Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

Putin Pounces Amid Iraq Distraction

One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

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One of the peculiarities of the American political system is that we can seemingly only focus on one crisis at a time. Thus the disaster in Iraq has driven out of the headlines the disaster in Ukraine. But let’s not forget that bad things are still happening in Ukraine where Russia continues to pursue its semi-covert campaign of aggression designed to wrest the eastern provinces away from Kiev’s control.

In some ways the Russians are actually getting more brazen. The U.S. government has confirmed, for example, that Russia is now providing Ukrainian “rebels” with heavier weaponry–”a convoy of three T-64 tanks, several BM-21 multiple rocket launchers and other military vehicles crossed the border near the Ukrainian town of Snizhne.”

Those same “rebels” have also been provided by someone, presumably a Russian someone, with potent anti-aircraft missiles because such a missile just shot down a Ukrainian Il-76 military transport plane that was about to land in the eastern city of Luhansk. Forty-nine Ukrainian military personnel, most of them paratroopers, are reported to have been killed.

Oh and Gazprom, the Russian energy giant which is owned by the Russian government, has just announced it will suspend all further gas deliveries to Ukraine. If Gazprom sticks to the cutoff, and no alternative suppliers are found, Ukraine will lose 63 percent of the natural gas it consumes.

This is a significant escalation of the conflict by Vladimir Putin, notwithstanding his pro forma denials that he knows anything about what’s going on in Ukraine. Suffice it to say, anti-aircraft missiles and tanks are high-end pieces of equipment that aren’t available for sale in military surplus stores (where Moscow improbably claimed that the “green men” who seized Crimea got their uniforms from). Russia is escalating the conflict before Ukraine’s newly elected President Petro Poroshenko can succeed in rolling back the “rebels.” (I’m putting “rebels” in quotes to emphasize that this is not an indigenous uprising but rather one manufactured by the Kremlin.)

So what is Washington going to do about it? Apparently we are going to hurl some really strong rhetoric at the Russians. A State Department spokeswoman said, in response to the sighting of the Russian tanks on Ukrainian territory: “This is unacceptable. A failure by Russia to de-escalate this situation will lead to additional costs.”

Uh-huh. Putin has heard that before–and he still hasn’t paid a significant cost for his aggression in Ukraine. What are the odds that he will have to pay a price now that Washington is distracted by the fresh crisis in Iraq?

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Iraq, Another Grim Point for Romney

At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

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At the Washington Post, David Ignatius recalls a 2012 debate exchange between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, during which the two covered al-Qaeda and Iraq:

Romney tried to shake Obama’s optimistic narrative about al-Qaeda. “It’s really not on the run. It’s certainly not hiding. This is a group that is now involved in 10 or 20 countries, and it presents an enormous threat to our friends, to the world, to America long term, and we must have a comprehensive strategy to help reject this kind of extremism.”

[…]

Obama scored points later in that debate when he dismissed Romney’s concerns about Iraq. “What I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.” The transcript records Romney sputtering back: “I’m sorry, you actually — there was a — .”

Obama had the better of that exchange, certainly for a war-weary United States that a few weeks later gave him a new mandate. But looking back, which picture was closer to the truth? Probably Romney’s.

Probably? Al-Qaeda has gone from terrorist organization to conquering army and it’s still not entirely safe to say President Obama kind of blew it on that whole anti-terrorism thing.

But the grudging acknowledgement is something. Reality has the ability to trump spin. Obama was elected in large part to pull out of Iraq “responsibly.” But few watching ISIS plow through the country are thinking that he’s handled things well.

The crumbling of Iraq, of course, isn’t the first event to vindicate a maligned Romney debating point. Back when he pronounced Russia “without question our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Obama derided Romney as a Cold Warrior 20 years past his sell-by date. The president, for his part, was busy touting his “reset” with the Kremlin. But the American public soon took up the fight against Vladimir Putin’s human-rights abuses—and then Russia invaded Crimea. Thus came headlines explaining “Why Obama Got Russia Wrong (and Romney Got It Right).”

That’s not all he got right. While the Obama administration plays Let’s Fake a Deal with Tehran, it’s worth recalling another Romney line of foreign-affairs analysis: “Of course the greatest threat that the world faces is a nuclear Iran,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. If Obama gets that wrong, belated acknowledgment of his error won’t quite cut it.

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Return of the War That Never Went Away

The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

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The crisis in Iraq is certainly testing President Obama’s desire to wash the administration’s hands of that country, its politics, and its violence. Conservatives predicted precisely this outcome when warning of a precipitous withdrawal of troops according to arbitrary timelines or magical thinking–both of which the Obama administration relied on–though the speed of the collapse has been surprising.

But it’s also testing Obama’s desire to abstain from involvement in other conflicts as well because Obama seems to realize, correctly, that borders in the Middle East are becoming increasingly abstract. If the president intervenes further in Iraq, for example, he will be essentially intervening in Syria as well, because those two conflicts are bleeding into one another. The terrorist group causing the most trouble there tellingly calls itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which at first appeared arrogant but now seems to simply reflect reality.

In its story on Obama’s decision to deny Iraqi requests for airstrikes, the New York Times explains:

The swift capture of Mosul by militants aligned with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has underscored how the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have converged into one widening regional insurgency with fighters coursing back and forth through the porous border between the two countries. But it has also called attention to the limits the White House has imposed on the use of American power in an increasingly violent and volatile region.

There is an obvious argument to be made for intervening in Iraq but not Syria: our previous involvement there. But that argument faded greatly after Obama decided the war was over and our combat mission ended. Now we’re back basically on the outside looking in. At this point, can Obama clearly make a case for additional strikes in Iraq that would still logically avoid implicitly making the case for the same in Syria? Sentimental value won’t count for much.

Obama has put great effort into differentiating conflicts so as to avoid a game of intervention dominoes, for instance by agreeing to decapitate the Gaddafi regime but not the house of Assad. He rejected the idea of humanitarian intervention in Syria as well, arguing that that the U.S. did not have a responsibility to protect but did have an obligation to curtail the use of chemical weapons. Seeking to build a case for possibly stepping up its aid to the Syrian rebels, Obama was shifting to “emphasize Syria’s growing status as a haven for terrorist groups, some of which are linked to Al Qaeda.” By that standard, Iraq beckons as well.

Perhaps Obama could at least make the argument that Syria and Iraq can be taken together as one conflict and thus not a harbinger of broader military action in the region. But the Times report shows why that would be a tall order:

The Obama administration has carried out drone strikes against militants in Yemen and Pakistan, where it fears terrorists have been hatching plans to attack the United States. But despite the fact that Sunni militants have been making steady advances and may be carving out new havens from which they could carry out attacks against the West, administration spokesmen have insisted that the United States is not actively considering using warplanes or armed drones to strike them.

Right. And suddenly it becomes clear: We’re fighting a (gasp!) global war on terror.

The compartmentalization of conflicts by Obama and others was a necessary element for them to oppose the Bush administration’s war on terror because it was the only way to conceptually remove the common thread that held together Bush’s strategy. But that relied on the belief that the international state system was intact and robust enough to deal with international terrorism. It was a nice idea, but it proved naïve and dangerous.

Obama learned this when he sent forces into Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden. He learned it again when he had to send drones after Yemen-based terrorists. He learned and relearned it throughout the Arab Spring, as dictatorships fell and transnational terror networks like the Muslim Brotherhood rose. He learned it when weapons from the Libyan civil war fueled a military coup in Mali. He learned it when his administration practically begged the Russian government to accept American counterterrorism help to safeguard the Olympics in Sochi.

