operation Oxymoron.
Last Wednesday, I sat in a House hearing and listened to Republicans describe Obama exercising “unparalleled use of executive power” and operating an “uber-presidency.” They accused him of acting like a “king” and a “monarch,” of making the United States like a “dictatorship” or a “totalitarian government” by exercising “imperial” and “magisterial power.”
But after events in Ukraine, this very tyrant was said to be so weak that it’s “shocking.”
“We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., proclaimed Sunday on CNN.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Monday that Obama has “a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, told Bloomberg News that “we’re projecting weakness.” And Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., told Fox News that the administration is “playing marbles” and that the Russians are “running circles around us.”
In theory, it is possible for Obama to rule domestic politics with an iron fist and yet play the 98-pound weakling in foreign affairs. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense that one person would vacillate between those two extremes. A better explanation is Obama’s critics are so convinced that he is wrong about everything that they haven’t paused to consider the consistency of their accusations.
Obama is neither tyrant nor pushover. In general, the criticism of him being inconsistent and indecisive is closer to the mark. But the accusation that he has been feckless in Ukraine is still dubious because those demanding a stronger response have been unable to come up with one.
After Obama threatened Friday that “there will be costs” to Russia’s action in Ukraine, my colleague Charles Krauthammer, who in the past likened the president to Napoleon, said on Fox News that “everybody is shocked by the weakness of Obama’s statement.”
But if Obama had made specific threats toward Russia, he would have set himself up for the conservatives’ criticism of his Syria policy — that he was drawing “red lines” he wasn’t prepared to enforce. And suppose he were willing to draw red lines and back them up with military might? Inevitably, he’d be accused of trying to distract from Obamacare or other domestic troubles, as he was when he threatened a military strike on the Syrian regime.
Even critics of the “weak” Obama response don’t propose a military response in Ukraine. When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, there was, similarly, no consideration of military action by President George W. Bush’s administration, and Vladimir Putin got away with his aggression.
So what would Obama’s critics have him do? Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., published an eight-point plan for Ukraine in Politico magazine over the weekend. But it included things that the president is already doing (sending Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev) or that are strictly symbolic (forcing Russia to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution, even though conservatives routinely dismiss the United Nations). Another of the “decisive” actions Rubio proposed: stalling confirmation of Rose Gottemoeller, the acting undersecretary of state for arms control. Paul Waldman, in the American Prospect, imagined the delay of this obscure official’s confirmation causing Putin to “bellow with rage.”
Putin also would be swayed, no doubt, by Rubio’s “decisive” call to boycott the June G-8 summit in Russia; Obama, by contrast, had merely cut off planning for the gathering. The difference between the two positions is one of fine calibration, not a contrast between strong and weak.
But the condemnation continues, unrestrained by consistency. The conservative commentariat has turned on a dime from talk of “King Obama” to worry about the “price of weakness” and the president’s missing “backbone.”
A little over a month ago, the Heritage Foundation president, former Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., called Obama a “playground bully” and an “imperial president.” Now DeMint accuses him of making “weak statements” that will “only invite aggression.”
Six weeks ago, Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., a Senate candidate, posted a photo of Obama on Facebook with the messages “Stop the imperial president” and “Stop the Obama power grab.” Now Cotton has issued a statement accusing the president of “trembling inaction.”
Grabbing power with trembling inaction? Only the most diffident of despots could pull that off.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.