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“Where Are Putin’s American Admirers Now?”: Vlad’s Doting, Adoring Conservative Fans Are Awfully Quiet

It is hard to overstate the damage that the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine has done to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In addition to isolating him further internationally and threatening greater harm to the Russian economy, the killing of 298 people aboard a civilian jetliner, which U.S. officials are increasingly sure was caused by a missile launched by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, has gravely undermined the aura of competence and tactical brilliance that Putin has cultivated over the years and which helped Russia project outsized influence even in an era of post-Soviet decline and diminishment. As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes, letting powerful Russian-made anti-aircraft weaponry into the hands of pro-Russia fighters who cannot tell the difference between a large passenger airliner and a military plane is “a f’-up on Putin’s part of almost mind-boggling proportions. Yes, a tragedy. Yes, perhaps an atrocity. But almost more threatening, a screw up.”

But we should not just leave it at that. Rather, we should recall all those in recent months who showered awe and praise on Putin for his extreme capability, which was often contrasted unfavorably with the hapless President Obama.

First, there was all the praise for the Russian military itself following the invasion of Crimea. The New York Times, among many others, gave dazzling reviews of the “sleek new vanguard of the Russian military,” soldiers who were “lean and fit,” dressed in uniforms that were “crisp and neat …their new helmets…bedecked with tinted safety goggles,” and outfitted with “compact encrypted radio units distributed at the small-unit level, a telltale sign of a sweeping modernization effort undertaken five years ago by Putin that has revitalized Russia’s conventional military abilities, frightening some of its former vassal states in Eastern Europe and forcing NATO to re-evaluate its longstanding view of post-Soviet Russia as a nuclear power with limited ground muscle.”

This seemed a tad premature and overstated, given that the Russian military was facing virtually no resistance from the outnumbered Ukrainian forces in Crimeait’s easy for soldiers to look sleek and professional when there’s no actual contact with the enemy. But Putin himself basked in the praise, echoing it himself in a ceremony celebrating the invasion: “The recent events in Crimea were a serious test, demonstrating the quality of the new capabilities of our military personnel, as well as the high moral spirit of the staff,” he said.

Once pro-Russian separatists started their uprising in eastern Ukraine, there was a new round of praise for the deviously brilliant strategy Putin was deploying there, sending in personnel and equipment to assist the separatists but making sure that the personnel were unmarked, giving Russia superficially plausible deniability about their activities. Commentators hailed this approachmaskirovka, or masked warfareas the wave of the future in warfare. As one admirer wrote in a column for the Huffington Post:

President Putin’s game plan in Ukraine becomes clearer day by day despite Russia’s excellent, even brilliant, use of its traditional maskirovka. … It stands for deliberately misleading the enemy with regard to own intentions causing the opponent to make wrong decisions thereby playing into your own hand. In today’s world this is mainly done through cunning use of networks to shape perceptions blurring the picture and opening up for world opinion to see your view as the correct one legitimizing policy steps you intend to take.

This “cunning use of networks” is less “excellent, even brilliant” when said networks, as now appears likely, kill nearly 300 innocent civilians, most of them citizens of the nation that is one of your largest trading partners.

Meanwhile, there was all along the more general praise for the prowess and capability of Putin himself from American conservatives. Charles Krauthammer penned a Washington Post op-ed headlined: “Obama vs. Putin, the Mismatch.” Rudy Giuliani’s adulation for Putin surely caused a blush in the Kremlin: “[H]e makes a decision and he executes it, quickly. And then everybody reacts. That’s what you call a leader.” Rush Limbaugh went on a riff about Putin’s superiority to Obama:

In fact, Putinready for this?postponed the Oscar telecast last night. He didn’t want his own population distracted. He wanted his own population knowing full well what he was doing, and he wanted them celebrating him. They weren’t distracted. We were. …

Well, did you hear that the White House put out a photo of Obama talking on the phone with Vlad, and Obama’s sleeves were rolled up?  That was done to make it look like Obama was really working hardI mean, really taking it seriously. His sleeves were rolled up while on the phone with Putin! Putin probably had his shirt off practicing Tai-Chi while he was talking to Obama.

