Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

Has Obama Finally Grown Up?

For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

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For most of his six years as president, Barack Obama has behaved as if the U.S. could opt out of the war Islamist terrorists have been waging on it and to pretend that outreach or the magic of his personality could bridge the gap with the Muslim and Arab worlds. But in his speech today to the United Nations General Assembly, the president seem to find a new, tougher, and more realistic voice about this threat. Instead of pious liberal platitudes at times he sounded like the grown up America needs at its helm. While the change is heartening, it remains to be seen if the means he is rallying to meet the threat is equal to the challenge he outlined.

The contrast between Obama’s speech today and previous statements, such as his June 2009 address to the Arab and Muslim worlds in Cairo, Egypt was stark. Rather than placing the blame for conflicts on the West and, in particular, the United States, Obama seems finally to have woken up to the fact that engagement won’t make radical Islam go away. In its place, the president spoke up forcefully in recognition of the fact that there is no alternative to the use of force against radical Islamists such as the al-Qaeda affiliates and the ISIS group running amok in Syria and Iraq:

No God condones this terror. No grievance justifies these actions. There can be no reasoning – no negotiation – with this brand of evil. The only language understood by killers like this is the language of force. So the United States of America will work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.

Even more importantly, he recognized that the foundation of any effort to deal with these terrorists must come from recognition by Muslims and Arabs to clean up their own house:

It is time for the world – especially Muslim communities – to explicitly, forcefully, and consistently reject the ideology of al Qaeda and ISIL.

It is the task of all great religions to accommodate devout faith with a modern, multicultural world. No children – anywhere – should be educated to hate other people. There should be no more tolerance of so-called clerics who call upon people to harm innocents because they are Jewish, Christian or Muslim. It is time for a new compact among the civilized peoples of this world to eradicate war at its most fundamental source: the corruption of young minds by violent ideology.

That is exactly right. While in Cairo he pretended that there was no real conflict, now he seems to understand that while this needn’t be a clash of civilizations between the West and the East, the rhetoric of his predecessor about nations having to choose whether they were with the U.S. or not is closer to the mark than the platitudes he used to spout. Having come into office acting as if the commitment of President George W. Bush to fight a war against Islamist terror was a historical mistake that could be redressed by conciliatory speeches and withdrawals of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama now seems to have learned the error of his ways. The delusion that the U.S. could bug out of the war in Iraq and ignore the crisis in Syria without cost has been exposed by the rise of ISIS. Though he continues to insist that American ground troops won’t take part in this latest round of a war that began long before he took office, there can at least be no mistaking that the U.S. is back in the fight and understands that this time there can be no premature withdrawals or foolish decisions to opt out of the conflict.

Such tough-minded and more realistic positions also characterized the president’s attitude toward other, not entirely unrelated issues.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he stuck to his belief in a two-state solution and his commitment to making it a reality. But he also finally acknowledged a major truth:

The situation in Iraq, Syria and Libya should cure anyone of the illusion that this conflict is the main source of problems in the region; for far too long, it has been used in part as a way to distract people from problems at home.

While relations remain frosty between Washington and Jerusalem, at long last, with this speech, the administration seems to have rid itself of the delusion that pressuring Israel into territorial concessions would solve all the problems of the Middle East.

Also to his credit, the new hard line from Obama was not limited to the Middle East. His rhetoric about Russian aggression against Ukraine was equally tough and left no room for doubt that the United States supports Kiev against the Putin regime’s provocations and will stand by its NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

And though the president has repeatedly weakened the West’s position in negotiations over the threat from Iran’s nuclear program, here, too, he was at least ready to again demand that Tehran commit to a process that will make the realization of their ambitions impossible.

Leaving aside recriminations about all the mistakes that preceded this moment, it must be acknowledged that the president has gone a long way toward correcting some, though not all, of his most egregious foreign-policy errors. But the problem is that it will take more than rhetoric to address these challenges.

Without adequate resources, American military efforts in Iraq and Syria are bound to fail. Nor can we, if we really believe that ISIS and other al-Qaeda affiliates are a genuine threat to U.S. security, rely entirely on local Arab forces to do a job they have proved unable to do for years. As our Max Boot wrote earlier today, America can’t bomb its way out of this problem.

Nor can the challenges from Iran and its terrorist allies waging war against Israel be met with only words. The same is true for the effort to halt Russia’s campaign to resurrect the old tsarist and Soviet empires. Without military aid to Ukraine and similar efforts to bolster the Baltic states and Poland, Vladimir Putin will dismiss the president’s speech as empty bombast.

By giving a speech that included major elements that often sounded like those given by his predecessor, the president turned a corner today in a speech that seemed to embody his transformation from a man lost in his own delusions and ego to one who knew he was the leader of a nation embroiled in a generations-long war not of its own choosing. But in the coming weeks and months and the last two years of his presidency, he will have to match his actions to the fine rhetoric we heard today. Based on his past history, it is impossible to be optimistic about Obama’s ability to meet that challenge. Throughout his address, the president seemed to be drowning in multilateral platitudes and the kind of liberal patent nostrums that have helped bring us to this terrible moment in history. But at least for a few minutes on the UN podium, the president gave us the impression that he understands the large gap between the illusions that helped elect him president and the harsh reality in which the nation now finds itself.

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War on Terror: What’s Old Is New Again

Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

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Writers often don’t choose their own headlines, and the one over this Politico Magazine piece does not appear to reflect the author’s input. But it does highlight how an unfortunate piece of conventional wisdom has crept into mainstream publications regarding the war on terror. The piece, by former CIA analyst Aki Peritz, is headlined “Are We Too Dysfunctional for a New War on Terror?” Setting aside the potential effect of congressional deadlock on defense policy, the problematic word here is: “new.”

Is the “old” war on terror over? Not by any reasonable metric. Al-Qaeda is not now, and was not even after bin Laden’s death, on the run. President Obama has somewhat taken the war on terror off the front burner for many Americans through his policy of killing instead of capturing potential terrorists–not to mention the fact that he’s a Democrat, so the antiwar movement, which was mostly an anti-Bush movement, has receded from view. (Though the fringe activists of Code Pink have continued yelling at senators.)

Complicating Obama’s desire to end the war on terror is that he has only presided over its expansion, for a simple reason. Obama can choose to end America’s participation in a traditional land war by retreating from that country. It’s ignominious but yes, a war can plausibly end if one side just leaves.

But the war on terror isn’t a traditional land war. The American retrenchment over which Obama has presided has had all sorts of wholly predictable and deadly results, but those results are, in Obama’s mind, for someone else to deal with. So for example we have Russia on the march, but as far as Obama’s concerned, it’s Ukraine’s war. Terrorism is different, because when terrorists fill a vacuum, they create a safe haven, and when they do that they threaten America.

Thus we have Thursday’s Wall Street Journal report on the terrorist group known as Khorasan, which many in the West hadn’t heard of until last week:

U.S. officials say Khorasan is a growing hazard, particularly to the U.S., because its members are focused on violence toward the West and have been eyeing attacks on American airliners.

On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Khorasan may pose as much of a danger as Islamic State “in terms of threat to the homeland.” It was the first time a U.S. official has acknowledged the group’s existence. …

Officials wouldn’t describe in any detail the nature, location or timing of the plots. Together, Nusra Front and Khorasan are suspected to have multiple plots in the works targeting countries in Europe as well as the U.S.

Other news organizations have since followed the Journal’s lead and reported on Khorasan. Syria has become an anarchic incubator of terrorist groups, itself an obvious source of possible trouble for U.S. counterterrorism and homeland security efforts. It also magnifies the threat to regional stability, which puts U.S. interests further at risk.

How such a threat multiplies in that environment is often misunderstood. The groups don’t necessarily “team up” on an attack against the West. But it helps to connect those who want to attack the West but don’t have the means or the knowhow with those who have the means and knowhow but not the desire to attack the West. And it has eerie echoes from past collaborations. As the Council on Foreign Relations noted in a 2006 backgrounder on the Hezbollah-al-Qaeda relationship:

As former National Security Council members Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon describe in their book, The Age of Sacred Terror, a small group of al-Qaeda members visited Hezbollah training camps in Lebanon in the mid-1990s. Shortly thereafter, according to testimony from Ali Mohammed, an Egyptian-born U.S. Army sergeant who later served as one of bin Laden’s lieutenants and pled guilty to participating in the 1998 embassy bombings in eastern Africa, Osama bin Laden and Imad Mugniyeh met in Sudan. The two men, who have both topped the FBI’s list of most-wanted terrorists, agreed Hezbollah would provide the fledgling al-Qaeda organization with explosives and training in exchange for money and manpower. Though it is unclear whether all terms of that agreement were met or the degree to which the two groups have worked together since. Douglas Farah, a journalist and consultant with the NEFA Foundation, a New York-based counterterrorism organization, says Hezbollah helped al-Qaeda traffic its assets through Africa in the form of diamonds and gold shortly after the 9/11 attacks. U.S. and European intelligence reports from that time suggest the two groups were collaborating in such activities as money laundering, gun running, and training. It’s not clear whether these past collaborations were isolated incidents or indications of a broader relationship.

