A recent survey about U.S. policy toward Ukraine found that the more geographically illiterate a respondent was, the more prone they were to endorse the hawkish position.
Naturally, this finding has offended those who favor the hawkish position. Charles Lane (via Larison) insists that ignorance shouldn't stand in the way of making potentially history-shaping decisions.
"Foreign policy is not only about knowledge but also judgment; not only smarts but also wisdom," Lane wrote. Earlier, Lane celebrated the fact that while he never even heard of the Falkland Islands before the 1982 war, he nonetheless decided on the spot that Britain was right to reclaim them by force.
I think we've had altogether too much of this attitude among our elected officials and their supporters in the press. Frankly, I find it sad that we need to be inventing baroque rationales for why ignorance is okay rather than demanding better of ourselves and our leaders.
Generally, when the stakes are high (as they are in foreign policy decisions) we expect that people demonstrate knowledge and proficiency before entrusting them with responsibilities. Heart surgeons can't have an intuitive "wisdom" about the heart, they need exacting, specific knowledge. Pilots can't have a gut sense of how to fly a plane. They need to know concretely how the plane operates.
Understanding a subject deeply is certainly no guarantee that you'll make the correct decisions. Planes crash. People die on operating tables all the time. And being ignorant of a given subject (or country, in this case) doesn't mean you won't get it right once and a while (it's called luck). But over the long term, it strikes me as far better to empower decision-makers that actually know what they're talking about rather than those who pantomime right-sounding principles as a substitute for genuine understanding.
According to a new survey from Pew Research, 52 percent of Americans think it is more important for the U.S. not to get too involved in the situation in Ukraine -- an attitude in marked contrast to most of the country's commentariat, which is in melt-down mode. Ony 35 percent of those polled think it's more important for the U.S. to "take a firm stand" against Russian actions.
Americans hold this non-interventionist view despite a significant deteriotation in their attitude toward Russia herself. "Since last November," according to Pew, "the percentage viewing Russia as an adversary has risen eight points (from 18 percent) while the share saying it is a serious problem has increased seven points (from 36 percent). The number of Americans who do not think of Russia as much of a problem has fallen by almost half - from 40 percent then to 22 percent today."
Russia has now eclipsed China as the country of greatest concern, the first time Pew surveys have seen such a result since 2008.
As far as Obama's handling of the Ukraine crisis, Pew found something of a mixed bag. Forty three percent of Americans think Obama's handling of the crisis is about right, while 35 percent think he's not being tough enough and five percent think he's being too tough.
Last week, RT, the English language propaganda arm of the Russian government, published an unsigned editorial on its website promising "5 referendums the West has not taken issue with."
Only three of the enumerated referendums had actually occurred, in Kosovo, South Sudan and the Falkland Islands. The other two, in Scotland and Catalonia, are in the future and dicier.
Spain's government in Madrid has balked at the Catalonian plebiscite. Other Western nations may yet follow its lead and condemn the vote for secession.
As for Scotland, even RT admits "Britain has said if Scotland breaks away it will not be able to use the pound and will have to reapply for EU membership." The EU may not prove receptive to that application, especially if it wants to keep the Euroskeptical Brits from bolting.
But the details are small dumplings. RT was telling us all of this for polemical reasons, not historical ones.
"In the past the West has not batted an eyelid when countries sought to hold referendums and in some cases actively supported them," the editors alleged.
Also, the West's "seemingly random policy on other referendums hints at a double standard in their governments' rhetoric."
Western nations' approaches to referendums hasn't been *that* random. The West, collectively, tends to go along with such referendums when they look like they will solve intractable problems.
Otherwise, they treat secession or annexation votes as a menace to the peace of nations.
Developed countries didn't speak out against the 2013 referendum in the Falklands because almost everybody wanted it. This included the British government, from which the Falklands might have seceded -- and for good reason.
Ever since the Falklands War, Argentina had been keen to win through diplomacy what it failed to take with force of arms. "Oh no you don't!" said the islanders collectively. When the votes were tallied, only three locals voted to break away from the Crown.
That's three votes, not three percent of the vote.
It is simply not true that Western nations were OK with Kosovo's referendum in 1991. Only Albania initially recognized the new state, because Kosovars are ethnically Albanian. It wasn't until many years later, after ethnic atrocities and a limited and ill-advised NATO war, that the West went along with it.
In South Sudan, going along with the secession referendum was seen as a way to finally bring an end to long and bloody ethnic conflicts. It hasn't worked out so well, as the ongoing violence in the landlocked nation amounts to a low-grade civil war.
So it is understandable that America and the EU balked at the snap Crimean vote for annexation by Russia. But, as they say, that just happened. Why not deal with it rather than try to wish the vote away?
It's a little odd to hear President Obama say that America will "never" accept the result of the referendum. Never? Why not?
If the complaint is that the election seems rigged because more than 93 percent of Crimeans voted "yes," then past referendums are going to be a problem. In South Sudan, 98.8 percent of residents voted to secede. The vote in Kosovo in 1991 was even more lopsided, with 99.9 percent wanting independence.
