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.
Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton expand on Rubio’s earlier list of mostly bad and ineffective proposals for responding to Russia:
Some may argue that these actions are overly provocative and will only encourage Russia to be more aggressive. But provoking Russia is exactly what five years of “reset” has now achieved.
The measures Rubio and Cotton suggest include, among other things, a trade embargo and pushing for Georgian membership in NATO. These are obviously provocative moves, but more to the point they are invitations to Moscow to respond with its own punitive measures. If Germany is unwilling to press ahead with major economic sanctions, that is probably because they have much to lose thanks to their and Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, and Britain is not eager to shut Russian money out of its financial institutions for similar reasons. It is relatively easier for American politicians and pundits to demand economic warfare against Russia, because the U.S. has much less to lose directly from inflicting damage on the Russian economy. Meanwhile, the European governments that have to cooperate in carrying out these punishments will be the ones to suffer the consequences, and that would have deleterious effects on their economies and eventually on ours as well.
Agitating for NATO expansion over five years after the idea should have been abandoned isn’t a show of strength, but a careless gamble that will create new occasions for conflict. If the U.S. needs to reassure existing NATO members of its commitment to them and if it needs to organize a unified allied response, that has to rule out reviving a controversial push for expanding the alliance that many other members of the alliance consider unwise and unrealistic. Furthermore, if there is any chance of getting major European governments to go along with at least some economic sanctions, that isn’t going to be helped by bringing up NATO expansion plans that some of them have previously blocked.
Rubio and Cotton never explain what it is they expect all of this to achieve. If the goal is de-escalation of the current crisis and the prevention of armed conflict, taking actions that are likely to antagonize Moscow and make it harden its position is foolish. While the desire to punish Russia for its actions may be understandable, is there any reason to expect that this will change its behavior for the better? I called Russia’s incursion as “gross overreaction,” and so it was, but it would be very unwise if Western governments imitated that behavior by overreacting in their own response. If the goal is simply to inflict damage on Russia to teach it a lesson and to show “the world that America is not going anywhere” (whatever that is supposed to mean), it is more than likely to backfire and produce more of the same kind of behavior that the U.S. and EU reject. Hard-liners in all countries adhere to some version of the cult of “resolve” that informs so many wrongheaded hawkish arguments here, so we can be reasonably sure that “punishing” Russia will convince Moscow to dig in its heels and take more reckless actions of its own so that it is not perceived as “weak.”
In contrast, Thomas Graham offers some constructive suggestions on how to defuse the crisis and on how to start stabilizing Ukraine. It’s possible that all parties might not be able to reach an agreement that included all of Graham’s proposals, but they seem far more likely to result in a reduction of tensions and the avoidance of conflict than anything provided by the hawkish members of Congress.
Irakly Areshidze and Elena Suhir make a terrible assumption and offer an equally terrible suggestion:
Surrounding Russia with NATO members will not only curb Moscow’s imperialist ambitions, it will also strengthen the cause of democracy inside Russia.
There are a lot of bad ideas for the U.S. and EU response to Russia’s incursion, but the idea that they should rush to expand NATO is one of the very worst. Aside from the fact that NATO won’t and officially is not supposed to bring in new members that have ongoing territorial disputes with their neighbors, advocates for expansion don’t seem to understand that “surrounding Russia with NATO members” is one of the things that makes Russia so hostile to the idea in the first place. It is the fear of being surrounded by an alliance that it still regards as a major threat that has driven much of its opposition to bringing former Soviet republics into the alliance. Western governments have repeatedly failed to anticipate how Russia would react to their plans for incorporating more countries into the alliance, and for a while they could afford to do that because Russia was not prepared to do anything in response. Over the last decade, that changed, but many Westerners remained oblivious to the change. Dragging Ukraine into NATO–and it would probably still have to be dragged in against the wishes of a large part of its population–is just the sort of thing that could trigger the escalation and conflict that everyone should be trying to prevent. One of the worst things that the alliance could do to itself at this point is to undermine its existing security guarantees by extending them to countries that we already know we’re not going to fight to defend. It wouldn’t anyone any favors, and would be more likely to invite the intervention that it is supposed to deter.
P.S. Surrounding Russia with NATO members is more likely to cause the state to become more authoritarian, illiberal, and paranoid, and it would make it much less likely that Russia would undergo peaceful political change to a more pluralistic and liberal order.
