A self-provoked crisis in Ukraine (if the United States hadn’t sponsored a coup there, there wouldn’t be a crisis), a horrific civil war in Syria with no sign of ending soon, kidnapped girls in Nigeria, anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam. These all falling within a span of glorious late spring days on eastern Long Island, where bright sunlight begins to peep under and around the shades at 5:30 in the morning. It feels almost ominous, this contrast between the almost unspeakable natural beauty here and horrors abroad.
The Iran negotiations, a critical subject of the late fall and early winter, are reaching a pivotal point. The Obama administration won a major victory in January, with an assist from grassroots peace and arms-control groups, gaining the right to negotiate with Iran on terms which could conceivably succeed—i.e. terms which acknowledged that some part of Iran’s nuclear enrichment cycle would be retained. AIPAC backed off from legislation designed to scuttle the negotiations.
But of course the negotiations themselves, even without pro-Israel senators trying to ensure their failure, are fraught with difficulties. Iran may not want to have a nuclear weapon, but it pretty clearly wants to be a nuclear threshold state, with the ability to build a nuclear weapon if it felt seriously threatened. It has been invaded by Iraq and is constantly menaced by Israel and America, and it is hard to see why any Iranian foreign policy analyst would think that the potential for building a bomb wouldn’t give it a deterrence it might someday need. On the other hand, Obama and John Kerry would surely find it easier to sell to Congress and the American people a deal where Iran has no more than a symbolic uranium enrichment capacity. I suspect that a common ground can be found, but it is difficult. Iran has its own hardliners, reluctant to negotiate away any of Iran’s nuclear program. It also has vested interests who would welcome intensified confrontation with the West, which would help them domestically. The latest round of talks in Geneva, where some hoped that progress towards drafting a comprehensive agreement would begin, showed very large gaps remaining.
Meanwhile, there are outside actors, both positive and negative. On the negative side, Washington-based foes of any Iran deal were only provisionally set back in January. Israel continues to oppose any deal that will give Iran enrichment capacity, and Republicans will oppose any deal that gives Obama a meaningful foreign affairs accomplishment. That’s a potent combination on Capitol Hill, which is why the progress of the Corker amendment—originally attached to the kind of pro-Israel legislation that Congress passes without debate—bears watching. If it is brought to the Senate floor and voted on (which by some accounts may happen this week), it will give Congress the right to hold a “vote of disapproval” within days of any signed agreement with Iran. The purpose, it would seem, is to give the Israeli government power to weigh in on the negotiations, which it has always strongly disapproved of. A snap vote that the combined forces of the Israel lobby and the GOP would certainly win, generating national headlines like “Iran deal DOA in Congress” and the like, even though the amendment is constructed to not give Congress the power to block the deal formally. Read More…
Pat Buchanan beat me to it writing about the Pfizer story which appeared in the New York Times. In what is now called an “inversion” strategy, Pfizer is in negotiations to buy a British drug company, declare its corporate home Great Britain, and cease paying corporate taxes to the U.S. Treasury. Buchanan argues that U.S. corporate taxes are among the highest in the world, and if the U.S. reduced them to zero, it could make up the revenue by tariffs on manufactured imports. I don’t feel especially confident that this would work, though I would state unequivocally, based on experience with him during one of his presidential campaigns, that Buchanan knows more about the nitty gritty of the federal budget than most prominent people in Washington.
On significant mention in the Pfizer story was the galvanizing role of hedge funds in encouraging companies to pull up stakes in the U.S. and renounce their nationality. It makes sense, I suppose. If you own a big block of stock which has a greater chance of appreciating if a company expatriates itself, you will do what you can to increase your return. And you will have leverage—enough perhaps to persuade a large company to do what you want. You will be rewarded as well. Recent stories about hedge fund chieftans demonstrate without a doubt that they are now the highest-paid princelings of capitalism, making sums well beyond a humble CEO who employs and manages hundreds of thousands of people. If during the 1950s, Secretary of Defense and former GM CEO Charlie Wilson said “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country” (the popular if incorrect version of what Wilson actually said) an apt aphorism about contemporary capitalism might be “What’s good for Appaloosa Management is good for David Tepper and his friends.”
