Commentary Magazine


Topic: NATO

Will Russian Aggression Trigger a New Great War?

Over at Vox, Max Fisher has a long and interesting article suggesting that the risk of a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. is growing.

He quotes pundits close to the Kremlin suggesting that Vladimir Putin feels genuinely threatened by the U.S. and that he may try to stage a Ukrainian-style revolt in Estonia or one of the other Baltic states in order to confront NATO with an unpalatable choice: Either risk World War III or allow the alliance to disintegrate, thus letting Russia regain its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe. Read More

Over at Vox, Max Fisher has a long and interesting article suggesting that the risk of a nuclear war between Russia and the U.S. is growing.

He quotes pundits close to the Kremlin suggesting that Vladimir Putin feels genuinely threatened by the U.S. and that he may try to stage a Ukrainian-style revolt in Estonia or one of the other Baltic states in order to confront NATO with an unpalatable choice: Either risk World War III or allow the alliance to disintegrate, thus letting Russia regain its traditional sphere of influence in eastern Europe.

The possibility of such a conflict spinning out of control is all the greater because Russian military doctrine is fairly permissive in the use of nuclear weapons to compensate for a conventional disadvantage such as the one that the Russian military currently suffers from when arrayed against NATO. Fisher even quotes experts comparing the current situation to Europe on the eve of World War I.
There is, to be sure, an element of Russian information warfare evident here which Fisher does not mention: Putin wants us to think he’s crazy enough to trigger a nuclear war if he doesn’t get his way. That makes it much less likely that we will do anything serious to stop him. But the concerns raised by Fisher cannot be entirely dismissed. In fact, I heard similar warnings not long ago from a senior NATO general.

The question is, what should the West do about it? Or, put another way: What’s the best way to avoid the risk of war with Russia?

One obvious alternative would be to abrogate the NATO treaty, kick the Baltic States out, and make clear to Putin that we will do nothing to risk war over their fate. But this would have the effect of dismembering the alliance, as Putin intends, and it risks undoing all of the progress seen in Eastern Europe since 1989. The region is stable, democratic, and relatively prosperous for the first time in its long and troubled history. States such as Poland are enjoying a golden age that would have been impossible to imagine in centuries past when their territory was the plaything of neighboring autocrats. Abandon the Baltics, and you effectively abandon Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and all the rest, because then NATO guarantees will be meaningless. The political stability that has been necessary for the region’s development will collapse, and we are likely to see the rise of extremist parties of both left and right — a development already evident to some extent in Hungary.

Assuming that we are not ready to destroy NATO and abandon Eastern Europe, what then should we do to avoid conflict with Moscow? We can continue on our present path of exercising U.S. forces in the NATO states of the Baltics and Eastern Europe without permanently stationing them there, and of providing non-lethal aid to Ukraine but refusing to provide the arms necessary to stop Russian aggression. This is designed to be a middle path of reassuring allies without unduly alarming Russia. But it isn’t working: The U.S. is doing just enough to provide fodder for Putin’s propagandistic claims of “encirclement” but not enough to effectively dissuade Russia from further aggression.

It can, in fact, be argued that the U.S. is repeating the mistake that Britain made on the eve of World War I. In 1904, Britain entered into an Entente Cordiale with France, but it was unclear what this actually meant. In 1911, the British diplomat Sir Eyre Crowe wrote:

“The fundamental fact of course is that the Entente is not an alliance. For purposes of ultimate emergencies it may be found to have no substance at all. For the Entente is nothing more than a frame of mind, a view of general policy which is shared by the governments of two countries, but which may be, or become, so vague as to lose all content.”

The key ambiguity that the Entente Cordiale created was whether, in the event that France was attacked, Britain would come to its aid. The fact that Britain might leave France to her fate — and the fact that the British Army pre-1914 was laughably small — encouraged the German General Staff to conclude that it could carry off its famous Schlieffen Plan unchecked: That is, that the German army could invade France and knock it out of the war swiftly, and then turn to deal with the Russian armies in the east. If the Germans had been convinced that British forces would block their designs (as in fact happened), they might never have launched the attack in the first place and the Great War might have been avoided.

The risks of ambiguity were made clear once again in 1950 when North Korea invaded South Korea after Secretary of State Dean Acheson had proclaimed the south outside the American “defensive perimeter.” The Korean War, too, might have been prevented by sending a clearer signal in advance that aggression would be met with a substantial response.

The lesson that I draw for the present day is that we had better make clear to Putin that aggression against the Baltics will, in fact, trigger a war with NATO. Given that Putin is hardly suicidal, he will presumably shy away from a conflict he must know he cannot win — and one that could well lead to the incineration of much of the Russian population. But to deter Putin will require taking steps — such as stationing substantial U.S. ground forces in eastern Europe, providing arms to the Ukrainians, and stopping the reduction in U.S. military spending in general and army end-strength in particular — that the Obama administration has refused to take. There are, to be sure, risks in this course of action, but the greatest risk of all, I believe, is to continue on our current path of drift, which exacerbates strategic ambiguity (will NATO fight for the Baltics or not?) and thus increases the risk of a catastrophic conflict that no one wants.

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Losing the Eastern Mediterranean to Russia?

While Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952, anti-Americanism has often run high in Greece. In 1974, Greek leftists assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens (after the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank still operating in Washington, DC, outed him). During the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, popular Greek sentiment often leaned toward the fellow Orthodox communities rather than the Catholic or Muslim communities often supported by NATO members. Read More

While Greece has been a member of NATO since 1952, anti-Americanism has often run high in Greece. In 1974, Greek leftists assassinated the CIA’s station chief in Athens (after the Institute for Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank still operating in Washington, DC, outed him). During the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, popular Greek sentiment often leaned toward the fellow Orthodox communities rather than the Catholic or Muslim communities often supported by NATO members.

Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the left-wing government of Alexis Tsipras is openly flirting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. For Putin, foreign policy and diplomacy are zero sum games. Flipping Greece, withdrawing it from NATO or, more dangerously, keeping it in NATO as a consensus-busting Trojan horse at a time when political tension if not conflict looms between Putin’s Russia and many European states and NATO members formerly under Soviet tutelage.

Much of the discussion about losing Greece to Russia, however, overlooks some major issues. The United States has exactly one naval facility in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is on the Greek island of Crete at Souda Bay. It is not unreasonable that a price Russia would demand in exchange for keeping Greece solvent would be the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Crete. After all, Putin previously used financial leverage to force American forces out of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russia has also been putting the moves on Cyprus, which also finds itself in dire financial straits. Earlier this year, for example, Russian officials floated the idea of a base on Cyprus, a move that would enable it to project power more regularly in the region. While the Russian navy withdrew from the Eastern Mediterranean in 1992 in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse, in May 2013, Putin announced a permanent 16-ship Russian Mediterranean task force. A base in Greece or Cyprus would also provide useful backup to the existing Russian base at Tartous, in Syria.

Of course, it’s not simply a matter of grabbing territory wherever it might. The Eastern Mediterranean is becoming increasingly strategic and valuable for energy purposes. Eastern Mediterranean gas is not simply theoretical but is now a fact of life. It also provides the best mechanism, whether through off-shore gas fields or the pipeline terminal in Ceyhan, Turkey, for Europe to bypass the stranglehold Russia has on gas to Europe.

President Obama can talk about a “pivot to Asia,” but increasingly it’s not a simple choice about whether to emphasize defense in the Persian Gulf or Asia: The whole world is in play and adversaries—Russia, China, and Iran—smell the blood of American weakness in the water and prepare to launch a strategic feeding frenzy unseen in half a century, if not more.

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Would NATO Really Go To War With Russia?

It’s a question they have been asking in the Kremlin for generations, although apprehensions are perhaps more pronounced today than they were even during much of the Cold War: Would NATO members really commit to a third great war in Europe? That question grew more pressing when Russia invaded and carved off portions of Georgia in 2008. It became paramount when Moscow repeated that feat in Ukraine. Some began asking it aloud in the West last July when a civilian airliner packed with the citizens of NATO-allied nations was shot out of the sky over Ukraine by pro-Russian militants using Russian hardware. But while it is presumed by many in the West that the Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense trigger mechanism is sacred and automatic, some are beginning to wonder whether NATO would truly mobilize for another total war in the event that an allied nation invoked Section 5. Read More

It’s a question they have been asking in the Kremlin for generations, although apprehensions are perhaps more pronounced today than they were even during much of the Cold War: Would NATO members really commit to a third great war in Europe? That question grew more pressing when Russia invaded and carved off portions of Georgia in 2008. It became paramount when Moscow repeated that feat in Ukraine. Some began asking it aloud in the West last July when a civilian airliner packed with the citizens of NATO-allied nations was shot out of the sky over Ukraine by pro-Russian militants using Russian hardware. But while it is presumed by many in the West that the Atlantic Treaty’s mutual defense trigger mechanism is sacred and automatic, some are beginning to wonder whether NATO would truly mobilize for another total war in the event that an allied nation invoked Section 5.

In the summer of 2012, the presidential election in the United States was just ramping up when the increasingly deteriorating security environment in the Middle East threatened to derail Barack Obama’s reelection campaign. Mere weeks before the president would set his infamous “red line” for action in Syria amid increasing reports that Bashar al-Assad was regularly using chemical weapons on rebel-dominated population centers, the Syria Civil War threatened to explode over that nation’s borders. On June 22, Syrian armed forces intercepted and shot down a Turkish F-4 reconnaissance jet. Four days later, Ankara turned to the NATO alliance for support following what Turkish politicians had begun calling an “act of war.”

Turkey invoked NATO’s Article 4 on June 26, a largely symbolic provision that requires Atlantic Alliance member states engage in consultations following a threat to any one member’s security and independence. There was speculation that Ankara might also invoke Article 5, as was its privilege, but it never did. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen insisted that the issue simply didn’t come up, but it would have sparked a crisis within the alliance that might have resulted in its dissolution if it had. The invocation of this provision requires the consent of all 28 member states, only the United States has ever appealed to that provision, and that extraordinary move followed the equally extraordinary September 11 attacks. The West would not have gone to war in Syria in defense of Turkish sovereignty in 2012, and Ankara knew it.

Fast-forward three years, and NATO again faces a crisis of legitimacy. This time, the aggressor state is the alliance’s old adversary, Russia. If one of the NATO member states on the alliance’s periphery in the Baltics were to encounter a crisis similar to that confronted by Turkey in 2012, would NATO respond with force? In considering this, the results of a new Pew Research Center survey of adults in primarily Western NATO member states are instructive.

That poll found that Western NATO members including the U.S., Canada, Spain, Germany, the U.K, France, and Italy remain supportive of the effort to provide Ukraine with economic assistance as it struggles to repel a veritable Russian invasion. As for the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, a project began in the last decade but has since stalled, and only North American NATO-allied countries remain broadly supportive of that prospect. Finally, it seems clear that the citizens of NATO member states are deeply suspicious of the notion that Ukraine should be provided lethal aid. Only 46 percent of Americans support sending arms to Kiev, but those totals are far lower in Europe. Just 19 percent of Germans, for example, support arming the Ukrainians.

The exception to this consensus was the nation of Poland; the only state Pew surveyed that was a former member of the Warsaw Pact or a Soviet Republic and which perceives itself to be genuinely threatened by Moscow. In January, the Polish government began circulating pamphlets to citizens instructing them on how to both survive and resist a Russian invasion. “Poland should be armed to be able to defend itself as long as possible,” said Jimmy Carter’s former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski in a March interview. “There is no reason to wait; we have to act.” Disturbing dispatches indicate that Poles are organizing into rough-and-ready militias under the assumption that Russian armed aggression is imminent and Western assistance is not.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Polish views on the question of NATO’s utility and commitment to collective defense differ from those of the citizens residing in its more insulated Western member states. Only 49 percent of Poles surveyed say they believe NATO would come to the defense of a fellow NATO member if it were attacked by Russia. Still, there is general agreement that NATO’s mutual defense provisions are iron-clad. “When asked whether the United States would come to a NATO ally’s aid, majorities or pluralities in every country said the U.S. would defend the nation against Russian aggression,” Pew revealed.

