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“Putin’s Aggression Is Not America’s Fault!”: Yes, Pundits Are Arguing That We’re To Blame

One of the biggest flaws with the neoconservative view of the world is the idea that the United States almost always has within its power the ability to affect change. It isn’t merely that the United States should try to promote democracy or maintain an empire; it’s the idea that doing what it pleases, ably, is within the realm of possibility.

An ostensibly converse but ironically similar view comes from many on the left. Muslim extremism? The result of American foreign policy. Warmongering world leaders? Well, they feel hemmed in by the United States. This mindset, which is echoed by a number of realist scholars, has arisen most recently because of President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Crimea. Several realists want us to understand the actions of Putin through the prism of the United States. For these thinkers, as with their neocon opponents, everything is always, in the end, about us.

A good example is Jack F. Matlock Jr.’s piece in The Washington Post. According to Matlock, a former ambassador to the Soviet Union, Putin’s actions can be explained by the way a bullying United States has treated Russia. Specifically, Matlock writes, America made Russia feel like the “loser” of the Cold War after that war ended. Here is Matlock:

President Bill Clinton supported NATO’s bombing of Serbia without U.N. Security Council approval and the expansion of NATO to include former Warsaw Pact countries. Those moves seemed to violate the understanding that the United States would not take advantage of the Soviet retreat from Eastern Europe.

Matlock appears to be arguing that Russian anger over U.S. action in Kosovo was the result of America acting in Russia’s sphere of influence. But would Russia have felt the same if we had supported Serbia, Russia’s ally? Almost certainly not; Russia was upset that we took the opposite side in that conflict. Moreover, it’s slightly bizarre to say that we should have left Kosovo to Slobodan Milosevic just to maintain our high standing in Russian public opinion polls.

Matlock mentions the United Nations in the above quote, and he brings it up again when he notes that America’s catastrophic war with Iraq did not have U.N. approval. As touching as it is to view Putin as a great proponent of internationalism who was outraged by American breaches of the law, I think it’s probably fruitful to look elsewhere for clues to his behavior. Matlock himself quickly turns to NATO expansion, which certainly does seem to have had some impact on Russian attitudes towards the United States. As Matlock writes:

When terrorists attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, [Putin] was the first foreign leader to call and offer support…What did he get in return? Some meaningless praise from President George W. Bush, who then delivered the diplomatic equivalent of swift kicks to the groin: further expansion of NATO in the Baltics and the Balkans, and plans for American bases there; withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty; invasion of Iraq without U.N. Security Council approval; overt participation in the “color revolutions” in Ukraine, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan; and then, probing some of the firmest red lines any Russian leader would draw, talk of taking Georgia and Ukraine into NATO.

Whatever one wants to say about the intelligence or wisdom of American foreign policy—and the policies above were probably at best a mixed bag—it is bizarre to say that Putin was so angry we might try to offer Ukraine NATO protection from Russia that he…invaded Ukraine. Isn’t there something rather ironic about Putin being so angry by our concern over something that he goes and does the thing we are concerned about? It’s all part of the same mindset that sees the behavior of other countries as literally reactionary: We act, they react. (It is also worth noting that in 2008 NATO denied Membership Action Plan (MAP) status to both Ukraine and Georgia. Somehow this didn’t mollify Putin.)

Moreover, reading Matlock’s account you would think that Russian policy at home and abroad—Putin has cracked down heavily on dissent at home—was determined entirely by the United States. It is awfully solipsistic to look at the world this way.

Matlock has more trouble with the Obama administration. He writes:

President Obama famously attempted a “reset” of relations with Russia, with some success: The New START treaty was an important achievement, and there was increased quiet cooperation on a number of regional issues. But then Congress’s penchant for minding other people’s business when it cannot cope with its own began to take its toll. The Magnitsky Act, which singled out Russia for human rights violations as if there were none of comparable gravity elsewhere, infuriated Russia’s rulers and confirmed with the broader public the image of the United States as an implacable enemy.

