State of the Union

Three Paths for Putin

Evpatoria, Crimea.Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com
Evpatoria, Crimea.Vlad Galenko / Shutterstock.com

Yesterday I outlined what I still think is Russia’s preferred outcome in Crimea, one in which the strongly pro-Russian peninsula remains part of a Ukraine that is effectively subservient to Russia’s interests, no matter who is in charge in Kiev. That’s one path for Putin, and it hardly means avoiding military force—the key point is what result Russia’s aiming at.

There are two other scenarios, however, in which a Crimea more or less formally connected with Russia would make sense from Moscow’s perspective. The first is a variation on what’s already been suggested, only instead of using a Ukrainian Crimea as leverage over Ukraine as a whole, Putin uses the example of a Crimea severed from Ukraine to warn the Ukrainians that unless they play ball the Russian way, Putin will do to eastern Ukraine what he has already done to the Crimean south. A Ukraine without Crimea would have less love of Moscow, but that might be compensated, in Putin’s eyes, by greater fear.

The other possibility is that Putin is acting from weakness—that is, he’s calculated that there’s no plausible outcome in Ukraine as a whole that favors Russian interests, so he’s going to detach Crimea to salvage what he can. In this case, it doesn’t matter if removing Crimea from Ukraine makes Ukraine as a whole less cooperative with Russia because there is no chance for cooperation in any event.

And what if Russia just takes all of Ukraine? That’s basically the original scenario without the subtlety, and it comes with a great many headaches, not only in terms of the effort necessary to subdue Ukraine and the penalties the West would impose, but administering a territory as economically enfeebled and politically unstable as Ukraine isn’t an attractive prospect. An independent but subservient Ukraine looks to be what fits Russia’s interests best. The question is how Crimea fits into that—and if the best outcome, from Moscow’s perspective, is impossible, then a separated Crimea might be what Putin settles for.

(Putin also has to contend with the possibility that events will get away from him, of course—that the Crimeans may be more Catholic than the pope, so to speak, and be more eager to leave Ukraine than Putin himself would desire. And escalations of violence can throw this calculating style of politics completely out the window. But when thinking about Russia’s objectives, it’s worth keeping the big picture in mind.)

p.s. Here’s what the Russian foreign ministry is saying. Ignore the framing about far-right dangers in Ukraine and note the general political demand Russia is making:

We are surprised that several European politicians have already sprung to support the announcement of presidential elections in Ukraine this May, although the agreement of the 21 February envisages that these elections should take place only after the completion of the constitutional reform. It is clear that for this reform to succeed all the Ukrainian political forces and all regions of the country must become its part, but its results should be approved by a nationwide referendum. We are convinced that it is necessary to fully take into account concerns of deputies of eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, the Crimea and Sevastopol, which were expressed at the conference in Kharkov on the 22 February.

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Why Russia Doesn’t Want Crimea

Some TV and Twitter commentators have begun to suggest an independent Crimea as a solution for the region’s troubles. That may or may not be what a majority of Crimeans would like to see—some prefer union with Russia; others are content to remain with Ukraine—but from Russia’s point of view an independent or Russian-annexed Crimea is hardly the most desirable thing. Russia’s primary interest in Crimea, basing rights, is already secure even with the peninsula as part of Ukraine. An independent Crimea gives Russia nothing that Russia doesn’t already have. And it would deprive Russia of an invaluable asset: a large bloc of ethnic Russians within the Ukrainian electorate.

This conflict is about Ukraine, not Crimea. Russia has far-reaching interests in its neighbor—everything from pipelines to a strategic and ideological buffer zone—that are complicated by the fall of Yanukovich and the coming to power of anti-Russian leaders in Kiev. The circumstances of Yanukovich’s fall (and practically speaking, he has fallen, even if he refuses to admit it) further loosen Russia’s grip. Thus the upheaval in Crimea is a bargaining chip, not an end in itself: it’s a way for Putin to make sure that Russian interests in Ukraine as a whole are accommodated as the country’s political future is worked out.

Keeping Ukraine intact serves Russian interests better than splitting the country into separate states, but obviously Russia wants Ukraine’s integrity to be preserved on Russia’s terms. So this is the space within which negotiations can be expected to take place. What settlement is possible that will give pro-Russian Ukrainians a strong hand, and perhaps disproportionate one, within a united Ukraine, while satisfying a critical mass of the forces that toppled Yanukovich? Russia and the EU both have considerable economic stakes in Ukraine as a stable thoroughfare, so as difficult as the situation certainly is, there’s plenty of weight on the side of a grand bargain. And given how corrupt Ukrainian politics is on all sides, one suspects that money will talk louder even than nationalism—though that’s never an absolutely sure bet.

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Can Conservatives Support the Iran Deal? In Britain, They Do

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague—who was leader of the Conservative Party from 1997 to 2001—made a statement in the House of Commons that suggests how realist Republicans in the U.S. might look at the Iran deal. He said in part:

Mr Speaker, reaching this interim agreement was a difficult and painstaking process, and there is a huge amount of work to be done to implement it. Implementation will begin following technical discussions with Iran and the IAEA and EU preparations to suspend the relevant sanctions, which we hope will all be concluded by the end of January. A Joint Commission of the E3+3 and Iran will be established to monitor the implementation of these first-step measures, and it will work with the IAEA to resolve outstanding issues.

