Commentary Magazine


Topic: Ukraine

Israel, the FAA, and International Isolation

For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

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For years, peace processors and pundits have threatened that to stop its “growing international isolation,” Israel must make “painful concessions” and withdraw from territory. The “growing isolation” was always a myth. Israel’s trade with Europe has grown constantly in recent years, even as it developed new markets and ties in Asia. Tourism has reached record levels almost every year, as has the number of Israelis traveling abroad. Except to those sensitive to the movements of postmodern dance troupes, the international isolation was a chimera.

Now, however, international isolation has truly arrived–not from holding territory, but from leaving it. With the suspension of American and European flights to Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, rockets from Gaza yielded what peace processors said settlement construction would. The flight suspension by all major airlines is a major–even if temporary–economic, diplomatic, and psychological setback for Israel. It finds itself, for the moment, in same position as Iraq, Libya, and Somalia.

The subtext here is that Israel has a sword at its neck: face a private-sector no-fly zone or agree to a cease-fire that lets Hamas keep its rockets, and thus close Ben Gurion Airport again at the time of its choosing. It is a lose-lose proposition.

Yes, Israel faces international isolation–as a consequence of its attempts to avoid international isolation. Of course, nuanced thinkers are already explaining why this should not prejudice further, massive territorial withdraws from the hills immediately overlooking Ben Gurion Airport and the coastal plain.

Everyone is jittery from the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine, they will say. If so, Hamas has succeeded in turning Israel into Donetsk. Moreover, the timing of the FAA’s absurd and unjustified warning seems to have more to do with Kerry’s visit to the region to impose a cease-fire on Israel. Until his administration’s flight ban, that effort seemed entirely futile.

The West Bank is vastly larger and closer to central Israel than Gaza. What Hamas could do periodically and with great difficulty will be a daily occurrence. Israel would be able to survive, but with a sword at its neck, and on terms constantly dictated by the Palestinians, and whoever is ultimately in charge of the FAA.

Indeed, the decision-making behind the FAA ban demands investigation. Ben Gurion remains an extremely safe airport. The FAA had many various measures short of a flight ban, like warnings, that it could have imposed. The FAA only warns airlines about flying to Afghanistan; it does not ban them. And the FAA move comes the day after a general State Department warning about Israel–though far more people were killed in Chicago on Fourth of July weekend than in the Jewish state since the start of the Gaza campaign.

Whatever the intent, the administration has cornered Israel in a booby-trapped tunnel, with Hamas on one side, and economic perdition on the other.

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Why Is Aeroflot Still Flying?

The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

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The cleanup and recovery of debris from Malaysian Airlines flight 17 is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-back militias, commanded by former Russian intelligence officers, using Russian-supplied equipment shot down the flight, killing almost 300, including 80 children. The White House is hemming and hawing about a tough reply, seemingly confusing talking about a response with actually responding.

While this is ongoing, Aeroflot—Russia’s national airline—is still flying over American and European airspace. Perhaps if President Obama and European leaders really wanted to make Vladimir Putin understand how unacceptable it was to down this aircraft, it is time for U.S. and European officials to deny Aeroflot overflight rights. When Russia comes clean and Putin makes amends for the Russian militia’s actions, perhaps there can be some discussion about allowing Russian airliners to again traverse European and American airspace.

Now certainly Putin will bluster and bloviate—he does that all the time—and he may also lash out at American and European carriers. But I suspect a lot more travelers want to leave Russia than enter it. The children of Russian elite often study in the West, and their families like to visit them. And, in August, Russians–like many in Europe–like to take vacations down to the Mediterranean or Algarve, if not to Disneyland. If they have to choose Sochi instead for the next year or two, so be it.

Putin plays hardball, while Obama waves his wiffle ball bat. While Obama sees international relations as a platform upon which to compromise, Putin sees it as a zero-sum game where he wins and the weak lose. Perhaps it’s time that the White House and State Department to stop treating leverage as a dirty word, and actually start to wield it.

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Why Should Denial of Access to MH17 Matter?

In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

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In the days since the shoot-down of Malaysian Airlines 17 over eastern Ukraine, the press and many diplomats have been consumed with questioning whether Russians or pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine shot down the civilian jetliner. With all due respect, any answer is a distinction without a difference. To ascribe any degree of independent thought to the pro-Russian separatists is to be played for fools by Russia itself. Indeed, it is a common practice among rogue regimes to sponsor proxies to enable plausible deniability.

