What Obama Learned From Syria: Say Nothing

Far from drawing a "red line," the president has said little since Putin expanded his reach into Crimea. It's not a bad strategy, so far.

President Barack Obama makes a statement to the news media about Ukraine in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House March 6, 2014 in Washington, DC. (National Journal)

A week ago, when President Obama delivered his first message on the crisis in Crimea, pundits were quick to criticize him for lack of substance. "President Obama Speaks on Ukraine, Says Virtually Nothing," read the headline at Slate.

A few days later, he warned there would be "costs" for any military intervention in Ukraine. It was a vague threat, and Obama showed no interest in expanding on it or spelling out exactly what he meant by Russian military intervention.

For this he's been criticized by conservatives like The Washington Post's Marc Thiessen, who wrote in a Monday column that "Obama's weakness emboldens Putin." So far, however, aside from Thiessen and the Sarah Palin types intent on making petty attacks on the president's machismo, his approach seems to be going pretty well.

If Obama learned anything from the confrontation with Syria this fall, it's that it's best not to box your administration in with rhetoric. Obama famously backed himself into a corner with regard to military intervention in Syria's civil war back in August  2012 with his reportedly unscripted "red line" utterance. If "we starting seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized," that would be a "red line" that would "change my equation," Obama said at the time.

A year later, that red line promise would come back to haunt him. In a piece titled "Obama's Foreign Policy by Faux Pas," National Journal described how that "red line" became the administration's official position and that "the genie couldn't be put back into the bottle." (That is, until another unscripted remark, this one from Secretary of State John Kerry, miraculously saved the day.)

In fact, Obama was still taking flak for his handling of the situation in Syria as recently as Friday morning, when Oliver North, a contributor on Fox News, made a jab at the president during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, accusing Obama of drawing "phony red lines with a pink crayon."

He isn't making the mistake again. Thursday night Obama and Vladimir Putin had what The New Republic deemed "a very unproductive phone call" in which Obama emphasized resolving the situation diplomatically and coordinating with his European partners.

Obama, it's clear, is very willing to sit back and let a larger network of forces take their toll on Russia. He isn't the first American president to be confronted by provocations and military actions from Moscow but he is, as National Journal noted on Thursday, the first to have a broad range of highly effective nonmilitary responses at his disposal.

Putin has brushed off the threat of sanctions and the suspension of preparations for a G-8 organization summit in Sochi in June. But that display of confidence is already ringing hollow.

Russia is more economically isolated than ever before and that means, despite Putin's resounding shrug, the country is vulnerable. Russian markets have plummeted since Putin expanded forces into Crimea and the ruble is down more than 8 percent since the beginning of the year.

With numbers like those, Obama is perfectly happy to keep playing the waiting game.