Khorasan’s leader, according to the New York Times, “was so close to Bin Laden that he was among a small group of people who knew about the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks before they were launched.” And the Journal adds that the group “is also pursuing a major recruitment effort focused on fighters with Western passports, officials said.” So it’s easy to understand why American counterterrorism and intelligence officials are taking the threat seriously.

A member of bin Laden’s inner circle is leading a group planning attacks on the U.S., was recently living in Iran, and is utilizing a terrorist haven teeming with weapons and possible recruits. This is not a “new” war on terror. In many cases it’s not even a new enemy. No matter how uninterested the American president is in the global war on terror, the war on terror is still interested in him.

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Don’t Call It a Comeback: Interventionism Was Hiding in Plain Sight

A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

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A spate of stories in today’s news offers a convincing answer to those asking how a war-weary nation–as we are told we are, again and again–is suddenly on the verge of multifront military intervention. The first story is that the U.S. is committing troops to the fight to contain Ebola in West Africa. This seems a fairly sensible, better-safe-than-sorry approach to an epidemic spreading rapidly.

As the New York Times reports, the troops will help with the construction of medical treatment facilities, distribution of aid, and will take the reins in coordinating a regional response. The administration expects to deploy as many as 3,000 to Africa in the effort. Some health experts are calling for an even greater response from the U.S., saying the focus on Liberia is not enough; Sierra Leone and Guinea are also in dire need.

If the crisis worsens, so will disorder, border chaos, and perhaps even a refugee crisis of sorts, not to mention the need to protect all these treatment centers and medical storage facilities. This is not an overnight mission, nor a relatively quiet one like sending forces to help track down African warlords, as we have also been doing.

So that’s one kind of military intervention–to fight a disease epidemic across the ocean. The other major story today was on the administration’s shaky attempts to wrangle support for military intervention in Iraq and Syria to combat ISIS.

The plan is to use airpower to hit ISIS from above. But there are a couple of ways this could escalate. First is the possibility that since the U.S. is not coordinating attacks in Syria with Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Assad’s forces could target U.S. aircraft. As the AP reported, “The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.”

Another complication is the fact that no one seems to believe airstrikes alone would be enough to accomplish the mission–though the mission itself isn’t quite clear enough for some of the members of Congress on the fence about the plan. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about mission creep and said success may, in fact, require boots on the ground in Iraq. “My view at this point is that this coalition is the appropriate way forward. I believe that will prove true,” Dempsey said. “But if it fails to be true, and if there are threats to the United States, then I of course would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. military ground forces.”

We should also not forget that on his recent trip to Estonia attempting to counter Russian aggression, “Obama also announced the US would send more air force units and aircraft to the Baltics, and called Estonia’s Amari air base an ideal location to base those forces.” The U.S. has since repeatedly reaffirmed its commitment to protecting NATO allies in the region, but it hasn’t stopped Russia from sending veiled threats it may test that promise.

So to sum up: we’re sending troops to one, and possibly three or more, African countries to deal with Ebola; we’re sending the Air Force to the Baltics, with promises to confront Russia with more troops if need be; and we’re contemplating the possibility of sending troops to Iraq while striking at one, possibly two sides in a three-way Syrian civil war while arming the third side, which may or may not have agreed to a truce with one of the sides we’re bombing.

How is it that the American public can be war-weary and also quite clearly interventionist at the same time? The answer is: piece by piece. Americans are tired, in an abstract way, of “policing” the world and fighting open-ended military campaigns. But the individual issues here scramble that message.

According to Rasmussen, half the country is worried about Ebola. According to the Washington Post/ABC poll, most are concerned about ISIS, and thus by clear majorities support airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria. That same Post/ABC poll finds more than 40 percent think Obama has been “too cautious” on countering Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. That might be because, according to Pew, Americans see Russia as the country’s top looming threat.

In other words, when Americans’ retrenchment instincts clash with real-world crises, their concern for the latter tends to win out. And that’s also why we suddenly see a diverse coalition of hawks, at least on the right. Those who prefer less intervention may be learning from the Obama administration’s bungled retreat from the world stage that there is such a thing as a power vacuum, and nature does indeed abhor it.

A stable world order promoted by American power can in many cases make later military intervention unnecessary. Intervention is sometimes the most rational response from noninterventionists.

And as the Ted Cruz-IDC dustup has shown, Americans tend to be a diverse country full of people who strongly believe the United States has a responsibility to protect various at-risk populations around the globe. Here, for example, is the closing sentence of Ross Douthat’s column on the controversy from Sunday:

The fact that he was widely lauded says a lot about why, if 2,000 years of Christian history in the Middle East ends in blood and ash and exile, the American right no less than the left and center will deserve a share of responsibility for that fate.

This is, I find, a strong argument for intervention. It’s also an argument, however unintended, for intervention that never materialized in Darfur, and perhaps the consideration of such in Burma, where the Rohingya Muslims might very well be the target of such a campaign. And it’s an argument for intervention in a broad array of crises. It is, in fact, a neat summation of Samantha Power’s foreign-policy philosophy. Douthat sounds about as much a realist here as John McCain is.

And Douthat’s not wrong about the need to save the besieged Christians of the Middle East! That’s the point. There are times when the United States is treaty-bound to intervene on behalf of allies. And there are times when the United States must intervene out of strategic interest. And there are times when the United States seems obligated to intervene out of sheer moral responsibility.

It all adds up to an active, interventionist American role in the world. And the support for that foreign policy goes on periodic hiatus, but it always returns.

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Tough on ISIS? Iran Senses U.S. Weakness

After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

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After weeks of indecision, President Obama is finally, albeit in a limited manner, mustering U.S. strength to respond to the challenge from ISIS terrorists. But at the same time, another dangerous Islamist power is sensing U.S. weakness in its struggle to build a nuclear weapon. The latest news about Iranian maneuvering prior to the resumption of the nuclear talks with the West provides a stark contrast to any talk about a more muscular Obama foreign policy.

As the New York Times reports today, Iran is going full speed ahead with a diplomatic campaign to undermine Western sanctions aimed at forcing them to come to terms on a nuclear agreement. Secretary of State John Kerry began the process of weakening and perhaps dismantling the restrictions on doing business with Iran last fall in the hope that this would lead Tehran to meet him at least halfway and sign another weak accord that might let them keep their nuclear program while committing them to not build a bomb. But in the months that have followed Kerry’s interim deal, the Iranians have not played ball. Instead, they have reverted to their pattern of previous negotiations in which they have stalled and continued to try to run out the clock until it is too late to stop them. While some sources close to the negotiations claim that a final agreement is possible and may even be within reach, Iran’s public stance and its diplomatic offensive leave the impression that they are standing firm and will agree to nothing that ultimately limits their ability to build a bomb.

The Obama administration’s zeal for a deal with Iran is no secret. Nor is the president’s desire to craft a new détente with Tehran. That impulse is only strengthened by the fact that both Iran and the U.S. view the ISIS terrorists as an enemy. As I wrote last week, the administration’s belated realization that letting ISIS flourish in Syria and Iraq was a colossal error is leading some to conclude that it should work together with the Iranian regime in an attempt to crush the group. But while it is to be hoped that the U.S. and Iran will not clash in Iraq, no one should trust Tehran or its motives in intervening against ISIS. Nor should this temporary confluence of interests be allowed to impact the U.S. effort to stop Iran from going nuclear.

But unfortunately, the mixed signals coming from Washington about Iran are already being interpreted abroad as indicating the administration’s lack of resolve on the nuclear issue. As the Times notes, Iran seems to be making progress in getting Russia (which is always happy to thwart U.S. interests on any issue even if it makes no sense for the Putin regime to let their Iranian neighbor acquire a bomb) and South Africa to think about backing away from sanctions or openly breaching them. And so long as the U.S. is behaving as if the nuclear issue is not a priority and that increasing, rather than weakening the restrictions in the coming year is on the table (a prospect that the administration quashed when it was proposed by Congress), it’s hard to blame these countries and others who are tempted to do business with Iran, that Obama doesn’t care much about the issue.

But whatever the administration is planning to do in the talks or if they fail, the Iranians seem determined to prepare themselves to withstand any pressure from the West. They are secure in the knowledge that Obama will never use force against them and that America’s allies and partners in the negotiations will crumble even if the president will not. Under those circumstances they have little incentive to be reasonable in the talks.

