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The Ambitions Driving the Ukraine Consensus

If we're going to risk armed conflict with Moscow, the underlying causes ought to be grander than Michele Flournoy's job aspirations.
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Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell inform us on “Meet the Press” that there is complete Republican and Democratic unity on Ukraine policy. Who can doubt the assertion?

On the Sunday talk shows, all of them, virtually no one argues against American military escalation of the conflict by sending arms to the Kiev government. True, on “Meet the Press” the English journalist Katty Kay uttered a few sentences to counter the combined hawkish barrage of Todd, Mitchell, and David Brooks, and on Fareed Zakaria’s show “GPS”, Stephen Cohen—also one against three—was given 40 seconds  to point out  that Ukraine was a visceral strategic issue for Moscow and not for anyone else. But there’s virtual opinion unanimity: red-blooded American straight-shooters want to stand up and make Putin pay a price for aggression. The only substantial disagreement, it would seem, comes from those lily-livered Europeans, France—the well-known surrender monkeys—and Germany’s Angela Merkel, who speaks so diplomatically in public that differences between her and the administration are difficult to discern.

During the Cold War, Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman published a book called Manufacturing Consent describing how the media always slanted the news to favor the right wing in any left-right dispute. I was a cold warrior and am glad that communism, a terrible and murderous social system, is mostly gone. But I didn’t anticipate that the same process of “manufacturing consent” would continue its forward march after the Cold War was won, not by slanting the news against leftist insurgencies in the Third World, but rather by slanting it always in favor of aggressive American meddling, including military intervention, seemingly everywhere. The monopoly capital explanation, favored by Chomsky and Herman, certainly can’t account for it in this instance. Most American corporations gained little from the Iraq war, and probably more would gain than lose from continued detente with Putin’s Russia than a new cold war. So what is the answer?

First let’s narrow the question a bit more. In the narrative now favored by virtually everyone in Washington, Putin is committing aggression against Ukraine, first by annexing Crimea (which, despite its Russian population and longstanding ties to Russia, was “given” by Krushchev to Ukraine one night in 1954) and secondly by giving weapons and other military assistance to anti-Kiev pro-Russian separatists. According to these narratives, the history of Ukraine and Russia begins sometime in February 2014. But in the view of everyone else, in Ukraine, in Russia, and among those lily-livered European appeasers, history starts well before that. One relevant starting point can be found in the first plans to expand NATO up to Russia’s borders. As Steve Walt helpfully reminds us, the very think tank people now assuring us that escalating the conflict by arming the Kiev government will cause Putin to back down are the same people who told us in the 1990s that expanding NATO eastward would cause no difficulties with Russia at all.

It begins also with the longstanding campaign, openly boasted about by the neoconservative Victoria Nuland, the former Cheney aide who remains on John Kerry’s staff, to channel billions of dollars to Ukrainian dissident groups so that Ukraine could freely choose “the European future they deserve.” These moneys were supplemented by unofficial funds (grants from George Soros and the National Endowment for Democracy) and open side-taking in Ukraine’s political crisis by American politicians, all leading up the ambiguous and still mysterious revolution/coup d’état of February 2014. Any historically minded person will have some understanding of the depth of Ukraine’s anti-Russian sentiments: it is a land of deep-rooted hatreds, and Ukraine in the 1930s and ’40s, tossed between Stalinism and Hitlerism, was the most blood-soaked place on the planet. In any event, the history didn’t all begin last year—except, apparently, for American decision-makers inside the Beltway.

The best explanation for the Beltway unanimity now expressed by members of Congress, journalists, and think tank people is the career ambition and the groupthink encouraged by the imperatives of the deep state. The last is a term for that large, many-layered complex: the top officers of the armed forces, top career officials of the intelligence agencies, defense contractors, and think tanks that perpetuate themselves and maintain their budgets by overstating threats and never, ever getting caught underestimating them. The best current analysis of how this works come from Tufts professor Michael Glennon, in an important essay that deserves wide attention. One conclusion Glennon draws is that the only way you can advance to a bigger, more influential job is to be seen as “hard-hitting” and “tough minded.” And that means you can never ignore a foreign policy problem, or argue that an issue really isn’t such a big problem, or, perish the thought, muse that “this is not really our concern” in an official meeting and expect to be taken seriously in Washington.

