Saturday, March 29, 2014


By Ronald Fox

New Note:  Sometimes Feedburner sends out previous posts on its own with no instruction from us.  I noticed this March 29 post was somehow re-sent last night.  I apologize for the redundancy.
(This post is a continuation, or Part II, if you like, of yesterday’s post, The Ukrainian Crisis and the Resurgence of the Neocons.  NOTE:  It's risky to speculate on events while they're unfolding.  I have no crystal ball.  My hope here is to stimulate an exchange of thoughts about where the Ukrainian crisis is heading and what Americans can expect.)
At stake in the Ukraine crisis is not only Ukrainian democracy and the territorial integrity of internationally recognized borders in the region, but the future of U.S.-Russian relations as well as the broader dynamics of international relations.  It could be we are witnessing the onset of a new Cold War, with its demonization of all things Russian and its many dysfunctions and dangers.  Worse yet, if the situation escalates into a shooting war, things could spin out of control with consequences too horrible to contemplate. Perhaps we should be grateful Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, though now they probably wish they hadn’t.
Already the confrontation over Ukraine and Crimea has jeopardized, if not doomed: diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria; achieve a satisfactory outcome to the Iran nuclear weapons issue; attain future U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms reductions (in fact, expect the events to encourage both countries to build up their nuclear arsenals, and possibly withdraw from existing arms control treaties); and, strengthen nuclear non-proliferation (who fools with a nuclear power?).  Prospects for future Washington-Moscow peace-making initiatives (which I wrote favorably about in a December 13 posting: After Iraq and Afghanistan: Will the U.S. be Less Inclined to Use Military Force Abroad?), such as in the fight against international terrorism and managing relations with North Korea, appear dead in the water.  Neocons and fellow hawks won't mind these consequences since a lack of progress in these areas will open up opportunities for the use of American force that could lead to the Pax Americana they want to establish.  For those who desire a world based on respect for human rights, the rule of law, and the peaceful settlement of disputes, however, there is good reason to dread a neocon future.     
If the neocons believe President Putin will cave in to American pressure, they are even more delusional than I thought. The idea that threats and intimidation will cause the Russian Bear to submit to our will goes back a long way. We tried it after World War II when we had a nuclear monopoly and also later when we enjoyed clear nuclear supremacy, all to no political avail.  It seemed the more we tried to cage the Bear, the louder it roared. There’s no reason to expect Putin to act differently now. Our attempts to squeeze the Russian elite with sanctions and intimidate Putin with threats and ultimatums will likely only harden Moscow's resolve.  Neocons have either forgotten or don't care about history.  Unflinchingly devoted to their assumptions about the utility of military power, they believe the side with more of it will prevail in the end.  Someone must not have told them about Vietnam or dozens of other disputes where our military might has proven irrelevant.
It’s a challenging time for President Obama. Events in Ukraine and Crimea have effectively shattered his ongoing effort to craft a new foreign policy based on cooperation with Russia. It’s uncertain how fruitful this cooperation might have been, but the wedge neocons have been instrumental in driving between Obama and Putin means that we very likely will never find out.
Russia clearly violated international law in annexing Crimea.  The seemingly deliberative moves made by the Obama administration in response to the Kremlin's muscling of Ukraine and land grab in the Crimean Peninsula seem appropriate punishments, especially given Washington's record of international illegal actions, most recently in invading Iraq. Targeted sanctions, freezing of some assets, and financial assistance and loan guarantees to Ukraine will make Russia pay a price for its actions without forcing provocative countermeasures by a cornered Putin. The same can be said for the recent largely symbolic gestures of expelling Russia from the G-8 and formally cancelling plans to attend the June economic summit in Sochi. Still, these actions have already gone farther than the Bush administration undertook in 2008 when Russia initiated a shooting war against the Republic of Georgia, and by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, de facto absorbed them into the Russian Federation.
Neocon fanciers of sticking it to Putin have predictably blasted the Obama administration’s response as weak. They have variously called for stronger actions, including (the neocon devotee source is in parentheses): resurrecting the idea of a missile defense of Russia’s border (Wall Street Journal, Lindsay Graham, John McCain); conducting military exercises close to Russia; providing military assistance to Ukraine (Dick Cheney); strongly “encouraging” Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO (National Review); broadening and intensifying sanctions (many sources); arming the new regime in Kiev (McCain, Dick Durbin); arming the U.S. "to the teeth" (Charles Krauthammer); withdrawing from arms control treaties involving Russia (Heritage Foundation); keeping open a military option (McCain); and, the most extreme, encouraging Russians to revolt against Putin (WSJ, Washington Post).
These measures would certainly ramp up tensions, raise risks exponentially, and lead to the possibility that the conflict could spiral wildly out of control. So grave are the potential consequences, it seems to me that once again neocons and Washington hawks have not thought through what they’re advocating. Deadly gambits are entrenched in their mindset, only this time we're not talking about Iraq or Libya.  Russian is a nuclear superpower with a lot on the line.
It’s uncertain how far Obama is willing to go in pressuring Putin.  He has ruled out U.S. military intervention in the Ukraine (which brought a loud rebuke from John McCain), though he doesn't seem opposed to further tightening of the economic noose around Putin, at least up to a point where our EU allies, who are more reliant on Russian trade and energy, will hesitate. Should the Europeans decide it’s time to back off and try to ease tensions, Obama might want to join them, but he will face fierce opposition from neocons urging that Washington proceed unilaterally.
How resistant will he be to future neocon pressure? Given his reluctance to view the Russian threat in the same ominous light as the neocons, his avowed opposition to using military force in the Ukraine region, and the fact that as a lame duck president he doesn’t have to worry about re-election fallout from an all-out neocon and GOP smear campaign, one would think President Obama could be quite resistant. This doesn’t apply, however, to the Democratic Party.
Charging a party with being weak against an external enemy has proven good politics in the past. Kennedy used it against Nixon in 1960, blaming Republicans for the so-called “missile gap.” Worried Democrats, not wanting to face the November election with a reputation of being soft on the hated Putin, could climb on the hardliner bandwagon.  Obama’s failure to convince the American public of the benefits of his collaboration with Putin and of relying on diplomacy over force has left him politically vulnerable to hawkish pressure. He could be pushed to escalate threats, even if he considers them ineffective and unwise.
It’s anyone’s guess how the volatile Mr. Putin might react to future moves up the ladder of escalation.  He's unlikely to “un-annex” Crimea or back off on his desire to attain some degree of autonomy for the Russian-speaking Ukraine regions. The Washington Post reported that U.S. and Ukrainian officials are warning that Russian might be preparing to expand its territorial conquest to Eastern Ukraine and possibly beyond, to Moldova. While this sounds like neo-conservative posturing to me, it does underscore how unpredictable and explosive the situation is becoming. Neocon efforts notwithstanding, Putin is not likely to be overthrown by his own people. Despite a less than stellar record in protecting human rights and democratic liberties, he remains immensely popular in Russia.
However the Ukraine crisis resolves, the neocons seem well-positioned for the future. They have probably succeeded in sabotaging diplomatic peace initiatives in Syria, and possibly Iran, thus opening the door for future military incursions into the Middle East. They stand to get their way in the 2016 presidential election, either with a neocon Republican or a tough talking Democrat determined to show no signs of softness in international relations. Hillary Clinton would do just fine (she has equated Putin’s actions in Ukraine to Hitler’s leading up to World War II).
You’ve got to hand it to them. Even if the chaos they appear to have helped create in Ukraine unleashes uncontrollable forces, resulting in another catastrophe where thousands die—or even something worse occurs-- they will likely, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, emerge relatively unblemished. They can always say we didn’t act strongly enough or responded too late. This is how it is with neo-conservatism. When their regime changes fail to produce their promised results, or when the use of force causes blowbacks, someone else is always to blame. And so it goes.


