Daniel Larison

Reagan and the Ukraine Crisis

The National Review editors make a typically nonsensical claim about the Ukraine crisis:

This conflict, however, is one that will determine whether the West’s victory in the long-fought Cold War remains standing [bold mine-DL]. So it should be firmly stated that anyone who thinks Ronald Reagan’s main historical achievement is not worth defending, even at some risk, cannot sensibly call himself a Reaganite.

The first part of this isn’t true, so the second is irrelevant. The U.S. and its allies prevailed in the Cold War thanks to the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and the dissolution of the USSR. No matter what happens between Russia and Ukraine in the months and years to come, neither of these things will be undone. More to the point, neither is in any danger of being undone, because there is no chance that communism is coming back anywhere in Europe, and there is no chance that the USSR will be restored. Whatever else is at stake in the Ukraine crisis, “the West’s victory in the long-fought Cold War” is not at stake. Those that are trying to pretend that the West’s Cold War success is in danger of being repealed are engaged in the worst sort of alarmism in order to push for more confrontational policies that won’t help anyone and could commit the U.S. to a needlessly dangerous course.

It is a very tired partisan argument that Reagan won the Cold War, but even if we take this as a given it wouldn’t tell us anything useful about what position conservatives should take on U.S. policy toward Ukraine and Russia today. If being a “Reaganite” now requires favoring a hard-line response to the Ukraine crisis, at least half of Republicans today would not qualify for the label. More than that are probably tired of the pathetic ideological policing on display in the editorial.

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Containment and the “De-Reaganizing” of Rand Paul

Rand Paul’s op-ed today was intended to answer criticisms of what he said in an interview with ABC News, but I’d say that he made a more compelling argument in his original statement:

But he said those who oppose the idea of containment — or living with an Iran with nuclear weapons — ignore that such an outcome has been necessary in the past.

“They said containment will never ever, ever be our policy,” Paul said of those who oppose Iran getting nuclear weapons at any cost. “We woke up one day and Pakistan had nuclear weapons. If that would have been our policy toward Pakistan, we would be at war with Pakistan. We woke up one day and China had nuclear weapons. We woke up one day and Russia had them.”

Paul’s remarks should remind us of a few things. The first is that the U.S. and its allies have managed to cope with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by several states, all of which were and are much more dangerous than Iran. In the event that Iran did acquire nuclear weapons, it would still be possible to deter it in the same way that other nuclear-armed states have been deterred. That doesn’t mean that this would be a desirable outcome, but that it would be a manageable one and something that the U.S. has faced several times before. Absolutely ruling out containment may be a politically expedient bit of posturing, but as a matter of policy it is deeply irresponsible and it makes it much harder for the U.S. to avoid a war with Iran. Unless one wants to make war with Iran more rather than less likely, ruling out containment makes no sense.

Jennifer Rubin’s response to the interview is just as absurd as you would expect. She declares that Paul’s statement has “de-Reaganized” him:

The idea that Reagan would consider allowing a reckless enemy of the United States with terrorists at its beck and call get the bomb is preposterous.

The key word in this bit of fantasy is “allow,” as if the U.S. were capable of preventing another government from doing this if it really wished to by any means short of a full invasion. Would Reagan have been willing to wage so-called “preventive” war to try to stop this from happening? Reagan operated in a very different world, so we can’t know for sure, but it is doubtful that he would have been prepared to initiate a war rather than tolerate another state’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Hawks love to cite the phrase “peace through strength,” but consistently fail to recognize that taking this phrase seriously precludes starting unnecessary wars. Reagan wouldn’t have wanted more states to acquire these weapons, and even aspired to eliminating all of them, but he probably wouldn’t have thought that it was worth starting a war in order to keep one medium-sized regional power from getting them.

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Rand Paul’s Strategic Ambiguity and Iran

Rand Paul opposes locking the U.S. into unnecessary specific commitments:

Containment of Iran is a bad idea, but our leaders need to think before they speak and consider that preemptively announcing responses to every hypothetical situation may well damage our ability to keep the United States safe and strong.

