William Saletan: Ukraine and the two sides of the GOP

03/12/2014 12:00 AM

03/11/2014 5:38 PM

When you watch the brain-dead House Republicans vote week after week to repeal Obamacare, or the latest tea party nut job call President Obama a traitor, it’s hard to take Republicans seriously.

But keep an open mind. There are lots of sane people in the Republican Party. They’re just not the ones who shout and get all the airtime.

Here’s an illustration of the difference. Let’s start with the kind of Republican you’re familiar with: former Vice President Dick Cheney. Sunday on “Face the Nation,” Charlie Rose interviewed him about the crisis in Ukraine. Here’s part of the exchange, in which Rose brought up Russia’s 2008 intervention in neighboring Georgia:

Cheney: “We have created an image around the world, not just for the Russians, of weakness and indecisiveness. The Syrian situation’s a classic. We got all ready to do something. A lot of the allies sign on. At the last minute, Obama backed off.…”

Rose: “But, as you know, in Georgia, people will make the case that Russian troops remain, and that it was a very different situation, because we did not or were not able to respond more. So what’s the lesson of that, in your own administration?”

Cheney: “The lesson of that, I think, it was – it came at a time, sort of at the end of the Bush administration, the beginning of the Obama administration. But it was of deep concern to our friends in Western Europe. We did take some steps in terms of providing assistance to Georgia. We have ships in the region and so forth. So there were steps taken, but they weren’t effective in terms of driving Putin out. And part of the problem in that case, there was a question about who actually provoked whom with respect to the Georgians and the Russians.”

That’s vintage Cheney. He started off by blaming Russian aggression in Ukraine on Obama’s weakness. Rose pointed out that Russia did much the same thing in Georgia when Cheney was vice president, and that Cheney and President Bush didn’t do more about it than Obama is doing now. The implication in Rose’s remark was that if anything emboldened Russia to send troops to Ukraine, it was what Bush and Cheney did in Georgia, not what Obama did in Syria.

Cheney’s response was to pretend that the Russian aggression against Georgia came at “the beginning of the Obama administration.” That’s hilarious. The action that might have been deterred by a stronger U.S. response, even theoretically, was over by the time Bush and Cheney left office. Cheney’s parting excuse – that “there was a question about who actually provoked whom” in Georgia – was valid. But that’s also true in Ukraine, where, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan points out, the parliament dissolved the courts and threw out the Russian-backed president without properly impeaching him. Cheney applied the “she asked for it” excuse to his own situation, but not to Obama’s.

Contrast that performance with the comments of Bob Gates on “Fox News Sunday.” Gates served former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush as deputy director and then director of the CIA. He was defense secretary to George W. Bush and remained in that job, until 2011, under Obama. Chris Wallace prodded him to give the Obama-bashing answers Fox News viewers wanted to hear. Gates disappointed them:

Wallace: “You’ve defended President Obama’s handling of the situation this week. But in January you said you thought that President Obama made a big mistake when he set the red line for the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Here’s what you warned: ‘If you cock the pistol you’ve got to be willing to fire it.’ By ‘cocking the pistol’ – whether it’s on the red line in Syria or giving asylum to Edward Snowden – and then not firing it, you really don’t think that President Obama has emboldened Putin at all?…”

Gates: “Putin invaded Georgia when George W. Bush was president. Nobody ever accused George W. Bush of being weak or unwilling to use military force. So I think Putin is very opportunistic in these arenas. I think that even if we had launched attacks in Syria, even if we weren’t cutting our defense budget, I think Putin saw an opportunity here in Crimea, and he has seized it.…”

Wallace: “But just in terms of optics, do you think it’s helpful for President Obama to take the weekend off in the middle of what you call a crisis to be playing golf in Florida?”

Gates: “Well, you know, I’ve seen this happen year after year, president after president. President takes a day or two off and plays golf. It doesn’t matter whether it’s President Obama, or the first President Bush going fishing. I think you’ve got to give these guys a little time off. You know, mostly they are working 20 hours a day.”

That’s what happens when there’s an adult in the room. The hypocrisy of whining about Obama’s golf game, or blaming him for Russian aggression, gets called out for what it is.

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