WASHINGTON - Russia invades Ukraine. The United States responds with threats of unspecific "costs" Moscow will incur if it doesn't reverse course. We offer Putin-esque photos of Obama in almost comically aggressive postures on a telephone call with the Russian leader. We threaten not to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to future summits of global big shots. NATO dispatches some of its elite corps of press release writers to offer up limp admonitions. And the U.S. president's critics are left wondering aloud: Is this the weakest American president since Jimmy Carter? Or is it unfair to Carter to include him in that question? House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers illustrated the critique, suggesting that "Putin is playing chess" while "we're playing marbles."
Or alternatively, in the view of the president's defenders, perhaps Barack Obama is just doing as much as a responsible president, respectful of his mandate and the current limitations on American power, can do.
The situation in Crimea is, of course, not the only factor in raising questions about the nature of contemporary American leadership. Looking around the world today we see as daunting an array of global crises and brewing problems as we have seen at any one time in recent history: Ukraine, Syria, Venezuela, Iran, Egypt, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Israel-Palestine, North Korea, China-Japan, Thailand, Burma, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, economic problems in faltering big emerging powers, and the climate crisis.
It seems the lid has come off the pot worldwide. It forces a bigger question: Is this an aberrant moment or the beginning of a trend? Are mechanisms we have for helping to stabilize volatile situations failing? What does this have to do with the current crop of governments of the world's most powerful nations, notably the United States? Are their domestic problems and political predilections and the character of their leaders part of the problem? Is there any way they can become part of the solution?
In the case of Ukraine, the U.S. has made diplomatic efforts behind the scenes to address it. Further, what Russia does in its near abroad is certainly not solely the concern of the U.S. The European Union and the world's other powers have been equally ineffective or inert or both, thus persuading Putin that he could act with impunity while violating the sovereignty of an important nation. And beyond economic and political wrist-slaps, it is hard to know what the West can do without escalating the situation.
But, even while acknowledging all that, we can be relatively certain that one of the reasons Putin has taken the action he has - why he has felt free to order troops into Crimea and indeed why he has felt so free to meddle in the affairs of Ukraine since the beginning of the current crisis - is because he has felt there would be no consequences - at least none serious enough to dissuade him. This is the message of America's recent foreign-policy actions - or rather its relative inaction and fecklessness - from Syria to the Central Africa Republic, from Egypt to Anbar province, from the East China Sea to the Black Sea. We have gone from Pax Americana to Lox Americana. Our policy time and time again has effectively been to just lie there like a fish.
The world saw Obama hesitate to act in Syria years ago when his advisers were calling for it and he could have made a difference. They saw him blink when Syria crossed the red line he had drawn not once but 12 times.
When asked about Syria on "Meet the Press," National Security Adviser Susan Rice accurately characterized what has happened there as "horrific" and then posed a classic false choice, arguing, "But if the alternative here is to intervene with American boots on the ground, as some have argued, I think that the judgment the United States has made and the president of the United States has made is that is not in the United States' interests."
Because, of course, that is not the only choice, as the decision-non-decision to launch cruise missiles in August clearly demonstrated. Russia was watching America on Syria and elsewhere. Putin saw that when then-President Mohammed Morsi abused the Egyptian people and the promise of democracy in that country, this administration refused to put meaningful pressure on him. But when the people of Egypt spoke and ousted a man who abused the trust they had placed in him we also couldn't make up our mind on how to treat the successor regime.
When China sentences scholars to prison, the White House response is to tweet its "deep disappointment." When Putin meddled in Ukraine, our first response was to issue weak counterstatements. When the Ukrainian regime killed its own people, we revoked their visas. When Putin massed troops on the border, Obama urged him not to act, lest there be those "costs" - a word that sent the unmistakable message that the worst Putin would have to contend with would be possible sanctions or more visa-war. More recently we bandied about the threat of kicking Russia out of the G8 - a group in which it didn't belong in the first place.
A White House press call on Sunday included a list of possible economic penalties being considered, but all were on the drawing board, many were pinpricks at best, and none seemed likely to alter the situation.
Just last week, in a corner of the world that has produced both U.S. and Russian foreign-policy failures, Afghanistan, when the regime of Hamid Karzai continued behaving as recklessly as it has all along, the White House followed another classic pattern - warning that if the Afghan regime didn't go along with U.S. policy, then we were done, we'd just walk away. Disengaging after failure as a means of persuasion is a tactic the president has employed with the U.S. Congress time and time again, and it is now the policy driver likely to write the last chapter in America's longest war. But having no presence there, seeking no effective alternative to Karzai, going to the zero option would be a disaster - especially because of the degree to which it would inhibit our ability to keep an eye on terrorist threats in the region and, more worrisome, Pakistan's nuclear program.
Make no mistake, the administration of George W. Bush often and with devastating consequences went too far. It launched a catastrophic war in Iraq. He therefore owns a considerable share of the responsibility for America's loss of appetite for sound, active, sometimes forceful, foreign policy. But Obama has taken us too far in the opposite direction. He has not only sent the message that America won't launch reckless foreign wars - which is why he was elected - but he has gone further and seemingly turned the false choice outlined by Rice into the foundations of a doctrine. America is leaning away from the tough questions, leaning away not only from use of force (the last resort), but credible threats of force, from active use of sanctions and real political pressure, from mobilizing the international community effectively to support such efforts, from having clear policies, from making tough choices. And while we may even appreciate a reflective president who is not prone to rash moves, we need to be open to the idea that it is possible to go too far in the direction of reflexive passivity.
We could be undertaking public sanctions against Putin in the U.N. Security Council instead of tiptoeing around him, seeking emissaries that would do precious little but ultimately participate in the negotiations Putin wants - to redraw the borders in the region, ensuring Russian access to key Black Sea ports. We could be making public plans to help use our new energy resources to help systematically reduce European dependency on Russian oil and gas, specifying just what meaningful costs there would be for Putin and letting him know that there are real red lines that must be respected, thereby making him believe that simply seizing an entire European country is simply not going to be tolerated in the 21st century by the members of NATO. Sometimes mobilizing troops and shifting military assets helps freeze an enemy in his tracks.
It is also not just about process or, in the end, about the president. This is about a message that has gone out to the world - to Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Kim Jong Un and Karzai and other despots and troublemakers. They know that for whatever reason that since World War II the one nation that has been most depended on to push back on those posing a threat to the global peace is less likely to do so today than at any time during that period. And these despots, being who they are and the human nature of bullies and thugs and opportunists being what it is, are taking advantage.
Perhaps this Ukraine crisis will be the one that helps elevate this president, his team, and the processes upon which they rely to be better prepared, to better know the difference between empty gestures and meaningful leverage, to be more decisive, to personally engage with allies more effectively, to make faltering alliances work better, to know not just where we will step back but also where we must step forward.
We can only hope. We cannot yet know whether this test will ultimately be seen as proof of Obama's potential for leadership or an indictment not only of him but of this generation of American leaders.
But we do know this: If that does not happen, the Putins and their ilk will know it. They will take advantage. And the Crimeas will fall. And the Syrians will suffer. And those Egyptians and Venezuelans and Afghans and others around the world like them who had hoped they would be helped will in the end be the ones who are truly and devastatingly "deeply disappointed."
David Rothkopf is CEO and editor of the FP Group. He wrote this for Foreign Policy magazine.