Commentary Magazine


Topic: Russia

We Have to Talk About Obama’s Ignorance

In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

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In the wake of the controversy over President Obama’s offensive labeling of anti-Semitic violence as “random,” it became clear that regardless of whether he chose his words carefully, he certainly chose his audience carefully. He was not challenged by his interviewer at Vox for his undeniably false characterization of the Paris attacks. And now, having given an interview to BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, he has continued exposing his own ignorance in the hope that he would continue not to be called on it by his interviewers. He was in luck yet again.

BuzzFeed has posted the transcript of the interview, and when the subject turns to Russia, Obama said this:

You know, I don’t want to psychoanalyze Mr. Putin. I will say that he has a foot very much in the Soviet past. That’s how he came of age. He ran the KGB. Those were his formative experiences. So I think he looks at problems through this Cold War lens, and, as a consequence, I think he’s missed some opportunities for Russia to diversify its economy, to strengthen its relationship with its neighbors, to represent something different than the old Soviet-style aggression. You know, I continue to hold out the prospect of Russia taking a diplomatic offering from what they’ve done in Ukraine. I think, to their credit, they’ve been able to compartmentalize and continue to work with us on issues like Iran’s nuclear program.

As people pointed out immediately, Obama is wrong about Putin and the KGB. Ben Judah, a journalist who recently wrote a book on Putin’s Russia, responded: “The interesting and informative thing about Obama’s view on Putin is how uninsightful and uniformed it is.”

Putin ran the FSB–the successor agency to the KGB–and the difference matters. But what also matters is the emerging pattern for Obama’s view of the world: he has no idea what he’s talking about. The president, as Sam Cooke sang, don’t know much about history. And it’s evident in each major area of conflict the president seeks to solve and ends up only exacerbating.

It is not my intention to run down a list of all Obama’s flubs. Everybody makes mistakes, and any politician whose words are as scrutinized as the president’s is going to have their share of slip-ups. Yes, Obama is a clumsy public speaker; but that’s not the problem, nor is it worth spending much time on.

The problem is that Obama tends to make mistakes that stem from a worldview often at odds with reality. Russia is a good example. Does it matter that Obama doesn’t know the basics of Vladimir Putin’s biography and the transition of post-Soviet state security? Yes, it does, because Obama’s habit of misreading Putin has been at the center of his administration’s failed Russia policy. And it matters with regard not only to Russia but to his broader foreign policy because Obama has a habit of not listening to anyone not named Jarrett. Obama appointed among the most qualified American ambassadors ever to represent the U.S. abroad in sending Michael McFaul to Moscow. But with or without McFaul, Obama let his own naïveté guide him.

Obama has also run into some trouble with history in the Middle East, where history is both exceedingly important and practically weaponized. The legitimacy of the Jewish state is of particular relevance to the conflict. So Obama was criticized widely for undermining that legitimacy in his famous 2009 Cairo speech, puzzling even Israel’s strident leftists. The speech was harder to defend than either his remarks to BuzzFeed or Vox because such speeches are not off the cuff; they are carefully scrutinized by the administration. When Obama could say exactly what he meant to say, in other words, this is what he chose to say.

It wasn’t the only time Obama revealed his ignorance of the Middle East and especially Israeli history, of course. And that ignorance has had consequences. Obama has learned nothing from the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a fact which was reflected quite clearly in his disastrous mishandling of the negotiations and their bloody aftermath. He didn’t understand Palestinian intentions, Israeli political reality, or the lessons from when the U.S. has played a beneficial role in the conflict in the past. The president can simply move on, but Israelis and Palestinians have to pay the price for his learning curve.

And the Vox errors echo throughout the president’s mishandling of the other great security challenge: Islamic terrorism. Such terrorism has contributed a great deal to the undoing of many of the gains in Iraq and the international state system. Here, for example, is a map tweeted out last week by Ian Bremmer, which shows, in his words, “Statelessness overlapping with radical Islam.” We can certainly argue over the chicken-or-egg quality to such an overlap, but the threat radical Islamic violence poses to global order is fairly obvious.

Yet it’s not just the history of Islam and of anti-Semitism that the president gets wrong when trying to spin away the threat of Islamist terror. He also created a firestorm with his faux history of the Crusades in order to draw a false moral equivalence that only obscures the threat.

In other words, it’s a comprehensive historical ignorance. And on matters of great significance–the major world religions, the Middle East, Russia. And the president’s unwillingness to grasp the past certainly gives reason for concern with Iran as well–a country whose government has used the façade of negotiations to its own anti-American ends for long enough to see the pattern.

They’re not just minor gaffes or verbal blunders. They serve as a window into the mind of a president who acts as if a history of the world before yesterday could fit on a postcard. We talk a lot about the defects of the president’s ideology, but not about his ignorance. The two are related, but the latter is lately the one causing a disproportionate amount of damage.

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The Obama-Merkel Press Conference: What Were They Thinking?

There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

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There were several worthy nominees for the oddest thing about today’s joint press conference conducted by President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel. One was when Obama suggested the Israeli prime minister ought to be more like the German leader, who surely wouldn’t have even asked for an invitation to Washington before an election. Another was Merkel’s decision to use Ronald Reagan’s Brandenburg Gate speech as a source of hope for peace in Ukraine–with Obama, the un-Reagan, standing right there. But despite those and others, the oddest thing about the presser is still the fact that it happened at all.

The press conference was a mess. And its lack of purpose contributed mightily to that fact. The president and the chancellor are indeed two very important Western leaders–at certain times, and on certain issues, the two most important Western leaders. Ukraine is one such issue. The problem today was not that Merkel and Obama are meeting or that they’re talking to the press about it. The problem was that they called a press conference to say absolutely nothing.

The question that seemed to put this most into stark relief was when a German reporter asked Obama the following:

You said that you have not yet made a decision as to whether weapons ought to be delivered to Ukraine. What would be your red line? What would be the red line that needs to be crossed for you to decide [to arm the Ukrainians] and what do you think this will hold by way of a promise, because the chancellor said it will make matters worse? And what can the Nobel laureate Obama do to defuse this conflict?

Obama’s response could basically be broken down into three parts. The first was to push back on the idea that the Ukrainian military is being left to fend completely for itself:

It’s important to point out that we have been providing assistance to the Ukrainian military generally. That’s been part of a longstanding relationship between NATO and Ukraine. And our goal has not been for Ukraine to be equipped to carry on offensive operations, but to simply defend itself. And President Poroshenko has been very clear. He’s not interested in escalating violence; he is interested in having his country’s boundaries respected by its neighbor.

The second part is to concede that he’s basically given up on issuing red lines since he doesn’t mean them anyway:

So there’s not going to be any specific point at which I say, “Ah, clearly lethal defensive weapons would be appropriate here.” It is our ongoing analysis of what can we do to dissuade Russia from encroaching further and further on Ukrainian territory? Our hope is that is done through diplomatic means.

And finally, his indication that despite everything that’s happened, he hasn’t really adjusted his approach to Russia:

And I just want to emphasize here once again, for the benefit not just of the American people but for the German people, we are not looking for Russia to fail. We are not looking for Russia to be surrounded and contained and weakened. Our preference is for a strong, prosperous, vibrant, confident Russia, that can be a partner with us on a whole host of global challenges. And that’s how I operated throughout my first term in office.

What viewers saw here was a complete lack of urgency on the part of the two most important Western leaders with regard to Russia. That was the theme. And Merkel joined in later in the presser, with a plea for patience and hope that quickly devolved into a rambling, longwinded version of one of Obama’s favorite quotes about the arc of history bending toward justice.

Merkel was asked: “Can you understand the impatience of the Americans when they say we ought to now deliver weapons? And what makes you feel confident that diplomacy will carry the day?” She responded by counseling even more patience:

Whenever you have political conflicts such as the one that we have now between Russia and Ukraine, but also in many other conflicts around the world, it has always proved to be right to try again and again to solve such a conflict. We’ve spoken at some length about the Iranian conflict. Here, too, we are expected to try time and again. There’s always a point where you say well all of the options are on the table, we’ve gone back and forth. But then one has to think again.