The fighters in Donetsk are to Russia what Hezbollah is to Iran. Rather than give the Kremlin an out for the actions of anyone under separatist leader Igor Girkin who, according to press reports, was a member of the KGB-successor agency the FSB until last year, the proper response would be to acknowledge that the buck stops with Vladimir Putin. If Putin did not want to risk such accountability, then he shouldn’t tolerate, channel, or use men such as Girkin to advance Russian policy.

Nor should there be such handwringing over the denial of access to investigators seeking to investigate the wreckage. Would it be better if such investigations occurred unimpeded? Sure. But rather than allow Russia and its proxies to avoid accountability by undercutting the investigation into the murder of all those onboard MH17, the United States, Europe, and Malaysia should simply declare that Girkin and Putin will be considered guilty unless there is immediate access to the crash scene. To worry about access highlights one more reason why terrorism—and, make no mistake, this was an act of terror—should be considered a military matter and not a judicial issue to be subject to judicial standards of evidence. Even for those who favor process over justice and who are prone to see the shoot-down through the lens of criminality, then perhaps a better analogy would be to consider the case of a suspected drunk driver who refuses a Breathalyzer test. No policeman or court would agree that refusal to take the breath test would mandate a not-guilty verdict to drunk driving.

It’s understandable that air disaster investigators want as clean a process as possible to their investigation. But if that is not possible for geopolitical reasons, then rather than allow Russia to avoid accountability, it is time to respond—economically against Russia and perhaps with unilateral action against the Donestk commanders without any further delay. After all, only the guilty would impede the investigation, so such impediment should be taken for what it is—an admission of guilt.

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Russia’s Provocation Demands Tougher Action

President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

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President Obama appeared in the White House briefing room on Friday to deliver remarks on the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17. His statement included some strong and appropriate words of condemnation, calling this an “outrage of unspeakable proportions.” But of course being Barack Obama–the dispassionate academic par excellence–he delivered even this expression of displeasure with all the emotion he might have put into reading a grocery list.

The potential impact of his statement was further dissipated by the fact that he said repeatedly that “our immediate focus will be on recovering those who were lost, investigating exactly what happened, and putting forward the facts.” As if this were the mysterious disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight 370 which vanished without a trace. Actually we know with a high degree of certainty what happened with flight 17: As even Obama conceded, it was shot down by pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine with the help of the Russian state. As he noted, “we have confidence in saying that that shot was taken within a territory that is controlled by the Russian separatists.” Moreover, he said, “a group of separatists can’t shoot down military transport planes or, they claim, shoot down fighter jets without sophisticated equipment and sophisticated training. And that is coming from Russia.”

But still he refused to draw the obvious conclusion: that Russia is ultimately responsible for a war crime–the shooting down of flight 17 as well as broader aggression against Ukraine. Instead, he tried to make it appear as if there is blame all around: “Russia, these separatists, and Ukraine all have the capacity to put an end to the fighting.” That’s like blaming both Hamas and Israel equally for the fighting now going on in Gaza–an act of moral myopia that fails to recognize the culpability of an aggressor (Russia, Hamas) and the responsibility of a nation under attack (Ukraine, Israel) to respond with all due force to defend itself.

Failing to pin the responsibility on Russia as squarely as he should have done, Obama naturally failed to lay out a clear response to Russia’s aggression. He ruled out the possibility of providing any military help to Ukraine to defend itself: “We don’t see a U.S. military role beyond what we’ve already been doing in working with our NATO partners and some of the Baltic States, giving them reassurances that we are prepared to do whatever is required to meet our alliance obligations.” In short, no military equipment and no advisers for Ukraine. Let them eat MREs!

He didn’t even call for “sectoral” sanctions (for example, freezing all Russian financial institutions out of the U.S. and imposing secondary sanctions on foreign firms that do business with Russia, as we’ve done with Iran)–steps that could really hurt the Russian economy. Instead he expressed satisfaction with the very limited and ineffectual sanctions announced so far: “We feel confident that at this point the sanctions that we’ve put in place are imposing a cost on Russia … I think Treasury, in consultation with our European partners, have done a good job so far on that issue.”

