A Response To Obama’s Critics On Ukraine

There’s nothing like a crisis to show how intellectually bankrupt the right wing has become. I won’t waste more time with the nutty right wing, such as those who think the Russian invasion of Ukraine means that Palin had some actual insights into foreign policy when she mentioned Ukraine or Russia during the 2008 campaign. The supposedly more sensible portion of the right wing over at The Washington Post does some classic right wing projection in claiming that President Obama’s foreign policy is based on fantasy. The gist is that Obama should do something, but they don’t actually say what he can or should do. This looks like more of the same lack of understanding of the real world seen with Fred Hyatt’s previous support for Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

Among the best commentary I’ve seen (to add to that I linked to yesterday from David Remnick) came from Michael Cohen at The Guardian. He began with pointing out several more instances of absurd commentary from the right and then wrote:

As in practically every international crisis, the pundit class seems able to view events solely through the prism of US actions, which best explains Edward Luce in the Financial Times writing that Obama needs to convince Putin “he will not be outfoxed”, or Scott Wilson at the Washington Post intimating that this is all a result of America pulling back from military adventurism. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes countries take actions based on how they view their interests, irrespective of who the US did or did not bomb.

Missing from this “analysis” about how Obama should respond is why Obama should respond. After all, the US has few strategic interests in the former Soviet Union and little ability to affect Russian decision-making.

Our interests lie in a stable Europe, and that’s why the US and its European allies created a containment structure that will ensure Russia’s territorial ambitions will remain quite limited. (It’s called Nato.) Even if the Russian military wasn’t a hollow shell of the once formidable Red Army, it’s not about to mess with a Nato country.

The US concerns vis-à-vis Russia are the concerns that affect actual US interests. Concerns like nuclear non-proliferation, or containing the Syrian civil war, or stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are all areas where Moscow has played an occasionally useful role.

So while Obama may utilize political capital to ratify the Start treaty with Russia, he’s not going to extend it so save the Crimea. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is not nothing, but it’s hardly in the top tier of US policy concerns.

What is America’s problem is ensuring that Russia pays a price for violating international law and the global norm against inter-state war. The formal suspension of a G8 summit in Sochi is a good first step. If Putin’s recalcitrance grows – and if he further escalates the crisis – then that pressure can be ratcheted up.

But this crisis is Putin’s Waterloo, not ours.

Which brings us to perhaps the most bizarre element of watching the Crimean situation unfold through a US-centric lens: the iron-clad certainty of the pundit class that Putin is winning and Obama is losing. The exact opposite is true.

Putin has initiated a conflict that will, quite obviously, result in greater diplomatic and political isolation as well as the potential for economic sanction. He’s compounded his loss of a key ally in Kiev by further enflaming Ukrainian nationalism, and his provocations could have a cascading effect in Europe by pushing countries that rely on Russia’s natural gas exports to look elsewhere for their energy needs. Putin is the leader of a country with a weak military, an under-performing economy and a host of social, environmental and health-related challenges. Seizing the Crimea will only make the problems facing Russia that much greater.

For Obama and the US, sure, there might be less Russian help on Syria going forward – not that there was much to begin with – and it could perhaps affect negotiations on Iran. But those issues are manageable. Meanwhile, Twitter and the opinion pages and the Sunday shows and too many blog posts that could be informative have been filled with an over-the-top notion: that failure to respond to Russia’s action will weaken America’s credibility with its key allies. To which I would ask: where are they gonna go? If anything, America’s key European allies are likely to fold the quickest, because, you know, gas. And why would any US ally in the Far East want Obama wasting his time on the Crimea anyway?

You don’t have to listen to the “do something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.

The funny thing is, these are often the same people who bemoan the lack of public support for a more muscular American foreign policy. Gee, I wonder why.

