State of the Union

Will Global Wilsonians Take Us to War?

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…

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Mitt Romney Was Wrong All Along

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.

Wong notes:

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…

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Bergdahl, Manning, and the Overextended National Security State

NSA Headquarters Trevor Paglen / cc

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.

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What Julia Ioffe Got Wrong About Stephen Cohen

The New Republic
The New Republic

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…

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Ukraine Learns the Problem With Revolutions

Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk  rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall.
Ivan Bandura / Flickr
Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall. Ivan Bandura / Flickr

When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk – Eric Hoffer, True Believer

The news of late out of eastern Ukraine is laden with irony. Those of us possessed of a realist disposition—I use the term “disposition” advisedly, for as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his essay “Augustine’s Political Realism,” definitions of realists “emphasize disposition, rather than doctrines”—are not terribly surprised that the recently installed regime in Kiev has set in motion a revolution it now finds itself unable to control. As history shows, that’s the trouble with revolutions: once begun, efforts to predict—much less control—their path are often fruitless.

What we are seeing taking place in the eastern provinces of Ukraine shouldn’t be terribly surprising, after all—the erroneous, yet seductive phrase “one Ukrainian people” that has been uttered over and over again by American and European diplomats, was always a fiction. So the new regime in Kiev finds itself in an analogous position to the one the Yanukovych government found itself in late 2013-early 2014; it faces popular dissatisfaction that expresses itself in the street (we have thankfully—thus far anyway—been spared the term “the Ukrainian street”).

There are a few differences between the oft-praised Euro-Maidan and the pro-Russian demonstrations now taking place across the East; the first being that the latter have actually been peaceful (so far). The nature of the regimes against which the respective protests were aimed are different as well; one, Yanukovych’s, was democratically elected in 2010, the government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk (or, as he was referred to in honeyed tones by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, “Yats”) was imposed by acts of violence and coercion. Another difference can be spotted in the reactions of the American media to the two movements. Proving the American media is nothing if not nimble, solidarity for the aspirations of the “Ukrainian people” during the Maidan riots has now morphed—in nary a blink of an eye—to scorn for protesters in the east who are obviously tools of the Kremlin.

And so if the protagonists of the Ukrainian revolution and their Western cheerleaders aren’t “in a funk,” perhaps they ought to be, for developments are not proving very favorable at present. In addition to the restive populations in urban centers like Donetsk and Kharkiv, Vladimir Putin is playing a strong hand well. He recently issued a letter to 18 European leaders urging them to provide Ukraine with financial assistance to avoid a shutdown of Russian gas supplies to Europe; economic leverage is joined by military leverage: Russia has amassed over 40,000 troops on its western border with Ukraine; and last but not least, Russia is busy consolidating its hold over Crimea. Indeed, this week the Russian government announced it was exploring the possibility of investing upwards of $1 billion toward developing the Crimean wine industry. Read More…

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Obama’s Very Bad Brussels Speech

Photo courtesy North Atlantic Treaty Organization
Photo courtesy North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Since the end of the Second World War, the boom-bust nature of U.S.-Russian relations has in many respects been its defining characteristic. The current crisis has several antecedents, many of which were more dangerous than the situation we now find ourselves facing.

The most well-known Cold War confrontations between the U.S. and Russia were also the earliest: the face-off over Berlin that resulted in a successful 11 month airlift in 1948-9, and the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Later “close calls” would occur at roughly 10-year intervals until the dissolution of the USSR in December 1991. In response to Brezhnev’s threat to send Russian troops to Egypt during the Yom Kippur War, in October 1973 Henry Kissinger, filling in for an incapacitated Richard Nixon, brought U.S. military forces to the level of DEFCON III, which put U.S. strategic nuclear forces on high alert. In 1983 Russian intelligence wrongly mistook NATO preparations for an exercise (operation Able Archer) for the real thing, putting their nuclear weapons and air units in Poland and East Germany on alert.

The post-Cold War era has also seen its share of close calls. In 1999 Russian and NATO troops faced off at Kosovo’s Pristina International Airport. A shooting war was narrowly averted only due to the cool handing of the situation by British Gen. Mike Jackson who defied an order from then-NATO Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark. Clark wanted to block the runways and isolate the Russian troops, yet Jackson told Clark: “I’m not going to start the Third World War for you.” And during the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008, the Bush National Security Council actually considered entering the war on the side of the Georgians.

What makes today’s crisis of such moment is that it has the potential to haunt U.S.-Russian relations—and indeed the future of Europe—for decades to come. We are not close to a shooting war with the Russian Federation, yet. What Obama, in concert with Angela Merkel ought to be doing is working towards a settlement that would allow both the Putin government and the new Ukrainian regime to save face. Instead, we got a speech. Read More…

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Saakashvili’s Anti-Russian Tirade

For almost as long as I can remember anyway, the op-ed page of the New York Times has been a fairly reliable forum for some of the laziest and most predictable writing on international affairs, a better example of which could hardly be found than an essay it published this week entitled “Czar Vladimir’s Illusions” by former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Reflecting not so much Putin’s illusions but his own, Saakashvili, now a Senior Statesman at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, expends nearly 1200 words in an effort to denigrate Putin and the Sochi Olympics while, with an eye fixed on posterity, attempting to polish up his own rather questionable legacy.

Saakashvili takes the gloves off right away, implying that Russia somehow sanctioned the bloodshed in the streets of Kiev. And while the rest of the world may be sorely tempted to see this as “the hour of triumph for autocrats,” Saakashvili cautions us: not so fast. Russia, though oil rich, is likely facing terminal decline because of rampant corruption; in fact, he notes, Russia’s economy has been growing at a slower rate than Georgia’s for the past nine years.

By way of example, readers are invited to compare and contrast two Black Sea regions adjacent to Sochi: Abkhazia and Adjaria. Abkhazia’s capital Sukhumi, which has been under Russian control for the past 5 years, “looks tired and gloomy” compared to the relative paradise of Georgian-controlled Adjaria.

How did Russian control of Abkhazia come about? Well, in his telling, it’s awfully straightforward:

When Russia was bidding to be host of the Olympics, it had enthusiastic Georgian support, as we believed holding the Games in Sochi would enhance chances for peace and improve relations. Instead, several months after the Kremlin won its bid to host the Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia.

And though Russia has invested many billions of dollars to stage the Olympic Games in Sochi, what it all really amounts to is a “Potemkin Village” built with the sole purpose of gratifying the insatiable ego of Czar Putin. And if the Czar thinks a successful Olympic Games will work to shore up his popularity, stave off economic malaise, or bring peace to the turbulent region, he is mistaken because Russia’s “heavy-handed colonial approach can only antagonize and radicalize the population.”

The problem underlying all of this, according to Fletcher’s newly minted Senior Statesman, is that Putin is a man obsessed by the fall of the Soviet Union; indeed it “seems he still fails to grasp why it happened.” And so Saakashvili concludes: as long as Putin persists in his efforts to “restore the past” the Russia’s future prospects will remain dim.

It’s a nice story, and he’s sticking to it; but that doesn’t mean we have to. As regards those “pro-democracy protesters” being gunned down with Russian acquiescence in the streets of Kiev: in his account we get not a word about the protesters who are throwing firebombs at the police; nor of any on the well-documented assaults on off-duty police officers; nor any on the rabidly nationalist and anti-Semitic character the once peaceful movement taken on since January. Read More…

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