It kept going downhill from there. Merkel brought in “the Middle East conflict” (presumably the Arab-Israeli conflict), which is certainly not the comparison you’re looking for if you live in eastern Ukraine. She then jumped to the division of Germany–a nearly five-decade split finally resolved near the end of the Cold War. Again, not remotely encouraging for anyone seeking to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

It all brings the viewer back to the original question: What on earth was the point of this? All the press conference succeeded in doing was to tell Russia there was no red line and to tell Ukraine that the West was willing to wait half a century to see how this all shakes out. To those in Ukraine watching that press conference, it was probably terrifying. To our allies elsewhere, it was probably horrifying. But for those of us watching here in the States, it was simply mystifying.

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Russia Should Pay Reparations After Ukraine

Last week, Max Boot wrote that the United States should arm Ukraine; I wholeheartedly agree. Russia’s aggression is inexcusable and should not result in any concession. Signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia had, after all, recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty including over the Crimean peninsula.

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Last week, Max Boot wrote that the United States should arm Ukraine; I wholeheartedly agree. Russia’s aggression is inexcusable and should not result in any concession. Signing the Budapest Memorandum in 1994, Russia had, after all, recognized Ukraine’s sovereignty including over the Crimean peninsula.

In the face of invasion, European leaders regularly prioritize quiet over justice. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande seem perfectly willing to appease Russian President Vladimir Putin, perhaps giving such autonomy to Eastern Ukraine that it effectively becomes a Russian protectorate.

There should be no appeasement and no forced Ukrainian concession. Western leaders can seek a win-win situation but, in effect, what that means is Putin wins, Ukraine loses.

When I taught briefly at Yale University, a colleague developed a brilliant system to handle that school’s notorious grade-grubbing: Be willing to entertain any review of an exam grade or paper. If the student was correct and the professor or assistant had made a mistake, the grade would be adjusted upward. But, if after review, there had been no mistake in the grade, then the student’s grade would be lowered a letter grade. It did not take long for students to realize that the risk of seeking benefit did not often outweigh the gain. That might be a minor anecdote, but the logic transcends much grander topics.

Simply put, any attempt at reward must carry risk. Take the Arab-Israeli conflict: Arab armies sought to eliminate the Jewish state in 1946, 1967, and 1973. To initiate conflict and not lose territory as a result simply convinces dictators (who needn’t be accountable to their citizens in elections) that they have nothing to lose and everything to gain by war.

The same now holds true with Putin. Boot is correct that the United States should arm the Ukrainians. Frankly, the United States should arm the Georgians as well, and ensure that the Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, and Baltic states have everything they need to deter Russia or, short of that, turn their countries into graveyards for the Russians should Putin once again decide to divert attention from his own failings and economic mismanagement by invading other countries to distract Russians with whipped up nationalism.

But, it should not end there: The goal—one which should not be compromised by any diplomacy—should be the punishment of aggression, not merely return to the status quo ante. This is not to invite ethnic cleansing; borders changed in the past but the population might remain, just as a minority under a different suzerain.

Nor should the West demand a repeat anything of the scale of territorial concessions and reparations made of Germany after World War I; after all, there is general historical consensus that such humiliation of Germany helped fuel the populism which contributed to Adolf Hitler’s rise.

That said, the West should not be afraid of biting punishment. After all, despite what the Ron and Rand PaulPat Buchanan-Russian nationalist set might argue, the West did not humiliate Russia after the Soviet Union’s fall; rather, according to the Congressional Research Service, it contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and trade. Perhaps the problem was not American arrogance, but rather its magnanimity.

So, after arming Ukraine and pursuing Ukrainian victory until Russia’s aggression is no longer sustainable, what might be demanded of Russia in way of reparations in exchange for peace and an end to international sanctions?

In the first decade of the Soviet Union, Soviet authorities awarded the Klintsovsky, Novozybkovsky, and Starodubsky districts of what would become the Bryansk Oblast to Russia, despite Ukrainian claims. Perhaps it is time to discuss their return to Ukraine.

Putin has become accustomed to making wild demands at the negotiating table. No matter what compromise Putin might subsequently make—and he seldom makes any—he still comes out on top because American and European diplomats’ opening position is simply a return to the day before Russia initiated hostility and so any compromise whatsoever ends in Putin’s behavior and rewards his bluster and aggression. It’s time for a change in tactics. Putin must learn aggression will have a cost to his dreams of a great Russia, and Russians must understand the disastrous path which aggressive Russian nationalism holds.

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The Crisis of American Strategy

President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

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President Obama got a lot of mileage out of his administration’s strategy of speaking in bumper-sticker slogans and easily digestible sound bites. But as the president’s new National Security Strategy makes clear, it backfired badly the moment an administration official told the New Yorker that the president’s approach to foreign affairs was “leading from behind.” Far more than any other, this catchphrase has dogged the president, who is now fashioning entire strategic objectives around the quest to pushback effectively against a phrase that has come to define his time in office.

The reason “leading from behind” stuck is, plainly, because it is true. “Leading from behind” is another way of saying “following.” And that is precisely what the Obama administration has done. But Obama’s own stubbornness has impeded his attempts to shake this catchphrase. Rather than actually changing strategy to better assert American leadership, he has spent his time and energy finding creative ways to counter it with rhetoric, not action. And he has failed.

This is evident in the administration’s advance PR for Obama’s new National Security Strategy, his second (and almost certainly last) during his time in office, which is being released today. The administration sent deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes out to spin the New York Times, an exceedingly unwise choice, as his comments make clear:

“There is this line of criticism that we are not leading, and it makes no sense,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser. “Who built the effort against ISIL? Who organized the sanctions on Russia? Who put together the international approach on Ebola?”

He’s right about Ebola. But the administration’s confused and clumsy anti-ISIS effort is thus far a failure, as is the administration’s staggeringly weak approach to Russia. Rhodes wants Obama to take credit for colossal failures, because that’s all they’ve got. It is, however, a kind of clever defense of Obama if taken to its logical conclusion: Do you really want Obama to “lead” when this is what happens?

Meanwhile Foreign Policy magazine chose to focus on the phrase “strategic patience”–another piece of transparent, Orwellian spin. What “strategic patience” means in practice is that the administration thinks letting countries like Ukraine, Iraq, and Syria collapse does no harm to American strategic interests, or at least that the harm it does is outweighed by the benefit of watching the international state system disintegrate. (The administration really hasn’t thought this through.)

But in Obama’s defense, if you stick around on Foreign Policy’s website you can see one reason there is such a lack of strategic vision in America. The magazine conducts an annual survey of “America’s top International Relations scholars on foreign-policy research,” and this year’s shows that the ivory tower, at least with regard to international relations, is experiencing a rather horrid intellectual crisis.

For all you can say about Obama’s National Security Strategy, it stems from a better understanding of events than the field of international-relations scholars. In one question, they were asked to list the top foreign-policy issues for the next ten years. Here’s the result:

1. Global climate change 40.96%

2. Armed conflict in Middle East 26.81%

3. Failed or failing states 22.29%

4. China’s rising military power 21.54%

5. Transnational terrorism 21.23%

6. Renewed Russian assertiveness 17.47%

7. Global poverty 16.42%

8. Global wealth disparities 15.66%

9. China’s economic influence 15.51%

10. Proliferation of WMD 14.01%

10. Transnational political violence 14.01%

As you can see, Foreign Policy appears to have accidentally polled the international-relations scholars on Earth-2, a planet where the sun just invaded Ukraine, economic inequality is beheading prisoners in Iraq and Syria, and poverty just hacked America’s second-largest health insurer.

Is inequality a larger foreign-policy issue than transnational political violence and nuclear proliferation? Yes, according to America’s top international-relations scholars; no, according to anyone with a modicum of common sense and access to a newspaper. When you think of it this way, considering Obama’s academic pedigree, it’s a surprise his foreign policy hasn’t been even more of a disaster.

