Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vladimir Putin

Violence and Repression in Chechnya

The Romans became infamous for their “make a desert and call lit peace” approach to counterinsurgency. But even the Romans knew they had to offer subject populations “bread and circuses” to win them over to Roman rule rather than just brute-force oppression. That is a lesson that Vladimir Putin still doesn’t seem to have learned, judging from the latest terrorist attack in Chechnya, which came even as he was giving his predictably delusional and self-congratulatory state-of-the nation speech in Moscow. (The highlight or lowlight was his claim that Crimea has the same significance for Russian nationalists “as the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem for those people who worship Islam or Judaism,” thus making it clear that for him Russian nationalism is a religion.)

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The Romans became infamous for their “make a desert and call lit peace” approach to counterinsurgency. But even the Romans knew they had to offer subject populations “bread and circuses” to win them over to Roman rule rather than just brute-force oppression. That is a lesson that Vladimir Putin still doesn’t seem to have learned, judging from the latest terrorist attack in Chechnya, which came even as he was giving his predictably delusional and self-congratulatory state-of-the nation speech in Moscow. (The highlight or lowlight was his claim that Crimea has the same significance for Russian nationalists “as the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem for those people who worship Islam or Judaism,” thus making it clear that for him Russian nationalism is a religion.)

At least 19 people were killed in the Grozny attack. What’s really interesting is that this is not an isolated occurrence. As the New York Times notes, citing the Caucasian Knot website, “290 people had been killed and 144 wounded in fighting scattered through the Caucasus this year through the end of November.”

There is, in short, a real war going on in Chechnya and its environs–a war driven in part by jihadist ideology, to be sure, but also by Russian repression, which is what turned so many Chechen nationalists in their desperation to embrace radical Islam in the first place. Like many other local conflicts, this one has bled into the larger struggle of the jihadists against all manner of enemies. The Caucasus Emirate, as the local jihadist group is known, has sworn allegiance to ISIS and many Muslims from the Russian Caucasus have gone to Syria to join ISIS operations there.

This means that some intelligence sharing and law enforcement cooperation with Putin’s reprehensible regime is probably a necessity, but we must not lose sight of the extent to which his own brutal rule has aggravated the problem of terrorism. Insurgencies must be fought with force but in most instances they can only be ended by reaching some kind of reconciliation with the local people, as the British and the IRA did in the Good Friday Accords and as the FARC and the Colombian government are now striving to do. It is impossible, alas, to imagine that Putin, who revels in his macho cult, could ever take such far-sighted steps for peace.

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Stephen Harper’s Moral Clarity

At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

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At a time when there is all too little bold and principled leadership among Western leaders–when memories of Reagan and Thatcher, to say nothing of Roosevelt and Churchill, grow increasingly distant–Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada, stands out.

He has already become well known for his full-throated, principled defense of Israel. For example this summer, when most Western leaders were condemning both Hamas and Israel as if a liberal democracy were equally culpable for a war started by a terrorist state, Harper spoke out forcefully and rightly: “The indiscriminate rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel are terrorist acts, for which there is no justification. It is evident that Hamas is deliberately using human shields to further terror in the region… Failure by the international community to condemn these reprehensible actions would encourage these terrorists to continue their appalling actions.”

And this weekend Harper was equally blunt–and equally right–in admonishing Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Australia. He told Putin: “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.” This caused Putin to bluster, “That’s impossible because we are not there,” as if Russian tanks, soldiers, and artillery had not crossed en masse into Ukrainian territory.

It is easy to say that Harper’s comments are inconsequential because Canada doesn’t matter much on the world stage. And it’s true that such strong words would carry more weight if coming from Barack Obama. But that is impossible to imagine because President Obama has never once spoken with the kind of moral clarity that Harper exhibits on a regular basis.

What makes his language especially bracing–and politically brave–is that Canada has been far more liberal and less hawkish in its international politics than the United States. It is not the kind of place where you score points for defending Israel or offending the president of Russia. But whatever they may think of the specifics of his comments, Canadian voters clearly appreciate that Harper calls it like he sees it. That helps to explain why he is already in his third term in office.