Cross posted at The Moderate Voice

Putin Goes To War

As is often the case, David Remnick provides excellent coverage of the events of the last few days in Ukraine. He shows not only what is going on in the Ukraine, but what good journalism should be. On Putin:

Vladimir Putin, the Russian President and autocrat, had a plan for the winter of 2014: to reassert his country’s power a generation after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He thought that he would achieve this by building an Olympic wonderland on the Black Sea for fifty-one billion dollars and putting on a dazzling television show. It turns out that he will finish the season in a more ruthless fashion, by invading a peninsula on the Black Sea and putting on quite a different show—a demonstration war that could splinter a sovereign country and turn very bloody, very quickly.

There’s more background information than is found in the typical article which concentrates more on up to the minute news than analysis, and then a return to Putin’s motives:

In a recent Letter from Sochi, I tried to describe Putin’s motivations: his resentment of Western triumphalism and American power, after 1991; his paranoia that Washington is somehow behind every event in the world that he finds threatening, including the recent events in Kiev; his confidence that the U.S. and Europe are nonetheless weak, unlikely to respond to his swagger because they need his help in Syria and Iran; his increasingly vivid nationalist-conservative ideology, which relies, not least, on the elevation of the Russian Orthodox Church, which had been so brutally suppressed during most of the Soviet period, as a quasi-state religion supplying the government with its moral force.

And this is how the war is likely to go:

I spoke with Georgy Kasianov, the head of the Academy of Science’s department of contemporary Ukrainian history and politics, in Kiev. “It’s a war,” he said. “The Russian troops are quite openly out on the streets [in Crimea], capturing public buildings and military outposts. And it’s likely all a part of a larger plan for other places: Odessa, Nikolayev, Kherson. And they’ll use the same technique. Some Russian-speaking citizens will appear, put up a Russian flag, and make appeals that they want help and referendums, and so on.” This is already happening in Donetsk and Kharkov.

“They are doing this like it is a commonplace,” Kasianov went on. “I can’t speak for four million people, but clearly everyone in Kiev is against this. But the Ukrainian leadership is absolutely helpless. The Army is not ready for this. And, after the violence in Kiev, the special forces are disoriented.”

In conclusion (but read Remnick’s full article first):

Putin’s reaction exceeded our worst expectations. These next days and weeks in Ukraine are bound to be frightening, and worse. There is not only the threat of widening Russian military force. The new Ukrainian leadership is worse than weak. It is unstable. It faces the burden of legitimacy. Yanukovych was spectacularly corrupt, and he opened fire on his own people. He was also elected to his office and brought low by an uprising, not the ballot; he made that point on Friday, in a press conference in Rostov on Don, in Russia, saying that he had never really been deposed. Ukraine has already experienced revolutionary disappointment. The Orange Revolution, in 2004, failed to establish stable democratic institutions and economic justice. This is one reason that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister, newly released from prison, is not likely the future of Ukraine. How can Ukraine possibly move quickly to national elections, as it must to resolve the issue of legitimacy, while another country has troops on its territory?

Vladimir Ryzhkov, a liberal Russian politician who no longer holds office, said that the events were not only dangerous for Ukraine but ominous for Russia and the man behind them. “It’s quite likely that this will be fatal for the regime and catastrophic for Russia,” he told Slon.ru. “It just looks as if they have taken leave of their senses.”

There are, of course, other views worth reading.  Peter Baker explains why it will not be easy to make Russia pay, despite the rants from Republican politicians such as Marco Rubio who seek to find political advantage in the current international crisis.

Mr. Putin has already demonstrated that the cost to Moscow’s international reputation would not stop him. Having just hosted the Winter Olympics in Sochi, he must have realized he was all but throwing away seven years and $50 billion of effort to polish Russia’s image. He evidently calculated that any diplomatic damage did not outweigh what he sees as a threat to Russia’s historic interest in Ukraine, which was ruled by Moscow until the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Mr. Putin may stop short of outright annexation of Crimea, the largely Russian-speaking peninsula where Moscow still has a major military base, but instead justify a long-term troop presence by saying the troops are there to defend the local population from the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Following a tested Russian playbook, he could create a de facto enclave loyal to Moscow much like the republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that broke away from Georgia. On the other hand, the White House worries that the crisis could escalate and that all of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine may try to split off.