President Obama is reluctantly bringing the U.S. into the war on ISIS. But unless he wakes up and starts acting in a manner that will cause the Iranians to fear the consequences of trying to keep their nuclear program, he may face an even more dangerous conflict against a country on the verge of gaining a nuke.

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Putin to Europe: Winter Is Coming

Although Vladimir Putin’s expansionist agenda and deadly authoritarianism have finally earned regular coverage from the media, I’m still at a loss to explain why one story in particular isn’t getting consistently boldfaced treatment. Heading into the weekend, Estonian security official Eston Kohver was abducted by Russian officers and tossed in a Russian jail. He has been accused of spying for Estonia and running afoul of Russian gun-possession laws.

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Although Vladimir Putin’s expansionist agenda and deadly authoritarianism have finally earned regular coverage from the media, I’m still at a loss to explain why one story in particular isn’t getting consistently boldfaced treatment. Heading into the weekend, Estonian security official Eston Kohver was abducted by Russian officers and tossed in a Russian jail. He has been accused of spying for Estonia and running afoul of Russian gun-possession laws.

It’s a fairly absurd story, and a throwback to a darker time when Putin’s previous employer, the KGB, was in existence. So was Russia’s decision on Sunday to take Kohver “to Moscow where he was paraded before television cameras,” as the Guardian reported. Of course the most notable first impression of the incident was that it took place right after President Obama traveled to Estonia and gave a public address warning Russia not to meddle further in its near-abroad and pronouncing the U.S.-led NATO coalition’s vow to protect Estonia, and other such countries in the neighborhood, from Russian aggression. Putin has gotten quite creative in his demonstrations of contempt for Obama.

Putin has watched Obama offer mostly empty words, self-contradictions, and confused backtracking on foreign policy and decided that Obama is not someone to fear or respect. Putin is not alone in this assessment of Obama. He’s just the only leader currently using Obama’s weakness and indecision as an excuse to invade Europe.

And with winter approaching, Putin is also signaling that the last excuse for Obama’s appeasement policy–getting Russian cooperation on energy issues–is meaningless as well. The New York Times reports that Russia is in talks with Iran to help Iran get around sanctions intended to curb its nuclear program. And the Polish government has now said that Russia’s state gas company, Gazprom, has been cutting supplies to Poland by at least twenty percent.

The point is not only to strike at Poland but to hit Ukraine as well:

Some European countries believe Moscow may use a disruption of gas to Europe as a trump card in its confrontation with the west over Ukraine. The row has already brought relations between Moscow and the west to their lowest ebb since the cold war.

Ukraine’s gas transport monopoly Ukrtransgaz was quoted by a Russian news agency as saying Gazprom was limiting flows to Poland to disrupt supplies of gas in the opposite direction, from Poland into Ukraine.

Kiev is already cut off from Russian gas in a pricing dispute and depends on these “reverse flows” to supply homes and businesses with gas.

Gazprom made no immediate comment. Polish gas monopoly PGNiG said on Wednesday it was trying to find out why volumes were down.

There was no indication that any European Union importers of Russian gas besides Poland were affected.

So that’s one reason to hit Poland on energy supplies. Another is because a recent NATO summit approved the creation of a rapid-response force to counter Russian aggression in NATO countries–and broached the idea of headquartering it in Poland. Just as Putin sought to prove Obama’s promises to Estonia to be empty, so too does he intend to show he regards the promises to Poland to be just as empty.

There is also the issue of historical memory. Poland is a symbol both of Russian domination of its neighborhood and of the West’s tendency to abandon its Eastern European allies when the going gets tough. Bullying Poland–now a NATO ally, remember–is in some ways more inflammatory than meddling in Ukraine because the U.S. was under no obligation to defend Ukraine, and few observers took seriously the idea that Obama would challenge Putin over Ukraine.

That was mostly a good bet: Obama abandoned Ukraine each of the three times Russia invaded, and finally cobbled together sanctions that have not slowed Putin’s march. And since Putin isn’t invading Poland (yet, I suppose we should add), it’s unlikely Obama–who has repeatedly picked silly fights with Poland’s leadership–will care about a gas cutoff. He might care about Russia helping Iran evade sanctions, but only if he is truly dedicated to preventing an Iranian nuke. That remains to be seen, and the evidence so far does not inspire much confidence in the president.

But the most immediate message being sent by Putin is a reminder that winter is coming. As Kathryn Sparks wrote earlier this year, Europe is dependent on Russia for both nuclear and gas power. Five Eastern European states are particularly dependent on Russia for nuclear power: “For these 80 million Europeans, the Russian state provides services essential to some 42 percent of electricity production.” Additionally, “Four of the five nuclear-dependent states are among at least nine countries that rely on Russian gas pumped through Ukrainian pipelines for about three-quarters of their total gas supply.”

Russia is unlikely to just cut energy supplies to a whole swath of Europe: Moscow needs the revenue and the influence it buys. But Putin is not above reminding his neighbors that Barack Obama has not proved himself willing to defend them and that they ought not bite the hand that feeds, especially if there’s no alternative.

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U.S. Ukraine Policy: Dumb and Immoral

President Obama may–stress the word “may”–finally be doing the right thing if he is serious about defeating and destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. He is still a long way from doing the right thing in Ukraine where outright Russian aggression has been met with an alarmingly tepid response from the U.S. and our allies. The U.S. has imposed tougher sanctions than the EU, but neither has barred Russian firms from their financial systems–sanctions that could have truly serious consequences for the Russian economy. And neither the U.S. nor Europe is providing Ukraine with the weapons it desperately needs to defend itself.

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President Obama may–stress the word “may”–finally be doing the right thing if he is serious about defeating and destroying ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. He is still a long way from doing the right thing in Ukraine where outright Russian aggression has been met with an alarmingly tepid response from the U.S. and our allies. The U.S. has imposed tougher sanctions than the EU, but neither has barred Russian firms from their financial systems–sanctions that could have truly serious consequences for the Russian economy. And neither the U.S. nor Europe is providing Ukraine with the weapons it desperately needs to defend itself.

Michael Gordon and Eric Schmitt of the New York Times provide chapter and verse of the dismaying American failure to help the victims of aggression. They note that Obama has promised to deliver a measly $70 million in nonlethal aid–for rations, first-aid kits, radios, and the like–but most of the assistance is “still in the pipeline.” “The United States has also promised to train 700 members of Ukraine’s National Guard,” they note, “but that program is not scheduled to get underway until 2015.” In short, by the time that American training efforts get under way Ukraine as we now know it will likely not exist.

Ukraine has been asking for assistance and we should provide it. As retired Admiral James Stavridis, a former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, argues, the U.S. “should provide the Ukrainian forces with antitank weapons, ammunition, fuel, cyberdefense help and military advisers.” Even rushing secure radios to the Ukrainian forces would be a big improvement since at the moment the have to use unencrypted cell phones that are easy for the Russian forces to intercept.

Yet Obama is still refusing to help for fear of “provoking” the Russians or “escalating” the conflict. One would think that the appeasement mentality would have evaporated about the time when Vladimir Putin spat on Obama’s hoped-for “reset” in relations between Washington and Moscow. Instead Putin decided to reset Russian foreign policy to the days of the Soviets or possibly the czars.

He has already carved out a corridor in eastern Ukraine that, if the current ceasefire holds, will remain effectively outside of Kiev’s control. We can expect further carve-ups of Ukraine and possibly other states (such as the Baltics) in the future if Putin isn’t stopped now. Moreover, if he gets away with aggression, as he has done to date, it sends a very dangerous message to the Chinese, Iranians, and others bent on upsetting a regional status quo by force if necessary.

Refusing to help the Ukrainians with military aid is not only stupid strategically. It is immoral. The Ukrainians will bear the risks of fighting the Russians to defend their country. It will be Ukrainians, not Americans, in harm’s way. The least we can do is to give them the tools to fight for their freedom.

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Obama’s Siege Mentality

You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

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You may have noticed in recent months that the spokespersons for the U.S. State Department–the public face of American foreign policy–have proved themselves both unqualified and undignified. Just as the challenges to the global order have become more serious, our spokesyokels have become less so.

There was the famous “hashtag diplomacy,” during which spokeswoman Jen Psaki demanded that Vladimir Putin stop invading Ukraine and thereby truly begin to “live by the promise of hashtag.” Even if Putin wanted to give the order to retreat from Ukraine, there was no way he could do so until he stopped laughing, so the selfie diplomacy was counterproductive as well as inane.

Then there was Marie Harf, first rewriting history on the bin Laden raid and getting called out on television by Andrea Mitchell and then, in the course of defending some more ridiculous moments by Psaki, picking a fight with Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and even calling him “sexist” for criticizing Psaki.