The shift in the commanding heights of American capitalism from huge Midwest-based conglomerates that employed hundreds of thousands to small firms staffed by a handful of Ivy League graduates is the central fact of what the Marxists used to call “late capitalism.” With the exception of various technology developments, betting on the markets is a route to greater money and power (probably not status) than building companies, making useful discoveries, or just about anything else. As the “inversion” model now begins to illustrate, CEO’s of large companies tend to listen to hedge fund managers, and do what they are told.
I’m no economist, but seems obvious that this transformation has not only accompanied but contributed to the growing inequality that has taken place over two generations, and which shows every sign of increasing. It’s reached the point where “equality” ought to be elevated to the status of at least a secondary conservative goal, somewhere beneath liberty but not far from it. If one is conservative by temperament at all, it is because one sees virtues in the society one grew up with under threat. And growing up in California in the 1960s (as I did, in part) one was conscious of feeling that America was better because of its science and its social organization—that is, very few people seemed poor, and there was no obvious class of rich oligarchs. It was a middle class democracy. That alternative social model—the few very rich, the great mass of impoverished—was for Mexico or Brazil, or pre-revolutionary China, places which either teetered on the edge of violent revolution or deserved to.
Ironically, in that 1960s America, extraordinarily egalitarian by today’s standards, one heard (from a quite loud and much listened to New Left) constant calls to challenge corporate hegemony. Marxist tomes which purported to explain U.S. foreign policy by reference to needs of major capitalist enterprises brought fame to several professors.
One hears none of that now, though perhaps the Thomas Piketty book will revive it. So far as I can see, the United States has no anti-capitalist left whatsoever, only movements of cultural or ethnic minorities fighting for greater recognition or rights. This seems curious, since the capitalists are fewer, contribute less to the public good than any prior American capitalist elite, all the while managing to acquire a much larger slice of the pie. But there seems to be no hope of challenging them. A politician who suggested he would aim to restore an America with an income distribution resembling that of Eisenhower’s second term would be dismissed, not just on Fox but everywhere, as a mad, raging socialist.
A Washington gaffe, as Michael Kinsley once observed, occurs when a politician states an obvious truth he isn’t supposed to say. John Kerry’s closed door remark before a Trilateral Commission (an elite establishment group) gathering, where he said that without a two-state solution, Israel will become an apartheid state, reaches the important gaffe category. The remark is largely true (though it would have truer if he had said that Israel already subjects most Palestinians in the territories it controls to apartheid conditions); it concerns a matter of great importance to American foreign policy, as Israel colors our relationships with the entire Arab and much of the Muslim world; and it breaches a dam on American internal discourse which the Israel lobby has fought hard to construct and defend.
Israel plays an extraordinary role in the American political system. Its leaders flood the important Sunday talk shows when any Mideast topic arises; Israelis lobbied hard for an American war against Iraq, as they do now for an American war against Iran. Americans, by and large, receive them with deference and rapt attention. They also honor Israel by subsidizing it: Americans give more foreign aid to Israel, a rich country, than to all of sub-Saharan Africa combined. So for Kerry to suggest, even with a heavy heart, that Israel is headed for apartheid in the absence of a two state solution is to tread into Emperor’s New Clothes territory. It may be true, indeed of course it’s true. But for a high ranking American politician to actually say so falls somewhere between lèse-majesté and blasphemy.
Kerry was rapidly denounced by Israel lobbyists in their multiple guises. Commentary called the comments a “calumny” against Israel. One of Bill Kristol’s groups, the Emergency Committee for Israel, called for Obama to fire Kerry, and for Hillary Clinton to repudiate his remarks. AIPAC called the remarks “offensive” and “inappropriate,” comments echoed by the ADL and the American Jewish Committee. The National Jewish Democratic Committee, a major arm of Democratic Party fundraising, expressed its “deep disappointment” with the remarks, rejecting the idea that racially based governance “in any way describes Israel.” Kerry was asked to apologize.