It’s truly a shame that more leaders do not share Harper’s outlook or his willingness to express his views in plain language. Because of this deficit of leadership, criminals like Putin can show up at international meetings and be treated as respected statesmen instead of the rogues that they actually are. Quite aside from any concrete sanctions that Russia should suffer for its aggression, simply calling out Putin and exiling him from polite society would increase the cost to him of his actions since he transparently wants to be taken seriously and treated respectfully on the international stage. Putin would not be getting away with as much as he gets away with if there were more Stephen Harpers not just in Ottawa but in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin.

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No Denying Ukraine Ceasefire Is Over

So the Russians are on the move once again in Ukraine. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, Europe, finally confirmed today what OSCE monitors and Ukrainian officials have been saying for days–that substantial numbers of Russian tanks, soldiers, and artillery pieces are moving from Russia into the eastern part of Ukraine. Artillery battles are also increasing in Donetsk, the biggest eastern city seized by Russian separatists.

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So the Russians are on the move once again in Ukraine. Gen. Philip Breedlove, the supreme allied commander, Europe, finally confirmed today what OSCE monitors and Ukrainian officials have been saying for days–that substantial numbers of Russian tanks, soldiers, and artillery pieces are moving from Russia into the eastern part of Ukraine. Artillery battles are also increasing in Donetsk, the biggest eastern city seized by Russian separatists.

So much for the ceasefire announced with much fanfare in September. Actually it’s been clear for a while that the ceasefire was not really being observed by Putin and his stooges, but nobody wanted to say so. Everyone wanted to preserve the fiction that peace had broken out: the Ukrainians because they didn’t want to admit that they’ve lost control of so much of their territory, the Russians because they didn’t want to open themselves up to new sanctions. But it’s obvious now that the so-called ceasefire was nothing more than a very short and very temporary pause in the pace of Russian aggression.

It’s hard to know for sure what the Russians are up to, but it’s a good bet they are seeking to link up their newly conquered satrapies in eastern Ukraine with their previously conquered satrapy in Crimea: There is still a lot of Ukrainian-held territory between those two positions and it’s likely that using his “salami slice” tactics Putin will gobble it up a piece a time.

And why shouldn’t he? Sure, the ruble and the Russian economy have taken a hit from the sanctions imposed so far by the U.S. and EU, but Putin personally isn’t hurting–he is still a billionaire and the unchallenged dictator of the world’s ninth-largest nation (by population). In fact he was his usual smirking, swaggering self at the APEC summit in Beijing where he got to parade on stage alongside all the other world leaders. Has he been ostracized from the community of nations? Hardly. In fact he’s riding as high as ever, with the damage to the Russian economy no doubt offset, by his reckoning, from the boost in personal popularity he has received in Russia by playing the nationalist card.

Putin acts as if he has little reason to fear the consequences of further aggression–and he’s absolutely right. Neither the U.S. nor the EU has shown it has the fortitude to stand up to him. A practiced predator and skillful opportunist, Putin has read his adversaries’ eyes and seen that they contain fear and confusion. To him that’s a green light for further aggression.

He might think twice if President Obama were to send weapons, not just MREs, to the embattled Ukrainian forces, along with intelligence and advisors to help counter the Russian threat. Or if Obama were to impose stiffer sanctions that would bar Russian firms from dollar-denominated trades. Of course European action could make such sanctions far more effective, but the U.S. wouldn’t have to wait for the Europeans to make Putin pay a price–if we were serious about doing so. But the only foreign-policy objective that Obama appears determined to achieve at the moment is a grand if ill-considered bargain to realign Iran with the United States. Until the commander-in-chief shows some spine, Putin will continue to gobble up Ukraine.

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The Media Would Like You to Forget Their Embarrassing Putin Worship

Yesterday Russia unveiled its latest engine of propaganda. Called Sputnik, it appears aimed at a foreign audience and mimics the listicle and clickbait model of attracting web traffic. It has, of course, come under some gleeful mockery from Western news outlets that cover world affairs. The joke, however, is on those “real” publications.