America and the EU are of course right to worry that Crimean annexation could lead to more conflict. If Russia decides to amass its troops along Crimea's northern border, that would be clear grounds for Ukraine to fire the first shots of war, even under stringent Just War criteria.
Wouldn't it be a better idea to offer a democratic and peaceful option for all parties -- one that allows the passions of the moment to cool down a bit?
America and the EU could agree to hold an internationally monitored plebiscite, say, six months hence. The referendum would be contingent on a number of conditions.
Russia would have to play nice, draw down the number of its troops on the peninsula, respect the basic rights of all Crimeans -- Russians, Tatars and Ukrainians -- cough up some money for Ukraine and agree to respect the basic territorial integrity of every other part of the country outside Crimea.
If it complied with these demands, Russia would get its annexation vote in due time, this time free of sanction or condemnation.
At the beginning of the Iraq War, the world received routine updates from Iraqi Minister of Information Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, better known Stateside as "Baghdad Bob." As Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled, his job was simple: Get on TV and flatly deny reality. Is there video proving him wrong? Doesn't matter. Deny it anyway.
Here are some of his best quotes, courtesy of WeLoveTheIraqiInformationMinister.com, the owner of which (much to my surprise) must still be paying his annual domain fee.
"There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!"
"Their infidels are committing suicide by the hundreds on the gates of Baghdad. Be assured, Baghdad is safe, protected."
"Lying is forbidden in Iraq. President Saddam Hussein will tolerate nothing but truthfulness as he is a man of great honor and integrity."
"I triple guarantee you, there are no American soldiers in Baghdad."
These words were amusing coming from the lips of Baghdad Bob in 2003. Today, similar words are coming from the lips of Russian President Vladimir Putin. But this time, the words are creepy, because Mr. Putin is speaking from a position of strength rather than from one of imminent defeat.
There are now roughly 30,000 Russian troops occupying Ukraine Crimean peninsula. Yet, the man who sent them there -- Vladimir Putin himself -- denies that they are his. Even Secretary of State John Kerry couldn't believe his ears. Moscow is now claiming that "lawlessness" in eastern Ukraine is threatening stability. We shouldn't be surprised, therefore, of a second Russian invasion, followed by another denial by Mr. Putin.
Let's set aside the debate over how to respond. There's another, possibly bigger, question: How do you negotiate with somebody who denies reality?
Mr. Putin isn't crazy. The conventional wisdom, which is probably correct, is that he is a grandmaster of geopolitical chess. It's difficult to be good at chess and crazy at the same time. So, that leaves really only one option: Mr. Putin is using denial as some sort of tactic.
But for what purpose? If he admits to invading Ukraine, then perhaps he believes that the world will perceive him as having violated international law. But, the world already thinks that. His denials aren't fooling anybody.
Or, perhaps he believes that denying the presence of troops in Crimea will somehow strengthen his bargaining position when he inevitably must sit down with EU and U.S. diplomats? If that's the case, it is still difficult to see how his denials advance his agenda.
It will be interesting to see how the Kremlin spins all of this over the coming weeks. In the meantime, bear in mind the wise words of Winston Churchill:
I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.
"It is not a referendum! It is a farce, a fake and a crime against the state which is organized by the Russian Federation's military!"
Those angry words came from Ukraine's acting President Oleksander Turchinov Thursday. He was reacting to news that the Crimean regional parliament had voted to request annexation by Russia. Crimea's parliament also called for a snap referendum. Nine days from now, residents will be asked to indicate by secret ballot if they'd rather stay in the Ukraine or go with Russia.
Russian is the default language in the region. Russia has a Navy base there and a majority of the locals are ethnically Russians. Under ideal conditions, this would be a tough referendum for Turchinov's government to carry. Circumstances are about as far from ideal as they get.
Turchinov wasn't elected. His predecessor, who was driven from government by demonstrators who were either anti-Russian or pro-Western, depending on your preferred propagandistic phrasing, was. You don't have to buy Russian President Vladimir Putin's public spin this was a far right coup to see why most residents of the Crimea might prefer the stability and familiar corruption of Russia to the protests and uncertainty of the Ukraine.
Russia was able to take the Crimea without firing a shot. The military has been able to hold it so far with only warning shots because Turchinov's government is disorganized and torn. It is unwilling to risk a wider war over this pariah region, and this reluctance is only bolstering Russia's claim.
It's hard to gauge the sentiments of an occupied people, but many locals have spontaneously told reporters they are not unhappy with the outcome. "If the Russians weren't here, the government of Ukraine would come and occupy us," retired stage actor Vladimir Sukhenko told the AP. "They would make us speak Ukrainian."
Reuters reported the quick move for annexation was "almost certainly orchestrated by Vladimir Putin." The news agency is almost certainly right about that. On Tuesday, Putin addressed the fears of markets and world leaders over a wider war. Any conflict outside of the Crimea would be "absolutely a last resort," he said.