And now he’s looking at a stateless mass of terrorism stretching across the Middle East but specifically melding the Syria and Iraq conflicts. He’s looking at a global terror war and trying to figure out increasingly creative ways not to say so. Obama wanted this war to be a different war, and to be over. But he forgot that the enemy always gets a vote. And we still have a lot of enemies.

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Obama’s International Legacy: Fait Accompli

President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

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President Obama entered office promising to renew America’s respect for multilateralism and the international system. He will leave the White House as the man whose legacy has been instead ushering in the “Age of Fait Accompli.” Russia now occupies Crimea and effectively dominates eastern Ukraine. Last night, Peshmerga from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—the political party of Jalal Talabani’s family—occupied Kirkuk, a city over which diplomats long wrung their hands given its volatile ethnic and sectarian mix. (Fortunately for Kirkuk, its governor Najmaldin Karim, while a PUK member, has distinguished himself as a leader for all citizens regardless of sect or ethnicity, and not as a narrow ethnic or sectarian chauvinist as so many of his Kurdish and Iraqi Arab counterparts.) China, meanwhile, is on the warpath, seeking to create facts on the seas and ground in disputed maritime areas from Japan to the Philippines.

Obama sees international threats through the lens of grievance, not ideology. Often he seems to assume it is the presence of United States forces or its power projection that is the source of such grievance. He does not understand that the real threat is the maximalist, aggressive, and nihilistic ideology of America’s opponents and that for decades, United States power has been the proverbial finger in the dyke, holding off the deluge. Isolationism doesn’t bring security; it brings chaos.

With United States power in retreat and with populists and dictators across the globe concluding that they can act with impunity, never has the danger been so real, not only in the current crisis spots but in Taiwan, the Falkland Islands, the Baltics, and other lands aggressors and dictators crave. All that matters in the new world order is brute strength and the will to use it. The most intractable diplomatic problems will no longer be solved by diplomacy, but rather by unilateralism. Of course, some critics might say unilateralism is simply what America engaged in for decades. That’s more propaganda than reality but, even if so, moral equivalency is a disease. America believed it acted for good; China and Russia clearly do not–their motivations are purely cynical.

One of the most surprising things I encountered when researching my recent study on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups was that, while the military spends more time in the classroom or the training ground going over its mistakes in order to learn from them, the State Department has never really conducted a full lessons-learned review with the diplomats who actually drive policy. Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was doing the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Unfortunately, that seems to apply to the State Department, not only in the current administration but in the last ten or so.

It would be wrong to blame all chaos on Obama. He may have ceded the ground, but ultimately it is the dictators who are to blame. Nevertheless, perhaps it is time for President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and other top administration officials to sit back and consider the state of the world and what the United States might have done differently at key inflection points in order to prevent the current situation. Only then can the United States learn from its mistakes and seek to salvage what is left.

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Why Russia’s Other Neighbors Are Worried

President Obama just visited Poland, trying to offer reassurance to U.S. allies rattled by Russian aggression. The Poles and their neighbors will have to take Obama’s word for it that the U.S. will stop anything bad from happening to them, because he didn’t offer much in the way of concrete help. Of course America’s word isn’t worth much in these days when red lines can be crossed with impunity. (Note that Bashar Assad is able to use chlorine gas with virtually no pushback beyond some mildly critical rhetoric from the U.S.)

The best the president could do was to roll out a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” (not a very stirring title), which will pay for additional U.S. military exercises and additional aid to the region. Obama definitely didn’t deliver what the Poles and other Eastern European members of NATO would like to see–namely a substantial and permanent U.S. troop presence on their soil. 

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President Obama just visited Poland, trying to offer reassurance to U.S. allies rattled by Russian aggression. The Poles and their neighbors will have to take Obama’s word for it that the U.S. will stop anything bad from happening to them, because he didn’t offer much in the way of concrete help. Of course America’s word isn’t worth much in these days when red lines can be crossed with impunity. (Note that Bashar Assad is able to use chlorine gas with virtually no pushback beyond some mildly critical rhetoric from the U.S.)

The best the president could do was to roll out a $1 billion “European Reassurance Initiative” (not a very stirring title), which will pay for additional U.S. military exercises and additional aid to the region. Obama definitely didn’t deliver what the Poles and other Eastern European members of NATO would like to see–namely a substantial and permanent U.S. troop presence on their soil. 

As Radek Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister, told the New York Times: “For the first time since the Second World War, one European country has taken a province by force from another European country, America, we hope, has ways of reassuring us that we haven’t even thought about. There are major bases in Britain, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy. Why not here?”

Why not indeed, unless the administration is concerned about offending Russia with such a move. Certainly assurances that Washington gave to Moscow in the 1990s that we would not station troops in Eastern Europe should be regarded as a dead letter–as much of a dead letter as Russia’s assurances that it would respect Ukrainian sovereignty.

As long as the administration and our European allies refuse to do more to counter Russian aggression, Vladimir Putin will just keep pushing forward. Sure, Putin has redeployed some troops away from Ukraine’s border. But his henchmen continue to infringe Ukrainian sovereignty. The latest news: well-armed separatists have attacked the border command post in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine. Already the border is porous, allowing Russian extremists to come and go with virtual impunity. If the command post falls, Ukrainian hopes of defending their eastern border will be dashed for the foreseeable future.

Please don’t tell me that this aggression is occurring independently of the Kremlin. If Putin wanted to, he could shut off the pro-Russian independence movement in Ukraine–which didn’t exist until a couple of months ago–with a snap of his fingers. The fact that separatists continue fighting, plunging eastern Ukraine into what looks increasingly to be a civil war, is a sure sign that the Kremlin hasn’t given up its imperialist designs. 

No wonder Russia’s neighbors are so worried. And the administration’s “reassurance” initiative will not exactly reassure them. Only a more substantial show of American strength will do that. But American strength and resolve have been in short supply lately.

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America and Poland: the Return of History?

The concern over disappearing red lines has given way to disappearing border lines in Ukraine. A key battle over a border command center in eastern Ukraine yesterday highlighted the fact that while the conflict may be changing, it isn’t yet subsiding. “The scale of the fight reflected the critical importance of the border to both sides,” the Washington Post reported. “In recent weeks, it has been penetrated frequently by separatists bringing reinforcements and supplies from Russia to eastern Ukraine. The shipments have helped transform the insurgency from a somewhat ragtag guerrilla force to one capable of carrying out major military assaults.”

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that President Obama’s efforts to reassure Eastern European allies are meeting a hopeful but not quite relieved welcome. Obama is in Warsaw today to deliver the message in person that the United States is putting its money where its mouth is: he is asking Congress to fund a $1 billion “European reassurance initiative,” according to the New York Times. The fund would enable military cooperation and training–including aid to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia–as well as increased American military presence in the region.

The Times notes that it might not be enough for Russia’s Western-oriented neighbors:

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The concern over disappearing red lines has given way to disappearing border lines in Ukraine. A key battle over a border command center in eastern Ukraine yesterday highlighted the fact that while the conflict may be changing, it isn’t yet subsiding. “The scale of the fight reflected the critical importance of the border to both sides,” the Washington Post reported. “In recent weeks, it has been penetrated frequently by separatists bringing reinforcements and supplies from Russia to eastern Ukraine. The shipments have helped transform the insurgency from a somewhat ragtag guerrilla force to one capable of carrying out major military assaults.”

