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“Assessing Strength And Weakness”: When The Only Card You Have To Play Is Fear

On a couple of occasions, President Obama has challenged the media’s assumption that Russian President Putin was acting from a position of strength. The first was in response to a question from Jonathan Karl at a news conference in The Hague not long after Russia’s incursion into Crimea.

Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union. And we have considerable influence on our neighbors. We generally don’t need to invade them in order to have a strong, cooperative relationship with them. The fact that Russia felt compelled to go in militarily and lay bare these violations of international law indicates less influence, not more.

The President basically made the same point when Steve Kroft tried to insinuate that Putin’s involvement in Syria was a challenge to his leadership.

When I came into office, Ukraine was governed by a corrupt ruler who was a stooge of Mr. Putin. Syria was Russia’s only ally in the region. And today, rather than being able to count on their support and maintain the base they had in Syria, which they’ve had for a long time, Mr. Putin now is devoting his own troops, his own military, just to barely hold together by a thread his sole ally…

Well Steve, I got to tell you, if you think that running your economy into the ground and having to send troops in in order to prop up your only ally is leadership, then we’ve got a different definition of leadership.

With those examples in mind, I think that Peter Beinart has done a good job of describing the difference between how Republican presidential candidates and President Obama assess the threat from ISIS.

Because the GOP candidates see violent jihadism as a powerful, seductive ideology, they think that many American Muslims are at risk of becoming terrorists, and thus that the United States must monitor them more aggressively. Because Obama sees violent jihadism as ideologically weak and unattractive, he thinks that few American Muslims will embrace it unless the United States makes them feel like enemies in their own country—which is exactly what Donald Trump risks doing.

Obama…believes that powerful, structural forces will lead liberal democracies to triumph over their foes—so long as these democracies don’t do stupid things like persecuting Muslims at home or invading Muslim lands abroad. His Republican opponents, by contrast, believe that powerful and sinister enemies are overwhelming America, either overseas (the Rubio version) or domestically (the Trump version).

All the chest-thumping coming from Republicans is based on an elevated assumption of the real threat posed by ISIS. But that’s what happens when the only card you have to play is fear. Behind all the bravado, their message makes America look weak and easily intimidated. President Obama isn’t buying into that for a minute.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, December 7, 2015

December 9, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Mainstream Media, Russia, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Conquest Is for Losers”: Putin, Neocons And The Great Illusion

More than a century has passed since Norman Angell, a British journalist and politician, published “The Great Illusion,” a treatise arguing that the age of conquest was or at least should be over. He didn’t predict an end to warfare, but he did argue that aggressive wars no longer made sense — that modern warfare impoverishes the victors as well as the vanquished.

He was right, but it’s apparently a hard lesson to absorb. Certainly Vladimir Putin never got the memo. And neither did our own neocons, whose acute case of Putin envy shows that they learned nothing from the Iraq debacle.

Angell’s case was simple: Plunder isn’t what it used to be. You can’t treat a modern society the way ancient Rome treated a conquered province without destroying the very wealth you’re trying to seize. And meanwhile, war or the threat of war, by disrupting trade and financial connections, inflicts large costs over and above the direct expense of maintaining and deploying armies. War makes you poorer and weaker, even if you win.

The exceptions to this dictum actually prove the rule. There are still thugs who wage war for fun and profit, but they invariably do so in places where exploitable raw materials are the only real source of wealth. The gangs tearing the Central African Republic apart are in pursuit of diamonds and poached ivory; the Islamic State may claim that it’s bringing the new caliphate, but so far it has mostly been grabbing oil fields.

The point is that what works for a fourth-world warlord is just self-destructive for a nation at America’s level — or even Russia’s. Look at what passes for a Putin success, the seizure of Crimea: Russia may have annexed the peninsula with almost no opposition, but what it got from its triumph was an imploding economy that is in no position to pay tribute, and in fact requires costly aid. Meanwhile, foreign investment in and lending to Russia proper more or less collapsed even before the oil price plunge turned the situation into a full-blown financial crisis.

Which brings us to two big questions. First, why did Mr. Putin do something so stupid? Second, why were so many influential people in the United States impressed by and envious of his stupidity?

The answer to the first question is obvious if you think about Mr. Putin’s background. Remember, he’s an ex-K.G.B. man — which is to say, he spent his formative years as a professional thug. Violence and threats of violence, supplemented with bribery and corruption, are what he knows. And for years he had no incentive to learn anything else: High oil prices made Russia rich, and like everyone who presides over a bubble, he surely convinced himself that he was responsible for his own success. At a guess, he didn’t realize until a few days ago that he has no idea how to function in the 21st century.

