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Ukraine: Barack Obama’s Legacy At Stake

Barack Obama has plenty of excuses to stand by and let Vladimir Putin have his way.One was inadvertently on display outside Downing Street on Monday – a proposal on a briefing paper ruling out economic sanctions that would affect the City of London.

Barack Obama's Legacy

If Britain bases its response to the crisis on economic nimbyism it’s unlikely to be alone.

Europe has a lot more to lose than America if sanctions go ahead. US trade with Russia comes to about $40bn a year, while Europe’s totals $460bn. Much of Europe relies on Russian oil and gas.

That is why the US wants Europe to prove it is serious about punishing and deterring Russia economically. Administration officials in Washington say they want to see Europe come on board before the US declares sanctions.

But there is a lot more at stake in this, not least personally for Barack Obama.

It is fast becoming the biggest foreign policy test of his presidency and a consensus is emerging that he is flunking it. His critics say it is not good enough to wait for Europe; that America needs to take the lead.

The Washington Post is often inclined to give this president the benefit of the doubt but on Monday its editorial board condemned his foreign policy as being based on fantasy.

“For five years,” wrote the editorial, “President Obama has led a foreign policy based more on how he thinks the world should operate than on reality.”

Others have been harsher.

The president is in his second term with no more elections to fight. The danger is to his legacy and the way his brand of diplomacy and foreign policy is judged by history.

He was criticised for “leading from behind” in Libya but argued he was taking the most prudent line of action.

He vacillated and dithered when Syria crossed his “red line” and used chemical weapons but was saved, ironically, by the Russian plan to disarm the Syrians, even if that plan is only 10% fulfilled and moving past its deadline.

But Ukraine is different. It’s a watershed moment that will determine how all those other episodes are cast in history, and quite possibly make similar episodes more likely in the future.

White House officials are fond of saying the president takes the long view.

‘No drama Obama’ is sounding strikingly laid-back about this, predicting that Russia will eventually see the error of its ways, that the world will rally round and the occupation of Crimea will not be allowed to stand.

Given time, he seems to be saying, Russia will back down because the costs will simply be too great.

But Russia’s capture of Crimea is already a fait accompli and without decisive action will remain that way for some time to come.

If Mr Obama’s foreign policy is to add up to more than wishful thinking, Vladimir Putin will need to be persuaded to change direction. And he is still asking: “Who’s going to make me?”

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