About the future of the Crimea, Putin professed a hands-off approach toward its ultimate governance. He argued, "the people living in a given territory have the right to determine their own future."
And then just two days later, the Crimean parliament determined that it would like to throw in with Russia with a referendum that seemed perfectly timed to throw America and the EU for a loop -- by a unanimous vote? Not a coincidence. Putin is pulling some strings here, though he doesn't have to yank extra hard.
American President Barack Obama has said that holding such a referendum would be "unconstitutional." His sudden strict constructionism of Ukraine's constitution is touching, and highly amusing.
In nine days' time, a referendum will be held and Crimeans will likely vote to join Russia. Western leaders will respond with more sanctions and speeches and charges of fraud. Unless they are willing to go to war over the Crimea, they might as well hold their breath.
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Vladimir Putin only invaded Crimea because he knew President Obama wouldn't back up his threats with action. Hadn't the world seen Obama draw a bright red line in Syria only to meekly climb down after Assad brazenly crossed it? It's the Obama administration's lack of credibility that encouraged Putin's adventurism.
This argument has been rehashed numerous times since Russian forces made their move in Crimea. Indeed, it's been made countless times during every single international crisis during the Obama administration.
There's only one problem with this line of argument. It's not true.
Don't take my word for it. To the extent that such things can be studied, there is significant evidence suggesting that such "credibility" arguments have little basis in fact. Begin with Daryl Press who has a book-length take-down of the idea in Calculating Credibility: How Leaders Assess Military Threats (Press also co-authored a shorter piece in Foreign Policy with Jennifer Lind exploring the argument). Jonathan Mercer also examined the issues in Reputation & International Politics and came to a similar conclusion. If you can't wade through the book, Mercer's piece in Foreign Affairs brings not only the relevant scholarship to bear on the question, but shows why the argument makes no sense logically. Writing in the Havard Law Review, Ganesh Sitaraman offers another fact-filled take-down.
Yet in the face of strong evidence and logic that the credibility argument is bogus it keeps turning up -- the foreign policy punditry version of a bad penny. Why? Having likely made this mistake myself (before acquainting myself with the above) I have a few theories. First, it's easy. Understanding why states behave the way they do requires at least some rudimentary understanding of their peculiar geopolitical situation and the relevant interests involved. Blaming "weakness" and "lack of resolve" on the part of a particular political figure requires none of this understanding and is more interesting to read about, since it quickly personalizes disputes.
Second, it's reinforces partisan and ideological narratives. For the GOP, blaming President Obama's weakness is not only easy but politically expedient. It's just too good an opportunity to pass up. But it's not only Democrats that suffer at the hands of this bogus narrative. When President Bush was in office, critics also retreated to this dubious argument.
Third, as Justin Logan noted, it makes "intuitive sense" to many people, even if there's little evidence for it.
.@GregScoblete Because the US foreign policy establishment doesn't have to care about social science and because it's intuitively plausible.— Justin Logan (@JustinTLogan) March 4, 2014
I don't hold out much hope that evidence and logic will win the day on this one, but here's hoping.
John Judis has an interesting interview with Dmitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest, on the situation in Ukraine. In it, Simes castigates the Obama administraiton for their thoughtless handling of the protests in Ukraine:
Now, I understand that we favored the rebels. And I also again have to say that looking at Yanukovych, he clearly was unsavory, and unpopular, and inept, and I can understand why we would not do anything to promote his questionable legitimacy. But we have to realize, that as we were applying this pressure on the Ukrainian political process to promote those we favor, we clearly were rocking the political boat in Ukraine, a country deeply divided, a country with different religions, different histories, different ethnicities. And it was that process of rocking the boat that led to the outcome have seen. That is not to justify what Putin has done, that is not to say that the Russians are entitled to use their troops on the territory of another state. But let me say this: any Russian wrongdoings should not be used as an alibi for the incompetence of the Obama administration. European and American steps that contributed to this unfortunate outcome, and quite remarkably, nobody in this administration even seems to have been thinking about what the consequences of their previous actions could be. That's how we got to our current predicament.
This kind of thoughtless poking of the hornet's nest only to whirl around in outrage and confusion when getting stung seems to be a recurring habit in Washington.
Any discussion of U.S. tactics has to start with the realization that Russia holds most of the meaningful cards in the short term. The U.S. and Europe are not going to reverse the facts on the ground militarily. If the Russian military wants to move into eastern Ukraine, will European militaries really mobilize to stop them? Will NATO? It seems highly unlikely. If Russia wishes to completely annex Crimea (which, arguably, they already have) are foreign troops going to march in and unseat them? No.
