Most now assume that the defining foreign policy legacy of President Obama will be his Iran deal, which will seek to block Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon and open the doors to Iran’s reintegration into the world economy and regional politics. I believe Obama and good sense will prevail over the Israel caucus in Congress, and as a result of the deal Americans will fairly soon come to see Iran both as a market for American goods and ideas and as a valuable ally against ISIS, the Sunni jihadist group that controls much of Iraq and Syria. There will of course be much debate and possibly a major political donnybrook in the months to come, and unexpected twists are always possible.
But what a surprise it would be if the principal legacy for Obama were not the opening to Iran, even if it were to fulfill all positive expectations, but a deepening cold war, potentially even hot war, with Russia. Everyone in Washington knows that Obama and his top aides have devoted 10 times more attention to Iran than to Russia, assuming perhaps that the logic of geopolitics would keep American-Russian relations on relatively even keel. But events have a way of surprising. Oh bitter irony were we to have peace with Iran, war with Russia. It could happen.
The Times ran a story on Monday about Ukrainian extreme rightists fighting with the Kiev government, a worrisome development for the latter because Right Sector units play such a key role in its military overall. The Ukrainian far right is tarred by association with neo-Nazism, mostly because its heroes fought with Nazi units against the Russians in World War II, and its banners and symbols clearly evoke Nazism. Several days ago, the Times ran a story about Chechen Islamists joining the Ukrainian forces because they wanted to fight Russians. (Chechen Islamism is the milieu that spawned the Boston Marathon bombers). There probably are perfectly understandable reasons for Chechen hatred of Russia, as there are for the widespread Ukrainian embrace of the Nazi side during World War II, (though few expressed this when retired Ohio auto worker John Demjanjuk, a Ukrainian emigre and Nazi collaborator, was in the news). But it doesn’t mean we should be allied with such people.
Yet now, somehow, we are. For official Washington, the Ukrainian ally it has embraced is buttressed by a coalition of Islamic militants and neo-Nazis, along with the various elite ethnic Ukrainians who have learned that milking the increasingly lush Washington-Kiev connection can be lucrative. While Obama and John Kerry have turned their attentions elsewhere, the permanent national security state is steering America inexorably towards confrontation with Russia over an area of much moral ambiguity and no strategic significance to America.
Last week Marine General Joseph Dunsford, Obama’s nominee as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a Senate panel the hawkish answers on Russia he imagined the senators wanted. He described Russian actions on its borders as “nothing short of alarming” and asserted that Russia presents the “greatest threat to our national security” and “could pose an existential threat to the United States.” Obviously any country with a lot of nuclear weapons poses a potential existential threat to the United States, and much else. For some reason Dunsford was not asked whether America’s arming of neo-Nazi factions in the Ukraine has increased or decreased the potential threat Russia’s nuclear arms pose to America’s existence.
The press reminds us often of the saber-rattling actions carried out by Vladimir Putin’s government to the states and semi-countries on Russia’s border. But military exercises cut both ways. NATO has ramped up its war gaming in the Baltic Sea, conducting a large military exercise called BALTOPS involving 5,600 troops and 50 warships. Doesn’t sound like that much, but perhaps Americans should contemplate how they would feel about a comparable Chinese or Russia exercise in the Caribbean. Add to that the annual Black Sea war games, and “Exercise Noble Jump” in Poland, and other maneuvers all amounting to about 20,000 NATO troops a year romping about in what used to be the Warsaw Pact, and you can at least understand that Putin’s saber-rattling should not be seen as not especially one-sided.
How did we arrive at this strange place—a de facto alliance with neo-Nazis and Chechen Islamists—waging a proxy war against Moscow on Russia’s border, while a docile media and one-note political class sounds a continuous alarm about Russian aggression? It can’t be what Obama intended: when Mitt Romney raised alarm about “the Russian threat” in 2012, Obama mocked him, and the country seemed to agree. One can’t help but observe that Obama can largely succeed in imposing on the country a progressive agenda when it comes to immigration, health care, and gay marriage and yet is relatively powerless against the momentum of what may be loosely called the hawkish military industrial complex.
Is it an accident of personnel? Hillary Clinton facilitated the rise of former Cheney aide (and wife of neocon strategist Robert Kagan) Victoria Nuland to the most powerful European post in the State Department. Obama had to placate Hillary, and the country looked the other way while Nuland pulled the levers to foment an anti-Russian coup in Kiev. Without this bit of caprice, would we be in the present showdown?
Or is the explanation more diffuse: that America somehow needs Russia as an enemy for its own sense of self? This is along the lines of what Georgi Arbatov, a Kremlin intellectual of the late 1980’s, had predicted. “We are going to deprive you of an enemy,” Arbatov said while Gorbachev was dismantling the Warsaw Pact, and you won’t know what to do. John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom, the protagonist of three of his novels thought along similar lines: “Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?”
In a 1997 Foreign Affairs essay which bears rereading today, Samuel Huntington mused on the possibility that American would need an external enemy to mitigate its internal fissures. I’ve speculated before that increased diversity and multiculturalism at home would lead to a less militarized foreign policy, and still believe that’s the case. (There is no evidence that Mexican or Chinese immigrants, to take the most important of the new groups, have aggressive foreign policy agendas.) But Huntington weighs in on the opposite side: to smooth over or submerge domestic ethnic divisions, America may go out of its way to seek external enemies.
It’s an historical argument, but also speculative and psychological: no one in Washington would ever say, or even think, “Our national identity is in flux, so we need an external enemy to keep it together.” But it’s a sentiment Rabbit Angstrom’s creator would have understood. In rational foreign policy terms, it’s obvious that a conflict with Russia on Russia’s border, with America taking the side of neo-Nazis and Islamists, is the last thing America would seek if its foreign policy were determined by rational criteria. So what does explain it?
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.