Here at The Feral Yawp we are beginning a new series in which one member kicks a topic off, and the other members join the yawping. Let’s call it “Feral Talk”. The conversation will be started by one member and then others will contribute (note the color coding). If you comment, we will respond in subsequent updates to the post.
So the opening yawp:
America’s bellicosity vs. Russia vis a vis Ukraine has never quite added up for me. First, we have underestimated the foe while also misunderstanding the moral quality of Russia’s aspirations. Second, we have miscalculated our own strategic interests in relation to Moscow.
A hypothetical counterfactual history clarifies the first problem. Let’s pretend that the USA lost the Cold War. As with the Soviet Union, almost overnight the USA implodes. Texas declares independence (you know they want to) and New England opts to join the EU. In an attempt to restructure the economy, the Americans turn to the Russians for economic advise. Following said advise things go poorly and America suffers through a decade of deprivation while the Russian’s do nothing to help. Quite the contrary, the Russians expand the Warsaw Pact, explicitly designed to counter the daunting Americans, to include Texas despite the fact that America is barely making ends meet. Insult is added to humiliation.
How would Americans perceive this situation? How would they look upon their lost lands and loyal Americans who ended up on the wrong side of the border?
Of course, these parallels to Russia’s situation aren’t perfect. The territories Russia lost are far older and more deeply ingrained in the Russian national character. Plus their nationalism isn’t rooted in the principles of the lofty Declaration of Independence (G.K. Chesterton once called America the nation with the soul of a church) but in a cultural, ethnic identity. Anyone can be an American. Not anyone can be a Russian. In that sense, Russia’s sense of loss is more profound.
All of this in mind, the American approach to Russia has meant that we seriously underestimate the foe’s determination and the moral quality of their sensibilities.
The second problem: America does not understand how alliances work. An alliance, by definition, is an arrangement in which two or more countries assist each other in a mutually beneficial fashion. America is the 400lbs gorilla of NATO. In recent years there have been discussions to add both Ukraine and Georgia to NATO. The logic seems to have had something to do with containing Russia. But this begs the question: while Georgia and Ukraine would both certainly benefit immeasurably from a NATO security guarantee, what exactly does NATO and America get from either of these countries? Exactly, pretty much zilch. In fact, it’s less than zilch for the peons entry into the alliance would put us at existential odds with Russia who very much sees a friendly periphery as essential to their security. As Bismarck once put it, “The whole of the Balkans is not worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier.” Likewise, the whole of Ukraine and Georgia is not worth the life of a single boy from Georgia (USA).
Of course, the retort, is that if you give a mouse a cookie, if you give a Hitler a Sudetenland, it will go on to conqueror the world. This comparison is so far beyond absurd it isn’t even worth a response.
Another raw thought: while America switches administrations every 8 years, a regime that has permanence in the long run tends to have a more coherent policy. Putin>any American administration in power.
Yath00m: Ok, Bellewether, you had me somewhat up until the last paragraph. The problem from the American standpoint is that “coherent” policy along the lines of nationalism is inherently a bad thing. Just look at John Kerry’s “throwback” jabs at Russia as a 19th Century power. Very few Americans would back you up in the claim that a monolithic and nationalistic vision can end well globally, globally mind you. Thanks to Cold War policy and more recently Silicon Valley policy, we are pushed to be globally conscious. (Despite the fact that it’s not our damn business) The model American citizen is now expected to have the whole world within their concern. Keep in mind that “we” as Americans are globalists now. We (our foreign policy) will never admit that anything we do internationally is self-serving. Russia has been consistent as of late because of Putin, yes, but there are also issues with that consistency: American issues.
That being said, in the case of Syria specifically, I think Putin can by no means screw things up any worse than the US already has. Russia certainly has closer ties and more history in the area. Russia’s real advantage is that they are inherently pragmatic when it comes to foreign policy, something the US has sorely lacked for a long time. Idealism is not a basis for working well with others: it breeds moral superiority (one of the USA’s painfully present flaws as of late). I can agree with you there, but good luck with most everyone else.
M.B. Drapier: Yat00m hit the nail on the head with his assertion that “We (our foreign policy) will never admit that anything we do internationally is self-serving,” but I’m going to take it one step further. The Russian consistency Yath00m talks about is, in part, the antithesis of American hesitation regarding self-interest. The media clamors about Putin’s motives when it comes to helping his hot-tub buddy, Bashar Al-Assad, and yet nobody seems to care. The international community is not so naive as to believe the U.S. rhetoric on global philanthropy. After Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. intervention can’t be sugar-coated.
Putin and Russia have received outrage from the international community as well, but, after this week’s pitch at the U.N., the consensus abroad seems to be that the ruskies might actually have a legitimate plan for dealing with the Syrian crisis. We’ve gone from a post 9/11 world where the U.S. was seen as the foremost authority on dealing with the Middle-East and terrorism, to skepticism from the international community — maybe other countries are better equipped to deal with these troubles.