He didn’t—he clarified. Kerry stated that if he could “rewind the tape” he wouldn’t use the A word, while reminding everyone that current Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livini, and former prime ministers Olmert and Barak had explicitly claimed Israel was headed towards apartheid if it didn’t come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Some saw this statement as a grovel, but it could as easily be read as a non-apologetic “explanation.” Read More…
Philip Weiss discusses an interesting Hardball clip here, where bestselling mainstream political author Mark Halperin says that Rand Paul could never be elected because the pro-Israel wing of the GOP and the general electorate won’t stand for it. Guest host Joy Reid catalogs the establishment Republican attacks on Paul: she cites NR‘s Rich Lowry, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bret Stephens, and the ever-hawkish Congressman Peter King. Their strident, combined, and seemingly coordinated attacks reveal something of a looming panic about Paul’s early progress: there is no clear “establishment” choice (Chris Christie on the bridge; Jeb Bush has devoted the last decade to making money and his political skills may be rusty), and Paul is making progress among various groups (youth, African-Americans) which are appealing to Republicans who want to expand the GOP electorate.
Weiss finds the clip dispiriting because it displays how entrenched the Israel lobby is in the GOP: rabid hawks like Peter King are considered mainstream; it is considered normal behavior for GOP aspirants to kiss the ring of Sheldon Adelson, an advocate of nuking Iran. Rand Paul (who didn’t kowtow to Adelson) is presented as the loopy one. And it may be that Halperin is right—the Israel lobby is powerful enough to essentially dictate the nominating process, and will use that power against Rand Paul.
I had a different reaction: the mere fact that Paul now appears so threatening to the hawks in the party establishment is a sign of their weakness (a lack of grass roots support which they are more aware of than anyone else) and opens at least the possibility of a return to foreign policy realism in the GOP, whether under Paul’s leadership or someone else. Once people start voting, will they go for Sheldon Adelson, or someone who opposes him? I don’t think it’s foreordained that Adelson will prevail, and there are a lot of other people with money in this country.
My other reaction was pure pleasure at the candor of Joy Reid. At the end of the clip, after Halperin states that Paul will “never” satisfy the “pro-Israel” wing of the party, Reid goes right to her summation saying yes, Paul has problem with “the pro-Israel wing of the party, the pro-war (with strong emphasis) wing of the party, the neocons…”
For prime time television, this was a rare moment of blunt truth. Yes, the “pro-Israel wing” of the party takes their intellectual marching orders from neocons, who nearly always are advocating that America start a war somewhere. But one doesn’t normally say this on TV. I thought about this clip, from several years ago: Juan Williams confronted Bill Kristol on Fox News Sunday, exclaiming: Read More…
Is John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” for peace (i.e. not an actual peace settlement) finally done? It seems to be, though one should not be surprised to see a last ditch formula allowing Kerry to continue. Not, to be sure, to continue actual negotiations between the parties, but to continue doing what he has been doing: trying to win Israeli agreement to some proposal vaguely hinting perhaps at some kind of Palestinian state in a middling future, then rushing over to Ramallah to try to sell it to the Palestinian Authority.
Everyone involved with the “peace process” fears what will happen when negotiations stop. The process, which began before Oslo in the 1980s, succeeding in getting the the Palestine Liberation Organization to rewrite its charter, recognize Israel, and commit itself to a two state solution, seems finally to be over. Most politicians the world over know of no other way to even think of the Middle East. Giving up on it is to step into an unfamiliar dark room, which is why one can’t rule out some absolutely-final-last-call-this-time-we-mean-it effort to breathe new life into the corpse.