Really? Obama thinks the sanctions have been good so far? Admittedly a new round of measures was just announced this week so it’s too early to judge their impact, but there is no sign of Russia backing off its illegal and brazen aggression. Indeed just today Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, released a video appearing to show a Russian Grad rocket launcher shelling Ukrainian territory.

It is wishful thinking to imagine that the shooting down of flight 17 will, by itself, cause Russia to end its attacks on Ukrainian territory. To force Russia to back off will require a massive effort on the part of the West. Admittedly Obama’s statement on Friday was only an initial stab at a response; tougher measures may be coming. But his words give little confidence that the type of massive response needed to force Russia into retreating will ever occur.

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Downing of Plane Shows West Cannot Ignore Russia-Ukraine Escalation

On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

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On September 1, 1983, Soviet fighter aircraft shot down Korean Air Lines flight 007 which had inadvertently entered Soviet airspace on its way from Anchorage to Seoul. All 269 people on board were killed. President Reagan swiftly condemned “this crime against humanity,” which only redoubled his desire to bring down the “evil empire” (as he had called the Soviet Union earlier that year).

We can only hope for similar moral clarity today from the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of the equally outrageous shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight 17 over Ukraine with 295 people on board including more than 20 American citizens. The exact circumstances remain murky, but there is a strong circumstantial case, based on what we already know, that this was the work of pro-Russian separatist rebels who had been provided by the Kremlin with an advanced Buk anti-aircraft missile system. As Julia Ioffe of the New Republic notes, “there are now screenshots floating around the Russian-language internet from what seems to be the Facebook page of Igor Strelkov, a rebel leader in eastern Ukraine, showing plumes of smoke and bragging about shooting down a Ukrainian military Antonov plane shortly before MaH 17 fell. ‘Don’t fly in our skies,’ he reportedly wrote. If that’s true, it would seem rebels downed the jetliner, having mistaken it for a Ukrainian military jet.”

Certainly it would not be surprising to see the rebels, or their Russian sponsors, shooting down suspected Ukrainian aircraft. In fact, just before the Malaysian airliner went down, the Ukrainian government had accused a Russian fighter plane of shooting down one of its own fighters in Ukrainian airspace on Wednesday. Just a few days before that, Ukraine accused Russian rebels of shooting down a Ukrainian transport aircraft.

This is becoming rather too regular an occurrence to be ignored. The deaths of all those innocent passengers and crew aboard the Malaysian aircraft, who were in no way party to this conflict, makes it impossible for the West to look away from Russian aggression or for Russia to escape culpability. Even if the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft was accidental and not ordered by the Kremlin, as seems likely, Vladimir Putin is nevertheless ultimately responsible. If you hand a bazooka to a hyperactive teenager and he destroys your neighbor’s house, the person providing the weapon is just as culpable as the one firing it.

And there is no doubt that anti-aircraft missiles, along with tanks and other advanced weaponry, have been provided to pro-Russian separatists, many of them Russian citizens and even members of the Russian intelligence and military services, by the Russian state. You don’t pick up an anti-aircraft missile at your local military surplus store the way you might an AK-47.

The question now is what we–meaning we in the West–are going to do about this outrageous act of villainy. John McCain said that if Russian involvement is proved, there will be “hell to pay.” I certainly hope so. What would this “hell” consist of?

No one is contemplating the use of Western military force against Russia or even Russian separatists in Ukraine, but certainly there is much that the U.S. and its European allies could do to provide military equipment and training to the Ukrainian armed forces to enable them to defeat Putin’s minions–something that we have been afraid to do until now for fear of triggering Russian escalation. As if shooting down civilian aircraft isn’t escalation enough.

There is also a need, as I have written before, to station substantial numbers of American ground forces in frontline NATO states including Poland and the Baltics to make clear that they will stand up to Russian aggression if directed their way. Seeing U.S. troops on his doorstep is pretty much the last thing Putin wants, and that’s precisely why we should do so. In addition the U.S. needs to end its ill-considered military drawdown and rebuild our strength to confront our enemies as Ronald Reagan did.

