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Always Having It All Ways

Heavily-armed troops displaying no identifying insignia and who were mingling with local pro-Russian militants stand guard outside a local government building on March 3, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine
Heavily-armed troops displaying no identifying insignia and who were mingling with local pro-Russian militants stand guard outside a local government building on March 3, 2014 in Simferopol, Ukraine
Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It’s a good thing Rudy Giuliani won only one delegate in the 2008 primaries, despite spending $50 million. Given his admiration for Russian leader Vladimir Putin, we Americans might have had to worry about the health of our democracy had he done better.

“Putin decides what he wants to do,” the former mayor of New York told Neil Cavuto of Fox News, “and he does it in half-a-day. Right? He decided he had to go to their parliament. He went to their parliament. He got permission in 15 minutes.” Cavuto demurred, “That was kind of perfunctory, right?” Giuliani was undeterred by this surprising display of reason on Fox: “But he makes a decision and he executes it quickly. Then everybody reacts. That is what you call a leader. President Obama, got to think about it, he's got to go over it again, he's got to talk to more people about it.”

And you thought conservatives previously had labeled Obama a dictator.

But that was last week, when the president tried to lead by issuing executive orders where he legally could to circumvent Republican obstructionism. This week, it’s not the dictatorial Obama, but the “feckless” president, to use John McCain’s term.

Not many Republicans were willing to follow Giuliani in his admiration for Putin, but most agreed with Lindsey Graham when he ungrammatically condemned “a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.” Representative Michael Turner, a Republican from Ohio, said “we’re projecting weakness,” and Representative Ed Royce, a California Republican, claimed recent events make “the administration look weak.”

Calling the president a tyrant one day and a vacillating weakling the next is either what Republicans think good politics (though such a strategy demonstrates contempt for the good sense of the American public public) or an instance of sloppy thinking.

Probably the latter, since Obama’s opponents believe he is always wrong, a belief that prevents them from considering their own inconsistencies.

And they are inconsistent — both for calling Obama a despot one week and spineless the next and for demanding the president come up with a stronger response to the Russian invasion of Crimea without offering one of their own.

No one wants a military response in Ukraine, just as no one wanted a military response in 2008 when Putin got away with invading Georgia. As for specifics, Republicans have suggested Obama send his secretary of state to Kiev, which he has done, or consider sanctions, which he is doing, or boycott the June G-8 summit in Sochi, which is under consideration.

Besides being inconsistent, Republican criticism of the president obscures who the villain is in the current crisis. It’s not Barack Obama; it’s Vladimir Putin. It’s Putin who shows contempt for international norms by invading a neighboring country, a move he got away with in 2008 and may well do so again. He may succeed, not because Obama is weak but because the international community has no stomach for strong action and because there are no good options available to the administration.

The United States and its allies have little leverage in this crisis. Throw Russia out of the G-8? It may be appropriate, but it’s doubtful such a move will deter Putin, who probably cares far more about Ukraine than he does about Russia’s membership in the club for rich countries.

It remains to be seen how much Russia benefits from its aggression in Crimea. Putin’s actions may well drive Ukraine further into the West’s orbit, undermining his efforts to exert Russian influence over what he calls “the near abroad.”

In the short run, though, there’s not much the United States can do to stop Russia. Putin did not invade Crimea because Obama is weak, and he won’t pull out tomorrow if the president is strong.

Republicans can cavil all they want, but all they demonstrate is that it’s easy to call for strong action when you do an interview in a television studio or give a speech.

It’s always easiest to have it all ways when you sit on the sidelines.