Jonathan Tobin repeats a commonplace bit of nonsense:
Lack of credibility in foreign policy cannot be compartmentalized in one region or particular issue. Weakness and irresolution are fungible commodities in international diplomacy.
Those who argue that reputation and credibility matter are depending on strategists to be simple-minded, illogical, and blissfully unaware of recursion. And if Assad is illogical, then calibrating U.S. foreign policy to elicit particular responses from him is pointless. The same goes for other adversaries. No one can know what the North Korean leadership will make of U.S. behavior in Syria. They might think that Obama has no credibility, that he is, in fact, resolute, or that he is driven by other U.S. interests. Whatever conclusion they come to will be driven by their own beliefs and interests.
Paul Pillar comments on the same topic in a recent post:
One of the major flaws in this perspective is that much of import that happens in the world, including much that is violent or disturbing, is not the work of the United States and is not within the power of the United States to prevent. Another major flaw is that there is not nearly as much of a connection between what happens in a situation one place on the globe and how players assess credibility and motivations in a different situation someplace else [bold mine-DL]. Governments simply do not gauge the credibility of other governments that way.
Much more important than any vague global reputation are the specific interests and options involved in whatever is the situation currently at hand [bold mine-DL].
Arguments about the importance of “strength,” “resolve,” and “credibility” frequently hinge on the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. In this case, the argument goes, because Russia’s incursion in Ukraine came after the decision not to attack Syria, the latter must have somehow enabled the former. This takes for granted that a more aggressive Syria policy would have helped deter Russia from acting as it has, but this doesn’t even make superficial sense. Attacking Syria over strenuous Russian objections would have infuriated Moscow, and that would have made it even more likely to take the actions that it has in Ukraine. Insofar as Russia already blames the crisis in Ukraine on Western meddling, Western military intervention in Syria would have increased Russian hostility to “pro-Western” governments in its vicinity and stoked paranoia about Western intentions.
Hawks recite the mantra “weakness is provocative” with religious devotion, but over the last twenty years we know that Moscow has viewed Western shows of “strength” with great alarm. Hawks always assume that other governments act as they do because U.S. “weakness” permits or invites them to do so, but this is impossible to entangle from their general assumption that specific U.S. policies need to be more aggressive across the board. The possibility that other states perceive the U.S. as still being far too meddlesome and intrusive doesn’t occur to them because they are preoccupied with complaining about so-called “retreat.” Despite the fact that Russian action in Ukraine came in direct response to an “advance” by “pro-Western” forces, hawks discount that and look back to the Syrian episode because they think this validates the “retreat” argument. In so doing, they ignore what really seems to be motivating the Kremlin’s decision-making and substitute their own explanation.
On a related note, there have been a number of lazy assertions that the so-called “reset” is somehow at fault in what has been happening. When the “reset” was still going on, it had some modest but real successes, but once the original agenda was exhausted there was very little incentive or political will on either side to keep it going. Judged on its own terms as a means of repairing U.S.-Russian relations from its previous nadir in 2008, the “reset” did what it was supposed to do, but it could not magically change how Russia perceived its interests in the “near abroad” nor could it alter the way that the Kremlin behaved inside Russia. The Libyan war and the way it was conducted certainly soured Russia on further cooperation, especially because of how Russia was persuaded to permit U.N. authorization, and by 2012 the “reset” was essentially over. In its wake, U.S.-Russian relations resumed their dreary course as the U.S. was pursuing a number of goals in Syria and elsewhere that Russia flatly rejected. The U.S. also passed the Magnitsky Act, which the Kremlin saw as poisoning the relationship, and the Snowden affair did quite a bit of damage as well. Then there was the Ukraine crisis itself. Once again, hawks in the West faulted Obama for being insufficiently supportive of the protesters, but as Moscow saw it U.S. and EU involvement was still quite excessive and menacing. Western hawks think Obama has not been “strong” enough on Ukraine, but as far as the Kremlin is concerned both Washington and Brussels have been only too “strong.” The notion that Russia would be behaving noticeably better if not for the “reset” is a fantasy that requires us to ignore everything we’ve seen in U.S.-Russian relations over the last twenty years.
Paul Saunders takes aim at five of the most abused words and phrases in foreign policy debate. Here he rejects “isolationism”:
What proponents of an activist (as opposed to a necessarily active) foreign policy are trying to conceal is how they have thoroughly warped the definition of another word—leadership—to make it nearly synonymous with the use of force. Thus, they argue, America is a leader when it is prepared to use force and is isolationist when it isn’t. Fixing U.S. foreign policy requires not only dispensing with theatrical critiques of isolationist straw men, but building a sophisticated understanding of international leadership in its diverse forms.
