Enough with the tough guy debate
March 7th, 2014
12:07 PM ET

Enough with the tough guy debate

For more on the latest developments in Ukraine, watch a special live edition of "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN.

By Fareed Zakaria

Inevitably, the crisis in Ukraine is being discussed in Washington largely through the lens of political polarization. It seems like any and every topic is fodder for partisan dispute these days, even the weather – actually, especially the weather.

Many Republicans are arguing that Russian President Vladimir Putin intervened in the Crimea region of Ukraine because of President Barack Obama's weakness. Putin saw that Obama didn't want to go to war in Syria, for example, and this emboldened Putin.

Well, who knows right? It's tough to know what would have happened in an alternative universe. Imagine that we still had Putin around in charge of Russia, but imagine he faced a different president, one who was tough, aggressive, who had no compunctions about invading countries.

Oh wait, we ran that very experiment in 2008! Putin faced George W. Bush, a president who had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq for good measure (and, in the latter case, defying massive international pressure and opposition). And yet, Putin invaded Georgia. And not, as he did this time, in a stealthy way with soldiers who were already there who simply switched their uniforms. He sent in Russian tanks roaring into Georgia and – without any referendums – simply annexed two pieces of that country.

Does this prove that Bush was a wimp after all? No it doesn’t. You see, there has been some very good and careful scholarship – by Daryl Press and Jonathan Mercer among others – that looks at historical cases to figure out whether having a reputation for "toughness" actually deters your opponents from doing bad things – like invading countries.

In general, the answer is, no.

Countries make these decisions based on many factors. But the most important ones seem to be a careful analysis of the power dynamics of the specific case. So in Ukraine, Russia would ask, is this a vital interest of the United States? And what is Washington's capacity to act in this particular situation?

More from CNN: 5 lessons for a new Cold War

In other words, Putin would look at his cards, look at Washington's cards, and the specifics of the situation in Ukraine rather than assuming that because Bush invaded Iraq, he would defend Georgia, or that because Obama didn't invade Syria, he would do nothing about Ukraine.

Politicians in Washington are convinced that Putin was encouraged by Western weakness. But it's actually quite possible that Putin felt he was acting to stop the West's growing strength. After all, just look at the situation from Russian eyes.

In 1991, Moscow gave up its 75-year-old Soviet empire. It also gave up large parts of its 300-year-old Russian empire including Ukraine. Since then, its historic rival, NATO, has expanded closer and closer to Moscow's borders. And then, the West encouraged Ukrainians to take to the streets and depose their president, who had close ties to Moscow.

Now none of this excuses aggression or justifies Putin's thuggish response. But if we are going to find a political solution in Ukraine that will stick, we need to recognize that the issues at stake are not personal – and that they are much larger than Obama's alleged weakness and Putin's paranoia.

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Topics: Barack Obama • Russia • United States

soundoff (428 Responses)
  1. search engine

    My family members all the time say that I am killing my time here at
    web, however I know I am getting knowledge daily by reading
    such pleasant articles.

    July 10, 2014 at 9:16 am | Reply
  2. Johnny

    Yes Obama is very Weak, Not a Strong Leader America Needs... I'm very disappointed with Obama and Congress

    July 14, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Reply
    • Ross D

      Agreed. Leading from behind.

      July 17, 2014 at 11:18 pm | Reply
  3. We Have a Past. Please Talk About It.

    We have a past. It is something called history and everything that is happening between nations has happened before at some point in history. Is it lazy reporting that leads to the leaving out of history?

    The Korean War is considered by many historians to be a de facto proxy war between the Russians and the U.S. There are parallels to be drawn here. America has been pulled into many proxy wars with the Russians/Soviets. Why aren't you talking about this? What worked and what didn't and why do you refuse to bring in the lessons from history in what seems to have become superficial discussions about incredibly complex and important world events with
    worrisome implications?

    Why are you leaving HISTORY out of it when this where our answers lie?

    July 20, 2014 at 3:09 pm | Reply
  4. Tom Slockett

    I just noticed this post and like it much better than the one on asymmetric warfare which did not seem as balanced.

    July 21, 2014 at 12:37 am | Reply
  5. leroy p

    finally someone has enlightened our people that the issue with russia and ukraine deeper that what is presented to the public. A lot of us just respond to a news flash and never stop to find out what is the root cause of this news flash. This is what i am seeing going on with the cat and mouse game with usa and russia. Russia sees america as a country that is usin

    its only super power status to dominate the world. do not be fooled, but america and usa are still enemies therefore russia will not sit back and alllow Ukraine there next door neighbor to fall into the so-called allied camp of the usa. Russia sees this as a move by the west to encircle russia. america would not be happy to a russia getting very close to usa nextdoor neighbors . My solution, usa need to back off from encouraging ukraine to joint nato . This could some day spill over into a war. with the west and it would not be pretty, russia is no a push over

    July 21, 2014 at 10:49 am | Reply
    • Andy

      Leroy, well put, Americans ( the common man) needs to understand that your Governments have sent Americans to war for no reason through the last century and continues to do that . America has NEVER won a war, lost millions of lives destroyed millions more and all in the name of Democracy. Americans funded the IRA, supported Sadam Hussien against Iran, its a nation with no morality and will soon learn the hard way..Idiots like Zakaria are compounding the problem and unless Americans take America back from those idiots on Capitol Hill, it's going to be a disaster soon.

      July 23, 2014 at 3:46 am | Reply
  6. kennethttellis

    I for one do not put any credibility into statements made Fareed Zakaria. When you given a job, the first thing that you do id humor your boss, That I feel is what is happening to all the news that we receive from U.S. sources.

    July 22, 2014 at 6:45 pm | Reply
  7. David

    NATO is not a historic rival of Russia.. NATO is a historic rival of the Soviet Union that no longer exists. This is Putin's delusion that everyone seems to be confused by. Putin perpetuates this cold war mentality and paranoia. NATO is absolutely no threat to Russia. Putin use this argument in order to justify intimidating and invading neighbors for the sole purpose of protecting Russia's economic interests.

    July 23, 2014 at 3:26 am | Reply
  8. Andy

    Zakaria is an idiot, trying to conform. he has no clue about a word he says, CNN needs to get rid of this twit before the organization loses it's reputation

    July 23, 2014 at 3:42 am | Reply
  9. mbaye diouf

    FAREED IS LOOSING CREDIBILITY WITH RECENT UNFAIR STATEMENTS ON GAZA AND FLIGHT MH17 CRASH...

    July 23, 2014 at 11:59 am | Reply
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