But would NATO go to war with Moscow if the Kremlin engaged in Ukraine-style provocations in eastern portions of, say, Estonia? Would London, Washington, Paris, and Berlin mobilize for conflict with a nuclear power in defense of Latvian sovereignty? Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves has already called a September, 2014 operation in which Russian forces using smoke grenades and radio jamming technology abducted an Estonian border guard at gunpoint during an invasion. Russia has made no secret about their involvement in that operation and the border guard in question remains in Russian custody, but the West’s reaction to that violation of sovereignty has been unnervingly muted.

Russia’s testing of NATO’s defensive parameters has only grown bolder in the wake of the invasion and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. If Vladimir Putin’s aim is to shatter the NATO alliance and resurrect the Soviet sphere of influence in Europe, it is perhaps logical if a bit risky to provoke the Atlantic Alliance into living up to its commitments. If Ankara had invoked Article 5 in 2012, it would have demonstrated that the alliance was a paper tiger and its mutual defense provisions were not worth the paper upon which they were written. That revelation would have effectively neutered the alliance and possibly paved the way for its dissolution. Putin would no doubt find that development a welcome prospect. And all it might take is a little push.

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Reports that Russia Has Blinked in Ukraine Are Greatly Exaggerated

For a few hopeful days last week, it seemed as though Vladimir Putin had abandoned Russia’s campaign of adventurism in Ukraine. A promising report in the Wall Street Journal observed that the Tsarist era term “Novorossiya,” a word used to reintegrate the portions of Ukraine Moscow had destabilized and covertly invaded last year back into the Russian sphere, had suddenly gone missing from the Putin’s vocabulary. Applying a Kremlinologist’s powers of deduction, Journal reporter Paul Sonne speculated that Russia was moderating its behavior ahead of a June European Union decision on whether to renew sanctions on the Russian Federation based on whether or not it was complying with the February ceasefire accord signed in Minsk. But with the fighting in Ukraine again raging, that bit of speculation seems unfounded. Read More

For a few hopeful days last week, it seemed as though Vladimir Putin had abandoned Russia’s campaign of adventurism in Ukraine. A promising report in the Wall Street Journal observed that the Tsarist era term “Novorossiya,” a word used to reintegrate the portions of Ukraine Moscow had destabilized and covertly invaded last year back into the Russian sphere, had suddenly gone missing from the Putin’s vocabulary. Applying a Kremlinologist’s powers of deduction, Journal reporter Paul Sonne speculated that Russia was moderating its behavior ahead of a June European Union decision on whether to renew sanctions on the Russian Federation based on whether or not it was complying with the February ceasefire accord signed in Minsk. But with the fighting in Ukraine again raging, that bit of speculation seems unfounded.

Sporadic skirmishes in Ukraine have been reported virtually the minute the winter snows began to melt, but what shattered the early morning calm on the outskirts of rebel-held Donetsk on Wednesday quickly became the fiercest fighting yet this year. Kiev accused the pro-Russian separatists in east Ukraine of mounting a “large-scale offensive” aimed at capturing new territory, to which the government responded with heavy artillery and even tanks.

If Moscow willed it, there would be no renewed offensive in Ukraine. While Russia continues to maintain that it is not supplying, training, and equipping the pro-Moscow separatists fighting on sovereign foreign soil, and that the thousands of Russian soldiers engaged in combat operations are merely “volunteers” over whom the Kremlin has no control, foreign observers disagree. “The Ukrainian government, Western leaders and NATO all say there is clear evidence that Russia is helping the rebels in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with heavy weapons and soldiers. Independent experts echo that accusation,” a BBC report read.

But even that BBC report displayed a lamentable credulity that has come to typify the international media’s coverage of the new ground war in Europe. That news outlet noted that this heavy fighting between government forces and pro-Russian elements in Ukraine was ongoing “despite [the] truce.” What truce? One day after the Minsk accord supposedly went into effect, pro-Russian forces inaugurated an offensive aimed at capturing the key railway hub of Debaltseve. The Russian-backed rebels eventually surrounded a large group of Ukrainian soldiers, compelling them to evacuate their positions or to endure a humiliating surrender.

While it remains unclear as to whether the fierce fighting that was carried out by no fewer than 1,000 rebel soldiers on Wednesday portended a more sustained offensive, Moscow’s statements on the battle should give those who still contend that the Minks accord remains in effect pause. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told the Russian news agency Interfax that Moscow remains “extremely concerned about the provocative actions of the Ukrainian armed forces, which as far as we can judge have largely provoked this situation.”

In truth, Vladimir Putin has pulled off a marvelous trick. By conducting a war of conquest in Ukraine at a snail’s pace, he has bored the West into complacency. Though it appeared as though Russia had miscalculated when, in July of last year, a Russian-made anti-air missile shot a civilian airliner packed with Western citizens out of the sky, it is apparent nearly one year later that Russia has acted cautiously enough in carving off portions of Ukraine that the Western public and their elected representatives simply lost interest in the conflict.

Meanwhile, the administration still clings to the notion that financial sanctions have had a measurable effect on Russian behavior and will deter further aggression. “Any attempts to seize additional Ukrainian territory will be met with increased costs,” wrote U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, paraphrasing State Department Spokeswoman Marie Harf. But has there been any indication that those costs, whatever they may be, are so onerous that the Kremlin would not pay them?