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Yesterday Russia unveiled its latest engine of propaganda. Called Sputnik, it appears aimed at a foreign audience and mimics the listicle and clickbait model of attracting web traffic. It has, of course, come under some gleeful mockery from Western news outlets that cover world affairs. The joke, however, is on those “real” publications.

The best example was Foreign Policy magazine. FP published a (very good) piece on Sputnik and its propensity for imitating BuzzFeed. To tease the article, the FP Twitter account sent out the following snarky tweet: “How long until we get a listicle about Vladimir Putin’s top 10 stud moments from the Kremlin’s new propaganda outlet?” with a link to the article.

The FP tweet is a textbook case of the media’s failures of self-awareness, for one reason: Foreign Policy has already published such an homage to the “stud” Putin. Twice, in fact. Here is a May 2012 slideshow titled “Putin Forever” and subtitled “He’s the president of Russia. He’s a race-car driver. He’s a blackbelt in judo. He’s Vladimir Putin.” May 2012 wasn’t exactly another era, no matter how fast the news cycles tend to move these days. But Foreign Policy had been at it for years. Here’s their 2010 slideshow lavishing creepy praise on the blood-soaked tinpot autocrat, titled “Last Action Hero.”

So Foreign Policy’s readers can be forgiven for wondering what FP suddenly finds so distasteful about their former crush. Indeed, Foreign Policy has already run the kind of ridiculous pro-Putin propaganda that Putin’s actual propaganda outlet has yet to run with.

I don’t mean to pick on FP exclusively. Although they were by far the most effusive in their love letters to Putin’s manliness, they were far from the only journalists to turn their website into a shrine to the former KGB-nik. As I’ve pointed out in the past, outlets that traditionally cater to terrorists and dictators, such as Reuters, had done so. The usually far more levelheaded Atlantic did as well. (“Vladimir Putin, Action Man.”)

These days when it comes to Russia, the Atlantic is thankfully running journalism again. And it shows just how much has changed since Putin pivoted from targeting journalists and pro-American heads of state to the gay-rights and feminist movements, and was standing up to not the media’s perennial target in George W. Bush but their new hero, Barack Obama. Forced to pick sides, the media reluctantly, but finally, sided against Putin, joining those of us on the right who were correct about Putin from the beginning but dismissed by a starry-eyed mainstream press drooling over photos of Putin riding horses while shirtless.

On Friday the Atlantic ran a superb piece by Peter Pomerantsev on the Kremlin’s master of propaganda, Vladislav Surkov. It’s about far more than just information, however. Pomerantsev explains the centralized nature of Surkov’s job, guiding an entire Potemkin political system:

The brilliance of this new type of authoritarianism is that instead of simply oppressing opposition, as had been the case with 20th-century strains, it climbs inside all ideologies and movements, exploiting and rendering them absurd. One moment Surkov would fund civic forums and human-rights NGOs, the next he would quietly support nationalist movements that accuse the NGOs of being tools of the West. With a flourish he sponsored lavish arts festivals for the most provocative modern artists in Moscow, then supported Orthodox fundamentalists, dressed all in black and carrying crosses, who in turn attacked the modern-art exhibitions. The Kremlin’s idea is to own all forms of political discourse, to not let any independent movements develop outside of its walls.

The result is that Putin is doing to Russia what he found it so easy to do, for about a decade, to a foreign audience: manipulate the scenery so that onlookers saw what they wanted to see. (And what Putin wanted them to see.) The conflict in Ukraine, in which Russia has invaded its neighbor and captured the Crimean peninsula, seems to have finally fully broken the spell.

President Obama was badly fooled by Putin in his first term on missile defense, and badly fooled by Putin in his second term on Syria and Iran. It made for an apparently awkward scene at this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. According to Politico, the two met and spoke on three separate occasions at the summit on Ukraine. The White House is communicating its intent to increase sanctions on Russia if it keeps invading Ukraine. From reports, it seems Putin was able to stop himself from laughing his face off, at least while Obama was in the room.