If that last gambit sounded eerily like a stale, cynical Obama campaign ploy, there’s a reason for it: Psaki and Harf came to the State Department from the committee to reelect the president. (Though, in fairness, Harf worked in communications for the CIA earlier in her career.) And that, I think, helps us understand why exactly Psaki and Harf were given their current jobs, and why the president may not quite understand how much of a disaster they’ve been.

Over the weekend Paul Mirengoff at Power Line offered his own dual theory as to why Obama hires such “obvious lightweights” to speak for American foreign policy. First, Mirengoff writes, “Obama is playing to a core component of his base — the young.” Second, Mirengoff believes “Team Obama is trying to ‘demystify’ foreign policy — to make it look unthreatening almost to the point of child’s play. Psaki and Harf provide visual expression of this view just by standing at the podium and talking.”

He continues:

If one believes that the world is a dangerous place and that the U.S. must, accordingly, respond with constant vigilance and, at times, forceful engagement, then you want your spokespersons to look and talk maturely and somberly — to project, in a word, gravitas. For those of us who see the world that way, James Haggerty (Eisenhower’s press secretary who once said “if you lose your temper at a newspaper columnist, he’ll get rich or famous or both”) is a model.

But suppose you don’t believe the world is all that inherently dangerous. Suppose you believe, as Obama does, that the U.S. is at the root of many of the world’s problems and that a new dawn in international relations is possible if America will just lighten up.

In that case, you will be quite happy with light, breezy young foreign policy spokespersons. And if, like Harf, that spokesperson likes to get snarky with conservative journalist, all the better.

I recommend Mirengoff’s whole post on the topic. But my guess would be, as I mentioned earlier, to look to the Harf/Psaki team’s last jobs to grasp their current ones.

Back in 2012, the New York Times published a long article on President Obama’s “Terror Tuesdays,” his weekly meetings on counterterrorism. The article was centered on Obama’s drone war and how he was choosing and eliminating terror targets instead of capturing them. Present in the room for those meetings, the Times revealed, was Obama’s top political advisor David Axelrod, “his unspeaking presence a visible reminder of what everyone understood: a successful attack would overwhelm the president’s other aspirations and achievements.”

Axelrod was there because Obama is always hyper-aware of the partisan political implications of everything he does, including national security acts and choosing which terrorists to assassinate. It rankled people a bit that Axelrod sat in on those meetings, but for Obama cynical political point-scoring tends to be the priority.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley Strassel wrote a piece on “Obama’s Kissingers,” the people the president had brought into his national-security inner circle. It was heavy on the “political hacks.” Some of them, like Tommy Vietor (who famously responded to a question on Benghazi with the immortal words “Dude, this was like two years ago”), were particularly undistinguished.

So why put people like that out front to take questions from the press? Because Obama’s innate bitter partisanship dominates his staffing decisions, and because he not only views the press as possible enemies–and treats them as such–but any questions as being part of the daily political competition between the president and his many pursuers.

A disturbing example of this was contained in an August column by Chemi Shalev on the administration’s decision to withhold weaponry from Israel during wartime. Shalev writes: “a very senior Washington figure recently told an Israeli counterpart that each step or statement made by Netanyahu is a-priori examined by the White House to see if it helps the Republicans or if Sheldon Adelson might be behind it.”

That is the kind of remarkably unhealthy paranoia for which the president has unfortunately come to be known. And it explains why political hacks and spinmeisters are the only people he trusts to field questions from the press. To this president, everyone’s a suspect.

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

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In his column at the American Conservative, the Daily Caller’s Jim Antle tries to make the argument that Rand Paul will expand the GOP’s foreign-policy tent. In the process, he takes quite a few swings at those he deems “hawks” for not letting noninterventionists sit at the cool kids’ lunch table, and he ascribes to these hawks a typical set of caricatures and exaggerations. Since I am the only commentator mentioned by name in the article, I think it’s worth responding to many of the false assumptions in the piece.

I should point out that I don’t think Antle is attempting to ascribe to me all the opinions he criticizes. I’m not so vain as to think this entire song is about me. But that’s unclear because of the fact that Antle only mentions me and does not cite by name the other “hawks” he criticizes. Additionally, Antle is a very smart conservative who wrote a very good book on the perils of big government, and he stands out from his AmConMag colleagues by neither shilling for Vladimir Putin nor living in fear of the Israel Lobby hiding in the shadows. As such, it’s worth engaging his arguments.

First, here is Antle’s characterization of my opinion on Rand Paul:

This failure to understand how Republicans like Paul actually view foreign policy was illustrated by a Commentary item last year examining the whole concept of “libertarian foreign policy.” Its author, Seth Mandel, quotes Michigan Republican Rep. Justin Amash saying some measured things about the just grounds for the Afghan War and how to contain Iran, which Mandel contrasts with “the limited scope of Rand Paul’s argument on the NSA.”

Evidently taking Amash’s nuance to be entirely different from Senator Paul’s approach, Mandel concludes, “if Paul wants a major retrenchment from the world and a more isolationist foreign policy, he does not appear to be speaking for any major politician but himself—and that includes those we think of as staunch libertarians.”

This seems to ignore a third possibility: that many on the right who want some degree of “retrenchment from the world,” who have a higher threshold for the use of military force than do most Commentary contributors, are still willing to act militarily against genuine threats to the United States and its interests.

This is a curious bone to pick for a few reasons. First, I was making the point that prominent libertarian figures are not isolationists, and that if Paul wants a “more isolationist foreign policy”–note I do not call Paul an isolationist either, but compare him to other libertarians–he would be an outlier among libertarians. Second, it’s easy to look back on that, which was written in July 2013, and say Paul isn’t a noninterventionist–but that’s because Paul’s position on intervention and on specific threats have changed dramatically as popular opinion has changed. Antle’s criticism of Paul circa summer 2013 should be taken up with Paul, who has since repudiated Paul.

Third, anyone who thinks I’ve tried to write Paul and noninterventionists out of the conservative mainstream quite simply hasn’t read what I’ve written on him. Earlier in 2013, for example, I wrote an entire piece on the fact that Rand Paul’s foreign policy was conservative, and was part of the traditional “spheres of thought” in the conservative movement going back to the emergence of the national security state after World War II. I specifically state (as I have many times) that I didn’t consider Paul to be a military isolationist but rather a throwback to the kind of serious conservative opposition to what many saw as the advent of the national-security version of the New Deal. I just think he’s wrong on the merits.

I’ve also been quite clear that I think Paul, and libertarians in general, have been getting an unfair shake from those who misunderstand libertarianism. So it’s puzzling that Antle, who is usually far more honest in debate, would write verifiably false statements like: “Therefore, libertarians and antiwar conservatives are not simply less hawkish or less interventionist. They must always be described as isolationists, even in cases when they clearly do believe the U.S. has interests outside its own hemisphere.”

But there’s something else in Antle’s piece that deserves some pushback. Antle says hawks were wrong about Iraq (I was in college at the time, and don’t remember taking any kind of public position on the invasion of Iraq, so once again Antle could have found a slightly more relevant–that is to say, relevant at all–example) and therefore should be more welcoming to realists.

Antle here is making a common mistake, which is to arrange the goalposts so that Iraq becomes the prism through which foreign-policy wisdom is measured. This makes sense, because outside of Iraq realists have been wrong on the great foreign-policy challenges of the day. In the Middle East, the realist vision of “stability” lies in smoldering ruins, with nearly 200,000 dead in Syria alone, power-grabs and counter-coups in the rest of the region, and American allies–and thus American strategic imperatives–at risk.

And that does not even cover Russia, on which the realists have fully humiliated themselves. Just today, in fact, the New York Times has another story on Russia violating a key Cold War-era missile treaty. American officials knew this was the case when they negotiated another missile treaty with Russia, New START. Realists pimped New START, hawks warned Putin could not be trusted. The hawks were right, just as they were right about Putin’s designs on regional power, his threat to Europe, and his willingness to outright invade any non-NATO countries in his near-abroad. Realists have beclowned themselves on the issue. They are certainly welcome in the conservative movement and to ply their wares; they just shouldn’t be surprised if, since their credibility is shot, no one’s buying.

Other realists, such as those of the Walt-Mearsheimer variety, have taken to believing in the “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theory of powerful, disloyal Jews setting American policy according to Israel’s needs. They often claim they have nothing against Israel, it’s just that the relationship with Israel is no longer a strategic two-way street. In other words, these realists are arguing not that they have an irrational bias against Israel, but that they are morons. (They make a compelling case.)

So if realists can’t hit the broad side of a barn on the Middle East or Russia, and clearly don’t understand the basics of geostrategic calculation, it’s not too surprising that they are not immediately back in leadership positions. Perhaps they are rusty, but they are not ready for prime time.

Antle is intellectually capable of grappling seriously with the arguments of those who favor a robust American engagement with the world. Here’s hoping that at some point he–and Senator Paul’s circle of supporters, paleocon writers, and realists hoping to rehabilitate their tattered reputations–will do so.