This position is unlikely to satisfy very many people, but it is worth discussing a bit more. Sen. Paul has invoked strategic ambiguity a few times in the past, and it has usually created more confusion than it has eliminated. If strategic ambiguity has the advantage of creating uncertainty among foreign governments concerning how the U.S. will act, it is much less useful in domestic policy debate. Hawks will bludgeon Paul for being insufficiently hard-line on Iran no matter what he says, but supporters of a diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue are bound to be underwhelmed by this sort of argument. There is also a potential drawback to such ambiguity when dealing with Iran, since it can feed Iranian suspicions that the U.S. can’t be trusted to honor its part of an agreement. Because Paul insists that war with Iran should be a last resort, he clearly is rejecting preventive war, and there is nothing wrong or dangerous in making that as explicit as possible.

Paul’s main point that it can be unwise and potentially dangerous to declare in advance how the U.S. will react to every contingency is sensible enough, but in the context of the Iran debate it cedes far too much to the hawks. If hawks insist on ruling out containment, Paul prefers not to rule out any option. Unfortunately, refusing to rule out military action allows Iran hawks to get away with promoting the false idea that military action can do anything more than delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons while making that outcome much more likely. The result is that Paul leaves the public uncertain as to what his position really is, which can only benefit those that are interested in misrepresenting and distorting his views.

The argument’s other weakness is that it accepts the framing of Iran hawks as if the only available choices were containment and prevention. The real policy choice on Iran is between a negotiated settlement that renders containment unnecessary and a policy of containment that will be put in place either before or after a war. Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran would be undesirable, but waging a so-called “preventive” war would be worse, since it would be an unnecessary war that would end up all but guaranteeing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future. “Prevention” isn’t possible except through a negotiated agreement, which supporters of “prevention” typically oppose because it requires them to accept that Iran isn’t going to abandon its nuclear program in its entirety. Paul would do better to repudiate the hawkish maximalists that have been trying to undermine a negotiated agreement over at least the last six months, and he should refuse to let them set the terms and limits of the debate.

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Throwing Weapons At The Problem

The Chicago Tribune laments that the U.S. isn’t already throwing weapons at the Ukraine crisis:

In that context, it was small consolation to hear an adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry say that the United States is “looking at” possibly sending arms to Ukraine. It would have been more heartening to hear that the weapons and equipment were already there or at least on their way.

Heartening for whom? I suppose it would make some Western interventionists happy that the U.S. was “doing something,” but I’m not sure who else would be encouraged by a decision that would be simultaneously provocative and useless. It would be provocative because it would deepen U.S. involvement in the conflict, and that would only encourage Russia to continue its agitation and incursions. It would be useless because the Ukrainian military is in no condition to fight. Even some of the advocates for sending arms to Ukraine have acknowledged the Ukrainian military’s lack of readiness and training. If U.S. shipments of arms encouraged Ukraine to try to fight a war that it couldn’t win, it would make things even worse and help give Russia a pretext for a larger military intervention.

The Tribune also proposes doing something another useless thing simply because it will annoy Russia:

It could revive the missile defense system that was planned for deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic but then canceled. Putin said it was a threat to Russian security, which at the moment sounds like an excellent reason to build it.

This must be one of the worst reasons to revive a costly, unworkable system that most people in the host countries didn’t even want. Like other knee-jerk hawkish responses to the crisis, this pays no attention to whether it is desirable for the U.S. and its allies to do something, and focuses solely on whether it will anger Moscow. Making policy primarily to spite other governments always leads to poor and rash decisions, as this editorial proves.

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The BJP and India’s No First-Use Policy

Krista Mahr reports on a new poll showing that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies are on track to win India’s parliamentary elections:

The latest NDTV poll suggests that the BJP and its allies are slated to pass the crucial 272 mark and win 275 legislative seats — a very narrow majority in the 543-seat legislative body, but still enough of a lead to give the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition the mandate to govern without the support of powerful regional parties.