But what’s so striking about this newfound anti-Putin toughness on the part of both Obama and the press is just how late in the game it is. Putin took the reins in Moscow at the turn of the century. His militarism is not new; his antidemocratic political tendencies are not new; his crackdown on the press isn’t new; his violations of U.S.-Russian agreements aren’t new; his anti-Americanism isn’t new; and his explicit actions against American interests aren’t new. What’s new is that a Western media and political class that enabled him all these years want credit for pretending they were on the right side of this issue all along.

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Erdoğan Aspires to Be Sultan Not a Putin

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. The reported price: nearly $350 million. Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is little doubt that Erdoğan is both an ideologue and autocrat, and sees himself above the law. He targets those who vote against him, run against him, and criticize him. In Erdoğan’s mind, environmentalists who protest the cutting down of trees in one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces are “terrorists,” but those who place bombs on buses or behead journalists and aid workers in Syria are not.

The New York Times proceeds to compare Erdoğan to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a comparison I made in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. At the time, it looked like that was what Erdoğan wanted, but the Turkish leader may actually want more. Much more. Despite a foreign policy which has managed to make Erdoğan persona non grata across much of the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, anywhere Hamas does not control in the Palestinian territories, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well), the Turkish leader still sees himself as a regional and Islamic leader. He is a Sunni sectarian to the core. He has declared his intention to remake Turkey along religious lines, and has pledged to “raise a religious generation.” And he is very astute with regard to symbolism.

Back in 2005, during his monthly television address, Erdoğan replaced the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a photo of Atatürk’s mausoleum and a mosque. Turks understood the symbolism: Atatürk is dead, but Islam is the future.

By building his Versailles over Atatürk’s private estate, he is doing the same thing. Atatürk was the symbol of secularism, and Erdoğan seeks to bury secularism. If Erdoğan was not content to simply be prime minister, and is not content to be merely the president of Turkey, then to what else could he aspire? While it may once have seemed farfetched that anyone could aspire to revive the Ottoman sultanate and the caliphate which Atatürk ended, Erdoğan seeks to do just this. He differs less in ideology with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than in tactics and ambition. For all his talk of restoring a pan-Islamic caliphate, al-Baghdadi concentrates on the Arab world; Erdoğan’s goals are broader. The Turkish leader may or may not succeed, but he likely believes God is on his side: After all, how else could anyone explain the meteoric rise of a relatively uneducated (at least in secular terms) former street vendor to the height of political power.

The United States and the West are in denial, much as too many left-liberal Turks were until recently. Erdoğan can rest assured, however. He can play his cards deliberately, for Western diplomats and journalists will as always ignore his game until it is too late.

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A Looming Disaster in Eastern Ukraine

Amid so many foreign-policy disasters–from the “chickenshit” insult to a major American ally to, in a more serious vein, the continuing gains of ISIS in Iraq–it is easy to lose sight of the disaster in Ukraine. But attention must be paid to what Vladimir Putin is getting away with.

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Amid so many foreign-policy disasters–from the “chickenshit” insult to a major American ally to, in a more serious vein, the continuing gains of ISIS in Iraq–it is easy to lose sight of the disaster in Ukraine. But attention must be paid to what Vladimir Putin is getting away with.

As the Wall Street Journal notes a new border is taking shape in eastern Ukraine with Russian-backed rebels in control of a substantial chunk of territory running from the city of Luhansk to the Black Sea. It won’t take much to link this strip of Russian-controlled territory to the newly conquered Russian province of Crimea. And there is scant chance of the Russians giving up either of their territorial gains. Indeed the pro-Russian rebels boycotted last Sunday’s Ukrainian election–which returned an overwhelming mandate for pro-Western parliamentarians–in favor of their own illegal referendum to be held this coming Sunday whose rigged results Moscow has promised to recognize.

