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The all-powerful US president?

After events in Crimea, it seems unfathomable to many in the US that Obama can't simply say something and it comes true.
Last modified: 11 Mar 2014 03:38

There are some days that I wake up just feeling contrary. Today is one of those days.

It often happens after I clue in to the conventional wisdom that seems to suddenly be everywhere in Washington.

The new line on Russia's actions in Crimea can be summed up by this question from David Gregory on Sunday's "Meet the Press" programme speaking to an Obama administration official:

Gregory: "Let me talk about the crisis in Ukraine. Since this started the president and his top officials have issued it seems like line after line and Putin seems to have crossed them all? Why does the president and the United States generally have so little influence over this?"

First of all, I can't remember any lines the president has issued. I'm pretty sure after what happened with a potential Syria intervention, he's banned from even mentioning the colour red.

What the president has done is ask the Russians to talk, say it's a violation of international law and warn that the Russians would be isolated internationally.

He has approved sanctions, but no one has actually been named in those sanctions yet. It seems unfathomable to many in Washington that President Barack Obama can't simply say something and make it come true.

The logic seems to be, if Obama was feared, everyone would obey his every command.

Some examples:

Republican Senator Ted Cruz: "A critical reason for Putin's aggression has been President Obama's weakness. That Putin fears no retribution."

Journalist Charles Rose: "So that's the question. Do you believe that President Putin believes that President Obama is weak and will pass through his red lines and therefore he should be tested?"

Democratic Senator Chris Coons: "I, frankly, think this is partly a result of our perceived weakness because of our actions in Syria."

Let's remember what happened in Syria. President Obama repeatedly talked about red lines and all options on the table if Syria used chemical weapons.

He was very slow to respond and when he did many people described his reaction as simply confusing. He eventually went to Congress for permission to launch a limited military strike, and members of Congress were close to saying no, because the American people didn't want it.

The Obama administration has a hard time explaining the process of its Syria policy instead focusing on the end result. Their reaction to these latest claims of weakness has been to focus on their work building an international coalition.

What they haven't said is that the president is not God. The power of his position doesn't mean the rest of the world has to listen to him without question, regardless of who has the job.

George W Bush criticised what Russia did in Georgia, but his words didn't stop that either. This is a tough one for every president. Americans like to talk about being the world's remaining superpower.

Politicians like to talk about the US being the envy of the world. No one likes to admit that power still has its limits. It just seems to go against the American grain.

I can't help but wonder what the US would do in this hypothetical situation. Let's say the Atlantic fleet was headquartered in Puerto Rico and civilians forced the elected leader to flee.

The new leaders then pledged allegiance to Venezuela or even Mexico. What would the US do? Would they talk about territorial integrity, or would they move to protect an important asset?

I am not writing any of this to cast judgement on what Russia has done. That is not for me to say as a journalist in Washington, DC. I do think it is my job here to point out some of the hypocrisy in this town. When US commentators talk about the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, perhaps Yemen and Pakistan should come up in the next sentence.

When people talk about a weak president, perhaps the next step shouldn't be to look at his personality, but the position of the country.

The US has been at war since 2001, it is $17 trillion in debt and its economy seems to be growing only for the very rich. Americans didn't want war with Syria; do you really think they are in the mood to take on Russia?

These commentators and politicians would probably respond by saying they aren't talking about going to war. That's true, but they do seem to be saying the president should be able to prevent one with a stern glance and a strong warning.