Obama Takes a Leaf Out of the Reagan Playbook

President Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama holds a speech at Bozar concert hall in Brussels March 26, 2014. Yves Herman/Reuters

They call it a tentpole speech, one of the big moments of a presidential trip.

So when Barack Obama strolled across the stage of the Palais Des Beaux Arts in Brussels on Wednesday, everyone knew it would be a big moment, better orchestrated and vetted than his odd comments, delivered Tuesday in the Netherlands, that Russia was a mere "regional power."

Instead, he offered a full-throated denunciation of Russia's annexation of Ukraine and a vow to stand with NATO allies.

There was no wishing that Russia was weak. Today he took the Russian bear for what it is—aggressive and stepping away from the established world order it had tentatively embraced after the Cold War.

Obama denounced Russia's "brute force" and said it had run "roughshod" over its neighbors. Addressing and rejecting Moscow's charge that the U.S. was being hypocritical—having invaded Iraq without U.N. approval and encouraged a Kosovo plebiscite—Obama noted that the vote in the Balkans was under U.N. auspices and that he had opposed the Iraq conflict.

"We did not grab its resources for our own gain," Obama said in words that might have made even Dick Cheney smile. "Instead, we ended our war and left Iraq to its people in a fully sovereign Iraqi state that can make decisions about its own future."

The president didn't offer more sanctions or any other ideas to dislodge Russia from Crimea. And he also made it clear he didn't regard this crisis as akin to the long, twilight struggle with the Soviets.

"Understand as well, this is not another Cold War that we're entering into," Obama said before some 2,000 guests, mostly students. "After all, unlike the Soviet Union, Russia leads no bloc of nations, no global ideology. "

That's true, of course. There's no Che Guevara or Mao Zedong who will find inspiration in Russia's black-masked march to Sevastopol. But it's not likely to be a quick affair either. Russian nationalism has been stirred and seems unlikely to diminish anytime soon.

Which leaves this president—and the one that follows him in less than three years—with the dull blade of sanctions and a razor-sharp need to keep the Europeans together. But as Obama himself said, the U.S. had no realpolitik stake in Ukraine. It's far away, and Washington doesn't have the economic entanglement with Moscow that Berlin or Krakow does.

That left Obama to deliver a rousing defense of freedom, a little updated Reaganism that cheered "free markets," Czech dissidents, Nelson Mandela, Burmese parliamentarians and other harbingers of liberty. In that sense, Obama's speech had some elements of the Reagan Berlin Wall speech. It was defiant and clear.

And like Reagan, Obama ultimately had no choice but to appeal to Moscow. "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," Reagan famously said. It was an appeal, maybe a demand, but certainly not an order. Reagan's options were to hike military spending; push back at the edges of Soviet ambition, such as Nicaragua; and hope the contradictions of Communism would do their magic.

They did. Obama faces a lesser challenge, Putinism vs. Communism, but a harder one in some ways. Russia's petro-economy is not in Soviet-style decline, and Putin is immensely popular. A handful of sanctions won't discredit Putinism.

For Reagan, it was up to the Soviet leader to choose whether to comply, just as Obama knows it's up to Putin.