There was a good reason why the peace process was American-sponsored. While the actual number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs residing in historic Palestine has been roughly equal for some time, the balance of power between the two sides—in terms of wealth and weaponry—may have been 100 to 1 in Israel’s favor. One reason for the imbalance is that Israel was sponsored by the United States, provided with American weapons and money and diplomatic support to a degree that literally has no parallel in the history of statecraft. The theory was that this support gave the United States “leverage.” which it could use to persuade Israel to embrace a two state solution which the Palestinians, as the much weaker party, couldn’t manage by themselves. The solution would lie along parameters which everyone knows and has known for nearly two generations. (They are succinctly summarized in Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, which calls for Kerry to finally “move on” to other pressing diplomatic matters.) But this leverage, it has turned out, was fanciful. The United States could never actually use it; both Democrats and Republicans felt too vulnerable to the political consequences. The one president who came closest to using it—the first President Bush, was a one term president. Democrats, probably more dependent than Republicans on campaign funds linked to the Israel lobby, backed off from using it as well. President Obama’s humiliation by prime minister Netanyahu in 2010 taught him a lesson in the realities of American politics.
So the peace process was left to cajoling. It is difficult not to respect John Kerry’s efforts and the doggedness of his pursuit. He understood the issues well, and was willing to raise rhetorical points about the costs to Israel of continued occupation to the extent that the Israeli Right came seriously to hate him. But he never had the real power of the American state behind him: he could never say to Israel, fine, do what you want, but America is not going to subsidize it any longer, nor have your back in the United Nations. The “special relationship” of American unconditional support for Israel was never up for negotiation. Kerry was a diplomat without any of the tools in the diplomat’s kit, remarkable since he was supposedly representing a superpower.
At this point, who can wish to revive the corpse? Israel doesn’t have a political majority that favors a genuine Palestinian state with contiguous territory, control of its own borders and its capital in Jerusalem; that is now beyond dispute. (Though certainly many Israelis, perhaps 40 percent, do favor such an outcome.) Since a pro-settler fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, every successive Israeli government has become more under the sway of settler ideology and political power. If Israelis once thought of the West Bank as a terrific bargaining chip, to be swapped for peace and acceptance in the region, that was long ago: most Israelis think of the territories as Judea and Samaria, inextricably part of Israel. And John Kerry and Barack Obama have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they aren’t willing or able to do anything about it.
But that doesn’t put an end to the matter. The circumstances of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank are, for the most part, horrendous. Authors Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish made this crystal clear last week at a Columbia University event. Chronicling the roadblocks—physical and bureaucratic—that obstruct Palestinian life every day, Ibish told the audience that there’s not a single person in this room who would accept living in such conditions without resisting. Beinart added,
You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.
Irrefutable as is this logic might be, in the absence of an American-led peace process, what will happen next? One view, put forth by Tony Klug and Sam Bahour in Le Monde Diplomatique is that Israel must be forced to choose whether the West Bank is occupied territory, or whether—after fifty years—the occupation has become permanent. Of course this would have been clarified long ago had not the obfuscations of the “peace process” allowed Israel to pretend the occupation was temporary. Israel denies the territory is occupied on legal grounds, which are accepted by no other country (though Sheldon Adelson has apparently persuaded some American politicians of Israel’s viewpoint). But if the West Bank is not occupied, it is annexed and part of Israel, and Israel will become legally what it already is de facto—an apartheid state—one with different laws for its different ethnic groups. As the occupation approaches the 50 year mark, it is time, the authors argue, to clear up the ambiguity.
There are any number of observers who believe that only when faced with the real possibility of Palestinians demanding the vote will Israel realize that it is perhaps “more Zionist” to allow them an independent state instead. In any case, without the shield of the “peace process” Israel will become more exposed to the rapidly growing BDS movement, which already scares Israel to death, and to the growing pressures in American churches (mainline and, increasingly, evangelical) which shudder at American support for blatant injustice in the Holy Land. The stunning new study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and points to an inexorable reconsideration of Zionism in the light of Christian social justice teachings.
Basically, American diplomats have had a clear field for some 30 years to try to engineer a two state solution. One can respect their efforts—and we should all give John Kerry at least a B for tireless pursuit—and recognize that they would now do better to get out of the way.
