But let me conclude with one that seems a little more likely: a rerun of Bush’s 2000 path, in which Marco Rubio wins by uniting religious and moderate conservatives.
Rubio had a tough 2013, thanks to his unsuccessful immigration push, and he lacks the ideologically committed support of a Paul or Cruz or Huckabee. But his domestic-policy forays (first on poverty, soon on taxes) have gotten smarter since the immigration debacle, and events in Venezuela and Crimea may be making his hawkish foreign policy vision more appealing to conservatives.
Douthat isn’t predicting that this will happen, nor does he think Rubio is a favorite to win, but it’s still a scenario worth thinking about a little more. Does it make sense that Rubio would appeal to “somewhat conservative” (or “moderate conservative”) voters? These are the voters that have reliably supported the eventual nominee in recent decades, and they represent, as Olsen puts it, “the bedrock base of the Republican Party.” It might be helpful to review what it means for a voter to be “somewhat conservative.” This is how Olsen described this group:
They like even-keeled men with substantial governing experience [bold mine-DL]. They like people who express conservative values on the economy or social issues, but who do not espouse radical change. They like people who are optimistic about America; the somewhat conservative voter rejects the “culture warrior” motif that characterized Pat Buchanan’s campaigns. They are conservative in both senses of the word; they prefer the ideals of American conservatism while displaying the cautious disposition of the Burkean [bold mine-DL].
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Olsen’s description is right. Does it sound as if Rubio would be the sort of politician to win over these voters? Based on what we have heard from Rubio since he entered the Senate three years ago, I think the answer is no. While his immigration waffling might not put these voters off, he seems likely to drive these people away with much of what he has done since being elected. It’s debatable whether he could be called “even-keeled,” but I don’t think anyone will try to argue that he has substantial governing experience. Rubio’s views on foreign policy don’t seem likely to appeal to people that value a cautious disposition, since those views are more likely to be reckless and confrontational in nature.
The conservatives that might find Rubio’s pugnacious rhetoric on foreign crises attractive are also likely to view his fumbling on immigration with the least sympathy, while many of those that might cut him slack on the latter are likely to regard his foreign policy worldview with a mixture of bewilderment (how can anyone believe this nonsense?) and horror (imagine the damage he could do if he were president). This might not be as much of a problem if Rubio had been in office longer, or if he were well-known for anything other than pushing an unpopular immigration bill and demagoguing foreign disputes, but he hasn’t and he isn’t. He has the liabilities of Bush in his second term–identified with an unpopular position on immigration and an expensive, ideological foreign policy–without most of the advantages that Bush had as a candidate the first time.
Fred Kaplan identifies the contradictions in the Obama administration’s response to Russia:
At a press conference in Kiev, he proclaimed American solidarity with Ukraine’s aspiring democrats. But he also acknowledged that Russia has vital interests in Ukraine, waived any desire for confrontation, and called for mutual “de-escalation.”
But then, President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, banning travel of key officials, freezing assets, and suspending international forums. The question that no one appeared to acknowledge, much less ask or answer: How is it possible to do escalation and de-escalation at the same time?
Kaplan cites this as proof of the clumsiness of the U.S. response, and he has a point. That said, we all understand the reason for the confusion. The first part of the response–correctly emphasizing de-escalation–is attempting to avoid unnecessary conflict and reduce tensions, and that is a defensible and responsible way to handle the situation. Unfortunately, the administration seems to think that it can’t really defend this sort of response in the current climate, and so has to indulge in punitive measures to demonstrate just how “tough” it can be on Russia. The second, punitive part serves no constructive purpose, and it actively undermines the effort to reduce tensions. It is being done all the same to satisfy hawkish critics at home, and they are most interested in punishing Russia even if it makes things worse.
Dan Drezner has explained why U.S. economic sanctions would be of no use in compelling Russia to withdraw from Crimea, but goes on to say that they should be imposed nonetheless. While it’s possible that imposing sanctions could give U.S. and European leaders something to bargain with in the future, as Drezner says, there is clearly no appetite among most Western governments to pursue this course. Imposing sanctions now puts the U.S. at odds with the governments whose cooperation it most needs for a coordinated and unified response.