Was Putin also practicing shirtless Tai-Chi when he learned that, in all likelihood, men fighting in Russia’s name and with its backing had downed a passenger airliner and provoked a major international incident? Who knows. Enough, for now, that this awful tragedy provokes a jot of self-reflection on the part of those who were so willing to trumpet Putin’s brilliance these past few months. If Putin’s maskirovka did manage to “shape perceptions blurring the picture,” these admirers were the most susceptible.

 

By: Alec MacGillis, The New Republic, July 18, 2014

July 20, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Manly Men Condemn Obama’s Lack of Manliness”: An Immature, Infantile Conception Of Foreign Affairs

Here’s a question: If Hillary Clinton becomes president, what are conservatives going to say when they want to criticize her for not invading a sufficient number of other countries? I ask because yesterday, David Brooks said on Meet the Press that Barack Obama has “a manhood problem in the Middle East.” Because if he were more manly, then by now the Israelis and Palestinians would have resolved their differences, Iraq would be a thriving, peaceful democracy, and Iran would have given up its nuclear ambitions. Just like when George W. Bush was president, right?

It really is remarkable how persistent and lacking in self-awareness the conservative obsession with presidential testosterone is. Here’s the exchange:

DAVID BROOKS: And, let’s face it, Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a (I’ll say it crudely) but a manhood problem in the Middle East: Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad, somebody like Putin? I think a lot of the rap is unfair. But certainly in the Middle East, there’s an assumption he’s not tough–

CHUCK TODD: By the way, internally, they fear this. You know, it’s not just Bob Corker saying it, okay, questioning whether the president is being alpha male. That’s essentially what he’s saying: He’s not alpha dog enough. His rhetoric isn’t tough enough. They agree with the policy decisions that they’re making. Nobody is saying– but it is sort of the rhetoric. Internally this is a question.

Because Brooks is a somewhat moderate conservative who writes for a paper read mostly by liberals, he naturally equivocates a little, distancing himself from the assessment even as he’s making it. Chuck Todd too trots out the passive voice, to impute this decision to nameless others. “Internally this is a question”—what does that mean, exactly? That members of the White House staff spend their days fretting about the President’s manliness?

This kind of infantile conception of foreign affairs, where countries and leaders don’t have interests or incentives or constraints that need to be understood in order to act wisely, but all that matters is whether you’re “tough” and “strong,” is distressingly common among people on the right who think of themselves as foreign policy experts.

And of course, neither Brooks nor Todd says exactly what form the manliness they wish to see in Barack Obama ought to take. Should he challenge a group of neighborhood toughs to a fight? Overhaul the transmission on the presidential limousine? Shoot an animal or two? (And by the way, a child can shoot an animal—if you want to convince me hunting is manly, I’ll believe it when you kill a mountain lion with your bare hands.)

As Todd says, “it is sort of the rhetoric,” meaning that the only bit of “toughness” they can imagine is rhetorical toughness. If Obama would start droppin’ his “g”s, maybe squint his eyes when he’s mad like Dubya used to do, and issue the occasional threat—”If you go any farther, you’re gonna be sorry, pardner”—then other countries would do exactly what we want them to. Oh wait, I know what he should do: land on an aircraft carrier, then strut around for a while in a flight suit.

Back in the real world, that isn’t just idiotic, it doesn’t actually work. Again, George W. Bush was about as “tough” as they come by these standards, and no sane person could argue that made his foreign policy brilliant and effective.