But the fact that we have achieved for the first time in nearly a decade an agreement that halts and rolls back Iran’s nuclear program, should give us heart that this work can be done and that a comprehensive agreement can be attained.

On an issue of such complexity, and given the fact that to make any diplomatic agreement worthwhile to both sides it has to involve compromises, such an agreement is bound to have its critics and opponents.

But we are right to test to the full Iran’s readiness to act in good faith, to work with the rest of the international community and to enter into international agreements.

If they do not abide by their commitments they will bear a heavy responsibility, but if we did not take the opportunity to attempt such an agreement then we ourselves would be guilty of a grave error. Read More…

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Harry Reid Nukes the Filibuster

The Senate majority leader and 51 other Democrats voted today to change the chamber’s rules—departing from over 200 years of tradition—to make a 51-vote majority sufficient to confirm most presidential nominees, though notably not those for the Supreme Court. It’s arguably the biggest change to the institutional character of the Senate since the ratification of the 17th amendment. Consensus-seeking collegiality had already broken down, but now the formal incentive to seek it is gone. That incentive, it need hardly be said, hadn’t proved very effective lately.

In theory you might now get more intensely partisan nominees and greater polarization of the federal bench, as well as cabinets that are even less aware of the need to build more-than-majority-support for policies that affect everyone. American government has generally not been a thing of bare majorities, which tend to be unstable, and the political problems of Obamacare—quite apart from its policy and technological ones—are a product of a short-lived Democratic majority trying to make a great change without securing even grudging support from the other side. This all-at-once approach cost the Democrats their House majority in the following election and set the stage for years of acrimony.

Other changes in the way the Congress operates, under Republicans and well as Democrats, have similarly chipped away at the consensual—or at least supermajoritarian—character of the federal government: without earmarks and the old committee system, the wheeling and dealing that could be used to build consensus across party lines has been made much more difficult. Even earlier, reforms to the appropriations process in 1974 paved the way for Congress to become an “incompetent bureaucracy,” as this Bruce Bartlett piece explains, unable to pass budgets in anything like a reliable manner.

Reid’s change to the filibuster rules, and the conditions that prompted it, are another chapter in a decades-long tale of institutional decay. The book still has many pages to go, but one can guess how it ends. In 1776 Americans were so passionate about the idea of representative government that they were willing to fight a revolution for it. Nowadays Congress is lucky if its approval ratings hover just above the single-digit range.

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How the Tea Party Becomes a Force for Big Government

There are three kinds of victories that Ted Cruz and his Tea Party admirers might have won in the government shutdown. The first is a victory in policy—defunding or delaying Obamacare or else securing significant cuts to government.

The second is a victory in the court of public opinion—coming out of this with the electoral prospects for small-government conservatives enhanced.

The third, a victory that might be salvaged from the wreck of the other two, is psychological—a strengthening of the Tea Party’s own willingness to fight and win another day.

Take an objective look at the score.

The shutdown did not extract policy concessions from Obama. The Affordable Care Act is funded and in effect. Instead of shrinking government, the shutdown grew it, directly costing taxpayers $3.1 million. “Although furloughed workers will get their back pay, taxpayers won’t see the products,” ABC News notes. Whatever projects the furloughed workers were undertaking are still being pursued, of course, only now the workers have had a paid vacation, albeit one that most of them would rather not have had.

Not only did the shutdown not get the policy results its supporters wanted, but Cruz’s tactic itself wasted millions of dollars of other people’s money. In public opinion, meanwhile, the shutdown plunged Republicans to record-low approval ratings. That won’t cost someone like Cruz his seat, but it also won’t make other politicians more eager to support his positions in the future.

That leaves the question of psychology. There lies the biggest defeat of all because Cruz’s actions turned the Tea Party against its own small-government ideals. Read More…

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Why the Shutdown Is a Disaster for Small-Government Principles

The measure of a party’s commitment to limiting government is what it does in power. In opposition a party can do a few things, but obviously not as much as when it wields both executive and legislative authority.

By that criterion, what is one to make of the Republican Party?

With one house of one branch of government under its control, the GOP is fighting desperately to stop an expansion of social insurance—Obamacare—and might like to cut non-defense spending as well. Because holding the House of Representatives is not enough to repeal legislation, the GOP has to resort to more drastic steps—refusing to pass a continuing resolution to fund government if Obamacare is part of the CR. And now the party is signaling a refusal to raise the debt ceiling unless it gets something in return. Without a debt-ceiling hike, the federal government begins to default in about a week.

But no problem: shouldn’t a small-government party be happy to close the government for a while, showing everyone just which employees are “essential”? And isn’t the national debt something a small-government party wants to see capped and paid down, not constantly raised? Read More…

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Why Ted Cruz’s Filibuster Was Not Like Rand Paul’s

Senator Cruz represents no new thinking on the part of the GOP—quite the contrary, his whole public persona is based on amplifying the existing Republican stereotype. He’s the perfect movement conservative: articulate, combative, dramatic, but not particularly effective. He frames the conflicts he rides into as showdowns between freedom and socialism—Obama “is moving us day-by-day to being closer to a European socialist nation,” he once said—or, as in the Hagel confirmation hearings, between muscular patriotism and un-American subversion.