And while the West may so desperately want the latest European war to disappear, Putin almost certainly does not. “Putin is allocating unprecedented amounts of secret funds to accelerate Russia’s largest military buildup since the Cold War,” Bloomberg revealed on Wednesday. “The outlays on new tanks, missiles, and uniforms highlight the growing militarization that is swelling the deficit and crowding out services such as health care. Thousands of army conscripts will be moved into commercial enterprises for the first time to aid in the rearmament effort.” With the economy now reordered on a war footing, expect the pace of the forcible reunification of Little Russia with Big Russia to accelerate.

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Why Is Germany Undermining NATO?

The war between Russia and Ukraine does not involve NATO. But it may decide its future.

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The war between Russia and Ukraine does not involve NATO. But it may decide its future.

The central question surrounding Russia’s behavior of late is this: Would Vladimir Putin order the invasion of a NATO country? One of the main arguments for NATO’s continued importance is the fact that when Putin wants to make trouble and consolidate his influence in Russia’s near-abroad, he tends only to send the Russian army into countries that are not part of NATO.

In the case of Georgia, it was done explicitly to try to prevent Georgia’s accession to NATO, though it wasn’t imminent. The invasion of Ukraine was also at least in part an attempt to punish Ukraine for moving toward the West, spook it into further compliance with Putin’s will, and serve as an example to other states in the neighborhood that when you go out on that limb there is no one–not Europe, certainly not Russia–to catch you if you fall.

That is not to say Russia doesn’t come awfully close to crossing those lines. It kidnapped an Estonian officer last year from Estonian territory, for example, and had in the past hit Estonia with cyber attacks. And it freely assassinates critics of the Kremlin even in Western countries, with relative impunity. But the Russian tanks have yet to roll in to a NATO nation, which would have the right to invoke mutual defense obligations from other NATO nations–the U.S. military, in other words. And what would happen if it did?

Some think the mutual defense clause is, at this point, a relic and a bluff. Which is why the West’s unwillingness to give Ukraine any serious help is a bad sign for NATO’s command. If NATO is going to bluff, it doesn’t need the Germans announcing that it’s bluffing to the world. Which is what has been happening over the last week as the NATO-Germany rift is opening in public:

For months, [NATO Europe commander General Philip] Breedlove has been commenting on Russian activities in eastern Ukraine, speaking of troop advances on the border, the amassing of munitions and alleged columns of Russian tanks. Over and over again, Breedlove’s numbers have been significantly higher than those in the possession of America’s NATO allies in Europe. As such, he is playing directly into the hands of the hardliners in the US Congress and in NATO.

The German government is alarmed. Are the Americans trying to thwart European efforts at mediation led by Chancellor Angela Merkel? Sources in the Chancellery have referred to Breedlove’s comments as “dangerous propaganda.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even found it necessary recently to bring up Breedlove’s comments with NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg.

Having the Germans accuse NATO of “propaganda” because the latter is alarmed by Russia’s repeated invasions of Ukraine is among the surest signs yet that Western Europe is far more afraid of the Russian bear than the Ukrainians are. And of course the Germans are upset with the U.S. as well. That comment about “Americans trying to thwart” Europe’s peace efforts sound less like Berlin’s finest than Sputnik media script writers.

Speaking of Sputnik, the Kremlin propagandists are quite enjoying the Germans trying to scold NATO into not making trouble with Moscow:

Describing the conflict as a “surprise”, the publication points to the EU’s “growing resentment of Washington’s anti-Russian strategy”, adding that the “escalation against Russia is being fueled by ‘hawks’ in the US,” including former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.” …

General Breedlove’s statements prompted harsh criticism from Berlin, which blames NATO for hampering a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Yuk it up, fellas.

What’s happening here is very simple. Russia is running out of non-NATO countries in its neighborhood to invade. NATO can’t save Ukraine, but it’s pledged to save its member countries, which could be Putin’s next targets.

There are two ways the Ukraine endgame can protect NATO countries from having to find out if the alliance’s mutual defense provisions are just a pretty lie. The first is that whatever happens in Ukraine, if Europe appears serious about drawing lines in the sand then Russia might believe it cannot attack a NATO country without risking war with NATO–war with Europe and the U.S., that is. The second is if the cost of Russia’s adventure in Ukraine is made high enough, Moscow will have neither the will nor the resources to keep invading European countries.

The Germans think NATO is being too belligerent with regard to Ukraine, because they’re merely assuming that Ukraine is the end of it. That is both naïve and dangerous. And it signals to Moscow that Berlin doesn’t have the stomach for a fight. Considering Germany’s history, it would be a sad irony if the Germans were the ones to finally sink NATO’s credibility. Either way, if NATO’s credibility remains intact it’ll be no thanks to Chancellor Merkel.

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Putin and Ukraine: The Ante Has Already Been Raised

It’s good to read that U.S. troops and armored personnel carriers rolled through an Estonian town on the border with Russia to celebrate Estonia’s independence. That’s a strong signal that Putin will not be able to swallow the Baltic states, which are NATO members, as easily as he swallowed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But it’s only the start of what needs to be done to contain the growing Russian threat.

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It’s good to read that U.S. troops and armored personnel carriers rolled through an Estonian town on the border with Russia to celebrate Estonia’s independence. That’s a strong signal that Putin will not be able to swallow the Baltic states, which are NATO members, as easily as he swallowed Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But it’s only the start of what needs to be done to contain the growing Russian threat.

Instead of sending small U.S. units to the Baltic states for periodic exercises or parades, the U.S. needs to permanently station substantial forces–say a brigade combat team in each of the three Baltic republics–to make clear that there are certain “red lines” that cannot be crossed with impunity. Putin is an opportunist, striking where he sees that opposition is weak. The best way to avoid a conflict in the Baltics that could resemble those seen in Georgia or Ukraine is to make it crystal clear that aggression against these NATO members will mean a battle with the United States–something that Putin does not want.

