Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Part II. An American Foreign Policy for the New Millennium - Netflix for Everyone

Last week C2 looked at what Vladimir Putin and the Russians wanted out of meddling in the Ukraine, actions he knows will not make him popular with Europeans, whom he likes to trades gas and oil to, and from whom he gets access to the financial markets to keep the nation solvent.  It was about the Russian world view and a strategy for facing the rest of the world as a people.  Like it or not, they have one.  

Are we going to be all in against these
morons with Daddy Issues?

This week, after all the uproar about missing strategies, ISIS be-headings, tweets of another World War and a lack of forceful response to any of it, it's right to ask ourselves what we want of this world as a people.  If we confront Mr. Putin and in particular ISIS, as direct threats to the United States, what should be the outcome – that’s the question we need to ask ourselves in every situation that may call for American power, economic or military.  After 9/11, two foreign wars and an ongoing struggle with Islamic extremists, C2 thinks we still don’t have a consensus on America’s role in the new millennium or what we want as a country from a military action. 

As individuals, we all know what we want: our kids to be respectful, our parents proud, our neighbors jealous, a new car every four or five years…and Netflix for $10 a month.  It’s coming together on a world view that has been a real stickler since Vietnam (I remember it, just barely – my mother cried when it was announced that the war is over, it meant her brother was coming home, and nothing more).  Well, here’s a few thoughts of my own on how and when we should use our military, and what a uniquely American foreign policy should look like if I were King of America:

First, it's very clear Americans are tired of war and the cost of the neo-conservative Pax Americana experiment – in human and financial terms – was too much for the nation to keep absorbing.  What did we accomplish in Iraq?  Did we provide kindling to the Arab spring?  No.  I wouldn’t say the downfall of Saddam Hussein was predictive of something that was bubbling for at least a decade before our invasion.  So, eleven years, 100,000 dead Iraqis, 4500 KIAs, $3 Trillion (and counting) later, and a “JV terrorist group”, ISIS, was able to capture one-third of Iraq and all the military treasure we provided the Iraqi Army to help “build a stable and safe Iraq for all Iraqis”; and knowing we will need to do something about ISIS, what was accomplished? 

Is this what we'll leave in Iraq?
Do we have a responsibility to them?
When that question is asked in front of Iraq and Afghan War vets people are quick to say, “Our military did their job and fought bravely” (keeping the Vietnam homecomings in mind), but never answer quite answer the question, except to say, “Saddam was a bad guy, regardless”, but was he bad enough for what came after “shock an awe”?  A troubling question that I doubt will not be answered fairly until the objectiveness of time informs historians.  So, what do we do now, without an answer?  What do we want to accomplish now if we “follow ISIS to the gates of hell”?  Is it safety and stability in the Middle East?  Let’s get real. It’s the be-headings that moved us, not the deaths of Syrians or Iraqis (although I’m hopeful the needle started to move when the Yazidis were forced to climb that mountain).  That place won’t be safe or stable in my daughter’s lifetime, let alone mine – so what will we accomplish with our direct involvement.  I think Mr. Obama is right and proper to take his time answering that question.  We want to be safe here, by the way, and that’s our dirty little secret.  Anything else will be gravy.

When it came to leading the American people, these guys
knew how to talk us into anything - and sometimes we need to be
talked into doing the right thing. Take note Mr. Obama
On a different level, to wit, this has to be said folks: whether right wing or left wing, we all want our presidents to at least sound strong.  One can manage the Pentagon or even Russian or Chinese expansionism in a Cold War sense.  What one cannot do is manage terror.  You fight it.  Even if one cannot fight it physically for a time, you fight it with the words you choose.  Our presidents need to be president of all Americans – and when we’re at war we are the baddest m***erf***ers on the block – talking soft but carefully using our words, emphasizing that big stick of ours.  That is what the vast majority of Americans want when the wolf is at the door.  Take note, Mr. Obama.

We ARE the baddest m***erf***ers on the block,
but how do we use this power?
Second, the Navy has a great line in their recruitment commercials: “…a force for good”, we want our military to be a force for good.  Saving Yazidi’s or Kurds or   minorities are an easy example of what “a force for good” is what force for good does.  Regime change is not on that list.  Regime changes should be organic to the locals.  If we left out the adventurism of cowboy diplomacy we could even have enough moral authority to stop the occasional massacre in sub-Saharan Africa…wouldn’t that be nice? 

How do we use that power?
If we use our military, it should do as least harm to “small folk” as possible.  Invasions or acts of “shock and awe” have evil results on the indigenous of the area, and I hear little about this fact of life from our outraged punditry.  If we fight ISIS, the model should be Afghanistan – where we use massive force only when needed, and keep a small footprint for the most part.  Let the locals fight it out on the ground when things get intimate.  It cannot be said enough: the invasion of Iraq is not a viable model, so let’s leave “shock and awe” to the dustbin of history.

