Posts Tagged ‘Ukraine’

Civilizational Crisis: The World According to Brooks (& Robinson)

September 5, 2014

imagesI like columnist David Brooks for being a “Big Picture” kind of guy – giving the view from Olympus.

His 9/3 column finds commonality in the two big conflicts bedeviling us. Ukraine and the Islamic State might not seem direct threats to our security. (Obama calls Ukraine a “regional” conflict.) But this is myopic because “the underlying frameworks by which nations operate” and “the norms of restraint that undergird civilization,” Brooks says, “are being threatened in fairly devastating ways.” This is not geopolitical business-as-usual, but a true civilizational crisis.

I don’t say that lightly. Politicians are always burbling how the challenges of the day are somehow unique, but as a student of history, I know better. In my Rational Optimism book I argued that cynics and pessimists lacking true historical perspective don’t grasp the progress we’ve made. But that was 2009, and now in 2014 that progress is really jeopardized.

images-2Brooks casts Putin as playing, in conventional terms, a very weak hand. His country is a shit-hole. “But he is rich in brazenness . . . in his ability to play by the lawlessness of the jungle, so he wants the whole world to operate by jungle rules.” That’s exactly what the world (mostly) had progressed beyond.

Neither Russia’s kleptocracy nor the Islamic State can give their people a modern living standard. Putin substitutes for that the intoxication of militarist swagger; the Islamic State substitutes the intoxication of religious fervor. This Brooks calls “a coalition of the unsuccessful . . . a revolt of the weak.” Unable to play by the normal rules, they seek “to blow up the rule book.” (Thomas Friedman talks of the “world of order” versus “the world of disorder.”)

Thus while Putinism attacks a key principle of modern civilization – no grabbing territory by force – so too does the Islamic State – no imposing religion by force.

As Brooks says, you (well, Obama) might think these atavisms must ultimately fail because they are such ugly responses to human aspirations. “But their weakness is their driving power; they only need to tear things down, and, unconfronted, will do so.”

images-1Put another way – people not squeamish about shooting will beat those who are.

I am tired of hearing the words, “There is no military solution.” Actually, there is. And, contrary to pacifism, there are things worth fighting for.

The Islamic State may indeed be weak, seen objectively; but it thrives on an aura of success. Osama Bin Laden was on to something in saying, “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.” UnknownWhile the West acts like a 97-pound weakling, the Islamic State appears to sweep all before it. That’s what attracts so many, even from the West, to its banner, heightening its seeming strength. This needs to be crushed – militarily.*

Likewise, Putin rides a wave of popularity, seen as avatar of a resurgent Russia making fools of a flabby decadent West. This too needs to be militarily crushed. What are we afraid of? That Russia will nuke us? Putin isn’t that crazy. I far more fear a future in which he did not get his nose bloodied in Ukraine.

Germany and Japan had to be militarily crushed to teach them the lesson that aggression does not pay. They learned it well, and the world is better for that. But it seems the lesson must be applied a few more times before the whole world absorbs it once and for all.

We took 10,000 years to finally achieve a world order where you don’t grab territory or impose religion by force. That is worth fighting to defend. Even pacifists should get this; it’s peace that needs fighting for.

Unknown-1But are Putin and the Islamic State right after all – have we become too flabby and pusillanimous to really defend our values?

* In Iraq. In Syria, let them and Assad’s goons kill each other, for now.

POSTSCRIPT: At today’s NATO summit, for all the bluster, nobody proposed to send Ukraine any military help, not even defensive. And the cease-fire, if it holds, locks in the Russian military gains of the last few weeks — a clear victory for Putin.

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Russia Acting From Weakness — ?

March 26, 2014

President Obama says Russia is actually acting out of weakness.

Maybe the most fatuous thing I’ve heard a president say. If this is weakness, we could use some in the oval office.

The Economist’s latest editorial (worth reading) suggests that even China should feel threatened by the principle Russia is asserting in Crimea — if Crimea can secede, why not Tibet? This too is fatuous. Russia and China don’t recognize any principles. They do what suits them, and justify it howsoever.