No doubt the Magnitsky Act did infuriate the Kremlin, but Putin’s aggressiveness abroad and undemocratic tendencies at home were visible well before it passed, which severely weakens Matlock’s argument. (Direct retaliatory steps against the United States, like banning American adoptions, were certainly connected to the Act, but that doesn’t mean Putin’s entire worldview is shaped by American actions.)

These same tendencies appear in n+1‘s editorial on the Ukraine crisis. “What role has the American intellectual community played in this saga, if any?” the editorial asks. “Certainly we failed to prevent it.” I didn’t realize that the American intellectual community had the power to stop foreign dictators from invading other countries. They continue:

We have indulged ourselves in a bacchanalia of anti-Putinism, shading over into anti-Russianism. We turned Pussy Riot into mass media stars. We wrote endless articles (and books) about how Putin was a mystery man, a terrible man, a KGB ghoul who lived under your bed….It’s hard to know how much of what gets written in various places leads to American policies in actual fact. Does it matter what’s in the Nation? What about the New York Review of Books? The New Yorker? It’s impossible to say. And the media or publishing game has its own rules, irrespective of politics. Evil Putin is just going to get more airtime than Complicated Putin or Putin Who is Running a Country in a Complex Geopolitical Situation.

Whatever one thinks of this analysis, the most striking thing about it is the power it imparts to Americans. Putin is the leader of a foreign country. The idea that what’s written in American magazines leads to American policymakers making policy that in turn enrages Putin that in turn aids and abets his thirst for aggression is, again, almost laughably solipsistic.

American policy toward Russia going all the way back to the First World War has often been shortsighted or worse. But when thinking about how to respond—or not respond—to Russia’s actions today, it’s probably best to stop viewing those actions as the direct result of American foreign policy.

 

By: Isaac Chotiner, The New Republic, March 17, 2014

March 19, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Reflex Pacifism”: Why Peace Sometimes Needs Force

I have worked as a war reporter since 1993, when I sent myself to Bosnia with a backpack, a sleeping bag and a stack of notebooks. The first dead body I saw in a war zone was a teenage girl who was sprawled naked outside the Kosovar town of Suha Reka, having been gang-raped by Serbian paramilitaries toward the end of the war in 1999. After they finished with her, they cut her throat and left her in a field to die; when I saw her, the only way to know she was female — or indeed human — was the red nail polish on her hands.

I grew up in an extremely liberal family during the Vietnam War, and yet I found it hard not to be cheered by the thought that the men who raped and killed that girl might have died during the 78-day NATO bombardment that eventually brought independence to Kosovo.

Every war I have ever covered — Kosovo, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Liberia — withstood all diplomatic efforts to end it until Western military action finally forced a resolution. Even Afghanistan, where NATO troops stepped into a civil war that had been raging for a decade, is experiencing its lowest level of civilian casualties in more than a generation. That track record should force even peace advocates to consider that military action is required to bring some wars to an end.

And yet there’s been little evidence of that sentiment in American opposition to missile strikes against military targets in Syria. Even after 1,400 Syrian civilians, including 400 children, were killed in a nerve gas attack that was in all likelihood carried out by government forces, the prospect of American military intervention has been met with a combination of short-sighted isolationism and reflex pacifism — though I cannot think of any moral definition of “antiwar” that includes simply ignoring the slaughter of civilians overseas.

Of course, even the most ardent pacifist can’t deny that the credible threat of U.S. force is what made the Syrian regime at all receptive to a Russian proposal that it relinquish control of its stockpiles of nerve agents. If the deal falls apart or proves to be a stalling tactic, military strikes, or at least the threat of them, will again be needed. Already, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s denials have been troubling. His suggestion that the rebels turned nerve gas on themselves to garner the world’s sympathy reminds me of the Serb authorities who said the people of Sarajevo were mortaring themselves; it was just as unconvincing then as it is now.