There are some other fun nuggets in the FP survey. For example, they asked the esteemed scholars of this alternate reality, “Who was the most effective U.S. secretary of state of the past 50 years?” I wish I were kidding when I say this was the list they came up with:

1. Henry Kissinger 32.21%

2. Don’t know 18.32%

3. James Baker 17.71%

4. Madeleine Albright 8.70%

4. Hillary Clinton 8.70%

6. George Shultz 5.65%

7. Dean Rusk 3.51%

8. Warren Christopher 1.53%

8. Cyrus Vance 1.53%

10. Colin Powell 1.07%

11. Condoleezza Rice 0.46%

12. Lawrence Eagleburger 0.31%

13. John Kerry 0.31%

There was much mocking of John Kerry on Twitter for coming in dead last here. But I think the rest of the poll vindicates him. Any survey that finds George Shultz on a lower rung than Hillary Clinton is deserving of exactly zero credibility. (Also, “don’t know” coming in at No. 2? International-relations scholars don’t have opinions on America’s high-level diplomacy? OK then.)

What we’re seeing, both within the Obama administration and in the broader academic world, is a shocking dearth of strategic thinking in favor of the various passing fads of conventional wisdom and political correctness. And as the postwar international system continues its collapse, the consequences are plain to see.

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U.S., Germany, and France to Putin: The World Is Too Weak to Stop You

Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

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Vladimir Putin may be reckless, but he seems to be guided by one valuable strategic rule when picking fights in Europe: divide the west to conquer the east. And dividing the west doesn’t just mean dividing Western Europe among itself; it also means dividing Western Europe from the rest of the West. It broadens the (likely apocryphal) Kissinger quote about calling Europe, and updates it for modern times. If you want to talk to “the West,” whom do you call?

The sudden rush of new peace conferences to solve the conflict in Ukraine prove this point. This New York Times rundown of the various meetings and pressers and conferences is thorough but also thoroughly maddening. It is headlined “U.S. Joins Europe in Efforts to End Fighting in Ukraine,” but good luck finding any semblance of a workable solution in any of the proposals and declarations.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande met in Kiev with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. No progress seems to have been made in halting or turning back the Russian invasion in Ukraine’s east. But that’s not surprising when you consider what the aim of the Franco-German trip was in the first place. As the Wall Street Journal noted today:

The trip also comes as political momentum grows in the U.S. to deliver weapons to Ukrainian forces—a step that the German and French leaders oppose because they say it would only lead to more violence.

So the purpose of German and French diplomatic intervention was to stop the U.S. from helping Ukraine too much. Mission accomplished.

Not that the U.S. is ready to take that step anyway. There continue to be Obama administration figures who support arming Ukraine, but until that group includes President Obama, this is all they’re going to get, as the Times reported:

Mr. Kerry, who announced $16.4 million in humanitarian assistance for eastern Ukraine, plans to press for a new cease-fire.

In a joint appearance with Mr. Poroshenko, Mr. Kerry said that France, Germany and the United States were united in supporting a peaceful resolution to the conflict. And he called for Russia to agree to a cease-fire.

“Our choice is a peaceful solution, but Russia needs to make its choices,” Mr. Kerry said.

Russia, in fact, has made its choice–repeatedly. That choice has been a relatively easy one for Putin because no one is willing to defend Ukraine. What would possibly give American officials the idea that Putin would retreat without real resistance? That’s where what is possibly the most damning line in the Times story comes in:

The Obama administration’s hope is that its widely reported deliberations over whether to send defensive weapons to Ukraine and about additional economic sanctions will induce Russia to agree to a halt in the fighting and, ultimately, to a political agreement within the framework of the Minsk accord.

This is strategic ineptitude of the first order. Obama’s defenders like to scoff at the notion of “credibility”–that Obama retreating on a red line in, say, Syria would enter the calculus of someone like Putin when considering American opposition to his invasions of Ukraine. We are told that “credibility” is overrated, but it’s more accurate to say it’s simply unquantifiable.

But you have to ask yourself: why would Vladimir Putin believe Obama’s threats when he doesn’t follow through? You have to make a rational calculation, and right now the smart money will always be on Obama bluffing. It’s just who he is; he says things but doesn’t mean them. The sound of his own voice is pleasing to him, but the content is irrelevant.

Additionally, Obama keeps undercutting any such threat. One way he does this is in the implied threat itself: Obama thinks leaking that the administration is debating arming Ukraine will spook Putin, but that very leak is based on the fact that Obama is personally opposed to arming Ukraine, so it’s toothless.

More importantly, the administration keeps undercutting the idea that the aid would help anyway. On Tuesday, CBS’s Mark Knoller tweeted the administration’s justification for not giving Ukraine military aid. He wrote: “On Ukraine, WH says its (sic) not possible for US to put Ukraine on par militarily with Russia. Stands by objective of diplomatic resolution.”

So here’s Obama’s opinion: Ukraine should not get military aid from the West because even with American help, Russia would still mop the floor with them. And this, according to the Times, is what Obama thinks will intimidate Putin into signing a peace treaty. I’ll offer the president some free advice: telling Putin the world is too weak to stop him isn’t very intimidating.

Yet even if the West got Putin to sign on to a new agreement, nothing will have been accomplished. Putin has been violating the last ceasefire agreement, because there’s no one to enforce it. What Obama, Merkel, and Hollande are working for, then, is a non-solution–an agreement that would allow everyone involved to pretend it’s more than it is, and which would implicitly (if not explicitly) accept Putin’s previous land grabs in Ukraine while asking him nicely–on the honor system–to stop taking more land.

You can see what bothers the Ukrainians about this. They are at war, and high-level delegations from France, Germany, and the United States all flew in to tell them, personally, that they’re a lost cause. They either don’t realize it or don’t seem to care, but three major Western powers just went out of their way to ostentatiously humiliate their besieged ally on the world stage.

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Why Does Obama Ally with the RT Set?

Russia Today, now simply called RT, is Russia’s English-language broadcasting network. Among all the foreign satellite networks operating across the globe, RT and Iran’s PressTV are the most overtly propagandistic and anti-American. RT’s money comes from the Kremlin, and it follows Kremlin directives.

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Russia Today, now simply called RT, is Russia’s English-language broadcasting network. Among all the foreign satellite networks operating across the globe, RT and Iran’s PressTV are the most overtly propagandistic and anti-American. RT’s money comes from the Kremlin, and it follows Kremlin directives.

As the German news magazine Der Spiegel explained:

…It is also meant to amplify the self-doubts of Europeans and Americans who have been forced by recent events to wonder if their own countries — like Russia and China — are corrupt and in the grip of a pervasive intelligence apparatus. In any case, the station has a rare knack for propaganda. The average age of the Russian editors is under 30, and almost everyone speaks fluent English. To spice up the news, directors sometimes use Hollywood-like special effects… There is also a logic behind such visual effects, especially since the station sees itself as a sort of ministry of media defense for the Kremlin.

And here is Foreign Policy listing in 2013 seven unbelievable RT segments, such as reporting that it was actually the FBI and not two radical Islamist Chechen brothers responsible for the attack. Progressives in the United States might bash Fox News, and conservatives might roll their eyes at MSNBC or CNN, but all the networks basically stick to the facts or host debates about the news; they do not simply make it up.

No matter what RT’s agenda, they would fail in their effort to project legitimacy if they did not host so many American guests. Every station has their favorite contributors or outside go-to experts. MSNBC, CNN, and Fox all have an array of former politicians, ex-diplomats, retired generals, columnists, and think tank experts to whom they turn. And, even if Fox skews right and CNN and MSNBC lean left, each will make an effort to include at least some people representing an opposing point of view.

What actually is quite curious, however, is RT’s choice of frequent commentators. The National Iranian American Council, for example, an anti-sanctions group which tends to lobby for the Islamic Republic’s diplomatic positions, constantly feeds the RT beast with guest appearance, both by Trita Parsi, its founder and president-for-life, as well as policy director Jamal Abdi and research director Reza Marashi. Barbara Slavin, a former journalist whose writing often advocates for Iranian positions, also talks to RT. Ditto Flynt Leverett, a former aide to Condoleezza Rice who now works full time to advance Iran’s narrative. Joseph Cirincione, who as head of the Ploughshares Fund channels money, is also part and parcel of the RT set. Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, often joins RT shows to bash the United States, its officials, and its policies. And the list goes on.