This does not mean the U.S. is completely helpless over the medium and long term. In fact, if cooler heads prevail, there is a good chance the U.S. can put in place a series of policies that will raise the costs to Russia without risking a catastrophic confrontation. That said, there are still some things it shouldn't do:
1. Extend NATO membership to Ukraine or Georgia. Loathe as I am to disagree with Alex, extending NATO membership to Ukraine now or in the future is a non-starter for several very good reasons. The U.S. will not (and should not) sacrifice its soldiers let alone risk a nuclear war for Ukrainian sovereignty and self-determination. Moreover, Ukrainians themselves are ambivalent at best about NATO membership. A late 2009 Pew survey found 51 percent of the country opposed to NATO membership vs. just 21 percent in support. A Gallup poll around the same time found that Ukrainians were far more likely to view the defensive alliance as a threat than a source of protection. Events may have scrambled these views, but given Ukraine's sizable pro-Russian population it's difficult to see how NATO membership will ever be overwhelmingly popular in the country.
It's worth remembering too, as the Carnegie Endowment's Dmitri Trenin wrote on Sunday, that it was a path to NATO membership that "materially contributed" to Russia's invasion of Georgia in 2008. Expanding NATO further into post-Soviet space is a red line with Russia and the U.S. is frankly not in a position to challenge it without running a huge risk. Put bluntly, Russia will be able to invade eastern Ukraine faster than the West could admit Ukraine into NATO to deter Russian aggression and making vague promises about NATO membership to Ukraine may actually provoke Russia to move beyond Crimea and expose Western bluffs.
2. Seek to counter Russia in Syria. Just because Bashar Assad is a Russian client doesn't mean the U.S. gains anything meaningful vis-a-vis Ukraine from his overthrow. Creating a jihadist-ridden failed state in Syria is a bad idea that endangers U.S. interests far more than the loss of Assad harms Russia.
If the U.S. can take these two bad ideas off the table, there are a few things it could do to weaken Putin's grip over the medium and long term.
1. Ship liquified natural gas to Europe. Europe depends on Russia for about a quarter of its natural gas imports (the majority of which transit through Ukraine). Fortunately, the U.S. is now awash in the stuff and could, with time and investment, export it in liquified form to Europe. For Europe, buying gas from the U.S. is way to diminish Russian influence without a direct confrontation. It would also marginalize Ukraine's geopolitical status which will serve, over the long term, to lower the stakes for Europe, Russia and the U.S.
2. Lend Ukraine money. Before Russian troops rolled into Crimea, Europe was only willing to cough up financial assistance to Ukraine after a series of reforms were implemented. Now, the IMF is in talks with the country on a financial rescue package (although these are likely to come with strings attached as well). With Russia canceling Ukraine's discounted gas prices and money pouring out of the country, Ukraine is on the brink of an economic crisis. Fortunately, throwing money into corrupt and destabilized countries is something Washington has plenty of experience with and in the case of Ukraine, there is a reasonable chance of seeing some "return" on this investment -- in the form of keeping Western Ukraine geopolitically anchored to the West. At a minimum, using financial incentives is a lower-cost method of retaining influence in Ukraine than extending NATO membership.
At the end of the day, the U.S. and Europe need to answer a difficult question: why they want Ukraine more than Russia does.
News reports indicate that Russia is now in control of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. Though some MSNBC political commentators might still have no idea whose side they should be on, the rest of the democratized world is crystal clear on the fact that Russia's invasion of a neighboring country under the guise of protecting ethnic Russians is nothing short of a deliberate, self-serving act of war. The West should respond accordingly. But how?
By hitting Vladimir Putin where it hurts. He has spent the last 15 years trying to restore Russian glory and influence, so the West should do everything it can to deprive him of that. The West has five non-mutually exclusive options:
(1) Economic sanctions and asset freezes. The U.S. and EU should immediately hit Russia with painful trade sanctions. Russian kleptocrats, who enjoy spending their millions of dollars abroad, should be slapped with asset freezes and travel bans. Russia should also be ejected from the G8 and G20 and uninvited from any international meetings. (The G8 is for democracies, so it's unclear why Russia is a member, anyway.)
(2) Diplomatic isolation. All democratic embassies in Russia should be closed. The UN should remove Russia as a permanent member of the Security Council.
(3) Fast-track Ukraine to NATO and EU membership. A Ukraine fully integrated into the West is what Mr. Putin fears the most. The West should make it clear that its goal is to accomplish that sooner rather than later.
(4) Deploy NATO troops to western Ukraine. If Ukraine allows it, NATO should deploy troops into western Ukraine. If Mr. Putin finds this objectionable, NATO can claim to be protecting the interests of ethnic Ukrainians and other Europeans. Two can play at that game.
(5) Surround Kaliningrad with NATO troops. Kaliningrad is a Russian exclave on the Baltic Sea. It is surrounded by NATO members Poland (to the south) and Lithuania (to the north and east). Positioning troops along its border would be, by far, the most provocative action -- and one which might lead to an escalation in the conflict. However, it would also be a display of American-European strength and solidarity, something Mr. Putin would have to acknowledge.
Of course, any of these actions could provoke a retaliation from Russia. Other than more military posturing, the most damaging response would be for Russia to turn off its natural gas supply to Europe. They've done that before; in 2009, Russia turned off the gas to Ukraine. Gazprom, Russia's largely state-owned natural gas company, controls 30 percent of Europe's market. Gas prices would soar, and there would probably be brownouts, as well.