The answer to the second question is a bit more complicated, but let’s not forget how we ended up invading Iraq. It wasn’t a response to 9/11, or to evidence of a heightened threat. It was, instead, a war of choice to demonstrate U.S. power and serve as a proof of concept for a whole series of wars neocons were eager to fight. Remember “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran”?

The point is that there is a still-powerful political faction in America committed to the view that conquest pays, and that in general the way to be strong is to act tough and make other people afraid. One suspects, by the way, that this false notion of power was why the architects of war made torture routine — it wasn’t so much about results as about demonstrating a willingness to do whatever it takes.

Neocon dreams took a beating when the occupation of Iraq turned into a bloody fiasco, but they didn’t learn from experience. (Who does, these days?) And so they viewed Russian adventurism with admiration and envy. They may have claimed to be alarmed by Russian advances, to believe that Mr. Putin, “what you call a leader,” was playing chess to President Obama’s marbles. But what really bothered them was that Mr. Putin was living the life they’d always imagined for themselves.

The truth, however, is that war really, really doesn’t pay. The Iraq venture clearly ended up weakening the U.S. position in the world, while costing more than $800 billion in direct spending and much more in indirect ways. America is a true superpower, so we can handle such losses — although one shudders to think of what might have happened if the “real men” had been given a chance to move on to other targets. But a financially fragile petroeconomy like Russia doesn’t have the same ability to roll with its mistakes.

I have no idea what will become of the Putin regime. But Mr. Putin has offered all of us a valuable lesson. Never mind shock and awe: In the modern world, conquest is for losers.

 

By: Paul Krugman, Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times, December 21, 2014

December 23, 2014 Posted by | Neo-Cons, Vladimir Putin, War | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Common Murderer, Ordinary Thug”: Putin Is Trying To Reconstruct The Russian Empire

After the bloody suppression of a patriotic demonstration in Warsaw in 1861, Alexander Herzen wrote to Tsar Alexander II: “You have become a common murderer, an ordinary thug.” He also described the Russian press as “shameless” and “unscrupulous.”

Today, we should repeat the words of this great Russian, and direct them at Vladimir Putin and Russian propaganda-men who are lying ceaselessly and insolently. A while ago, we heard that Poland trained Ukrainian fascist squads that terrorized the Maidan; next we learned that Putinist conquerors of the Crimea bought their weapons and uniforms in stores and that the Kremlin had nothing to do with it. Now we are once again hearing about the Ukrainian state’s responsibility.

The 298 wretched victims of the crash of the Malaysia Air flight are a result of Putin’s ruthless and cynical policies. It was his decision to arm the so-called separatists who in reality are the Kremlin’s spy network and fifth column in the Donbass region. They were armed with Putin’s knowledge and approval. And these people are the ones who killed random, innocent individuals.

Putinwith his KGB lieutenant-colonel mentalitydoes not want to let Ukraine follow its own path toward democracy and Europe. He wants to reconstruct the empire. Inciting and upholding ethnic conflicts in Latvia and Estonia serves this aim, as does the creeping dismantling of Moldova, and maintenance of conflicts around Upper Karabakh. Indeedthis great power, great Russian chauvinism is the final and highest stage of communism. And Putin understands progress as gradual annexation of successive states.

The European Unionaccustomed to peace and quiethas neither determination nor an understanding of the growing threat. The clichéd faith in the possibility of placating the beast is replaying over and over again. The blindness and loyalty of European political and business elites gives reason for concern. But there is nothing that releases usintellectuals active in culture, scholarship, and mediafrom the duty to say clearly, stubbornly, and emphatically: This is very dangerous. We are not allowed to repeat the naiveté once displayed by intellectual elites toward Hitler and Stalin. And back then we were not allowed to close our eyes to the annexation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic States.

My friend from Moscow says that there are two scenarios in which the Russian army will leave Ukraine: One realistic and the other miraculous. In the realistic scenario, Saint George will ride in on a dragon and use his fiery sword to chase this band of scoundrels away. That’s the realistic scenario. And the miraculous one? They’ll just up and leave on their own.

The policy of successive concessions leads nowhere. Putin is not a European-style politician; he’s a politician of permanent belligerence. Much seems to suggest that he has already let the genie out of the bottlecrowds of mercenaries are moving from Russia to Ukraine, crowds of sentimental monarchists, Orthodox fascists, National-Bolsheviks, and the like. Arming these bandits with first-class weapons is simply criminal. It is a good thing that Poland’s current government has taken an honest and judicious stanceit’s not flexing its muscles but it’s also not succumbing to illusions or hypocrisy.

 

By: Adam Michnik, Editor-in-Chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, where this piece originally appeared; The Huffington Post, July 21, 2014

July 22, 2014 Posted by | Russia, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“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

“Obama’s Understated Foreign Policy Gains”: Leadership, Painstaking Diplomacy And Understanding America’s Limitations

It’s been a pretty good couple of weeks for American foreign policy. No, seriously.