The irony here of course is that those who most affirm and lobby for Obama’s outreach for Iran—in Parsi and Ciricncione’s case often quite directly—never take stock of the fact that RT invites them because they affirm the Kremlin’s anti-American position. This shouldn’t necessarily surprise—Parsi has written in Internet chat forums that “There is no substitute for Iran!” What is surprising is that the Obama administration doesn’t take stock of the fact that the people who most embrace his policies and with whom he and his top aides sometime consult are those who never had the courage to walk off the RT set, who never stood up for the United States on the RT set, and whose writing seem infused with moral equivalence and a desire to see America lose.

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Arm Ukraine

As this news report makes clear, Ukrainian rebels are feeling good about themselves. Bolstered by an infusion of Russian weaponry and Russian military and intelligence personnel in disguise, they are once more on the offensive against the army of the lawfully elected government of Ukraine. Having already seized much of eastern Ukraine, they are looking to enlarge their gangster state, possibly even creating a land bridge to Crimea, which has already been stolen by the Kremlin.

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As this news report makes clear, Ukrainian rebels are feeling good about themselves. Bolstered by an infusion of Russian weaponry and Russian military and intelligence personnel in disguise, they are once more on the offensive against the army of the lawfully elected government of Ukraine. Having already seized much of eastern Ukraine, they are looking to enlarge their gangster state, possibly even creating a land bridge to Crimea, which has already been stolen by the Kremlin.

The Ukrainian government has been hard-put to resist this onslaught because it is denied access to the kinds of sophisticated weapons that the Russians routinely provide for the rebels. It’s nice to read that the White House is “open” to reopening discussions about whether to send military aid to Ukraine. But the time for debate is past. There is no time for the kind of agonizing, drawn-out policymaking process that the professorial president favors. Ukraine is in urgent need of help right now.

A distinguished group of former government officials, including former NATO commander Adm. Jim Stavridis, Obama’s former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy, Obama’s former NATO ambassador Ivo Daalder, and Clinton’s former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, have just issued a report calling for the provision of arms to Ukraine. They write:

The U.S. government should provide Ukraine $1 billion in military assistance as soon as possible in 2015, followed by additional tranches of $1billion in FY 2016 and FY 2017.

Additional non-lethal assistance should include: counterbattery radars, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs),
electronic counter-measures for use against opposing UAVs, secure communications capabilities, armored
Humvees and medical support equipment.

Lethal defensive military assistance should include light anti-armor missiles, given the large numbers of armored vehicles that the Russians have deployed in Donetsk and Luhansk and the abysmal condition of the Ukrainian military’s light anti-armor weapons.

It is hard to argue with the pedigrees of the authors or the wisdom of their conclusions. It is all the more mystifying that the Obama administration has refused to implement their advice, which undoubtedly has been offered privately long before the publication of this report.

The administration has been paralyzed by specious arguments that providing arms would “escalate” the conflict and make a “negotiated solution” impossible. But the refusal to help Ukraine has given Russia a green-light to escalate as much as Vladimir Putin desires–and he has an obvious incentive to keep stoking the fires of conflict to distract his own populace from a dismal economic outlook brought about by falling oil prices and Western sanctions. By contrast, arming the legitimate government of Ukraine has the potential to actually bring Putin and his goons to negotiate in good faith. But first they must be convinced that they cannot continue making gains at gunpoint.

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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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Obama’s Words v. Reality

“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

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“This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years. And it is consistent with the approach I outlined earlier this year: to use force against anyone who threatens America’s core interests, but to mobilize partners wherever possible to address broader challenges to international order. ” — President Obama, September 10, 2014

“The United States is closing its embassy in Yemen to the public until further notice, the embassy said in a statement on Monday amid political turmoil after that nation’s government resigned last week under pressure from the Houthi rebel movement. ‘The U.S. Embassy will be closed to the public until further notice out of an abundance of caution and care for our employees and others who may be visiting the Embassy. We are continuously analyzing the security conditions and will resume consular operations as soon as our analysis indicates we are able to do so safely,’ the statement said.” — Reuters, January 26, 2015

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“Forty-two years of tyranny was ended in six months. From Tripoli to Misurata to Benghazi — today, Libya is free. Yesterday, the leaders of a new Libya took their rightful place beside us, and this week, the United States is reopening our embassy in Tripoli. This is how the international community is supposed to work — nations standing together for the sake of peace and security, and individuals claiming their rights. Now, all of us have a responsibility to support the new Libya — the new Libyan government as they confront the challenge of turning this moment of promise into a just and lasting peace for all Libyans.” — President Obama, September 21, 2011

“The United States shut down its embassy in Libya on Saturday and evacuated its diplomats to neighboring Tunisia under U.S. military escort amid a significant deterioration in security in Tripoli as fighting intensified between rival militias, the State Department said. ‘Due to the ongoing violence resulting from clashes between Libyan militias in the immediate vicinity of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, we have temporarily relocated all of our personnel out of Libya,’ spokeswoman Marie Harf said.” — the Daily Mail, July 26, 2014

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“We’re demonstrating the power of American strength and diplomacy. We’re upholding the principle that bigger nations can’t bully the small — by opposing Russian aggression, and supporting Ukraine’s democracy, and reassuring our NATO allies. Last year, as we were doing the hard work of imposing sanctions along with our allies, as we were reinforcing our presence with frontline states, Mr. Putin’s aggression it was suggested was a masterful display of strategy and strength. That’s what I heard from some folks. Well, today, it is America that stands strong and united with our allies, while Russia is isolated with its economy in tatters. That’s how America leads — not with bluster, but with persistent, steady resolve.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“Unexpectedly, at the height of the Ukrainian winter, war has exploded anew on a half-dozen battered fronts across eastern Ukraine, accompanied by increasing evidence that Russian troops and Russian equipment have been pouring into the region again… The renewed fighting has dashed any hopes of reinvigorating a cease-fire signed in September and honored more in name than in fact since then. It has also put to rest the notion that Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, would be so staggered by the twin blows of Western sanctions and a collapse in oil prices that he would forsake the separatists in order to foster better relations with the West. Instead, blaming the upsurge in violence on the Ukrainians and the rise in civilian deaths on ‘those who issue such criminal orders,’ as he did on Friday in Moscow, Mr. Putin is apparently doubling down, rather than backing down, in a conflict that is now the bloodiest in Europe since the Balkan wars…. newly emboldened separatist leaders have abandoned all talk of a cease-fire. One of the top leaders of the Russian-backed rebels said Friday that his soldiers were ‘on the offensive’ in several sectors, capitalizing on their capture of the Donetsk airport the day before.” — New York Times, January 23, 2015

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“And tonight, I call on this Congress to show the world that we are united in this mission [to defeat the Islamic State] by passing a resolution to authorize the use of force against ISIL. We need that authority.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

‘“The analogy we use around here sometimes [in describing ISIL], and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant,’ Obama said, resorting to an uncharacteristically flip analogy. ‘I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.'” — President Obama, quoted in the New Yorker, January 27, 2014

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“We’re also supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort, and assisting people everywhere who stand up to the bankrupt ideology of violent extremism.” — President Obama, January 20, 2015

“With ‘respect to Syria,’ said the president, the notion that arming the rebels would have made a difference has ‘always been a fantasy. This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards.’”–“Obama on the World,” Thomas Friedman, New York Times, August 8, 2014

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“I mean, words mean something. You can’t just make stuff up.” — Barack Obama, September 6, 2008

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Obama’s Yalta Syndrome

President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

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President Obama may have been hoping to get some momentum back last night with a stridently partisan campaign-style speech. But it appears the media are losing patience with this game, finally. Both NBC News and MSNBC’s commentators were incredulous over Obama’s interpretation of world affairs. And the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent Peter Baker dropped a dreaded phrase into his analysis of Obama’s conception of his foreign policy: “What he did not mention was that….”

You know Obama’s having a tough run when the New York Times hits him with a yes, but. In this case, what Obama did not mention was that “Russia maintains control of Crimea, the peninsula it annexed from Ukraine, and continues to support pro-Russian separatists who are at war with Ukraine’s government despite a cease-fire that has failed to stop violence.”