And what consequences is Putin suffering for this blatant aggression? As another Journal article notes, Russia is suffering noticeable but far from catastrophic economic costs: “This month, the International Monetary Fund forecast growth for Russia of just 0.2% this year and halved its 2015 forecast to 0.5%. Analysts at Barclays are forecasting around zero growth for Russia in 2014 and a contraction of 0.5% in 2015.” That may be painful to ordinary Russians but it’s doubtful that Putin and his billionaire pals feel much of a pinch–and the Russian people are too drunk on nationalist moonshine at the moment to even protest their declining economy. Not that protests are allowed in Putin’s Russia.

Little wonder, then, that Russia is increasing its aggressive behavior–as yet another Journal article notes, “Russian military aircraft conducted aerial maneuvers around Europe this week on a scale seldom seen since the end of the Cold War, prompting NATO jets to scramble in another sign of how raw East-West relations have grown.”

This is setting a terrible precedent–and one that the world will live to regret long after Barack Obama has returned to private life.

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Is Ukraine Too Pro-West for the West?

In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

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In commenting on Rand Paul’s major foreign-policy speech, “The Case for Conservative Realism,” I mentioned that his preference for George Kennan’s version of containment over Harry Truman’s was a weak point in his analysis of global power projection. It was, of course, a nod to the “realist” part of “conservative realism.” But it would require un-learning an important lesson from the Cold War about America in the world, and he repeated this mistake more explicitly in his reference to the current conflict between Russia and Ukraine. Paul said:

We need to use sanctions and defense spending to achieve a diplomatic settlement that takes into account Russia’s long-standing ties with Ukraine and allows Kiev to develop its relations both with Russia and the West.

As Kissinger put it: “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

This part of the speech was a combination of great power politics and something of a straw man. The straw man is the suggestion that we in the West are contemplating not allowing Ukraine to develop relations with Russia. On the contrary, the West’s position is that Ukraine should be free to choose its path. Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine–more than once–in order to prevent this. And the great power politics part of this section of the speech expressly contradicted the principle that Ukraine should be free to choose.

What if Ukraine doesn’t want to serve “as a bridge between” the West and Russia? What if Kiev simply wants to act as an independent nation pursuing its interests, rather than be the messenger boy between American realists and the Putin government? That’s what Ukraine appears to have done in this week’s parliamentary elections, in which pro-European parties dominated the early returns. As Simon Shuster reports:

On Sunday night, as the votes in Ukraine’s parliamentary elections were being tallied, President Petro Poroshenko went on television to congratulate his citizens on the successful ballot and, citing early results, to highlight one of the milestones the country had crossed: Ukraine’s Communist Party, a political holdover from the nation’s Soviet past that had always championed close ties with Russia, had failed to win a single parliamentary seat.

“For that I congratulate you,” the Ukrainian leader told his countrymen. “The people’s judgment, which is higher than all but the judgment of God, has issued a death sentence to the Communist Party of Ukraine.” For the first time since the Russian revolution of 1917 swept across Ukraine and turned it into a Soviet satellite, there would be no communists in the nation’s parliament.

Their defeat, though largely symbolic, epitomized the transformation of Ukraine that began with this year’s revolution and, in many respects, ended with the ballot on Sunday. If the communists and other pro-Russian parties had enormous influence in Ukraine before the uprising and a firm base of support in the eastern half of the country, they are now all but irrelevant. The pro-Western leaders of the revolution, by contrast, saw a resounding victory over the weekend for their agenda of European integration. “More than three-quarters of voters who cast their ballots showed firm and irreversible support for Ukraine’s course toward Europe,” Poroshenko said in his televised address.

Right-wing and populist parties too were trounced. Ukrainian voters had repudiated Moscow’s influence as well as that of revanchist agitators. And the pro-Russian rebels have, in response, pushed forward with their own upcoming elections, which Russia backs. Shuster was effusive on the voters’ clear desire to set Ukraine on a path to Europe: “That path will not be easy, as Western leaders are hardly eager to welcome Ukraine’s failing economy and its 45 million citizens into the E.U. But the national consensus behind European integration, and the lasting break with Russia that this agenda entails, is now stronger than at any point in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history.”