Many peoples have have a folk memory of great suffering branded into them. The Irish often recall the famines of the 1840s, in which a million died, in great part due to cruel and neglectful policies of the ruling British officials and absentee landlords. For African Americans, the middle passage and slavery—scarring the lives of millions—form an indelible cultural memory. Palestinian Arabs remember the Nakba, or catastrophe, in which three quarters of a million people were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. Of course the Holocaust, where six million Jews were murdered, has left a permanent imprint on contemporary Judaism.
For our part, we Americans have the Iranian hostage crisis, in which 52 American diplomats were held hostage in the U.S. Embassy for over a year by Iranian revolutionaries. Their plight has been memorialized in an award winning film, Argo. The the scars left by the episode remain raw today—as even today the U.S. Senate rose up as one to pass a bill to prohibit Iran from adding insult to injury by sending to the United Nations as an ambassador, Hamid Aboutalebi, a man who actually served as a French and English to Farsi translator for the young militants who engineered the embassy takeover nearly thirty-five years ago.
I am being, of course, ironic. The seizure of the American embassy in Tehran was illegal and wrong, as many Iranian officials argued at the time. The hostages were often subjected to psychological abuse. Yet Iran was in the middle of tumultuous and bloody revolution as various factions maneuvered for dominance in a fluid political situation. The embassy hostages became pawns in internal Iranian struggles. These were deadly: thousands had been killed before the Shah overthrown, and thousands more died, often by summary execution, in the months which followed Khomeini’s assumption of power. In the Tehran bloodshed department, the holding of hostages in the embassy was distinctly minor league.
Because the Carter administration wanted a) the safe return of the diplomats and b) to avoid alienating the Muslim world when it appeared, especially after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a few months after the embassy seizure, that a new and particularly dangerous phase of the Cold War had commenced, it appeared to have no good response. The result, for all the world to see, was an America that seemed helpless. Washington of course could have seized some Iranian territory or bombed targets in Iran. For reasons a and b, neither seemed preferable to doing what we actually did, essentially wait until Iran grew tired of holding the hostages. But the year of waiting was perceived, especially in Washington, as a year of humiliation and impotence, and Washington has never been able to get over it. Though the hostages themselves have returned unharmed and went on to lead productive lives, Washington continues to react as if an injustice of epochal scale was done to it. Fifty-two diplomats, held for 444 days, our American Nakba.
It was not particularly surprising that the senator who decided to wave the bloody, or at least unironed, shirts of the imprisoned diplomats over the issue of Hamid Aboutalebi’s appointment was Ted Cruz., the Texan Tea Party Republican who distinguished himself during the Chuck Hagel confirmation hearings by insinuating that the former Nebraska senator was in the pay of North Korea. In this instance, Cruz introduced legislation designed to bar Aboutalebi from obtaining a visa because he was a “terrorist.” He was joined by Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been working behind the scenes to scuttle President Obama’s nuclear diplomacy with Iran, mostly by introducing poison pill legislation in the Senate. Neither Cruz not Schumer discussed whether Aboutalebi carried out any terrorist activities in Australia, Italy, or Brussels (the European Union), the last three posts where Aboutalebi served as Iran’s ambassador.
Still to be thoroughly digested is last weekend’s spectacle of several prominent Republicans descending on Las Vegas in search of Sheldon Adelson’s blessing. The “Sheldon primary,” as the Washington Post dubbed it, did not go unnoticed. The Post ran a lengthy piece prior to the event focusing on the outsized role large donors now play in the aftermath of recent Supreme Court campaign finance decisions, as well as on Adelson’s stated desire to nominate a so-called moderate and electable candidate. J.J. Goldberg, a Forward editor and author of a perceptive 1996 book about Jewish power, played with the notion of whether or not it was an anti-Semitic “stereotype” to wonder about a rich Jew seeking to supervise the Republican nomination process:
Now, before you go accusing the Post (or me) of spreading anti-Semitic stereotypes, consider what the word means. Merriam-Webster defines “stereotype” as “an often unfair and untrue belief.” The World English Dictionary calls it “a set of inaccurate, simplistic generalizations.” Cardwell’s 1996 Dictionary of Psychology defines it rather more broadly as “a fixed, over generalized belief.” Nobody’s definition seems to include a straightforward recitation of facts that one would prefer remain hidden. That probably falls under the category of “a no-no.”