If that happens, it would be the first time in a decade that the BJP will be leading a government. There was recently some speculation that a BJP-led government would undo India’s earlier no first-use policy regarding nuclear weapons on account of language in the party’s election manifesto. Ankit Panda sums up the BJP’s later clarifications:

In an effort to clarify the statements made in the manifesto, BJP President Rajnath Singh told the Hindustan Times that ”the no first-use policy for nuclear weapons was a well thought-out stand of the [former BJP-led coalition government].” He added that the BJP does not intend to reverse it in any way. According to the Hindustan Times, BJP “party leaders say the policy has not only boosted India’s standing in the international community but also gives a certain amount of leverage in foreign-policy matters.”

The confusion about this seems to have come from the party’s election manifesto, which stated the intention to “revise and update” India’s nuclear doctrine. Panda explains what this phrase will most likely mean in practice:

India continues to work towards fielding a triad-based deterrent (meaning that it would field land-, air-, and sea-based delivery systems). Should the BJP come to power, it would likely allocate more resources toward this goal, empowering India’s Strategic Forces Command (SFC) and National Command Authority (NCA) in the process.

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Alliances and “Credibility” Arguments

Mira Rapp-Hooper criticizes the idea that Crimean annexation has damaging implications for U.S. security commitments elsewhere:

According to this narrative, Washington’s failure to uphold the 1994 Budapest Memorandum portends U.S. complacency if Japan faces an attack in the East China Sea. It is tempting to attribute this to an acute case of “resolve anxiety,” but it is also important to parse why the failure of one international agreement does not imply the frailty of them all. If the United States is to remain powerful and engaged in the world at a time of great resource constraints, it will need to choose its battles wisely. This, in turn, requires that we acknowledge that not all international commitments are created equal [bold mine-DL].

In this case, Rapp-Hooper is comparing the Budapest Memorandum with the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty. As she notes, the former has no enforcement mechanism, and doesn’t really require its signatories to do very much at all. U.S. security guarantees to Japan, on the other hand, are part of a formal, ratified treaty that obliges the U.S. to defend Japan if it is attacked. Just as U.S. commitments to its treaty allies haven’t been undermined by the “failure” to attack Syria, they haven’t been jeopardized by the Ukraine crisis, either. These other cases tell us nothing about U.S. willingness to defend its allies, and it is extremely misleading to argue that formal commitments to allies are somehow on the same level as non-binding agreements or vague presidential threats.

Rapp-Hooper continues with a discussion of credibility:

Scholarly work suggests that states assess their opponents’ interests and capabilities with respect to the particular object under dispute, as opposed to their diffuse reputations for resolve towards all commitments in all cases. Nonetheless, credibility is necessarily perceptual and difficult to measure, and we do not have a firm understanding of whether and how it transfers across domains. It is, therefore, helpful to return to the formal definition of credibility itself: do the actors involved have the incentive to behave as they say they will? The Budapest Memorandum and U.S.–Japan guarantee could not look more different where incentives are concerned [bold mine-DL].

As she goes on to say, the U.S. can’t afford to treat every pledge as if it were the same as the commitments made to treaty allies:

But if the United States is to retain the resources to guarantee the security of thirty countries worldwide, it will not be able to make the same promises to states that do not hold those commitments.

These are the commitments that matter most, and they are the ones that the U.S. is truly expected to honor, which means that it will have to put them first and not exhaust itself by trying to back up every small pledge that it may have made over the years.

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Israel’s Unsurprising Response to Crimean Annexation

Ha’aretz reports that the Obama administration is annoyed that Israel puts its own interests first:

White House and State Department officials in Washington have built up a great deal of anger over Jerusalem’s “neutrality” regarding Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Senior figures in the Obama administration have expressed great disappointment with the lack of support from Israel for the American position on the Ukraine crisis and with the fact that the Israeli government puts its relations with the United States and with Russia on the same plane.