I would add that the abuse of “leadership” as a concept is in some ways even more obnoxious and misleading than the reliance on the “isolationist” slur. It’s true that hawks typically assume that real “leadership” requires the use of force or at least the threat to use force, but it can also function as a generic euphemism for U.S. hegemony. In this usage, there is really only one kind of international leadership that qualifies, and this is one in which the U.S. is dominant, preeminent, and preoccupied with policing the globe. This tends to view leadership more as an exercise in giving orders and dictating terms.
The word also serves as an all-purpose, nebulous placeholder as something that can be demanded and whose absence can be lamented without having to make a coherent argument. Calling for “more leadership” can be a way to demand an aggressive and militarized policy without owning up to what one is demanding, or it can be a way to criticize existing policy decisions without having to explain what ought to be done instead. As with its ugly cousin “resolve,” one can always get away with insisting that a particular president isn’t showing enough “leadership” in the world, because there is no way to measure these things and no way for the complaint be remedied. Because it is so ill-defined and frequently abused, it can be applied to every issue without even having to think about the specific details. “Leadership” is always the correct response, and “leadership” can’t fail, because it means everything and nothing at the same time.
Jim Antle comments on different Republican responses to foreign protests and crackdowns:
“Viva Rubio!” cheered the Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan. And indeed there is a hunger, especially among conservatives, for people to speak out as forcefully against tyranny abroad [bold mine-DL] as they do against big government at home.
Antle is right that there are some self-described conservatives that want to hear this, but I doubt very much that it is a widespread desire or one so strong that it could be described as a “hunger.” One reason that I suspect there is not much of a “hunger” for this kind of talk is that conservatives, like all other Americans, have seen where thoughtless, well-meaning rhetoric has taken the U.S. in the past. While it might seem that “speaking out forcefully” commits the U.S. to nothing, it is frequently the first step in escalating U.S. involvement in a foreign crisis. Having been persuaded to “speak out,” U.S. officials then feel pressure to back up their words with specific actions. Having agreed to a few small measures, pressure then begins building for even more aggressive action. At each stage, it doesn’t seem to matter whether speech or action will have a constructive effect on the crisis, much less whether the U.S. has any reason to declare for one side or the other. What matters for most the people making these demands is that the U.S. takes a side and inserts itself into the dispute, which then becomes an excuse for more and more involvement as time goes by. Whatever the motivation for it, it amounts to little more than interference for its own sake.
Here are some guidelines that could be useful for judging whether and when American politicians and officials should “speak out” in response to foreign political disputes and conflicts, and what they should and shouldn’t say:
1) Is there a discernible, concrete U.S. interest at stake in the country’s unrest? If so, is it important enough to merit significant attention from the government? If not, what good is the U.S. doing by commenting? If there is no discernible, major U.S. interest at stake, what would be the point of “speaking out forcefully” except to hear ourselves talk? If you can’t answer yes to the first two questions here, the rest of the list is redundant.
2) Is the government a democratically-elected one? The default response to almost all foreign protests is to demand that the U.S. side with the opposition, but especially in democratic and even quasi-democratic countries this means lending aid to the party or parties that happened to lose the last election. This is thoroughly unwarranted interference in the internal politics of another country, and should be avoided. Especially in these cases, it would be both unwise and wrong to take a “forceful” position for or against any peaceful faction.
3) What political values do the protesters have, and what are their demands? The U.S. shouldn’t be expected to take the side of whichever political movement happens to rally large numbers of people in the streets of foreign cities. To the extent that the past history, goals, and tactics of a protest movement are known, that should significantly affect how much encouragement, if any, the U.S. is prepared to offer. If little or nothing is known about these things, the U.S. should say as little as possible until it has more complete information.
4) How representative of the country are the protesters, and do they actually speak for most of the countrymen? This can be a tricky question to answer, but if there is reliable information that protesters truly don’t reflect the preferences of most other people in their country the U.S. should generally refrain from endorsing anything about them except for their rights to assemble and peacefully protest. Especially in countries that hold regular elections, there shouldn’t be a presumption that the people that happen to be in the street speak for the majority.
5) Is it likely that public comments from U.S. officials will inflame and escalate the crisis? If it’s more likely to make things worse, why should the U.S. be holding forth publicly on the dispute? When commenting on foreign disputes, obviously the U.S. should seek to do no harm, but unless it can successfully reduce tensions through what it says it should also probably refrain from saying very much at all.