Then there is still the continuing imperative to provide arms to the Ukrainians to allow them to defend themselves from Russian attacks. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s top military commander, told Congress on Wednesday: “We have to be cognizant that if we arm the Ukrainians, it could cause positive results. It could cause negative results. But what we’re doing right now is not changing the results on the ground.” That’s as succinct a summary as I have heard of the situation.

It’s true that arming the Ukrainians could lead the Russians to “raise the ante.” But Russia has already sent a lot of military equipment and soldiers into Ukraine. As Breedlove said, “I would say that Mr. Putin has already set the bar and the ante very high.”

So, while there are obvious risks to arming the Ukrainians, there is even greater risk to simply doing nothing and letting Putin get away with his “salami-slice” tactics. And in the end the risk and cost of fighting the Russians won’t be borne by Americans–Putin isn’t going to launch ICBMs against Washington if Washington provides arms to the Ukrainians, as it previously provided arms to the Afghans fighting the Red Army in the 1980s. (Much as Moscow provided weapons to the North Koreans and North Vietnamese to fight Americans in prior decades.) The risk will be borne by Ukrainians. But if they are determined to fight for their country, no matter the cost, who are we to deny them the weapons to defend their freedom?

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The Sanctions That Scare Putin

Just as European nations expressed their eagerness to ratchet down their already weak sanctions on Russia, pro-Russian rebels have once again stepped up their offensive in Ukraine. They have taken Donetsk airport and appear to be pushing south toward Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov whose capture would bring them close to linking up the eastern parts of Ukraine already held by their forces with Crimea, earlier seized and annexed by Russia.

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Just as European nations expressed their eagerness to ratchet down their already weak sanctions on Russia, pro-Russian rebels have once again stepped up their offensive in Ukraine. They have taken Donetsk airport and appear to be pushing south toward Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov whose capture would bring them close to linking up the eastern parts of Ukraine already held by their forces with Crimea, earlier seized and annexed by Russia.

Putin, naturally, is in full disinformation mode. He claims that the Ukrainian army is really “a foreign legion — in this particular case NATO’s foreign legion, which of course does not pursue the objective of serving Ukraine’s national interests.”

This is straight out of the old KGB playbook, propagating a Big Lie which, in this case, happens to be the reverse of the truth: The rebels in Ukraine are more nearly a “foreign legion” than their adversaries are. The Ukrainian army, after all, fights for a popularly elected government with the support of the vast majority of Ukrainians, even Russian-speakers, who don’t want their country dismembered.

The rebels, on the other hand, are sponsored and controlled by the Kremlin which buttresses their ranks with Russian special forces and intelligence operatives, not to mention providing copious firepower in the form of artillery, tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles. By contrast the Ukrainians receive no weapons at all from the US or its NATO allies, so scared are the Western powers of “provoking” Russia by allowing the Ukrainians to defend themselves. The lack of actual American support for Ukraine makes a mockery of President Obama’s hollow boast in his State of the Union address: “We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies.”

If we continue opposing Russian aggression as we’ve been doing, there may not be any Ukraine left to defend before long.

What would a more effective response consist of? Well, for a start, ship the Ukrainians all the weapons they need to defend their own territory and also provide training and intelligence for them. Meanwhile, it’s imperative to step up the sanctions regime on Russia which obviously is not affecting its propensity toward criminal behavior.

At Davos, Andrei Kostin, the CEO of Russia’s second-largest bank VTB, inadvertently pointed the way forward when he warned of the dire consequences should the West decide to cut off Russia from the SWIFT system which enables banks to conduct international transactions: “If there is no Swift, there is no banking . . . relationship, it means that the countries are on the verge of war, or they are definitely in a cold war,” Kostin said.

What Kostin said is hyperbole: It’s hard to imagine Putin declaring war on the United States because Russia was cut out of the SWIFT system. But it is hyperbole that suggests the real trepidation such a move inspires in elite Russian circles. Which is precisely why the U.S. and its European partners need to give Russia a SWIFT kick in the derriere. Certainly the existing sanctions are not getting Putin’s attention.

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Interplay Between Turkey and al-Qaeda Revealed?

Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

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Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Such documents—which appear to be legitimate and the leaking of which the Turkish government has responded to by trying to shut down accounts housing them, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook as well—are, according to initial reports, the statements of those questioned when the Turkish military raided trucks heading into Syria carrying arms and weaponry. The trucks, it turns out, were driven by employees of the MIT. The arms were apparently destined for more radical groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When the police stopped the trucks, the Erdoğan regime was furious, and ordered the press not to report on the incident, declaring it “a state secret.” Alas, just as dictators in North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, or the former Soviet Union have learned, it is impossible to completely control news and the flow of information.

Turkey is not simply wrong on policy; it appears to be a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Simply put, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) likely would not exist if it were not for Turkish assistance and Qatari financing. At the very least, the United States, every member of the European Union, and every Arab state should call Turkish ambassadors in and read them the riot act. If the documents are real, Turkey should no longer avoid designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it’s long past time the United States and its Canadian and European allies began a serious dialogue about Turkey’s role in NATO.

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The Abandonment of Ukraine and the Realist Fantasy

Two important stories out of the former Soviet Union broke today, each with implications for trade, security, and perhaps even NATO expansion in Europe. The first is the completion, according to the AP, of the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. This is Vladimir Putin’s counter to the temptation of post-Soviet states to look West for economic integration. The other, and more important, story illustrates the realization of Putin’s fear.

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Two important stories out of the former Soviet Union broke today, each with implications for trade, security, and perhaps even NATO expansion in Europe. The first is the completion, according to the AP, of the Eurasian Economic Union, a customs union between Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, and Kyrgyzstan. This is Vladimir Putin’s counter to the temptation of post-Soviet states to look West for economic integration. The other, and more important, story illustrates the realization of Putin’s fear.