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

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President Obama has taken plenty of heat for saying he wants to turn ISIS into a “manageable” problem, proving that his underestimation of threats continues apace. But the lack of urgency toward stopping ISIS’s deadly and destabilizing march is not just about ISIS: it shows the president to still be operating in the false solace of compartmentalization, as if ISIS exists in a vacuum. It doesn’t, and a New York Times story today about terrorism far from Syria or Iraq demonstrates why.

The Times writes of a new video message released by al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, in which he attempts to recruit fighters in the Indian subcontinent, “in Burma, Bangladesh, Assam, Gujarat, Ahmedabad and Kashmir.” The call to establish this branch of al-Qaeda was, according to the report, two years in the making, meaning even when al-Qaeda appeared to be splintering it was still expanding. The Times explains the relevance of al-Qaeda’s competitor, ISIS, to Zawahri’s message:

Al Qaeda, which has been weakened by military and economic pressure in the years since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, has not traditionally recruited heavily in India or staged major attacks on Hindus. Instead, its ideological focus has been on driving out a “far enemy” — the United States and its allies — from the Middle East. Analysts say its leaders may be wary of provoking conflict with this region’s huge Hindu population.

This summer, however, has seen recruiting of Indian Muslims by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a Sunni network that split rancorously from Al Qaeda last year and has rapidly expanded, threatening to eclipse its forerunner. Many analysts in India saw Al Qaeda’s announcement Wednesday as an effort by the older organization to confront a rising challenge to its leadership of the Islamic militancy in the region.

In his videotaped address, Mr. Zawahri does not make specific reference to ISIS, but he does call for unity among jihadists, saying “discord is a curse and torment, and disgrace for the believers and glory for the disbelievers.”

The idea that ISIS is a threat that can be contained to Syria and Iraq is thus false not only because ISIS is already attracting adherents outside those countries but also because ISIS is an element of a global Islamist terror threat whose success breeds expansion, competition, and imitation. If Islamist terrorists are seen to be on the run, as American officials like to believe, they are often on the run to other, stronger terror networks or on the run to scout new locations to expand their reach. This globalized, networked nature of the threat is something Obama has never understood, and it’s hampered American security policy on his watch.

It also undermines Obama’s “realist” desire to see America’s enemies, especially in Syria, destroy each other. What happens when competition fosters not bloody turf wars but competition for new markets? You have a sort of imperial rivalry superimposed on top of the existing world order.

Take the idea of the nation-state, for example, which has been the basis of the quest for a stable global order. Yesterday, the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney wrote a smart post on how ISIS and its self-declared sovereignty complicate our preferred understanding of what a state is. Using a fascinating Wall Street Journal story about how ISIS controls its local economy and polices its territory as a jumping-off point, Carney writes:

Many states — including my favorites — gained their territory through violence against pre-existing states.

Is it that ISIS lacks consent of the governed? ISIS has consent of some of the governed, it seems. No state has approval from all of the governed. Many states lack consent of the governed (think, China).

We don’t want to call ISIS a state, because it is evil, murderous and oppressive. But that way of thinking might impart more virtue to the idea of statehood than it deserves.

There is a lot to this, though I don’t think it undermines the case for the nation-state as the preferable currency of international order. My immediate reaction to Carney’s post is to ask the following question, however: if ISIS is a state, is Iraq? Both claim defined borders–but those borders conflict.

The same goes for Syria. The West recognized the Syrian opposition coalition as the “legitimate representative of the Syrian people in opposition to the Assad regime” almost two years ago. Now we’re contemplating airstrikes that would help Assad at the expense of the rebels because the rebels have been eclipsed by groups like ISIS. So who, or what, is Syria?

And this brings us back to the threat of global terrorism. The expansion not just of ISIS but of al-Qaeda and their competitors threatens to destabilize countries across the globe. If they are going to set up statelets–similar, I suppose, to what the Caucasus Emirate tried to do in Russia–they are not doing so on frontierland. They are doing so in existing states, erasing borders and collapsing authority. Yes, rogue states like Putin’s Russia are a prominent threat to the international regime of state sovereignty. But so is ISIS and its ilk, and it’s time to treat it as such.

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NATO, Ukraine’s Frozen Conflict, and the Georgia Precedent

President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

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President Obama gave a fairly strong speech this morning in Estonia, calling out Russian aggression and rejecting talk of “spheres of influence.” But there was one aspect of the speech that had a missing element, and that element undermines much of Obama’s bluster toward Moscow and his tough talk on beefing up the NATO alliance.

In a section of the speech on Ukraine, Obama pledged to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine and other regional allies, and that the West “will not accept Russia’s occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea, or any part of Ukraine.” The Georgian conflict with Russia is helpful in understanding why Obama’s comments on defending Ukraine ring hollow.

The New York Times today reports on what should be encouraging news, but is actually nearly a repeat of Moscow’s victory in Georgia: Putin and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko are moving haltingly toward a ceasefire arrangement in eastern Ukraine. According to the Times, here are Putin’s conditions:

The primary conditions on Mr. Putin’s list are that the separatists halt all offensive operations and that Ukrainian troops move their artillery back out of range of all population centers in the rebel-held area.

Mr Putin also called for Ukraine to cease airstrikes, for the establishment of an international monitoring mission and humanitarian aid corridors, for an “all for all” prisoner exchange, and for “rebuilding brigades” to repair damaged roads, bridges, power lines and other infrastructure.

Mr. Putin made the remarks at a news conference during a state visit to Mongolia. After confirming that he had spoken with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Putin offhandedly mentioned that he had “sketched out” a peace plan during his flight from Moscow. An aide then handed Mr. Putin a notebook, from which he read the plan.

This is a major victory for Putin, and–though it wasn’t picked up on by the American press–a very clear rebuttal to Obama’s NATO rhetoric. That’s because what Putin has done in Ukraine, if a ceasefire is struck along these lines, is create a frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine.

When Putin invaded Ukraine for a second time by sending troops into the eastern part of the country, Kiev asked for Western help. The West ignored such pleas. So Kiev began maneuvering to make some type of robust Western help obligatory, first by asking to be named a major non-NATO ally and then making noises about getting on track to actually join the alliance. The frozen conflict makes this impossible. And here, the Georgia precedent is instructive.

At a 2008 NATO summit, George W. Bush advocated for putting Ukraine and Georgia on membership action plans (MAP), the path of domestic reforms leading to eventual NATO membership. The French and Germans opposed him. The disagreement over Georgia, which was closer than Ukraine to attaining the political stability essential for a MAP, had much to do with the frozen conflicts of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, breakaway provinces where Russia had installed Russian officers in the local positions of authority and stirred up enough trouble for a pretext for invasion. (Sound familiar?)

The conflicts in Georgia were longstanding; as I’ve explained before, for a decade before war actually broke out Russia had been staffing local governments, arming them to the teeth, distributing Russian passports to these Georgians, and even occasionally bombing Georgian territory. After the 2008 NATO meeting at which the spineless European hypocrites declared frozen conflicts to be cause for MAP rejection (the Germans had been reminded by one diplomat at the time that West Germany was admitted to NATO four decades before its own “frozen conflict,” the east-west division, was resolved), Russia invaded. Putin’s puppet Dmitry Medvedev later openly admitted that Moscow did so in order to keep Georgia out of NATO.

What the Russians are doing now in eastern Ukraine is quite similar, though Putin can’t count on the Western left for support quite to the same degree as when his opponent was the Georgian Mikheil Saakashvili. Putin doesn’t need to conquer territory to control it. Not only does he know how to use pipeline politics to get his way, but he’s already moved Russian military equipment into place in Ukraine and deputized local pro-Russian militants.

Putin may not annex eastern Ukraine (though he might also slow-bleed the territory into submission and lull the Western media into boredom in order to capture the territory eventually, in stages). But he knows precisely how to ensure that when Obama pledges to come to the aid of all NATO allies, that list never includes Ukraine.

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The Inevitable Appeasement of Putin

President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

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President Obama was in Estonia today uttering brave words. He said that “the defense of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defense of Berlin and Paris and London” and vowed that the U.S. would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea anymore than it recognized the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic Republics. “Borders cannot be redrawn at the barrel of a gun,” he said.

Is Vladimir Putin impressed? Hardly. The smirking, swaggering aggressor just bragged that he could “take Kiev in two weeks” if he felt like it. Certainly Putin has little cause to think that even a Russian military march to Kiev would meet with serious Western opposition given the lack of response so far to the Russian invasion of eastern Ukraine.