Finally the U.S. and Europe need to beef up their limited slate of sanctions against Russia. Just yesterday President Obama announced fresh sanctions against several Russian financial institutions and oil and gas producers which are, inter alia, being barred from the U.S. market. This stops well short of the “sectoral” sanctions on the Russian financial and energy sectors that President Obama had previously threatened, and the European Union pusillanimously refused to go even that far. The EU only promised to block future loans for projects in Russia by European development banks. Perhaps now the EU will get off its knees and join the U.S. in truly broad sanctions that will do real damage to the Russian economy.

Oh and perhaps now the French government will consider not delivering to Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that will considerably enhance Moscow’s ability to terrorize its neighbors.

I say “perhaps” advisedly because this is what should happen–but probably won’t. Even now there will be voices of detente cautioning that we don’t want to “isolate” or “corner” Russia. But if the murder of 295 innocents is not enough for the West to finally stand up to Russia’s barely disguised aggression in Ukraine, it is hard to know what it will take.

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Reform Conservatism, Foreign Policy, and Epistemic Closure

The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

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The rise of the “reformicons”–reform conservatives–is one of the more encouraging developments in the conservative movement’s introspection during its time (mostly) in the wilderness. It hasn’t said much on foreign policy, however, a fact which Ross Douthat mentions in a post on the subject. But Douthat–generally one of the sharpest policy minds in the commentariat–makes a crucial, and inexplicable, mistake: he ignores the debate taking place on the right, rather than joining it, and then wonders where the debate is.

In making the case for the necessity of an expanded debate on foreign policy, Douthat references two prominent paleocons, a left-wing opinion writer, and the “Israel Lobby” conspiracist Andrew Sullivan, none of whom has a fresh or coherent take on GOP foreign policy. In his one exception, he briefly mentions his coauthor Reihan Salam, a self-described neoconservative, but quickly insists that Salam’s worldview is “highly idiosyncratic, and takes as a given that the Iraq invasion was a folly”–in other words, he’s far enough removed from what Douthat refers to as “Cheneyism.”

I have a few thoughts. The first is that, if I conducted a discussion on domestic-policy reform conservatism while excluding actual reform conservatives, how informative do you suppose that would be? The second is, Douthat worries about affiliation with identifiably neoconservative and hawkish organizations, which presumably is why he doesn’t even mention our own Pete Wehner, himself one of the prominent reformicons.

And that leads to the third point, which is closely related. I understand the realist right’s desire to see their own policy preferences reflected in the Republican Party’s agenda. And I welcome them to the debate many of us are already having, regardless of the mistakes I think they made. For example, the realist approach to Russia has been a complete and total failure–one with consequences. The realist fantasy of strongman-stability in the Middle East is currently in flames, with the death toll rising (and rising and rising). The realist take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as we see, is disastrous, etc. But I’m happy for the realists to finally be engaging this debate, and I’m not interested in putting them in cherem just because they’ve been wrong as often as they have.

If you can’t name any hawks you’ve been reading on the subject, perhaps you haven’t been reading enough hawks. So let me do some outreach. Here at COMMENTARY, we’ve been having this debate for years, and it continues. Here, for example, is John Agresto–who served in the Bush administration in Iraq–critiquing the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The article is followed by Abe Greenwald’s response. It’s a thoughtful debate on the relationship between democracy and liberalism and the thorny issue of culture.

More recently, here is my essay on the war on terror in which I engage the criticism of it from all sides–left, right, and center, and offer my own critique of some of the right’s approach to the war on terror. Here is Joshua Muravchik on “Neoconservatives and the Arab Spring.” Those are broad topics, and perhaps reformicons would like discussions with specific relevance to current debates. Should we arm the Syrian rebels? Here is Michael Rubin arguing no; here is Max Boot arguing yes. Here is Pete Wehner on nonintervention and global instability. Here is Michael Auslin on Ukraine and North Korea; Jamie Kirchick on Russia; Jonathan Foreman on Afghanistan.

I could go on. And it’s certainly not just here at COMMENTARY either. I realize that none of the links I’ve offered are in themselves a complete blueprint for a foreign-policy agenda. But neither is vague nostalgia for the days of James Baker. (Reform conservatives looking to shake things up by revivifying the administration of George H.W. Bush because they’re unhappy with the administration of George W. Bush is no more groundbreaking or creative than those on the right who just repeat the word “Reagan” over and over again–which, by the way, includes the realists’ beloved Rand Paul.)

