Jeb Bush has been making the rounds. Last week he unveiled what was purported to be a major foreign policy speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The speech was, as it deserved to be, widely panned. Not only was the delivery rushed and borderline incoherent, but the speech signally failed to do what it set out to achieve: to differentiate Jeb from older brother George and show voters that he is indeed “his own man.”
Yesterday he largely regurgitated the contents of his Chicago speech on the Hugh Hewitt radio show. What is striking about both high-profile appearances is how, well, familiar it all sounds. In both the appearances one would be hard pressed not to see that….
All the familiar Bush tropes were there….
Like older brother W., who never made a speech in the presence of Laura without telling the assembled how he “married up,” Jeb too was at pains to paint himself as a dedicated family man. In Chicago he let us in on a little secret: He really loves his dad (and his mom too, and he “hopes that’s ok”); he, virtuous man, also loves his bother, who, though he made mistakes (and who among us has not?), atoned for them by his decision to send ever-greater numbers of American troops into harm’s way in 2007. It was, according to the candidate to be, one of “the most heroic acts of courage politically that any president’s done.”
Presumably he also loves his wife Columba, but perhaps not her penchant for binging on bling. Hate the sin, love the sinner. It’s an odd thing when the Bushes talk about how much they love each other: they make it sound as though it reflects well upon them. As the New Yorker’s estimable Amy Davidson has written, a “quintessential Bush family moment” is one that most always concludes “with the participants mysteriously pleased about how it all looks—convinced that their fine qualities have saved them.”
If the themes were familiar, so were a lot of the faces…
For someone at such pains to paint himself as his “own man” Jeb’s foreign policy team looks awfully familiar. Of the 20-plus advisers who have signed on to do the seemingly impossible and lend Jeb an aura of gravitas, 12 worked for big brother George while 4 worked for both brother and father George. They are nearly all neoconservatives—some of whom had more than their share of responsibility for the foreign policy disasters of the second Bush administration: Paul Wolfowitz, Meghan O’Sullivan, Porter Goss, and Michael Hayden are just a few of the all-too-familiar faces from the George W. Bush foreign policy team. There are, to be fair, a few grown-ups on the team, most prominently James Baker and George Shultz, but they, esteemed statesmen that they are, are far outnumbered by unreconstructed, unapologetic neoconservative ideologues.
The Bush penchant for committing malapropisms was also on display…
If there’s a chilling similarity between the W. and Jeb foreign policy teams, the brothers Bush also share a disquieting and puzzling unease with their native tongue. Jeb, like George, cannot seem to get his head around how to pronounce the word “nuclear.” Only seconds into the Chicago address Jeb seemed to confuse Iran and Iraq. But about the challenges roiling the Middle East, rest assured he’s studying up, telling the audience: “I don’t have a solution. I mean, I–I–I’ve read articles, you know, about whether the 1915 kind of breakout of the Middle East and how that no longer is a viable deal.” On the Hewitt show, this was his response to a question on U.S. nuclear posture: “To be honest, I can’t give you an informed answer to that.” Gotta have those tricky details at the ready for that inevitable 3 a.m. phone call, Jeb.
….as were all the old ideas.
In spite of all of the foregoing, perhaps the most worrying aspect of Mr. Bush’s first foray into the foreign policy debate were what might generously be called his “ideas.” As might well have been expected, President Obama has been the target of much of his criticism. During Wednesday’s appearance on Hewitt, Jeb opined: “Had we kept the 10,000 troop commitment that was there for the President to negotiate and to agree with, we probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now.” Perhaps. Perhaps, too, we “probably wouldn’t have ISIS right now” (gotta love those Bush circumlocutions) if his brother had not decided to overthrow the hated Saddam way back when.
In Chicago, Jeb bemoaned that Obama “came to office promising greater engagement has left America less influential in the world.” What is more, “Under this administration, we are inconsistent and indecisive. We have lost the trust and confidence of our friends. We definitely no longer inspire fear in our enemies.”
If this is Jeb’s idea of what a pacifist administration looks like, we’re in trouble. President Obama, among other things, committed to a surge in Afghanistan (2009), then dispatched U.S. air power to dislodge a Libyan dictator (2011), began a series of airstrikes against the IS group over Syria, Iraq, and Kurdistan (present), and ramped up a drone war that now stretches from the deserts of Northern Africa through the lower Arabian peninsula on into the mountains of central Asia (2009-present). This is to say nothing of his pursuit of a new Cold War with a nuclear-armed Russia by injecting troops and advisers into Western Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltics.
Republicans beware: a Jeb candidacy is the road to nowhere.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
If the outpouring of condolences emanating from the upper echelons of the U.S. government over the death of King Abdullah last week are anything to go by, one could easily be led to believe that the world lost a truly humane, wise, perhaps even visionary leader. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry tweeted as much, calling Abdullah a “man of wisdom and vision.” President Obama issued a statement calling the deceased despot “a force for stability and security in the Middle East” while the UK’s David Cameron—in addition to ordering flags to fly at half-mast—praised Abdullah’s role in “strengthening understanding between faiths.” The IMF’s Christine Lagarde even went so far as to claim Abdullah was “strong advocate of women.” Gloria Steinem, call your office!
But this really is all a bit de trop.
Making matters worse is the fact that President Obama is rushing off to Riyadh to pay his respects in person. This is all the more egregious since the administration sent no senior officials to the Je Suis Charlie solidarity march in Paris earlier this month, which the ever tin-eared presidential confidante Valerie Jarrett dismissed as a mere “parade.” Further, Mr. Obama, as the New York Times pointed out on Sunday, rarely travels abroad solely to pay his respects to departed foreign leaders, one notable exception being his decision to travel to South Africa on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s passing. This, it hardly needs pointing out, is not that.
There are two ways of looking at this situation. One is that these fulsome expressions of grief over the loss of this be-robed and bejeweled tyrant are nothing more than ‘the usual hypocrisies’ endemic to the art of diplomacy. The other, worse, is that our own wise, humane, and visionary leaders really are sorry to see Abdullah pass on to his final reward. And if such is the case, it might be worth recalling some unpleasant facts about the king and his nearly decade-long rule.
According to Human Rights Watch, the Abdullah regime beheaded 19 people over the course of 16 days last August; one of the executed was, according to a report issued by Amnesty International, mentally ill, while another was beheaded for the crime of “black magic sorcery.” Meanwhile, a blogger by the name of Raif Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, while only recently a video emerged of a Saudi policeman beheading a Burmese woman in the middle of a street in Mecca as she screamed for her life. She is one of 10 people beheaded in Saudi Arabia so far this year.
Then of course there is Saudi Arabia’s role in providing material support for the 9/11 atrocity that took the lives of nearly 3,000 Americans. Obama continues to protect the Saudis by refusing to release the 28 pages of the 9/11 Commission report having to do with Saudi Arabia’s funding of and complicity in the attacks. This despite his own promises to the 9/11 families that he would do so. Efforts by U.S. Congressmen Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) to force the administration to release the redacted pages are ongoing. In addition, former senator and Intelligence Committee chairman Bob Graham (D-Fla.) has also called on the administration to release the 28 redacted pages, whose content he says, “points a finger in the direction of Saudi Arabia.”
Meanwhile, the Saudis continue to fund—to the tune of billions of dollars a year—the propagation of the most sinister and violent branch of Islam throughout the world, leading to, among other things, the ritual slaughter of a staff of cartoonists in the very heart of Europe, hostage taking in Sydney, and murderous rampages in Ottawa and Brussels, to say nothing of a series of subway bombings in Madrid, London, and Moscow.
It is by now bindingly clear that the regime in Riyadh will resort to the most medieval of measures towards anyone—within or without its borders—who is not in thrall to the violent tenets of Wahhabi Islam. So the question remains: why does our own government pretend that this is not so?
Meanwhile, we are treated to the spectacle of certain of our own Middle East experts worrying that the Obama administration—because it supposedly has paid insufficient attention to the wishes of the Saudi tyranny—faces “an uphill struggle to regain the full trust of the royal family.” Pardon me, to regain their trust?
The expression of even a modicum of sorrow—even if disingenuous—by Western leaders is far more than the death of King Abdullah deserves.
James W. Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
While many, if not all, Republican-leaning realists have—and for good reason, considering the alternatives—decided early on to hitch their wagon to Rand Paul’s star, might there be a realist option for those on the other side of the great political divide? The putative 2016 Democratic primary lineup, dominated as it is by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, would seem at first glance to offer scant hope for realists, not least because Clinton herself seems to be completely held captive to the reigning neoconservative magical thinking on issues as diverse as Syria, Russia, the utility and rightness of the surveillance state, and the supposed threat posed to American interests by the IS group.
Astute analysts like The National Interest’s Jacob Heilbrunn and former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb have both written that there are abundant signs that the neoconservatives, supreme political opportunists that they are, have been playing footsie with the former Secretary of State, with neoconservative-in-chief Robert Kagan going so far as to re-brand himself as a “liberal interventionist” in the hope of snagging a high-level appointment in what he clearly hopes will be a third Clinton term. And why wouldn’t he? Even a cursory look at Mrs. Clinton’s record reveals a politician only too eager to try and turn neoconservative fantasy into actual policy.
Mrs. Clinton’s championing of the disastrous interventions in Iraq and Libya; her support for ill-fated Afghan “surge”; her ill-considered comparison of Vladimir Putin to Adolph Hitler; her misplaced admiration for Mikhail Saakashvili; her enthusiasm for arming the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels; her efforts to embroil the U.S. in a dispute with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and much else besides, all raise serious questions about her judgment.