Putin is a bully and needs to be
confronted, but how?
Dealing with Russia and Vladimir Putin is a different thing.  Is he an existential threat or even an immediate one?  No, but he may be building a Russia that may once again rely on force to further its aspirations rather than frank discussion.  Again, Mr. Obama’s choice of words and tone has done more damage than NATO and EU actions (or lack thereof).  Telegraphing groups and people like ISIS and Putin that any option is off the table is a weakness in itself – we come to the table with one less tool and already conceding something. 

We all know that Americans will not die in Ukraine or for Ukraine (right now at least), but our allies, especially our Eastern European ones, need to know that we honor our treaty commitments and be prepared to commit our young folks to die along with theirs if need be.  Treaties work too.  The threat of bringing the full might and power of the baddest m***erf***ers on the block won the Cold War and is the only thing keeping Mr. Putin from re-establishment of Russian hegemony in Eastern Europe.  We need to strengthen and expand NATO, and expand its role in the world, bringing Europe kicking and swinging into the reality of an America that cannot and will not do everything anymore.

Preventing acts of barbarism is good
for the soul - we can't just watch when we
are ABLE to help.
I’d also like to remind folks that treaties are not only in the interest of smaller nations who need protection from larger aggressors, they provide a stable world for free markets which has always been in our interest – and that goes to the heart of who we are and what we are, people who believe a job is the answer to most issues in the world.  Food, water, shelter – then a new car and Netflix at $10 a month – C2 imagines is the dream of most people around the world, if you think about it.  Just like a large corporation or wealthy person has the responsibility to pay their fair share of taxes because they are the ones who benefit most from stable conditions for economic growth, we, as the baddest m***erf***ers on the block, have a responsibility to help those we work with, or in some cases work for us.  NATO hasn’t done a very bad job of keeping the peace in Europe, expanding it and the way we use it isn’t a bad idea.

Not an American value
This brings me to my last point; America does stand for something and is a product of Western culture and thought.  To dismiss that or try and denigrate it for politically correct reasons is not only wrong and divisive but futile as well.  We continue to change and when appropriate acknowledge a wrong, also incorporating the good of other cultures as times change, but again, this is the foundation on which everything was built on, the good and bad. 

C2 approved of the mini-apology tour that Barack Obama conducted after his first election.  Someone needed to be out there saying America had changed its stance on foreign involvement.  On the other hand, we do stand for democracy as a fundamental value, tolerance of minorities (hey, we try, and that counts for something), and freedom of thought, speech, beliefs, association and movement are vital to the basic good of a society and the individual – it’s not only right, but a responsibility to promote our ideals and values throughout the world in word and action, not as a pushy cowboy nor a patronizing parent, but as good citizen of the world.  That’s not too bad a way to look at our role in the world or history, brief that it may turn out to be.  Thank you for your time. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Part I. Quit Asking, "What Does Putin Want?" - Cold War Solutions for a Cold War Problem

To understand what President Vladimir Putin has in mind in Ukraine is to understand Russian history and psyche.  From a historical perspective, an independent western-oriented - and economically powerful - Ukraine is a frightening thing.  Journey back in time to a little skirmish called Borodino in 1812, which opened the gates of Moscow to Napoleon Bonaparte's army and left the largely wood-crafted ancient capital of the Russian Empire in ashes.  Russians are a famously resilient people and they rebuilt the city, but lost were a thousand years of culture, art and aristocratic money.

Jump forward another century to World War I and an ignominious defeat by the West at the hands of Germany this time.  While the Czars were to blame for bringing an unwarranted conflict to their doorstep, Russia felt the devastation of another invasion, but this time the Communists would do the cleaning up and thankfully end Russian participation before another army entered Moscow.  Russians would face more years of rebuilding, their struggle made harder by the transition to communism and exclusion from the international community and Western capital and markets.

 Finally, let our lens on history focus on yet another invasion from the West, this time just 30 years later by Adolph Hitler, who classified Slavic peoples, and Russians in particular, little better than Jews on his sliding scale of racial superiority.  While we in America grew up with the hilarity of "Hogan's Heroes" and a clean and friendly description of incarceration in a German POW camps, their jokes about the Russian front danced around the reality of Russian soldiers used as slave labor, and withheld any serious allusions to the fact that whole communities along the Russian Front completely decimated for "Lebensraum", territory necessary for the expansion of superior races.  It was ethnic cleansing on a grand scale.

The Warsaw Pact ensure this wouldn't
happen again.
This time the response wasn't simply to rebuild the city of Moscow or any of the other cities besieged by the Nazis, Joseph Stalin and the subsequent leaders of the Soviet Union swore that there would never be another invasion of Russia from the West.  He proceeded to create a buffer zone around the USSR using the expansion of communism as their justification.  The army of occupation was already in the necessary nations along the Eastern Front, all they needed was a local populace to believe there was a higher goal than simple imperialistic designs. Communism was the binding material for the people of Eastern Europe who were tired of war and looking peace and security in any form.  Stalin used the post-World War II mood to achieve the goal of security for Russia, a goal the Romanov Czars never really secured.  The West just looked on choosing a strategy of containment.