Finding powerful levers to influence Mr. Putin’s decision-making will be a challenge for Mr. Obama and the European allies. Mr. Obama has seen repeatedly that warnings often do not discourage autocratic rulers from taking violent action, as when Syria crossed the president’s “red line” by using chemical weapons in its civil war.

Russia is an even tougher country to pressure, too formidable even in the post-Soviet age to rattle with stern lectures or shows of military force, and too rich in resources to squeeze economically in the short term. With a veto on the United Nations Security Council, it need not worry about the world body. And as the primary source of natural gas to much of Europe, it holds a trump card over many American allies.

The longer-term options might be more painful, but they require trade-offs as well. The administration could impose the same sort of banking sanctions that have choked Iran’s economy. And yet Europe, with its more substantial economic ties, could be reluctant to go along, and Mr. Obama may be leery of pulling the trigger on such a potent financial weapon, especially when he needs Russian cooperation on Syria and Iran.

“What can we do?” asked Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institution scholar who was the government’s top intelligence officer on Russia during the Georgia war when Mr. Putin deflected Western agitation. “We’ll talk about sanctions. We’ll talk about red lines. We’ll basically drive ourselves into a frenzy. And he’ll stand back and just watch it. He just knows that none of the rest of us want a war.”

Baker also compared Obama’s options to those which George Bush had when Russia went to war with Georgia in 2008. Bush eventually learned that he was wrong about his initial sense of Putin’s soul from looking into his eyes. If anyone still has any doubts, it is clear that Putin’s soul is that of an autocrat and KGB killer.

Sarah Palin Saw A Russian Invasion Of Ukraine From Her House

I really wouldn’t mind if Sarah Palin just made her amusing quip about the Ukraine crisis saying “Yes, I could see this one from Alaska” on her Facebook page. It is understandable that she would react this way, both in response to criticism for giving a foreign crisis example of Russia invading Ukraine in 2008 and for the impression of her by Tina Fey. Palin and other conservatives just should be happy with a quick quip such as this an not overplay their hand and pretend that Sarah Palin really had the slightest idea as to what she was talking about.

Steve M. reviewed this in far more detail than is probably needed considering that nobody really needs an explanation as to why Palin is not really an expert on Russian policy, or anything else. Steve pointed out that Palin, or actually her speech writer as this was in a prepared speech, raised the possibility of Russia invading Ukraine during the first six months of his presidency to test Obama. That would be the first six months of his first term. In the same speech Palin criticized Obama for his statement during the campaign that he might go into Pakistan to go after known terrorist targets without their permission. In other words, she attacked Obama for doing what he did to kill Osama bin Laden.

With the full context, Sarah Palin doesn’t look all that bright on foreign policy but thanks for helping us recall Tina Fey’s spot-on impressions. The video and transcript of her routine in which she had Palin say “And I can see Russia from my house” can be found here.

John Kerry Warns Of A Trend Towards Authoritarianism In Eastern Europe–Don’t Forget Our Problems At Home

John Kerry has warned about a disturbing trend of authoritarianism in Eastern Europe. He is probably right, but what about that trend here? The Republican Party has made voter suppression a major part of their electoral strategy, along with continuing the Southern Strategy based upon racism and now xenophobia. The party of small government increasingly advocates using the power of government to infringe upon the private lives of individuals. They claim to support capitalism while they work to redistribute the nation’s wealth and replace our system with a plutocracy.

An informed electorate is essential to the workings of a democracy but the Republicans use their propaganda machine, such as Fox, to intentionally spread misinformation. They have been preventing the normal workings of a legislative branch, meeting on election night to organize to oppose any measures initiated by Obama, regardless of the merits, how needed they are, or even if they are former Republican positions. They talk of supporting the Constitution, but it is a version of the Constitution which exists only in their heads, and is not what was intended by the Founding Fathers. They totally deny the essential liberties in the First Amendment intended to form a secular state as they promote the agenda of the religious right. Even their so-called libertarians don’t have a very good record with regards to supporting liberty.