The international buddies don’t have blinders on: they know that letting Russia have the reigns on Syria means that the motherland will be profiting from the venture (if not economically, then charismatically). When even Israel is making nice with the ally of its arch nemesis, you know there’s been a shift in the acceptability of Russian intervention. This isn’t Ukraine 2.0 — there will be no international outcry. No matter what Russia ultimately does in Syria, it will never be as disastrous as the $500 million spent by the Pentagon to train 45 fighters.
A couple of thoughts here.
First, yat00m you’re right that I’m raging against the American machine, the American sense of global mission, and therefore at one level I’m engaging in a futile act, but isn’t that we do here at feralyawp? That said I don’t think the global outlook is as much the problem as American idealism, and it’s that factor I think can be tempered and will be tempered by reality (Drapier notes above how that’s happening before our eyes).
First, American idealism can only go so far before it begins to exhaust itself. We are seeing signs of this in Ukraine, Syria, and Iran, to say nothing of the behemoth China. This trend is by no means inevitable, and there is certainly plenty of room for the next President (Republican or Democrat) to cause a great deal of mischief, but the world is not as malleable as Americans seem to think it is nor is America’s power as limitless as it seemingly once was. Lefties blame America for all the evil in the world. Righties praise it for all the good. And both tend to miss the fact that the world and stream of events have a will and logic of their own that even the most stubborn idealist must face. Not that I expect such a person to be persuaded. There are always excuses for why such-in-such harebrained scheme didn’t work. Nevertheless, the idealists fatal conceit is the inability to reconcile their lofty goals with material realities. The ruthless constraints of reality give me some hope that this euphoric stampede through the world may run its course.
Second, while America certainly expanded its strategic scope to the global with the rise of the Cold War (how could it not?) there is a long tradition in America foreign policy of not only idealism, but sensible realism as well. Eisenhower sat down to negotiate with the Soviets. JFK pulled missiles out of Turkey in exchange for Khrushchev removing his missiles from Cuba. LBJ proposed to fund Ho Chi Minh in exchange for peace. Nixon went to China. Ford signed the Helsinki Accords. Carter…well forget Carter. Reagan called the Soviet Union the Empire of Evil and then became friends with Gorbachev.
In all of these instances the presidents in question had an idealized sense of America’s identity and mission in the world. But they also possessed to varying degrees a dose of realism: knowing the gap that exists between what we desire and what is possible. So, while idealism runs deep in America, there is enough of a realist tradition to revive.
Consequently, the problem isn’t so much American globalism as much as the inability to appreciate constraints and, as Drapier notes, being OK with doing something for ourselves without having to dress it up in selfless language. That last bit won’t happen I don’t think. But prediction: the ability to appreciate constraints will.
Yath00m: Well, a great deal has happened in the last few days. Russia undertook its first few sorties of airstrikes in Syria with minimal heads-up, and then Ash Carter (The walking Cialis commercial) went on a media tour complaining about how Russia is not only targeting ISIS but also the Free Syrian Army. He has picked up on Kerry’s ‘wrong side of history lingo’, because apparently Kerry isn’t already humiliating America enough on the global stage. Needless to say that there have been enough sour grapes coming from the DoD upper brass that we should be expecting a few cases of five-dollar-a-bottle-blends before too long. The combination of complaints and inaction from the American front leads me to believe that they are hedging their bets and pivoting.
From the American posturing it looks like they have no problem with Russia stepping in. Honestly I cannot blame them, especially after the most recent US airstrike on a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. There is no, and I mean NO domestic push behind our Syria bungling as of late. I’ll have to take a step back on my claims about the American public being very globally concerned, or at least as gullible as I thought. The reception has been the equivalent of the Beastie Boys trying to get people fired up while performing a concert in a nursing home. No matter how loud the hype-men yell (or bitch), nobody is biting. Obama was a wet noodle in a suit at the UN last week and his response to Russia’s play has been appropriately, well, noodle-ly.
If I were to make a prediction: this is the point at which we see the US stepping back from Syria and magnifying every misstep that Putin makes in the region, despite the fact that Vlad doesn’t give a bowl of borscht whether or not the west decries his assault on Assad’s foes. After all, he’s doing exactly what he said he would do. I’ve heard the term “proxy war” being tossed around a great deal, but I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. It’s more like a Kalashnikov facing off against some sheets of tissue paper, especially since this president, turning gold into the autumnal phase of his presidency, will not want to tarnish his legacy with any major screw-ups during the home stretch. Hold me to it wardogs, there will be a big step back on Syria and a helluvalot of finger-pointing, especially at Putin. This is when we slink away, as though we never stirred up the pot and brought it to a boil in the first place.