With time communism as an ideology failed as an economic system and Soviet power over the East evaporated, and even within the traditional territories of the Russian Empire other ethnic groups wanted their own identities and homelands.  A military, no matter how big or brutal, needs money to upgrade technology and feed it's soldiers, and alliances need a common benefit.  The Warsaw Pact nations outside of the Soviet Union saw no value in it and left when the leadership in Moscow had no stomach left for empire.  Since the West was no longer seen as an enemy, rather an economic savior, even to Russia, the territories inside the former Soviet Union declared independence.

However, the internal economic and political turmoil of transitioning to capitalism was something not experienced in close to a century.  Add the loss of stature in the international community and the independence movements of peoples long thought to be allies of Russia, Belorussians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Chechens, Khazaks, etc.  (whether they use violence or democratic methods to achieve independence) , and one can imagine the average Russian looking to the past for a way forward.   A new Russian identity in the new millennium was born based on Russophilia - a term used by scholars to help define the quixotic nature of the Russian love-hate relationship with the West.  

President Putin symbolizes the stereotypical "strong man" that binds the country/empire together, whether through benevolent acts, appeals to conservative family or religious values, or via police crackdowns or military means, the average Russian views him through this historic and cultural lens - the personification of stability and security at all costs...and he's done everything he can to promote that image.

Vladimir Putin has been informed and molded by this history and has used it effectively to rise to power and retain it after many challenges.  Russians have rejected forms of democracy and it's values time and again for the more established and secure notion of a strong man at the top, willing to sacrifice basic freedoms in search of security.  To a Russian these days, Nikita Khrushchev, Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin are losers.  Any sign of weakness to the West (or even worse, the oriental east) will usually lead to a challenge from a strong man who represents stability.  One may assume the 20th and 21st centuries have been kinder to Russian rulers - none have been assassinated in or out of office, they are simply been replaced, put out to pasture and ignored.  While a modern Russians may aspire to be more than to be a hard working peasant these days, access to basic cable and freedom of the press is not high on their agenda.  When the economy was in turmoil and Russian teens were joining punk rock bands and getting tattoos, the Russian Army was embarrassed by Chechen fighters and Moscow was attacked by separatist terrorists.  That was it for Yeltsin, and democracy for that matter.  Remember, security and stability.

So after all that we can see why Putin is getting high marks, even if Russians knew what he was doing in general, and I have a feeling deep down that they do know, they would likely be very supportive of most of it.  Whether that support would hold through a long recession caused by economic sanctions or more body bags coming home without explanation is the question.  Ukrainian leaders have played this perfect so far, making themselves total victims (which they are), but if there is anything that tarnishes that image, like an attack on ethnic Russians by Ukrainians on a large scale, that will be enough to ruin any chance of extricating ourselves from this situation.

Sanctions can't stop tanks
The answers are not very difficult and the point of no return to the original border has not passed, but it's getting close.  Strength by the West needs to present itself soon, yesterday.  The pitiful reaction to the downing of an airliner with three hundred souls on it didn't help.  Sanctions can help, but geez, we have to almost be on a war-like footing with Russia for them to work as quickly as they need to.  Nelson Mandela was freed and apartheid was ended because of sanctions, so I tire of hearing they don't work.  But that's to change internal behavior, not end a military and territorial standoff.  

Ukraine must be given the arms they need to defend themselves and NATO treaties with Russia concerning the stationing of NATO troops in Eastern Europe must be thrown out or reevaluated in a public way.  Large-
scale movement of ships and troops to the Baltic and Black Sea is also appropriate.  A sovereign nation with EU aspirations has been invaded, and this is totally appropriate. 

Putin will threaten an even shut off oil and gas to Europe, but that won't help him.  I don't believe he or Russians in general are ready for that, and I know his oligarchic billionaires aren't either.  Blasting what is going on into Russia via electronic warfare is also another tool.  Going nuclear isn't even in the thinking of Russians, so let's not go there.  Putin must be able to see his internal power structure threatened by continued escalation, but the end game is not regime change - it is simply to get him to the table in an honest way, if that's possible.  Chaos in Russia for the sake of displacing an annoying and dangerous leader is not in the West's interest right given Russia's large Muslim community and porous borders along their Near Eastern frontier.
A land bridge to the Crimean
Peninsula is possible

It will be hard work, but changing the trajectory of this conflict is becoming more difficult each day.  Without looking at the motives behind Russian aggression we will continue to keep asking the inane question, "What does Putin want?"  I tire of it.  We have too long a history with Russian aggression not to know what is going on Ukraine.  We just need to look to more Cold War-like solutions to the table.  Thank you for your time.