My point in here is that there has been an ongoing debate, assessment, and reassessment of conservative internationalism, neoconservative foreign policy, and interventionist strategy on the right. If conservative reformers truly want a debate, they’ll need to engage the arguments already taking place instead of talking amongst themselves about the conservative movement’s hawkish establishment.

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The Obama Presidency Unravels

The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

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The Obama presidency has unraveled. The man who liberal political commentators once said was the rhetorical match of Lincoln is now considered by one-third of Americans to be the worst president since World War II, according to a new Quinnipiac University National Poll. (The span covers 69 years of American history and 12 presidencies.) The same poll found that 45 percent of Americans say the nation would be better off if Mitt Romney had won the 2012 presidential election, while only 38 percent say the country would be worse off.

Another poll–this one from the Gallup organization–finds that in his sixth year of office, the level of confidence in Mr. Obama’s presidency is 29 percent. That’s lower than at a comparable point for any of his predecessors.

But the president’s problem isn’t polling data; it’s objective conditions. While recent job reports have been somewhat encouraging, the deeper trends of the economy remain quite troubling. In the first quarter of this year, for example, the economy contracted by nearly 3 percent (the largest contraction in a non-recession in more than 40 years). Illegal immigrants are surging across the border, with more than 52,000 unaccompanied children detained since October.

The Supreme Court just handed the president a series of battering setbacks. “This has been an awful ten days,” the liberal but independent-minded law professor Jonathan Turley said. “[The Obama administration was] previously found to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment and privacy. Then they were found to be in violation of the separation of powers. And now they have been found to be in violation of the First Amendment and the religion clauses. I mean, you just don’t want to get out of bed after a week like that.”

This all came after IRS Commissioner John Koskinen not only failed to contain the damage from the growing IRS scandal; he made things worse. Even prominent Democrats conceded Mr. Koskinen’s hearings on Capitol Hill were disastrous. An overwhelming majority of Americans (76 percent) believe the IRS deliberately destroyed emails; nearly as many (74 percent) want Congress to continue to investigate the scandal. The IRS scandal shouldn’t be confused with the scandal plaguing the VA, which I’ve written about elsewhere. And the president’s signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, is, and is widely considered to be, a failure.

Let’s now shift our focus to events overseas.

The president whose foreign-policy doctrine is “we don’t do stupid s***” looks to have done plenty of it. America is now essentially a bystander while the richest and arguably most dangerous terrorist organization in the world is establishing control over large parts of Iraq and Syria. Iraq itself is breaking apart, thanks in good measure to Mr. Obama’s complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011. Syria is being consumed by a devastating civil war. (Mr. Obama, having previously mocked those who several years ago wanted to support opposition forces in Syria, is now doing just that, though by now the aid may be too little too late.) Jordan, having absorbed some 600,000 refugees from Syria, fears destabilization. The Egyptian government is conducting a brutal crackdown. Iran and Russia are extending their influence in the region. The Obama administration’s second-term effort to produce a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians (within nine months!) was folly from the start. The situation is actually getting worse, with violent clashes escalating. Our allies in the Middle East are not only unnerved; they have given up confidence that the president is at all reliable.

But let’s not stop there. The situation in Afghanistan is worsening. Libya, rapidly deteriorating, is becoming a terrorist haven. In Asia, according to the New York Times, “China and its growing military are mounting a serious challenge to the regional dominance of the United States and its allies.” Violence is resurging in Ukraine, with Vladimir Putin warning earlier this week that he reserves the right to use force to defend Russian-speaking citizens there, an argument he used before he annexed Crimea. (The Obama administration has refused Ukraine’s request for military aid and intelligence to defend itself. We have, however, supplied the Ukrainian armed forces with ready-to-eat meals, in case they get hungry battling the Russian military.)

The president has varying degrees of complicity in what has gone wrong in the world. In some cases he bears considerable responsibility; in other cases not. But it was Mr. Obama, not his critics, who pledged to “remake the world” and to “heal the planet”; who promised to usher in a “new beginning” based on “mutual respect” with the Arab and Islamic world that would “help answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East.” It’s certainly reasonable to hold the president accountable to the standards he set and to the promises he made. As Obama himself said in the 2008 campaign, “words mean something.”