So the next time anyone says Obama should be “tougher” or “stronger” or “more manly,” they ought to be asked exactly what actions they’re recommending. And if they say it’s a matter of rhetoric, then the next question should be, “Do you believe that a change in Obama’s rhetoric would fundamentally alter the situation in [Ukraine, Syria, wherever]? They’ll probably respond, “Of course not, but…” And that’s all you need to hear.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, April 21, 2014

April 22, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Middle East, Ukraine | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“For The Love Of Money”: How The Gas Lobby Is Using The Crimea Crisis To Push Bad Policy And Make More Money

A small group of pundits and politicians with close ties to the fossil fuel industry are using the crisis in Crimea to demand that the United States promote natural gas exports as a quick fix for the volatile situation. But such a solution, experts say, would cost billions of dollars, require years of development, and would not significantly impact the international price of gas or Russia’s role as a major supplier for the region. Rather, the move would simply increase gas prices for American consumers while enriching companies involved in the liquified natural gas (LNG) trade.

On Capitol Hill, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Representative Fred Upton (R-MI) was among the first to use the crisis in Ukraine to demand that the Department of Energy speed up the approval process for new LNG terminals. “Now is the time to send the signal to our global allies that US natural gas will be an available and viable alternative to their energy needs,” said Upton in a statement. As we’ve reported, Upton’s committee is managed in part by Tom Hassenboehler, a former lobbyist who joined Upton’s staff last year after working for America’s Natural Gas Alliance, the primary trade group pushing to expand natural gas development and LNG exports.

Paul Bledsoe, in an opinion column for Reuters, wrote that the United States should expedite natural gas exports to “bolster transatlantic solidarity and help to form a united US-EU response to Russian intervention in Crimea.” He was identified in the piece as a member of the “White House Climate Change Task Force under President Clinton.” What wasn’t disclosed, however, is that Bledsoe is an official with a pro–fossil fuels think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is funded by the American Gas Association and energy companies with a financial stake in promoting the natural gas industry. (Although he’s not listed on the website, a representative with BPC told Republic Report that Bledsoe continues to work there.)

Groups created and funded by Charles Koch, chief executive of Koch Industries, have also demanded that America should respond to the crisis in Crimea with LNG exports. “A serious President would also fast-forward permits on new liquefied natural gas terminals that could ship to Europe,” claims a column posted by Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-run advocacy group. A similar argument is advanced by the Koch-founded Cato Institute.

What’s left undisclosed, however, is the huge financial stake in the debate for Koch Industries. A brochure for the company shows that Koch has deeply expanded its footprint into the natural gas market, and is now actively engaged in shipping, sourcing and marketing LNG, in addition to becoming a leader in developing financial instruments related to natural gas. “To complement existing North American activities from Houston and to optimize their global portfolio, KS&T companies are expanding a Europe-wide natural gas business from Geneva and an LNG trading business from offices in Houston and London,” reads the document. Further, Koch federal lobbying disclosures show that the firm has pushed a bill to expedite LNG exports from America to NATO countries.

In perhaps the most ironic twist of this public debate around how to respond to Russia’s incursion into Crimea, American lobbyists with ties to Russia are calling for a solution that would not only shield Russian gas oligarchs, but enrich them. The National Association of Manufacturers has opposed tough sanctions on Russia. Instead, NAM has used the crisis in Ukraine to “urge speedier approval of liquified natural gas exports, arguing that the move would weaken Vladimir Putin’s control over Europe’s energy supply.” NAM’s chief lobbyist Jay Timmons told Politico that an LNG-export response would “send a strong signal to the Russian Federation, our NATO allies, our trading partners and the rest of the world that energy exports matter and are a critical tool of American foreign policy.”

What Timmons did not mention is that ExxonMobil is a leading member of his trade association, and that ExxonMobil has extensive ties to Russian gas giants, including partnerships to develop natural gas in the United States and around the world. (For more on the business ties, see Kert Davies and Steve Horn’s recent reporting on the Putin-sanctioned alliance between ExxonMobil and Russian state–owned oil and gas giant Rosneft.) In short, Timmons’s strong signal to Russia would help Russian gas businesses.