Obama had been bragging about simply waiting Vladimir Putin out until the Russian economy started (or continued) to crumble. But Baker’s next sentence shows what is so unsound about Obama’s approach to foreign affairs: “Russia’s economy has indeed taken a huge hit, in large part because of the fall in oil prices, but so far Mr. Putin shows few signs of backing down.”

That, in fact, is what the divide is all about, because Obama considers that a victory while most of the reality-based community disagrees. To Obama, what happens to insignificant states–as he sees them, at least–isn’t important. This is a kind of great-power politics stripped of all nuance. It’s what someone who wants to practice great-power politics but doesn’t really understand international affairs would think constitutes such a policy.

To Obama, it’s the large states–or as he sees them, important states–that matter. Because Obama is a follower, not a leader, he gravitates toward the strong horse. He does not want to be in conflict with Russia, whatever that means for Russia’s ability to crush nearby states that the U.S. has promised to protect. Obama’s foreign policy suffers from Yalta syndrome.

And it’s the reason for what was really the centerpiece of Baker’s Times article on Obama’s unrealistic foreign policy: ISIS and the war on terror. Here’s how the article begins:

Under the original plan, this was to be the State of the Union address in which President Obama would be able to go before the nation and declare that he had fulfilled his vow to end two overseas wars. Only the wars did not exactly cooperate.

Mr. Obama pulled American troops out of Iraq in 2011 and ordered all “combat forces” out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014. But before he could seize the mantle of peacemaker in Tuesday night’s speech, the rise of a terrorist group called the Islamic State prompted Mr. Obama to send forces back to Iraq, and security challenges in Afghanistan led him to leave a slightly larger residual force.

The total American military commitment overseas has shrunk significantly since Mr. Obama took office, with just 15,000 troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, down from 180,000 six years ago. The situation in both countries, however, is not as clean or as settled as the president had hoped. Instead of ending American wars abroad, he now faces the prospect of finishing his presidency in two years with at least one of them still unresolved.

Even that understates it just a bit, but it’s mostly on-target. If the president ended or almost ended the two long wars the U.S. military has been engaged in, why isn’t he a peacemaker? The standard answer, which is correct but not quite complete, is that ending a war isn’t the same thing as winning a war; if you leave the job unfinished, it will be almost impossible to credibly pretend otherwise.

But it’s also because of the particular age in which Obama was elected to be that very peacemaker. Terrorism has long been with us, but 9/11 did change our recognition of the threat and thus our posture toward it. Land wars feel like a relic–even though Russia is proving they still occur, and will continue to occur. Asymmetric warfare, however, is much more difficult to avoid, as events both in the U.S. and especially in Europe of late have shown.

The spread of ISIS has nudged Obama even more into the arms of the country he sees as the Muslim world’s strong horse: Iran. We are now aligned with Iran’s client in Syria, Bashar al-Assad, a man the president previously insisted must be deposed from power. And we are in pursuit of the same near-term goal in Iraq: the defeat of ISIS.

And Obama has made it quite clear he intends to kick the nuclear can down the road far enough for it to be his successor’s problem (just as he, to be fair, inherited it from his predecessor). What he doesn’t want is conflict with Iran. If that means chaos in Yemen and slaughter in Syria while Iran gets away with exporting revolutionary terror–well, it is what it is. And if that means Iran displacing some of the hard-earned American influence in Iraq–well, what can you do. And if that means continuing to consign Lebanon to Hezbollah’s control, or trying not to pay much attention to another of Iran’s enemies dropping dead in a foreign country–you get the point.

The Georgians watching South Ossetia apprehensively are paying attention. Surely so are the states in China’s near abroad. For that matter, Poland too is getting nervous. They know a Yalta when they see one.

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Loose Nukes and Empty Promises: Ukraine’s Hard Lesson

In the spring of 2012, the GOP’s foreign-policy elder statesman, Dick Lugar, was soundly defeated in a Republican Senate primary by Richard Mourdock, bringing an end to a six-term senatorial career. And when Mourdock needed help on the campaign trail for the general election, Lugar was unavailable. He was on his farewell tour–not on Capitol Hill but, according to Politico, in “Surovatikha, about 300 miles east of Moscow,” where “the two-time Foreign Relations Committee chairman dined in a dismantling facility as Russian officials ripped apart strategic missiles.” It was oddly appropriate as a send-off not only to Lugar, but also for U.S.-Russian Cold War-era cooperation since relegated to the scrap heap along with those missiles.

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In the spring of 2012, the GOP’s foreign-policy elder statesman, Dick Lugar, was soundly defeated in a Republican Senate primary by Richard Mourdock, bringing an end to a six-term senatorial career. And when Mourdock needed help on the campaign trail for the general election, Lugar was unavailable. He was on his farewell tour–not on Capitol Hill but, according to Politico, in “Surovatikha, about 300 miles east of Moscow,” where “the two-time Foreign Relations Committee chairman dined in a dismantling facility as Russian officials ripped apart strategic missiles.” It was oddly appropriate as a send-off not only to Lugar, but also for U.S.-Russian Cold War-era cooperation since relegated to the scrap heap along with those missiles.

Lugar’s legacy rested on the joint efforts he spearheaded at the collapse of the Soviet Union to secure nuclear material across the empire. The program, whose mantelpiece featured the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction at its center, was successful but unfinished. And now it is finished.

Not completed, mind you. On the contrary, the regime of Vladimir Putin has consistently chipped away at elements of the weapons-reduction program as relations between the two countries deteriorated. There is still plenty more work to be done, but the Russians officially put the Obama administration on notice that the remaining work, if it’s done at all, will be done by Russia. Cooperation will continue outside of Russia in other former Soviet countries, however.

The Boston Globe reveals the contents of that notice, as it was delivered to American officials at a meeting in December in Moscow:

In the previously undisclosed discussions, the Russians informed the Americans that they were refusing any more US help protecting their largest stockpiles of weapons-grade uranium and plutonium from being stolen or sold on the black market. The declaration effectively ended one of the most successful areas of cooperation between the former Cold War adversaries.

“I think it greatly increases the risk of catastrophic terrorism,” said Sam Nunn, the former Democratic senator from Georgia and an architect of the “cooperative threat reduction” programs of the 1990s.

Official word came in a terse, three-page agreement signed on Dec. 16. A copy was obtained by the Globe, and a description of the Moscow meeting was provided by three people who attended the session or were briefed on it. They declined to be identified for security reasons. …

Specialists said the final meeting was a dismaying development in a joint effort that the United States has invested some $2 billion in and had been a symbol of the thaw between East and West and of global efforts to prevent the spread of doomsday weapons. An additional $100 million had been budgeted for the effort this year and many of the programs were envisioned to continue at least through 2018.

To be sure, none of this was much of a surprise. Two weeks after Politico chronicled Lugar’s trip to the Russian east Vladimir Putin thanked him for his service by announcing the cancellation of Lugar’s great achievement. Even then, a deputy foreign minister had said, “This is not news.”

Then in November 2014, the Russians signaled that the end was near for nuclear cooperation more broadly. That appears to be what was put in writing a month later, and what is being reported now by the Globe.

There is some bitter irony here. The deterioration in U.S.-Russia relations picked up even more steam with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Ukrainian territory, followed by additional invasions in Ukraine’s east. The West hit Russia with modest sanctions but nothing especially serious, and Putin played the aggrieved party by backing further away from cooperation with the West.

Yet the invasions of Ukraine seem to have been made possible by the Budapest Memorandum of 1994, which was part of the East-West collaboration to rid the Soviet sphere of unsecured or uncontrolled nuclear material. In an effort to secure dangerous weapons, Ukraine gave up the nukes it inherited from the Soviet Union in return for a pledge from the U.S., UK, and Russia that Ukraine’s sovereignty would be respected. Ukraine would give up its nukes, that is, if there was no reason for Ukraine to have nukes.

In retrospect, this was naïve. “For a brief period, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest nuclear power,” noted Bloomberg in March of last year. It is unlikely the world’s third-largest nuclear power would be invaded by the world’s largest just to prove a point. That’s the thing about security: it doesn’t come from a piece of paper. For a country like Ukraine, caught between East and West, such a deal (and its inevitable dissolution) was a teaching moment. They learned that Russia knows facts on the ground trump memoranda, and plan accordingly. And they learned that the West, at least in the post-Cold War era, can’t be relied upon when the chips are down.

