Russia’s penetration of Crimea leads some people to question the will or competence of President Obama. They believe he has presided over a radical diminution of American power. The critics may be right. Or not.

The Crimean situation is complicated. A majority Russian-speaking, Orthodox population feels far closer to Russia than to its western-oriented, Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic “countrymen.” Still, shouldn’t Obama rattle the American saber? Reflecting on the presidents in my lifetime and just before, I’m not convinced the critics make a case—certainly if they don’t provide a specific strategy. So here’s what came before Obama:

After Nine-Eleven, George W. Bush left the killing or capture of Osama bin Laden to Afghan warlords—and blew it. Then he moved American forces from Afghanistan to Iraq. We toppled Saddam Hussein but left Iraq in a bloody shambles at great cost to us. Bill Clinton waged a partial war on Islamist terrorism but couldn’t halt it. Nine-Eleven took place ten months after he left the White House. George H.W. Bush may have played it smartest. In 1991, U.S. forces kicked Saddam out of Kuwait in 100 hours—then left.

Ronald Reagan, the epitome of American Cold War macho, couldn’t control civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. In 1983, truck bombs killed 241 American servicemen in Beirut. Yes, the Soviet Union collapsed. For the most part, that was internal. Jimmy Carter, to whom some compare Obama, failed to keep the Shah on Iran’s throne. An attempt to rescue American hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries embarrassed our nation.

Gerald Ford warmed the seat in the Oval Office after Richard Nixon resigned. Nixon flexed American military muscle, continuing the Vietnam War until late March 1973. That represented four more years battling guerillas and an army from the Third World who toppled South Vietnam in 1975. Lyndon Johnson sent combat troops to Vietnam in 1964. It seems North Vietnamese naval forces twice attacked American ships in the Gulf of Tonkin. Only the second incident never took place. The war cost 58,000 American lives and plunged our society into turmoil.

John F. Kennedy sent military advisors to South Vietnam. And while he forced Russia to withdraw missiles from Cuba, he had to pull American missiles from Turkey. Dwight Eisenhower kept Americans involved in South Vietnam after the French withdrew. He did get us out of Korea as promised, and South Korea eventually became a global success. North Korea continues as a brutal dictatorship.

Harry Truman sent U.S. troops to Korea to combat communist aggression as part of a U.N. “police action.” Over thirty thousand Americans were killed. When Franklin Roosevelt died before I was born, the Allied victory over Germany and Japan was foreordained. Those allies included the Soviet Union to which Roosevelt and Truman yielded Eastern Europe.

Where will history place Obama among these presidents? I don’t know. I can say that for all its differences, today’s world poses the same basic problems as the one into which I was born. American military power remains great but not without limits. By acknowledging this, Obama may be behind the times—or possibly ahead of them.

Responding is simple. Click on “comments” above then go to the bottom of the article.

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  1. Bruce Abramson on March 14, 2014 at 5:42 pm

    David, I believe that you misconstrue the strategic concept of “Peace Through Strength.” It is a matter of managing expectations. People–in this case Putin–considering a move that would threaten a neighbor necessarily weight the costs of doing so against the benefits. The higher the perceived costs, the less likely they are to take the threatening action. It doesn’t mean that they won’t do it–just that they are less likely to do so.

    President Obama has convinced every observers–certainly including Putin–that he will not commit U.S. troops or significant American military assets to any cause other than (likely) the invasion of American soil. By doing so, he has decreased the perceived costs of acting against American interests–and thus increased the likelihood that others will do so.

    I have yet to see a single serious commentator, of any political persuasion, opine that we should send troop into the Ukraine (at least on present facts). The critique of Obama is that the world would be a safer place if Putin believed that we might do so. But between Obama’s rhetoric (at home and abroad), the makeup of his national security team, his drawdown of the military, and his performance vis-a-vis Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Iran (as well as elsewhere) no one believes that American military intervention is on the table until 2017 at the earliest.

    The irony is that an isolationist–or even anti-militarist–major power is more likely to get dragged into lengthy, bloody, broad wars than is an activist one. Isolationism will never buy us peace as long as we are big, rich, and strong. It will simply delay our entry until the conflict has grown large and all-encompassing.

    • David on March 14, 2014 at 6:17 pm

      Bruce, your point—which you’ve made on FaceBook—is well taken. I agree that perceptions of willingness to use military power play a major role in forestalling aggression. Putin’s actions may well reflect Obama’s hesitancy to use force—or at least Putin’s take on that. Questions I ask include, should we draw “a fence” around the use of force? How often has the threat of American force prevented other aggressions? How often has it not? I certainly don’t suggest that the U.S. assume a an isolationist position. Moreover, I’m for a strong military. Re Crimea, certainly a question as great: what now? Since observers don’t suggest military deployment, is Obama that far off base? This situation obviously will lead to continuing discussions about U.S. force projection throughout the world. The key will be to determine just what represents interests so critical we must fight.

  2. Carolyn Perlstein on March 14, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    There is no glory in war. Who was it who said, “War is hell.” That’s right: Mrs. Ulysses Grant.

  3. Steve Olson on March 15, 2014 at 4:04 am

    Hi David!

    Thank you for a well written article.

    I would like to point out that, according to my internet/app source, the Catholic population in Ukraine is comprised of 2.2 % Roman Catholic (I am guessing near Lviv and the Polish border) and 8% Ukrainian Greek Catholic, also primarily in extreme western Ukraine. I do not believe that religious affiliation plays a role in the dispute. I have never heard or read that religion plays a role in this matter.

    There is not always a high correlation of language spoken and ethnic identity. I know that in Crimea, far more people speak Russian as their first language than identify as ethnic Russians. From my brief observations, I believe that is also true in the rest of Ukraine.

    And about the actions of recent presidents, I would to point out to the Republican Obama-bashers that President Eisenhower was not able to respond to the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, much as President Obama will not be able to respond, I anticipate, to the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.

    As I think know, Laura and I were in Ukraine in October; that visit, my third, included four days in Crimea, visiting four geographically cities. This was not a bus tour designed to show off statues, etc. We traveled in Crimea with their leading rabbi, and visited some congregants in their homes or in their cafes.

    Thanks again for an insightful article.

    • David on March 15, 2014 at 3:05 pm

      Thanks for a very thoughtful comment, Steve. However language and religion break down, there is an obvious split among Ukrainians. This complicates the picture. And thanks for the reference to Hungary, which I remember as a kid. Everyone in the U.S. “rooted” for the Hungarian people and could only be saddened by Soviet tanks moving into Budapest. This is not to say that the United States shouldn’t wield great military power but that we must understand that as great as that power is, it can not guarantee outcomes. No one in the WHite House will ever have an easy time of determining when the use of force is called for.

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