In general, trying to bludgeon another government into changing its behavior very rarely achieves anything positive, and the danger in trying this against a larger power is that it could then retaliate with punitive measures of its own. That would make the crisis harder to resolve and inflict damage on Western economies in the process, which would in turn spur demands for still harsher measures. Russia is already threatening to block inspections for the current arms reduction treaty, and it could choose to make things more difficult for the U.S. on other issues as well. Many Westerners seem very eager to demand economic punishment of Russia, but I suspect very few actually want to pay the price that could be associated with it.
Condoleeza Rice rehearses some boilerplate rhetoric:
These global developments have not happened in response to a muscular U.S. foreign policy: Countries are not trying to “balance” American power. They have come due to signals that we are exhausted and disinterested. The events in Ukraine should be a wake-up call to those on both sides of the aisle who believe that the United States should eschew the responsibilities of leadership. If it is not heeded, dictators and extremists across the globe will be emboldened.
Rice’s op-ed incorporates every stale, hawkish cliche that has been used in connection with recent events, and in so doing serves to remind us how mistaken or meaningless these arguments are. One of the most common and annoying claims in every hawkish argument regardless of subject is the warning that a lack of “leadership” will “embolden” other actors. No one ever has to prove that such “emboldening” has occurred, and there is no attempt to account for the agency and priorities of other governments. If another state does something Washington opposes, it is simply taken for granted that this is because the U.S. somehow encouraged it by not being activist and aggressive enough. If this claim is put under any scrutiny, it quickly falls apart.
The first error that hawks make is to pretend that foreign governments perceive U.S. actions in the same way that they do. If the U.S. falls short of their maximalist preferences in one or two places, they conclude that the U.S. appears “weak,” but this is usually not how everyone else see things. If they believe that the U.S. has been insufficiently “active” in Syria, for example, they assume that adversaries and rivals perceive the U.S. role in the same way, but that isn’t the case. If anything, Russia and Iran tend to imagine an American hand behind events whether it is there or not, and they usually overstate or invent the American role in developments that they oppose.
What Rice et al. perceive as “inaction” in Syria, Russia and Iran likely perceive as ongoing interference and hostility to their interests. The crisis in Ukraine also looks very different to Moscow than it does to the Westerners that have been agitating for an even larger and more active U.S. role. Western hawks were frustrated by how slow their governments were to throw their full support behind the protesters, and as usual wanted the U.S. and EU to take a much more adversarial and combative approach with Russia because they see Western governments as being far more passive than they want. However, Moscow doesn’t perceive the U.S. role in Ukraine to be a limited or benign one, and the toppling of Yanukovych has been fitted into their view that the protests were a Western-backed plot from the beginning. The idea that Russia would have responded less aggressively to the change in government if the U.S. had been giving the opposition even more encouragement and support is dangerously delusional, but that is what one has to believe in order to argue that the U.S. “emboldened” Moscow in Ukraine.
This account of the Russian decision to intervene suggests that it was a sudden, ad hoc reaction to events in Ukraine and a response to unwelcome U.S. and EU actions:
An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe [bold mine-DL].
Obviously, that still doesn’t justify what Russia has done, but it would be a horrible mistake to conclude that these things happened because the U.S. was perceived as being insufficiently meddlesome and aggressive around the world.
Needless to say, the last person who should be giving advice on how to manage relations with Russia successfully is the former Secretary of State from an administration that oversaw one of the worst periods in bilateral relations.
Today is the Sunday of Orthodoxy, the first Sunday in Orthodox Great Lent, which commemorates the Triumph of Orthodoxy and the restoration of the icons in 843 after the second period of Iconoclasm:
The Uncircumscribable Word of the Father was circumscribed when He took flesh of thee, O Theotokos; and when He had restored the defiled image to its ancient state, He suffused it with divine beauty. As for us, confessing our salvation, we record it in deed and word. ~Kontakion of the First Sunday of Great Lent
What is Russia trying to accomplish? Dmitri Trenin tries to make sense of Russia’s actions in Ukraine:
In Moscow, there is a growing fatigue with the west, with the EU and the United States. Their role in Ukraine is believed to be particularly obnoxious: imposing on Ukraine a choice between the EU and Russia that it could not afford; supporting the opposition against an elected government; turning a blind eye to right-wing radical descendants of wartime Nazi collaborators; siding with the opposition to pressure the government into submission; finally, condoning an unconstitutional regime change. The Kremlin is yet again convinced of the truth of the famous maxim of Alexander III, that Russia has only two friends in the world, its army and its navy. Both now defend its interests in Crimea.