The Wall Street Journal reports out of Kiev that the Ukrainian parliament voted today to drop its “non-aligned” status, which serves as a symbolic rebuke to Putin but also could put Ukraine’s NATO bid back on the table. This is a significant move as far as symbolism goes, but made all the more so by the fact that the ruble spent last week in something of a freefall, causing consumer panic and raising concerns about Putin’s tendency toward aggression when his popularity at home falls. Seen in that light, Ukraine’s move is one of defiance; Russia, after all, still occupies Ukrainian territory and supplies Ukraine with gas as the winter rolls in. Moreover, the ruble will likely bounce back before the Ukrainian hryvnia.

On that note, the editors of the Washington Post sound the alarm:

Mr. Putin may calculate that if he simply stands back, the fragile democratic government in Kiev will be destroyed by an economic collapse during the winter.

Preventing that implosion will require $15 billion in fresh assistance to Ukraine in 2015, on top of the $17 billion International Monetary Fund bailout arranged this year, according to the European Union. President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk have been pleading for the funds with the European Union, the IMF and the Obama administration. The response has been less than encouraging.

Ukraine’s leaders must rue their timing. President Obama claims to want to end vestiges of Cold War antagonism, but this usually means–as with Cuba–turning his attention to America’s adversaries. For two decades after the Cold War ended there was a bipartisan consensus that the independent nations in the post-Soviet world were to be helped onto their feet. The Obama administration has constituted a pause in this consensus in order to bring dictators in from the cold. That policy has thus far failed, and failed miserably.

And Ukraine is emblematic of this failure. Obama styles himself something of a realist, but his is a version of great power politics on steroids. It’s ironic, because it’s a throwback to Cold War-era foreign policy. Only instead of using well-placed allies to fight proxy battles, Obama acts as if those countries don’t exist in any meaningful sense. Here is what the president told CNN’s Candy Crowley on Sunday, in response to claims that he’s too easily “rolled” by autocrats abroad:

So, this was said about Mr. Putin, for example, three or four months ago. There was a spate of stories about how he was the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr. Obama and this and that and the other. And, right now, he’s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis, and a huge economic contraction.

That doesn’t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America.

What’s jarring about that passage (aside from the occasional lapse into third person) is the suggestion that Putin has been outplayed because the ruble is plummeting. The Obama administration has hewed to this line throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict: that Putin would overplay his hand and come to regret his recklessness.

But that completely ignores the fact that Russia has, in the process, invaded Ukraine several times, annexed Ukrainian territory, and is maintaining a frozen conflict in the east. Of course America was able to wait out Putin; that was never the question. The problem was that the president of the United States seemed to believe that Russia gobbling up the territory of other countries and then collapsing should be considered a victory, a mark of a successful foreign policy.

A view that myopic and strange is genuinely troubling to America’s allies, as it should be.

Obama is not alone in this. Rand Paul, in his major foreign-policy address, quoted Henry Kissinger’s contention that “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.” Paul then added himself: “Ukraine is geographically and historically bound to both regions.”

This address was pitched as “The Case for Conservative Realism.” But, as I have written before, Paul’s foreign-policy views can more accurately be described as Utopian Realism: a realism that applies to a world that doesn’t currently exist but with which Paul prefers to deal.

And that’s understandable, because the world as it is does not lend itself to Obama and Paul’s utopian realist sensibilities. The proper response to Paul’s assertion that Ukraine should be a bridge between east and west because it’s geographically bound to both is: Who asked you? Ukraine is an independent country, and its democratically elected representative government is making decisions for itself. And it doesn’t want to be Paul’s bridge to Russia; it wants to lean West and even consider joining NATO.

If today’s news out of Ukraine tells us anything, it is that the realist view of the conflict is completely divorced from reality. It’s time to adjust our policy accordingly, and that means we need to stop treating Ukraine as collateral damage in our bid to facilitate the region’s economic collapse.

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Turks Again Attack American Sailors

Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

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Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

It’s time to recognize reality: Turkey may be a NATO member, but it is no ally. And while anti-NATO protests can happen in any NATO member, few members would tolerate violence or the targeting of individual American servicemen. The problem with Turkey, however, is that Turkey’s current regime has long promoted such anti-Americanism, as have other Turkish political parties, like the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) and even the left-leaning secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP). There is an atmosphere of impunity inside Turkey that violence in pursuit of certain causes is acceptable (see my previous posts about the plight of Turkish women, in this regard).

So what should the United States do?

Firstly, it’s well past time the U.S. Navy stop making port calls in Turkey. Port calls are a reward not only for sailors, but also for the countries which host the port call and derive significant financial benefit for doing so. There are many other countries and cities which would bend over backwards to host American sailors. Haifa, in Israel, is one. Various ports in Croatia and Montenegro are another. In recent years, Greece, too, has rolled out the red carpet for American ships.

Secondly, it is counterproductive and embarrassing that American congressmen lend their support to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime and agenda by signing up to be part of the Congressional Turkey Caucus. It is time to leave and treat Turkey as the regional pariah it has become, at least in any official capacity.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is fond of demanding apologies. Well, it’s our turn now. Erdoğan should personally apologize for the attacks on American servicemen and offer compensation to a charity of their choice. Let’s put aside the nonsense that the United States “started it” with the hooding of Turkish soldiers in Iraq on July 4, 2003 in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Turkish journalists have quietly pointed out, despite protestations of their innocence, none of those Turks was ever subsequently promoted, and most were quietly retired, as good a sign as any that they truly had gone rogue and were planning to assassinate public officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the information passed by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan indicated.

Lastly, it’s well past time that the United States and other NATO members come up with contingencies for Turkey’s exit from the alliance. NATO is governed by consensus, and so a hostile Turkey—its past contributions notwithstanding—can undercut NATO’s governance and effectiveness. To keep Turkey inside the alliance is to condemn NATO to paralysis and irrelevance.