Turning Around The Media’s Recent Obama As Loser Narrative

Pack journalism resulted in a misleading stream of newspaper articles which would make readers think that the Obama presidency had collapsed. Real problems have been exaggerated greatly out of proportion, with a temporary computer problem compared to Katrina and the desirable transfer of people from insurance plans designed to avoid payouts to real insurance plans presented as a disaster. As Reagan, Clinton, and Bush all had problems in their second term, the media  narrative has been that the same must happen with Obama. Fortunately there is hope that another feature of the news media, a desire to periodically change story lines, might lead to improved coverage once the web site is fixed and most Americans find out that they are better off, or at least doing the same, under the Affordable Care Act.

The New Republic is hardly a bell weather as to where the media will be going, but an article posted yesterday does present a hopeful sign of where coverage, if accurate, might change to:

It’s been a pretty good week for the Obama administration. The bungled healthcare.gov Web site emerged vastly improved following an intensive fix-it push, allowing some 25,000 to sign up per day, as many as signed up in all of October. Paul Ryan and Patty Murray inched toward a modest budget agreement. This morning came a remarkably solid jobs report, showing 203,000 new positions created in November, the unemployment rate falling to 7 percent for the first time in five years, and the labor force participation rate ticking back upward. Meanwhile, the administration’s push for a historic nuclear settlement with Iran continued apace.

All of these developments are tenuous. The Web site’s back-end troubles could still pose big problems (though word is they are rapidly improving, too) and the delay in getting the site up working leaves little time to meet enrollment goals. Job growth could easily stutter out again. The Iran deal could founder amid resistance from Congress or our allies.

After giving  examples, Alec MacGillis described some of the factors which led to such misleading coverage the last few weeks:

What explains for this even-worse-than-usual excitability? Much of it has to do with the age-old who’s-up-who’s down, permanent-campaign tendencies of the political media, exacerbated by a profusion of polling, daily tipsheets and Twitter. Overlaid on this is our obsession with the presidency, which leads us both to inflate the aura of the office and to view periods of tribulation as some sort of existential collapse. Add in the tendencies of even more serious reporters to get into a chew-toy mode with tales of scandal or policy dysfunction, as happened with the healthcare.gov debacle – the media has been so busy hyping every last aspect of the rollout’s woes that it did indeed start to seem inconceivable that things might get better soon.

Andrew Sullivan reviewed similar stories of gloom and doom for the Obama administration: “The Healthcare.gov fiasco was Katrina; the Syrian pivot was a disastrous wobble; the Iran negotiations were abject surrender; the economy was going nowhere.” Then he gave further examples of how reality looks far better than recent headlines:

But it’s worth digesting how all these alleged disasters have settled down. Obama’s alleged surrender to Putin on Syria … has led to something no one really believed possible: a potential shut-down of Syria’s WMD potential. What Bush failed to do in Iraq (because Saddam’s WMDs were a fantasy), Obama has almost succeeded in doing in Syria – with Putin’s help. The Iran negotiations – far from being a surrender – have set the stage for a real rapprochement. Les Gelb notes:

The Obama team has won the first round on the six-month agreement with Iran by a knockout. The phony, misleading, and dishonest arguments against the pact just didn’t hold up to the reality of the text. As night follows day, the mob of opponents didn’t consider surrender, not for a second. Instead, they trained their media howitzers on the future, the next and more permanent agreement, you know, the one that has yet to be negotiated.

Even George Will has conceded as much.

The media might stick with the current storyline and highlight every problem which is likely to occur with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the economy, and in unstable parts of the world. Or they might present the full story where Obama has been imperfect, has made mistakes, but has in reality done a lot to improve the economy, improve health care, and is showing promise regarding potentially major achievements in foreign policy.