As yath00m has pointed out, the Administration is doubling down on their “wrong side of history” mantra while also spinelessly bending to the facts on the ground as Kerry recently declared: “For the last year and a half we have said that Assad has to go but how long, what the modality is… it doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever.” This adjustment wouldn’t be spineless if it wasn’t backed up (heh) with years of advocating regime change as the solution to the woes in Syria. The irony here is that on the one hand Obama calls our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan a mistake and pulls the troops out while on the other hand advocates the same logic for regime change elsewhere (Libya and Syria most notably). The only difference is that Obama has kept these neoconservative-liberal internationalist schemes on the cheap. And yes, I did just conflate those two categories with one caveat (wait for it). What’s frightening is that neither the Republicans or Democrats seem capable of escaping the legacy and logic of Bush II (shameless self-promoting, but it’s relevant!). The flavor difference between the two parties is that the Democrats have taken hook, line, and sinker the mythology of the Arab Spring (check out John Batchelor’s fantastic interview of Stephen Cohen on the John Batchelor Show).
This obsession with the Arab Spring is the only thing that makes much sense of the Americans opposing Russian assistance in Syria. Up until last weeks incursion (and it was a decisive one), the Americans could have their cake and eat it too in Syria (or so it seemed). Backing “moderates” against Assad kept the pro-democracy id satiated, while also bombing ISIS. The Pie-in-the-sky hope: you get rid of Assad and ISIS both while setting up a democratic state in Syria. Sound familiar George W? Nothing like a cold rain of Russian bombs, though, to snap you out of that fantasy land. The visceral and whiny reaction of the WH to Putin’s move makes perfect sense in light of their obsession with the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile Russia is making strategic advances and alliances in the Middle East right under our noes. Putin signed an intelligence sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria. Iraq is frustrated with Obama’s pusillanimous bombing of ISIS that their Prime Minister is seeking closer cooperation with Putin. And then the kicker: Israel has agreed to cooperate with the Russians and share intelligence on the Syrian opposition. The strategic situation in the Middle East is as fluid as ever and Putin is making savvy moves by creating a coalition based on interest (as opposed to ideals) to combat the ISIS freaks. Further, he’s improving his strategic situation by cutting in on America’s traditional dance partners in the region. Who’s playing checkers now?
There are wars and rumors of war a plenty in the current international atmosphere, but I think yath00m is spot on by predicting that Obama and company will continue to slink away and point fingers (my goodness have they been downright pathetic in the blame game. Whatever happened to the “Buck stops here”?). So I doubt America will commit forces to the region, and Putin knows this. He knows that words without force words mean nothing. He knows that force has its limits: it may change the balance of power, but it rarely changes the balance of men’s minds and their convictions. Perhaps more importantly, he knows the importance of being nasty. In the aftermath of the Beslan crises in which Chechen terrorists took a school hostage in 2004, Putin explained what caused the crisis in the words of Joseph Stalin: “We showed ourselves to be weak. And the weak get beaten.” Putin and company preceded to slaughter the terrorists with little concern about collateral damage. Condemned by many, Russia has had no trouble with Chechnya since. It is this sort of nastiness that ISIS gets. The US on the other hand doesn’t do nasty and is ill-suited for the knife fights of the Middle East.
The lesson, if we are to draw one, is that lofty ideals will always get mugged by reality. As yath00m likes to point out, the stars will always kiss the feet.
Yathoom: A few months have passed since our initial discussion about America’s confusion in Ukraine, Syria, and the various standoffs against Russia. I think we owe ourselves a hearty pat on the back to an extent. As we predicted, the US has stepped back from Syria while magnifying the Russian “bungles” in the area. When we bomb hospitals, then we are very sorry and quickly brush it under the rug. When Russia bombs hospitals, then there are cries for charging them with war crimes. The geo-political double-standard remains strong. Bellewether was also right about Russia cutting in on our typical dance partners with the recent information that they are backing the Syrian Kurds against Turkey, a brutal state now shelling them across the Syrian border.
Amusingly, the stuffed shirt also known as Ash Carter recently claimed of Russian intervention: “To the Russians and the Iranians who are not contributing and are actually causing more problems in the region, that’s going to come back and get them . . .” This is the same kind of weak speculation we heard from Carter right after Russia first stepped into this conflict, and the world still waits for consequences of any kind for Russia. Honestly, I think the reason why we have stepped back so much is that we are simply on the wrong side of this conflict. The fact that we are working alongside Turkey, which is waging bloody conflict against the Syrian Kurds is bad enough, but the fact that we are also allowing them to hold us hostage by means of our NATO ties in a standoff with Russia is beyond pathetic. If there is any time to disavow Turkey and re-imagine our approach, then the time is now.
The problem for the Obama administration is that they are in damage control mode. They do not want an equivalent to the Iraq war to be laid on Obama’s shoulders but they also don’t want to be proven wrong, so they sit back and complain loudly. In our hesitance, the Kurds have found a much more reliable ally in Russia, and the Assad regime is making large gains in retaking Aleppo and Syria in general. I don’t think I will predict this outright, but an Assad victory and a brokered autonomous region for the Syrian Kurds is the most stable result, and it would cast Russia as the actual peacemakers in the region. The question remains: when will the outcry at inaction be enough for Obama to risk his precious legacy and revise or double down on his mangled failure of a Syria policy? I’m not sure, but the only actor who seems worried about our atrocious allies Turkey or Saudi Arabia sparking a global conflict is Russia.