Whose Waterloo is it anyway? (Hint: not ours ...)
This piece about the the Ukraine "crisis" by Michael Cohen in The Guardian is a bracing must-read:
In the days since Vladimir Putin sent Russian troops into the Crimea, it has been amateur hour back in Washington.
He goes on to provide examples of the "Personality-driven Analysis", the "Overstated Rhetoric Shorn of Political Context", the "Unhelpful Policy Recommendations", the "Inappropriate Historical Analogies" and the most common, from all sides, "Making It All About Us" analysis which he characterizes this way:
I don’t mean Barack Obama. He’s doing pretty much everything he can, with what are a very limited set of policy options at his disposal. No, I’m talking about the people who won’t stop weighing in on Obama’s lack of “action” in the Ukraine. Indeed, the sea of foreign policy punditry – already shark-infested – has reached new lows in fear-mongering, exaggerated doom-saying and a stunning inability to place global events in any rational historical context.
As in practically every international crisis, the pundit class seems able to view events solely through the prism of US actions, which best explains Edward Luce in the Financial Times writing that Obama needs to convince Putin “he will not be outfoxed”, or Scott Wilson at the Washington Post intimating that this is all a result of America pulling back from military adventurism. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes countries take actions based on how they view their interests, irrespective of who the US did or did not bomb.
He points out that all this analysis is missing the key question of why, exactly, President Obama is supposed to respond:
After all, the US has few strategic interests in the former Soviet Union and little ability to affect Russian decision-making.
To me, this issue is really about borders, ethnic identity and regional influence that have been in flux since the end of the Cold War. I get that Ukraine is a sovereign country, but I also get that the people within it aren't necessarily united. That doesn't mean that Russia is justified in just doing whatever it wants there, of course, but it also doesn't make a compelling case for the US to beat its chest and start scrambling NATO jets (particularly in light of our own dicey recent foreign adventures.)
Our interests lie in a stable Europe, and that’s why the US and its European allies created a containment structure that will ensure Russia’s territorial ambitions will remain quite limited. (It’s called Nato.) Even if the Russian military wasn’t a hollow shell of the once formidable Red Army, it’s not about to mess with a Nato country.
The US concerns vis-à-vis Russia are the concerns that affect actual US interests. Concerns like nuclear non-proliferation, or containing the Syrian civil war, or stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are all areas where Moscow has played an occasionally useful role.
So while Obama may utilize political capital to ratify the Start treaty with Russia, he’s not going to extend it so save the Crimea. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is not nothing, but it’s hardly in the top tier of US policy concerns.
What is America’s problem is ensuring that Russia pays a price for violating international law and the global norm against inter-state war. The formal suspension of a G8 summit in Sochi is a good first step. If Putin’s recalcitrance grows – and if he further escalates the crisis – then that pressure can be ratcheted up.
But this crisis is Putin’s Waterloo, not ours.
Cohen plays down the ramifications of losing Russian support in Syria and Iran, which I'm not so sure is not going be a problem. But by the same token, sabre rattling is far more likely to cause trouble with those negotiations than keeping a cool head. He gives the president credit for containing the rhetoric and being clear minded and I'm inclined to do the same thing.
He concludes with this:
You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.
The funny thing is, these are often the same people who bemoan the lack of public support for a more muscular American foreign policy. Gee, I wonder why.
And I would just add that the over-stimulated media could use some talking down as well. If you are watching CNN and MSNBC right now, we're on the verge of WWIII and we'd better check our emergency supplies of peanut butter and duct tape stat. I guess it's good for ratings but I think it creates an echo chamber among the political class that ratchets up the emotion around this stuff. That's not good.
Today is a good day to just read good writers and eschew the twitter craziness and overwrought cable gasbags. If nothing else it will do wonders for your mental health.