6) Is the U.S. government mostly viewed favorably in the country, or is it viewed with suspicion and hostility? If it’s the latter, statements from U.S. officials may be worse than useless, and may become dangerous fodder for state and/or opposition propaganda to the detriment of the country in question. U.S. endorsements of opposition movements in historically anti-American and/or strongly nationalist countries are not likely to have a positive effect on the public’s view of the protesters, and will tend to undermine the credibility of the opposition. At the same time, they could be misinterpreted by protesters as a pledge of future assistance that is not forthcoming.
7) Do most protesters want American help, or do they prefer that we refrain from inserting the U.S. into their struggle? If foreign protesters aren’t seeking U.S. support, rhetorical or otherwise, it doesn’t seem to serve any purpose to offer encouragement where it isn’t welcome.
8) Has the government used excessive force in response to the protests? In that case, the violence should be condemned, but it will often be more productive to appeal to regime leaders through diplomatic channels rather than berating them publicly or endorsing the opposition because of the government’s heavy-handedness. Demagoguing a foreign crisis in order to demonstrate one’s “toughness” would be exactly the wrong way to respond.
9) Will U.S. statements provoke a fiercer and more brutal crackdown than is already taking place? To the extent that U.S. statements of support can be used to treat protesters as foreign agents or instigators of a coup, they may contribute to greater violence and loss of life, and in that case they should be avoided or kept to a bare minimum.
10) Will U.S. support for an opposition movement undermine other important foreign policy goals, and to what extent will it do so? Depending on the risk that it poses to other U.S. goals, offering support to some opposition movements may be thoroughly self-defeating and foolish.
11) If positions were reversed and another major power were actively supporting the domestic opponents of the government of our allies, would we view this as harmless solidarity with protesters or as something much more aggressive and destabilizing? If the latter, why should the U.S. be engaged in this kind of behavior?
12) If the goal of the protests is to depose the current government or the entire regime, what effect will that have on national and regional stability? Is success for the protests reasonably likely to lead to armed conflict or outside intervention? If so, we should be very wary of encouraging that outcome.
Alex Berezow’s approach to foreign policy might be summed up as “doing stupid things because Russia won’t like them”:
(3) Fast-track Ukraine to NATO and EU membership. A Ukraine fully integrated into the West is what Mr. Putin fears the most. The West should make it clear that its goal is to accomplish that sooner rather than later.
(4) Deploy NATO troops to western Ukraine. If Ukraine allows it, NATO should deploy troops into western Ukraine. If Mr. Putin finds this objectionable, NATO can claim to be protecting the interests of ethnic Ukrainians and other Europeans. Two can play at that game.
(5) Surround Kaliningrad with NATO troops.
If one wanted to come up with quick ways to escalate and widen the conflict, these would be a good start. Fortunately, there doesn’t appear to be the slightest chance that NATO would do any of these things, but it is still remarkable that anyone can look at the crisis in Ukraine and ask, “How can we possibly militarize the situation more and get many more countries involved in a war?” This is the sort of mentality that would take a regional crisis and potentially turn it into a major war if enough Western governments were insane enough to share it. Western governments’ choices aren’t always as “obvious” as Berezow would like to think, but it should be obvious that NATO and EU membership are farther away for Ukraine than ever and there is no chance that NATO as an alliance will intervene in Ukraine.
Economic and diplomatic sanctions may be appropriate, but the priority at the moment has to be to prevent the crisis from escalating into armed conflict, and sanctions could very well make that more difficult.
Jacob Heilbrunn explains why a confrontational response to Russia’s incursion will make matters worse:
Rather than threatening Putin, Obama should continue to seek to offer him an exit strategy–just as Putin offered him one out of Syria. By all accounts, this is what Obama is seeking to do. Such a course won’t satisfy the nostalgic cold warriors in Washington, but it would defuse a conflict that should not be allowed to jeopardize the West’s relations with Moscow. The truly dangerous course isn’t if Obama seeks to treat with Putin. It’s if he doesn’t.
The current crisis is partly the result of many years of goading Russia and seeking to curtail and reduce its influence in the former Soviet Union. To respond to Russia’s dangerous blunder with even more goading, as McCain and Rubio would prefer, is sure to make relations even worse and to increase tensions throughout the region still further.