He’s avoided taking a clear stand on foreign policy, signaling at times that he thinks Obama isn’t aggressive enough in places like Syria—”We need to be developing a clear, practical plan to go in, locate the [chemical] weapons, secure or destroy them, and then get out. The United States should be firmly in the lead to make sure the job is done right,” he said in June—at other times saying that America should not act as “al-Qaeda’s air force.” He’s a hawk who will strike a dovish pose if a particular intervention, proposed by a Democratic president, isn’t popular.

This buys him some credit with young Ron/Rand Paul supporters who want to think the best of him because they like his posturing on domestic issues, but in an important sense he’s more dangerous to noninterventionists than an open enemy like John McCain or Lindsey Graham is, since Cruz encourages the antiwar right to be complacent and overlook the differences between someone who’s willing to stick his neck out on foreign policy—as both the former congressman and the present senator Paul have been willing to do—and someone whose foreign policy is basically defined by his Republican partisanship. Cruz deserves credit for the good things he’s done, including joining Senator Paul’s drone filibuster, but that credit should not extend to making any mistake about the man’s fundamental character.

Paul’s filibuster was also symbolic, but there’s a tremendous difference between the educational effect of what Paul did—his message was not just aimed at the Republican base—and Cruz’s pitch to the true believers. Cruz’s position is that the Republican Party only needs to be more Republican, as “Republican” has been defined by the talk-radio right in the past 20 years. Read More…

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Senator Paul Considers Filibustering the Syria War

On a media call to discuss the war just now, Senator Paul said, “I can’t image that we won’t require 60 votes on this. Whether there’s an actual standing filibuster, I have to check my shoes, and I have to check my ability to hold my water.”

Phone calls to his office are running more than 10 to 1 against intervention.

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Washington Free Beacon vs. Jack Hunter

The Washington Free Beacon is the neoconservative answer to the Daily Caller, and it made its dubious mark earlier this year with a sustained stream of attacks against Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. Why the Free Beacon would devote so much attention to Hagel is no secret: Hagel was a somewhat late but nonetheless prominent critic of the Iraq War and America’s foreign policy in the Middle East.

The Free Beacon is now giving the same treatment to Jack Hunter, who has written for The American Conservative and today serves as Sen. Rand Paul’s director of new media. Coincidentally or not, Hunter has also been an eloquent critic of the foreign policy supported by the Free Beacon’s ideological family.

The "Southern Avenger"

The “Southern Avenger”

Free Beacon’s attack on Hunter involves cherry-picking quotes, many over a decade old, and referencing his career as the “Southern Avenger,” a pro-wrestling persona, complete with luchador mask, that Hunter adopted as an on-air radio personality and as a columnist for the Charleston City Paper. Did a left-leaning alternative newspaper think they were employing a hate-fueled neo-Confederate? Not hardly: Hunter’s columns were provocative and conservative, but anyone who reads them, while finding plenty to disagree with—he’s an independent thinker—will not find hate. Naïveté, yes, and a certain obtuseness about minorities that’s long been characteristic of the right. Over the five years that I’ve known him, however, Jack has re-examined his thinking and confronted questions of fairness that the right has too often avoided. He’s done this while remaining devoted to the canons of Russell Kirk’s conservatism.

Want proof? Read The American Conservative’s Jack Hunter archive. Read this piece, in which Jack, who supports same-sex marriage, respectfully disagrees with its comparison to the Civil Rights struggle, whose magnitude and sacrifices exceed anything else in the past century. As ever with a good columnist, not everyone is going to agree with the argument, but the respect and good-faith that characterize it will be obvious. The luchador mask was a lark while Jack was in his 20s; today he’s tackling the right’s, and the country’s, most difficult questions in a serious and open way. More conservatives should be like him—not media personalities or provocateurs, but thinkers who apply conservatism to uniting a country riven by ideological, economic, and yes racial divides. Jack Hunter has grown, where too many others have only stagnated.


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Remembering Kenneth Minogue

This has been a season of loss for the conservative mind, with George Carey’s death June 21 and Kenneth Minogue’s just a week later—this past Friday. John O’Sullivan remembers Minogue at National Review. The New Zealand-born, Australia-based political theorist—whose most important work, The Liberal Mind is freely available thanks to the good offices of the Liberty Fund—was writing till the end and had recently published a review of Anthony Padgen’s The Enlightenment for the Wall Street Journal. Not long before, he had a very fine essay on Hobbes in the New Criterion.

Here at TAC, Paul Gottfried reviewed Minogue’s The Servile Mind: How Democracy Erodes the Moral Life in 2011. Earlier Minogue himself appeared in our pages to write about his friend Michael Oakeshott.

This classic “Firing Line” clip gives a flavor of his mind—and his impatience with casual allusions to George Orwell.

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