Iran Deal

POTUS about to make statement regarding deal with Iran on nuclear program. Next Fox to accuse Obama of making deal to reduce risk of nuclear war in order to take attention away from Obamacare problems.

Comparing Kerry and Clinton As Secretary of State

We don’t know yet if any of Kerry’s diplomacy in the middle east will pay off, but I feel much more optimistic about his approach than the approach of his predecessor. The New York Times described the difference:

Traveling around the Middle East with Secretary of State John Kerry, particularly for a reporter whose last State Department tour was with Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a seat-of-the-pants experience. Itineraries are notional. Improvisation is the rule.

In the last 24 hours, Mr. Kerry’s aides warned that he might fly back to Israel after his stop in Jordan, then minutes later said that was a false alarm. The next morning they confirmed that he would, in fact, travel to Tel Aviv on Friday for breakfast with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after dinner here with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas.

And after that? Who can say? Mr. Kerry seems perfectly willing to upend his schedule based on his instinct that staying a little longer, holding another meeting, flying to another capital, can nudge forward peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Shuttle diplomacy, of course, is nothing new in this part of the world. But after President Obama’s first term, when Mrs. Clinton delegated these Middle East milk runs to a special envoy and kept the peace process in general at arm’s length, it is striking to watch a secretary of state grinding it out in this unforgiving arena.

“What separates John Kerry from Hillary is that he’s put himself in the middle of the mix,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East peace negotiator who is now a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Still, it is not clear whether Mr. Kerry’s exertions will make these talks any more fruitful than previous efforts, including the unsuccessful one that Mrs. Clinton oversaw during Mr. Obama’s first term. The mood in Jerusalem and on the West Bank has deteriorated since the talks resumed in late July, with Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas squabbling over issues like Jewish settlements and blaming each other for the lack of progress…

Mr. Kerry’s caffeinated style is emblematic of how he has redefined the secretary’s job — moving it away from the town-hall-style meetings and public diplomacy that characterized Mrs. Clinton’s tenure and toward a dogged emphasis on a handful of issues. Most prominent of those issues is the peace process, which Mr. Kerry has single-handedly kept on the list of the White House’s foreign policy priorities.

His eagerness, Mr. Miller said, stems from being in a different place than Mrs. Clinton and serving a changed White House. For Mr. Kerry, this job is the capstone of his career, a post he coveted second only to the presidency, and his aides say he is willing to take considerable risks to cement his legacy as a peacemaker.

For Mrs. Clinton, who still has a potential presidential run in her future, secretary of state was a steppingstone, allowing her to burnish her credentials but also carrying potential risks, not least in the politically charged terrain of the Middle East. While Mrs. Clinton dutifully made the rounds, she rarely took a big gamble on the peace process.

Kerry might still fail in bringing peace to the Middle East considering what a challenging task that is. Still, I do prefer Kerry’s energy and hands on approach. While I know it is very unlikely to happen, if in 2016 we have a choice of two former Secretaries of State in the race for the Democratic nomination, I will ignore inevitability in choosing who to support, as I did in 2008.

Quote of the Day: Bill Maher On Being The World’s Policeman

Forget the Syria debate, we need a debate on why we’re always debating whether to bomb someone. Because we’re starting to look not so much like the world’s policeman, but more like George Zimmerman. Itching to use force and then pretending it’s because we had no choice.” —Bill Maher

Fortunately it appears a deal has been made to avoid getting involved in another war where we do not belong. Perhaps next time, instead of waiting until it is asked at a press conference, US leaders will be the ones to look for an alternative to war.

Obama Setting Important Precedent in Taking Syria Decision To Congress

I am still waiting to see what specifically is planned, but it is hard to imagine military intervention in Syria which will be much more than symbolic in opposition to the use of sarin gas. While I question Obama’s military plans, he deserves tremendous credit for his decision to honor the Constitution and take the matter before Congress. Walter Shapiro discussed the significance of this:

…the president, a former part-time constitutional law professor, may have also belatedly recalled the wording of Article One, Section Eight of the Constitution that grants Congress the sole power “to declare war.”