The most common objection to strikes is that the United States is not the world’s policeman; we have poured our resources and blood into two long wars over the past decade, and it’s time for someone else to take care of those duties.

That is a very tempting position, but it does not hold water. The reality is that we have staked our military and economic security on making sure that no other country — including our longtime allies — has anywhere close to the military capabilities that we do. We are safe in our borders because we are the only nation that can park a ship in international waters and rain cruise missiles down on specific street addresses in a foreign city for weeks on end. And we enjoy extraordinary wealth because our foreign trade and oil imports are protected by the world’s most powerful navy. I find it almost offensive that anyone in this country could imagine they are truly pacifist while accepting the protection and benefit of all that armament. If you have a bumper sticker that says “No Blood For Oil,” it had better be on your bike.

The United States is in a special position in the world, and that leads many people to espouse a broad American exceptionalism in foreign affairs. Even if they’re correct, those extra rights invariably come with extra obligations. Precisely because we claim such a privileged position, it falls to us to uphold the international laws that benefit humanity in general and our nation in particular.

Iraq hangs heavy over the American psyche and contributes to the war­weariness, but the 2003 invasion was not an intervention to stop an ongoing conflict. It was an unpopular intrusion into the affairs of a country that was troubled but very much at peace. In that sense, it was fundamentally different from other Western military interventions.

The ethnic slaughter in Bosnia was stopped by a two-week NATO bombardment after well over 100,000 civilians died. Not a single NATO soldier was killed. After Kosovo came Sierra Leone, where a grotesquely brutal civil war was ended by several hundred British SAS troops in a two-week ground operation in the jungles outside Freetown. They lost one man. In 2003, the Liberian civil war was easily ended by a contingent of U.S. Marines that came ashore after every single faction — the rebels, the government and the civilians — begged for intervention. Not a shot was fired.

The civilian casualties where there were strikes were terribly unfortunate, but they constituted a small fraction of casualties in the wars themselves.

Finally, there is the problem — the pacifist problem — of having no effective response to the use of nerve gas by a government against its citizens. To one degree or another, every person has an obligation to uphold human dignity in whatever small way he or she can. It is this concept of dignity that has given rise to international laws protecting human rights, to campaigns for prison reform, to boycotts against apartheid. In this context, doing nothing in the face of evil becomes the equivalent of actively supporting evil; morally speaking, there is no middle ground.

The civil war in Syria has killed more than 100,000 people essentially one person at a time, which is clearly an abomination, but it is not defined as a crime against humanity. The mass use of nerve agents against civilians is a crime against humanity, however. As such, it is a crime against every single person on this planet.

President Obama is not arguing for an action that decimates the Assad regime and allows rebel forces to take over. He is not saying that we are going to put our troops at risk on the ground in Syria, or that it will be a long and costly endeavor, or even that it will be particularly effective. He is saying that he does not want us to live in a world where nerve gas can be used against civilians without consequences of any kind. If killing 1,400 people with nerve gas is okay, then killing 14,000 becomes imaginable. When we have gotten used to that, killing 14 million may be next.

At some point, pacifism becomes part of the machinery of death, and isolationism becomes a form of genocide. It’s not a matter of how we’re going to explain this to the Syrians. It’s a matter of how we’re going to explain this to our kids.

 

By: Sebastian Junger, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, September 13, 2013

September 16, 2013 Posted by | Syria | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“It’s Working”: The Ultimate Reason To Support Resolution Authorizing Use of Military Force To Stop Chemical Weapons In Syria

The ultimate reason to support the Congressional resolution to authorize the use of military force to stop chemical weapons use in Syria is clear: it’s working.

Over a year ago, the U.S. proposed that Syria turn over its chemical weapons for destruction by the international community and join the chemical weapons treaty that bans their possession or use. Syria refused, and Russia refused to demand that it do so.

