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GOP's hypocrisy on Ukraine hurts America

By Sally Kohn
updated 12:14 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
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  • Sally Kohn: I was slammed for saying GOP practically cheering Putin while bashing Obama
  • But evidence abounds, in remarks by McCain, Giuliani, many commentators, she says
  • She says Obama already doing what GOP suggests on Ukraine
  • Kohn: GOP's hypocrisy, criticism of President is destructive

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a progressive activist, columnist and television commentator. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn.

(CNN) -- While hosting CNN's Crossfire this week, I said: "Republicans are practically cheering for Vladimir Putin today. He's given them a new excuse to bash President Obama."

I pointed out that Republicans have been slamming Obama for his handling of the Ukraine crisis even though I have not heard a single, specific way in which they would handle the situation differently. No new ideas, just new insults.

The howls came quickly, and my assertion has been repeatedly attacked and mischaracterized. But the evidence to support it is, troublingly, everywhere.

I'm not saying Republicans are pro-Putin or that they want him to invade Ukraine. But they certainly have — conveniently, even gleefully -- found a good way to put Putin's actions to political use at home. Just listen to former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani on Monday: "Putin decides what he wants to do and he does it in half a day... he makes a decision and he executes it. Quickly. Then everybody reacts. That's what you call a leader."

And Sarah Palin: "People are looking at Putin as one who wrestles bears and drills for oil; they look at our President as one who wears mom jeans and equivocates and bloviates."

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

Republican leaders are not only bashing Obama, but appearing to praise Putin.

There's more: Sen. John McCain, R- Arizona, seemed to blame the Ukraine crisis on Obama, telling the American Israel Public Affairs Committee this week, "this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America's strength anymore."

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, has weighed in: "We have a weak and indecisive President that invites aggression," as did Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas: "Emboldened by President Obama's trembling inaction, Vladimir Putin has invaded the Crimea region of Ukraine."

And on and on.

Opinion: 5 lessons for a new Cold War

Listen, there's nothing wrong with criticizing the President's policy positions or actions. To hold a President's feet to the fire over every aspect of government is the job not only of our elected leaders but of all citizens. Substantive dissent is indeed patriotic. But substantive dissent is not what we have here. We have baseless, petty politics that are ultimately counterproductive to America's global standing.

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On Saturday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, published a list of steps he thinks Obama should take to "punish Russia." They included calling Russia's actions an invasion — which, um, Secretary of State John Kerry actually did the same day that Rubio made his demand — and sending Kerry to Kiev, which was announced a day later. The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, called for immediate sanctions against Russia--but the Treasury Department under Obama's direction was already drafting a package of stiff sanctions.

Republicans have also called for visa bans for Russian leaders and asset freezes. Well, on Sunday, Kerry said, "There could even be, ultimately, asset freezes, visa bans. There could be certainly disruption of any of the normal trade routine. There could be business drawback on investment in the country." He said the major world powers are "going to isolate Russia" and "all options are on the table."

U.S. paves way for sanctions on Russians, Ukrainians over Crimea

If the Obama administration is already acting on the initiatives that its Republican critics are demanding in response to the Ukraine crisis, why are they complaining?

Because, they allege, it's because Obama has been so weak for five years that Putin thought he could get away with invading Ukraine. Let's look at that argument more closely.

In August 2008, Vladimir Putin invaded the Republic of Georgia while George W. Bush was President of the United States. Where were the "weakness" complaints from Republicans? Well, conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer — who has said that in the Ukraine situation Obama's "inaction created a vacuum" and who derided the President's statements on Ukraine as "weak" — said of the Georgia invasion back in 2008, "Well, obviously it's beyond our control. The Russians are advancing. There is nothing that will stop them."

Conservative Heritage Foundation national security staffer Peter Brookes exuded a similar calm in 2008: "There's no easy answer; there's only tough choices... Russia is a tough nut to crack." Apparently when a Democrat is president the situation is much simpler. Last Friday, Brookes explained that the Russian invasion of Crimea is proof that "this administration's policy toward Russia has been a failure." Hmmm....

There's another aspect to this Republican hypocrisy. McCain recently called Obama "the most naïve president in history" because of his foreign policy tactics. And yet it was George W. Bush who famously said, upon meeting Putin, "I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straight forward and trustworthy, and we had a very good dialogue. I was able to get a sense of his soul." Did Republicans find him "weak"? "Naïve"?

Contrast this with Obama, who, against considerable odds, wrangled Russia into a constructive role on Iran sanctions, Syrian chemical weapons removal and a new START treaty. It is not merely laughable to call this President, who has unfortunately expanded the use of drone warfare and who also ordered the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, "weak." It is also self-destructive to our national interest, since absent any substantive disagreements, it reveals only national disunity in the face of a global crisis.

It's what Republicans might call -- if the other party were doing it — poor leadership.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Sally Kohn.

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