 

By: Lee Fang, The Nation, March 20, 2014; Originally Published at RepublicReport.org

March 21, 2014 Posted by | Koch Brothers, Oil and Gas Industry, Ukraine | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Curious Contradiction”: America’s Tough Guys, Sounding Awfully Weak

There’s a curious contradiction that keeps coming up with the situation in Ukraine, and how both Republicans and some in the press are criticizing President Obama. On one hand, there’s agreement in some quarters that Obama is just too weak; depending on your perspective, that’s either because he’s naturally cautious and the country doesn’t have much appetite for foreign adventurism after 12-plus years of pointless, frustrating war or because he’s bent on destroying the United States’ place in the world. The contradiction comes when the same people are asked what sorts of strong, muscular, testosterone-fueled approach might be an alternative, and the displays of toughness they propose sound awfully, well, weak. And even the nostalgic prospect of a new Cold War won’t satisfy.

So look, for instance, at this headline in The Hill: “Republicans demand Obama get tougher with Putin over Ukraine.” Get tough! But read the article and what do you find? “Calls for more muscular actions, from expelling Russia from the Group of Eight to offering military support to Ukraine, came as Russia’s stock market rallied and the ruble gained value a day after Obama authorized an initial round of sanctions meant to punish the Russian economy.” But is expelling Russia from the G-8 really “muscular”? That sounds a lot like economic pressure, which is the kind of exercise of “soft power” that tough guys are supposed to scorn. Noted tough guy John McCain says that the problem is that Obama didn’t bomb Syria, but that doesn’t tell us what sort of super-tough thing McCain would rather do now.

Yes, the call for toughness is kind of reflexive. But one does wonder whether, deep down, a few of Obama’s critics are really hankering for a war. Maybe not a war with Russia, but a war somewhere. After all, it’s been a whole decade since we started one. And unlike a conflict such as the one in Ukraine, a real war would allow people to advocate bombing and shooting and conquering — in other words, genuine tough stuff. Here, for instance, is an editorial by the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol lamenting the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan have made the American public “war-weary” and effectively telling them to stop being such wimps and feel that delicious bloodlust once again:

A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied. Indeed, events are right now doing the awakening. All that’s needed is the rallying. And the turnaround can be fast. Only 5 years after the end of the Vietnam war, and 15 years after our involvement there began in a big way, Ronald Reagan ran against both Democratic dovishness and Republican détente. He proposed confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding our military. It was said that the country was too war-weary, that it was too soon after Vietnam, for Reagan’s stern and challenging message. Yet Reagan won the election in 1980. And by 1990 an awakened America had won the Cold War.

The next president will be elected in 2016, 15 years after 9/11 and 5 years after our abandonment of Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Pundits will say that it would be politically foolish to try to awaken Americans rather than cater to their alleged war-weariness. We can’t prove them wrong. Perhaps it would be easier for a Republican to win in 2016 running after the fashion of Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1920 rather than that of Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1980.

But what would such a victory be worth?

If only those lily-livered voters had the courage of Bill Kristol, to never stop yearning for the glory of war! Sure, it’ll always be a war fought by others, but still.

It’s no wonder they’re feeling troubled. It’d be great to start a new Cold War with Russia, since the last one gave hawks purpose for so many decades. But this one won’t be nearly as kinetic as the last one. Back in the old days, we could confront the Kremlin with guns and bombs, not just the ones we pointed at them, but ones we distributed around the world. We could run proxy wars in Asia and Africa and South America. Every now and again we could invade a tiny country to our south, like Grenada or Panama, just to show the Russkies we weren’t going to take any guff. The sainted Reagan could sell arms to the ayatollah, then use the profits to fund an army trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Now that was showing toughness! At least somebody somewhere was shooting. But these days it’s all imposing sanctions and freezing assets and boycotting economic summits and making statements. How can you feel tough and muscular doing that?

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; Published at The Plum Line, The Washington Post, March 19, 2014

March 21, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Republicans, Ukraine | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Three Questions For Ukraine Hawks”: There Are Real And Specific Questions We’d Better Ask Ourselves Before We Jump In

Watch an hour of cable—and I’m talking MSNBC; forget Fox—and you might well come away from the hyper-ventilations thinking that we will or should go to war over Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Listen: Nobody’s going to war over Crimea. This isn’t 1853. Yes, it matters to us how Crimea may once again become a part of Russia, and we don’t like it a bit, but let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter to us in cold, hard, realpolitik terms, whether Crimea is a part of Russia. It’s used as a naval base, and Russia’s had that all along.