Jon Stewart mocked the Vegas confab, astonished that Adelson could squeeze from tough guy New Jersey governor Chris Christie a groveling apology for referring to the West Bank occupied territories as “occupied territories.” Stewart is perhaps the nation’s most visible critic of the Israel lobby, but he has ability only to make the young fans laugh at its power, not actually to challenge it. Humor may already have had some impact on the landscape. Last year Saturday Night Live produced, but did not air live, a skit depicting senators asking Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel whether he would fellate a donkey to demonstrate his loyalty to Israel. (The clip now seems offline but was widely circulated in the days following its production).
But most of the Sheldon primary commentary fell short of describing what Adelson hopes to gain from spending tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars to influence the Republican nomination. Pat Buchanan did observe that Adelson was no garden variety Israel supporter, but an advocate of an American nuclear first strike on Iran (in the desert, as a demonstration of what we will do to Tehran). The best indications are that Adelson’s main requirement for a candidate would be his readiness to engage America in war for Israel’s benefit. And though Adelson is an American citizen, he has not minced words about where deepest loyalties lie: he has said he regretted serving in the U.S. military, (as opposed to Israel’s) and told interviewers he hopes his youngest son could serve as a sniper in the Israeli army.
One shouldn’t really blame Adelson for this; he is free to be loyal to whatever country he wants and to advocate whatever wars he wants others to fight on its behalf. But the real question is about the Republican Party—why do its aspiring high office seekers feel that it is unproblematic to kiss Adelson’s ring. This was a party once accustomed to bathing itself in patriotism, and in truth it is impossible to imagine any past Republican president—including George W. Bush, he who filled his White House and Pentagon with neoconservatives—behaving in quite this way. Read More…
How goes the campaign to pep up Americans for a new Cold War? If the most recent polling on the Ukraine crisis is to be believed, not very well. According to a survey released yesterday by Pew Research Center, only 29 percent of Americans want the U.S. “to take a firm stand” against Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine, while 56 percent prefer that the United States “not get too involved in the situation.” Among “independents”—a category much scrutinized and coveted by political operatives of both parties—the skeptical-about-intervention numbers were highest of all: 62 percent versus 25 percent. A mere 16 percent of Republicans supported the certifiably insane position—”consider military options”—while the percentage among Democrats and independents so inclined barely topped the margin of error.
This polls comes after two weeks of intense anti-Putin propagandizing by the Iraq War Party, attempting to reconstitute itself a decade later. We have seen windy laments about American lack of moral backbone from Leon Weiseltier (Jim Sleeper provides a delicious takedown of the closeted neocon here) and “Putin equals Hitler” analogies from Richard Cohen and Hillary Clinton. We have seen the Washington Post and New York Times columnists bloviating against Russia’s Vladimir Putin almost every day, and the major television puff pieces celebrating the rebels who mounted an anti-democratic coup in Kiev’s Maidan Square. (Yes, the coup overthrew a terribly corrupt ruler, but why not simply wait for an election to get rid of him?)
But despite the media barrage, Americans simply don’t find Russia reasserting some sort of hegemonic position in Crimea much to be concerned about. Perhaps they think that what goes on in Crimea isn’t really any of our business. That’s something of a surprise—the sheer intensity of the anti-Putin media barrage made it seem likely that at least some sort of “tough” majority could be temporarily cobbled together in support of anti-Putin measures, but most Americans seem to have tuned it out. Overheated Beltway language implying a Putin blitzkrieg seems somehow unrealistic in the face of a Russian intervention that has not, as of this writing, resulted in the loss of a single life.