Against that backdrop, it’s no surprise that President Obama’s efforts to reassure Eastern European allies are meeting a hopeful but not quite relieved welcome. Obama is in Warsaw today to deliver the message in person that the United States is putting its money where its mouth is: he is asking Congress to fund a $1 billion “European reassurance initiative,” according to the New York Times. The fund would enable military cooperation and training–including aid to Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia–as well as increased American military presence in the region.

The Times notes that it might not be enough for Russia’s Western-oriented neighbors:

But it was unclear whether Mr. Obama’s new announcement would satisfy regional leaders previously unimpressed by the relatively token forces sent in recent months. Mr. Obama dispatched additional rotations of aircraft and support personnel as well as about 600 paratroopers to Poland and other allies in the region after Russia seized Crimea from neighboring Ukraine in the spring.

Anxious about the threat from Moscow, Polish leaders have been pressing for a more robust deployment and even a permanent base despite a NATO-Russia agreement following the end of the Cold War in which the western alliance said it would refrain from deploying substantial forces in eastern territory. Polish officials have argued that Russia had effectively abrogated that agreement by annexing Crimea.

“For the first time since the Second World War, one European country has taken a province by force from another European country,” Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said in a telephone interview before Mr. Obama’s arrival. “America, we hope, has ways of reassuring us that we haven’t even thought about. There are major bases in Britain, in Spain, in Portugal, in Greece, in Italy. Why not here?”

Disappearing borders are precisely the sort of events that change the calculus in Eastern Europe in general, but particularly for Poland when those borders are Ukraine’s. The U.S. and EU like to pretend the end of history is near, but Eastern Europeans don’t have that luxury. That said, what Obama is proposing deserves to be taken seriously by our unnerved allies, because a beefed-up American military presence really does put more skin in the game, and would presumably have some deterrent effect.

Additionally, while the Obama administration has at times behaved appallingly toward Poland, the drift between the two countries is not all one-sided. A fascinating angle to this, which the Times explored yesterday, is the nature of changing alliances in the post-Cold War world combined with the effects of integration into the European Union.

The essence of the change is that partnership with the U.S. focuses on security while integration into Europe is about economics. The Times dispatch is centered on the fact that Poland is far from anti-American, but is not the U.S. cheerleader it once was. The drop in Polish enthusiasm for the U.S. mixed with the regional security concerns make Obama’s trip an uphill climb. In part, however, this is due to the success of Poland. For two decades a new Polish generation has needed the U.S. much less while getting a chance to discover its European neighbors (and identity) after the fall of Communism and the Polish accession to the EU:

What happened, Mr. Smolar said, was that Poland’s entry into the European Union in 2004, and the subsequent ability of Poles to travel freely throughout the Continent for the first time, have made the United States less attractive both as a romantic ideal and as a place where Poles dream of living.

Entry into the European Union pushed Poland to adopt European norms, from human rights to cleanliness standards in restaurants. Poles rapidly saw the benefits in such things as better roads and glittery malls.

“The E.U. became seen as a way of getting rich and respectable, though we continued to be connected to the U.S. for security,” Mr. Smolar said. “We began to realize that, for 90 percent of the problems we have, the solution is in Europe, not in America.”

The dependence on the U.S. for some of its security has made the Polish “much less anti-American than Western Europeans,” according to another of the article’s sources. Which raises an interesting question: Euro-integration has been an obvious success for countries like Poland, but is the other side of EU accession an inevitable slide into Western European anti-Americanism?

It would indeed be a sad irony if European integration meant indoctrination in the anti-Americanism of the smug hypocritical elites in some Western European countries. It would also be ironic if that slide were interrupted or derailed by Moscow’s military adventurism and the confirmation that even a war-weary America is still the foremost guarantor of security in Europe.

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What Do Obama’s Critics Want From Him?

The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

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The reporting on President Obama’s foreign-policy address at West Point yesterday closely resembles the reporting that previewed the speech–a strong indication that the president didn’t make much of a point. Even the New York Times noticed the occasional “straw-man argument” on which Obama’s main themes rested. Listening to his critics, the Times reports, the president “grows deeply frustrated.”

So do the president’s defenders. There are far fewer of them in the wake of this speech, as the president didn’t really say much at all even though the address was billed as a way to clear things up a bit. Thus Fred Kaplan both gets the speech exactly right and the reaction to it perfectly wrong when he writes: “President Obama’s speech at West Point on Wednesday morning could be called a tribute to common sense, except that the sense it made is so uncommon.”

In fact, the criticism of the speech was really the opposite: everyone knows that, as Kaplan says, “not every problem has a military solution.” The chief complaint about Obama is that he refuses to engage intellectually with his critics; he merely creates straw men–such as those who think every problem has a military solution–and then strikes them down. He’s only ever arguing with himself. But Kaplan does highlight the reason the president felt goaded into making his speech in the first place: he wonders just what his critics want from him.

The answer is that they want a coherent vision with explanatory power, not truisms about the hell of war. The problem for Obama and his defenders like Kaplan is that, as David Frum notes, the president’s foreign policy isn’t chalking up much of a success rate. So contemptuous hand-waving about “common sense” doesn’t say much for the president: if he’s guided by such obviously sensible instincts, why is American policy so ineffectual? Here’s Frum (ellipses in the original):

If Obama had met his stated goals in Afghanistan … if the Russia “reset” had worked … if Iran talks were indeed producing nuclear disarmament … if the president’s “red line” in Syria was not being crossed and recrossed like center-ice in an exciting hockey game … if his Libyan intervention had not resulted in Libya becoming a more violent and unstable place … if his administration had sustained the progress toward peace in Iraq achieved during George W. Bush’s second term—if all this had been the case, the president would have been content to simply present his impressive record. But it is not the case.

Obama missing his own stated goals is not the fault of hawks to his right or humanitarian interventionists to his left. He is not the victim here. He’s right about American leadership. But that has been true since the end of World War II, and often American leadership has been extraordinarily successful. It has not been while under Obama’s stewardship.

In his new book on the transfer of Western leadership from Britain to the U.S. after World War II, Aiyaz Husain, a historian at the State Department, highlights the role that each leader’s “mental maps” played in the development of the postwar order. Husain writes of the British perspective, which was that of an empire slowly losing its hold on distant lands and thus keen to protect important footholds in each area through what Husain calls “regionalism.” In contrast, the American conception of the world was quite different, consisting of “globalism” and the integration of a stable world system:

The geographic assumptions in this globalism came to shape postwar American grand strategy. As James Lay, the executive secretary of the National Security Council wrote in 1952 in the pages of World Affairs, the administration had realized early on that “policies developed for the security of the United States have far-reaching impact throughout the world. Likewise, events throughout the world affect our national security. Policies, therefore, can no longer be decided solely within geographical limitations.”

When the British sought to make revisions to a plan for the postwar order that would have protected some of their waning influence, FDR sternly and impatiently responded that they “smacked too much [of] ‘spheres of influence’ policies, the very thing which it was supposedly designed to prevent.” The American perspective, carried out by the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, was a coherent and prescient view of the emerging interconnected world with American leadership at the helm.

The concern by some of our allies around the world today is that America, under Obama, is acting more like postwar Britain than FDR and Truman’s United States. They wonder if we’re ceding influence while trying to mask retreat in token diplomatic gestures and occasional displays of interest or strength intended to keep a foothold, but no more than a foothold, in regions too important to leave behind but too chaotic to defend with press releases.

