Tuesday, April 29, 2014


By Ronald Fox
Oh how times have changed. The cooperation that led to the joint US-Russian diplomatic initiative in Syria and efforts to achieve a nuclear weapons agreement with Iran, seem a faint memory, laid to rest by the crises in Ukraine and the Crimean Peninsula. This is disconcerting to me, and I’m sure to many others who hoped the Syrian initiative established a foundation for future Washington-Moscow diplomatic collaboration. Neoconservatives, however, couldn’t be happier. The Ukrainian uprising and the Russian annexation of Crimea have resurrected the neo-conservative geopolitical perspective. That’s right, the same neocon thinking that steered us into the catastrophic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with all the death and destruction left in their wakes, not to mention the squandering of nearly $1 trillion in American taxpayer dollars. Instead of joining other half-baked notions in our historical hall of infamy, neo-conservative thinking is once again captivating Official Washington.
One would think, given neocon-driven policy catastrophes since 9/11, that the credibility of their advocacy of military intervention overseas to force regime change, as a strategy to preempt threats before they are unleashed, would be so thoroughly discredited that the doctrine would have been returned to the ranks of crackpot ideas, where it resided from the early 1960s, until blossoming in the GW Bush administration. Common sense dictates that even our most hawkish and jingoistic political elite should have been shocked into a geopolitical awakening by the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles, and this would lead them to more thoughtfully and realistically assess costs, systemic risks, and likely outcomes before advocating a forced regime change. And, wouldn’t they also look more favorably on diplomacy over force in international affairs?
Not! Recent history doesn’t seem to have taught neocons and their fellow hawkish travelers anything. Official Washington remains wedded to neocon assumptions and prescriptions. Sure we can unhinge regimes by throwing our military weight around, we’ve proven that, but what about what comes after a regime change? We don’t seem to think about what will fill a political void and how regional politics might be affected. This has been Washington’s post-Cold War modus operandi: good at making war (think “shock and awe”), but not so good at building peace. What happened to the flowering of democracy the neocons predicted?
So, the neocons are back (actually they never really left), and perhaps stronger than ever. From their lofty perches in think tanks, the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED), and such key foreign and security policy institutes as the Council on Foreign Relations, Brookings Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute, plus their connections to Fox News, radio talk show hosts, TV chat shows, and other media outlets, along with their powerful allies in Congress, like John McCain and Lindsay Graham, neocon thinking continues to dominate our national discourse on foreign policy. Its fingerprint is all over the crisis brewing in Ukraine. 
Although Obama criticized the neo-conservative geo-political worldview in campaigning for the presidency, he staffed his foreign and security policy teams with key neocon disciples, most notably Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, and Gen. David Petraeus. With many GW Bush-era neocons still holding positions in the State and Defense Department bureaucracies, the neocon perspective has remained close at hand. The net result is that neocon momentum in the US government has continued in the direction set by the Bush administration. This has persisted even after the departures of Gates, Clinton and Petraeus.
How, then, is neo-conservative thinking playing out in the Ukraine/Crimea situation? A little background is in order. Neocons have grown increasingly agitated by Vladimer Putin since he came into power in Russia. His unpredictable behavior, which has confused, misled, betrayed, and generally frustrated our last three presidents, all of whom variously tried to work with him, has been a source of neocon distrust and consternation. Most worrisome to neo-conservatives is what they see as Putin’s determination to expand Russian global power at the expense of the U.S., a determination they believe is leading him to attempt to restore Russian control over territory lost when the Soviet Union broke up and to challenge American global interests abroad.
Neocons have been staunch advocates of regime change in Syria and Iran. They chafed when Putin’s diplomatic initiative on the Syrian chemical weapons issue saved Obama from a war they badly wanted. They have been further vexed by Putin’s assistance in helping negotiate a nuclear arms agreement with Iran, as this has short-circuited an opportunity to use force against our biggest enemy in the region. Neocons thus viewed the Putin-Obama tandem as the chief impediment to their geopolitical vision in the Middle East.  Trouble in Ukraine has provided an opportunity for neocons to stifle U.S.-Russian collaboration and at the same time signal Washington’s determined opposition to Moscow’s growing global ambitions.
Viktor Yanukovych was elected president of Ukraine in 2010. He drew the ire of neocons when he rejected a pending EU association agreement in favor of a loan bailout and closer ties with Russia. His shift toward Moscow aroused young pro-Western Ukrainians, who launched a peaceful protest campaign that erupted into deadly violence in January of 2014, and a month later culminated in Yanukovych’s ouster, fleeing to Russia, and replacement by a governing coalition headed by Arseniy “Yats” Yatsenuk.