Why aren’t the American people following the clues of their media masters? It’s not entirely clear. But I would point to two powerful potential reasons: the real Cold War was about the spread of Communism, which Americans understood to be an evil system, not about hostility to Russia acting like a normal great power. Adam Gopnik makes the point (in a short essay of exceptional lucidity) here:
The point of the Cold War, at least as it was explained by the Cold Warriors, was that it wasn’t a confrontation of great global powers but, rather, something more significant and essential: a struggle of values, waged on a global scale, between totalitarians and liberals. Russia as a nation was incidental—if the Soviets had given up Marxism and on the utopian (or dystopian) remaking of the world, and had been content to act as a regular power, we would have had no war, cold or hot. That, anyway, was what the Cold Warriors claimed—indeed, those who saw Soviet ideology as mere Russian behavior were regarded as historically naïve. And here we are, with a restored Russia, paranoid about encirclement, increasing their leverage in the neighborhood. It may be ugly and it may be wrong, and Ukraine deserves the moral support that small nations always deserve when they are bullied—but it is also historically normal. If we become hysterical every time historical forces assert themselves, there will be no end to the hysteria.
Or, to put it another way (as Pat Buchanan did), there’s a difference between a Russian ruler who murders priests by the thousands and one who jails for a year the Pussy Riot ladies for committing sacrilege.
Then there are some very practical reasons to pause before joining up with the Beltway sanctions brigades. The Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, writing in Al Monitor, points to some issues which may arise if Washington pushes hard over Crimea. One is the fate of our troops in Afghanistan, who are resupplied in part through a Russian base in Ulyanovsk. Of course the troops could be resupplied through Pakistan, and could probably even exit through there if necessary. But it’s likely to be logistically far more difficult, and could potentially cost American lives. Then there is Syria, where Russian and American diplomacy has tentatively cooperated, at least on chemical weapons. And Iran, where Russia has pleased Washington by canceling previously agreed upon weapons sales. Obviously if faced with American hostility, Putin would reconsider Russian policies on all these issues according to his estimate of Russia’s interests.
One would hope the Obama administration would weigh this before accepting Bill Kristol’s invitation to ignite a new Cold War with Russia. We will see. Ukraine’s prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, “elected” by Victoria Nuland, if not by the Ukrainian people, is due for a White House visit today (Wednesday). When the invitation was tendered, Washington was roiling in anti-Putin, new Cold War frenzy. Since then, the American people have registered a cool message, and even CPAC, the right-wing young Republican organization, has given a straw poll victory to Rand Paul, the national candidate most wary of starting a new cold war. Bob Gates, a foreign policy stalwart of the last two administrations, has noted realistically that there’s not much anyone can do to sever Russia from Crimea, though of course we could shoot ourselves in the foot. It will be interesting to see whether Obama, a far cooler head than Kerry, Clinton, and of course Nuland, will be able to shift course and signal to the world that America’s global policies will not be tethered to a revolutionary nationalist regime of dubious stability which rose out of the barricades in Kiev.
It must have been nearly 26 years ago, in the spring. On a Saturday, I was playing golf with my new boss, Owen Harries, editor of The National Interest. We were puzzling over Gorbachev, who was sounding and acting so damned reasonable. “It’s just counterintuitive” said Owen, and I of course concurred. Gorbachev’s behavior seemed to contravene everything I had learned in my fifteen or so years of reading intensely about Soviet communism, and Owen’s education was of course deeper still. That long bibliography, passionately devoured and fervently embraced: Adam Ulam, Medvedev, Orwell, Koestler, Raymond Aron, Solzhenitsyn, Nadezdha Mandelstam, dozens of articles in Commentary, Encounter, National Review-–all soon to be shifted to my mind’s attic. My Columbia University dissertation devoted to some minor but fascinating corner of the cultural Cold War, suddenly as timely as if it concerned the War of the Roses. I had come to The National Interest (then published by Irving Kristol) in no small part to fight communism, and now what was I going to do?
And yet of course, one couldn’t deny what a blessing it was. Suddenly the United Nations could get things done; we weren’t going to have an accidental civilization ending war; and Russia (Tolstoy, vodka, etc) could be appreciated without being some sort of dupe. On the first day the subway opened after 9/11, I overheard a young pretty blonde woman, Russian accent, flirting with her American beau as they stood in line to buy farecards. “So, ve are now going to be allies.” Poignant and delicious. And yet sad were the Yeltsin years: Russia seeming to disintegrate into alchoholism, falling birthrates, a great civilization, a core part of everyone’s mental architecture of the world, coming apart at the seams.