20140322_LDP001_0(From The Economist’s cover. The sign says STOP or the West will put you on the naughty step)

But The Economist is right that Crimea represents a profound undermining of the world order, requiring a robust response. We’ve grown complacent in recent decades, taking for granted that military conflict among major powers (and grabbing territory by force) is a thing of the past. But in fact this modern world system is not on automatic pilot, somehow governing itself. It requires a hands-on system operator. The UN isn’t that. America is the only entity capable of filling that role.

However, lately, we’ve been asleep at the switch – disengaged and dreaming. And we see the consequences. They are severe. While Obama emolliently suggests that, well, after all, Russia is merely a regional power and no direct threat to us, that is fatuous too. This concerns the way the whole world works. If you don’t think Russia is a big concern, how about China? If Russia can grab Crimea, why can’t China grab those islands it’s been disputing with Japan and other nations? Or grab Taiwan? Every small or weak nation in the world is threatened by the “principle” of Crimea.

UnknownThe Economist deems it urgent for America to reassert leadership – right away. Mr. Obama, no more of your low-key constitutional law professor, have-it-both-ways, split every difference, lead-from-behind, “false choices” self. Wake up, damn it!

Specifically, The Economist says Russia must see the cost of its crime being more than expected – whereas so far, it’s actually been even less than the cocksure Putin might have expected. While Europe does need Russia’s gas, Russia’s need to sell it to Europe is greater, because that’s a critical prop to Russia’s economy. Cutting off the gas would hurt Europe, but hurt Russia more. We should act swiftly to supply Europe with liquefied gas from our newly abundant fracked production.

The President always stresses consultative, collective approaches. That’s fine, but you know how it is when a committee has no leader (as with the Obamacare website). Obama must press the Europeans hard, for a strong collective response, even if it entails some economic pain, which we should share.

It’s unfortunate that German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s lynchpin, has a personal style much like Obama’s. Maybe if the Germans won’t get with the program, we should threaten them with economic sanctions.

A New Cold War?

March 17, 2014

DUBAI, U.A.E. — I recently  participated in a discussion where someone said, “Why is Obama taking such a strong stance on Ukraine?” Huh? Meantime, the “Obama is weak” trope is commonplace; with the retort being, “What would you have him do? Send troops?”

UnknownThis is a 1938 moment. It’s clear we’re really just hoping Herr Putin will be appeased by Crimea only, and won’t go further. We play-act at diplomacy with the Russians virtually laughing in our faces while they do send troops — shredding a key principle which has undergirded the modern world’s peace among major nations, and threatening return to an earlier and nastier paradigm. If Russia can invade a place on the phony pretext of protecting its countrymen, well, there are a lot of them in a lot of places. We can’t have this. Russia must pay a price sufficient to get this demon back in the bottle.

I’ve suggested that Obama’s fecklessness on Syria emboldened Russia. Actually, we can go back to 2008 (pre-Obama) when Russia was countenanced to grab a chunk of Georgia with scarcely a murmur of scolding. Or back to the 1990s, when I already felt we were muffing the opportunity to enfold Russia securely into the world community. We were too inhibited by our habitual enmity, unable to turn completely on a dime. Nor could Russia, but we should have been better.

It’s been widely argued that expanding NATO to Russia’s border was a mistake, a provocation. But it was Russia that chose to see it that way, though we did fail to spin it differently. However, now we see that NATO expansion was not a mistake; being obligated to defend all its members debars Russia from invading any of them, like the Baltics. Likewise Ukraine, had it been brought into NATO.