Today they have both said yes. There is only one reason. They hope to stop the use of military force that President Obama has proposed to degrade their ability to deliver these weapons — and make the regime pay a price for the indiscriminate slaughter of 1,400 adults and children using chemical weapons containing poison sarin gas.

Many of my fellow Progressives — who like me were strong opponents of the Iraq War — support President Obama’s request for Congressional authorization to use force to sanction chemical weapons use in Syria and deter its future use. They include Congressman Keith Ellison, the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus; former anti-war presidential candidate Howard Dean, progressive columnists E.J. Dionne and Gene Robinson; and of course former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

But for those who do not want to see the use of military force in Syria, the best thing they can do to assure that the military action is not needed is to support the Congressional resolution authorizing the president to use military force if necessary. That is the absolute best way to make certain the Syrian regime actually gives up its chemical weapons once and for all — and that there is no need for the U.S. to take military action to force Assad to comply.

As the President argued last night, we need to make certain that the Russians and Syrians are absolutely convinced that if they do not make good on their new promise to turn over Syrian chemical weapons, military action will ensue — it’s that simple.

Three additional arguments have been used over the last few days that need to be addressed:

1). Some have argued that it is never justified to use force to counter malicious use of violence.

There are some Progressives who are truly pacifists — who feel that the use of force and violence is never justified.

I respect the convictions of those who hold pacifist views, but I do not agree with them.

When Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas refused to allow the integration of the schools in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1954, it would have been easier for the rest of America to simply shake our collective fingers and decry racism. It would have also been more popular. Instead the federal government sent troops from the National Guard to enforce the desegregation order with the threat of force.

Sometimes the threat — or actual use — of force is necessary — especially to prevent violence.

That’s why we empower police departments with the ability to use the force of arms when necessary to prevent violent acts.

2). Some politicians worry that supporting the President’s proposal is simply too unpopular. They should remember that polls showed the public opposed the possible bombing campaign in 1999 that was aimed at protecting Kosovars from ethnic cleansing as well. A Gallup poll in February 1999 showed that 45 percent of the public opposed the proposed bombing compared with only 43 percent who supported it.

After the campaign was successful at achieving its goals, that opposition turned into public support, and the issue played very little role in the November 2000 Congressional elections.

3). Some opponents say simply, the use of poison gas in Syria is just not our problem. Let someone else worry about it, they say.

In fact, of course, nothing could be further from the truth. If the use of chemical weapons and other weapons of mass destruction can occur with impunity any where on our small planet, they will be used more and more frequently in military conflicts. And if they are, they pose a massive danger for human beings everywhere.

If Assad can get away with using these weapons with impunity, that will ultimately endanger us all.

But assume for a moment it were possible to isolate their use, so that it would never impact those of us thousands of miles away from the streets of suburban Damascus. Can we just ignore the suffering of those who are its victims?

There was another story about another middle eastern road – the road to Jericho – where the hero of the tale did not ignore an injured foreigner who lay suffering by the roadside. That of course was the story of the Good Samaritan – the quintessential story that is at the center of the Christian New Testament. It was the story Jesus used to explain what it meant to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Can we sit by and ignore the cries of people in foreign lands who are slaughtered in Rwanda, or ethnically cleansed in Kosovo, or gassed by the Nazis? I don’t think so. And sometimes getting involved is not always clean and sterile. Sometimes it is messy and inconvenient and difficult.

By: Robert Creamer, The Huffington Post Blog, September 11, 2013

September 12, 2013 Posted by | Congress, Syria | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Life Is Not A James Bond Movie”: Bob Costas Was Right To Denounce Gun Violence

There is a manufactured debate over whether Bob Costas should lose his job for questioning the “gun culture” Costas suggested was responsible for the deaths of an NFL player and his girlfriend. That’s not a real issue; Costas isn’t a news anchor. He’s a sportscaster and commentator, and weighs in all the time on the athletic performances of players and teams. Failing to talk about the role of a firearm in the tragedy would have been a glaring omission.