Looking around the American media in the past few days, I realize I am not very much in step with my countrymen. Stephen Cohen makes some sensible points about Putin’s obligations to Russia on PBS, saying basically, look Putin is not entirely the bad guy here, and no one should be trying to push Western institutions right up to Russia’s borders, and any responsible leader would have acted similarly , and the reaction–look at the comments!– is a kind of full-blown of rage. What drives it? Or more precisely, what is the motivation to try to drive the sphere of Western influence right up to Russia’s borders? Is it because our ambitions (and whose, exactly?) are insatiable? Because that seems to be it: we aren’t satisfied with the liberation of the satellites of Eastern Europe, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, former Cold War flashpoints and now NATO members; with the reunification of Germany and under Western auspices, so that Berlin is now a virtual capital of Nato; with the Baltic states as NATO members too. There seemed to be no end to it. We have learned from Robert Gates’s memoirs that at the time, Dick Cheney was advocating not only for the dismantlement of the Soviet empire (accomplished) but of Russia itself. Cheney then lacked the power to try carry this out, but what would have been the plan if he had? Read More…
I don’t recall ever feeling such ambivalence about a major political event. Of course it is impossible to not feel exhilarated at the toppling of a corrupt and mendacious Ukrainian autocrat Victor Yanukovich, his flight to parts unknown with his much younger mistress in tow, impossible not to enjoy the press accounts of Ukrainians free to wander about and ogle his palace—the gold toilet, the imported exotic birds, the private golf course, the ridiculous furniture—this caricature of vulgarity, and given the circumstances which financed it, robbery as well. Of course there is much to admire in the young men and women who both waited it out and fought in Kiev’s Maidan, eventually triumphing when the police were no longer willing to defend the Yanukovich presidency. Most Ukranians—a distinct majority—want to move their country towards Europe; they see, and rightly so, post-communist Poland as a huge success. More naively, they believe that the West is a big candy mountain of capitalist plenty, ready to envelop their country into a cornucopia of prosperity.
Ukraine of course had its anti-Russian revolutions before, only ten years ago in fact. The makers of the Orange Revolution made such a mess of things with infighting and corruption that Yanukovich was legitimately voted into power in 2010. Now he has been ousted by young revolutionaries, but if you are a Russian-speaking Ukranian,—perhaps a third of population—you might well think of the Maidan crowds as street mobs with no legitimacy.
Today I attended a lunch forum, a Ukraine policy debate of sorts, at the Council for the National Interest. Speaking for Russia’s perspective was Andranik Migranyan, a “unofficial” advisor to the Putin government and director of a Russian foundation in New York. Representing the American side was Paula Dobriansky, a former ambassador under George W. Bush who in today’s Times lamented the Obama administration’s “absence of strategic vision, disinterest in democracy promotion, and an unwillingness to lead.”
Dobriansky was essentially using Weekly Standard talking points 101. Trouble is, there really is no more certainty that Ukraine would be any more democratic than Iraq. I suspect, without being prepared to debate the point, that Max Blumenthal is far too broadly negative in his portrayal of the Ukranian revolutionary movement as honeycombed with modern day neo-Nazis. But the fact is that Ukraine, for most of its recent history, has had a frightful political culture: basically the country has served as a hothouse and battleground to most some of the brutal forces in world history—communist and fascist both. The title of Timothy Snyder’s celebrated Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin gives a reasonable impression.
That history by itself would make the triumphant integration of “democratic” Ukraine into Western Europe an unlikely proposition. That would be the case whether Europe abrogated its own membership rules to give Ukraine membership on a fast track or left the country on an indeterminate candidate membership period.
But there’s another problem: much of Ukraine, perhaps a third of it, identifies not with the West, but with Russia. And vice versa. Read More…