All of this presents a rather fascinating psychological case study. In the face of challenges and failure, some of us get better and some of us get worse. In this instance, the president’s worst tendencies are being amplified.

Among other things, Mr. Obama is becoming increasingly petty and petulant. In recent days he’s complained that Republicans “don’t do anything except block me. And call me names.” He’s taken to deriding the Speaker of the House by saying, “So sue me.” Instead of self-reflection, then, we are getting self-pity.

The president also appears to be growing more insular and isolated, exasperated that his greatness isn’t fully recognized by the rest of us. He’s increasingly disappointed that this nation and the world don’t conform to his wishes and ways. Frustrated by our constitutional system of checks and balances, Mr. Obama, the good progressive that he is, has decided he’ll simply ignore them. He wants what he wants.

The unraveling of his presidency is something Mr. Obama is having a great deal of difficulty processing. We have as president a man who is dogmatic, arrogant, vexed, increasingly embittered and feeling under siege.

This won’t end well.

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Poroshenko Stands Up to Putin. Can He Count on the West?

Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

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Whenever tempers flare in the Middle East, a bit of a news diversion is inevitably created. And the significant foreign-policy news that seems to be flying a bit under the radar right now is that Ukraine’s new government has put Vladimir Putin on his heels. The country’s new president, Petro Poroshenko, ended the unilateral ceasefire with the rebels, a move that appears to have caught Russia off-guard. The New York Times reports:

In a stern warning that cited civilian casualties in war-torn eastern Ukraine, Russia on Wednesday demanded that the Ukrainian government reinstate a cease-fire and halt its military operation aimed at suppressing the pro-Russian separatist insurrection that has laid siege to the region for more than three months.

“Again we resolutely demand that the Ukrainian authorities — provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct — to stop shelling peaceful cities and villages in their own country, to return to a real cease-fire in order to save human lives,” the Foreign Ministry said.

The statement went on to accuse the government of President Petro O. Poroshenko of the “physical annihilation of citizens of their own country” and, citing the evacuation of an orphanage in the Luhansk region, said, “the Ukrainian authorities do not even care about the fate of small children.”

Even in the context of the deeply embittered relations between the Kremlin and the government in Kiev, the Russian statement was unusually harsh and signaled blistering outrage in Moscow over the renewed military effort to end the rebellion.

Indeed it was harsh. The parenthetical phrase “provided they are still able to evaluate sensibly the consequences of the criminal policy they conduct” is diplospeak for “they have gone completely insane.” But as an accompanying Times editorial points out, it’s not clear Poroshenko had much of a choice.

The ceasefire was, after all, unilateral. Poroshenko would no doubt like to stop the violence with means other than civil war, and he is attempting to do so. This is understandable: a civil war has a way of perpetuating itself. Once a central government commits militarily to routing rebels, it can be difficult to know when the war is officially, or should be, “over.” It also can require ongoing security and surveillance of restive populations, which can have the unintended and paradoxical effect of treating a rebellious corner of the country as a breakaway province while insisting it is part of the whole.

On top of all this, such a task becomes even more complex for a new government, and doubly so for a new government with a weak army. The last thing Kiev would want to do is demonstrate that the rebels, aided by Moscow, are on a level playing field (or more). But they also can’t let yet another province just slip away without a fight. It would not only humiliate Kiev (again); it would also show Ukraine to be less than a sovereign country, a nation being looted for parts.

The Times editorialists praise the West for restraint until now, but warn the U.S. and Europe that Poroshenko has made his decision to ally with the West and they must not abandon him:

Mr. Poroshenko also has little room left to maneuver. Having signed a trade pact with the European Union that his ousted predecessor rejected, and now having sent troops to quell the rebellion in the east, he has committed Ukraine to a struggle that is bound to be long and painful. Russia has already raised Ukrainian gas prices and has threatened “serious consequences” over the trade agreement, and things are likely to get worse, economically and militarily, before any potential advantages of the European Union agreement kick in.