This is a tough situation, but one almost entirely of Russia's making. They should not be allowed to get away with merely a slap on the wrist.
The temptation to weigh in on every single current event -- usually with the intention of smearing political opponents -- is just too great for some commentators. Take MSNBC's Chris Hayes, for instance. In a recent segment (which you can watch here), Mr. Hayes criticizes John McCain for criticizing Barack Obama's foreign policy and for having a simplistic, black-or-white view of world affairs.
Fair enough. But in criticizing Mr. McCain's naiveté, Mr. Hayes reveals his own:
As someone who follows the news and who doesn't know a ton about Ukraine, I'll admit, I'm confused about what I think should happen, even which side I'm on... And I think that's a natural, and in many cases even laudable, instinct.
Indecisiveness (or a "wait-and-see" approach) is a laudable instinct only if the situation is unclear. The situation in Ukraine isn't unclear. A corrupt, Russia-aligned government run by former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by a pro-EU, Western-aligned opposition. Is the opposition perfect? No, of course not. Yulia Tymoshenko, who was once the champion of the pro-EU faction, is widely perceived as being just as corrupt as Mr. Yanukovych. Corruption is entrenched in Ukraine's politics, as it is throughout much of eastern Europe. Also, a few members of the opposition are anti-Semitic.
But, the choice is smack-you-in-the-face obvious: The U.S. and EU should (and likely will) try to pull Ukraine into the EU's orbit, paving a pathway for its entry into the European Union. Feckless though it may be, the EU offers Ukraine a safer future than its current status of dependence on Russia's ultimately self-serving largesse.
Mr. Hayes then goes on to criticize Mr. McCain for choosing sides in Syria and Libya. He is correct that Mr. McCain prematurely chose sides in complex conflicts. But, these countries aren't comparable to Ukraine. Ukraine isn't suffering from an influx of al-Qaeda linked terrorists. In Syria and Libya, it really wasn't clear who the opposition was; in Ukraine, we know who the opposition is.
Mr. Hayes then brings on a guest, Mark Quarterman, who seems to be as clueless about European affairs as he is:
It's not even clear that Mr. Putin views it [Ukraine] in Cold War terms.
Huh? Mr. Quarterman is unsure if Vladimir Putin, a former KGB agent, has a Cold War worldview? Of course he does. His entire strategy to maintain countries like Ukraine and Belarus firmly in Russia's orbit is a relic of Cold War thinking (as is the West's obsession with keeping Ukraine in Europe's orbit). President Obama has flatly stated that this is true. In an interview with Jay Leno, Mr. Obama said, "But there have been times where they [Russia] slip back into Cold War thinking and a Cold War mentality."
Or, we could go straight to the horse's mouth, so to speak. In 2005, Mr. Putin said "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th Century was the fall of the Soviet Union. He couldn't make his opinion much clearer than that. And many Russians believe, very likely including Mr. Putin himself, that Ukraine isn't a real country.
Until last week, the average American journalist probably couldn't find Ukraine on an unlabeled (or perhaps even labeled) map. Today, these same journalists are lecturing us on foreign policy.
The crisis in Ukraine took an unexpected turn this weekend. After a deal was struck between President Viktor Yanukovych and the opposition, Mr. Yanukovych ran away. Quite literally. Nobody (except, presumably, a few close allies) knows where he is, though he is suspected to be hiding out in eastern Ukraine or the Crimean peninsula, both of which have large ethnic Russian populations and are sympathetic to the ousted president. A warrant has been issued for his arrest for the mass murder of civilian protesters.
The opposition is now in charge of the country. They must act quickly and carefully to fix Ukraine's enormous problems, otherwise the country could split in two. Here is the opposition's urgent to-do list:
(1) Unify without seeking vengeance. The new government must reunify the country. Mr. Yanukovych's supporters -- including the Kremlin -- feel as though his removal from power was unlawful. That is going to cause long-lasting ill feelings. The new government must make it clear that Mr. Yanukovych's expulsion was due to corruption and corruption only. However, the parliament has already voted to drop Russian as one of the country's official languages. This is a big mistake. It gives the impression that ethnic Ukrainians in the western part of the country despise the ethnic Russians in the eastern half. Does Ukraine really want to have an ethnic conflict added to the current political crisis?
(2) Fix the economy. Ukraine's economy is a shambles. It faces the threat of defaulting on its debt. Banks are limiting cash withdrawals, ostensibly to counter cybercrime, but more likely to prevent a bank run. Ukraine needs to seek immediate assistance from the EU and IMF.
(3) Resist the temptation to engage in corruption. Of course, many Ukrainian politicians probably hold the Demotivator attitude toward corruption, which is, "I want either less corruption or more opportunity to participate in it." But rampant corruption was the underlying reason behind the revolution which deposed Mr. Yanukovych. Therefore, the new government must openly renounce corruption. That very well might mean telling Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed under the Yanukovych regime and is widely perceived to be rather corrupt herself, to not run for the presidency.
