Belmont Club

The Leader of the Free World

The Washington Post hopes that both sides having gotten their licks in, each side will retire to their corners and agree not to answer the next bell.  The reference is not to a boxing match, but to the crisis wracking the Ukraine.

Ukraine has shaken off its corrupt president and the immediate prospect of domination by Russia — but at the risk of further conflict. … Kiev is now controlled by pro-Western parties that say they will implement the association agreement with the European Union that Mr. Yanukovych turned away from three months ago, triggering the political crisis. There remain two big threats to this positive outcome. One is that Ukraine’s finances will collapse in the absence of a bailout from Russia or the West. The other is that the country will split along geographic lines as Russian speakers in the east of the country, perhaps supported by Moscow, reject the new political order. …

What’s not clear is whether Mr. Putin would accept a Ukraine that is not under the Kremlin’s thumb. The first indications are not good: Though Mr. Putin has been publicly silent about Ukraine since Friday, the rhetoric emanating from his government has been angry and belligerent…

Such claims could become an excuse for Russia to support separatists in the Crimea or other regions. Given Mr. Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, even armed intervention cannot be ruled out. That’s why, in addition to seeking to reconcile Russia to a democratic and independent Ukraine, the West must make it clear that any such intervention will be a disaster not only for Ukraine but for Russia as well.

But just who exactly leads the West right now? Nominally it is president Obama. But his moral authority has been damaged of late. As a Gallup poll released Monday shows, “for the first time, more Americans think President Barack Obama is not respected by other world leaders than believe he is. Americans’ opinions have shifted dramatically in the past year, after being relatively stable from 2010 to 2013.” Fifty three percent of respondents believed the president was not respected against 41% who believed he was.

But what’s the alternative? It has not been the EU’s finest hour.  Walter Russell Mead pointed out in late November the crisis was precipitated by the failure of EU soft power in the first place.

In the end, the EU brought a baguette to the knife fight over Ukraine, and unsurprisingly their starchy weaponry couldn’t compete with Russian steel. Brussels tried to entice Ukraine with a deal for cheap natural gas, but that paled in comparison to the overt threats (and likely clandestine gifts) Moscow brought to bear.

“Nature abhors a vacuum, etc ” and crises are often precipitated when a gambler thinks he can chance it. Yanukovych  went for broke. But now that the gambit has seemingly failed, or at least been set back one can return to the question posed in the first paragraph: are the fighters having exchanged black eyes amenable to calling the match off? Or will they answer the bell and beat each other to a pulp for as long as they can?

It all depends on perceived costs and benefits. Somehow both sides must find it in their overwhelming interest to back off and come to a deal, or else they may be tempted to double down with no one knowing the outcome. One problem the Washington Post’s editorial omits is the absence of an accepted framework within which any temporary deal can be made to persist.

The Ukrainian question cannot be answered outside the framework of Russia-Western relations. Mark Dejevsky, writing in the Financial Times argues the Ukranian crisis but reflects Russia’s indecision over whether and how much to accommodate itself to the West. “The truth is that it is not just Ukraine that faces a historic choice, but Russia.”  The outcome of the Cold War has been unraveling, or at least its former participants have started to have second thoughts about how it ended.

One of the legacies it left behind is the distribution of sympathy on the ground. As the Washington Post points out, parts of the Eastern Ukraine are very Russian, both linguistically and in sympathy.

RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson recently went to Crimea and spoke to members of the pro-Russian separatist movement there. One politician he spoke to had the novel idea of leasing Crimea to Russia in exchange for a cancellation of Ukraine’s debt to Moscow. But what would happen after the lease expired? “After 99 years, I don’t think Ukraine will last that long as an independent country”.

That difference in character will create a lot of pressure to split the Ukraine up, with all the sparks that might entail. It’s a situation that calls for the finest judgment. The operative question is whether Barack Obama, as the only leader of the West not armed with baguettes, has the judgment to either hold it together or ease the pieces apart. Niall Ferguson points out that his performance so far is not reassuring.