This is, in fact, quite historic. And it should be inspiring to the West. But the realists could take it or leave it, since they believe stability lies in bloodless great-power rivalry and a balancing that amounts to the recognition of spheres of influence. To read Paul’s speech, it is actually possible for Ukraine to be too pro-Western. To much of the conservative foreign-policy world, this is odd indeed.

And it’s also a pleasant surprise, considering the treatment of the Ukrainians during all this. The West stood by as Russia invaded, again and again, to chip away at Ukraine’s territory and create frozen conflicts in the border regions Putin wouldn’t go so far as to annex. The Obama administration yawned, and agreed to give the Ukrainians fighting for their country MREs, as if they could fling combat rations at the invading Russian forces to repel them. Europe was slow to agree to serious economic sanctions on Moscow.

All is apparently forgiven. Ukrainians seem to have made their choice. They want to join the West, not serve as a realist tool of stability, a bridge to be walked all over. How the West responds to this outstretched hand will say much about its ebbing moral authority.

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Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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Putin to Europe: Winter Is Coming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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U.S. Ukraine Policy: Dumb and Immoral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Siege Mentality

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Interventionists and Rand Paul: A Response to Jim Antle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Imperial Age of Terrorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Inevitable Appeasement of Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A “Berlin Airlift” for the Ukrainian Winter

Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

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Russian aggression remains very much in the headlines, as President Vladimir Putin last week re-opened the southern front and more recently reportedly bragged that he could capture the Ukraine in just a couple weeks. Max Boot rightly writes that the gestures NATO envisions won’t deter Putin. The problem with American and perhaps NATO policy goes deeper, however.

So much policy in recent years has been based on wishful thinking. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton preferred to see problems in U.S.-Russian relations as rooted more with their predecessors than with Putin himself, hence the investment in the “reset.” There continued years of denial about Putin’s true intentions, all the while making compromises and offering concessions based on the deluded notion that Putin was more partner than pariah. When Putin invaded Crimea, when he shot down Malaysian Airlines flight 17, and when he continued his push into his neighbor, Obama simply reacted with a patchwork of statements and superficial pronouncements until the television cameras moved on. Indeed, if there is one core principle to the Obama doctrine, it is not leading from behind (for that would imply leading), but rather simply reacting to world events in a scattershot fashion.

It’s time to be proactive. Putin can boast that he can take the Ukrainian capital Kiev in two weeks, but he really doesn’t need to. After all, Ukraine remains overwhelmingly dependent upon Russian gas shipments to power its factories and heat its homes during the winter. If Putin simply turns a nozzle, he can freeze Ukrainians into submission. Everyone sees the winter coming, and yet there does not appear to be much planning within U.S. policy circles about how to prevent Russian hardball with energy shipments.

It’s time to talk about a “Berlin Airlift” of escorted shipments of fuel into Ukraine. Such an operation would be difficult, but then again, so was the Berlin Airlift. American warships can enter the Black Sea on routine patrol, and Romania can contribute and provide basing and logistical support, if not active partnership. If the United States could reflag Kuwaiti tankers to protect them, so too could the United States re-flag tankers bound for the Ukraine.

There is no doubt that any Ukraine flotilla would be expensive. It is also true that European officials—and especially Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany—construct their policies more on mercantile considerations than on principles. But then again, if economics always trumped freedom, there would have been no Berlin Airlift and the Cold War would have taken a far worse turn. But looming problems require more than posturing and press conference; they require proactive resolutions. Alas, time is running out to construct such a solution and to prevent Putin from transforming Ukraine into the vassal he envisions.

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NATO’s Gesture Won’t Deter Putin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama’s Pattern of Foreign-Policy Failure

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

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

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

Let’s recap a few of the lowlights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ukraine in the Shadow of Molotov-Ribbentrop

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

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

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

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

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

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“This Is Now a War with Russia”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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