The United States and Europe have been right, so far, to moderate their response and to give diplomacy every chance. Nobody wants a trade war; certainly not Europe, with its heavy dependence on Russian energy, and not the American businesses that have begun lobbying against sanctions. And every effort must be made to convince the Russians that this is not about “deterrence.” But the agreement that Ukraine signed, along with Georgia and Moldova, is not only about trade. It’s also a commitment by the West to support them in their progress toward a higher standard of governance. Washington and Brussels have drawn lines and threatened serious sanctions, and the time has come to show they mean it.

That strikes me as a key point. The catalyst for the uprising in Ukraine was the fight over whether Kiev would sign a trade deal with Europe. The protests that erupted from a last-minute turn back to Moscow ended up bringing down the government and led to a Russian invasion and now a Russian-supported rebellion.

Ukraine has signed the deal, officially throwing in its lot with Europe at high (and still mounting) costs in the near term. The West must put its money where its mouth is and make sure they don’t send the message that it’s better to let Moscow dictate your foreign policy than gamble on the democracies of Europe and America.

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Why Hillary Complained About America’s “Brutal” Politics

In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

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In late June 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in St. Petersburg, Russia. That same day, the New York Times carried a Reuters dispatch by Chrystia Freeland arguing that–paraphrasing Canadian political figure Michael Ignatieff–dealing with Russia and China “is the greatest strategic and moral question the West faces today.”

Clinton had some experience with both: as secretary of state, she criticized Russia’s imprisonment of former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who had his assets seized by the state and was thrown in prison for having the temerity to challenge Vladimir Putin in the political arena. And the month before her trip to St. Petersburg, Clinton had been involved in negotiations with the Chinese government for the release of dissident Chen Guangcheng.

Politics is a rough business in China and Russia, as well as a great many other countries Clinton visited as secretary of state. Which makes comments like these seem even more waterlogged with grievance and victimhood than usual:

“Who is the viable woman of either party who could win a primary nomination in 2016, if who not you?” CBS Sunday host Jane Pauley asked Clinton in yet another interview the former First Lady has given during the week of the release of her latest memoir, “Hard Choices.”

“Politics is so unpredictable,” Clinton responded. “Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world.”

Ed Morrissey notes at the link that “there was never going to be a good time for a gaffe of this scale, but it’s hard to think of a worse time for it,” considering the raging sectarian conflict in Iraq that has ISIS marching toward Baghdad, the bloody election season in Afghanistan, the setbacks in Burma, and the Assad “election” in Syria, where the body count has been in the six digits for some time now. He adds:

Hillary wants to run on her record as Secretary of State, in part based on the amount of travel she undertook in that role. It’s indisputable that she traveled around the world, but she doesn’t appear to have learned anything from her travels. Aung Sang Suu Kyi might have a different perspective on brutal in relation to political systems, or perhaps the anti-Chavistas in Venezuela could have informed Hillary of what the word actually means. For that matter, nearly everyone in Syria could have explained it to her back in 2011.

That’s an important point. She went into her job at State with an eye toward 2016. So she studiously avoided the kinds of issues that would bog her down, risk adding major failures to her resume, or prejudice the sides in a dispute she would want to take up later on if she won the presidency. That left traveling. A lot. When asked to name her accomplishments at State, she can’t. Neither can her defenders (try as they might). It always comes down to traveling. She’s been everywhere, man.

But what did she learn? Not enough, apparently. Not that anyone really takes this comment at face value. Rather, this is another instance of Clinton’s overly defensive reflex to work the refs. American politics ain’t beanbag, it’s true. But it’s closer to it than much of the world’s politics.

Clinton has been subject to some unfair attacks–just like other would-be presidents–but she has always taken a conspiratorial view of the world bordering on paranoia. She will be treated far better on the campaign trail than any Republican, and if she wins her party’s nomination she’ll see that right away. She will persist, however, in treating all criticism of her as part of the battle progress (represented by Clinton) must fight against bias, bigotry, and regression (represented chiefly by Republicans, but also journalists who ask her questions).

Clinton was secretary of state at a momentous time (isn’t it always?) for the world, with revolutions sweeping across the Middle East and all the way to Russia’s borders. But in Russia, as in countries such as Egypt, Syria, and Iran, those looking to overthrow their rulers could only have dreamed of the task that faces Hillary: a free and fair election and a peaceful transfer of power. She does the many brave and brutalized dissidents around the world a disservice by putting herself in their company.

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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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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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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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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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