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Putin’s Gambit and the Future of Ukraine

Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

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Throughout the Russia-Ukraine conflict, I’ve referred to the “Georgia precedent”: the idea that Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008 showed Vladimir Putin how much he could get away with in terms of violating the sovereignty of neighboring countries. In truth, the Georgia precedent is about more than the invasion, which was, in Georgia’s case, the culmination of about a decade of Russia’s asymmetrical warfare and boosting separatist forces in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia essentially followed the same playbook in Ukraine, but took it one step further and actually annexed territory. Now Putin may be about to do the same in Georgia.

Over at Quartz, Steve LeVine points to news of Russia and South Ossetia signing an integration treaty. Thomas de Waal of the Carnegie Endowment explains at Carnegie’s website that much of this is formality: Russia was already effectively in control of South Ossetia. And as I’ve pointed out in the past, Russia had staffed key posts in the breakaway provinces and even distributed Russian passports. Nonetheless, this is clearly an escalation in the “frozen” conflict. Here’s de Waal:

The document goes much further than the treaty signed between Abkhazia and Russia in November. The Abkhaz re-drafted their treaty to keep several elements of their de facto sovereignty. The South Ossetian version, also written by Kremlin adviser and spin-doctor Vladislav Surkov, envisages the Ossetians conducting an “agreed-upon foreign policy” and hands over full control of their security and borders to Russia. South Ossetia is being swallowed up.

The treaty should come as no surprise. Moscow has been fully in control of South Ossetia since it recognized it as independent in 2008. Compared to Abkhazia, the population is tiny. South Ossetia had 100,000 citizens in 1989 but, after years of conflict and the flight of most of the Georgian population, just 21,000 people voted in the parliamentary election last June. The anomaly represented by South Ossetia’s supposed independent statehood, while North Ossetia, with a population of 700,000 is a mere autonomous region of Russia, has never been so glaring.

The obvious question is: Why is Putin doing this–or at least, why now? Only Putin knows for sure, but it does demonstrate how differently the conflict is viewed from Washington and from Moscow.

It further exposes the Obama administration’s “off-ramp” delusions. President Obama has operated under the impression that Putin is looking for a way out. In his estimation, Putin didn’t realize what he was getting himself into, acted rashly, and needed a way to save face that didn’t look like a retreat. That obviously failed. So the next idea was to essentially accept Putin’s land grabs and merely try to get him not to take any more.

As Josh Rogin reported last month, the Obama administration has been working on new “outreach” to Moscow. Believing that sanctions on Russia are having their desired effect, the administration has, apparently, been willing to offer Putin a pretty sweet deal: he gets to keep what he’s already taken. Here’s Rogin:

In several conversations with Lavrov, Kerry has floated an offer to Russia that would pave the way for a partial release of some of the most onerous economic sanctions. Kerry’s conditions included Russia adhering to September’s Minsk agreement and ceasing direct military support for the Ukrainian separatists. The issue of Crimea would be set aside for the time being, and some of the initial sanctions that were put in place after Crimea’s annexation would be kept in place.

It’s true that the West is not going to dislodge Russia from Crimea. But there is still reasonable opposition to any agreement that would seem to bestow the West’s acceptance of the Crimean occupation and annexation on the criminal Putin regime. This opposition mainly stems from moral outrage, but now the Russian integration treaty with South Ossetia gives the West strategic reason to oppose treating Crimea as officially a fait accompli.

What Putin is demonstrating is, first of all, patience. But also bad faith. If the West treats the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine–where Russian-armed and directed separatists shot down a passenger plane, remember–as the only aspect of the larger conflict in Ukraine that is open to negotiation and adjustment, Putin will pocket the concession of Crimea. Then he will simply wait out the president.

That will be the easiest part of all. As Max wrote earlier, Obama seems to want to drag out various foreign conflicts long enough to hand off to his successor. But just as in Georgia, Putin can be expected to escalate once again when he thinks the time is right. In other words, if the West agrees to merely pause the conflict in eastern Ukraine right now, they are still abandoning Ukraine to Russia. Putin will see it as a victory in eastern Ukraine too, not just in Crimea. And we’ll have given him no reason to think otherwise.

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Turkey Helps Russia’s Ambition in Georgia

Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

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Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

Enter Turkey, a member of NATO, a defensive alliance created in order to resist Russian aggression. Sergei Kapanadze, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgia’s Reforms Associates and a former deputy foreign minister of Georgia, has an important article out in the latest issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly, the top journal of contemporary Turkish politics and studies, examining Turkish trade with Abkhazia.

What he finds is that while Turkish officials pay lip service to Georgia’s territorial integrity, Turkish trade with the Russian-backed breakaway state is booming. Senior Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have visited Abkhazia to discuss developing relations, and in June 2014, a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians visited Abkhazia as well. Kapanadze wrote that 60 percent of Abkazian imports come from Turkey, while 45 percent of its exports go to Turkey. In other words, Turkey’s willingness to make a quick buck on Abkhazia effectively subsidizes Russian aggression and the fiction of Abkhazian independence. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Kapanadze estimates the trade volume between Turkey and Abkhazia in 2013 as $600 million. That might not seem like much, but that’s more than the total trade balance between the United States and Georgia ($425.8 million) the same year. Turkey, meanwhile, complains when the Georgian navy stops Turkish smuggling ships.

It’s imperative to stop and roll back Russian aggression wherever it occurs. NATO is the chief defensive alliance to fulfill that mission. How sad it is, then, that Turkey once again shows that when it comes to fighting aggression, taking money from dictators means more than principles such as liberty, democracy, and freedom. Turkey may be a NATO member, but it simply is on the wrong side of the fight.

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New SecDef Must Address Eastern Mediterranean

Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

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Ashton Carter, President Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, is expected to cruise through his confirmation hearings early this year. Unlike the controversial and inarticulate Chuck Hagel, apparently chosen because Obama felt camaraderie with him on a congressional trip and wanted to poke his opponents, Carter has broad bipartisan respect and clear mastery of the issues at hand. This is important not only because of the Pentagon’s budget crunch—cutbacks exacerbated by the inflexible mechanism of sequestration—but also because of the rise of new challenges the world over.

But being Secretary of Defense is not simply about reacting to the latest crises. It’s also about planning for future ones. In theory, that might be the purview of the National Security Council and State Department Policy Planning Staff, but neither have distinguished themselves under Obama; quite the contrary, they have become dumping grounds for political loyalists and followers rather than thinkers.

Carter’s greatest legacy may not yet be on the radar screen of senators and their staff who are already pouring over his record to prepare their questions. But, the rise of Greek leftist Alexis Tsipras should highlight both the growing importance of the Eastern Mediterranean and America’s relative vulnerability.

The discovery and development of gas fields off the coast of Cyprus and Israel have infused the Eastern Mediterranean with new importance. Its gas may account for only slightly more than half that of Alaska’s northern coast and less than half of that of Saudi Arabia, but Eastern Mediterranean gas is closer to its customers and in a less extreme environment.

The gas fields might be good for both Israel and Cyprus’s economy, but can also be a source for instability. After Houston-based Noble Energy began drilling in Cypriot waters in September 2011, Egemen Bağış, at the time Turkey’s European Union Affairs minister and, despite corruption allegations, still a top advisor to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, threatened, “This is what we have the navy for. We have trained our marines for this; we have equipped the navy for this. All options are on the table; anything can be done.”

Meanwhile, in May 2013, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the permanent deployment of a 16-ship Mediterranean task force. With President Obama apparently willing to acquiesce to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, Russian use of Syria’s Tartous Naval Base is assured. Add into the mix Hezbollah, which brags that it is training in underwater sabotage, the Lebanese government which is voicing a new maritime dispute with Israel over 330 square miles of offshore waters, Hamas, a resurgent Iranian navy, and al-Qaeda’s rise in the Sinai peninsula, and the Eastern Mediterranean has not been so contested since the height of the Cold War.