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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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Obama Discovers the Value of Credibility

Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

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Politico has a perceptive story wondering whether and how President Obama’s decision to extend the war against ISIS to Syria will affect his UN diplomacy as the General Assembly meets this week in New York. The story goes through the two obvious options. On the positive side of the ledger, the inclusion of Arab countries in the coalition “could add momentum to U.S. efforts to form a broad international campaign against the radical Sunni group.” As a counterpoint, however, the high-profile military action could be considered too controversial for some. But then Politico hits the third possibility:

There are also questions at play about the credibility of the U.N. Since Obama and the Arab countries involved acted without U.N. approval, some may again express doubts about the relevance of the global body, particularly when some countries with veto power are intent on blocking concerted action.

Right–on a fundamental level, it doesn’t much matter what happens to Obama’s UN diplomacy. The president will lead a Security Council session tomorrow intended to gain a broad commitment from countries to “stem the flow of foreign fighters to extremist groups” such as ISIS. And that’s not unimportant. Any commitment, especially from Western Europe or the Arab world, helps.

And that is what tells us that Obama’s decision to strike before the UN gathering, instead of after it, was a strategically smart call. Those who oppose the strikes altogether don’t much care about the timing, unless a delay allows for a congressional vote, of course. But if Obama was planning to go it alone anyway, the timing was shrewd.

After Obama balked on attacking Bashar al-Assad’s regime over the dictator crossing Obama’s not-so-red line on chemical weapons, Obama’s defenders made a very silly attempt at spinning that foreign-policy disaster. They said it was the threat of military force from Obama that made Assad willing to strike a deal to turn over his chemical weapons.

Few bought it. And the deal was a joke: not all chemical weapons were listed, and Assad seems to have fooled Obama and cheated the deal anyway (as many assumed would be the case from the beginning). But now he can actually test the effect that a credible threat of force would have since he’ll have backed up his words with actions. Now when Obama says he might attack, he really might.

But what if his willingness to use force doesn’t rally the UN to America’s cause? That’s OK too, since having attacked without the UN in the first place shows that when he believes American interests are truly at stake, Obama will go around the UN. The lack of UN authorization should never be mistaken for a per se “unjust” war. But had he put the Syria strikes on hold until he could rally the UN, Obama would have left just such an impression, and it would have been more complicated to go it alone and more onerous to get the Arab states on board. Now the U.S. is quite clearly not hostage to the whims of the dictator protection racket that is the United Nations.

In other words, in choosing the timing of his Syria strikes wisely, Obama may have learned a lesson about strategic calculation that his critics, especially on the right, have been imploring him to learn. Obama has, thus far, learned this lesson through failure rather than success.

And it’s not just about largely discredited authoritarian creep mobs like the UN. Obama’s faddish fixation on retrenchment chic and Western Europe’s schizophrenic appetite for confrontation have left NATO countries in Russia’s neighborhood unsure their allies will fulfill their obligations of mutual defense. And so they’ve taken matters, however modestly, into their own hands. As Reuters reported last week:

Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania launched a joint military force on Friday that Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski said could start its first exercises in the tense region in the next year.

The three countries and other states in the area have been on high alert since Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region in March – and Western powers accused Moscow of sending troops to back rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Polish defense officials said the new joint unit could take part in peacekeeping operations, or form the basis of a NATO battle group if one was needed in the future.

NATO, being an alliance of democratic-minded free countries, is far more effective at its tasks than the UN generally is at its own, and there’s no comparison when the matter is the defense of the free world. But NATO isn’t exactly in its prime at the moment. Obama is ambivalent about the organization, democracy is in retreat in Western Europe, and Turkey has become an example of a country that could never be admitted to NATO in its current form were it not already in the alliance.

Going through international organizations can be a great way to give any coalition a sense of legitimacy. But countries have interests, and they protect those interests whether the UN approves or not. Barack Obama is going to address the UN with a simple message: he’s not bluffing. For once, they’ll believe him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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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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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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Polish Complaint About U.S. Has Merit

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

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Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski gained some unwelcome international press attention this past weekend when a tape of a private conversation leaked to a Warsaw newspaper revealed that he has his doubts about his country’s alliance with the United States. The bugging of Sikorski and other high-ranking Polish officials and the way the tape was put in the hands of the media is suspected to be the work of Russian operatives.

Moscow’s motive in seeking to undermine Polish-U.S. relations at a time when its aggression against Ukraine has the democracies of Eastern Europe worrying about the future is clear. Poles are rightly obsessing about Russia’s possible meddling in their internal affairs and whether the center-right pro-Western government led by Prime Minister Donald Tusk will survive this crisis. Yet the more important question for Americans is whether Sikorski’s colorful and, at times, vulgar, backlash at what he feels has been the Obama administration’s cavalier attitude toward its Polish ally is justified.

Predictably, isolationists and critics of U.S. engagement on behalf of the embattled democracies bordering Russia are labeling Sikorski as an ungrateful wretch. The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison claims that the U.S. is already doing everything it can for Poland and that Sikorski’s complaint about the “worthless alliance” is contradicted by the facts since U.S. presidents have repeatedly pledged this country to the defense of Poland since it joined NATO after the Cold War.

But what Larison and anyone else inclined to dismiss Sikorski’s lament need to understand is that Poland’s situation and history require more than the routine pro-forma reassurances Warsaw has gotten from Washington. After five and half years of U.S. retreat under President Obama, including repeated instances in which it has cut off the Poles and other regional democrats at the knees, it’s little wonder that Sikorski is questioning the value of his country’s alliance with the U.S. Moreover, the fact that one of the most pro-American figures in Eastern European politics is speaking in this manner, even if it did come from an off-the-record illegal tape, ought to alarm Americans who think the president’s feckless appeasement of Russia doesn’t have consequences.

Sikorski is not just any Polish politician. He is a distinguished journalist who was educated in the West and left Poland during the period of Soviet dominance during the Cold War. Since his return to his country he has shown himself to be a consistent voice in favor of a strong alliance with the West and the United States that would guarantee defense of the freedom of his nation and others in the region. But in the last few years he has had to contend with an Obama administration more intent on their farcical attempt to “reset” relations with Russia than in shoring up ties to friendly nations like Poland that are threatened by Moscow. Obama’s cancellation of the plan to install missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic in 2009 was the first indication that he had little interest in bolstering Eastern European democracies against Vladimir Putin’s efforts to reassemble the old Tsarist and Soviet empires. Since then relations with Poland have been continuously undermined by the administration’s desire to avoid tension with the Putin regime.