America does not have imperial properties around the globe as Britain did, of course. At the same time, there is no other United States to step into the vacuum and protect a globalism that could easily give way to regionalism. And painting those who want to know if America can still be counted on as warmongers is not going to reassure anyone.

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Obama Overstates Stability in Ukraine

In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

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In his West Point address, President Obama somehow managed to cite Ukraine as a success for his multilateral approach to foreign policy–aka “lead from behind.” He claimed credit for the “mobilization of world opinion and international institutions” to act as “a counterweight to Russian propaganda and Russian troops on the border and armed militias in ski masks.” 

The upshot: “This weekend, Ukrainians voted by the millions. Yesterday, I spoke to their next president. We don’t know how the situation will play out, and there will remain grave challenges ahead, but standing with our allies on behalf of international order, working with international institutions, has given a chance for the Ukrainian people to choose their future — without us firing a shot.”

Like many of the president’s dubious claims of success, this is technically accurate but misleading. It is true that the people of Ukraine have a chance to express their view of their future, which they did by overwhelmingly electing a pro-Western billionaire, Petro Poroshenko, as president. But whether their views will carry the day remains to be seen–and the U.S. isn’t doing nearly enough to back up the Ukrainian desire for independence and a pro-Western orientation. Crimea has already been lost to Russian aggression–so lost that Obama didn’t even mention it in his speech.

Meanwhile a full-blown civil war appears to be growing in eastern Ukraine where, despite Vladimir Putin’s slightly less belligerent rhetorical approach of late, his minions continue to fight to prevent the re-establishment of central authority. The latest news is that separatists used a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile to shoot down a helicopter carrying 14 Ukrainian soldiers including a general. This comes just a few days after a major battle for control of Donetsk’s airport, which had been seized by rebels, left more than 50 people dead. “Many of those killed in the fighting were Russian citizens fighting on the rebel side,” the New York Times notes, which would not be the case if Putin were truly interested in respecting Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ukraine faces massive challenges to ward off Russian aggression while dealing with corruption and other internal problems. It’s good that the country just held a presidential election, but Obama should know better than to cite a vote as a sign that everything is getting better–that was the mistake George W. Bush repeatedly made in Iraq.

Ukraine still needs lots of aid if it is to remain whole and free, and the U.S. has not been providing it. Neither have our allies. The Obama administration, for example, is still refusing to provide any military supplies beyond MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). As is so often the case, President Obama seems to prefer giving a fancy speech to implementing a substantive policy.

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Edward Snowden’s Ego Trip

I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

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I don’t find myself saying this much these days, but: John Kerry is right. As NSA defector Edward Snowden has become increasingly insufferable (a condition magnified and exacerbated by his decision to speak through the rage-clenched teeth of Glenn Greenwald), the secretary of state and his diplomatic corps have visibly lost patience with the delusions and deceptions of Russia’s newest intel asset.

And who can blame them? The latest set of claims by Snowden, released as an excerpt of his NBC News interview beginning tonight, includes a whopper that the word chutzpah doesn’t begin to cover. Snowden was asked by Brian Williams why he ended up in Moscow. Snowden–a man who violated his terms of employment and stole troves of secret national-security intelligence before fleeing the country–actually blamed Kerry’s State Department:

“The reality is I never intended to end up in Russia,” he said in a second excerpt broadcast on NBC’s “Today Show.” “I had a flight booked to Cuba onwards to Latin America, and I was stopped because the United States government decided to revoke my passport and trap me in Moscow Airport. So when people ask why are you in Russia, I say, ‘Please ask the State Department.’ ”

That comment drew a sharp reaction from Secretary of State John Kerry, in an interview on the same program. “For a supposedly smart guy, that’s a pretty dumb answer, frankly,” Mr. Kerry said. He added: “He can come home, but he’s a fugitive from justice, which is why he’s not being permitted to fly around the world. It’s that simple.”

Indeed, Secretary Kerry is on the mark. Snowden’s comment is a dumb thing to say, though it’s less likely that Snowden is stupid enough to believe it and more likely that he just assumes the American media and his cheerleaders back in the States are stupid enough to believe it. Kerry isn’t buying it, but his response to Snowden wasn’t done. Later in that story, Kerry adds:

“The bottom line is this is a man who has betrayed his country, who is sitting in Russia, an authoritarian country, where he has taken refuge,” he said. “He should man up and come back to the United States if he has a complaint about what’s the matter with American surveillance, come back here and stand in our system of justice and make his case. But instead he is just sitting there taking potshots at his country, violating his oath that he took when he took on the job he took.”

Shots fired, as they say. Snowden probably thinks this is some sort of victory, since it shows that he got under Kerry’s skin. But it won’t help Snowden or his followers that Washington is pushing back and engaging in the battle to define and frame Snowden and his antics. It may not lure him back home to face the consequences of his actions, but it’s still worth engaging Snowden’s selective smearing of American institutions for the benefit of states like China and Russia.

And the provocations go in both directions. It appears President Obama got under Snowden’s skin as well, leading Snowden to protest that he’s not just some low-level techie but a masterful weapon created by the elite minds at America’s espionage organizations:

“They’re trying to use one position that I’ve had in a career here or there to distract from the totality of my experience,” he said, “which is that I’ve worked for the Central Intelligence Agency undercover overseas, I’ve worked for the National Security Agency undercover overseas and I’ve worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency as a lecturer at the Joint Counterintelligence Training Academy, where I developed sources and methods for keeping our information and people secure in the most hostile and dangerous environments around the world.” …

“I am a technical specialist,” he said. “I am a technical expert. I don’t work with people. I don’t recruit agents. What I do is I put systems to work for the United States. And I’ve done that at all levels from — from the bottom on the ground all the way to the top. Now, the government might deny these things, they might frame it in certain ways and say, ‘Oh well, you know, he’s — he’s a low level analyst.’ ”

How dare the president deny the “totality of [Snowden’s] experience.” Surely he’s aware of the work Snowden does when he powers down his laptop, jumps into the nearest phone booth, and emerges with cape flowing. Doesn’t the president know he is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? That he’s the hero Gotham deserves? That he is the terror that flaps in the night?

I’m not sure if Snowden thinks it helps his case to declare that he is a defector of far greater significance than he’s been given credit for thus far. And to be honest, this cry for attention and validation is almost endearing. He just wants to be appreciated, to give his perpetual adolescence some meaning. Kerry’s quest to get Snowden to “man up” is probably futile, but good for Kerry for pointing it out–and for referring to Snowden’s new home as an “authoritarian country.” It’s a welcome dose of clear-eyed straight talk from Foggy Bottom.

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Obama vs. His Imagined Critics

In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

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In his much ballyhooed West Point address, President Obama employed what in the 1990s was known as “triangulation”–but not an effective or convincing form of triangulation, rather one that appears to be mainly rhetorical instead of policy oriented. 

The president set up a conflict between “self-described realists” who warn against “foreign entanglements that do not touch directly on our security or economic well-being” and “interventionists on the left and right” who claim “that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos, and America’s failure to act in the face of Syrian brutality or Russian provocations not only violates our conscience, but invites escalating aggression in the future.”

Naturally Obama claimed that his policy is equidistant between these extremes: “It is absolutely true that in the 21st century, American isolationism is not an option. … But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution.”

Yet who says “that every problem has a military solution”? Obama is punching at a straw man, and he continued to do so throughout his address. Some more examples:

* “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.”