What will it cost Russia? Peter Baker reviews the limited options that the U.S. has to penalize Russia for its incursion. Helena Yakovlev-Golani and Nadiya Kravets run through different scenarios for Crimea’s future status (annexation, independence, status quo) and what each one will cost Russia over the long term.
What the U.S. should and shouldn’t do in response. Greg Djerejian offers some excellent advice. Michael Brendan Dougherty advises Americans not to panic. Thomas Graham proposes some possible constructive options.
Is a multipolar world emerging? Steven Metz discusses what a future multipolar order would look like.
If Scotland becomes independent, what happens to the British flag? Matt Ford looks at some of the possibilities for a new U.K. flag.
The New York Times reports on Rubio’s renewed effort to remind us why he should never be president, namely his bad and outdated views on foreign policy. For example, it quotes part of a recent speech he gave at CPAC:
“There is only one nation on earth capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism,” Mr. Rubio told attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference, offering a tour d’horizon of affairs in China, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Russia.
First, totalitarianism isn’t spreading. Insofar as there are still genuinely totalitarian regimes in the world, they control very few countries, and they are not gaining new followers. They shouldn’t be ignored or dismissed, but the danger from them needs to be kept in perspective. Across most of the globe, totalitarianism is nowhere to be found, and that sort of political system has been thoroughly discredited in the eyes of almost all nations since the collapse of the USSR. Some authoritarian regimes are becoming more repressive than they were in the recent past, but in general they are not expanding or increasing their influence. Thinking about the U.S. role in the world as the only country “capable of rallying and bringing together the free people on this planet to stand up to the spread of totalitarianism” might have made sense thirty years ago, but today it is at best a silly anachronism and at worst a profound misunderstanding of the world today. If Rubio genuinely believes that totalitarianism spreading in the world today, he’s simply wrong, and that misunderstanding is bound to warp the rest of his foreign policy views.
For some reason, many Republicans seem to think that Rubio is helping himself to recover politically inside the GOP by emphasizing his hard-line credentials on foreign policy. No doubt there are some hard-line pundits and foreign policy professionals that like what he’s saying, but I don’t understand who else would be both interested in these topics and likely to agree with Rubio’s stale ideas. In addition to offering mostly bad or unworkable ideas in the case of Ukraine, he gives skeptics no reason to trust that he isn’t just a new McCain or Santorum. Here is his weak attempt to reassure his audience that he isn’t a knee-jerk interventionist:
Mr. Rubio seemed to acknowledge this reluctance in his CPAC speech, assuring conservatives that he did not want America “to be involved in 15 wars” and conceding that the country could not resolve every conflict around the globe.
So Rubio is against involvement in 15 wars, but overall he leaves you with the impression that he would have no problem if the U.S. were involved in five or six.
There is a lot wrong with Gerson’s column today, but this line was remarkable for how dishonest it is and how consistently it has been used for five years:
Missile defenses were canceled in Poland, indicating that the Russian relationship was more important to the United States than was the one with Eastern Europe.
The only true part of this statement is that the Bush-era missile defense plan for Poland and the Czech Republic was cancelled, but that doesn’t mean very much. Most Poles and Czechs didn’t want to be part of the scheme, but never mind that. For good or ill, missile defense in eastern Europe hasn’t ended, NATO has now endorsed a new missile defense plan, Poland is still participating in it, and it remains as much of an irritant in the relationship with Moscow as ever. For the first time since they joined NATO, there are contingency plans for the defense of Poland and the Baltic states against invasion. Does that sound like a policy of preferring good relations with Russia at the expense of allies? No, it doesn’t, and a minimally informed person would already know that. Is Gerson ignorant of all this? Maybe, but then he shouldn’t pretend to know what has been happening there over the last few years. This is just one false claim among many that hawks routinely make, but it illustrates the extent to which hawks are quite happy to distort everything or to repeat lazy talking points that they don’t bother to verify to push the same old weary arguments about the need for “strength” and “resolve” and the dangers of “retreat.”
P.S. Nikolas Gvosdev makes an important related point:
The Obama administration’s decision, for instance, to cancel the Bush administration’s plan to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic was guided as much by concerns about cost and technical infeasibility [bold mine-DL] as it was about improving ties with Russia.