This list is a tall order for Ukraine. With Mr. Yanukovych's whereabouts (and machinations) unknown, the crisis in Ukraine may be just beginning.
The escalating crisis in Ukraine has finally prompted the EU to take action to address the enormous problem on its doorstep. (Okay, by "take action," I mean deciding to hold an emergency meeting. Baby steps, baby steps.) Donald Tusk, the prime minister of Poland, has called for sanctions against Ukrainian government officials.
Instead of just making bold pronouncements, the Polish government has also been working quietly behind the scenes (though, presumably, without dropping F-bombs like U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland). According to the Wall Street Journal:
Concerned with instability in its immediate eastern neighborhood, Poland has so far unsuccessfully tried to mediate between Ukrainian opposition and President Yanukovych.
Here's some unsolicited advice for Mr. Tusk: Try harder. Why? Because if Poland plays a pivotal role in brokering a deal in Ukraine, at least three good things will happen for Poland:
(1) A new government in Ukraine (assuming it will be led by the current opposition) will be grateful to Poland. This will help strengthen ties between the two countries, which will be to their mutual economic benefit. And, it would be one giant step toward integrating Ukraine into the EU and getting it out of Putin's orbit.
(2) Poland will gain more influence in the European Union, which it both deserves and craves.
(3) Poland will earn more respect from the United States, which may help pave the way for getting that visa waiver they have coveted for quite some time.
Of course, negotiating peace in Ukraine is also the right thing to do. But, doing the right thing is always easier if you have some strong incentives.
The cosmologist Carl Sagan popularized the notion that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." Yet when it comes to Iran, it appears the rules of evidentiary common sense are out the window.
Exhibit A (via Larison) is a recent speech by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in which he claimed that: "If given the opportunity, Iran's leaders would make good on their call to wipe Israel off the map, and armed with nuclear weapons would be a threat to all within range of their missiles, which someday soon may include our own shores."
What Cantor is clearly implying is that once Iran obtains a nuclear weapon (if they do decide to build one) they will use it to wage a suicidal attack against Israel. This is an extraordinary claim, given that no nuclear state has launched an unprovoked nuclear strike against another country no matter how bitter the rivalry. Of course, it's possible that Iran's leaders may decide to do something that's clearly insane, but the weight of historical evidence against this claim is enormous and self-evident. Pakistan has not nuked India (or vice-versa). The U.S. and Soviet Union avoided nuclear war, despite some harrowingly close calls. States that obtain nuclear weapons, with the single exception of the United States during World War II, do not use them.
If Cantor believes Iran will break this pattern, he needs to back it up with serious evidence, not a wave of the hand.
Victoria Nuland, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs, is in a bit of diplomatic trouble. The European Union has sat idly by while its neighbor to the east, Ukraine, has been experiencing mass anti-government protests since late November. During a phone call with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Ms. Nuland let off some steam by saying, "F*** the EU." Unbeknownst to her, the phone call was tapped, and it seems likely that Russia is the culprit (thus proving once again that everybody spies on everybody).
Now, the EU is upset. Or, at least Angela Merkel, the de facto empress of the EU, is pretending to be. However, what you won't hear in all of the press coverage is that "f*** the EU" is a rather common sentiment, particularly among citizens of the European Union.
Take Germany, for instance. An upstart political party called Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which favors abandoning the euro and reintroducing the Deutsche mark, received 4.7 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, just shy of the 5 percent threshold required to enter the government. Elsewhere in Europe, Euroskeptic parties are growing. The UK Independence Party (UKIP), which favors leaving the EU, has become so influential that Prime Minister David Cameron insists on holding a referendum in 2017 on whether or not his nation should remain in the institution. Even the French don't like Europe that much anymore.
Additionally, a poll released in May 2013 showed a precipitous drop, from 60 percent to 45 percent, in favorability rataings for the EU among eight core countries (Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Poland and the Czech Republic). In fact, dissatisfaction with the EU is so great and widespread that The Economist reported that between 16 and 25 percent of the EU Parliament's seats could be won by left- and right-wing Euroskeptic parties in the upcoming election in May. It's difficult to imagine a louder "f*** the EU" statement than that.
Perhaps EU leaders should worry more about the opinion of their own citizens than that of a boorish Yankee.
If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you're going to Sochi, however, you might want to consider a flak jacket.
Many observers are still wondering why the International Olympic Committee chose Sochi to begin with. The average temperature in February is a balmy 43 degrees Fahrenheit, with daily highs hitting around 51 degrees. At nighttime, it doesn't generally drop below freezing. The Russian organizers "guarantee snow" by holding events at a ski resort in the mountains outside the city or, if all else fails, making artificial snow. The Russians even stockpiled snow from previous winters and kept it around, just in case. Maybe that's why the price tag for this Winter Olympics totals $51 billion -- more than the last three Winter Olympics combined.
Then there's the whole terrorism thing. Sochi is located on the Black Sea, near the troubled North Caucasus region that is home to many Islamic separatists. Dagestan, the region with which the Boston bombers had ties, and the city of Volgograd, which suffered a twin terrorist attack in December, are in the vicinity. (Both are roughly 600 miles away.)