Over the weekend, Rubio offered eight proposals for “punishing” Russia. Some are old stand-bys of symbolic retribution (e.g., condemnation at the U.N., boycotting the next G-8 summit, expelling Russia from the G-8) that are more or less easy enough to do and will have no effect, while others are much more reckless and foolish, such as pushing harder for Georgian membership in NATO, that will certainly make Russia more intransigent. Speeding up the process of bringing Georgia into NATO is just the sort of useless, ill-considered goading that will make it even more difficult to avoid further escalation in Ukraine. It is the sort of proposal one would make if one wanted U.S.-Russian relations and the situation in Ukraine to keep getting worse. Despite being a provocative move, it also does nothing to punish Russia, but would just confirm that the past U.S. obsession with NATO expansion is alive and well. That would give Russian hard-liners another excuse to continue their current course of action.
Beyond that, many of the “punishments” that Rubio has suggested would do very little to inflict any pain on Russia and would effectively undermine U.S. efforts on multiple issues. For instance, Rubio wants the U.S. to suspend all other negotiations with Russia:
Fourth, any and all discussions and negotiations with Moscow on any issue unrelated to this crisis, including trade and other matters, should be immediately suspended.
How does this punish Russia? Among other things, this would seem to include halting P5+1 negotiations with Iran and suspending all diplomacy involving Syria to which Russia has been a party. This would seem to impose no costs on Russia at all, but would make it harder for the U.S. to pursue its own diplomacy on other issues. Of course, Rubio has no interest in diplomacy with Iran, either, so he probably doesn’t see this as a drawback, but the U.S. shouldn’t be making much of the rest of its foreign policy agenda hostage to events in Ukraine. Rubio’s final suggestion that the Senate not vote on Rose Gottemoeller’s nomination is another measure that would do nothing to cause Russia the least discomfort. It is aimed purely at continuing to block the confirmation of a well-qualified nominee because of a knee-jerk aversion to arms control as such.
The U.S. can certainly add more officials to the Magnitsky list, but it is worth bearing in mind that the passage of the Magnitsky Act has succeeded only in irritating Moscow and causing it to engage in hostile responses. Expanding the list may very well inconvenience and annoy many Russians officials, but it seems most likely to produce yet more hostility without any constructive results to show for it.
John McCain never tires of supporting useless and dangerous hard-line policies:
He wants to see Obama revive the Bush era missile defense plan, which would have placed U.S. missiles in the Czech Republic. He also believes that speeding up Georgia accession to NATO would send a strong message to Putin.
Whatever else one wants to say about the current situation in Ukraine, these policy recommendations made no sense in the previous decade and they still make no sense today. As a matter of fact, no interceptors were supposed to be placed on Czech territory, but most Czechs didn’t want the related radar installation in their country. There was popular opposition to Bush’s scheme in both Poland and the Czech Republic, and scrapping it was the right thing to do. There’s no reason at all to try to revive it five years later.
Bringing Georgia into NATO remains the obsession of a dwindling band of hard-liners, but it makes even less sense now than it did six years ago. At least in 2008, there was still the remote chance that Georgia would resolve its outstanding territorial disputes, but now that seems even more unlikely, and unless it can do that there is no chance that NATO would extend a security guarantee to it. NATO has no reason to expand into the Caucasus, it gains nothing from doing so, and it creates an unnecessary point of contention between Russia and the alliance that could lead to new conflict. Nothing could be worse for the alliance than to make security guarantees it can’t or won’t honor, and bringing Georgia into NATO does exactly that. These policy ideas are every bit as outdated and bankrupt as they were when McCain defended them as a presidential candidate, and it would be folly to pursue them once again. We should be very glad that Ukraine has not been on track to become a member of NATO for several years, or else the current crisis would be much more dangerous for international peace and stability than it is.
Overall, McCain’s lack of awareness is truly impressive. There has been no one more active in pushing for U.S. military interventions around the world or more contemptuous of the protections of state sovereignty than he, and yet he reacts to these events as if they vindicate his reckless and aggressive foreign policy views. Russia’s incursion in Crimea is unfortunate and wrong, and Moscow would be wise to withdraw whatever forces it has inserted onto Ukrainian territory, but almost everyone most scandalized by this in the West has favored every illegal invasion or bombing campaign of the last 20 years. The complete inability to see that their own policies have prepared the way for other states to use military force in this way is pitiful and deplorable. That is just one more reason why we should heed nothing that they have to say about this or other foreign policy issues.