How goes the campaign to pep up Americans for a new Cold War? If the most recent polling on the Ukraine crisis is to be believed, not very well. According to a survey released yesterday by Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Americans want the U.S. “to take a firm stand” against Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, while 56 percent prefer that the United States “not get too involved in the situation.” Among “independents”—a category much scrutinized and coveted by political operatives of both parties—the skeptical-about-intervention numbers were highest of all: 62 percent versus 25 percent. A mere 16 percent of Republicans supported the certifiably insane position—“consider military options”—while the percentage among Democrats and independents so inclined barely topped the margin of error.
This polls comes after two weeks of intense anti-Putin propagandizing by the Iraq War Party, attempting to reconstitute itself a decade later. We have seen windy laments about American lack of moral backbone from Leon Weiseltier (Jim Sleeper provides a delicious takedown of the closeted neocon here) and “Putin equals Hitler” analogies from Richard Cohen and Hillary Clinton. We have seen the Washington Post and New York Times columnists bloviating against Russia’s Vladimir Putin almost every day, and the major television puff pieces celebrating the rebels who mounted an anti-democratic coup in Kiev’s Maidan Square. (Yes, the coup overthrew a terribly corrupt ruler, but why not simply wait for an election to get rid of him?)
But despite the media barrage, Americans simply don’t find Russia reasserting some sort of hegemonic position in Crimea much to be concerned about. Perhaps they think that what goes on in Crimea isn’t really any of our business. That’s something of a surprise—the sheer intensity of the anti-Putin media barrage made it seem likely that at least some sort of “tough” majority could be temporarily cobbled together in support of anti-Putin measures, but most Americans seem to have tuned it out. Overheated Beltway language implying a Putin blitzkrieg seems somehow unrealistic in the face of a Russian intervention that has not, as of this writing, resulted in the loss of a single life.
Why aren’t the American people following the clues of their media masters? It’s not entirely clear. But I would point to two powerful potential reasons: the real Cold War was about the spread of Communism, which Americans understood to be an evil system, not about hostility to Russia acting like a normal great power. Adam Gopnik makes the point (in a short essay of exceptional lucidity) here:
The point of the Cold War, at least as it was explained by the Cold Warriors, was that it wasn’t a confrontation of great global powers but, rather, something more significant and essential: a struggle of values, waged on a global scale, between totalitarians and liberals. Russia as a nation was incidental—if the Soviets had given up Marxism and on the utopian (or dystopian) remaking of the world, and had been content to act as a regular power, we would have had no war, cold or hot. That, anyway, was what the Cold Warriors claimed—indeed, those who saw Soviet ideology as mere Russian behavior were regarded as historically naïve. And here we are, with a restored Russia, paranoid about encirclement, increasing their leverage in the neighborhood. It may be ugly and it may be wrong, and Ukraine deserves the moral support that small nations always deserve when they are bullied—but it is also historically normal. If we become hysterical every time historical forces assert themselves, there will be no end to the hysteria.
Or, to put it another way (as Pat Buchanan did), there’s a difference between a Russian ruler who murders priests by the thousands and one who jails for a year the Pussy Riot ladies for committing sacrilege.
Then there are some very practical reasons to pause before joining up with the Beltway sanctions brigades. The Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, writing in Al Monitor, points to some issues which may arise if Washington pushes hard over Crimea. One is the fate of our troops in Afghanistan, who are resupplied in part through a Russian base in Ulyanovsk. Of course the troops could be resupplied through Pakistan, and could probably even exit through there if necessary. But it’s likely to be logistically far more difficult, and could potentially cost American lives. Then there is Syria, where Russian and American diplomacy has tentatively cooperated, at least on chemical weapons. And Iran, where Russia has pleased Washington by canceling previously agreed upon weapons sales. Obviously if faced with American hostility, Putin would reconsider Russian policies on all these issues according to his estimate of Russia’s interests.
One would hope the Obama administration would weigh this before accepting Bill Kristol’s invitation to ignite a new Cold War with Russia. We will see. Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “elected” by Victoria Nuland, if not by the Ukrainian people, is due for a White House visit today (Wednesday). When the invitation was tendered, Washington was roiling in anti-Putin, new Cold War frenzy. Since then, the American people have registered a cool message, and even CPAC, the right-wing young Republican organization, has given a straw poll victory to Rand Paul, the national candidate most wary of starting a new cold war. Bob Gates, a foreign policy stalwart of the last two administrations, has noted realistically that there’s not much anyone can do to sever Russia from Crimea, though of course we could shoot ourselves in the foot. It will be interesting to see whether Obama, a far cooler head than Kerry, Clinton, and of course Nuland, will be able to shift course and signal to the world that America’s global policies will not be tethered to a revolutionary nationalist regime of dubious stability which rose out of the barricades in Kiev.