With tensions in Crimea continuing to swell, so too has friction between the United States and Russian governments. On Monday, President Obama issued an executive order instituting travel bans and freezing the assets of Russian government officials believed to be responsible for Moscow’s military action in Crimea. The President further condemned Russia’s actions as clear violations of international law, hypocritically asserting a noninterventionist standard of international diplomacy that his own administration fails to follow.
"Although Russia has legitimate interest in what happens in a neighboring state," the President noted earlier this month, "that does not give it the right to use force as a means of exerting influence inside of that state." Sound familiar? President Obama made a completely contradictory case in favor of foreign intervention in Libya just two years ago, claiming that "[t]here will be times, though, when our safety is not directly threatened, but our interests and values are." Which is it, Mr. President? Can a country intervene if it has a "legitimate interest" to do so, or not?
The President’s hypocrisy in condemning the Kremlin for violating international law is incredible considering that the European Parliament rebuked the US drone program just two weeks ago, deeming it to violate international law by an overwhelming majority of 534 to 49.
Not more than six months ago, the world also watched as Obama pushed hard for congressional approval to engage in a military attack in Syria. Despite widespread dissension within the US, action in Syria would have violated both international law and the United Nations Charter just like Putin’s actions in Crimea. As David Davenport of Forbes explains, the use of poisonous gas in war is outlawed by a 1925 Geneva Protocol, but that doesn’t forbid its use domestically, no matter how heinous. An expanded Chemical Weapons Treaty, formed in 1993, also exists, but Syria is not a member. Further, the UN Charter only permits military force against another country for reasons of self defense or if it is sanctioned by the Security Council, for which the plan in Syria was not.
Clearly Obama’s current cries of international law violations in Crimea don’t carry the necessary weight. Yet, that hasn’t stopped Secretary of State John Kerry from echoing his sentiment in support of sanctions.
On CBS’ Face the Nation, Kerry called Putin’s seizing of Crimea as an "incredible act of aggression." Pushing further, he reinforced the country’s current double standard by stating, "You don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext."
Perhaps President Obama and Secretary Kerry have forgotten about the United States’ foray into Iraq just over a decade ago – for which former President George Bush never sought UN approval – or the recent uncovering of rampant NSA spying internationally, or even Obama’s 2008 election promise to end former President George Bush’s preemptive wars.
It is one thing for a nation to have a vested interest in the outcome of a conflict. However, condemning another nation for actions akin to your own is a whole other hypocritical item. Just as Obama sidestepped UN approval on Syria, he now chastises Russia now for doing the same.
International law is a fickle beast. It’s a set of loose regulations that countries agree to follow, but are really only enforced when it suits them to do so. No one is condoning Russian advances in Crimea, and certainly the merits of such action can be debated another day. In the meantime, the Obama’s administration should stop pretending Russia is the only country playing by 19th century rules.
Andrew Woodbury is a writer, editor, and educator from Toronto, Canada who has lived and worked in Costa Rica for three years. He is a columnist with the PanAm Post, editor with online magazine Overseas Lifestyles, and academic director of Global TESOL College Costa Rica. Andrew’s works have also appeared in The Tico Times, the Costa Rican Times, and he is a regular guest on network radio program This Week in Costa Rica.