  1. A couple of points.
    A big part of the reason for the neoconservatives endless appeal is the weakness of their opposition. They have convinced the American people that we have some level of control over the actions of the rest of the world that doesn't exist and that the "control" is justified by the pureness of our motives. It leaves little room for the rights of those that get in our way. It seems we believe in a near comic book vision of our military prowess and that our intelligence agencies can do almost anything. In pop culture CIA agents are supermen and our military is so powerful that not only can we prevail against any other nation, but even stand up to an extraterrestrial invasion force! With military force that good surely we can stop / control a mere mortal like Putin!
    As long as these outlandish ideas are believed enough to change elections, the neoconservatives will always have enough power to screw up any attempt at a more rational / realistic foreign policy.
    Solving this involves forcefully standing up for an alternative vision in a way that is positive and without caveats or reservations. Democrats / liberals are too quick to run from presenting alternative views when confronted with any accusations of "softness" This goes all the way back to the McCarthy era where the right effectively bullied / silenced the left concerning any alternative ideas in confronting "the Communist threat" Neoconservatives are quick to pant all "weakness" with the same brush. The only way this will stop is for the opposition to stop being bullied and playing this predictable game.

  2. Maybe because I am sitting in New York City, but I think you've greatly overestimated the influence of the neocons on the American public as it concerns the Ukrainian issue. Most I know, left or right, limit it to a Crimean issue and could care less about its annexation by Russia. (After all, it was part of the Russian Empire since the 1780s and was only gifted to the Ukranian SSR by Khrushchev.) If the neocons think the next election will hinge on how tough our response is, they will be very disappointed. To quote that not-so-crypto neocon Bill Clinton, "It's the economy, stupid." The importance of foreign policy issues pales in comparison. Plus, most Americans I know are very weary and wary of another military adventure even if the neocons are not.


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