Robert Golan-Vilella comments on the bad American habit of assuming that foreign events are somehow our responsibility:
Underlying all of this is one of the most common errors in U.S. commentary on international relations: the casual assumption that everything that happens anywhere in the world is ultimately about America, and that when anything bad happens anywhere, someone in Washington must ultimately be to blame. The story that Baker describes on the right—in which America’s failure to use military force in Syria and elsewhere spurred Putin to invade Crimea—has the benefit of being an easy-to-understand and politically convenient one for those who are opposed to the president. But there is simply no reason to think that it is true.
It is even more remarkable how quick so many hawks are to blame the U.S. for undesirable events abroad when they are usually the last to acknowledge U.S. responsibility for any of its own actions in the world. As long as the U.S. is behaving aggressively, intrusively, and showing “leadership,” the likes of McCain take for granted that it is all for the best no matter how destructive that behavior may be. Their view of what the U.S. role in the world should and must be requires them to treat virtually every foreign crisis or conflict as a “failure” of American oversight and direction, or at the very least as an opportunity to exercise “leadership,” because they assume that the U.S. can and must influence foreign events in a fairly decisive fashion for the better. If something unfortunate happens, it happened because the U.S. “failed” to prevent or ameliorate it, and that “failure” can be explained only by invoking negligence or “retreat.” According to this warped reasoning, the U.S. can’t be blamed for what it does, but it must always be blamed for doing too little.
As long as it is taken for granted that a hyper-active and hegemonic U.S. is absolutely necessary for maintaining order in the world, any violence or upheaval has to be blamed at least in part on the hegemon that didn’t somehow put a stop to it. Because hegemonists have a grossly exaggerated view of how involved in the world the U.S. is supposed to be, they are bound to treat anything that goes wrong as proof that the U.S. is not involved enough. Then again, blaming U.S. “passivity” can sometimes be a way to distract attention from the things that the U.S. has done wrong in a given region, and those are usually the things that hawks have supported in the past. While this kind of criticism superficially blames the U.S., it is usually just an occasion to demand that the U.S. behave much more aggressively than it already had been and to treat increased hawkishness as a panacea. That is, it becomes an excuse to justify all manner of unwise and provocative U.S. behavior. After all, if one assumes that “passivity” is what made the event possible, the response should be “action,” which hawks conveniently define as whatever they want to do.
The U.S. government is responsible for its rhetoric and actions and for the effects of both, but it can’t be seriously held responsible for the outcomes of most internal disputes and foreign conflicts, especially those in which it had little or nothing at stake. The U.S. becomes responsible for events overseas to the extent that it involves itself directly or indirectly in them, and so it should try to act as carefully and responsibly in its dealings abroad as it possibly can. One part of being careful and responsible in how the U.S. acts overseas is to be very reluctant to interfere, take sides, or otherwise involve itself in foreign disputes and conflicts, and to recognize that the U.S. can often do the most good–or at least the least harm–by remaining impartial and neutral most of the time.
Rich Lowry makes a typically preposterous argument:
This was a perverse misreading of recent history. Of all President Bush’s faults, not giving the Russians a chance wasn’t one of them [bold mine-DL]. He notoriously looked into Putin’s soul at a meeting at the beginning of his presidency and saw sweetness and light. By the end, any illusions he had left were shattered by the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008.
As perverse misreadings of history go, there aren’t many worse than what Lowry has done in this column. Notice how he skips through the entire Bush presidency as if 2001-2009 had been one long attempt to cooperate with Russia that ended badly. That is exactly what it wasn’t. It was a period in which the U.S. consistently pursued policies that were certain to antagonize Russia, which undeniably did antagonize Russia, and which the Bush administration seemed to pursue in no small part because they antagonized Russia.
The silly “soul-gazing” remarks at the beginning of Bush’s presidency were the sort of thing one would expect from a president as clueless on foreign policy as he was, but in terms of policy the last administration reliably did almost all of the things that Moscow opposed. It is not possible to understand Russian behavior over the last ten years without acknowledging the extent to which U.S.-Russian relations were wrecked by several Western policies, chief among them being Bush’s push for missile defense in eastern Europe and NATO expansion into the former USSR. If the Bush administration suffered from any illusions, it was that the U.S. could consistently goad and provoke Russia in its own region without consequences. By the end of Bush’s second term, that illusion was dispelled, and it was in order to repair the substantial damage that had been done in the previous five or six years that the U.S. successfully sought to find common interests with Russia.