The U.S. doesn’t have to be happy that Israel isn’t taking the anti-Russian line that it wants on Ukraine, but it is a little odd that anyone in Washington expected a significantly different response. The administration is free to be disappointed with Israel’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea, but no one should have been surprised by it. This is hardly the only example of how dysfunctional this patron-client relationship has become, but it is an instructive one.

Even if it weren’t the case that Russian-Israeli relations have become much stronger in recent years, it would be odd for Israel to condemn another state for laying claim to territory outside its recognized borders. Like many other states that don’t want to rile Russia over matters that don’t directly concern them, Israel isn’t going out on a limb to uphold a principle that it doesn’t take seriously. Even if a significant number of the current government’s supporters weren’t Russian-speakers with connections to Russia and other former Soviet republics, Israel has no particular interest in upholding the sanctity of other states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Israel has violated both on more than a few occasions over the decades and reserves the right to do so in the future, so why exactly is it going to denounce Russia for doing things that are in some ways less egregious than its own past actions? Israel stands to gain nothing by antagonizing Russia on this issue, and it knows that risks nothing by disappointing Washington. Besides, the U.S. isn’t obliged to agree with Israel on how best to address Iran’s nuclear program, and has correctly pursued the current diplomatic course over Israeli objections. Why would we expect Israel to line up with the U.S. on an issue that matters even less to Washington? We shouldn’t, so why are so many people in the administration oblivious to this?

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The U.S. Hasn’t “Betrayed” Ukraine

Matthew Kaminski makes an obnoxious accusation about the U.S. and Ukraine:

But Ukraine expects and deserves America’s support by every other means that Washington has refused so far. Betrayal is an ugly word and an uglier deed. Europe and the U.S. will pay dearly for it in Ukraine.

It’s strange to think that the U.S. has “betrayed” Ukraine, when the U.S. has already done far more for Ukraine than it is obliged to do. The U.S. has also done far more than it should have done in Ukraine since this crisis began last year, which has had the unfortunate effect of creating unrealistic expectations about the kind of help that might be forthcoming in the future. If Ukraine’s government expects “America’s support by every other means that Washington has refused so far,” that is only because of rather careless administration rhetoric that led them to believe they would be given much more than they were ever likely to receive. If there is one thing that links all recent administration foreign policy errors, it is the tendency to seem to promise more than it is realistically going to deliver.

The U.S. wasn’t going to provide the sort of backing for the Syrian opposition that its members wanted, but it offered just enough to give them reason to think that more might be on the way. When the administration briefly agitated for military action in Syria last year, this also gave the opposition the wrong idea that substantial future support was still possible. Likewise, there have always been very clear limits on what the U.S. was likely to do to support the Ukrainian government, but those limits have been obscured by more of the rhetorical overkill from Washington that has regrettably become all too common. It wasn’t an error to acknowledge that Ukraine isn’t joining NATO in the near future, nor was it a mistake to rule out military intervention, since neither of these would have the desired effect and would almost certainly have made things worse. The error was to give Ukraine’s leaders false hope that the West would come to their rescue, when that was never going to happen. Fortunately, the administration has not been quite so foolish as to make threats of military action that it would later have to disavow. Nothing would be more senseless than to make a commitment that everyone knows would never be honored simply to avoid an accusation of “abandoning” a country that the U.S. was never going to defend in the first place.

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The Bridegroom Comes


Behold, the Bridegroom is coming at midnight. * Blessed is the servant He shall find awake. * But the one He shall find neglectful will not be worthy of Him. * Beware, therefore, O my soul! Do not fall into a deep slumber,* lest you be delivered to death and the door of the Kingdom be closed to you. * Watch instead, and cry out: * Holy, Holy, Holy art Thou, O God. * Through the intercession of the Theotokos, have mercy on us!

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Blessed Is He That Cometh In The Name of the Lord


By raising Lazarus from the dead before Thy passion, Thou didst confirm the common resurrection, 0 Christ God! Wherefore, we also, like the children bearing the symbols of victory, cry out to Thee, the Vanquisher of Death: Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!

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