As if recent events in the region weren't disturbing enough, U.S. officials yesterday announced the possibility of "toothpaste bombs" being brought on flights to Russia. And a USA Today report details how Russian intelligence isn't very good at fighting terrorism. It's no wonder that 57 percent of Americans think there will be a terrorist attack in Sochi.
For the sake of the world's athletes and fans, let's hope not.
For those of you who are regular viewers of BBC, you might have noticed that a friendly, familiar face has gone missing. Komla Dumor, who regularly anchored BBC World News and hosted Focus on Africa, passed away this month from cardiac arrest in his London home at the age of 41. He is survived by his wife and three children.
Regular news viewers feel something of a connection to journalists and anchors that they frequently watch. It's almost as if turning on the television invites the person into your home for an hour. You start to feel as if you know the person a little. I think that's why it's always a bit of a shock when a TV personality dies.
For many journalists, working at BBC would be a dream job. The internationally renowned British news channel is rivaled only by CNN International in terms of global reach and respect. Mr. Dumor was at the height of his career in the prime of his life at arguably the globe's best news outlet. He was, in many ways, on top of the world.
And then, suddenly and without warning, it was all gone.
His viewers will miss him, as will his colleagues at BBC. But the true tragedy is being suffered by the members of his young family, whose lives have been forever turned upside down. We often forget -- after the makeup is removed and the lights are turned off -- that TV anchors are human beings, just like us. They return home, wherein they take on the far more important role of husband or dad. While the world lost a great journalist, a family lost the center of its universe.
Life is short, and for some of us, all too short. We humans live life assuming that we are masters of our own time, but we are not. In his famous book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis poignantly states: "The man can neither make, nor retain, one moment of time; it all comes to him by pure gift; he might as well regard the sun and moon as his chattels."
So do make the most of your gift. And in the process, be nice to other people. For you never really know when you say "goodbye" if it will be your last.
One recurring criticism of the Obama administration is that it has presided over a collapse in confidence among America's Middle Eastern allies. Jennifer Rubin, for instance, claims it's "remarkable that our allies feel so abandoned." The Saudis have been sharply critical about signs of American weakness. Senator John McCain has declared that the U.S. has lost "all credibility" in the region.
Courtesy of Scott McConnell, former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates gives us a look at what all this carping really means from his memoir:
[Saudi King] Abdullah ... wanted a full-scale military attack on Iranian military targets, not just the nuclear sites. He warned that if we did not attack, the Saudis "must go our own way to protect our interests." As far as I was concerned, he was asking the United States to send its sons and daughters into a war with Iran in order to protect the Saudi position in the Gulf and the region, as if we were mercenaries. He was asking us to shed American blood, but at no time did he suggest that any Saudi blood might be spilled. He went on and on about how the United States was seen as weak by governments in the region. The longer he talked, the angrier I got...
So the next time you hear someone complain that America's "allies" in the Middle East are upset about the lack of American leadership on this or that, remember that what they're really cheesed off about is the fact that American blood and treasure are not being put on the line to defend their interests.
Recently, I had the misfortune of landing at Newark Liberty International Airport. My wife and I had flown in from Germany, and Newark was the layover on our way home to Seattle.
Our flight arrived late, giving us only an hour or so to catch our connecting flight. It was going to be a close call. Not only did we have to go through passport control and security control, we also had to claim our baggage and re-check it for the domestic flight. (European airports do not burden their passengers with this extra hassle.)
It quickly became obvious that we were going to need assistance to make our connecting flight on time. However, the service counter for our domestic airline was nowhere in sight. We asked TSA agents -- you know, those taxpayer-funded public servants -- at the security checkpoint to allow us to move to the front of the line. Their response? "No." The only official assistance we received was from the guy who re-checked our bags; he didn't make us stand in yet another long line.
And just to add a dash of insult to injury, one TSA agent even had the audacity to tell me, "Slow down," as I was dashing like Usain Bolt to the gate. I almost responded with an expletive over my shoulder. Luckily for us, we didn't miss the flight -- only because our pilot was an hour late.
Now, compare the experience of landing in Newark to landing in Frankfurt, Germany. I was flying Lufthansa (whose in-flight service I highly recommend). The plane was very late, and I was afraid of missing my connection to Poland. But, I shouldn't have worried. As soon as my feet were on the ground, a Lufthansa agent was waiting to meet me at the gate. He shuttled several other passengers and me in a special vehicle just for us. He drove us to passport control, then to the security checkpoint. We made our flight on time, with a few minutes to spare.
That incredible customer service, combined with Frankfurt's congenial security personnel, has guaranteed my lifelong loyalty to Lufthansa.
Simultaneously, as an American citizen, I find it rather pathetic to be treated better in a German airport than in an American one.