* “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”

*“As frustrating as it is, there are no easy answers – no military solution that can eliminate the terrible suffering anytime soon. As President, I made a decision that we should not put American troops into the middle of this increasingly sectarian civil war [in Syria], and I believe that is the right decision.”

*“Of course, skeptics often downplay the effectiveness of multilateral action. For them, working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness. I think they’re wrong.”

I wonder if Obama or his speechwriters could possibly identify a single person who thinks that it’s a good idea to invade “every country that harbors terrorist networks,” or who thinks that putting American troops into Syria is the way to go, or who argues that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” 

Maybe there is such a person out there but I have yet to meet him or her, much less to find a large movement espousing such views. What Obama is doing here is caricaturing criticism of his foreign policy so he can rebut it more easily. In particular he is conflating “tough action” with “military action” and “military action” with “boots on the ground.”

No one is arguing that we should bomb Russia but many (including me) are arguing that we need a tougher response to Russian aggression to include more wide-ranging sanctions and the stationing of U.S. troops in NATO frontline states. 

Likewise, no one is arguing for sending troops to Syria. But many have been arguing for stepping up assistance to the Syrian opposition and employing air strikes if necessary to aid their campaign to overthrow the Iranian-supported Assad regime. 

Obama himself used just such a combination of covert aid and air strikes to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya—as Clinton did in Bosnia and Kosovo and as George W. Bush did initially in Afghanistan. This is a relatively low-cost way to project American military power that doesn’t risk putting troops on the ground. But to listen to the West Point address you would think this option doesn’t exist—the only choices Obama seems to recognize now are either diplomatic posturing or a massive, Iraq-style ground invasion.

Finally, no one I know of seriously thinks that “working through international institutions, or respecting international law, is a sign of weakness.” What many (including me) argue is that, while we should try to utilize multilateral institutions where possible, we should not hold our policy hostage to a failure to win agreement at the UN Security Council—as Obama seems to be doing in the case of Syria and Iran.

In rebutting his many critics, Obama would be more persuasive if seriously engaged their arguments instead of rebutting arguments that no one is making in the real world.

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The Anti-Freedom Hypocrisy of Europe’s Far Right

After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

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After the 2012 election, as Hillary Clinton was winding down her time as secretary of state and looking to the future, she began toughening up her rhetoric. Having presided over the disastrous Russian “reset,” Putin’s Russia seemed a good place to start. So she told the media before a meeting with her Russian counterpart that Putin’s proposed “Eurasian Union,” a customs union involving Russia’s near abroad, was “a move to re-Sovietize the region,” and she planned to “figure out effective ways to slow down or prevent it.”

The comment was surprisingly alarmist, as Clinton hadn’t officially left the State Department yet and appeared to be overcompensating for the weakness and naïveté that characterized Washington’s relationship with Russia on her watch. Yet as in so many instances, Russia’s recent behavior has made what looked alarmist at first glance much closer to the mark. And what if Clinton was actually underestimating the spread of Russian influence in Europe? That’s the upshot of the New York Times’s disheartening story on the rise of Putinist sympathizers across Europe’s political spectrum:

This convergence has pushed the far right into a curious alignment with the far left. In European Parliament votes this year on the lifting of tariffs and other steps to help Ukraine’s fragile new government, which Russia denounces as fascist but the European Union supports, legislators at both ends of the political spectrum banded together to oppose assisting Ukraine.

“Russia has become the hope of the world against new totalitarianism,” Mr. Chauprade, the National Front’s top European Parliament candidate for the Paris region, said in a speech to Russia’s Parliament in Moscow last year.

When Crimea held a referendum in March on whether the peninsula should secede from Ukraine and join Russia, Mr. Chauprade joined a team of election monitors organized by a pro-Russian outfit in Belgium, the Eurasian Observatory for Elections and Democracy. The team, which pronounced the referendum free and fair, also included members of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party; a Flemish nationalist group in Belgium; and the Jobbik politician in Hungary accused of spying for Russia.

Luc Michel, the Belgian head of the Eurasian Observatory, which receives some financial support from Russian companies but promotes itself as independent and apolitical, champions the establishment of a new “Eurasian” alliance, stretching from Vladivostok in Russia to Lisbon in Portugal and purged of American influence. The National Front, preoccupied with recovering sovereign powers surrendered to Brussels, has shown little enthusiasm for a new Eurasian bloc. But it, too, bristles at Europe’s failure to project itself as a global player independent from America, and looks to Russia for help.

A Eurasian union from Vladivostok to Lisbon is far, far more than even Putin could have hoped for. The story underlines a major reason Putin has been so effective at building support abroad: by shedding socialist ideology, Putin has been able to attract members of the far right without losing the support of European leftists who have retained a good dose of sympathy for Russia, believing that the West (through NATO especially) added insult to injury when the Soviet Union collapsed and proved somehow to be unworthy of its own victory. It was a consolation prize for the European left.

Another fascinating, if unoriginal, aspect to this is the role of anti-European Union populism. There are various reasons for this, but one of them is that the far right has put a new spin on the traditional leftist critique of American imperialism:

The European Union, said Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a member of the French Parliament and a niece of Marine Le Pen, is “the poodle of the United States.”

If only! (Though it wouldn’t be a “poodle,” but a far more majestic breed; some kind of retriever, perhaps.) This is where the uniting of the European far left and far right results in total incoherence. Does Le Pen really think Brussels is lacking in anti-Americanism? It isn’t. And that’s where this fight over Russia exposes the fault lines in Euro-Atlantic relations.

In the ongoing debate over whether Britain should remain in the EU, America’s position has been that it should stay in the EU because otherwise the union would be bereft of true Anglosphere voices. I have been clear that I find this argument unconvincing. What is likely is a kind of “reverse integration” in which British opinion would be submerged in a sea of Eurostatism and the free world would be compromised, not reinforced.

And here we have a perfect moment to test it. The Europeans are already skeptical of sanctions against Russia, undermining Western resolve. If there is pro-American sentiment of any real force in the EU, now would be a good time to hear it rally to the side of democracy and international law.

That last point also shows what is so counterproductive about the supposedly Euroskeptic right’s support for Putin. They may have legitimate grievances about the EU’s power grab and antidemocratic supranationalism. Indeed, they certainly do. But the Putinist model is the road to tyranny, not democracy. By throwing their support to an authoritarian thug, they are only proving just how hollow and dishonest are their claims to be standing up for freedom and democratic sovereignty.

They are hypocrites, and their hypocrisy only enables further bloodshed and the rolling back of freedom in Europe. Let’s not pretend otherwise.

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The Crimea-Kuwait Parallel

Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

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Another day, another (so far unfulfilled) promise by Vladimir Putin to move his troops back from the border of Ukraine. Meanwhile his proxies continue to try to exert influence in eastern Ukraine as Crimea becomes a fully fledged part of the Russian empire. 

In assessing the motives for Russian action, a lot of the explanation has rightly focused on Putin’s need to stoke nationalist sentiment to bolster his own popularity and on his need to destabilize the emerging pro-Western government in Kiev lest it take Ukraine too far into the Western camp. But a good Marxist–which Putin once was–would never overlook an economic motive for imperialist aggression. 

The New York Times notes that, in addition to all the other benefits that Russia accrues from Crimea, it is potentially an oil and gas bonanza. By seizing Crimea, Russia has also vastly expanded its maritime rights in the Black Sea, opening up access to energy deposits across 36,000 square miles of water worth potentially a trillion dollars. Meanwhile the loss of Crimea denies Ukraine pretty much all claim to those same rights. Russia has even taken control of the Crimean arm of Ukraine’s national oil company, which was already exploring for oil in the area. 