And so: what of Mrs. Clinton’s opponents? On foreign policy, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley (full disclosure: I wrote a white paper for his fledgling campaign early last year) seems to be something of a tabula rasa, very much along the lines of the last two Democratic governors to make it to the White House. This has its obvious drawbacks: neocon-esque hardliners by and large carried the day under both Presidents Carter and Clinton. Given his limited foreign policy experience, history suggests O’Malley would quickly (if he hasn’t already) become captive to the bipartisan neoconservative consensus.
Since the midterms much speculation has centered on Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s intentions. Is it possible she—besides being the most formidable progressive challenger to Clinton—might be amenable to realist arguments? Maybe. But as TAC’s Daniel Larison has pointed out, “Warren has no distinctive foreign policy views to speak of, and insofar as she has had anything to say on the subject she has not distinguished herself as an antiwar or progressive champion.” Meanwhile, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is also testing the waters. Though Sanders would no doubt be a forceful advocate for a foreign policy of restraint on the campaign trail, the chances of a self-proclaimed socialist gaining the White House are so remote as to render it pointless to include him in a list of credible Clinton opponents.
This brings us to former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb. Webb, as opposed to O’Malley and Warren, has a long record from which voters and pundits can surmise what U.S. foreign policy might look like should he gain the Oval Office. Clinton’s team is seemingly alive to the danger a Webb candidacy poses. Only recently US News and World Report noted that longtime Clinton henchman Philippe Reines had been pitching talk radio producers unflattering stories about Webb. Clinton’s reliance on such low-grade courtiers such as Reines (and before him, people like Howard Wolfson and Sidney Blumenthal) should raise additional questions about the former Secretary’s powers of discernment, particularly when it comes to the character of some of her closest advisers.
But if and when the Clinton camp does finally come around to squaring up against Webb over actual issues, they will find an estimable opponent. In an interview with Iowa public television last August, Webb previewed his probable lines of attack against Clinton. While noting that he agrees with the administrations pivot to Asia, it is obvious he feels he hasn’t received the credit he feels he deserves for initiating the policy, noting tartly that “we led that from our office” two years before the Obama administration announced it. According to Webb, the policy is warranted because he believes the U.S. needs to act as an “offshore balancer” in Asia.
Regarding Clinton’s criticism of Obama, that not doing “stupid stuff” isn’t exactly a policy, Webb responded, “I’m not sure that was a fair way for somebody to summarize that the administration has done.” But Webb also took great issue with Obama’s failed Middle East policy, and according to Webb, “Secretary Clinton, quite frankly, was a part of enunciating this strategy.” Further:
I can’t understand why people would have supported the notion of arming certain groups inside Syria a couple of years ago…I say that not only as someone who has spent a lot of time working on foreign policy, but as a journalist in Beirut in 1983 when the word I got from Marines on the ground was: ‘Never get involved in a five-sided argument.’
His criticism of Obama’s intervention in Libya, of which Mrs. Clinton was a vocal and visible proponent, has been scathing and well as prescient, writing, “Under the objectively undefinable rubric of ‘humanitarian intervention,’ President Obama has arguably established the authority of the president to intervene militarily virtually anywhere…” The contrast with the intervention-happy former Secretary could not be clearer.
As 2016 fast approaches, Clinton supporters may begin to lose sleep over a Webb insurgency.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
Since the 1990s, the teaching and advocacy of “grand strategy” has become something of a cottage industry. Degree programs and courses are on offer at Duke, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, the City University of New York, Temple University, Columbia University, Bard College, MIT, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). The country’s leading grand-strategy program, Yale University’s, is supported by a $17.5 million endowment and has received generous backing from the legendary financier Roger M. Hertog.
Yale’s program is apparently so well-heeled that in recent years it has been able to recruit such luminaries as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Henry Kissinger, and New York Times columnist David Brooks to hold forth on the wisdom and rightness of America’s foreign-policy master plans.
In his unimaginatively titled 2010 book, Grand Strategies, Yale’s Charles Hill, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State George Shultz, sought to subordinate the Western literary canon to the service of an interpretive history of interstate politics. The phenomenon of intellectuals who deploy higher (artistic) means to serve base (political) ends is not a new one. As the Soviet dissident Andrei Sinyavsky noted, “Soviet literature of the twenties and thirties reveals an odd and unusual friendship between writers and Chekists.”
That aside, grand strategy has a pedigree that reaches as far back as the fin de siècle—around the time, not coincidentally, that America emerged as a world power in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. That year, while visiting his friend John Hay—soon to be secretary of state—Henry Adams recalled in his characteristic third-person prose: “listening to any member of the British Cabinet, for all were alike now, discuss the Philippines as a question of balance of power in the East he could see that the family work of a hundred and fifty years fell at once into the grand perspective of true empire-building.”
Was this the first insider account of the nascent art of Anglo-American grand strategizing? Perhaps. But Henry Adams was too wise to give it overmuch thought. The grand-strategy enthusiast in the family was his younger brother, Brooks. In 1900, Brooks Adams released his book America’s Economic Supremacy in eager anticipation of the time—soon, in his telling—when the British would be obliged to pass the torch of world leadership to their former colonial subjects. According to Brooks, in bumptious Teddy Roosevelt-like prose very much the opposite of his older brother’s, “America must fight her own battles whether she wills or no. From the inexorable decree of destiny she cannot escape. … All signs point to the approaching supremacy of the United States.”
And so from the very start there has been an almost teleological aspect to American grand strategy, that “inexorable decree of destiny.” But if Adams’s thinking showed signs of historical (and possibly divine) determinism, the grand strategy of Britain’s Alfred Mackinder was indicative of a mind held captive by the idea that geography is destiny. His 1904 essay “The Geographical Pivot of History” put forward the proposition—which would in some ways be echoed by V.I. Lenin’s Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism in 1917—that access to colonial markets was crucial to the health of the state, and imperial competition would lessen the chances of major class conflict at home. The fight over foreign markets would inevitably, in this telling, lead to interstate conflict.
In 1919, Mackinder published Democratic Ideals and Reality, in which he put forward his famous axiom that “He who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” In a sense, Mackinder’s ideas on the strategic primacy of Eastern Europe and the danger of Russian hegemony over Eurasia are similar to those that guide our newest generation of American Cold Warriors today.
While Mackinder stressed the primacy of land power and preventing Russia from gaining the great inland fortress of the “World-Island,” American grand strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan stressed the importance of maintaining military superiority upon the seas. In numerous books such as The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1783-1812, Mahan put forward the notion that an army could be forced into submission through the application of a naval blockade, which he called “the most striking and awful mark of sea power.”
By the late 1930s the forerunner to today’s grand-strategy courses was taking shape. According to the sociologist John Bellamy Foster, in 1939 the State Department joined forces with the Council on Foreign Relations to form a War and Peace Studies program, with the help of a generous grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. The program focused on a geographic region called the “Grand Area,” which according to Foster was seen to “constitute an informal empire, modeled after U.S. domination of Latin America, involving the free flow of capital, under the economic, political, and military hegemony of the United States.”
But it was after World War II, in 1947, that grand strategy really caught the imagination of American policymakers. That year George F. Kennan, elaborating upon the ideas of Mackinder and the political scientist Nicholas John Spykman, laid out the first draft of what would become America’s strategy of containment vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. It was with his “Long Telegram” that the concept of American grand strategy made its way from the academic periphery to becoming a central tenet in the Washington establishment’s conception of world leadership.
The results, by and large, have been abysmal. Kennan, realizing what he had wrought, spent the remainder of his long career trying in vain to undo the forces his dispatch helped unleash. After the containment strategy was enshrined as official policy by the NSC-68 report during the Truman administration, successive presidents would attempt to elaborate on the original directive by issuing addendums—commonly and pretentiously referred to as presidential “doctrines”—of one kind or another. These doctrines, particularly those promulgated during the last 40 years, reveal the shortcomings of grand strategy.
The Carter Doctrine, for instance, declared that the Persian Gulf was now a “vital interest of the United States of America” and that any attempt by an outside power to gain control of the region would “be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.” Thus began the country’s four-decade (and counting) commitment to the security of some the planet’s most noxious regimes. The Reagan Doctrine made even less strategic sense, pledging support for anti-communist insurgents wherever they might be, in places of such intrinsic strategic value as Nicaragua and Afghanistan. The fruits of this policy hardly need to be elaborated.
George H.W. Bush’s administration gave rise to a grand strategy that went on to serve as the template for American foreign policy until the Obama administration. The assumptions that underlie Bush the First’s “Defense Planning Guidance” of 1992 differ very little from those which animated the grand strategy put forward a decade later by George W. Bush. “The National Security Strategy of the United States” in 2002 stated, among other things, that the U.S. would act to preclude the emergence of a peer military competitor anywhere in the world.
Now consider: each one of these iterations of presidential grand strategy has resulted in an unarguable diminution of American power, prestige, and treasure. And while it is entirely possible that the strategies themselves were to blame, I suspect the true culprit is the concept. From the beginning, efforts to formulate a grand strategy have too often served to exacerbate an American tendency that some of our more thoughtful statesmen have been only too happy to discourage: a binary view of the world born of a sincerely held belief in the myth of our collective national innocence.
