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Debate over who, in US, is to blame for Ukraine

In Moscow, especially in the not-so-good old days, the question almost always asked is kto vinovat: "Who is to blame?" The American capital now finds itself engaged in that very Russian exercise ever since President Vladimir V. Putin's troops entered Ukraine.

Many on the right maintain that Moscow's land grab is President Obama's fault for pursuing a foreign policy of weakness. Some on the left contend that it is former President George W. Bush's fault for invading Iraq and providing a precedent. And across the political spectrum there are accusations that it is the intelligence community's fault for failing to anticipate that Russia would send troops to the Crimean Peninsula.

(Read more: Ukraine's Klitschko: Putin is scared of what's happening)

The who-lost-Ukraine debate eerily echoes the sorts of recriminations common during the Cold War, starting with the who-lost-China reproaches after Communists took power in Beijing in 1949, but this time fueled by 21st-century technology and flavored by 21st-century politics. On Twitter and cable television talk shows as well as in speeches, columns and congressional hearings, partisans have wasted little time trying to frame the crisis in Eastern Europe as an indictment of their political opponents.

Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine.
Getty Images I Sean Gallup/Staff
Unarmed Ukrainian troops bearing their regiment and the Ukrainian flags march to confront soldiers under Russian command occupying the Belbek airbase in Crimea on March 4, 2014 in Lubimovka, Ukraine.

As president, Mr. Obama naturally has absorbed most of the criticism, accused of being too soft not only in his dealings with Mr. Putin of Russia, but also with Syria, Iran and other rogue players on the world stage. The coincidental timing of his proposal to slash the Army to pre-World War II size only gave additional ammunition to the hawks. And some made sure to put former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the cross hairs as well, recognizing her possible presidential campaign in 2016.

"This is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, told a conservative political group.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on the Senate floor, "The president has eroded American credibility in the world."

Most provocative, perhaps, was Senator Lindsey Graham, who faces aRepublican primary challenge from the right in South Carolina. He traced the Ukrainian crisis to the 2012 attack on the United States diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the envoy to Libya and three other Americans. "It started with Benghazi," Mr. Graham said on Twitter. "When you kill Americans and nobody pays a price, you invite this type of aggression." He added in another post: "Putin basically came to the conclusion after Benghazi, Syria, Egypt — everything Obama has been engaged in — he's a weak indecisive leader."

(Read more: Why Crimea matters)

The White House fired back. "GOP criticism of Pres Obama jumped the shark today when they started saying Benghazi is one of the reasons for what is happening in Crimea," Dan Pfeiffer, the president's senior adviser, wrote on Twitter.

The emerging critique has clearly gotten under the president's skin as well. Without waiting to be asked, he rebutted the idea that Mr. Putin had gotten the upper hand. "I would also note just the way that some of this has been reported, that there's a suggestion somehow that the Russian actions have been clever strategically," Mr. Obama said Tuesday. "I actually think that this has not been a sign of strength but rather is a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling."

The case against Mr. Obama has been building for years. Critics accuse him of caving in to Russia by recalibrating plans for missile defense in Europe and focusing too much on trying to repair relations with Moscow. They point to Syria and the "red line" he warned President Bashar al-Assad not to cross by using chemical weapons as well as his failure to follow through with a planned retaliatory strike.

To White House officials, the weakness narrative rings hollow against a president who initially tripled troop levels in Afghanistan, escalated drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere, and ordered the strike that killed Osama bin Laden. Mr. Obama's defenders note that Mr. Putin did not hesitate to go to war with Georgia when Mr. Bush was president.

But Mr. Bush has also not emerged from the current episode unscathed. Some liberals have said his invasion of Iraq made it hard for the United States to complain about Russia invading another country.

On her MSNBC show, Rachel Maddow said, "There is an awkwardness about the United States government trying to lead a response to international outrage to that violation when we're only a couple of years out from our own near-decade of war in Iraq, which was a war that was, of course, also launched on a trumped-up false pretext."

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Chris Matthews, another MSNBC host, echoed that. "The same people who blew the bugles for us to invade that country, Iraq, are blowing the bugle because some other country, Russia, did something a little bit like it," he said. "Well, the big difference is, need I say, the tens of thousands of bodies the Bush-Cheney crowd left in their trail."

Mr. Bush's defenders said it was ludicrous for liberals to keep trying to pin Mr. Obama's own failures on his predecessor more than five years after he left office.

The debate played out on Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee. Representative Howard McKeon, the Republican chairman, said the Ukrainian showdown argued against Mr. Obama's military cuts. "The president's assumption that the tide of war is receding and that we can safely reduce American hard power in favor of soft power to assure our national security lies in stark contrast to reality," he said.

Representative Adam Smith of Washington, the top committee Democrat, rejected the argument: "Back in 2008, when we had a defense budget well over $700 billion and George W. Bush was president, Putin felt no limitation whatsoever on going into Georgia and essentially taking over two separate provinces."

At a separate Senate hearing, Mr. McCain turned his fire on the nation's intelligence agencies for not forecasting the Russian intervention. "The fact is, Mr. Secretary, it was not predicted by our intelligence, and that's already well known," he scolded Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, calling it "another massive failure." Mr. Hagel countered that the United States had been "well aware of the threats."

(Read more: Could Ukraine trigger a full-blown emerging markets crisis?)

Some Republicans worried that their party was going too far. John Ullyot, a former Senate aide, said it was disingenuous to argue that weakness by Mr. Obama encouraged Russia. "Putin acts in his sphere when he feels the need to act, regardless of who's in the White House," Mr. Ullyot said.

Other Republicans were careful to modulate their criticism by not losing sight of Russia's role. Speaking on CNN, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin shared the party's assertion that Mr. Obama had "projected weakness" that "invites aggression."

"But," he added, "let's be really clear who is to blame for this. Vladimir Putin is to blame for this."