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10 March 2014

What Would the West Fight For?


By Toby Harnden & Bojan Pancevski

In 1983, an idealistic student of political science at Columbia University in New York penned an article for the university magazine railing against the “war mentality” of America and “the relentless, often silent spread of militarism in the country”. 

President Ronald Reagan was a hostage to the “twisted logic of the Cold War”, the student wrote, and was “playing into the Russians’ hands” rather than “shifting America off the dead-end track” and pursuing the proper goal of a “nuclear free world”. 

A quarter of a century later, the author — Barack Obama — was elected to the White House. While due allowance should be made for the callow scribblings of any student, there have been striking echoes of Obama’s youthful suspicion of American power during his five years as president. 

Last December, after Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons by Syria would be a “red line” for the United States, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime killed an estimated 1,400 people, many of them children, in a chemical weapons strike on Damascus. 

Obama ruminated for weeks about how to respond. With aides briefing that any action had to be “just muscular enough not to get mocked” and both parties on Capitol Hill reluctant to authorise any action, Obama opted to do nothing. 

He was outmanoeuvred by President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who had conjured up a peace plan in which Assad’s stockpile of chemical weapons would be traded for a US undertaking not to use force. Obama had shown that his own words about a “red line” meant nothing. 

“America is not the world’s policeman,” he declared. “Terrible things happen across the globe and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.” 

Obama’s “cool war” approach to the battle with al-Qaeda meant that he had already stepped up politically risk-free drone strikes, killing some terrorist suspects and driving others from the tribal areas of Pakistan. He directed US Navy Seals to dispatch Osama bin Laden. 

In dealing with other powers, however, he has been hesitant. The Syria deal made him look passive. Privately, White House aides now admit that Assad may never hand over his entire chemical arsenal. 

“Obama’s basically someone who doesn’t want to get dragged into foreign policy, wants to focus on domestic issues, doesn’t believe that force or pressure is an answer and wants to have others lead and then the US can slot in behind,” said Kurt Volker, a former American ambassador to Nato under President George W Bush. 

Vali Nasr, a former senior State Department official under Obama, said: 

“Once you have multiple crises in which a particular perception of the US and its credibility and policy gains ground, it becomes established and those who want to challenge the US and international norms will become much more brazen and confident.” 

Putin realised that he could act with relative impunity. Keen to prevent Ukraine signing a trade deal with the European Union late last year, he offered enough money to Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine, to persuade him to cast the agreement aside. 

When Yanukovych responded with brutal repression to popular anger on the streets over the retreat from the EU — and then fled the country — Putin had his own plan ready. Russians flooded out of their bases in Crimea and occupied the pro-Russian region in southeast Ukraine. 

The Russian leader moved quickly to take control of Crimea. The Obama administration was reluctant to characterise the Russian military push — a flagrant breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law — as a hostile action. 

Instead it chose to term it an “uncontested arrival”, the most startling US foreign policy euphemism since the “war on terror” was renamed an “overseas contingency operation”. 

Although Obama has belatedly ratcheted up the US reaction, imposing sanctions and visa restrictions and promising Ukraine $1bn (£600m) in aid, Putin has shown no sign of changing course. By Friday, despite a 90-minute telephone call with Obama, he was making clear his determination to hold a referendum in Russian-majority Crimea and then to annex it. 

In a telephone call on Saturday afternoon, David Cameron spoke to Obama about the crisis. A No 10 spokesman said: “Both the prime minister and the president firmly believe that the proposed referendum in Crimea would be illegal and that any attempt to legitimise it would result in further consequences for Russia.” 

The Obama administration’s calculation appears to have been that Ukraine would be best left to the EU. Some officials felt US involvement might provoke a return to Cold War tensions over a strategically important country. 

The EU failed to deliver. Both Washington and Brussels were blindsided by Yanukovych’s renewed embrace of Russia and subsequent inability to keep control, just as they had been when Russians moved into Georgia in 2008 while Bush was still president. 

David Cameron, in Libya, and President François Hollande, in Somalia and Mali, have shown they are prepared to commit forces even after the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 

However, a YouGov poll for The Sunday Times today finds only minority support for any form of British response to events in Ukraine, from 11% for military action to 42% for economic sanctions. 

Britain and the Europeans are constrained by financial ties to Russia, just as the United States fears that alienating Moscow could undermine talks over Syria and Iran. 

A document inadvertently displayed in Downing Street last week by Hugh Powell, the deputy national security adviser, revealed the government’s belief that the “UK should not support for now, trade sanctions ... or close London’s financial centre to Russians”. 

Hollande has opted not to cancel France’s £1.1bn deal to supply Russia with two Mistral-class warships. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor who speaks Russian and telephoned Putin at least three times last week, knows that 35% of German oil and gas imports come from Russia and 6,000 German companies do business there. 