Had Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher been responsible for only one death—that of Kasandra Perkins, his girlfriend and mother of their now-orphaned three-month-old daughter—the conversation might now be about domestic violence. It might be about whether aggressive sports competitions foster aggressive action in other arenas. It might have brought more attention to the problem of violence against women in general.

But Belcher turned a horrible crime into an even more horrible tragedy. He went to the Chief’s practice facility, admitted the murder, thanked his coach and general manager, and then—with the coach and GM watching—shot himself in the head.

It is impossible not to have a conversation about guns, given the circumstances. Belcher might have been able to harm, even kill, Perkins without a gun. He would not have committed suicide in front of two people if he had not had a firearm.

Many people like to believe that if we all had guns, such tragedies would not occur. The theory is that if someone breaks out a weapon—at a Virginia campus, a Colorado movie theater, or a home—the would-be victim could fight back, evenly armed. It’s easy to acquire that delusion when one watches action movies. Many of us would like to believe we would respond that quickly and calculatingly in the event of an armed assault. In real life, things do not happen that way.

In 1999, I was covering the civil conflict in Kosovo, where danger came from several camps—the Kosovo Liberation Army, the police, the paramilitary, the Serb soldiers, and the most dangerous of all—drunk civilians with guns. One day, two radio reporters, a translator, and I were headed back to the provincial capital of Pristina. We saw, up a hill to our left, that a village was being burned down. Foolishly, we drove toward it to see what was happening. Halfway up the hill, I heard a loud and quick series of click-clicks, as Serb paramilitary surrounded our car and pointed machine guns at us.

It took about 20 seconds even to realize what was happening—and this was not in a movie theater or campus; this was in a war zone where such developments are not completely unexpected. My friends put up their hands. I, incomprehensively, lowered my head, protecting it with my hands (did I imagine that would stop the bullet? I have no idea—it was an automatic reaction). They dragged us out of the car, held guns to our heads, and finally let us go, after a long negotiation and a realization on their part that we were just four hapless, unarmed journalists.

People have asked me if I wasn’t sorry I didn’t have a gun. I am not. Had we been armed, we would have been killed for sure, as we would have been seen as combatants. But more importantly, we would never have been able to respond quickly enough to stop any attack. Life is not a James Bond movie. With the exception of trained police and soldiers, none of us is going to be able to respond quickly and accurately enough to stop someone from shooting a gun.

The murder-suicide is a wrenching tragedy, and it should indeed engender all sorts of conversations about domestic violence and the head injuries which can affect football payers’ behavior. But refusing to talk about the role of firearms in the deaths of two young people is another tragedy. And it would create more.

By: Susan Milligan, U. S. News and World Report, December 4, 2012

December 5, 2012 Posted by | Guns | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Libya, Obama Did The Right Thing

Over the past few days, President Obama has surprised us. For weeks, he seemed committed to avoiding military action against Libya—even though Libyans were imploring America and the West to come to their aid. But at the very last minute, when Muammar Qaddafi seemed to be only days and perhaps hours away from retaking the remainder of his country by force, Obama decided to act. It was a decision we wish he would have arrived at weeks ago. But it was the right decision. And Obama deserves credit for having made it.

To understand why Obama’s decision was not only correct but really the only decent one that was available to him, it is necessary to contemplate what would be taking place in Libya right now if we had not intervened. Late last week, Qaddafi announced that his forces, having reestablished control over most of the country, were closing in on the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, and issued his now infamous warning to those who refused to give up. “We are coming tonight,” he said. “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.” Had we not intervened to cripple his forces, it seems likely that, by now, Qaddafi would be in Benghazi and, undoubtedly, carrying out bloody reprisals against his opponents. The rebellion, moreover, would effectively be over, and any hopes of freedom that the Libyan people had been entertaining would be dead, at least in the near term.