What rankles our modern-day grand strategists about President Obama is partly that he has failed to enunciate an Obama Doctrine. Yet worse, in their eyes, is that his hesitancy seems to be an implicit rejection of the claims of American exceptionalism—which, from the time of Brooks Adams onward, has been an integral assumption of American grand strategy.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelet is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. – Isaiah Berlin
Friday, November 21 marks the one-year anniversary of the anti-government protests on Kiev’s Independence Square. Much has happened since then, nearly all of it detrimental to the deteriorating European economy and to U.S. and European security interests. The standard narrative of events which posits that the battle between pro-European Kiev and revanchist Russia is nothing less than a battle for the future, indeed, the soul of Europe, though widespread, is incorrect.
As is by now well known, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a EU Association Agreement at last November’s EU summit in Vilnius was, of course, the spark that set off the conflagration. In a narrow sense, the aims of the Euro-Maidan protests have been met: Yanukovych was overthrown in February, a new government of an ostensibly pro-European cast was subsequently formed, a new President (Poroshenko) was elected in May, and he ultimately signed the Association Agreement in June. Yet all of this came at an enormous price. The long-term ramifications of Kiev’s “European choice” are still as yet unclear.
Since the mid-19th century, Russians—due to their tumultuous political history—have had cause to raise two particular questions in the aftermath of this or that debacle. In 1845 Alexander Herzen asked, “Who is to be blamed?” (Kto vinovat?), and nearly a generation later Nikolai Chernyshevsky asked, “What is to be done?” (Chto delat?).
In assessing the Obama administration’s role in the Ukraine crisis, perhaps it might be worth asking a number of questions along similar lines.
Was it worth it?
It would be difficult to answer in the affirmative. While the goals of the protesters in Kiev were indeed met, the aftermath suggests that an alternative solution similar to the one Vladimir Putin suggested to the German chancellor in the lead-up to the Vilnius summit could have and should have been pursued. On the one hand, Kiev got its Association Agreement. On the other hand, the costs of the ensuring crisis are staggeringly high: roughly 4,100 war dead, thousands more wounded, nearly 1 million people displaced, the loss of Crimea and the de facto partition of Ukraine. Further, a new Cold War between the U.S. and Russia is now well underway while intra-European comity is beginning to fray over whether or not to continue the sanctions regime against Russia.
Who in the Obama administration has been held to account?
For helping to engineer the worst foreign policy debacle since the second Iraq war, and possibly—though it is still too early to say—since Vietnam, not one of the President’s men or women have been called to account. As of this writing key members of the national security team and the principal architects of our Russia/Ukraine policy, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and CIA Director John Brennan, remain firmly ensconced in their posts. And for his part, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken was just promoted to Deputy Secretary of State.
Where do things stand now?
Three recent developments should concern us. First, the much-praised Ukrainian parliamentary elections that took place on October 26 have only served to strengthen the hand of the hardliners in Kiev. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s faction is ascendant; he will have a free hand to pursue projects like the building of his very own Berlin Wall between Russia and Ukraine. A project such as this, smacking as it does of Mr. Yatsenyuk’s latent authoritarianism, receives little to no coverage from our wondrously pliant media. Second, the Ukrainian crisis is splitting Europe. The governments of Italy, Hungary, Czech Republic, and Slovakia are turning against the sanctions. Serbia is, naturally, pro-Russian. Germany and France are increasingly ambivalent regarding the sanctions while Poland, the UK, Sweden, and the Baltics (no doubt with much American encouragement) are all for isolating and punishing Russia. Third, a renewed push to arm Ukraine will emerge as the GOP takes control of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. This week the incoming chairman of Armed Services, Sen. John McCain released a joint statement with Sen. Lindsey Graham calling (again) for the Obama administration to send arms to Kiev.
Why did the Obama administration feel compelled to get involved in all of this?
This brings us to the introductory quote courtesy of Isaiah Berlin. A curious aspect to this whole affair is the seeming insistence on the part of policymakers and pundits alike that all of the foregoing is solely the fault of Vladimir Putin. Yet the question remains: why did the U.S. and EU think that Russia would stand idly by as it tried to wrench Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit? For 15 years, inordinately powerful neoconservatives and their liberal internationalist enablers have been comparing Putin to Stalin and/or Hitler. Did they not believe their own rhetoric?
Perhaps not. But as was too often the case in the blood-soaked 20th century, a set of particular (to say nothing of peculiar) set of ideas can sometimes become the driver of events, and in the case of the year-long Ukraine crisis, it has been the Washington establishment’s misguided and ultimately dangerous belief that “democracy” is some sort of panacea for what ails developing nations.
The Ukraine crisis illuminates a central problem of contemporary political theory and practice: the steadfast denial by policymakers and pundits of a certain stripe that something as seemingly virtuous as “democracy” could lend itself to destructive ends. Further, our elites have the sequencing backwards: democracy is not viable in the absence of accountable, stable, institutions, and a political culture that values the rule of law. Democracy is not a midwife to these things.
And even if Ukraine did possess the requisite institutions and political culture conducive to parliamentary democracy, we still lack both the right and the ability to transplant democratic norms elsewhere. Yet democratic peace theory, entrenched and sacrosanct, is a line of belief, to borrow a line from the eminent historian of Europe, that grows more dangerous the more sincerely it is believed.
What the last year has shown is that our foreign policy has become hostage to our illusions. And, tragically, for thousands of Ukrainians those illusions have proved to be fatal.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor, and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
The hostility that Rand Paul’s recent foreign policy address has evoked in neoconservative circles has, I suspect, rather little to do with the content of his speech. How could it? Consider the Senator’s opening salvo:
- History has not ended.
- Russia slides backward vainly hoping to resurrect the Soviet Union.
- Vladimir Putin justifies aggression in Ukraine as defense against decadent and hypocritical Western powers.
- In East Asia, Beijing extols the remarkable rise of China as the supremacy of a one-party state capitalism.
- In the Middle East, secular dictatorships have been replaced by the rise of radical jihadist movements, who in their beliefs and barbarity—represent the antithesis of liberal democracy.
- These challenges are in part consequences of failing to define our national security interest in a new era.
- Our allies and our enemies are unsure where America stands.
No, what bothers neoconservative stalwarts like the regrettable Jennifer Rubin and the cast of characters over at the Weekly Standard is not that Senator Paul is an isolationist, neo- or otherwise, but that he isn’t a tabula rasa: what D.C.’s hearty band of neocons most wish for is influence, access, and power, above all. A presidential candidate like Paul—who clearly has his own ideas about foreign policy—is simply less likely to genuflect before the arbiters of neoconservative ideology and beg for advice. And so if Paul won’t debase himself at the feet of Bill Kristol, who will?
David Frum’s recent mash note to Texas Gov. Rick Perry in The Atlantic provides something of a clue. Besides its cringe-worthy unctuousness, which has long been a hallmark of Frum’s style, the piece was notable because Frum, despite a brief (and of course very well-publicized) break with the neocons in 2010, remains a reliable bellwether of what passes for thinking in neoconservative circles.
According to Frum, the Texas governor would provide an attractive “alternative to the neo-isolationist approach championed by Sen. Rand Paul” because he would begin the race with two “big advantages.” The first is that Perry, by virtue of his current office, can credibly claim to have had nothing to do with the 2011 sequester deal which, by neocon lights, has supposedly gutted the venerable American war machine. The second advantage Perry would bring to the 2016 contest is that not only is his last name not “Bush” but his relations with the Bush clan are positively frosty. It is hard to argue with Frum on that score.
In any event, Frum finds abundant evidence for a credible Perry run in the latter’s recent trip to Europe—cut short by the Ebola outbreak in Dallas. Rejecting the relativism of our supposedly feckless multiculturalist President, Frum says Perry told an audience at the Royal United Services Institute that he, at least, can tell the good guys from the bad guys:
The shortcomings of Western democracies, the systematic savagery of the enemy, to a certain way of thinking, it all gets mixed up as one: ‘They’ve got their bad guys over there; we’ve got a few of our own, what’s the difference?’
What Frum liked even more was the text of the speech Perry had been scheduled to give in Poland, where Perry was to assure an audience of Varsovians that, as opposed to Russia, “we operate a little differently in the NATO countries. We actually keep our commitments. That helps explain why, after nearly 70 years, there is still a NATO.”
Actually, that has nothing to do with why “there is still a NATO,” but details have never been the governor’s strong suit. But it’s those tricky details that neocons like Mr. Frum are all-too-anxiously waiting in the wings to provide.
With the midterm elections two weeks away, polls indicate the Republicans will walk away with majorities in both the House and Senate. The Senate, which has been held by the Democrats since 2006, will likely change hands; the GOP is forecast to win a slight majority of Senate seats on Nov 4. According the University of Virginia’s Larry Sabato, it is possible that the GOP may capture as many as 251 House seats. If the forecast proves correct, the Obama administration may be in for even stormier weather.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the virus’s subsequent appearance in the U.S. late last month have, among other things, highlighted the lamentable state of our governing institutions. Not since FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina under the wondrously out-of-their-depth duo of George W. Bush and Michael Brown has the American public been treated to such a sorry spectacle. In the month since the announcement that Liberian national Thomas Duncan had carried the virus via United Airlines to Dallas, the administration has not once found its footing. The administration has staked out a series of positions on issues relating to the outbreak that they have, in short order, been obliged to reverse.