As it happened, that effort was finished by the end of Obama’s first term in part because it had succeeded in doing what it tried to do. Both old and new disagreements flared up over the last two years, and we all know what these are. Needless to say, relations with Russia would be even worse and Russian behavior even more antagonistic if the U.S. had pursued more aggressive policies in Syria and the former Soviet Union than it did. That is what hawks have wanted the U.S. to do all along, and it is fortunate that they have not been in a position to make it happen. It matters that Bush-era Russia policy is understood correctly, because the people seeking to revise the history of that period are eager to revive the very same aggressive policies in the former Soviet Union that have already failed so miserably.
Ross Douthat offers a quasi-defense of the importance of U.S. Syria policy for what has happened in Ukraine:
Is it really so ridiculous to believe that the Syria crisis confirmed certain impressions that Putin had already cultivated about America’s willingness to back up its threats [bold mine-DL] and see a given strategy through, and that this influenced his decision to push harder in Ukraine than this White House and its intelligence analysts expected? I think not: Of course this push isn’t “about us” in the sense that, say, Russia’s decision-making in the Cuban Missile Crisis was, but Putin surely took account of the steps that the United States and its allies were likely to undertake in response, and decided that they would be less effective, and less painful to his interests, than our own foreign policy team clearly expected him to think.
This is a much more qualified claim, and while it is not as ridiculous as the ordinary “credibility” and “resolve” arguments I’m not sure that there is any reason to believe it is true. As Russian leaders claim to see things, the U.S. is only too willing to back up threats with force, and has done so with some regularity over the last fifteen years. Moscow sees and fears the possibility of American intervention in other countries long before Washington is actively contemplating such a thing, it assumes that Western governments are always looking for a pretext to intervene against governments that they oppose, and it sees a major U.S. role in any and every major political disturbance in the former Soviet Union whether there is one or not. We could dismiss this as propaganda, but it appears that people in the Kremlin really do believe some or all of this. There is much more reason to think that Russia’s blundering overreaction in Crimea came from believing that the overthrow of Yanukovych was nothing more than a Western-backed coup, but that would mean that the U.S. is partly responsible for the current mess because it was being and was perceived as being too meddlesome in the affairs of another country. That is the last thing that the hawks pushing the connection between Syria and Crimea could or would admit, and so instead we hear endlessly about unenforced “red lines.”
While some Americans may have concluded from the abortive attack on Syria that American threats can’t be taken seriously, Russia was more likely to see this as an intervention that was halted only at the last minute. If Putin already had “certain impressions” about when the U.S. was and wasn’t prepared to use force, these had been formed by watching more than a decade of U.S.-led foreign wars and its (very sensible) unwillingness to back up its would-be Georgian client in 2008. He would have concluded from this that the U.S. is quite ready to go to war against much weaker governments to the point of destroying them, but that it isn’t going to risk a war for a minor client on the doorstep of a major power. In other words, he would have concluded that the U.S. is too willing to resort to force in some cases, but that it isn’t completely reckless in its readiness to go to war, and he could have easily reached that conclusion years before the Syrian civil war began. The fact that the U.S. didn’t attack Syria didn’t really tell Putin anything he wouldn’t have already known from watching U.S. behavior since 1999, and he could have dismissed it as a highly unusual instance of U.S. restraint that had no relevance in other places.
The idea behind linking the two episodes in this way is that U.S. “inaction” (i.e., not attacking other countries) supposedly invites international chaos, but a far more plausible and less tendentious argument is that encouraging political instability and supporting the overthrow of a government backed by a neighboring major power is likely to have dangerous and somewhat unexpected consequences. Not only did Western governments fail to anticipate what these consequences might be, but they proceeded as if there were no danger that things could go very wrong. This is the point Dmitri Simes made in a recent interview:
Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome [we] have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be.
The straightforward explanation is that Western support for destabilizing protests helped to create a degree of political upheaval and a kind of political change that Moscow wasn’t prepared to tolerate any longer. As Simes says, that doesn’t validate or justify the Russian response, but it does a better job of explaining it without having to come up with a roundabout way to lay blame for the situation on the U.S. “failure” to attack another country in the Near East.