But whatever Obama’s underlying motivations and however the Syrian vote plays out on Capitol Hill, the president’s decision to go to Congress represents an historic turning point. It may well be the most important presidential act on the Constitution and war-making powers since Harry Truman decided to sidestep Congress and not seek their backing to launch the Korean war.

Just a few days ago, before Obama’s decision was known, legal scholars from both the right and the left were in agreement that waging war over Syria – no matter how briefly – without congressional approval would bend the Constitution beyond recognition.

Jack Goldsmith, a Harvard law professor who served as a Bush administration lawyer during the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, wrote in the legal blog Lawfare, “The planned use of military force in Syria is a constitutional stretch that will push presidential war unilateralism beyond where it has gone before.” And liberal constitutional scholar Garrett Epps, writing for the Atlantic , concluded, “It’s pretty clear that an American attack would violate the Constitution.”

Shapiro summarized past decisions by presidents to use military power and concluded:

No American lives are in danger and the national security threat is hard to identify. Not only is NATO not participating, but also neither are the Brits, the United State’s closest diplomatic ally. With Russia serving as Assad’s enabler, there will be no Security Council resolution or UN mandate.

Every time a president employs questionable legal arguments to wage war, it becomes a valuable tool for the next Commander in Chief impatient with the constitutional requirement to work through Congress. That’s why it would have been so dangerous for Obama to go forward in Syria without a congressional vote or the support of the UN or NATO. It is as much of a slippery slope argument as the contention that Iran, say, would be emboldened with its nuclear program if America did not punish Assad’s chemical attacks.

Assuming Obama wins congressional approval, America’s coming attack on Syria is designed to set a lasting precedent: No government can ever again use chemical, biological – let alone nuclear – weapons without facing devastating consequences. As Obama asked rhetorically in his Saturday Rose Garden statement, “What message will we send if a dictator can gas hundreds of children to death in plain sight and pay no price?”

But Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval may prove to be an even more important precedent. Future presidents – as they consider unilateral military action without American security hanging in the balance – will have to answer, “Why didn’t you go to Congress like Obama did over Syria?”

Confronted with a series of wrenching choices over Syria, Obama chose the course that best reflects fidelity to the Constitution as written. Hopefully, in the days ahead, taking that less traveled road by presidents will make all the difference.

I am not optimistic that any military action will make a difference as to whether WMD is used by future dictators. I am more hopeful that Obama is setting an important precedent here which may affect future decisions by American presidents to go to war. Next I am hoping that by the time Obama leaves office we have a better system for the institutionalization of conducting war in the modern era on issues ranging from drone strikes to surveillance. It is also amusing to see conservatives who have been making absurd claims of dictatorship under Obama now attack him for his decision to follow the Constitution.

Not All Drones Are Bad

This story about  drones being used to deliver beer in South Africa provides a good example about the dangers of generalization, such as believing all drones are bad:

Revellers at a South African outdoor rock festival no longer need to queue to slake their thirst — a flying robot will drop them beer by parachute.

After clients place an order using a smartphone app, a drone zooms 15 metres (50 feet) above the heads of the festival-goers to make the delivery.

Carel Hoffmann, director of the Oppikoppi festival held on a dusty farm in the country’s northern Limpopo province, said the app registers the position of users using the GPS satellite chips on their phones.

“The delivery guys have a calibrated delivery drone. They send it to the GPS position and drops it with a parachute,” he explained.

Even Rand Paul has tweeted that he’s not against all drones in response to this story. Alcohol appears to be the common denominator when Paul considers the use of drones, such as with his previous statement in support of using drones against someone robbing a liquor store: “If someone comes out of a liquor store with a weapon and $50 in cash, I don’t care if a drone kills him or a policeman kills him.” Paul is also having difficulty in using numbers and coherently discussing economic issues.