Speaking at CDC headquarters in Atlanta on September 16, the President assured the public that “In the unlikely event that someone with Ebola does reach our shores, we’ve taken new measures so that we’re prepared here at home.” Three days later, Mr. Duncan arrived in Dallas. CDC Chief Thomas Frieden and State Department automaton Marie Harf have both publicly criticized proposals to ban travel to and from West Africa, yet a the White House spokesman told reporters that the president isn’t “philosophically opposed” to a ban. When Republicans called on the White House to appoint a “czar” to oversee the burgeoning crisis, the idea, as recently as a week ago, was dismissed out of hand by the administration. Yet on Friday October 18, the White House announced the appointment of former Gore and Biden Chief of Staff Ron Klain to be its Ebola “czar.” This after strenuous protests from the press secretary that White House Homeland Security adviser Lisa Monaco had the situation well in hand. Apparently not. Yet Klain’s qualifications for the post have been the subject of much debate, and rightly so; it is very telling that the White House obviously views this as a little more than a political problem which needs some finessing.
To be sure, the White House’s chaotic response is merely a symptom of a more fundamental problem: that of federal government’s increasing dysfunction. Last week, in a letter to President Obama, the National Nurse’s Union called for certain mandates and protocols be put in place in hospitals to safeguard the lives of their members. The letter read, in part:
We know that without these mandates to health care facilities we are putting registered nurses, physicians, and other health care workers at extreme risk … they are our first line of defense. We would not send soldiers to the battlefield without armor and weapons.
Actually, there is abundant proof that the government had done something very close to that during the Iraq war, while the Pentagon made every effort to cover up the fact.
In any case, Mr. Obama won the presidency in 2008 in part because he was the superior candidate, but in larger part because he was so obviously not the bumbling George W. Bush; during his first run for the White House Obama was generally seen to be both cool-headed and competent. Yet with his administration’s embarrassing performance since his re-election two years ago, the façade seems to be crumbling, and not least because the president seems to want to be, well, just about anyplace but Washington. In light of the likelihood of a GOP sweep in November, will House Republicans try and fulfill his wish?
President Obama addressed the opening of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly today in New York and gave what could only charitably be called an incomplete accounting of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine:
Here are the facts. After the people of Ukraine mobilized popular protests and calls for reform, their corrupt President fled. Against the will of the government in Kiev, Crimea was annexed. Russia poured arms into Eastern Ukraine, fueling violent separatists and a conflict that has killed thousands. When a civilian airliner was shot down from areas that these proxies controlled, they refused to allow access to the crash for days. When Ukraine started to reassert control over its territory, Russia gave up the pretense of merely supporting the separatists, and moved troops across the border.
This is a vision of the world in which might makes right – a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed. America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future.
Aside from what HL Mencken would have recognized as “the usual hypocrisies,” there are, it hardly needs saying, a number of problems with this kind of capsule history of the Ukrainian crisis, not least the venue and the timing of its airing.
The United States has, as of yesterday, embarked on its fifth war (Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria/Iraq) in 15 years, and this time in the company of five Islamic countries, four of which are perhaps, and without exaggeration, some of the most odious regimes on Earth. The target of the U.S.-led airstrikes is a relatively small (30-35,000) army of fanatics and malcontents whose leadership happens to be made up of more than a few of the former Iraqi Army officers who were summarily dismissed in the aftermath of our second Iraqi adventure in 2003. The IS Group, ISIS or ISIL, has in addition to declaring war on the United States (no doubt for recruitment purposes, but no matter), also declared that none other than Russian President Vladimir Putin is in its sights for, among other things, helping to arm Assad and for Russia’s degradations in majoritarian Islamic Chechnya.
What this might suggest is that Russia, because it faces a challenge from these very same extremists, and given its vast military superiority over our five allies as well as its longstanding relationships with Syria and Iran, could be of some assistance in our latest Near Eastern adventure.
All the while, incidents of violence between Russia and Ukraine since the cease fire agreement took hold on September 5 have sharply declined. And on Friday the two sides will begin talks on how to address the issue of resuming the transit of Russian gas, which has been on hold since June 15, to Ukraine. That Mr. Obama thought that the opening of the UN General Assembly would be an opportune time to hector Russia speaks volumes as to the quality of counsel he must be receiving. And so rather than issue a plea for the cease fire to hold in eastern Ukraine, and rather than use his UN address to try and maneuver Russia into assisting the anti-ISIL coalition, the President, as he so often does, chose instead to grandstand and assert a largely fictitious American moral superiority before the world.
It was once observed, long ago, that “opinion governs the world.” And while that may be overstating things, it is true that the West’s opinion of Russian President Vladimir Putin has wholly governed its policy throughout the ongoing Ukrainian crisis by allowing personal animus and a distaste for his brand of atavistic nationalist politics to lead it to take actions that are divergent from its interests. By the end of last week reports were flooding in from NATO and Western intelligence that a Russian invasion and the opening of a second front between the Ukrainian port cities of Novoazovsk and Mariupol were well underway. Some estimates put the number of Russian troops near 1,000; enough to help the rebels but few enough to provide Putin and the Russian government with the cover of plausible deniability.
Such was the alarm over the maneuvers, alternately referred to as an “invasion” or “incursion” or “escalation” (distinctions without a difference, really) that CNN’s Jake Tapper finally came around to informing viewers that nearly 2,600 Ukrainians had died so far in conflict. The juxtaposition of video footage of the Russian invasion with this bit of information was certainly no accident; the inference viewers were clearly meant to draw was that it is Russia that is to blame for the casualties, not the forces controlled by Kiev. A quick glance at any of the numerous OSCE reports coming out of Luhansk and Donetsk would, however, lead one to the very opposite conclusion.
The growing alarm evinced by the American media, by the NATO Secretary General, by the President of the European Commission, by the French Foreign Minister, and by the British Prime Minister over this, the opening of a second front, is somewhat puzzling. After all, we have been repeatedly told for months now that Russia has been sending in all manner of men and material over its border to assist the Ukrainian rebels. That they continue to do so surely cannot come as too big a surprise to informed observers.
It did come, however, as a rude shock to Kiev’s Western patrons that the one-on-one meeting last week between Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Minsk went nowhere. In the days and weeks leading up to the meeting, Kiev was all but certain that they were on the verge of breaking the insurgency and capturing the disputed territories. Poroshenko, so the thinking went, would be negotiating from a position of strength. It was not to be. At the meeting Putin brushed off Poroshenko’s overtures and told him the crisis was an internal Ukrainian affair: negotiate with the rebels.
Because of Russia’s overwhelming military strength compared to Kiev’s; because sanctions, no matter how severe, will not sway him; because NATO, despite the pledges of solidarity with Kiev, will not undertake military action against Russia; because ensuring non-block status for Ukraine is of existential importance to the Russian regime; because Ukraine is on the verge of bankruptcy; and because Europe is deeply reliant on the supply of Russian energy, it was Putin who was negotiating from a position of strength.
This is the hard truth: in the current crisis, he will always be the one negotiating from a position of strength and to suggest otherwise is to engage in a variant of magical thinking.
The timing of the launch of this second front is not too big of a mystery. A NATO summit is scheduled to take place in Wales at the end of the week where we can expect NATO to disingenuously signal to Kiev that its membership bid will be met with open arms. This, in turn, will likely result in the following: 1) Kiev will take NATO’s overtures at face value and redouble its eastern offensive and 2) Putin will secure not only a land corridor to Crimea, he may even attempt to carve Novorossiya out of southern Ukraine.
There are of course other options open to NATO, and a good place to start would be to level with their clients in Kiev: tell them NATO membership is not in the offing and politely refer them to the terms of the Austrian State Treaty. The latter suggestion will be greeted with howls of protest from the usual suspects, but the right to national self-determination does not necessarily possess inherent value and anyway cannot be operative at all times and places, especially in the absence of a state’s stability or at the expense of regional security. Guaranteeing Ukraine’s non-block status will secure the peace and start Ukraine on the path back from ruin.
This is simply the reality of the situation and Western policymakers, if they really do want to end the ongoing crisis, ought to be pressuring Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk to begin negotiations with the rebels. This, as is painfully obvious, will not happen; at least as long as Yatsenyuk is head of government. On Friday, he announced his intention to introduce a bill to the Verkhovna Rada which would put Ukraine on the path towards NATO membership. The very idea should be dismissed out of hand by Western leaders.
The Wales summit offers the West (and in particular the U.S., which, as we’ve seen, has far bigger problems both domestically and internationally at the moment) a chance to level with Kiev’s overanxious Westernizers. Secretary Kerry’s protestations to the contrary, geography, spheres of influence, and great power politics are not relics from the “19th century”. Pretending otherwise does Ukraine no favors.
As we mark the centenary of the Great War this month, the crisis in eastern Ukraine continues to spiral out of control with no end to the bloodshed in sight. The fourth, and most recent, report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, covering the period between June 5 and July 15 2014, makes for depressing reading. Among many other findings, the report notes that most of the casualties between the 10th and 15th of July “have been the result of intense shelling of villages, towns and cities, the so-called ‘collateral damage’ to the fighting that is taking place in and around population centers…there has not been sufficient precaution taken to preventing death and injury to civilians.”
The report documents a series of “egregious human rights abuses” committed by the rebels in the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as well as a growing humanitarian crisis within Ukraine. According to the report, as of July 15, there were nearly 87,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), the majority of whom are women and children. The report documents a burgeoning backlash against the wave of IDP’s flooding western villages and towns “in particular, on social media, further dividing opinions between east and west.”