Skeptics of the intervention (including TNR contributing editor Michael Walzer, whose thoughtful analysis can be found here) have argued that one of the mission’s flaws is that its goals are woefully unclear. Are we trying to topple Qaddafi? Are we merely trying to create a safe-haven for rebels in the east? These are fair questions, but it seems to us that the most immediate goals of the mission were quite clear: first, to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi, a slaughter that Qaddafi himself had promised was only hours away; and second, to tip the balance of power in the rebellion away from Qaddafi, so that his forces were unable to retake any more of the country, thus extinguishing the resistance for good. On these terms, the intervention has already been a success.

As for what comes next: It is difficult to say whether Western airpower can tip the balance of power toward the rebels so dramatically that they will be able to topple Qaddafi. We certainly hope so. But even if it does not, an intervention that at least allows the rebels to maintain a free zone in Libya will certainly be a better outcome than the alternative—a Libya reunited under Qaddafi’s iron control.

In making this argument we are mindful of the lessons of Iraq. We supported that war, which has exacted an enormous human cost on Iraqis and Americans alike, and we long ago came to the conclusion that our support was a grave mistake. But we are also mindful of recent instances where Western power has been necessary to head off mass killing and to help oppressed people achieve their liberation. In some of these instances—Bosnia, Kosovo—we acted, and the outcomes have been generally positive. In other instances—Rwanda, Darfur—we did not act, and the results were hundreds of thousands of dead. The point is that Iraq alone cannot be used as a basis for determining the morality or predicting the efficacy of any given intervention.

Many skeptics have also pointed to the events unfolding in Bahrain, where a Sunni minority government allied with the United States has (with the help of another U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia) violently suppressed an uprising by the Shia majority. Isn’t Obama a hypocrite, many liberals have asked, for intervening to stop an autocrat in Libya but not in Bahrain? It is a legitimate point. Bahrain is said to be a difficult case for American policymakers because a revolution by the Shia majority would be a major victory for Iran. And it is true that anything which advances the interests of a brutal Iranian government in the Middle East must be seen as a setback to the cause of liberal democracy.

At the same time, the events of the last few months show that aligning oneself with autocrats is never a wise course. We spent decades paralyzed with fear about what the fall of Mubarak would mean for our strategic interests. And yet, looking back, would we not have been better off cutting Mubarak loose a generation ago, and siding forthrightly with the Egyptian people? By helping to postpone the arrival of democracy, we did not fortify our long-term strategic position one bit.

We must now think about Bahrain (and Saudi Arabia and our other repressive clients in the region) in the same terms. If our backing allows the Al Khalifa family to remain in power for a few more years, and in the process causes the Bahraini people to conclude that the United States is fundamentally hypocritical, we will in fact be helping Iran. The message of the Obama administration to the Al Khalifas and to Saudi Arabia’s rulers must now be unequivocal: You cannot rule forever, and you must begin the process of opening up your societies and paving the way for liberal democracy.

Should we have intervened diplomatically to stop the repression in Bahrain? Absolutely. But for those offering our failure in Bahrain as a reason not to intervene in Libya, here is a simple question: Would our failure in Bahrain have been in any way ameliorated by allowing Qaddafi to move into Benghazi late last week? We think the answer is a clear no.

Of course, no one knows what will happen from here forward. But this much we do know: Four days ago, a cruel dictator appeared to be on the verge of initiating a bloodbath in one of the last free zones of his country. Today, the free zone he was threatening to attack remains free. And his ability to wage war against a justified rebellion seems to have been at least somewhat compromised. Without Western intervention—that is, without Obama’s decision to finally do the right thing—there is little doubt that the situation would have been worse.

By: The Editors, The New Republic, March 20, 2011.

March 21, 2011 Posted by | Democracy, Dictators, Foreign Policy, Libya, Middle East, Military Intervention, Muslims, No Fly Zones, Politics, President Obama, Qaddafi | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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