Having passively watched when the Iranian people rose up against their theocratic rulers beginning in 2009, the president was caught off balance by the misnamed “Arab Spring.” … On Libya, Mr. Obama took a back seat in an international effort to oust Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, but was apparently not in the vehicle at all when the American mission at Benghazi came under fatal attack in 2012.

Syria has been one of the great fiascos of post-World War II American foreign policy. When President Obama might have intervened effectively, he hesitated. When he did intervene, it was ineffectual….

The scale of the strategic U.S. failure is best seen in the statistics for total fatalities in the region the Bush administration called the “Greater Middle East” … Back then, the Greater Middle East accounted for 38% of conflict-related deaths in the world; last year it was 78%.

Mr. Obama’s supporters like nothing better than to portray him as the peacemaker to George W. Bush’s warmonger. But it is now almost certain that more people have died violent deaths in the Greater Middle East during this presidency than during the last one.

In a January interview with the New Yorker magazine, the president said something truly stunning. “I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” he asserted, referring to the late American diplomat and historian whose insights informed the foreign policy of presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on. Yet what Mr. Obama went on to say about his self-assembled strategy for the Middle East makes it clear that a George Kennan is exactly what he needs: someone with the regional expertise and experience to craft a credible strategy for the U.S., as Kennan did when he proposed the “containment” of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s.

“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now” says a lot about the president’s opinion of himself. But if Lee Smith is right, the president has accepted a little help now and again. In an article in Tablet Magazine, Lee Smith writes that Stephen Walt is the new Kennan of the Obama administration.  And what is Walt’s idea?

As Obama explained to David Remnick in a recent New Yorker interview, the goal is to create a “geopolitical equilibrium” between Sunni “Gulf states and Iran in which there’s competition, perhaps suspicion, but not an active or proxy warfare.”

And so it turns out that the Kennan of Obama’s Middle East policy is Stephen Walt, the Harvard professor, who outlined the same idea Obama described to Remnick in a Nov. 21 post on FP.com in which he argued for a “realist, balance-of-power policy.” According to Walt, the specific question facing U.S. policymakers is how to achieve such a policy, when the United States has “‘special relationships’ with certain regional powers”—like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and, of course, Israel.

If this sounds suspiciously like weakening your allies that they might not dominate their rivals and so making both easier to manipulate then perhaps that’s what it is. If there’s one thing the administration has lots of, it is cynicism. The Hill reports that “the Obama administration is under growing pressure to make an arrest in the Benghazi attack to quash lingering criticism of its response and help clear the road for a possible Hillary Clinton presidential run in 2016. ” You can’t get much more cynical than that.

But immorality was never an adequate substitute for credible strength. Ferguson warns that nobody every did any balancing of power without power any more than anyone ever did any horse riding without a horse.  And in that department Obama’s incompetence has depleted American power most woefully. Now when he most needs peace he has the fewest levers to induce it. Ferguson adds:

Maybe, on reflection, it is not a Kennan that Mr. Obama needs, but a Kissinger. “The attainment of peace is not as easy as the desire for it,” Dr. Kissinger once observed. “Those ages which in retrospect seem most peaceful were least in search of peace. Those whose quest for it seems unending appear least able to achieve tranquillity. Whenever peace—conceived as the avoidance of war—has been the primary objective . . . the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member.”

Those are words this president, at a time when there is much ruthlessness abroad in the world, would do well to ponder.

Whether the presidential pondering will occur at all is another question. One the most fatalistic maxims in military history is that you go to war “with the army you have”. It is also true that nation goes into a crisis with the president that it has.  We may not hope for much in him, but we can hold out for luck where we can’t expect competence.  At the very least the elders of both parties should forget politics for a while and make a good faith effort to detect the wisest course in what has truly become a dangerous international crisis and advise the president of it. It’s too serious to leave to the teleprompter.


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