Now Ukraine, that’s different. Or so everyone on TV says. But when everyone starts saying something, I start doubting. After all, a decade ago, nearly “everyone”—every “grown up,” that is, every person who took a “properly expansive” view of American security in the post 9/11 age—said we needed to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11. So: Is Ukraine different? We may decide that yes, it is, but there are some real and specific questions we’d better ask ourselves before we just automatically make that declaration.

One way we decide these things is by looking at the historical record, and the historical record practically screams no, Ukraine is not different, is not a vital American or Western interest. Soviet Russia annexed Ukraine in 1922, after a war that had commenced in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took Moscow. The borders of Ukraine changed many times over the years. Even its capital was moved from Kharkiv in the east to Kiev in the west. At the end of World War II, the USSR expanded Ukraine again, as Stalin unilaterally redrew the Curzon Line to take in Eastern Galicia and Lvov, Poland, which became and still is Lviv, Ukraine.

There were further alterations after the war. In 1954, as we all now know, Crimea became part of Ukraine (staying within the USSR). If the Western countries objected to any of these moves, they objected lightly and only formally. Roosevelt and Churchill pestered Stalin about the Lvov/Lviv situation at Yalta, but Uncle Joe wasn’t having it, and they left it alone.

So historically, Ukraine hasn’t been something the West regarded as worth fussing over very much. In more recent years, after the USSR’s collapse, Russia asserted that Ukraine and, for that matter, all 14 former satellite SSR’s were within the Russian sphere of influence. They even coined a term for it: the “near abroad.” Not all Americans have accepted the idea that the near abroad falls strictly within the Russian sphere of influence, by any means. When John McCain and Joe Biden and others thunder about bringing Georgia into NATO, they’re rejecting the idea explicitly. But like it or not, three presidents have basically accepted the idea—none more so than George W. Bush, who confronted Putin about his 2008 Georgia incursion (both happened to be in Beijing for the Olympics) and whose administration took a few steps but who never imposed sanctions, as Barack Obama has now. Bush’s green light to Putin shone far brighter than Obama’s has.

Of course, history changes. The fact that we never cared about Ukraine before doesn’t by definition mean that we shouldn’t care about it today. First, there is the matter of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s existing borders in exchange for it giving up its nukes. The Obama administration declared Russia in violation of that concord on March 1. More broadly, Putin is a despicable tyrant who wants glory for Mother Russia. If “glory” means swallowing back up those 14 former SSRs, then he does have to be countered. The Obama administration and the European Union should certainly impose tougher sanctions, and in the American case, on more than seven people. Maybe NATO troops should train Ukrainians, too—maybe not on Ukrainian soil, but somewhere in Europe. There are other similar steps that can be taken short of sending in a slew of “advisors” (special ops people) and military materiel just yet, like helping Ukraine get this new National Guard up and running.

But let’s just think hard about this. There’s nothing easier for pundits or commentators on cable to stomp the table about how Putin is playing us and running rings around Obama and he’s a madman who must be stopped. Our former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said yesterday after Putin’s duma speech that the post-Cold War era was over. McFaul has been a reliable guide through these rapids, but that’s nonsense. We aren’t in a new Cold War. Spend five minutes ruminating on what happened during the Cold War and what sparked it, and you should be able to clear your head of such combustible notions. We’re a long way from that yet.

I’d like to hear everyone tossing around those kind of rhetorical lightning bolts answer, in a calm voice, three questions: One, why should Ukraine, which never before was a realpolitik first-order concern of the United States, be one now? Two, what exact sacrifices are we willing to make to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity? And three, what broader risks might those acceptable sacrifices entail, and are they worth it?

There might be very good answers to all three questions. But our political culture has a very bad habit of not wanting to discuss them much. That’s a habit we need to change.

 

By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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