The futility of such efforts was demonstrated this year as Putin reacted to the fall of an ally in Ukraine with the seizure of Crimea and efforts to undermine that country’s sovereignty over its eastern regions that border Russia. Since then the U.S. talked the talk about supporting democracy and resisting aggression. President Obama even visited Poland this spring to restate his willingness to defend that country. But it’s hard to argue with Sikorski’s question about whether the Polish effort to play along with U.S. diplomacy on this and other issues has done more harm than good. If Poles assume that the Americans will save them from winding up under the thumb of a resurgent Russian empire, Sikorski seems to think Obama’s record proves this belief to be a hindrance to improving the situation.

As the recorded conversation apparently took place before the attacks on Ukraine began and the growing antagonism between the U.S. and Russia, perhaps Poles feel a bit better about American intentions today. But if, as many suspect, the release of the tapes is a Russian ploy to topple a pro-American government in Warsaw, perhaps Sikorski’s worries about Poland’s future are not as off the mark as some are suggesting. What Putin wants is to line his borders with governments that are oriented toward Moscow rather than the West. While the inclusion of Poland and the Baltic republics in NATO ought to make any Russian plans for re-writing the outcome of the Cold War a pipe dream, Moscow’s adventurism and Obama’s “lead from behind” response to other international crises is rightly causing many in the region to question America’s ability to stay the course.

Rather than joining in the gang tackle of Sikorski, Americans should be pondering how it is that their government has alienated so many allies while engaging in futile efforts at engaging our foes. The U.S. alliance with Poland may not be worthless, but there is little question that it is worth a lot less since Barack Obama became president.

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Toward An Achesonian Foreign Policy

One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

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One of the popular Washington parlor games of the last several years has been guessing the Obama Doctrine. The manifold failures of the administration made people wonder what the strategy governing Obama’s foreign policy was exactly–or if there was one at all. Obama himself seems to reduce his doctrine to “Don’t do stupid stuff”–but the massive and unrelenting proliferation of stupidity in the administration’s foreign policy suggests that such a doctrine, whatever its value, is not being practiced.

It seems fairly clear that Obama believes in a retrenching of American power and influence in world affairs. The latest such example is buried in a recent New York Times article which mentions Obama’s remarks at a recent Democratic fundraiser defending his preference for retrenchment. According to the Times: “The president added that the entire notion that America undergirded global order through a broad use of force was a dangerous fallacy.” So the president, obviously, is not much of a history buff.

Obama is trying to solve a particular riddle: how to safeguard American interests while avoiding military confrontations. Obama’s wish to pull America back from the world stage has led him to try to outsource American strategy and security. Sometimes this means letting Europe take the lead on military action, but more often it means treating diplomacy as an end in itself so conflicts can be pawned off on Iran or Russia. But there’s a better way.

Obama would do well to read Dean Acheson’s memoir, Present at the Creation. In it, Acheson writes of the bad-faith actions and stubbornness of the Soviet Union’s diplomats. Trygve Lie, the first secretary-general of the United Nations, signals his determination to further engage the Soviets in a twenty-year plan to have the UN lead the world to peace. “It was to start off with something that, despite Mr. Lie’s protestations, sounded very much like appeasement to me, luring the Soviet Union back to the United Nations, from which Malik and his cohorts had withdrawn, by the majority’s reversing itself and seating the Communists as the representatives of China,” Acheson writes. “To me all this made little sense.”

He continues:

I said that on Chinese representation we held to our expressed views but would “accept the decision of any organ of the United Nations made by the necessary majority, and we [would] not walk out.” So far as negotiations were concerned we would consider anything put forward in the United Nations, but, meanwhile, “we can’t afford to wait and merely hope that [Soviet] policies will change. We must carry forward in our own determination to create situations of strength in the free world, because this is the only basis on which lasting agreement with the Soviet Government is possible.”

That phrase “situations of strength” became an essential component of Acheson’s prosecution of American foreign policy in the postwar world. The Truman administration, which Acheson served, was dealing with an obstacle that would ring familiar to President Obama. The country was surely war weary–after a second world war, it would have been strange not to be. Additionally, our European allies were suddenly not in shape to prop up the free world with minimal American involvement, and our Russian partners were keen to take advantage of European weakness and American optimism toward the end of conflict.

The “situations of strength” were not intended to replace negotiations but to strengthen America’s hand. And they required American power projection in ways that would deter aggression. We had to be ready to fight, in other words, so that we wouldn’t have to. Here is Henry Kissinger in 2006 reflecting on Acheson’s strategy:

He interpreted it to mean that the task of foreign policy was to create situations of strength around the Soviet periphery to deter any temptation for aggression. Negotiation with the Soviet Union was to be deferred until these situations of strength had come into being; any attempt to begin diplomacy prematurely would undermine the primary task.

Acheson’s overriding priority, in the years immediately following World War II, was to restore Western Europe and create an Atlantic community to resist what then appeared as the Soviet colossus. He built the structure that sustained democracy during the cold war, with the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO and the return of Germany and Japan to the community of nations.

Yet it is precisely these methods Obama has ignored. The door to NATO was slammed on nations in Russia’s line of fire; budget outlays for democracy promotion and programs to help build civil society in troubled parts of the world were cut; residual forces who were needed mostly to train others and to act as arbiters of internal discord were recalled; and wishful thinking and self-delusion about the intentions of others dominated an obsession with diplomacy at all costs.

There are ways, after a decade of war, to safeguard the gains and strengthen allies while avoiding new wars and working within the confines of public opinion. It’s been done before. But it still requires a level of American leadership with which Obama just doesn’t appear to be comfortable.

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