So, yes, we are in a new cold war. It’s not of our making. If we failed in friending Russia, it’s really Russia  that has unfriended us. For quite some time Putin has been on a vicious anti-Western jag. And this lot is just as bad as the Soviets if not worse. Russia has trashed its 1990s Budapest treaty guarantee of Ukraine’s territorial integrity (which international law would require anyway), on the ridiculous pretext that Ukraine now has a different government, which Russia refuses to recognize, calling it the product of a coup (whereas in fact Ukraine’s parliament properly ousted Yanukovych for his crimes) — while Russia does recognize the new Crimean “government” installed by its soldiers after chasing out the elected officials at gunpoint. The secession referendum, also at gunpoint, is also insupportable. As is the claim that Russia is acting to protect its countrymen. While Putin denies Russian troops are even there!

imagesHe and his apologists seem hepped up with a Nietzschean sense of Russian moral superiority over a flabby West. Our indeed flabby response to the Crimean atrocity can only abet this sickness. What makes Russians so puffed up about their nation? — thoroughly corrupt, cynical, undemocratic, bullying, drunk on military swagger and literally drunk on vodka — a nation so crummy that, not coincidentally, its birth rate is just about the world’s lowest. (Who’d want to raise a child there?) Russians seem to feel, “We may be a crummy nation, but we’re a strong one.” Well — bully for you.

Much more could be done (non-militarily) to punish Russia, but we’re too economically beholden. (As Lenin said, the capitalists will sell the rope to hang them with.) I used to think globalized world trade would make military adventurism foolhardy, endangering a nation’s linkages to the global economy. But now we see that cuts both ways; nobody is actually willing to punish military adventurism by cutting those links at cost to themselves. 

Europe is held hostage to Russian gas; we should use our new fracked gas bounty to free them from that. Russia should be expelled from the G-8 and, more importantly, the WTO, which it worked so long and  hard to get into. Or, at least, this should be explicitly threatened if Russia annexes Crimea, rather than our thus far piddling, unspecified, and thus non-credible threats. Going to the UN Security Council would only point up our diplomacy’s make-believe (because of Russia’s veto there) — but why not instead convene the General Assembly (where there’s no veto) for a resolution to condemn Russia’s action  and pretext?

World in Tumult: Tufts EPIIC Symposium

March 3, 2014

MENA Postcard aOn Sunday we attended this annual event at Tufts University. This year’s topic was the Middle East and North Africa. The six-day symposium hosted around fifty international visitors. (Our daughter Elizabeth made a presentation, see below).

The morning speaker was Nicholas Burns, former U.S. diplomat and high State Department official, currently at the Kennedy School.

Nicholas Burns

Nicholas Burns

He invoked America’s tradition of supporting people struggling for democracy, but also acknowledged a tension between such ideals and security interests. The Mid East is not a single entity, and policy must be individually tailored to each Arab country. Thus we did support democracy in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt; but in Bahrain, not so much. A concern there was buffering Iranian power.

Egypt is a dismaying case – right back under an authoritarian military regime (maybe even more repressive than Mubarak’s), outlawing the nation’s largest political group. Not smart, Burns said, if you’re trying to unite the country. (Egypt’s regime is actually not trying to do that.) Burns thinks America should do more to nudge Egypt’s regime toward democratization.

I consider overdone the notion of security concerns conflicting with democratic advancement. In the longer, larger view, U.S. security interests are best served by a more democratic world (a democratic Russia wouldn’t do what it’s doing today; nor, indeed, would a democratic Syria); and by our being perceived as a true supporter of people’s democratic aspirations.

Regarding Syria, Burns thinks America missed a big opportunity a couple of years ago in failing to materially support the revolution (see my 2/5/12 post); and another when President Obama failed to punish Assad for crossing his “red line” on chemical weapons (see my 9/11/13 post).  Burns was scathing about an international community that thinks it can do nothing about Syria; and about America’s too long trying to work with the Russians who’ve given us nothing. Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to block even humanitarian aid to Syrian victims. When, he queried, will there come Syria’s “Srebrenica moment” – recalling when atrocities in Bosnia finally shamed the international community – led by the U.S. – into forceful action, including a bombing campaign, to finally resolve the situation in 1995 (with a 1999 Kosovo repeat) – sidestepping the UN where similarly Russia’s veto protected Serbian aggression. Burns said that in Syria we should likewise go around the UN and intervene, at least to create humanitarian corridors, with a coalition that many Arab states would join.