On the day Francois Hollande was inaugurated as President of France, his airplane was struck by lightning. At the time, I half-jokingly quipped that "Mother Nature [was] sending an omen about the future of the Eurozone." It turns out, however, that the lightning bolt sent from above was aimed not at the European Union but squarely at Mr. Hollande himself. And just in case a little zap of heavenly electricity wasn't enough to garner his attention, the Fates arranged for somebody to eat Mr. Hollande's camel.
This past week, the celebrity gossip magazine Closer revealed that Mr. Hollande was having an affair with French actress Julie Gayet. Since then, his partner, Valerie Trierweiler -- who is supposedly still the First Lady of France -- has been hospitalized. Mr. Hollande has not denied the accusation, though he has threatened legal action against Closer for allegedly violating France's strict privacy laws. He also said that he was going through a "difficult moment," which apparently is man-speak for "banging another woman." And just to add insult to injury, Ms. Gayet is rumored to be four months pregnant.
French citizens have been unperturbed by the entire fiasco. In a recent poll, 77 percent said that Mr. Hollande deserves privacy. And unlike the American media, the French press largely respects such personal boundaries.
So, the danger here for France is that Mr. Hollande will be distracted and, hence, even less likely to implement the economic reforms his country so badly needs. Currently, France's debt-to-GDP ratio is over 90 percent, the 17th worst in the world according to the CIA. Its punitive and uncompetitive marginal income tax rate, set at 75 percent, may drive away talented soccer players. And Gerard Depardieu -- who recently bid France adieu -- is now a Russian.
Just how bad are things in France? Bad enough that The Economist ran a cover story late in 2012 about how France is a "time-bomb at the heart of Europe." The editorial read:
The business climate in France has also worsened. French firms are burdened by overly rigid labour- and product-market regulation, exceptionally high taxes and the euro zone’s heaviest social charges on payrolls. Not surprisingly, new companies are rare. France has fewer small and medium-sized enterprises, today’s engines of job growth, than Germany, Italy or Britain... Over 10% of the workforce, and over 25% of the young, are jobless... In short, too many of France’s firms are uncompetitive and the country’s bloated government is living beyond its means.
Even worse, the article argues that economic turmoil in France could threaten the survival of the Eurozone itself.
Under such dire circumstances, it is unsurprising that Mr. Hollande's approval rating has crashed. At one point last year, it was a dismal 15 percent. Ironically, perhaps French sympathy over the perceived violation of Mr. Hollande's private life will serve to reverse his sagging fortunes. After you hit rock bottom, there's nowhere to go but up.
"I believe war in Iraq was a mistake."
Eight words, eleven syllables, none of them tough to pronounce. Unless, of course, you're a GOP presidential hopeful.
In a 2007 New Hampshire Republican primary debate the question was put to several GOP hopefuls, "Knowing everything you know right now, was it a mistake for us to invade Iraq?"
Mitt Romney ducked, calling it a "null set." Rudy Giuliani said it was "absolutely the right thing to do" and a necessary component of the war on terror. John McCain played up Saddam Hussein's past use of chemical weapons and affirmed, "We did the right thing." Mike Huckabee reminded the audience that a nebulous "they" are determined "to destroy every last one of us."
Because clearly 19 Iraqis hijacked planes and crashed them into U.S. targets on September 11, 2001.
Ron Paul, "Dr. No," stood alone, reaching for a medical metaphor to say of the surge, "It was a mistake to go, so it's a mistake to stay. If we made the wrong diagnosis, we should change the treatment."
Answers weren't more varied in the next primary go-round. Of the four semiserious players who came out of New Hampshire -- Romney, Paul, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich -- only one was not bellicose on the subject.
Many Republicans criticized President Barack Obama's intervention in Libya and his attempted meddling in Syria. Absent criticism of Iraq, they risk looking like they're only against foolish wars when those wars are proposed by Democrats. Which raises the question: Why should voters care about trading one set of bumblers for another, especially after that other group had proved itself incapable of learning?
Any Republican seeking nomination for the 2016 presidential election should at a minimum be willing to admit Iraq was a mistake. it was an error that cost us upwards of $1.5 trillion, thousands of U.S. lives and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead, while seriously hindering our efforts to track down the real culprits of September 11. (The war, incidentally, helped pave the way for a Nancy Pelosi-controlled House and a Barack Obama-controlled White House, as well.)
Republican pols are afraid to do so because they read American opinion polls. These polls show that either a large plurality or a bare majority of Americans think the war was a mistake. Those numbers would be much higher if Republican voters agreed with the majority. Since they need to win over Republican voters for the nomination, many presidentially-minded pols are reluctant to admit a Republican-sponsored war of choice was the wrong call.
They ought to take the chance and tell the truth. It would help restore the party's credibility with the broad mass of independent voters and with those Democrats sick of the George W. Bush-Barack Obama-Hillary Clinton foreign policy framework. It would also force rank-and-file party regulars to either cease their misguided cheerleading or bury their own heads ever deeper in the sand.
On that score, count me an optimist. My sense is, truth would be a welcome relief in this debate. Republicans as a whole would rather not be weighed down, over a decade later, by a botched and unpopular war.