On June 23, the last of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile was loaded onto a Danish freighter to be destroyed. The following day, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia asked his Parliament to rescind the permission that it had given him to send troops into Ukraine. Meanwhile, there is still cautious optimism that a nuclear deal with Iran is within reach.

What do these have in common? They were achieved without a single American bomb being dropped and they relied on a combination of diplomacy, economic sanctions and the coercive threat of military force. As policy makers and pundits remain focused on Iraq and the perennial but distracting discussion about the use of force, these modest but significant achievements have, perhaps predictably, been ignored. Yet they hold important lessons for how American power can be most effectively deployed today.

Nine months ago, President Obama eschewed military means to punish Syria for its use of chemical weapons and instead negotiated an agreement to remove them. Critics like Senator John McCain blasted it as a “loser” deal that would never work. By refusing to back up a stated “red line” with military force, Mr. Obama had supposedly weakened American credibility.

In Damascus, however, the threat of military engagement by the United States was taken more seriously. And when given the choice between American bombing or giving up his chemical weapons, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria chose the latter.

Four months ago, some pundits confidently declared that Mr. Putin had “won” in Crimea and would ignore a Western response of toothless sanctions. But Russia has paid a serious price for its actions in Ukraine: diplomatic isolation and an economic downturn spurred by capital outflows, declining foreign investment and international opprobrium.

Mr. Putin’s recent effort to tamp down tensions appears to be a response, in part, to the threat of further sanctions. In trying to operate outside the global system, Mr. Putin found that resistance to international norms came at an unacceptable cost.

While it is far too early to declare success on the nuclear talks in Vienna, that the United States and Iran are sitting down at the negotiating table is a historic diplomatic achievement. When Mr. Obama spoke during the 2008 election campaign of his willingness to talk with Iran’s leaders, it led to criticisms that he was naïve about global politics. But his efforts as president to extend an olive branch, even as Iran continued to pursue its nuclear ambitions, enabled America to build support for the multilateral economic sanctions that helped make the current negotiations possible.

While one should be careful in drawing expansive judgments from disparate examples like these, there are noteworthy commonalities. The most obvious is that military force is not as effective as its proponents would have Americans believe. Had the United States bombed Syria or hit Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it would almost certainly not have been as successful as the nonmilitary approaches used.

Yet, at the outset of practically every international crisis, to bomb or not to bomb becomes the entire focus of debate. That false choice disregards the many other tools at America’s disposal. It doesn’t mean that force should never be considered, but that it should be the option of last resort. Force is a blunt instrument that produces unpredictable outcomes (for evidence, look no further than Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya).

What did work in these three situations was the patient diplomatic effort of building a global consensus. The success of international sanctions against Iran and Russia respectively relied on the support of both allies and rivals. Acting alone, the United States would never have achieved the same results.

It wasn’t just Americans who were outraged by the seizure of Crimea — so, too, were nations that had few interests in the region. The reason is simple: When countries invade their neighbors with impunity, it puts every country at risk. A similar global consensus against chemical and nuclear proliferation, backed by international treaties, also served as the foundation for American diplomacy toward Iran and Syria.

Critics will fairly argue that these outcomes hardly justify great celebration. Mr. Assad has relinquished his chemical weapons, but the bloody civil war in Syria continues. Mr. Putin has backed off in eastern Ukraine, but he’s keeping Crimea. Iran may agree to a nuclear deal, but it will remain a destabilizing power with the potential to upgrade its nuclear capacity.

This speaks to the limitations of American power. The United States cannot stop every conflict or change every nefarious regime. Any foreign policy predicated on such ambitions will consistently fail.

What the United States can do is set modest and realistic goals: upholding global norms and rules, limiting conflicts and seeking achievable diplomatic outcomes. With China flexing its muscles in the Far East, these lessons are more important than ever.

But they are not transferable to every international crisis. Sanctions don’t mean much, for example, to radical nonstate actors like the jihadists of the Islamic State. And unilateral pressure from the United States cannot, for example, bring about the political reforms in Iraq that are needed to stabilize the country. Sometimes, America has no good answer for disruptive events like these.

All too often, though, our foreign policy debates are defined by simplistic ideas: that force is a problem-solver, that America can go its own way and that mere application of American leadership brings positive results. But the results with Syria, Russia and Iran remind us that when American foreign policy is led by painstaking diplomacy, seeks multilateral consensus and acts with an understanding of its own limitations, it can produce positive results. More often than not, boring is better.

 

By: Michael A. Cohen, Op-Ed Contributor, The New York Times, July 9, 2014

July 13, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Media, Middle East | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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