In short there are some uncomfortable echoes here with Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 which, if allowed to stand, would have vastly bolstered Saddam Hussein’s oil reserves. It was not allowed to stand, but the annexation of Crimea already looks like a fait accompli.

This makes it all the more imperative to impose stronger sanctions on Russia to make it more difficult to deploy the technology and resources it needs to exploit its ill-gotten gains.

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What Washington Can Do for Kiev

In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

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In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (yes that’s what it is–an invasion), I, in common with other commentators, have emphasized the need for stronger economic sanctions on Russia as well as the permanent positioning of U.S. troops in frontline NATO states to send a strong message that cross-border aggression does not pay.

But there is also a need to do more to help the nascent pro-Western state in Kiev to stand up to Russian bullying. Part of the help it needs is economic, and it is receiving some of what it needs from the European Union, IMF, and U.S. But, as Ukraine’s defense minister Andriy Parubiy reminds us in the Wall Street Journal, the Ukrainian armed forces also are desperate for American assistance.

“We have submitted,” he writes, “a complete list of what is needed to the U.S.—assistance in the form of antiaircraft and antitank weaponry, as well as bulletproof vests and night-vision goggles.” Ukraine also desperately needs more training for its ill-prepared forces, which have been mismanaged for years.

So far all that has been forthcoming from Washington is some Meals, Ready to Eat. Apparently the Obama administration thinks that it would be too “provocative” to provide Ukraine with arms to defend itself. While there is a risk of Russian action to preempt weapons deliveries, in the long-run the provision of more potent weaponry to Ukraine–in particular antitank and antiaircraft missiles–would actually make war less, not more, likely.

Vladimir Putin is already visibly hesitating as he contemplates the challenge of occupying eastern Ukraine, an area where most people don’t want to be part of Russia and whose geography makes it hard to split it off from the rest of the country–it is not an archipelago like Crimea. How much more would he hesitate if he knew that Ukraine’s defenders, who already have a history of guerrilla warfare against Soviet troops in the 1950s, would be armed with the kind of sophisticated weapons that the Afghan mujahideen used against the Red Army in the 1980s.

That is the logic of deterrence–of peace through strength. Too bad the U.S. and its Western allies seem bent on a policy of appeasement when it comes to Russian aggression.

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France’s Role in Putin’s War

At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

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At a time when the West is trying to make Russia pay a price for its aggression in Ukraine, what kind of message does it send if France delivers to Russia two top-of-the-line Mistral-class amphibious assault ships?

“Each of the ships would be able to carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, 60 armored vehicles, 13 tanks and up to 700 soldiers,” reports the New York Times correspondent Michael Gordon, and they would significantly augment Putin’s power projection capabilities.

Jim Stavridis, a retired admiral who was NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander from 2009 to 2013, says: “The technology and capability represented by the Mistral should not be passed to a Russian Federation that continues to threaten its neighbors.”

The Obama administration has been delivering that message to Paris ever since 2010. Yet two successive French governments have turned a deaf ear to American entreaties. So much for President Obama’s vaunted powers of persuasion. President Francois Hollande has no trouble saying “non” to a Nobel Peace Prize winner–and “oui” to the new tsar in the Kremlin–because it means an extra $1.6 billion or so for the French arms industry.

At the very least France deserves to suffer international opprobrium for this reckless, short-sighted, profit-first behavior that comes at the cost of enabling further Russian aggression. And if I were in a senior leadership position in one of the states directly threatened by Russian power–states like Georgia, Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic republics–I would think of taking matters into my own hands in the way that Israel would if some outside power were to deliver powerful weapons to its enemies.

Those Eastern European states should give careful consideration to using their secret services to sabotage the French ships if possible because their entry into the Russian fleet will pose a direct threat to the future independence of these former Soviet satellites. That may be a shocking suggestion, but there are precedents for attacking French naval forces before they fall into enemy hands–e.g., the Royal Navy’s attack on the French fleet off Algeria on July 3, 1940, when it was in Vichy hands. 

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Snowden and the Cold Warriors

A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

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A curious display of projection has characterized the response by many to the revelations leaked by NSA defector Edward Snowden. The projection is understandable–even, perhaps, honorable in some cases–but projection it is. Essentially, many American commentators genuinely believed that America would be better for having Snowden divulge all this information. The problem is that the evidence suggests Snowden didn’t.

Those who thought Snowden’s revelations about domestic surveillance were an opportune moment to have an honest conversation about American national security thought Snowden did too. Those who saw in the trove of secret information the key to returning American governance to its constitutional principles took Snowden’s declaration of same without reservation. Those who thought America would be stronger for having cause to apply much-needed reforms to its overly bureaucratized national security state assumed Snowden, too, saw himself as a blessing in disguise for the Pentagon.

As the revelations began to stray from having anything to do with domestic surveillance into having everything to do with benefiting America’s enemies into whose arms Snowden ran, it became utterly clear that Snowden was not an honest man seeking an honest conversation or that he had any interest in preserving democracy (in fact just the opposite: he expressed strident hostility to the democratic process). Snowden was not a man of peace; he defected to bloodthirsty authoritarians on the eve of war.

And today an intriguing essay in Politico Magazine shines some light on who misjudged Snowden and why. Jack Devine, a former CIA veteran, sees a familiar archetype in Snowden:

In his new book, No Place to Hide, Glenn Greenwald tells how Edward Snowden once confided to him, “with a hint of embarrassment,” how much he had learned from playing video games. In the black-and-white world of video games, “the protagonist is often an ordinary person, who finds himself faced with grave injustices from powerful forces and has the choice to flee in fear or to fight for his beliefs,” Greenwald writes.

But Edward Snowden’s video-game world is not the real world. As a former director of operations for the CIA, I see Snowden in a very different light. My colleagues and I in the agency spent our careers looking for people like him—on the other side, that is. We worked hard to locate the kind of person who could be persuaded to give up his country’s secrets: narcissistic, often delusional under-achievers whom we could hope to turn into loose-lipped sources in our enemies’ camps and other hostile locations. We understood just how valuable it was to every aspect of our foreign policy to know the plans and intentions of our enemies; the best way to do this was to look for a source and exploit people like Snowden, the National Security Agency leaker, ­ to target for this purpose.

Devine does not oppose sensible reforms to the NSA data collection programs. But contrary to those who think Snowden has added much-needed context to our national-security debate, Devine correctly notes that “Like the video-game fanatic he appears to have been, Snowden has made black-and-white what is actually a very complex issue.”

Snowden and his defenders have wallowed in shallow waters, leaving the task of complicated analysis to those who can ill afford to engage merely in smug sloganeering. But another interesting aspect to this is what the whole affair tells us about why Snowden’s defenders got him so wrong. Critics of the national security state have enjoyed embarrassing themselves recently by glomming on to the notion that hawks are stuck in a Cold War frame of mind, only to have Putin’s Russia make it clear that they are the ones out of touch.

Something similar happened with Snowden. His defenders–again, out of honorable, if naïve intentions–saw in him what they wanted to see. Those who recognized Snowden right away for who he really was, it turned out, were the folks like Devine, who had decades of experience in American national security during the Cold War. Because the Cold War is basically the history of the second half of the twentieth century, it always struck me as odd that people would actually boast of ignoring that history when making policy pronouncements.

