Wars have a way of altering reputations, even in retrospect. Two leaders whose legacies look much worse in light of the war in Ukraine are Angela Merkel and Barack Obama.
The former German Chancellor made her country hostage to Russian energy, badly misjudged Vladimir Putin, and contributed far too little to NATO’s defenses. Her successor has repudiated her legacy in a week.
As for Mr. Obama, he should be remembered as the President who refused to sell lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine—even after Mr. Putin seized Crimea in 2014. He wouldn’t even sell Javelin antitank weapons of the kind that are now helping Ukraine’s military slow Russia’s invading army.
That was bad enough, but his logic for doing so reveals his misunderstanding of both Mr. Putin and world affairs. Here’s an excerpt from a 2016 interview with Mr. Obama in the Atlantic, which often served as his Boswell:
“‘Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,’ [Mr. Obama] said. ‘He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.’”
Mr. Obama went on to say that Ukraine “is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do.”
Clearly Mr. Obama underestimated the Ukrainian people and its leaders, who have shown they are willing and able to defend themselves if they have the weapons. Mr. Obama also failed to understand, throughout his Presidency, that the “nature of power in foreign affairs” still includes military might. Mr. Putin clearly thinks so. Mr. Obama did enormous harm to American power and interests in eight years, and the price is still being paid.