Douglas Cohn: Obama faces go-no-go lose-lose predicament in Sochi

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WASHINGTON – President Obama has ordered the U.S. military into position to evacuate the U.S. delegation and American athletes from Sochi if that should become necessary. This could be seen as a slap at Russian President Putin, but given all the ominous signals relating to security in advance of the Winter Olympic Games, Obama is acting wisely in beefing up the American military presence.

With less than two weeks to build confidence in the security around the games, Obama could be facing a major decision. If U.S. intelligence agencies come to him and say there is a high probability of terrorist acts at Sochi, and Americans will be targeted and killed if they attend, what does he do? If he orders the athletes to stay home, there would be a huge outcry.  It would be giving in to the terrorists.  It would also further sour relations with Putin at a time when his help is needed to ease the humanitarian crisis in Syria and resolve the civil war there.

If Obama goes ahead with U.S. participation as everyone expects he will, and something dire happens, he’ll get the blame. It’s part of leadership.

Obama and Putin talked by phone this week, and Putin’s initial reluctance to accept the president’s offer of assistance appears to be melting away in the face of the terrorist threat to the games. Putin has a lot riding on the success of the Olympics, and might therefore be willing to set aside a bit of his pride to defend his country and his people.

Obama has a lot at stake in the upcoming games too. He wants them to go smoothly for the sake of the athletes, and he doesn’t want to be put in the position of pulling out of the games to avoid a potential security risk. President Carter boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow to protest the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Carter’s decision had the effect of punishing U.S. athletes who had worked so hard to get to the games, while accomplishing nothing diplomatically.

Carter’s situation was very different from the predicament that Obama could face if the security picture doesn’t improve before the games begin in February. Obama wants American athletes to fully participate, but he doesn’t want another Munich. The “Black September” terrorist attack on the 1972 Summer Games in Munich resulted in the deaths of 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team.

Last weekend, two men claiming they were behind a recent pair of terror attacks on civilians in the Russian city of Volgograd released a 49-minute video in which they demonstrated their assembly of explosive devices. In Sochi, Russian police put up fliers with the pictures of three so-called “black widows,” women whose husbands were killed in the ongoing separatist rebellion in Chechnya and Dagestan. Seeking vengeance, they are suspected of being suicide bombers.

 One of them, the 22-year-old wife of a dead Islamist militant, is thought to be in Sochi, possibly posing as a tourist. Women were first used as suicide bombers in this part of the world in 2000, and then in 2002, when a Moscow theater was under siege, and again in 2010 on Moscow subway trains. They’ve become almost commonplace in acts of terrorism against civilians, a particularly brutal form of warfare favored by militants in the two breakaway republics.

The State Department issued a carefully worded warning last week, saying the games in Sochi may be an “attractive target” for terrorists. U.S. citizens are urged to be “attentive” to their surroundings, avoid areas without “enhanced security measures,” and exercise “good judgment and discretion when using any form of public transportation.” It’s a yellow warning light, not a red stop sign. But for Obama, it is a potentially go-no-go lose-lose situation.

U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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