During the 2008 campaign Hillary Clinton famously challenged then Sen. Barack Obama's readiness for the presidency with her "3:00 phone call" ad about a president receiving a call in the middle of the night waking him up to deal with a crisis. Crises have traditionally been the real test of a president since 1945. All presidents feared being labeled as "soft on Communism" during the Cold War or appeasers and so many failed the test by over-reacting.
President Johnson reacted to the Tonkin Gulf incident by ginning up a resolution that was a virtual declaration of war and then turning the Vietnam War from a low-level counterinsurgency campaign into a huge conventional war without the enemy accommodating his plan. Nixon handled the 1972 North Vietnamese invasion of South Vietnam by mining Haiphong Harbor, bombing Hanoi and daring Leonid Brezhnev to cancel his May summit. Nixon stopped the invasion, got his summit and signed the SALT I agreements. Ford's crisis was the Khmer Rouge government of Cambodia taking over an island and taking some Americans hostage. Ford stormed the island for the loss of many Marines and the hostages were later freed unharmed. Carter had two major crises: the Iranian capture of the American embassy in Tehran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Although Carter appeared weak in his handling of the crises he got all of the hostages back unharmed and he started the policy of supporting the mujahideen in Afghanistan that Reagan then took over. Reagan's two crises were the nearly simultaneous bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut and the invasion of Grenada. The Marines paid the price for Reagan taking sides in a civil war in Lebanon while the Marines were vulnerable. But he managed to extricate himself politically from the fallout from that by taking advantage of the request by the Association of East Caribbean States following a coup in Grenada within the Marxist government. Reagan installed a friendly government and rescued a few hundred American medical students who probably were not in any real danger. That was the last real crisis of the Cold War.
The first President Bush came into office very prepared to be a Cold War president but the Cold War soon ended with the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe and Bush handled the aftermath very well. Bush faced two real crises in his presidency. The first was the acting out of Manuel Noriega against American troops in the Canal Zone. Bush possibly over-reacted by invading, but he managed to get rid of a troublesome dictator who was involved in cocaine trafficking. The next crisis was Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Bush set the standard for crisis response by organizing an international response that ousted Saddam's forces and he had the Japanese and Gulf Arabs pay for the effort. But then he set his successor up for failure by intervening in Somalia in his final weeks in office without any clear exit strategy. Clinton then failed in Somalia, but the failure was really Bush's. Clinton's "big" crisis was the military takeover in Haiti. Clinton sent Jimmy Carter and Colin Powell in to negotiate with the junta backed by an invasion force. It was soon resolved. But Clinton failed the test early on in Bosnia, largely because he relied on the Europeans to respond and they failed. He then failed the test in Rwanda--largely by responding to the lessons of Somalia--where intervention by a small American or international force could have quickly ended the genocide.
George W. Bush faced his big crisis test with 9/11. He responded magnificently by organizing the ouster of the Taliban government from Afghanistan. But then he decided to build his entire presidency around the Global War on Terror. In Trumanesque fashion he created a Homeland Security Dept. and then invaded Iraq to finish the job that his father left, without ever having a realistic exit strategy. So as a result Obama inherited two wars when he came into office--wars that enabled a novice state politician to assume the presidency as the antiwar candidate. Obama organized his foreign policy around shutting down Bush's wars while responding to the remainder of Al Qaeda through focused efforts. Obama managed to successfully extricate the United States from the Iraqi civil war in a way that Nixon failed at because of Watergate. This earned him reelection. The retreat from Afghanistan has proved a bit more difficult but still doable.
Now Obama is faced by an expansionist bid by a post-Soviet Russian dictator in Europe. The record of American presidents responding to crises in the Soviet sector of Europe is rather mixed. Truman used the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia to organize NATO as a Western alliance to halt the spread of Communism in Europe. Eisenhower ignored the brutal suppression of revolt in East Germany in 1953. Eisenhower flubbed the Soviet invasion of Hungary three years later--but there was little effectively that he could have done. He did oppose the Franco-British invasion of Egypt and forced Israel out of Sinai and Gaza. But he did it in a way that kept peace for another decade. Today some hold that up as an example of how to behave in the Middle East. In 1968 Johnson reacted to the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia by cancelling scheduled arms control talks that were then left to the Nixon administration to start. Reagan could do little about the Polish government crackdown on Solidarity in December 1980. Reagan's effective resistance to Soviet rule in the East bloc was his "tear down this wall" speech in 1985. Reagan supporters have since taken credit for the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as if Reagan's speech rather than Gorbachev's decisions were responsible.
In 1947-48 American diplomat George Kennan originated the strategy of containment. He later deplored the overly military interpretation of his strategy. Kennan saw military alliances as merely one part of the strategy. He later became a foe of nuclear weapons. The other parts were intellectual engagement, economic recovery in Western Europe and time. As long as Kennan lived, he did not make it to the present crisis. I have a feeling though that he would have urged Obama to allow time to do its trick. Russian habits of despotism and obedience have twice in the last century defeated attempts to democratize the Russian Empire. The first time, during and in the aftermath of World War I, a far worse form of despotism took hold and ruled for three quarters of a century, in effect the "short Twentieth Century" from 1918 to 1992. In the second instance in the late 1990s a form of Russian kleptocracy, Orthodox nationalism, and authoritarianism that may in time be labeled Putinism began. Putin skillfully consolidated his rule within Russia relying on rising oil prices to create a trade off between economic freedom and democracy.
American liberalism and idealism is now pitted against geopolitical realities. During the 1990s the West consolidated its control of Central Europe by assimilating traditional parts of Europe into it by expanding NATO and the European Union. I thought that including the Baltic States was going too far--that we would never be able to defend them in a crisis against a resurgent Russia. The same is true of Ukraine. We should recognize that Ukraine is a deeply-divided entity with a historic consciousness of Ukrainian nationalism only in the Western half where parts of it were ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Ruthenia). This nationalism was then intensified by the Soviet-induced famine of the 1930s known in Ukraine as the kholodomor (hunger death) that accompanied forced collectivization.
Obama's foreign policy agenda for the remainder of his presidency is now dependent upon the good will and cooperation of Putin. Europe is unlikely to initiate and sustain meaningful economic sanctions against Russia or even against individuals within the Russian ruling class. The toughest part of answering that 3:00 a.m. call may be deciding to do nothing. But doing something for the sake of doing something does not always work out for the best.