In an article on the European response, the New York Times had a telling line: “Despite anger at Russian actions, there are few signs that Europe has the stomach for a more confrontational policy if the White House does not. In the end, European leaders whose economies are dependent on Russian energy are reluctant to widen the conflict beyond additional sanctions. Instead, they may seek an outcome that makes some concessions to the Kremlin.”

Thus, for all the rhetorical furor over Russian actions, the Europeans resist imposing serious sanctions or sending arms to Kiev. France is actually providing Russia with two state-of-the-art warships while leaving Ukraine high and dry.

It is hardly surprising that the Europeans would want to appease Russia no matter what. It is their way with aggressors whether named Mussolini, Hitler, or Putin. Only the U.S. can rally lethargic Europeans to do more to stop Russian aggression which, if left unchecked, will erode the entire basis of the post-1945 world order which created peace in Europe in the first place.

But for all of Obama’s tough-sounding words, he is not willing to back them up with tough actions such as sending arms to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves, positioning substantial U.S. army units in the frontline NATO states, or imposing truly severe sanctions that would cut off the entire Russian economy from access to the U.S. financial markets and dollar-denominated transactions. And if the U.S., which is far away and much less economically connected with Russia than are the Europeans, won’t act, what chance is there that the Europeans–who will face real economic consequences for standing up to Russia–will do anything?

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Obama’s Been Pickpocketed By Reality

A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

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A liberal who has been mugged by reality may turn to conservatism, as Irving Kristol famously said. Or that liberal might blame society on behalf of his mugger and redouble his liberalism. But in either case the liberal knows he’s been victimized. What happens to a liberal who, instead, has been pickpocketed by reality–robbed and victimized but who assumes he’s just misplaced his wallet? The last few days have given us our clearest answer yet, in the incoherent ramblings of President Obama on the nature of the threats to the free world.

And over the weekend Democrats tried desperately to convince him he’s been mugged. Dianne Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he’s being “too cautious” on ISIS. That’s her way of saying that she’s privy to enough intel to wonder what Obama sees when he looks at the same information. Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, thinks Obama needs to be doing more to fend off Russia’s invasion of Ukraine–and yes, by the way, he used the word “invasion” rather than participate in the administration’s Orwellian word games to deny reality and make excuses for abandoning American allies.

And the Washington Post editorial board laid into Obama’s swirling confusion over the complexity of the world:

This argument with his own administration is alarming on three levels.

The first has to do with simple competence. One can only imagine the whiplash that foreign leaders must be suffering…

Similarly, his senior advisers uniformly have warned of the unprecedented threat to America and Americans represented by Islamic extremists in Syria and Iraq. But Mr. Obama didn’t seem to agree…

When Mr. Obama refuses to acknowledge the reality, allies naturally wonder whether he will also refuse to respond to it.

One can almost imagine the Post’s editors intended the editorial to be read aloud, slowly and with exaggerated elocution, as if speaking to a child. And so the president hasn’t really been mugged by reality, because he doesn’t seem to know he’s been hit.

The Post editorial was right to call attention to the bewilderment America’s allies around the world must be experiencing. But it’s worth dwelling on the same confusion America’s enemies must be feeling. Their actions have resulted in a propaganda windfall because they surely expected the American president not to parrot their talking points or shrug off their murderous intent.

When it was revealed in August that President Obama had downgraded American security cooperation with Israel and was withholding weapons transfers to Israel during wartime, Times of Israel editor David Horovitz wrote a column headlined “US livid with Israel? Hamas can’t believe its luck.” Indeed, Hamas probably expects at best empty words from Obama about Israel’s right to defend itself, but it’s doubtful they ever imagined they would start a war with Israel only to have the American president withhold military support from Israel during that war and then fume that the U.S.-Israel military relationship is such that both sides assume America will have Israel’s back, at least during wartime. Obama wants Israel to make no such assumptions.

Similarly, could Vladimir Putin have expected the Obama administration to help him obfuscate the fact that he has invaded Ukraine–again? Administration officials “have a perfectly clear idea what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Ukraine,” the Daily Beast’s Christopher Dickey wrote late last week. “They just don’t want to say the word out loud.” Putin must be giddy.

And when video surfaced revealing that, in the words of CNN, “Libyan militia members have apparently turned the abandoned U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, into a water park,” U.S. Ambassador Deborah Jones protested the coverage of an event the symbolism of which was impossible to ignore. It was not true that those ransacking the compound were ransacking the compound, she claimed; they were, um, guarding it. We are truly in the best of hands.

What is most troublesome about this, and what might be responsible for bringing Democrats out of the woodwork to denounce Obama’s foreign-policy silliness, is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be anything that can get the president to confront reality. It’s always been assumed that at some point Obama will wake up; Democrats are no longer convinced that’s the case, and have gone public to try to assure friends and foes alike that not everyone in the U.S. government is so steeped in comforting delusions while the world burns.

Someone’s at the wheel, in other words, just not the president. And now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to believe the spin coming out of Washington, instead of hoping American officials don’t believe the spin coming in.

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NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin

You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

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You can bet Vladimir Putin is shaking in his Gucci loafers as he learns that NATO is going to respond to his aggression in Ukraine … by creating a rapid-reaction force of 4,000 troops that could deploy to Eastern Europe. Actually, this is the kind of ineffectual action that will only cause Putin to smirk even more.

Although none of the news stories reporting breathlessly on the latest developments from this week’s NATO summit in Wales bother to mention it, the nations of Europe actually have a long history of trying to stand up rapidly deployable forces. In 1992 we had the creation of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, “a North Atlantic Treaty Organization High Readiness Force (Land) Headquarters ready for deployment worldwide within five to thirty days.” In 1993 we had the Eurocorps, “an intergovernmental army corps headquarters (HQ) based in Strasbourg, France” and based around a Franco-German brigade created in 1987. In 2003 we saw the creation of the NATO Response Force, which was supposed to be a “coherent, high-readiness, joint, multinational force package” of up to 25,000 troops that is “technologically advanced, flexible, deployable, interoperable and sustainable.” Uh, right. At least the NATO Response Force has a nifty logo.

If any of these initiatives had produced any substantive results, it would be hard to see why NATO would need to create yet another rapid-response force. But of course as with most NATO or EU initiatives these past efforts have produced more memoranda, PowerPoints, and conferences than actual usable military force. So there is little reason for Putin or anyone else to think that a new brigade-size NATO force–just 4,000 troops!–will present any significant threat to his designs given that he has 766,000 active-duty soldiers at his command.

NATO as a military actor scares no one–certainly not the predator in the Kremlin. The only thing that might give Putin pause is if the United States of America, whose military power vastly eclipses Russia, were to take a credible stand. President Obama might do that by dispatching U.S. army brigades–say one each–to the three Baltic states along with a few more brigades for Poland. That could be combined by sending U.S. cargo aircraft to airlift urgently needed supplies to Ukrainian forces to allow them to fight back against what is plainly a Russian invasion of their country. And the president at the same time could announce that he is asking Congress to suspend cuts in the military budget and especially to stop cuts in army end-strength that will make it impossible for the U.S. to provide a credible deterrent to Russian aggression.

Yet Obama will not take any of these steps–he will not even call the invasion an invasion. Until the U.S. steps up, NATO can issue all the communiqués, resolutions, and press releases that it wants. None of it will mean anything.

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

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President Obama has taken a lot of criticism–and rightly so–for his now-infamous comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Why, most listeners must be wondering, would the president of the United States admit to lacking a strategy, even if that’s the case? Why not just stay silent? Or better yet why not formulate a strategy? It’s really not that hard–I have no doubt that U.S. Central Command has come up with plenty of workable options. It just requires force of will to choose one and execute it, rather than engaging in an endless faculty-club debate of the kind this law professor-turned-president seems to prefer.

What is truly disturbing about this president is that this not a one-off gaffe. Rather, it is part of a long and disturbing series of remarks by the president and his top aides who, while trying to explain and defend their foreign-policy thinking, have caused a major crisis of confidence in their ability to handle the nation’s foreign policy.

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

The New Yorker, May 2, 2011: “One of his advisers described the President’s actions in Libya as ‘leading from behind.’ ”

President Obama’s interview with David Remnick, the New Yorker, January 7, 2014: “At the end of the day, we’re part of a long-running story. We just try to get our paragraph right.”

The president’s press conference in the Philippines, April 28, 2014: “My job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it… That may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run. But we steadily advance the interests of the American people and our partnership with folks around the world.”

Politico, June 1: “Forget The New Yorker’s ‘leading from behind,’ and even President Barack Obama’s own ‘singles … doubles.’ The West Wing has a preferred, authorized distillation of the president’s foreign-policy doctrine: ‘Don’t do stupid shit.’ ”

Leading from behind… Getting our paragraph right… Hitting singles and doubles… Not doing “stupid shit”: The more the president and his foreign-policy deep thinkers talk, the bigger a hole they dig for themselves.