The report continues, lamenting the fact that “people trapped in areas controlled by the armed groups continue to be killed as the heavy shelling continues from both sides.” Yet, “neither side expressed any public willingness to come together to discuss a negotiated peace” though Ukrainian President Poroshenko has agreed to restore the ceasefire he abandoned on July 1 on conditions that would essentially disarm the rebels and hobble the flow of men and weaponry from Russia.
More worrying still are reports that Russia is in the process of abandoning the landmark 1987 INF Treaty. According to Professor Tom Nichols, “Moscow may be coming back to theater-range nuclear weapons as some sort of imagined equalizer against NATO … This is the Kremlin’s bizarre strategy of ‘nuclear de-escalation’, in which the use of just a few nuclear weapons convinces a putative ‘aggressor’ to back off.” This scenario is not so very far-fetched. Consider the following. What if, using the Responsibility-to-Protect doctrine as international legal cover, Putin decides, following the example NATO set in Libya in 2011, to institute a no-fly zone over Donetsk and Luhansk? Would NATO overtly send troops into Ukraine as a response, and if so what then? It is worth noting that in addition to what Professor Nichols tell us, that Moscow dropped its “no first-use” nuclear weapons policy in 1993. According to one estimate, Russia has roughly 1,800 operational tactical nuclear weapons.
All the while, the latest round of salvos in what Russia scholar Gilbert Doctorow has quite rightly described as an “uncivil war of words” over the crisis in Ukraine have continued to be fired. In June, a conference put together by Moscow State University Professor Ed Lozansky to discuss the current state of U.S.-Russian relations was ridiculed by a neoconservative activist as little more than a “pity party for the Kremlin’s die-hard American apologists” insinuating that the participants were little more than a motley band of anti-Semites and 9/11 “truthers.” Read More…
When the below item first came across my inbox, I thought it was a pretty clever bit of satire. After a couple of inquiries, however, it turns out that you really can’t make this stuff up:
Sent: Friday, July 25, 2014
To: Sais Alumni
Subject: Call for Applications — Advanced Institutes in National Security
I work for the Hertog Foundation, an educational philanthropy in New York City. We are offering two seminars this fall in New York City and Jerusalem that I believe might be of interest to SAIS alumni.
- The first program, a weeklong study of the Iraq War, will be led by Paul Wolfowitz (AEI) and Lewis Libby (Hudson Institute), and will take place from October 27-31, 2014 in NYC.
- The second will be led by William Kristol (Weekly Standard) in Jerusalem, and will examine the idea of nationalism and its future.
The Advanced Institutes offer promising individuals, from a broad range of academic and professional backgrounds, an opportunity to engage with leading thinkers and practitioners. They are an important part of the Hertog Foundation’s mission to advance serious discussion of issues of public policy and political theory.
Details for the institute and how to apply can be found at hertogfoundation.org. All come with a stipend to cover travel, lodging, and time. The application deadline is August 1, 2014.
I hope you will share this email with outstanding candidates who might be interested. I would be glad to answer any questions you might have.
Hertog Foundation | Tikvah Fund
One has to wonder what lessons will be gleaned from rubbing shoulders with such luminaries as the convicted felon Libby (5 counts) and the brilliant architect of the second Iraq war cum ousted World Bank president Wolfowitz. The promotional material for their weeklong (weeklong!) program tells us:
The U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 quickly removed the regime that had repeatedly defied America and gave Iraqis a chance to devise their own future. However, the war soon devolved into a messy combination of insurgency and sectarian fighting that brought thousands of U.S. casualties, sapped American will and credibility, and worked to the benefit of America’s other regional nemesis, Iran.
Well, that’s actually a surprisingly forthright assessment considering the source—though it leaves out a few things that came about because of the war, such as the 300,000 or more American veterans who now suffer from brain injuries; the roughly 600,000 dead Iraqis (mainly non-combatants); the estimated 3,500,000 to 5,000,000 Iraqis who became displaced persons; the 4,500,000 children who are now orphans in Iraq; and the $3,000,000,000,000 it cost U.S. taxpayers to accomplish all this.
Prospective participants are then told:
These events occurred not in isolation, but against the backdrop of broader international developments, particularly the ending of the Cold War, the attacks of 9/11/2001, and the on-going U.S. confrontation with radical Islam.
So I guess Libby and Wolfowitz are planning to put the decade-long (and counting!) disaster into to its proper global “context”; they’ll dust off some of the classic IR texts and tell the assembled that, yeah, maybe it didn’t work out the way we told everyone, and true, perhaps we were a little less-than-forthright about the reasons we decided to roll the dice and risk the lives and limbs of hundreds of thousands of our young servicemen and women, but hey, part of the reason we failed was “structural,” the end of the Cold War, and all that.
It should make for a fascinating week in New York.
With the news that Arseniy Yatsenyuk tendered his resignation as Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a once meteoric career has come to a crashing halt. In the U.S., Yatsenyuk gained widespread notoriety when a conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev was leaked by, presumably, Russian intelligence. On it, Ms. Nuland expressed her certainty, in positively breathy tones, that “Yats” would make an ideal Prime Minister. As so, once the coup transpired in February, it came to pass.
In gaining the Premiership, Yatsenyuk made a deal with the devil, doing nothing to quell the violence that engulfed the Maidan after the Western and Russian-backed settlement agreement of February 21 was announced. Here we might pause to note that pronouncements from pro-democracy activists like Freedom House’s David Kramer and pop-philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy that Putin is entirely to blame for the violence in Ukraine, should be greeted with a healthy dose of skepticism.
After the February coup Yatsenyuk quickly threw in his lot in with the gang around the far-right Svoboda and became, quite illegitimately, prime minister. The far-right was compensated handsomely. Svoboda, whose leader Oleh Tyahnybok once voiced dissatisfaction that Ukraine was being run by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia,” was amply rewarded, gaining the defense ministry and the prosecutor general’s office, along with two non-power ministries like Agriculture and Environment. The government promptly removed the governors of the pro-Russian eastern provinces and put a number of oligarchs in their stead. The reaction to all of this by the citizens of these provinces, and that of their rather large, influential, and, yes, bare-knuckled, neighbor to the east is now all too plain to see.
Having captured the top prize, Yatsenyuk did what any self-respecting free-riding Atlanticist would do: he dashed off to Washington for meetings with President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. The President, for his part, authorized a $1 billion loan guarantee (about $14 billion shy of what Vladimir Putin put on offer the previous November) and urged Russia and Ukraine to turn to diplomacy to settle their differences. That was not to be, yet the new Premier’s strenuous efforts to drag the U.S. into a war his government bears a good deal of responsibility for starting have, for the most part, come to naught.
Yatsenyuk’s economic record mirrors his diplomatic one. The month he took office the Hryvnia lost a fifth of its value, and Yatsenyuk recently announced he expects the Ukrainian economy to shrink by 3 percent in 2014. It is said that the signing of the EU-Ukraine association agreement along with the conditions of the IMF’s $17 billion loan will launch Ukraine on its predestined European trajectory. Yet, if the experiences of Russia and Argentina, (to say nothing of non-IMF mandated austerity measures in the United Kingdom) are anything to go by, Ukrainians can look forward to many years of mass unemployment, the gutting of their manufacturing and export sectors, the hollowing out of government assistance programs, higher energy bills, higher taxes, and wage freezes. Read More…
While the neocons have rendered themselves ridiculous by either acting like petulant children when called out on their record (see Kristol, William) or dabbling in what amounts to overlong exercises in historical fiction (see Kagan, Robert), the liberal interventionist crowd deserves more scrutiny than they have heretofore been subjected to, because these Wilsonians, unlike their right-wing counterparts, are a not a specifically American phenomenon: the Wilsonians have gone global.
The Canadian scholar-turned-politician Michael Ignateiff channeled his inner Kagan and brought forth a wondrous account of what he sees as a “rising authoritarian archipelago” in last week’s issue of the venerable New York Review of Books. Ignatieff, acting in the role of Cassandra, warns us that much like the 1930s when “travelers returned from Mussolini’s Italy, Stalin’s Russia, and Hitler’s Germany praising the sense of common purpose they saw there …. democracies today are in the middle of a similar period of envy and despondency.”
There is, I think it fair to say, aside from the horrendous shape of the American economy, very little with which to compare the world of 2014 with that of the 1930s, which brought us the demonic Nazi regime, a lunatic Communist one, and the untold misery of millions of people even prior to the opening shots of the World War II. Yet for the Global Wilsonians it’s always 1938.
And so, we are darkly warned, that Vladimir Putin’s recent visit to China was about far, far more than a mere gas deal, rather, “it heralded the emergence of an alliance off authoritarian states with a combined population of 1.6 billion in the vast Eurasian space.” Well, perhaps. But any discussion of why Mr Putin has turned East was, it seems, beyond the scope of Ignatieff’s piece.
Over the weekend on a CNN roundtable, another Canadian thinker-turned-MP, Chrystia Freeland, struck back hard at the Council on Foreign Relations chair Richard Haas for having the audacity to suggest the U.S. and the EU are at least partially responsible for the turmoil rollicking the Near East in their eagerness to topple autocratic regimes like Qaddafi’s and Mubarak’s, without giving sufficient thought to what may replace them. Freeland seems to think that this kind of second-guessing is really most unhelpful to the Global Wilsonian project of worldwide democratization. Message: don’t look back.
