This is a delicate moment for U.S. President Barack Obama. In the face of Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, he has to back the Ukrainians, but not so belligerently as to provoke them to violence. He's got to talk the Russians down, and without resorting to empty threats. It is unfortunate, then, that the man who will convey these nuanced U.S. goals in Ukraine tomorrow is a serial message bungler.
Even before Secretary of State John Kerry left for Kiev, the Obama administration was trying to dial back his comments, in an interview with ABC, that "all options are on the table," an obvious reference to military action. In a briefing afterward, an administration official clarified, "We're looking to de-escalate this."
Perhaps Kerry had been overcompensating for having undersold the administration's taste for action on previous occasions. In Pakistan last summer, the secretary prematurely suggested U.S. drone strikes were coming to an end and his remarks had to be set right by a State Department spokesman. In September, after Kerry said that any U.S. strikes on Syria would be "unbelievably small," Obama himself did the correcting, saying the U.S. "does not do pinpricks."
In the ABC interview and others before leaving for Kiev, Kerry warned that Russia could be expelled from the Group of Eight if its aggression in Crimea isn't reversed. He should be careful not to turn that forecast into a threat, because ousting Russia isn't a U.S. prerogative and Germany, at least, opposes it. In the unguarded language typical of this secretary, Kerry told CBS he'd spoken to the 10 foreign ministers most engaged in the crisis and "all of them, every single one of them, are prepared to go to the hilt in order to isolate Russia." Except for Germany's, it would seem.
We'll see whether this line also comes back to haunt Kerry. As secretary, his most notorious gaffe was to say that the military officers who overthrew Egypt's elected president were "restoring democracy." With Kerry sounding perhaps overly combative before his mission to Kiev, at least we needn't be concerned that he'll also opt for an appeasing line toward Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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