The escalating crisis in Ukraine has set off reckless missile-rattling in this country. As Harvard’s Stephen Walt tweeted on March 2: “Public discourse on #Ukraine situation hitting new hghts in hyperbole. (‘New Cold War, WW III,’ etc.) Rhetorical overkill not helpful.” He may have been thinking of neocon Charles Krauthammer, who in his Washington Post column called for the United States to ante up $15 billion for Ukraine and send a naval flotilla to the Black Sea. The same paper headlined that the crisis “tests Obama’s focus on diplomacy over military force,” quoting Andrew Kuchins of the Center for Strategic and International Studies decrying President Obama’s “taking the stick option off the table.”
The Obama administration has responded to the crisis by flexing its own rhetorical muscles. When Russian President Vladimir Putin ignored Obama’s warning that “there will be costs” if Russia sent troops into Crimea, Secretary of State John Kerry denounced the “brazen act of aggression,” vowing that “Russia is going to lose, the Russian people are going to lose” and suggesting “asset freezes…isolation with respect to trade and investment,” while promising “economic assistance of the major sort” for whatever government emerges in Kiev.
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US foreign policy needs a strong dose of realism and common sense. It’s absurd to scold Obama for “taking the stick option off the table”: the unavoidable fact is that the United States has no stick in relation to Ukraine. Americans have no desire and no reason to go to war with Russia over Crimea, and the EU and the United States are not about to supplant Russia’s economic influence in Ukraine. Washington is not going to provide the aid, the trade or the subsidized energy Ukraine needs, and the EU—which is still mired in its own deep economic crisis—doesn’t have the means to offer Ukraine much beyond painful austerity. Its new government is not elected, not legitimate and not at all settled. The international community should be pushing hard for compromise before this fragile and bitterly divided country breaks apart.
Frustrated cold warriors filling armchairs in Washington’s outdated “strategic” think tanks will continue to howl at the moon, but US policy should be run by the sober. The president should work with the EU and Russia to preserve Ukraine’s territorial unity, support free elections and allow Ukraine to be part of both the EU and the Russian customs union, while pledging that NATO will not extend itself into Ukraine. It is time to reduce tensions, not draw red lines, flex rhetorical muscles and fan the flames of folly.
There are some days that I wake up just feeling contrary. Today is one of those days.
It often happens after I clue in to the conventional wisdom that seems to suddenly be everywhere in Washington.
The new line on Russia's actions in Crimea can be summed up by this question from David Gregory on Sunday's "Meet the Press" programme speaking to an Obama administration official:
Gregory: "Let me talk about the crisis in Ukraine. Since this started the president and his top officials have issued it seems like line after line and Putin seems to have crossed them all? Why does the president and the United States generally have so little influence over this?"
First of all, I can't remember any lines the president has issued. I'm pretty sure after what happened with a potential Syria intervention, he's banned from even mentioning the colour red.
What the president has done is ask the Russians to talk, say it's a violation of international law and warn that the Russians would be isolated internationally.
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I am not writing any of this to cast judgement on what Russia has done. That is not for me to say as a journalist in Washington, DC. I do think it is my job here to point out some of the hypocrisy in this town. When US commentators talk about the importance of sovereignty and territorial integrity, perhaps Yemen and Pakistan should come up in the next sentence.
When people talk about a weak president, perhaps the next step shouldn't be to look at his personality, but the position of the country.
The US has been at war since 2001, it is $17 trillion in debt and its economy seems to be growing only for the very rich. Americans didn't want war with Syria; do you really think they are in the mood to take on Russia?
These commentators and politicians would probably respond by saying they aren't talking about going to war. That's true, but they do seem to be saying the president should be able to prevent one with a stern glance and a strong warning.
Just like the author of the article, I sometimes feel that those who huff and puff about forcing Russia to back down over Ukraine need to realize that power is sometimes relative and does not solve all problems regardless of our wishes; unless we are prepared for an all out war, possibly including nuclear war.