Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
February 6, 2016

Ukraine Crisis Dimly Illuminates Public Ambivalence | Procedural Politics

In our democratic policy process, there is an obvious link between popular sentiment and our elected leaders. However, matters can be somewhat murky when it comes to foreign policy. That’s due in part to the deference paid by the people and Congress to the president’s role in acting and speaking for the nation, at least at the outset of international incidents. It is also due in part to the public’s low level of knowledge and interest in foreign affairs.

President John F. Kennedy perhaps best explained why foreign policy should be treated differently. In a Salt Lake City speech in September 1963, he said, “The purpose of foreign policy is not to provide an outlet for our own sentiments of hope or indignation; it is to shape real events in a real world.”

Still, Congress and public opinion do come into play whenever an international crisis erupts. The current crisis involving Russian military intervention in Ukraine helps illuminate the complex dynamic at the intersection of the presidency, Congress and the people.

President Barack Obama’s policy of not providing lethal military assistance to Ukraine while working with our allies to marshal diplomatic and economic pressures against Russia is consistent with his overall foreign policy approach. If there is an emerging Obama Doctrine it involves encouraging multilateral action when the U.S. is not directly threatened. The reluctance to reengage militarily anywhere is consonant with the wishes of Congress and the people in the weary wake of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

A late April poll by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal showed 45 percent disapproval of the president’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, and only 37 percent approval — a turnaround from an early March poll by the same pollster showing a 43 percent-41 percent approval-disapproval breakdown. A larger number in the most recent poll, 53 percent, disapprove the president’s overall handling of foreign policy, with just 38 percent approving.

Foreign affairs analyst Robert Kagan surmises that this paradox of greater dissatisfaction with the president’s overall handling of foreign policy compared to his specific policies can be attributed to public unhappiness with America’s perceived retreat as leader of the free world.

That same late April NBC/WSJ poll showed 47 percent favored a less active U.S. role in world affairs, 19 percent favored a more active role, and 30 percent favored current levels of involvement. However, 55 percent agreed we need a president “who will present an image of strength that shows America’s willingness to confront our enemies and stand up for our principles.” Just 39 percent felt we need a president who shows a more open approach and willingness to negotiate with friends and foes alike.

On Ukraine, this ambivalence over foreign policy played out in Congress, with some members noisily criticizing the president for not providing more military aid to Ukraine and for not imposing tougher sanctions on the Russians, while others were quietly content to use less dramatic means to defuse the situation. Congress moved haltingly in the early days of the crisis, balking at the administration’s requested reforms in the International Monetary Fund to better deal with economic crises like Ukraine.

What started as a more ambitious 40-page bill devolved into two modest laws totaling 12 pages. One provided $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, authorized $50 million in democracy support, and imposed mandatory targeted sanctions on the Russians. The other authorized (but did not appropriate) an additional $10 million in stepped-up Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Voice of America broadcasts to the region. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said of the broadcast booster: “As drafted, it is an unfunded mandate.”

The public was probably unaware of either enactment because the measures tiptoed through and around committees of jurisdiction without recorded votes or reports and then passed both chambers overwhelmingly without controversy, fanfare or signing ceremony. For Congress the watchwords were bipartisan, “first step” and presidential support, while it stayed far enough back should anything go wrong. It might be called, “following from behind.”

It is hard to grasp how the most transparent branch of government can sometimes stutter-step so stealthily. But, as a reactive and representative body it is simply reflecting in a mirror dimly the people’s mixed mindset.

Don Wolfensberger is a resident scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and former staff director of the House Rules Committee.

  • JohnnyAngel Advocacy Group

    Sounds like FDR’s reasoning and look what happened there. Appeasing malevolent leaders establishes no working boundaries they need to fear. Hence, it’s not our problem attitude still brings war and involves us sooner or later. Waiting most always makes it worse.

  • Alexis Bannister

    Here we find a delusional Nancy Pelosi desperately attempting to defend Hussein Obama’s lies about your medical care:

    • pitch1934

      What bearing does this have on the article above. It is immaterial and irrelevant. Sheesh!

  • pitch1934

    How quickly we forget that a wise military man, DDE, stood by when the commies crushed and I mean CRUSHED the revolt in Hungary in 1957. We cannot be everywhere for everybody. We have to pick and choose and do so wisely.

  • Katness Everdean

    Here’s a brief refresher on Hussein Obama’s violent rhetoric:

  • Layla

    Six million died the last time we followed this policy. How many will die now? We have a COWARD in the White House.

    • Jack Everett

      True and his name was George W. Bush the National Guard deserter.

  • Henry Ko

    Hussein Obama is seriously delusional.

    • Jack Everett

      Anti American rhetoric is delusional.

  • Jack Everett

    Kennedy started our military industrial complex we suffer from today by ignoring Eisenhower’s warning against it. Our constitution forbids congress to create a standing military for longer than two years and fund it yet every two years the funding takes place at a higher and higher level. America is not defending the free world it’s occupying it for personal corporate gain. It’s not the mission of the military to be a job creator. We have been occupying Europe since the end of WWII, countries that we call Allie and friend for no reason but corporate profits. Wherever we help anyone we always refuse to move out and this expansionism is one of the things that is bringing our own roof down on us. Our political parties have merged into one party that supports selling our jobs and technology to communists and making illegal immigrants free citizens and all for corporate fascist gain. The constitution is nothing but a worthless piece of paper as long as we refuse to recognize the laws that create and support it. The Ukraine is just another made up hot spot to try and make Russia go into another cold war we can’t win. We have no business there.

    Is a new Cold War looming? It seems so. This shouldn’t be happening, but it is. Cold War Obama-Style So Much Danger, So Little Resistance

    “Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.” – Samuel Adams

    “Labour to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire, called conscience.” – George Washington – 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, 1737

    “War like members of the Senate are calling for U.S. military exercises in 10 countries around Russia. And they have even introduced legislation calling for the U.S. to spend $10 billion meddling in the internal politics of Russia.” Ukraine: The Fuse Has Been Lit The Russian Aggression Prevention Act of 2114

    “America policy in Ukraine – has now become directly tied to the personal family fortunes of the American Vice President and Secretary of State.” Night of the Hunter: Family Values in American Foreign Policy

  • Yonatan YONATAN


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