Even liberals are scathing in denouncing these risible attempts to lay out a foreign-policy doctrine. As Hillary Clinton says, “Great nations need organizing principles, and ‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not an organizing principle.” Or as Maureen Dowd wrote, “A singles hitter doesn’t scare anybody.”

Little wonder, then, that in a Pew poll conducted even before Obama made his “no strategy” comment, 54 percent of respondents said last week that the president isn’t “tough enough” on foreign policy. You can bet that’s a view shared by Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hassan Nasrallah, Bashar Assad, Kim Jong-un, and other key American adversaries.

That the president is so ham-handed in trying to defend his foreign-policy conduct is all the more puzzling in that he is supposedly a great orator–at least he won the White House (and a Nobel Peace Prize, lest we forget) based largely on the power of his inspirational words. But at the end of the day there is a limit to how much any orator, no matter how gifted, can say to defend the indefensible or explain the inexplicable. We have now reached that point and beyond. It is high time for Obama to stop talking and start acting. At this point the only thing that can reverse the crippling decline of American credibility is tough, unexpected action–say bombing the Iranian nuclear complex if talks fall through, or mounting an all-out campaign to destroy ISIS, or sending military aid to Ukraine and positioning U.S. troops in the Baltic republics.

You may well observe that these are all military actions. Am I suggesting that Obama become a militarist–a warmonger of the kind he plainly despises? Not at all. Not one of these policy options will send American ground troops into combat. All can be executed with a limited degree of risk without becoming “another Iraq,” the bogeyman that the president most wants to avoid.

And if Obama had acted tougher to begin with–if, for example, he had done more to aid the Syrian opposition or to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011–such drastic actions would not now be necessary. But American credibility has sunk so low that it is now crucially important to show that there is more to our foreign policy than empty verbiage from the White House–especially when the more of that verbiage that we hear, the less confidence the world has that we know what we’re doing.

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Obama’s Luck on the World Stage

When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

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When it comes to global security, it may seem counter-intuitive to suggest that Barack Obama is one of the luckiest American presidents on the world stage. After all, Russian forces invaded Ukraine just four days after Obama’s hapless Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced that he would reduce U.S. forces to pre-World War II levels. That Russian President Vladimir Putin’s push into Ukraine came despite Obama’s signature “reset” policy was simply the icing on the incompetence cake.

Of course, a resurgent Russia is just one of many challenges the United States now faces. Obama kept his campaign promise to withdraw from Iraq, only to be forced by the eruption of ISIS to re-engage at least symbolically even if not substantively. Libya—the marquee example of leading from behind—has descended into chaos. And Obama’s inaction in Syria has enabled a bad situation to grow much worse. Turkey has transformed itself into an anti-Western autocracy more intent on encouraging the growth of radical Islamism abroad than promoting peace at home. By acting more like a zoning commissioner than a world leader, Obama has managed to take Israeli-Palestinian relations to their nadir.

So how could it be that Obama is lucky?

It’s always tempting for partisans to blame events on the world stage upon the occupant of the Oval Office rather than the rogue who has free will. It is absolutely true that the world does not revolve around Washington D.C. That said, Obama’s decisions have contributed to some of the worst aspects of the current crises. Rather than see Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia as a sign of Putin’s true character, Obama sought to appease the Russian leader. Pulling the rug out from allies like Poland and the Czech Republic only encouraged Putin further by depicting the United States as desperate for a deal regardless of the cost to its allies. Undersecretary for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher completed the trifecta by acquiescing to almost every Russian demand in order to come to agreement on the START treaty, and then by downplaying if not hiding Russian cheating.

Nor would ISIS have made the advances it made in recent months had the United States maintained a residual force in Iraq or moved to strike at the radicals as they gathered strength in Syria. While Obama prized leading from behind in Libya, that decision came at the cost of failing to secure Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s arms caches, leading extremists to seize thousands of surface-to-air missiles and enabling a weapons flow which has destabilized a broad swath of the Sahel, including Mali—once ranked by Freedom House as the most free majority-Muslim country on earth.

But consider this: As bad as Vladimir Putin is, imagine that China had a ruler not only as nationalistic (it does) but as willing to use brute military force to achieve its aims (at present, China is happy to posture and build its capabilities). Why work diplomatically to take Taiwan back into its fold when they could achieve their aim in days. It would be a pretty safe bet that Obama might finger wag, but he wouldn’t do a thing. Or imagine North Korean “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-un interpreted Obama’s inaction as reason to turn Seoul—well within range of North Korea’s artillery—into a sea of fire. At worst, the North Korean leader would face a press conference with Obama threatening to sponsor resolutions at the United Nations. Back in 1982, an economically failing Argentina decided to distract its public by seizing the British-held Falkland Islands. Today, the same thing could occur, only Britain is too impotent to respond and the White House—with its misguided notion of colonial guilt—might actually side with Buenos Aires. ISIS has marched across the heart of the Middle East, but it has yet to topple Jordan or Lebanon, or teach Turkey a listen or two about blowback. That might simply be a matter of time, however: King Abdullah II of Jordan is popular everywhere but within his own country, and ISIS is gaining momentum.

Simply put, the world could be far more dangerous than it is right now. That China, North Korea, Iran, Argentina, and other aggressors or potential aggressors haven’t made their move is more a matter of luck than the natural outcome of Obama’s policies.

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Ukraine in the Shadow of Molotov-Ribbentrop

The 75th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pledged non-aggression toward each other and shortly thereafter divided Poland, passed with little comment on August 23. It should not have, for its ghosts loom large in Ukraine.

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The 75th anniversary of the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, in which Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union pledged non-aggression toward each other and shortly thereafter divided Poland, passed with little comment on August 23. It should not have, for its ghosts loom large in Ukraine.

First, there were reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was negotiating secretly with Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to trade territory for Putin’s promise to continue the gas flow into Ukraine. That she proposed paying off Putin with Ukrainian territory was a fact she shrugged off, as was the fact she sought to change Ukraine’s borders permanently for the simple promise of a man who has repeatedly shown himself not to be trustworthy.

Then, there was the ill-considered Carnegie Corporation-sponsored “Track II” meeting in Finland with Russian officials in which both the American and Russian sides excluded any Ukrainian participation. One chapter of my recent book, Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogues Regimes, is dedicated to these so-called people-to-people meetings and showing that when constructed the way Carnegie did, they do far more harm than good. In this case, the American do-gooders handed a victory to the Kremlin from the start by acquiescing to Ukraine’s exclusion. That the resulting conclusions treated Ukraine and Russia and moral equivalents, no matter that Russia is the aggressor and occupying force, underlined the academics’ collective tin ear.

Any compromise that formalizes Russia’s occupation and annexation of Ukrainian territory effectively treats Ukraine the way that Germany and the Soviet Union treated Poland three-quarters of a century ago. The belief that treaties of non-aggression can restrain the most aggressive, revisionist powers is a notion that should have been dispensed with after, 75 years ago, such an agreement contributed to a cascade of events which ultimately claimed well over 50 million lives.

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“This Is Now a War with Russia”

This has been the summer from hell. While President Obama has been busy teeing off, ISIS has conquered much of northern and western Iraq, while killing untold thousands including journalist James Foley, and drawing U.S. aircraft back into action; Libya has degenerated into full-blown civil war; China has staged numerous provocations against its neighbors (and on at least one occasion against an American aircraft); and, lest we forget, Russia has mounted a barely disguised invasion of Ukraine.

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This has been the summer from hell. While President Obama has been busy teeing off, ISIS has conquered much of northern and western Iraq, while killing untold thousands including journalist James Foley, and drawing U.S. aircraft back into action; Libya has degenerated into full-blown civil war; China has staged numerous provocations against its neighbors (and on at least one occasion against an American aircraft); and, lest we forget, Russia has mounted a barely disguised invasion of Ukraine.

That invasion just got a bit worse with news that Russian tanks, artillery, and infantry have been streaming across the border to open a new front against Ukrainian forces defending the southern city of Novoazovsk. According to the New York Times, “The Russian aim, one Western official said, was to open a new front that would divert Ukrainian forces from Donetsk and Lukhansk and possibly seize an outlet to the sea in the event that Russia tries to establish a separatist enclave in the eastern Ukraine.” This might even be a step toward uniting separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine with Crimea, which Russia had earlier seized in contravention of all international norms. Whatever the case, as one Ukrainian sergeant fighting the Russian onslaught told a reporter: “This is now a war with Russia.”

Yes, it is. So what, if anything, is “The West”–the empty cliche–going to do about it? President Obama has imposed some semi-tough sanctions on a few Russian firms and individuals; the European Union has followed suit with less-than-tough sanctions. Clearly none of this has deterred Vladimir Putin, a wily predator who can smell weakness on the part of the West and is clearly looking to seize as much as he can while the going is good.