UnknownBurns acknowledged the familiar refrain, “We can’t be the world’s policeman.” But he said Syria is everyone’s concern, and likened America’s role to that of the world’s system operator. Since WWII, and especially since 1991, America has indeed fulfilled this vital role. If we don’t, the world could go to Hell.

And so, Ukraine — whose “profound crisis” Burns felt compelled to address despite the conference focus on the Arab world. He ruled out direct military engagement against Russia, as far too dangerous, but otherwise called for the assertion of confident American leadership, using every possible means to “dishonor” Putin, including expelling Russia from the G-8.

During the question session, an attendee from Russia bridled at the negative characterization of Putin; actually denied that Russian troops had entered Ukraine’s territory; and said Burns was wrong about Russia blocking humanitarian aid in Syria. She cited a Security Council resolution ten days earlier, authorizing such aid, with both Russia and China voting in favor.

Burns responded that, yes, such a resolution had passed; but so watered down by Russia and China that it was toothless and meaningless. He called this one of the most cynical actions in UN history.

I wonder, had Obama manned up on Syria, would Putin now have been emboldened to invade Ukraine? This is why projection of weakness is so dangerous – more dangerous, in fact, than resolute action. Wimping out on Syria may well have bought us an even nastier problem. So often in such matters, avoidance of costs today only means greater costs tomorrow.

Russia claims it’s only acting to protect its people — against nonexistent threats. Then there’s all the hysterical rhetoric about “Nazis” in control in Kiev put there by a Western conspiracy. Even if these ludicrous lies were true, Russia’s military aggression would make no sense. The Russians are drunk on military testosterone.

Curt Rhodes

Curt Rhodes

In the afternoon session, Curt Rhodes, founder and leader of Questscope (an NGO helping vulnerable young people in the Mid East) gave a truly eloquent description of what it means to be a refugee. And Elizabeth Robinson discussed her summer visit to the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, holding 85,000 displaced Syrians, where she researched the camp’s economic life.

Elizabeth Robinson

Elizabeth Robinson

She had interviewed the camp’s head, Kilian Kleinschmidt, working for the UN, which has taken over responsibility from Jordanian authorities. Kleinschmidt is trying to make Za’atari a different kind of refugee camp, where the inhabitants themselves are empowered by having more say about what goes on.

It may be noted that the 85,000 in Za’atari actually comprise less than 1% of all those made refugees by Syria’s conflict – a number now approaching half the country’s population. These are real people, no different from you or me. Imagine what it means, what it feels like, to lose every aspect of normal life. And to the 9+ million refugees, of course, must be added the 140,000+ killed; at least 11,000 of them starved and tortured to death in the regime’s dungeons. Srebrenica moment? I guess the world now has a greater capacity for shame than in the ’90s.

Assad continues to insist he’s fighting terrorists. Syria must be populated almost entirely by terrorists to necessitate air-dropping barrel-bombs in crowded urban centers. Reportedly, Assad was recently asked, by his children, why all the violence? He replied, “Because there are bad people in the world.”

Inger Andersen

Inger Andersen

Happily, the afternoon ended on a hopeful note, with a talk by Inger Andersen, a World Bank Vice President. Talking about the Arab Spring, she stressed that revolutions take time, and we should not lose heart over setbacks. Andersen saw real progress happening in some of the countries, notably Tunisia, Morocco, and Yemen. But, while there’s been a political awakening, economic awakening is a tougher thing. In any major transition, growth can be expected to slump, and the Arabs face a double crisis: the original economic dysfunction, compounded by the uncertainty and other fallout of abrupt change. However, Anderson saw opportunities for big benefits just from opening up and simplifying the business climate, though entrenched “rentier interests” will resist. And ultimately, political reform that cements citizen rights and pluralism will promote economic growth. Andersen said that a spirit of freedom has been released in many Arab hearts and minds, and she sees a region transformed, with a newfound optimism for the possible.