Yet that’s what the Snowden apologists did. Those with real on-the-ground experience, who weren’t willing to dismiss decades of history because it didn’t conform to their ideal of a video-game world, were the ones who understood the story from the beginning.

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Power Vacuums and Green Lights in the South China Sea

Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

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Want to know what a world in which American power is in eclipse will look like? Just look around, from Ukraine to the South China Sea–both places where powerful states are seeking to dominate their neighbors with military force. 

The Ukrainian story is by now well known, with Russia having annexed Crimea and is in the process of setting up independent statelets in eastern Ukraine. But also of great significance is the recent decision by a Chinese state-owned National Offshore Oil Company to plant a $1 billion oil-drilling rig just 130 miles off the Vietnamese coast in waters that are claimed by Vietnam as an exclusive economic zone. Accompanying the oil rig were as many as 80 vessels belonging to the Chinese navy and coast guard; they used a water cannon to ward off a Vietnamese ship that got in the way of their power grab.

This Chinese move, into territory over which its jurisdiction under international law is virtually nonexistent, is all the more egregious because just three years ago Beijing and Hanoi reached agreement on shared borders and maritime rights. Now China is unilaterally abrogating that agreement and daring Vietnam and the rest of the world to do something about it.

So far, just as in Ukraine, so in the South China Sea, the rest of the world–led by the U.S.–is hardly a profile in courage. Vietnam tried but failed to get its neighbors, meeting last weekend at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, to condemn the Chinese move; those states are too scared of China to speak up publicly. The State Department, for its part, issued a pro forma denunciation of the Chinese move and left it at that.

Beijing is unlikely to be impressed. This was widely seen as a test of American and regional resolve to stand up to Chinese attempts to dominate waters that are also claimed by its neighbors. The lesson that Beijing must take away is that, just like Moscow, it has a green light for further aggression. 

The great danger here is that, just as in Europe, the local bully may miscalculate; one of its neighbors–whether Vietnam or Japan or the Philippines or some other state–may actually stand up to China and the result could be a shooting war. 

Although this is a regional dispute, just like the ongoing events in Ukraine, it has global ramifications, because it highlights the power vacuum being left by the present administration’s ill-advised retreat from America’s global leadership.

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Iran Counting on Obama’s Weakness

With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

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With the P5+1 nuclear talks set to resume again in Vienna tomorrow, many observers are sensing optimism that a deal with Iran is within reach. After dropping their insistence that Iran give up enriching uranium in order to gain Tehran’s acquiescence to an interim nuclear deal last November, the U.S. and its allies appear to be confident that another few meetings will produce an accord that will put an end to the confrontation with the Islamist regime over their efforts to build nuclear weapons. The best they hope to achieve is an agreement that will lengthen the time Iran needs to convert its stockpile of uranium into nuclear fuel rather than the end of the program that President Obama promised during his 2012 reelection campaign. But the administration and its supporters seem to think that rather than take the chance that the West will strengthen rather than weaken economic sanctions on it, Iran will do the smart thing and sign on the dotted line. While that won’t really end the nuclear threat, it will grant President Obama the appearance of a diplomatic victory and lead to the end of a sanctions policy that is already in danger of unraveling after the interim deal.

But rather than play ball with Obama, Iran’s leaders look to be playing hardball. As Haaretz reports, both Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani issued statements yesterday that make it clear they are in the talks to win them, not to merely acquiesce to a process that is already paving a path to nuclear capability for them. In speaking to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Khamenei mocked the notion that the country would go along with any limits on its ability to produce and deploy ballistic missiles. Meanwhile, Rouhani, the man President Obama and other advocates of the talks have depicted as a “moderate” whose victory in a faux election last year set the stage for reform of the brutal theocracy, said the best the U.S. could hope for in the talks was “transparency” and that the Islamist regime would accept no limits on its nuclear technology.

While Washington will, no doubt, dismiss the statements as mere posturing for a domestic audience that won’t impact the talks, these declarations come at an inopportune time for the Obama administration. They raise the possibility that Iran is planning to back away from any deal, even one as weak as the interim accord signed by Secretary of State John Kerry last November, much in the same manner that it has torpedoed past agreements at the last minute. But even if that is not the case, these comments make it likely that the U.S. will have to ante up even more than Obama thought in order to get Iran to sign a deal that already amounts to appeasement.

It should be remembered that Rouhani’s credibility with the regime’s supposed hardliners rests with his exploits as a nuclear negotiator a decade ago when he took the West right up to the brink of a deal about enrichment and then backed away leaving the Bush administration and its European allies looking silly. Obama and Kerry were warned that this might happen again before they embarked on their most ambitious attempt at engagement with Iran. But while they still hope to get a deal, even if it is nothing more than a thin veil on Western approval for a robust Iranian nuclear program that could easily lead to a weapon, there’s every chance that the they’ve been led down the garden path by Khamenei and Rouhani.

Anyone wondering why Iran is acting with such confidence should look to Europe and Russia. Sanctions were already undermined by the interim deal, but with Europeans not interested in enforcing the existing restrictions, let alone tightening them to create an embargo that would give the West its only hope of spiking the nuclear threat, Iran is confident they are doomed. With Europe now facing the prospect of being forced to confront Russia after its aggression against Ukraine, there is even less appetite for squeezing Iran than even just a few months ago.

If both Khamenei and Rouhani believe Western negotiators that were already behaving as if they were desperate for a deal will be even easier to shake down than before, it’s hard to blame them for thinking so. That means that, at best, what comes out of the P5+1 process in the months leading up to the initial July deadline for an agreement (though the U.S. has already said it is prepared to keep talking beyond the summer) will be even more favorable to Iran’s nuclear quest than expected. A deal that leaves Iran’s infrastructure in place, as well as granting its right to enrich and to produce ballistic missiles, is one that will do little, if anything, to stop Tehran from getting a nuke. Rouhani’s statement that it will continue enriching uranium to 20 percent is no empty boast since it can still reconvert the stockpiles to weapons-grade material at any time.

But what Obama and Kerry are really worried about is the possibility that Iran won’t even grant them a bad deal but will instead blow off the entire process and to proceed directly to nuclear capability. If so, their fatal weakness will be exposed as a reality rather than merely a conservative talking point, leaving them a choice between ramping up the conflict and complete capitulation. That’s exactly the mindset Khamenei and Rouhani are counting on to deliver them a meaningless agreement that can either be signed or ignored. Either way, Iran seems closer to its nuclear goal today than it did before Obama’s interim capitulation.

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Putin Keeps Chipping Away at Ukraine

You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

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You have to hand it to Vladimir Putin. Sure, he’s immoral, corrupt, despicable, tyrannical. But he’s also a power politician of the first order, and right now he’s playing the West like a Stradivarius. 

Last week, facing growing calls for sanctions on Russia in the U.S. and Europe, he announced that he was pulling his troops back from the border with Ukraine and ending his support for a referendum this weekend among pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine who desire Anschluss with Russia. This rhetorical feint provided a fig leaf of legitimacy for those in the West who don’t want to do anything about Russian aggression. But then of course Putin did not follow through. 

According to NATO intelligence reports, Russian troops still have not redeployed from the Ukrainian border. And on Sunday Russian separatists held a rigged referendum in the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, which delivered a predictable–if hardly believable–majority in favor of breaking away from Kiev. In Donetsk the pro-autonomy measure won 89 percent of the votes; in Luhansk a truly fantastic 97.5 percent. Pretty incredible when you consider that opinion polls just a month ago showed only 30 percent of eastern Ukrainians wanting to go their own way. These kinds of election “results”–reminiscent of years of rigged elections in the Soviet Union which reliably delivered 99.99 percent majorities for Communist candidates–are only credible to Putin’s mouthpieces on RT (Russia Today) television.