Moving on from our Canadian Globalists, the Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt was in town last week at the invitation of the Atlantic Council. Bildt, as is by now widely known, was one of the principal architects—along with fellow Global Wilsonian and Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski—of the European Union’s Eastern Partnership project which aims to incorporate six of the former Soviet states into the EU. Bildt, much like Ignateiff, looks at the world and sees nothing but trouble, trouble, trouble. (Maybe we should call them the Taylor Swift caucus?)
Bildt noted, “new dangers and challenges seem to be rising wherever we look … these are not easy times, and they call for clear headed strategic assessment of the challenges we are facing.” No doubt, but if the audience was expecting such an assessment to follow, they were mistaken. Read More…
Further evidence that the Republican Party still ought not to be trusted with guiding U.S. foreign policy comes courtesy of former Romney campaign foreign policy director Alex Wong. Wong, in a Politico essay that nicely captures the new Romney-friendly zeitgeist, tells us that Mitt was actually right all along; that his positions with regard to Syria, Russia, and Iran were far more astute and “clear eyed” than was generally appreciated at the time.
Perhaps the clearest example of Obama’s failure to recognize a strategic competitor is the case of Russia. Mere months before the president first came into office, Russia had invaded its neighbor Georgia, sending an unmistakable message about the manner in which the Kremlin did business. By then, Vladimir Putin’s Russia had already accumulated a deplorable record on human rights and democratic governance—and it was getting worse. Russia has long used its vast energy resources as a cudgel to coerce other countries. And throughout Obama”s presidency, the Kremlin has routinely stood in the way of international pressure on both the Assad regime and the ayatollahs in Tehran.
Where to begin? As I and many others have repeatedly noted, it was neoconservative puppet-turned Tufts University Senior Statesman Mikheil Saakashvili who provoked the 2008 war with Russia by shelling Russian ethnic enclaves in South Ossetia. So Wong begins with a faulty premise, and then pivots to a criticism of Putin’s domestic record with regard to “human rights” and “governance.” This conflation is common. Republicans like Wong, against all evidence, really do seem to take the tenants of Democratic Peace Theory—the idea that a regime’s internal affairs can predict their approach toward external ones—seriously.
Wong then goes on to note that Putin has “stood in the way” of efforts by the international community to pressure both Syria and Iran. Well that’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: as regards Syria, it was Putin who actually pressured his client Assad to work with the U.S. and Russia to gather and destroy his chemical weapons stockpile, thereby saving Obama from having to follow through on his fantastically reckless “red line” ultimatum. Had he not done so, it is entirely possible the U.S. would now be embroiled in yet another war in the Near East, a war that hawks like Wong and his former boss were all too eager in which to embroil us.
As concerns Iran, please consider the following from the nonpartisan International Institute for Strategic Studies nonproliferation expert Mark Fitzpatrick:
Amid ongoing tensions over Ukraine, it is worth noting that Russia continues to cooperate closely with the West over Iran. Far from using the Iran issue to retaliate against US and European sanctions, as Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov ill-advisedly warned it might in mid-March, Russia has helped bolster the US position on the most sensitive aspect of the Iran negotiations: demands for cutbacks in the centrifuge programme. (emphasis added)
As Gov. Rick Perry might say: Oops. Read More…
The contretemps over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has been occasion for a raft of commentary taking President Obama’s lack of competence as the defining feature of the affair. And while there is certainly ample cause to call into question the merits of the deal with the Taliban, the wisdom of Mr. Obama’s highly misleading press conference with the Sergeant’s parents, and the subsequent reappearance of the wondrous Susan Rice on the Sunday morning talk shows, to my mind the most troubling aspect of the Bergdahl affair has to do with how someone so obviously troubled made his way into the ranks in the first place.
Like the deeply troubled Pfc. Chelsea (née Bradley) Manning before him, Bergdahl should never have been accepted into the ranks in the first place. He was admitted into the Army largely because an incompetent President, going against the wishes of the country, decided to double down on an ill-conceived and grossly mismanaged war. The story of how Bergdahl, who was discharged from the Coast Guard for psychological reasons in 2006, found his way back into what we are endlessly told is the greatest military in the history of the world, is profoundly discouraging. The Washington Post reports that by 2008, the year Bergdahl enlisted, the Army was issuing waivers to those with criminal backgrounds, health issues, and “other problems” at the rate of one for every five recruits. This perhaps points to a larger problem, reaching beyond the armed services.
The post-9/11 national security state, which consists of at least 17 federal intelligence agencies and organizations, requires hundreds of thousands of individuals to staff it. In light of the cases of Messrs. Manning, Snowden, and Bergdahl, it has become increasingly clear that the government has created a significant problem for itself. This was bound to happen given the sheer numbers involved. Consider the following from the groundbreaking 2010 report by the Post’s Dana Priest and William Arkin:
- Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
- An estimated 854,000 people, nearly one-and-a-half times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret security clearances.
Four years on, the number of security clearances issued has continued apace. According to a report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence this past April, from 2012-13 the number of people deemed “eligible” for access to classified information increased by nearly a quarter of a million people. Roughly 5.15 million people currently hold security clearances, out of which around a million are outside contractors, about half of whom hold a top-secret clearance.
The conversation that needs to be going on should be focused on whether the national security structure, as it stands right now, is actually supportable. The Bergdahl affair ought to serve as a warning that as we keep expanding the military and enlarging the intelligence apparatus, the law of diminishing returns will (and probably has) set in. Yet no one in Washington ever thinks to say: enough. It’s past time for Congress to reconsider the efficacy, to say nothing of the desirability, of the post-9/11 national security leviathan.
In January 1997, a 92-year-old retired diplomat and prize-winning historian based out of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton confided in his diary the following thoughts with regard to the proposed expansion of NATO to include three former Warsaw Pact countries: “The deep commitment of our government to press the expansion of NATO right up to the Russian borders is the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold War period. I stretched my mind … trying to find any reason for this colossal blunder. I could find none.”
A week later, George Frost Kennan—the “father of containment” and author of the fantastically influential “X” article in Foreign Affairs that spurred America’s Cold War strategy—would go public over his misgivings in an op-ed in the New York Times. He was, as he suspected he would be, promptly ignored by the upper echelons of the United States government.
Strobe Talbott, then serving as President Clinton’s “Russia hand,” recalls in his memoirs of those years being asked by the president, who had read the op-ed, why Kennan was wrong, to which Talbott responded that he admired Kennan “but not as a source of all wisdom. Kennan had opposed the formation of NATO in the first place … so it was no great surprise he would oppose its enlargement.” And like that, Kennan’s opposition, which now seems prescient, was dismissed.
Yet Talbott’s dismissal couldn’t have come as any surprise to Kennan, who writes in his diary of his sympathy with Henry Adams’s sentiment that being regarded as a “sage” actually means, in Kennan’s words, that one’s recommendations “were not to be taken seriously when it came to public policy.” The knowledge that the respect with which he was heard never translated to influence was, as these diaries make plain, something that Kennan never reconciled himself to. It’s entirely possible that if his counsel, so eagerly sought yet so quickly discarded, was heeded, we—the United States and our NATO allies—may well have avoided the crisis with Russia we have lately found ourselves in.
So the publication of The Kennan Diaries is timely. It is also perhaps the capstone event of what has been in recent years a resurgent interest in the life and work of George F. Kennan. The dénouement of George W. Bush’s disastrous tenure in the White House saw a renewed interest in the political philosophy of mid-20th century realists like Kennan and his contemporary Reinhold Niebuhr. These two men were very unlike those leaving power at the end of the Bush years, in that they urged a foreign policy that had a “proper respect for the decent opinion of mankind.” Around that time candidate Barack Obama, clearly dissembling, told David Brooks that Niebuhr was “one of my favorite philosophers.”
The contours of Kennan’s life and career are by now familiar. Born at the turn of the last century in comfortable enough circumstances in Milwaukee, Kennan graduated from Princeton before joining the recently formed Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. After initial postings in Geneva and Hamburg, he found his true métier as a Russia specialist and accompanied the first U.S. ambassador to the USSR, William Bullitt, to Moscow upon resumption of diplomatic relations in 1933. Later assigned to the Prague and then Berlin embassies at the outbreak of World War II, he endured six months of internment in Bad Nauheim before a repatriation agreement was negotiated between Washington and Berlin.
He served as the first director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and later as ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he was declared persona non grata by Stalin only six months into his tenure. Kennan’s public career had launched some years earlier, upon the publication in 1947 of his article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym “X.” His authorship soon became known, and by the mid-1950s he was a much sought-after public intellectual. He also wrote several distinguished volumes on Russian history, including the Bancroft Prize- and National Book Award-winning Russia Leaves the War.
He was an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy for the remainder of his very long life. His close friend, the historian John Lukacs—who also happens to have authored the most perceptive biography of the man—called him “a conscience of his nation.”
If that’s right, and I think it is, he was also, as these diaries make plain, something of a tortured soul. According to the editor of this volume, historian Frank Costigliola, Kennan’s wife of 73 years, Annelise, “stressed that he tended to write in his diary when he was feeling morose, and rarely when he was not”—to which this reviewer can only add: and how!
What strikes the reader of these diaries, besides the sheer abundance of literary talent on display, is Kennan’s capacity, in the space of a single entry, for deep wisdom and even deeper melancholy. This duality runs like a thread through these pages, and a little of the latter goes a long way. Take one example from April 1951: “It would be a miracle if, with some combination of personal and public problems, anything remained for me personally in life … this will be a time for leadership or for martyrdom or for both. I may as well prepare myself for it.”