The most compelling explanation of why the Obama administration seemed to be shifting towards a more hawkish policy (arming the Kiev government now) is that key players in the administration have begun maneuvering for jobs in a future Hillary Clinton administration. Reflexive (but not shrill) hawkishness a necessary form of careerism in the foreign policy bureaucracy set. As an explanation for important events, it’s a close cousin to Hannah Arendt’s observation that Eichman was a banal and mediocre figure. Personally, I would prefer that the Chomskyite monopoly capitalism explanation was more credible. If we’re going to risk armed conflict with Moscow on Russia’s borders, which brings into play the possibility of nuclear war and the incineration of our civilization, the underlying causes ought to be grander than Michele Flournoy’s job aspirations.

Orwell’s 1984 character Winston Smith wrote that if there is hope, it must lie in the proles. For us, it must lie in the Europeans. Not with Donald Rumsfeld’s “New Europe”, those former Soviet satellites so eager for American acceptance that they embraced the Iraq war with enthusiasm and readily hosted CIA torture sites. But Old Europe, grown skeptical and crusade weary. German chancellor Angela Merkel does not favor arming Kiev, and advocates patience and sanctions. But she has no public persona in America; in Washington she speaks through a translator and and takes pains to minimize differences with the administration. France’s President Hollande, a far less powerful figure than Merkel, does not favor escalation either. France’s largest party in the polls, the much-maligned National Front, is increasingly pro-Russian and anti-NATO, or at least many of its foreign policy intellectuals are.

Perhaps most interesting is Nicolas Sarkozy, former president of France and still the best-known figure of the French center-right. At a conference of his UMP party last weekend, Sarkozy told the audience that France and Russia shared a common civilization. He made reference to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and said, essentially, that Russia is linked to France in a way China and Vietnam are not. He added that the Crimeans had every right to choose to link their future to Russia; that if we supported independence from Serbia for Kosovo, there was no legitimate reason to deny the same right to the Crimeans. The assembled delegates of this very establishment party applauded enthusiastically.

America had different interests than Europeans, Sarkozy stated, but “We do not want a revival of the Cold War between America and Russia.” Kiev, he continued, pointing towards the obvious diplomatic solution of a neutral Ukraine, ought to be a bridge between Russia and Europe, and is not destined to join the European Union.

European politicians have a sense of tragedy that comparable American figures mostly lack; they recognize that civilization-destroying wars can begin over seemingly minor matters; they are almost all better educated; and having parents who experienced Hitler, they aren’t given to facile analogies between Putin’s demographically shrinking Russia and expansive Germany of the 1930s.

The beltway consensus that Russia is a totalitarian state on the march, that Ukraine is an aggressive Vladimir Putin’s first morsel before marching on Poland, is widely shared but not deeply felt. American politicians’ first political instinct is cowardice on foreign policy questions—there is no political percentage in challenging the consensus. But that consensus seems powerful only because it has not been challenged. If European leaders speak out forcefully—sketching out clearly the risks of war, the necessity of a negotiated settlement, and the absurdity of starting a war with Russia over a region vitally important to Russia and of little concern to the U.S., Americans must make every effort to amplify their voices here.

Much is at stake. Even if we assume that escalating the war in Ukraine (as the think-tankers urge: increase the pain for Putin by increasing Russian casualties) does not lead to a tragic escalation, the ancillary consequences border on the ridiculous. Already the United States has ceased cooperating with Russia over securing its loose nuclear material. Is that an American interest, to make an enemy of an important player in any nuclear non-proliferation program? Is it in America’s interest to push Russia closer into China’s orbit? Are either of those outcomes, already well underway, balanced by the theoretical gain of incorporating Ukraine into the Western bloc, an outcome which, to be honest, very few European taxpayers desire?

Scott McConnell is a TAC founding editor.



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