Neocons welcomed the new regime’s professed desire to strengthen ties with the West, and hopefully join NATO. This would deliver a severe blow to the much despised Putin. As a bonus, it could even destabilize his regime and lead to his departure from office. With Putin out of the way, neocons could press ahead with their plans for regime changes in Syria, Iran and anywhere else in the world where a dictator stood in the way of American (i.e., neocon-defined) “national interest.” The preeminence of the neo-conservative agenda would thus be reestablished. Neocon NED president Carl Gershman acknowledged this vision in a September 2013 editorial in the Washington Post.
Aware of the potential benefits of a pro-West regime change in Ukraine, neocons had good reason to encourage, and perhaps even assist, the Ukraine insurrection. There is evidence that neocon operatives, with financing from the NED and other sources, did indeed play an important role in removing the democratically-elected Yanukovych from office. According to investigative reporter, Robert Parry, U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland (the wife of prominent neocon Robert Kagan) helped fan the flames of the growing insurrection. In a conversation that was made public, they even discussed elevating Yatsenuk into the country’s leadership. This doesn’t prove that Pyatt, Nuland and other neocon operatives were instrumental in bringing about the coup, but judging by numerous statements reported in the media, neocons were giddy about the blow the regime change dealt to Moscow. Pyatt called it “a day for the history books.”
Is the Ukraine regime change likely to produce the numerous rewards, both for Ukraine and American geopolitics, neocons envision? With information surfacing about neo-Nazi militias and other unsavory fascist and anti-Semite characters being at the forefront of the coup, and now infesting the governing coalition, there’s good reason to question how well the regime change will turn out for the Ukrainian people. If it turns out badly, it wouldn’t be the first time a regime change either caused, abetted or just encouraged (take your pick) by neocon operatives, failed to produce a positive outcome. One need only look to the sectarian violence in Iraq, chaos in Afghanistan, and the rise of Islamic extremists in Libya. In Syria, neocons seemed indifferent about whom or what might succeed Assad were Washington to follow their urging and use force in support of the rebels.
But this is how it is with the neocon regime change fetish; it doesn’t have to produce a positive local outcome as long as it sends a clear international message of Washington’s intolerance for regimes that threaten American political, economic and security interests.  The message is: bad guys who piss off the U.S. are inviting intervention. The trouble is, our regime changes haven’t deterred bad guys; they’ve only inspired them to build up their military and police strength and step-up repression. Some are even motivated to “go nuclear.”
Neo-conservative strategists still had to contend with a skeptical and war-weary American public. This challenge required activation of the neocon propaganda machine. The strategy was to get media friends to: whip Official Washington and the American people into a frenzy of bipartisan support for the coup regime in Kiev (most of the mainstream US news media has sided with the coup and some commentators even praised the overthrow of a democratically elected government as “reform”), demonize Putin, chastise President Obama for being weak , or worse yet, an appeaser (some even evoked the Munich analogy), and lament that Washington’s repeated displays of “softness” has reduced global respect for American power and created a leadership vacuum that is being filled by the Putins of the world. The Washington Post, which mocked Obama for being soft on Russia, has been an especially blunt messenger, suggesting the next regime change should come in Moscow.
What’s remarkable is that the pro-coup, anti-Putin drum beating, is being pounded out by the same news media that uncritically swallowed the Bush administration line about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. Their role in ratcheting up public support for the neocon-driven war in Iraq is being matched by their current cheerleading in support of substantial American aid for the new regime in Ukraine and a hard line stance against Putin, whom they've tried their best to demonize.  (By the way, could the media’s anti-Putin-laced coverage of the Sochi games been any more jingoistic?) With a recent CBS opinion poll showing that 61% of Americans want nothing to do with the Ukraine-Russian conflict, the news media is finding the going much tougher this time.  If the neocons haven't learned any lessons from Iraq, it appears the American people have.  
With no organized opposition to neo-conservative geopolitics, and no convincing case made by President Obama for an alternative approach to international affairs, it appears, American war weariness notwithstanding,  the crackpot neo-conservative doctrine will continue to drive U.S. foreign policy for the foreseeable future. This prospect makes me think about a remark physicist Leo Szilard made after an experiment he and Enrico Fermi conducted at the University of Chicago proved a nuclear chain reaction was possible: “That night, I knew the world was headed for trouble.” This captures my sentiments about America’s future if we continue down the neocon path.  
I’d like to speculate about what’s at stake in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, but as this post is already long, I will submit it tomorrow as a separate post.

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