The diaries seem to point to at least one source of depression for Kennan: that in spite of his enormous success, he was at heart an artist, a bohemian doomed to a life of middle-class conformity. Upon learning he had won the Pulitzer Prize for Russia Leaves the War, he writes: “why this lack of enthusiasm I cannot explain, even to myself … perhaps it is fiction I should write.”
Yet the diaries aren’t all doom and gloom; indeed, they have their charms. Upon reading the second volume of Isaac Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky, Kennan immediately recognizes that the portrait of Trotsky as a humane man of letters—a view, incidentally propagated by several generations of leftist intellectuals, including Christopher Hitchens—was nonsense.
In an entry from 1959, Kennan notes: “a man like Trotsky, whose life was one long outpouring of the most ferocious summons to class warfare and violence, became not a saint, not a prophet, not a high-minded benefactor of humanity, but something very close to a criminal.” His take on a worldview not dissimilar to Trotsky’s, that of America’s neoconservatives, elicits the thought that they “have the need to think that there is, somewhere, an enemy boundlessly evil, because this makes them feel boundlessly good.”
His quick portraits of two southern boys made good, Lyndon Baines Johnson and William Jefferson Clinton, are indelible. Kennan recoiled at LBJ’s shtick: “what this man represents—this oily, folksy, tricky political play-acting, this hearty optimism, this self-congratulatory jingoism, all combined with the whiney, plaintive, provincial drawl and the childish antics of the grown male in modern Texas.” He is somewhat nicer about President Clinton, who, though he never heeded Kennan’s policy advice, did have the decency to give him a respectful hearing. In the aftermath of the revelation that the president lied about his affair with Monica Lewinsky, Kennan notes in September 1998 that Clinton could hardly be blamed, after all “he is the outgrowth of a seriously decadent and spoiled society … he is shallow in his philosophical background and in his human relationships.”
About his sometime home city of Washington, D.C., Kennan is rather less charitable, writing after a stroll on an 86-degree day—in November—that he felt like he was “living in what seemed to me a sort of foreign city, a sort of super Dar-es-Salaam.”
The worst review of these diaries, Fareed Zakaria’s in the New York Times, spent far too much space taking Kennan to task for being “cranky” or “racist” and for not reveling in the America of the “booming 1990s.” It strikes me, however, as hardly surprising that a man born in the middle of the country in 1904 turned his nose up at what surely was—with the grossness of the Clinton/Lewinsky entanglement, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the lugubrious outpouring of grief over the death of Diana Spencer—a most tawdry decade.
There was, to be sure, a part of Kennan that liked to épater les bien-pensants, and it is true that the diary entries from his later years express views that are startlingly, shall we say, unconventional: here I have in mind an entry in which he looks kindly upon the idea of “sterilization” as a solution to what he perceived as the threat of overpopulation. Such entries can’t help but make one wish that Costigliola had pruned a bit more—though in fairness, he was faced with a herculean task of selecting entries from a diary that spanned over 20,000 pages.
The early chapters here could have been done away with: juvenilia are, after all, juvenilia, even if they come from the pen of George F. Kennan. And while it is of interest that Kennan was something of a Freudian and kept a detailed “dream diary,” I’m skeptical that entries from that journal add much in the way of understanding this very complicated man.
The diaries, while presenting a more balanced portrait of Kennan than the one found in John Lewis Gaddis’s 2011 biography, tend also to go over a rather lot of familiar ground. Kennan’s two volumes of memoirs, the aforementioned Lukacs and Gaddis biographies, another by Lee Congdon, an excellent book of correspondence between Kennan and Lukacs, Kennan’s reminisces in Sketches of a Life, and his best-selling book of personal philosophy, Around the Cragged Hill, make much of the diaries redundant. Thus I fear that this volume—while at times entertaining, illuminating, and obviously put together with great care—will ultimately be of limited value to the specialist and too dense for the general reader.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
The election that took place on Sunday in Ukraine has if nothing else given that country something it has not had since February 21: a legitimate head of state. As of this writing, the results show a convincing win for former economic and foreign minister Petro Poroshenko over former President Yulia Tymoshenko.
And so, the election of the confectionery magnate Poroshenko may augur well for Ukraine’s chances to stay intact, all the while remaining tacitly divided. Unlike the interim government, tainted as it was by its close association with all manner of neo-fascists, Poroshenko appears to have at least some measure of credibility on both sides—east and west—of the great Ukrainian divide; and we may permit ourselves to hope he may be able to assemble a coalition that represents the aspirations of all the Ukrainian people rather than only those who took to the barricades in February.
He is said to be someone with whom Putin can deal. Yet the very suggestion that Poroshenko might be acceptable to Putin has already raised the hackles of some American neoconservatives. The American Interest magazine, for instance, has tried to sully Poroshenko’s reputation in the run-up to the election by running two pieces stressing Poroshenko’s alleged connection to a corrupt gas oligarch.
That aside, Poroshenko has a long road ahead of him: he will have to handle tricky and combustible issues like federalization, the status of the Russian language, and the orientation of Ukraine’s foreign policy. He will still need to contend with the pro-Russian separatists in Lugansk and Donetsk all the while trying to repair Ukrainian-Russian relations without alienating the pro-Western majorities in the former Hapsburg provinces.
It’s a fine line he will have to walk, yet if the new government is able to put a stop to the burgeoning civil war and reach a satisfactory settlement over the aforementioned issues, then the Obama administration should use the resulting diplomatic breathing space to re-examine its neo-Containment policy towards Russia forthwith. Doing so now is a strategic necessity in light of Putin’s successful trip to China last week. With the long-term natural gas deal inked between Russia and China it is now beyond question that Putin, good realist that he is, intends to align Russia more closely with the Chinese in order to balance against what he sees as American hegemony. Indeed, missing from most of the U.S. coverage of the $400 billion Gazprom deal was the Shanghai summit’s other not inconsiderable successes, among them:
- Vneshekonombank’s agreement with China’s Export-Import Bank for a $500 million line of credit to finance projects in Russia
- Russian gas company Novatek’s 20 year deal to supply China with 3 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually
- An agreement on the development of a coal field in Siberia which is estimated to be worth roughly $900 billion
In light of this, the Obama administration ought to attempt a limited reset with Russia sometime after the mid-term elections this fall. Such a reset might include the revival of several, but certainly not all, of the working groups of the now-defunct Bilateral Commission. If the administration does decide to revisit the Commission, rather revive all of the 20 working groups (a few of which were simply moribund anyway), it might consider narrowing the focus of U.S.-Russian engagement to a handful of working groups, focusing on counterterrorism, nuclear security, health cooperation (with a focus on combating infectious diseases), trade relations, and counter-narcotics cooperation.
The aim should be to focus on areas of mutual interest all the while trying to lower the temperature and rein in some of the more provocative rhetoric emanating out of the White House and the State Department. A good first step towards repairing the breach would be to refrain from further additions to the Magnitsky list. A policy of limited engagement, which scales back both the number of items on the agenda and avoids over-blown hopes for a complete rapprochement, would be a sensible policy for the remainder of the Obama era. Perhaps the administration will finally learn that we need to deal with the Russia that is, not the Russia we wish it to be.
Last Tuesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held yet another hearing on Russia and Ukraine. The testimony of two of the witnesses before the committee, the State Department’s Victoria Nuland and the Defense Department’s Evelyn Farkas should be of genuine interest to anyone concerned about the course of action the U.S. is intent on taking in the region.
Ms. Nuland’s testimony was notable for her prediction that Russian citizens will one day ask with regard to their country’s incursion into Ukraine:
What have we really achieved? Instead of funding schools, hospitals, science, and prosperity at home in Russia, we have squandered our national wealth on adventurism, interventionism, and the ambitions of a leader who cares more about empire then his own citizens.
Well, whatever the Russian people think of Putin’s adventurism—and if recent poll numbers are anything to go by, they think pretty well of it—it’s the American people who are sorely tired of American adventures abroad.
Notable too were her comments on the May 2nd massacre in Odessa, which she described as “the death of more than 40 following an afternoon of violent clashes reportedly instigated by pro-Russian separatists…” This is too cute by half. The 46 people who were burned alive were pro-Russian demonstrators who barricaded themselves inside the second story of the trade union building in Odessa to escape the predations of a crowd of Right Sector militants.
Consider the following account of the massacre in the New York Times:
As the building burned, Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: “Colorado” for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted “burn Colorado, burn,” witnesses said. Swastikalike symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading “Galician SS,” though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.
To this our UN Ambassador Samantha Power tweeted: ”Fact that #Ukraine has taken steps to try to restore order and take back territory from separatists is what any nation would do.” This is interesting not so much for the moral obtuseness on display as for the hypocrisy. Recall that only two months ago, when former Ukrainian president Yanukovych attempted to “restore order” on the Maidan, he was told by Vice President Biden to pull back his security forces “immediately.”
While Nuland’s testimony was an overlong exercise in dissembling, Dr. Farkas’s was pretty informative. Through her testimony we were assured that the administration’s aim is to “provide reassurance and support without taking actions that would escalate the military crisis.” And with that out of the way we learned:
- The United States has pledged funding for a $1 billion loan guarantee to Ukraine and for $50 million for new programs to address “emerging needs” (which was left undefined)
- The DoD is providing 330,000 Meals-Ready-to-Eat, as well as uniforms, individual equipment, handheld radios, and Explosive Ordinance Disposal robots to the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense
- So far $18 million worth of security assistance has been provided to the Ukrainian armed forces and border guards
- On April 1 DoD held bilateral defense consultations in Kiev at which mid-term and long-term objectives for defense cooperation was discussed
- In order to “assure” our NATO allies, DoD is conducting a build-up of military assets in Eastern Europe and on the frontiers of the former Soviet space: the U.S.S Donald Cook, the U.S.S Taylor, and U.S.S. Truxtun are now situated in the Black Sea
- The NATO Baltic Air Policing mission has been augmented by six additional F-15s and 12 F-16s; 600 paratroopers are now taking part in exercises in Poland and the Baltics.
