Krauthammer: Obama vs. Putin: The mismatch

Russias President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Barack Obama Russias President Vladimir Putin welcomes President Barack Obama at the start of the G20 summit in Saint Petersburg on Sept. 5, 2013. Photo Credit: Getty Images

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"The United States does not view Europe as a battleground between East and West, nor do we see the situation in Ukraine as a zero-sum game. That's the kind of thinking that should have ended with the Cold War."-- Barack ObamaShould. Lovely sentiment. As lovely as what Obama said five years ago to the United Nations: "No one nation can or should try to dominate another nation."

That's the kind of sentiment you expect from a Miss America contestant asked to name her fondest wish, not from the leader of the free world explaining his foreign policy.

The East Europeans know they inhabit the battleground between the West and Russia. Ukrainians see Russian troops across the border and know they are looking down the barrel of a zero-sum game. Obama thinks otherwise. He says Vladimir Putin's thinking is a relic of the past, and advises Putin to transcend the Cold War.

Good God. Putin hasn't transcended the Russian revolution. Did no one give Obama a copy of Putin's speech upon the annexation of Crimea? Putin railed not only at Russia's loss of empire in the 1990s. He went back to the 1920s: "After the revolution, the Bolsheviks . . . may God judge them, added large sections of the historical South of Russia to the Republic of Ukraine." Putin was referring not to Crimea but to his next potential target: the rest of southeastern Ukraine.

Putin's irredentist grievances go very deep. Obama seems unable to fathom them. Asked whether he'd misjudged Russia, whether it is our greatest geopolitical foe, he disdainfully replied that Russia is nothing but "a regional power."

Where does one begin? Hitler's Germany and Tojo's Japan were also regional powers, yet managed to leave behind at least 50 million dead. And yes, Russia should be no match for American superpower. Yet under Obama, Russia has run rings around America, from his attempted ingratiation via the "reset" to America's empty threats of "consequences" were Russia to annex Crimea.

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What are the allies thinking now? Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines and other Pacific Rim friends are wondering where this America will be as China expands its reach. The Gulf states are near panic as they see the United States playacting nuclear negotiations with Iran that will leave their mortal Shia enemy just weeks away from the bomb.

America never sought the role that history gave it after World War II to bear unbidden burdens "to assure the survival and the success of liberty," as described by John Kennedy. We have an aversion to the stark fact that the alternative to U.S. leadership is either global chaos or dominance by the likes of China, Russia and Iran.

But Obama doesn't seem to recognize this truth. In his Brussels address Wednesday, the day Russia seized the last Ukrainian naval vessel in Crimea, Obama referenced further measures should Russia march deeper into Ukraine, while still emphasizing international law, international norms and international institutions.

Such fanciful thinking will leave our allies with two choices: bend a knee -- or arm to the teeth. Either acquiesce to the regional bully or gird your loins, i.e., go nuclear. As surely will the Gulf states. As will, in time, Japan and South Korea.

Even Ukrainians are expressing regret at having given up their nukes in return for paper guarantees of territorial integrity. The 1994 Budapest Memorandum was ahead of its time -- an example of the kind of advanced 21st-century thinking so cherished by our president. Perhaps the captain of that last Ukrainian vessel should have waved the document at the Russian fleet that took his ship.

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