The Ukraine debacle—for that is what it is, no matter what the outcome—is a reminder that our leaders confuse power with control. Having a lot of weapons and plenty of money can make you a big player, but those things don’t mean you always get your way. It’s amazing that despite the sorry performances in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade, to name only two, that the folks in charge here still show no capacity to revise their thinking based on past experience.
Looking back over the months of late 2013 when the Ukrainians were in the streets expressing their legitimate outrage about corruption, authoritarian practices and repression, a prudent approach by the western powers might have been to offer moral support based on the principles of democratic rule and the rule of law while steering clear of direct involvement. Instead, we had the spectacle of western politicians like John McCain and assorted Europeans parading in the streets of Kiev denouncing the Russians and hoping for a revolt.
Bush Senior did something similar after the first Gulf war when he encouraged the Iraqi Shiites to rise up against Saddam Hussein. When they did, it turned out the Americans were all hat, no cattle; Saddam massacred them.
Rowdy anticommunists were on hand in the 1950s too when the Hungarians tried to throw out their Soviet overlords. It’s easy to call for revolution on Radio Free Europe, less so to offer a practical response to Russian tanks rolling in. We can express abhorrence at all these acts, but we can also ask who should have thought things through before shooting off their mouth.
The pattern is readily recognizable: blowhards denounce anyone who counsels prudence and caution as cowardly appeasers, spineless enablers of the next Hitler. Munich is inevitably mentioned as proof that diplomacy is destined to failure, one must thumb one's nose at all times instead. They drum up mediatic hysteria, especially if the Democrats are in charge, conveniently forgetting what the neocon geniuses got us into last time they had a chance. This appeals to people because we bipeds are emotionally and intellectually limited and like the sound of a tough guy.
As long as nothing disastrous happens, the aggressive talk looks like a formula for success. After all, reneging on the promises not to expand NATO into Poland and the Czech Republic worked fine, why not push on?
Inevitably though, our leaders and the rah-rah brigades among the commentariat go too far; they forget that despite the punishment they can dish out, sometimes peoples and countries will sustain it and still not give up. (Vietnam springs to mind as a forgotten example.)
This comes as a shock to the policy establishment though it shouldn’t. They consistently confuse U.S. national interest with that of the rest of the world, that old strain of American exceptionalism that continues to plague us. It’s inconceivable to them that people elsewhere not gripped by ideological hatred or resentful jealousy might not concur.
Stephen Walt, a wearily realistic political scientist, says no one in Washington seemed to be paying attention to what the Russian response might be:
Nobody in Washington or Brussels seems to have asked that question as they watched (and helped) Ukraine unravel, and that’s why their options today are limited to angry denunciations and symbolic protests. It’s possible that Putin has bitten off more than Russia can comfortably swallow, and the economic costs may prove to be too much for the fragile Russian economy to bear. But great powers are usually willing to suffer when their security is on the line, and that’s likely to be the case here.
It’s a pity the Ukraine had deteriorated to the basket-case economy and syndicate state that it is today. Had it done as well as neighboring Poland, say, political instability very likely would have been far less, and the troubles with Russia kept in check. If Crimeans had jobs and felt they were not at the mercy of oligarchs and mobsters, they, like human beings anywhere, probably would eschew warmaking and upheaval.
Not that falling into the embrace of Mother Russia is going to help much on that front. Ukraine is famously broke, and whoever scoops up the “prize” of its sovereignty is going to have to figure out what to do about it. Some experts see no grounds for optimism.
Meanwhile, we can expect and anticipate that the entire issue will become a demagogue’s dream as the Fox-ites trash Obama mercilessly for “losing” Ukraine, and Hillary positions herself as Madame Toughness with provocative comparisons of Putin with Hitler. As a civilian politician, she can throw red meat to the neocon audiences without having to deal with the fallout.
The arms manufacturers also can now celebrate given that the arguments for shifting spending priorities back to social needs will easily be trumped by the New Threat. Time for more useless armaments and $600 gold bathtub faucets! Dwarf-throwing parties and lines of coke on women’s abdomens!