The United States has one naval base in the region, in Souda Bay, Crete. But with Tsipras’s rise, that’s up for grabs. If Tsipras doesn’t expel the United States completely, he may go the Philippines’ route and raise the rent exorbitantly to the point where it becomes untenable to continue.

The United States maintains numerous installations around the Persian Gulf: In Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Over the next decade, however, the Eastern Mediterranean will only grow in importance, as fracking will continue to break the relative importance of Persian Gulf energy exporters. How the United States should position its forces in the Mediterranean may not seem like a pressing problem, but decisions made during Carter’s watch will reverberate for decades. He should be up to the challenge. Let us hope that the Senate explores the issue.

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2014’s Big Winners: Putin and ISIS

It tells you something about the increasing irrelevance of news magazines that I entirely missed the fact that Time had designated “Ebola fighters” as their “Person of the Year”.  A feel good choice, but not the one I would have made after a year filled with one calamity after another. For my “Man of the Year”  (to use the original form invented by Time founder Henry Luce) I would split the honor between two rogues: Vladimir Putin, self-proclaimed president of Russia, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Both have had a very good year–which for the rest of us means a very bad year.

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It tells you something about the increasing irrelevance of news magazines that I entirely missed the fact that Time had designated “Ebola fighters” as their “Person of the Year”.  A feel good choice, but not the one I would have made after a year filled with one calamity after another. For my “Man of the Year”  (to use the original form invented by Time founder Henry Luce) I would split the honor between two rogues: Vladimir Putin, self-proclaimed president of Russia, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State. Both have had a very good year–which for the rest of us means a very bad year.

Putin began 2014 facing growing protests after he had had engineered his return to the presidency in 2012 after a four year interregnum as prime minister. Things went from bad to worse from his perspective when his ally in Kiev, Viktor Yanukovych, was overthrown by popular protests after his decision to seek a close relationship with Russia rather than with the European Union. Yanukovych’s downfall could well have presaged Putin’s own. But rather than waiting for a “color” revolution to topple him, the crafty Russian dictator seized the initiative.

Using plainclothes Russian soldiers, spies, and stooges (a.k.a. “little green men”), he fomented an insurgency where none had previously existed in Crimea. By March Crimeans had voted in a rigged election to be annexed by Moscow, and Putin had a major nationalist achievement to distract attention back home. Putin followed up this initial triumph by fomenting another insurgency in eastern Ukraine that succeeded in detaching substantial portions of the east from Kiev’s control.

To be sure Putin has paid a price for his blatant violation of international law; the ruble has gone into freefall and the Russian economy is imploding, in part because of international sanctions and in part because of falling oil prices. But Putin appears to be stronger than ever–and as clever as ever in defeating his foes.

The latest evidence of his amoral brilliance is the manner in which he dealt with Russia’s leading pro-democracy leader, Aleksei Navalny, who had been indicted on trumped-up charges of fraud. Rather than sending Navalny to prison where he could become a martyr, Putin’s handpicked judge gave him a suspended sentence while sending his entirely innocent brother Oleg to prison as a hostage for Aleksei’s good behavior.

Even more sinister and almost as clever has been Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who in the past year has managed to dramatically revive the fortunes of the group once known as Al Qaeda in Iraq. This organization suffered a terrible defeat at the hands of US forces and Sunni tribesmen in 2007-2008.  Taking over after the death of his predecessor in 2010, Baghdadi (a nom de guerre for Ibrahim al-Badri) revived its fortunes by taking advantage of the Syrian civil war. Then, having created a base in the Syrian town of Raqqa, Baghdadi moved back into his native Iraq, taking control of Fallujah in January 2014 and of Mosul in June. He then proclaimed an Islamic State stretching across the borders of Iraq and Syria and defended by an army estimated to be 20,000 to 30,000 strong and armed with heavy weapons seized from the poorly led and motivated Iraqi Security Forces.

Baghdadi may have miscalculated the impact of televised beheadings of Western journalists and aid workers–these atrocities helped draw a visibly reluctant President Obama into the fray in a small and limited way–but he has succeeded brilliantly at galvanizing support from extremists around the Muslim world. ISIS, in fact, is starting to eclipse “Al Qaeda” as the leading brand among jihadist terrorist groups.

So congratulations, Vlad and Abu Bakr, on having been won the honor of being designated my Men of the Year for your success at promoting oppression. Your selection, of course, reflects deep discredit on the statesmen of the West–principally President Obama–who allowed you to go from triumph to triumph.

We can only hope that you have over-reached in your aggression and that 2015 will see a more concerted response to the evil that you represent than has been the case so far. Because I’m not sure the international system as we know it can survive another year of your triumphs.

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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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Castros Ensure That Rubio Isn’t Gambling

Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

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Playing its usual role as the purveyor of liberal conventional wisdom of the day, the New York Times heaped scorn on Senator Marco Rubio for his outspoken opposition to the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba in an article headlined, “In Political Gamble, Marco Rubio Sticks to His Hard Line on Cuba.” But the oft-repeated assumption that any opponent of the latest of President Obama’s initiatives is on, as the article says, the wrong side of history says more about the desire of American liberals to throw out anything that reminds them of the cold war than anything that is likely to happen on the island.

The conceit of the piece is pretty much a repetition of President Obama’s talking points about his reasons for granting the Communist regime diplomatic recognition and other economic benefits. The old policies that revolve around isolating Cuba and forcing it to change have failed. The only hope for improving life there is to embrace the regime and to stop treating it as a pariah. The assumption is not only that Cuba will change enough to justify the move. It’s also based on the idea that most Americans want no part of what is seen as a vestige of cold war rivalries.

That’s certainly true of the core readership of the Times but, as has also been repeated endlessly in the last few days, younger Cuban-Americans are no longer as wedded to hostility to the Castro regime as their parents and grandparents. The point the president and his media cheering section is trying to make is that Rubio’s hawkish position is not only outdated but that it also doesn’t have much of a constituency even in the Republican Party, as evidence by the silence of some leading Republicans on the issue such as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and the applause for Obama’s move on the part of libertarians like Senator Rand Paul.

Liberals think that although Rubio is getting a lot of attention by staking out a “hard-line” position on Cuba, the Florida senator is actually making it clear that his views are outdated and about to be eclipsed by events that will soon lead to normal relations with Havana. In this manner, they think he will alienate his core Cuban constituency that will enjoy and exploit the new reality as well as a business community that is always willing to exploit any new markets in search of profits.

But the problem with all these assumptions is that there is very little sign that Cuba will evolve in the direction President Obama thinks it will or that Cuban-Americans or Republican voters will reject Rubio’s message.

First of all, the objective of the Cuban regime is not to prepare the way for a transition to democracy or even to open up its economy to foreign investors. Raul Castro does want some infusion of Western cash to keep his failed state afloat now that the Soviet Union is dead and Venezuela is bankrupt. But he isn’t any more interested in the post-Cold War model of China than he is that of Russia.

As Walter Russell Mead, a supporter of the deal with Cuba, noted earlier this week in the American Interest, the regime is well aware that a Republican Congress will never lift the embargo on their country. That’s fine with the Castros, who want to keep strict limits on the influx of foreign business and investment. Unlike Russia, which scrapped both its political and economic systems and China, which embraced capitalism for its economy while maintaining a Communist dictatorship, the Cuban leaders want to keep both their tyranny and their bankrupt socialist system. All they want from the United States is just enough investment to keep them going without actually generating any sort of reform.

Rubio’s position is no gamble because the Castro brothers have no intention of letting Cuba become Russia or China. They want, and with the help of President Obama, may well get, a third option that enables them to preserve their regime and do nothing to advance the standard of living in Cuba.

What Rubio has done is to draw attention to the fact that in exchange for giving something of great value to a brutal and dictatorial regime, President Obama has gotten nothing in return. The president’s blind ideological faith in engagement with foes of the United States has been demonstrated time and again with nations like Russia and Iran. But considering how little he has gained for these appeasement campaigns, the notion that history will judge Obama kindly for these moves is more of a leap of liberal faith than a sober assessment of reality.