But the results serve to further muddy the waters: They undermine Kiev’s attempts to assert its sovereignty over the breakaway eastern provinces and they call into question the legitimacy of the looming May 25 election in Ukraine–how can a free and fair ballot be conducted when Russian gunmen are in control of substantial parts of eastern Ukraine?

Putin is now being extra cagy. Unlike in Crimea, he is not using this rigged referendum as an excuse to immediately annex eastern Ukraine. Instead he is demanding that the government in Kiev negotiate with the “demonstrators” (really, Russian provocateurs) who have taken power in the east–as if the two forces were of equal legitimacy. Putin is thus avoiding the onus of outright annexation, which could bring about not only more costly Western sanctions but also guerrilla warfare against Russian troops. Instead he is continuing to destabilize Ukraine and preparing the way to create autonomous Russian-controlled enclaves in that country as he has previously done in Moldova and Georgia, thereby helping to undermine the independence of all these post-Soviet republics.

You have to give Putin points for cleverly if amorally pursuing his realpolitik objectives. If only the leaders of the West were half as clever in stopping him. But they’re not. While Putin is playing geopolitical chess like a grandmaster, his opponents are playing checkers with the skill of not-overly-bright six-year-olds. No wonder pieces of the map keep falling to Russia.

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The Backlash Against Boko Haram

When Islamist terrorists seized more than 1,000 school children in Beslan, North Ossetia, abusing and ultimately murdering hundreds, the international response was pure and utter revulsion. Chechen and Daghestani separatists—and even many Islamists—could stomach no excuse for the action and rejected the religious justification espoused by the mostly Ingush and Chechen terrorists. Indeed, rather than enhance the Chechen or Daghestani causes, the Beslan massacre marked the end of most remaining international and Islamist sympathy for the their struggles against a brutal and abusive Russian regime.

If there is any silver lining to the horror occurring in northeastern Nigeria, it is that Boko Haram’s kidnapping of several hundred Nigerian school girls—and the leader’s threats to sell them off like chattel—may be a bridge to far for even those sympathetic to more militant strains of Islamism. And make no mistake, what Boko Haram is doing is rooted in Islam, albeit an archaic and twisted interpretation of it far from the mainstream. Indeed, anyone who denies the religious component has simply ignored the statement of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader and the man apparently responsible for the kidnapping, in his claim of responsibility:

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When Islamist terrorists seized more than 1,000 school children in Beslan, North Ossetia, abusing and ultimately murdering hundreds, the international response was pure and utter revulsion. Chechen and Daghestani separatists—and even many Islamists—could stomach no excuse for the action and rejected the religious justification espoused by the mostly Ingush and Chechen terrorists. Indeed, rather than enhance the Chechen or Daghestani causes, the Beslan massacre marked the end of most remaining international and Islamist sympathy for the their struggles against a brutal and abusive Russian regime.

If there is any silver lining to the horror occurring in northeastern Nigeria, it is that Boko Haram’s kidnapping of several hundred Nigerian school girls—and the leader’s threats to sell them off like chattel—may be a bridge to far for even those sympathetic to more militant strains of Islamism. And make no mistake, what Boko Haram is doing is rooted in Islam, albeit an archaic and twisted interpretation of it far from the mainstream. Indeed, anyone who denies the religious component has simply ignored the statement of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader and the man apparently responsible for the kidnapping, in his claim of responsibility:

My brethren in Islam, I am greeting you in the name of Allah like he instructed we should among Muslims. Allah is great and has given us privilege and temerity above all people. If we meet infidels, if we meet those that become infidels according to Allah, there is no any talk except hitting of the neck; I hope you chosen people of Allah are hearing. This is an instruction from Allah. It is not a distorted interpretation it is from Allah himself. This is from Allah on the need for us to break down infidels, practitioners of democracy, and constitutionalism, voodoo and those that are doing western education, in which they are practicing paganism…

We know what is happening in this world, it is a Jihad war against Christians and Christianity. It is a war against western education, democracy and constitution. We have not started, next time we are going inside Abuja; we are going to refinery and town of Christians. Do you know me? I have no problem with Jonathan. This is what I know in Quran. This is a war against Christians and democracy and their constitution, Allah says we should finish them when we get them.

According to SITE Monitoring, however, a subscription service which monitors and translates Islamist (and other extremist) websites, Boko Haram’s actions have become too much for even many extremists to accept: It is one thing to talk about religious war in theory; it is quite another thing to see the human toll when it is implemented in practice. Let us hope that the girls are rescued with minimal casualties, both among the hostages and those seeking to free them. And let us also hope that men like Abubakar Shekau will soon join the masterminds of the Beslan attack in hell. But, most of all, let us hope that those who until now might have been following and–in  the case of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar–funding these radical preachers will see in these Boko Haram actions not righteousness, but true evil. Perhaps out of this horror, Nigeria can turn a corner.

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Putin’s NATO Justification

To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

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To justify the unjustifiable–Russia’s aggression against Ukraine–Vladimir Putin has concocted a narrative of resentment built upon the myth that the U.S. supposedly humiliated Russia after the end of the Cold War. This ignores the obvious reality, which is that no one ever treated Russia the way Germany was treated after World War I. Far from demanding reparations or territorial concessions or imposing limits on Russia’s ability to defend itself, the West poured in billions in aid–money which was largely wasted because of the corruption of Putin and his ilk. 

True, the Russian Empire shrank considerably after 1991 but this was not because of a diktat imposed by Washington. It was because most of the subservient republics under Moscow’s thumb–from Ukraine to Uzbekistan–chose to go their own way. Washington couldn’t have stopped them if it had tried, and George H.W. Bush did try to discourage Ukrainian independence with his famous “Chicken Kiev” speech.

The one action that the West did take after the Soviet Union’s collapse that Putin can label as provocative was the expansion of NATO to Eastern Europe. This was opposed by some at the time as a needless aggravation of Russia. That argument is now being heard anew not only from Putin but from those in the West eager to rationalize his aggression. 

But it is disingenuous to suggest that Putin’s desire to reassemble the Russian empire is fueled by fear of NATO, a purely defensive alliance. Only someone who has been binge-watching RT (formerly Russia Today)–the Kremlin’s propaganda organ–could possibly imagine that, absent NATO’s expansion, Putin would be behaving in a more neighborly fashion toward Georgia, Ukraine, or other neighboring states that he still considers to be Russian satrapies. 

NATO expansion may be an excuse for Russian aggression but it is not its cause. Actually, NATO expansion has been a great force for peace and stability, helping to lock in the democratic gains in Eastern Europe and to impose limitations on Russian bullying. 

Far from backing away from NATO, the U.S. and its allies should double down. Ukraine and Georgia may not be ready for membership, but Sweden and Finland could easily be absorbed into the alliance as Swedish commentator Jan Joel Andersson argues in Foreign Affairs. “From a military standpoint, Sweden and Finland would add technologically sophisticated and well-equipped armed forces to the alliance,” he argues, and “it would bring the NATO border ever closer to Russia, demonstrating that military aggression in Europe carries major geopolitical consequences.” 

Such a bold step makes eminent sense to counter Russian aggression and to signal that the West will not accept Putin’s attempts to blame NATO for his own misconduct.

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