No one — apart from the Ukrainians — feels the effects of Obama’s disengagement more acutely than Latvia, where almost a third of the population is ethnic Russian, Estonia, where Russians make up about 25%, Lithuania with about 6%, or Poland, with its memories of the 1939 Nazi and Soviet invasions.

However, a Nato official said it was “important to note that a demand to invoke article 5 [the Nato treaty’s mutual defence clause] could be approved only by a consensus of all 28 member states”. 

“The Kremlin respects strength and despises indecisiveness — they see compromise as weakness,” said a diplomat from another Baltic state concerned that the EU “needs a very long time to come up with a common position”. 

Nasr said the EU’s hesitancy reflected that of the United States. “Strong American leadership is more compelling to allies, just as it is to adversaries,” he said. “So if the assessment is that the US is wavering it doesn’t really encourage others to rally.” 

Obama has declared that “the tide of war is receding”and said his administration would “pivot” away from Europe and the Middle East towards Asia. 

At a conference last year, General John Kelly, head of US Southern Command, said:

“Pivoting to the Pacific — there’s probably a threat out there but I’ll be damned if I can find it right now.” 

He also expressed concern about plans to reduce troops to levels not seen since 1940, despite continuing conflicts with al-Qaeda militants. He said: 

“We have never disarmed during a war.” 

Nasr, now dean of the school of advanced international studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, said Putin had learnt from Syria that America was “not eager for a showdown or willing to take up the gauntlet”. He added: “Ultimately it’s a broad question of what kind of an aura of power, credibility and leadership does the US convey.” 

After the Russians invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in a memo: 

“Since we have not always followed ... verbal protests up with tangible responses, the Soviets may be getting into the habit of disregarding our concern.” 

Last week the New York Post branded Obama as “Jimmy Obama”, shorthand for a weak, feckless commander-in-chief. 

David Rothkopf, a former official in the Clinton administration, wrote: 

“We have gone from Pax Americana to Lox Americana. Our policy time and time again has effectively been to lie there like a fish.” 

WHAT would the West fight for now that Putin believes he has restored some of the prestige that Russia lost when the Soviet Union collapsed, an event he has described as the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century? 

Volker, who now runs the McCain Institute for International Leadership, fears Obama’s reaction to a Russian invasion of a Baltic state might not be much more than an effort to “de- escalate” — a favourite word in the White House these days — to avoid further conflict. 

As for western military action when there is no direct threat to a big EU or Nato power, Putin has concluded it is a remote prospect. 

Jane Harman, who sat for eight years on the House intelligence committee, said she gave “high marks” to Obama and John Kerry, the secretary of state, for their cool deliberation in handling the Russian leader. 

But travelling around the world as head of the Woodrow Wilson Centre think tank, she often encountered the view that Obama was not “tough”. She said: 

“There is a perception, especially in the Middle East, that he blinks.” 

The notion of the “pivot” towards Asia was a mistake, Harman added: “I can’t think of any postage stamp on the globe where a US leadership role is not required.” 

Henry Kissinger, at 90 the venerable sage of realist foreign policy, wrote last week that Russia had historic interests in Crimea and compromise was possible. 

Kissinger’s argument included the contention that Ukraine should not be allowed to join Nato but should be a bridge between the EU and Russia rather than the venue for a showdown. 

Volker believes Obama will not change:

“You have seen a lot of this and you’re going to see more. Russia, Syria, the Egyptian generals, Karzai in Afghanistan, Iran within Iraq, the Shi’ite government of Iraq, Hezbollah — you can keep rattling them off. Everyone is reacting to this weakness.”

China might seize the Senkaku, also known as the Diayou, islands from Japan; Iran might judge that the cost of acquiring a nuclear weapon would be bearable; North Korea might flex its muscles; Assad’s Syria has no obvious need to come to the table. 

“We create a vacuum by not engaging, not being involved, a vacuum where we’re not willing to apply force,” said Volker. 

 “Whoever is willing steps in and takes what they want.”

Related Reading:

Open Letter From Ukrainian Jewish Community To Putin: Stop Lying And Get Out Of The Ukraine

Is Vladi­mir Putin truly a modern-day Hitler?

Why We Should Care About Crimea

 Why Poland Cares So Much About Ukraine

How to Justify Russian Aggression

Putin Cooks Up Obama’s Chicken Kiev Moment

In Ukraine, Obama’s Watching the Verdict of 1989 Dissolve

President Obama’s Foreign Policy Is Based On Fantasy

Putin’s Nationalist Strategy

Ukraine,Venezuela and the Lessons of History & U.S. Power

Obama’s Fantasy-Based Foreign Policy

Russia Blows Past Obama’s “Off Ramp”

Whatever Did We Do To Deserve This?

The 25 Most Ridiculous Photos From The Homes Of Ukrainian Government Officials (Photo Essay)

1 comment:

Appraiser said...

Obama parses words while Putin makes war. Faculty Lounge diplomacy.