As it happens, just today Bill Perry, the Clinton secretary of defense, and George Shultz, the Reagan secretary of state, had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal recommending a response to this Russian aggression. They call for providing military equipment and training to Ukraine, for deploying forces in the Baltic states, and for strengthening sanctions. They don’t spell out what stronger sanctions are needed but the most damaging step the U.S. could take would be to pass financial sanctions that prevent all Russian companies from access to the U.S. financial system and from doing dollar-denominated transactions. This could be coupled with secondary sanctions, as with Iran, to force foreign companies to choose between doing business with Russia and doing business with the U.S.

Of course Putin will retaliate in any way he can, but it is well past time to care about Russian retaliation. It is time to step up our response, whatever the cost, to the outrageous and illegal steps that Putin is taking to invade Ukraine before the most basic norm of the post-1945 world order–the norm against cross-border invasions and annexations of neighboring states–entirely disappears.

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Was Putin’s Syria Advice Really Trenchant?

With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

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With ISIS’s consolidation of control across broad swaths of Syria and its rapid expansion into Iraq, a number of American pundits and even policymakers quietly suggest that perhaps Russian President Vladimir Putin was right all along in his embrace of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his warning to the United States not to take action against him which could benefit the Syrian opposition, much of which is more dominated by radicals than American proponents of supporting the Free Syrian Army would like to admit.

After forces aligned with Assad apparently used chemical weapons in a Damascus suburb, a humanitarian tragedy and a challenge to President Obama’s blunt red line, Putin scrambled to prevent any America military strikes. In a New York Times op-ed almost a year ago, Putin offered this advice:

A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance. Syria is not witnessing a battle for democracy, but an armed conflict between government and opposition in a multireligious country. There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government.

Sounds prescient, but was it? Assad is a terror sponsor who has worked closely not only with Hezbollah and, in the past, Hamas, but also with the al-Qaeda-linked extremists he now fights, whose passage through Syria and into Iraq he enabled. Russia likewise criticized and, at times, sought to undercut American action against al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers in Afghanistan. Over at The Hill, the European Foundation for Democracy’s Anna Borshchevskaya (full disclosure, my wife, who was a refugee from Russia and also spent much time in Syria and who, alas, sometimes also considers me her Medvedev), points out how curious it is that so many of those who point to this op-ed ignore Putin’s earlier New York Times op-ed which said quite the opposite when it came to battling extremism: “No government can stand idly by when terrorism strikes. It is the solemn duty of all governments to protect their citizens from danger. Americans obviously understand this concept… But when a society’s core interests are besieged by violent elements, responsible leaders must respond.”

When it comes to the use of military power—or reticence against its role in the fight against terror—Putin may seem inconsistent. Actually, though, he is not, so long as it is understood that his advice is not meant to actually illuminate the best way to counter terror in places like Syria. Rather, he is motivated by a singular desire to pursue Russia’s interests and check those of America. As Borshchevskaya rightly concludes, “Looking back to Putin’s two op-eds, it is clear that he is not guided by genuine principle. Ultimately Putin pushes his own agenda, often aimed at criticizing and undermining the United States.”

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Russian Paratroopers Confirmed Killed in Ukraine

It is well-documented now how Russians have been living in a bubble with regard to news coverage of what has been going on in (and over) Ukraine. In the Russian narrative, the Ukrainians are all aggressive fascists and neo-Nazis seeking to victimize ethnic Russians, and while Russian humanitarian relief is heading into Ukraine, the idea that Russian forces are fighting there is nothing but nonsense.

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It is well-documented now how Russians have been living in a bubble with regard to news coverage of what has been going on in (and over) Ukraine. In the Russian narrative, the Ukrainians are all aggressive fascists and neo-Nazis seeking to victimize ethnic Russians, and while Russian humanitarian relief is heading into Ukraine, the idea that Russian forces are fighting there is nothing but nonsense.

Now, fortunately, that bubble is bursting. First there were the soldier selfies. Now journalists in the Russian city of Pskov have confirmed the deaths of Russian paratroopers inside Ukraine, tracking the names of Russians that Ukrainian officials had said were killed and then found their graves in Pskov. The broader Russian media is beginning to pick up on the story. More in English here (scroll down).

Russian President Vladimir Putin played both President Bush and the Obama administration. While they sought to believe that Putin was a reasonable, responsible partner, they never recognized that he had never shed his KGB worldview and remained dedicated all along to the dual goals of defeating America on the global stage while reconstructing the Soviet Union, in effect if not in reality. He has sacrificed the Russian economy in the process, and moved to insulate the Russian public from what he has done. In this, he has been like his Soviet predecessors who lied to the home population about what was really happening in Afghanistan and then in Chechnya. Let us hope that the Russians don’t take so long to realize their leader is playing them for fools once again. The question is how many Russians will die needlessly before Russian mothers recognize that Putin is sacrificing their sons for his own dishonest purposes.

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Another Russian Invasion on the Horizon?

On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

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On August 19, the New York Times carried an interesting story on the “fading rebellion” in eastern Ukraine, where Vladimir Putin appeared to be “maneuvering for a face-saving settlement.” The Russians were on the run. In the high command of the separatist rebellion, they’d been replaced with inexperienced Ukrainian locals. But three days later the Times poured cold water on its own optimism:

Russia on Friday escalated tensions with Ukraine to the highest level since its stealthy invasion of Crimea in the spring, sending more than 200 trucks from a long-stalled aid convoy into rebel-held eastern Ukraine over the objections of Kiev and, NATO said, conducting military operations on Ukrainian territory.

In other words, Russia had invaded Ukraine. Again.

And three days after that–today–the Times has arrived with more bad news: “Russia Says It Will Send Another Aid Convoy to Ukraine.” Russia was planning to invade Ukraine again, again.

The first invasion, of the Crimean peninsula, was greeted with harsh words from American and European leaders, impressing upon Putin what a bully he was being. They made it clear they strenuously objected to his behavior. (I have in the past likened the West’s condemnation of Putin to the way the teachers would deal with the Gilly character on Saturday Night Live. I think the comparison holds up pretty well.)

Putin assessed that he was to be hit with a guilt trip and some token sanctions for his Crimean adventure, shrugged it off, and went back for more. He was hit with some more token sanctions, and then some more serious sanctions. None of it deterred him.

On Friday, he invaded eastern Ukraine, and was immediately rewarded with the rest of the world falling all over itself to avoid using the term “invasion.” Putin probably could not believe his good fortune, to have Western leaders and their media so pusillanimous. As long as we’re all playing silly word games, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov decided to join in:

Mr. Lavrov said that Ukraine and the Red Cross created “artificial delays” for the first convoy, but said that Russia was ready to continue acting with complete transparency that would allow for inspections of future convoys. “The fact that the first convoy eventually delivered aid with no excess or incidents gives us reason to hope that the second one will go much more smoothly,” he said.

Ukraine’s response:

Mr. Lavrov’s statements came as the authorities in Kiev charged that Russia had sent a column of armored vehicles across the border, and a day before a summit meeting in Minsk, Belarus, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and Mr. Poroshenko will meet for the first time since early June. They will be joined by representatives of the European Union and the Russia-led Customs Union, including the presidents of Kazakhstan and Belarus.

And then the requisite moral equivalence from the Times:

Although the talks offer some hope for a negotiated settlement to the conflict in east Ukraine, both Mr. Putin and Mr. Poroshenko are under strong pressure from nationalists at home to stand firm.

This is a slightly weaker, but still fairly absurd, formulation of one of the media’s favorite tropes. Here’s Bill Keller comparing Iranian “hardliners” to American “hardliners”–in this particular case, that means comparing a former American ambassador to the United Nations and presidential advisor to the head of a violent Iranian paramilitary group personally sanctioned by Washington for human-rights abuses.

The Times has also used the formulation with regard to democratically elected Israeli politicians and Palestinian terrorists. And now we hear about Ukrainian and Russian nationalists spoiling for a fight.

The problem here is that one of those countries has invaded the other twice this year. So-called “nationalists” in Ukraine are simply Ukrainians objecting to being invaded with lethal force. “Nationalists” in Russia are, in this case, not really nationalists at all but ethnic imperialists.

There is currently a land war in Europe. Russia is threatening to expand that European land war. The cause of this is not dueling nationalisms but militaristic autocracy encountering self-defense. And by the way, this war may already include Russian war crimes, including the following:

Mr. Lavrov was also questioned about a rebel military parade held Sunday in the separatist stronghold of Donetsk, where prisoners of war from the Ukrainian Army were paraded through the streets by armed guards bearing bayonets.

Lavrov responded that he didn’t see a problem with it. Perhaps the West could help Kiev spell it out for him. They could start by using the word “invasion” a bit more freely.

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