Following bitter internal discussions within a deeply divided U.S. national security team, President Barack Obama decided to send a delegation to a memorial service for the Ukrainian army officer killed in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s successful annexation of the Crimea.
The White House debate, among the most contentious of Obama’s 5-year-old presidency, threatened to disrupt U.S. foreign policy in the region and called into question if the administration can act in a rapid and coherent fashion.
Administration hawks, including U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power, had pushed for U.S. representation at the service.
“Sending a delegation to the memorial sends Putin a strong message that the United States will not forget the Ukrainian people,” she said.
Others within the administration reportedly worried that such a provocative stance could send the wrong signal to the Russians, upsetting the president’s vaunted “Reset” (“Overload,” in Russian) of relations.
The internal wrangling forced Obama to break the deadlock. Those present at the meeting said the president took the “extraordinary step” of pausing coverage of the NCAA “Sweet Sixteen” to tell his National Security team that the United States had to strike a bold blow for freedom. He would send a delegation, he told them.
“I am the decider,” Obama reportedly said with a smile as aides chuckled, remembering former President George W. Bush’s brash self-description. Growing serious, Obama added that his decision to send a team to the freedom fighter’s memorial had been more difficult than selecting Michigan State over Louisville for the national championship.
To appease aides who had opposed the tougher line, the president said he would not send Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry to the Ukraine, but aides report that he has allowed them to appear in photographs holding signs that read, #UnitedForUkraine. CIA Director John Brennan explained: “We believe that launching a Twitter bomb is a truly 21st century response to Putin’s failed 19th century policies. Already social media are trending heavily against Putin.”
“Let me be clear,” Obama reportedly told his aides. “Sending a delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland is a strong affirmation of U.S. interest in the welfare of the Ukrainian people. It will, in effect, say to the Russian leader, Mr. Putin: ‘We will honor the dead, even if you invade the rest of the Ukraine, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, or Poland.’”
Presidential aide Valerie Jarrett noted that the decision to have Nuland herself carry a dozen oranges to the ceremony in honor of the Ukraine’s Orange Revolution was “pure Obama.” Jarrett said, “The president’s use of oranges shows his incredible empathy and knowledge about foreign cultures.” Orange, she explained, “is the color of Ukrainian freedom and reportedly Putin’s favorite color. In essence, the president is telling Putin that he does not have a monopoly on this color.”
Republican Sen. John McCain, speaking before a hastily arranged foreign policy forum at the University of Iowa, said that America “needs experience in the White House in these troubled times.” Cryptically, he added, “Only a maverick can stand up to Putin.”
Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, himself coincidentally at a hastily arranged Iowa speaking engagement, said, “The best person to stand up to Putin” is one who was “right about him when it mattered.” He was corrected by CNN reporter Candy Crowley, who pointed out that the president had said Russia had been a threat since the 1980s.
Sen. Rand Paul, also in Iowa, accused the president of “taking deliberately provocative actions.” The Kentucky senator told a cheering crowd of college students, “We have no business interfering in a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” He concluded, to a standing ovation, “Come home America.”
A smiling former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had no comment.