Far from a gamble, Rubio’s bold stand presents no risk at all for him. The chances that the regime in Havana will allow anything that could be mistaken for liberal reform are virtually non-existent. Nor is it likely that the base of the Republican Party, which feels such disgust at the president’s weakness and willingness to sell out American values in order to gain a meaningless diplomatic triumph, will punish Rubio for pointing this out.

It remains to be seen whether this issue will be enough to propel Rubio into a viable 2016 presidential bid. But it does solidify his reputation as one of the leading spokesmen, if not the most important spokesman for his party on foreign-policy issues. With Americans rightly re-focused on the threat of Islamist terrorism and worries about a nuclear Iran being exacerbated by Obama’s determination to secure a nuclear deal at any cost, the president’s Cuban gambit not only helps keep foreign policy a major issue for 2016 but also highlights Rubio’s greatest strength and one on which he is far closer to the views of most Republicans than someone like Paul.

But whether or not he runs for president, the facts on the ground in Cuba are bound to make Rubio look smart. Just as President Obama’s mockery of Mitt Romney for embracing the politics of the 1980s on Russia now looks pretty embarrassing, it’s likely that the same will be said of those who think Rubio is on the wrong side of history on Cuba.

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How Many Snowden Documents Are Fake?

The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

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The 2014 Pulitzers gave supporters of NSA leaker and defector Edward Snowden an opportunity to spike the football. And they would do so. “The Pulitzer Prizes Just Demolished The Idea That Edward Snowden Is A Traitor,” crowed the Huffington Post. The Pulitzer is indeed a prestigious award, though I would doubt that the Huffington Post would claim that the 1932 Pulitzer Prizes demolished the idea that Stalin was a murderous tyrant. Even after the award, Snowden’s actions have given his critics more reason to doubt him. And now we have another.

Last year, the German publication Spiegel, which had been publishing some of the leaked Snowden documents, alleged that the NSA was bugging Angela Merkel’s phone. I say “alleged” rather than “revealed” because the credibility of that story just took a major hit. The story caused ripples of consternation throughout Europe and threatened to rupture U.S.-German relations, and President Obama apologized, though he denied knowing anything about it. The denial seemed implausible at the time; it turns out the president was probably telling the truth.

The German government began an investigation into the allegations this year, and they have come to some preliminary findings, as Reuters reported:

Germany’s top public prosecutor said an investigation into suspected tapping of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone by U.S. spies had so far failed to find any concrete evidence.

Revelations by former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden that Washington carried out large-scale electronic espionage in Germany provoked widespread outrage — particularly the allegation that the NSA had bugged Merkel’s phone.

Harald Range launched an official investigation in June, believing there was enough preliminary evidence to show unknown U.S. intelligence officers had tapped the phone, although there was not enough clarity on the issue to bring charges.

On Wednesday he said however, “the document presented in public as proof of an actual tapping of the mobile phone is not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA. It does not come from the NSA database.

“Not an authentic surveillance order by the NSA” is an extremely important detail. If that’s true, here’s what appears to have happened: an American defector to Russia (Snowden had been granted asylum in Russia just a couple months before the Spiegel story was published) passed along a fake document designed to throw a wrench in U.S.-German (and U.S.-European) relations.

But we don’t know that either. In fact, this episode raises more questions than it answers. We already know Snowden isn’t trustworthy, and we know his story has changed. We know he has embraced a role as a Putin propagandist. We know that, according to Snowden himself, he doesn’t know everything that’s included in the trove of documents he stole and released on his way to Russia.

So there’s much we already know about Snowden. But if this document is fake, there’s a lot we don’t know about the leaks. First and foremost, we don’t know how much is fake. This is important, because careers were made and Pulitzers were won on the backs of this document trove. NSA reform efforts took shape based on the supposed revelations (many of them surely actual revelations; no one should think all the documents are false).

And it’s also why Snowden’s credibility is so crucial to sorting all this out. The debate that raged in the aftermath of the first disclosures and the news that Snowden had taken much more, which would amount to a steady drip-drip of American secrets, took for granted that the United States government did what Snowden said it did.

In this, Snowden was aided by two things: first and foremost, the journalists who essentially worked as his secretaries. And second, the overwhelming amount of documents he took.

If it’s true that the NSA order regarding Merkel was a fake, why didn’t the NSA show it to be at the time? One possibility is that the size of the bureaucracy of America’s intelligence apparatus makes such a denial a bit like proving a negative: how could the entire organization be sure it never came from NSA? The president’s initial denial suggests the top leaders at the organization truly didn’t recognize the order. But if you redact names and other essential information from such a document, it’s not so easy to trace it.

And who has the resources to conduct such an investigation? Remember, the documents were not handed back to the government. Clearly some of the information released by Snowden’s secretaries was accurate, the rest believable. Snowden seems to have been relying on this.

And he also seems to have been relying on the media. The public doesn’t have access to Snowden’s haul. They trust reporters to sift through them and present them accurately. This is not exactly the golden age of ethics in media, but the public doesn’t really have a choice. They now know that their faith in the media was misplaced. The press isn’t qualified to interpret massive amounts of national-security documents. That doesn’t mean there’s another option; there isn’t. The press still does a great service when correctly reporting on government malfeasance. It would just be nice if the press got the story right far more often than it does.

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Israel Still Doing U.S. Dirty Work in Syria

Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

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Over the weekend, the Syrian government reported that Israeli airplanes struck targets outside Damascus. The Assad regime condemned the attack on its territory, a stance echoed by both their Iranian and Russian allies. In particular, Moscow demanded an explanation from Israel for its “aggressive” behavior. Why were the Russians so aggrieved about a few more bombs dropped on a country that is already ravaged by four years of war? The targets hit were apparently stockpiles of Russian weapons that were about to be transferred to Hezbollah. There is nothing that unusual about Israeli military action to forestall weapons being put into the hands of terrorists but what is interesting here is that once again Israel, the ally that the Obama administration most loves to hate, is doing America’s dirty work in Syria.

For years the U.S. has stood by and watched as the Russians have supplied arms to Assad to slaughter his own people. Even worse, as President Obama dithered about taking action to halt the killing of more than 200,000 persons, the crisis there worsened as, with the help of Iran and its Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries, atrocities escalated and moderate alternatives to Assad were marginalized by radical groups including ISIS.

The result is that by the time the U.S. belatedly recognized the necessity of acting against ISIS, there were few good options left for resisting Assad and his allies. More to the point, much as was the case when I wrote about Israeli strikes on Syria in both January and May of 2013, it is Israel that has been forced to step into the vacuum created by the administration’s feckless policies.

Like those strikes, this past weekend’s attacks were primarily directed by Israel’s own security imperatives. Allowing Russia to transfer arms to terrorists, whether serving as mercenaries fighting to preserve a regime that is allied with the Shi’a group’s Iranian masters or deployed near Israel’s northern border, Hezbollah presents a dramatic and potent threat to Israel. But by acting decisively to keep Hezbollah from acquiring even more dangerous weapons than the ones it already possesses, Israel is also helping to keep the situation in Syria from becoming even more unmanageable.

The U.S. strikes on ISIS inside Syria have had some impact on the ability of the terror group to expand its control of much of that country as well as Iraq. But it is too weak a response to even begin the task of rolling back the extent of the so-called caliphate. The net effect of the administration’s effort both there and in Iraq is to expand Iran’s influence and to, in effect, allow Assad and his allied forces a free pass to go on committing atrocities.

Even as President Obama, who was once quite vocal about the necessity for Bashar Assad’s ouster, mulls sanctions against Israel while appeasing Iran and allowing it to run out the clock in nuclear talks, the Jewish state is guarding both its interests as well as those of the West by acting to restrain arms transfers in Syria. While the U.S. concentrates on an insufficient air offensive aimed at ISIS, Israel is effectively restraining any Syrian and/or Iranian adventurism in the region. Keeping Assad and Hezbollah in check is a vital American interest as the rest of the region looks on with horror as the Syrian regime and its friends continue to destabilize the region. Though it continues to be the Obama administration’s favorite whipping boy, Israel’s actions are once again proving the value of a strong U.S.-Israel alliance.

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Violence and Repression in Chechnya

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

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

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

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

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

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