- 22 U.S. European Command and NATO exercises are planned to take place between April and June
- $10 million has been approved by DoD to send to Moldova to help secure its borders
- Discussions with the Republic of Georgia are likewise underway
Left unaddressed: will all this support for the Ukrainian military and the states bordering Russia make it more or less likely that Russia will cease its provocations in the Ukrainian East and South?
In the Q&A that followed, not one senator mentioned the massacre in Odessa. Sens. Boxer and Cardin did however express their sympathy for the missing Nigerian girls. All stressed the need for tougher sanctions on Russia and more “nonlethal tactical assistance” to the Ukrainian government. Some, like John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), complained the administration wasn’t doing nearly enough.
Yet overall the hearing was a show of bipartisanship in the very worst sense; not one senator present dissented from the prevailing view that a) the Russians are the primary cause for the crisis in Ukraine and b) Ukraine represents a core U.S. national security interest. As the violence continues to spiral out of control ahead of the May 25th elections, the Congress and the administration find themselves, for once, in complete and serene agreement that the policy of material support for the regime in Kiev, and of ever-tighter encirclement of Russia, is indeed the right one. Let’s hope they are right.
James Carden is a TAC contributing editor and served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.
The New Republic’s resident Russia hand Julia Ioffe has penned a pretty extraordinary piece on TNR’s website attacking NYU Professor emeritus and Nation contributor Stephen F. Cohen’s latest article on U.S.-Russia policy, which he co-authored with his wife Katrina vanden Heuvel. Cohen, perhaps the country’s foremost scholar of Russian studies, certainly doesn’t need my help in defending himself against what amounts to a scurrilous—and frankly hysterical—ad hominem attack on his work and character.
The premise of the Cohen/vanden Heuvel piece is pretty straightforward: the administration, via Peter Baker’s excellent piece of reporting in the April 19 edition of the New York Times, announced what amounts to a pretty major shift in U.S. policy toward Russia: it will aim to “isolate” Russia and make it a “pariah state.” Cohen and vanden Heuvel argue that such a shift—given its serious implications for U.S. foreign policy going forward—has been accompanied by disturbingly little public debate; and they correctly point out that what little debate there has been on the issue, it has been one-sided at best.
Now, whatever you think of the administration’s new policy—and as I wrote last week, I think very little of it—it is unarguable that 1) a policy which aims to make Russia a “pariah” state is indeed a significant departure from the previous policy of détente or reset, and 2) in the main, Cohen is correct in pointing out that the debate as being carried out on the major networks, cable outlets, and establishment press has been pretty stilted.
All in all, I have to say, as someone who has been following the debate fairly closely, the Cohen-vanden Heuvel thesis is pretty reasonable and was put forth in a similarly reasonable fashion. So what sort of confounds me is Ioffe’s virulent reaction to it. Was it triggered by the fact that Cohen cited The New Republic as one of the offending mainstream media outlets? That can’t be it. Was it the fact that he had previously criticized Ioffe’s TNR cover story of February 17th and this is payback time? Doubtful.
It’s useless to speculate, but, I must admit to being puzzled by the tenor of TNR’s coverage of Russia and the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Ioffe, along with the lamentable Leon Wieseltier, has taken a pretty hard-line stand against what she views as Vladimir Putin’s revanchist foreign policy. And that’s fine, as far as it goes, but it leaves out a good deal, as when Ioffe writes:
It doesn’t seem to matter that NATO accession was not really on the table for Ukraine (just look at its military performance in recent weeks) and neither was EU accession because—warning: another meaningless detail!—Ukraine is a financial basket case, even worse than the basket cases the EU is already dealing with. It doesn’t matter to Cohen that both issues were matters of great debate inside that insignificant detail named Ukraine, and that the fact of their potential smuggling into this or that union might be something to be decided inside Ukraine, a sovereign and independent country trying in vain to regain its own territory captured by masked Russian gunmen.
Seems to me there are a few things to, as Ioffe would say, “unpack” here. It’s a bit disingenuous to claim that Ukrainian accession to NATO was never really in the cards. If that’s true, then what was the purpose of section 2.3 of the EU-Ukraine association agenda which, among other things would have required the signatories to: Read More…
Over the weekend, Peter Baker of the New York Times reported that the Obama administration will now shift its long-term approach to Russia from one of engagement (via the much derided “reset” policy) to one of isolation in an attempt to limit Russia’s “expansionist ambitions in its own neighborhood” and effectively make it “a pariah state.” According to Baker, the administration is basically updating George F. Kennan’s Cold War policy of containment for the present day, the idea being to forge a global consensus against Russia’s revisionist foreign policy. This is an approach that intuitively makes a good deal of sense; it is, at first blush anyway, an indication that the administration is moving away from what has heretofore been an ad hoc approach to the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations in favor of a more strategic and long-term vision.
However, there are a few points with regard to Containment 2.0 worth discussing, the first being whether a policy that aims to make Russia a “pariah state” bears any resemblance to Kennan’s conception of what his containment doctrine actually entailed. It seems to me what the administration is talking about is not really Kennan’s vision of containment, but rather that of his friend and ideological adversary, Paul Nitze. As Kennan himself noted over and over again in his voluminous literary output, the original iteration of the containment doctrine he laid out in 1947 was, for the most part, out-of-date the moment Joseph Stalin left the scene.
From that point on—and as the Khrushchev thaw became more and more evident—Kennan advocated for a policy of engagement with Russia; containment was, as he was at pains to point out, not a policy of military encirclement, nor was it a policy of engaging the Soviets in a series of proxy wars over peripheral and strategically worthless third-world outposts. That was, in fact, Nitze’s policy as first put forth in NSC policy paper 68 of 1950. It was that policy that successive U.S. administrations generally adhered to, not Kennan’s, and it is that militarized version of containment that is being urged on the Obama administration by establishment figures like the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum who, in a Slate column last month, wrote that a new approach toward Russia was needed because “Russia is an anti-Western power with a different, darker vision of global politics.” To face down the revanchist Russian bear, Applebaum (who is married to Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski) proposed that the West “re-imagine NATO” and “move its forces from Germany to the alliance’s eastern borders.”
Now perhaps the administration really is proposing a Kennan-esque rather than a Nitze-ian containment policy, but there is little to indicate this is so. The new policy, as laid out in Baker’s article, seems to be predicated on the assumption that the Russians have little or no means at their disposal to react. The administration’s focus seems to be on the costs it can impose on Russia, all the while neglecting the fact that Russia can—and will—counter-impose costs of its own. That the Russians have a fair amount of economic leverage over Europe is no secret; yet the costs they may be able to impose on the U.S. are more formidable than generally recognized. Is the administration willing to risk access to the Northern Distribution Network, over which the U.S. transports equipment and personnel to and from Afghanistan, over a crisis of Ukrainian sovereignty? Are efforts to isolate and make Russia an international outcast more or less likely to persuade them to assist in efforts to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon; or to work to help to defuse the ongoing Syrian fiasco; or to work with the U.S. in implementing the provisions of New Start; or to continue cooperating with the U.S. with regard to outer space? How, too, one wonders, would antagonizing Russia in the West affect the administration’s “pivot” to Asia?
The reasoning behind Containment 2.0 also seems to suffer from the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. The administration (and even some of the more sentient members of Congress, few though they are) seems to believe that because Russia’s aggressive approach in Crimea (and, it now must be said, in parts of eastern Ukraine) took place after the reset, then the reset’s “accommodative” approach must be among the causes of said aggression. This is specious. The Russophone populations in eastern and southern Ukraine have for years been explicit in their desire to stay within Russia’s sphere of influence; “reset” or not, Russia was never going to allow Ukraine to leave its orbit for that that of the EU and NATO without a fight.
And then, of course, there is the issue of Obama’s choice to be the next ambassador to Russia. Reports out of Washington seem to indicate Obama is leaning towards appointing career diplomat John F. Tefft who served as Chief of Mission in Tbilisi during the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008. According to Baker, the White House was initially wary of appointing Tefft because of his prior service in Georgia and Ukraine, but now “there is no reluctance to offend the Kremlin.” What is it that they think they did when they appointed Michael McFaul as the American ambassador to Russia? In lieu of agitating the Kremlin (as seems to be the preferred option at present) perhaps the responsible thing for the administration to do would be to re-appoint the now-retired but still widely respected John Beyrle, or to appoint someone with a reputation for both reasonableness and deep expertise like Georgetown’s Angela Stent. Unfortunately the Obama administration, and in particular the current iteration of its NSC, which is sorely lacking in imagination, historical depth, and intellectual ballast, will likely do nothing of the kind.
And so, unfortunately, the new approach as outlined by Baker seems to be (yet another) case of the Obama administration losing the forest for the trees and not realizing that a policy that isolates and punishes Russia over its provocations in Ukraine, while perhaps satisfying in the short run, makes securing U.S. national security interests in far more important areas than Ukraine that much more difficult.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.