The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia's moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating. It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way. The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive—this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.
Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy’s astute United Nations reporter, spies a gap between Beijing and Moscow on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. “An unassuming, mid-level Chinese diplomat” announced China’s support for the new government in Kiev, saying, “We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, has argued that the new government rose by a coup and is brimming with fascists. Lynch points out that this is hardly the first time such divergences have happened:
In earlier eras, China objected to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was used to justify Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, on the grounds that it constituted unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. China also broke with Russia after it intervened in neighboring Georgia in 2008 and stripped the pro-Western government of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2009, Moscow vetoed a U.N. resolution authorizing the continued presence of nearly 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Georgia, effectively killing off a U.N. effort to monitor Georgia's border with the separatist territory. China abstained from the vote.
An article in Thursday’s New York Times by Peter Baker comes close to encapsulating everything that is wrong with American foreign-policy discourse today. In the words of his title, Baker’s piece summarizes the “Debate Over Who, in U.S., Is to Blame for Ukraine” following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea. According to Baker, many prominent politicians on the right contend that “Moscow’s land grab is President Obama’s fault for pursuing a foreign policy of weakness,” with Senator John McCain calling it “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy.” Meanwhile, on the left, Rachel Maddow argued that the fact that the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 “on a trumped-up false pretext” made it more difficult for Washington to respond to Putin doing the same in Ukraine, a sentiment echoed by her fellow MSNBC host Chris Matthews.
Underlying all of this is one of the most common errors in U.S. commentary on international relations: the casual assumption that everything that happens anywhere in the world is ultimately about America, and that when anything bad happens anywhere, someone in Washington must ultimately be to blame. The story that Baker describes on the right—in which America’s failure to use military force in Syria and elsewhere spurred Putin to invade Crimea—has the benefit of being an easy-to-understand and politically convenient one for those who are opposed to the president. But there is simply no reason to think that it is true.
Seventeen years ago Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an article titled “Sanctioning Madness”. The crux of his argument was:
With a few exceptions, the growing use of economic sanctions to promote foreign policy objectives is deplorable. This is not simply because sanctions are expensive, although they are. Nor is it strictly a matter of whether sanctions "work"; the answer to that question invariably depends on how demanding a task is set for a particular sanction. Rather, the problem with economic sanctions is that they frequently contribute little to American foreign policy goals while being costly and even counterproductive.
Haass was not saying to give up sanctions entirely. But they should not be the go-to tool, reached for habitually and unthinkingly, to address any foreign policy problem under the sun.
The American sanctions habit has not lessened at all during the intervening years, especially on Capitol Hill. Now Congress is getting out its sanctions pen yet again to see what it can do to Russia in response to the Crimean crisis. This may be an even clearer indication of the sanctions addiction than the recent unsuccessful effort to impose more sanctions on Iran, given that the latter move was more of a calculated attempt to sabotage an ongoing negotiation.
Benjamin Netanyahu's tiresome vilification of Iran has taken on the characteristics of a rote obsession that diverges farther and farther from truth, reality, and his own ostensible objective. It is as if—in pursuing his real objective of keeping Iran ostracized, preventing any U.S. agreements with it, and keeping the specter of an Iranian threat permanently overshadowing everything else he'd rather not talk about—he has been reduced to a ritual, repetitive chant of “Iran bad, very bad” and does not care whether or not reflection on what he is saying shows it to make any sense.
Outside of the anti-Americanism that is heard so widely and often, it is hard to think of any other leader or government so dedicated to heaping calumnies unceasingly on another nation, at least one not currently waging war on the heaper's country. Maybe some American Cold Warriors fixated on the Evil Empire came close. Attacks on Iran occupied most of the first half of Netanyahu's speech Tuesday to AIPAC. Haaretz accompanied a transcript of the speech with one of those graphics depicting the frequency with which particular words have been used. For the entire speech Iran was mentioned far more than any word other than Israel.
Maybe the relentlessness of this latest iteration of the chant reflects Netanyahu's frustration over his recent failure to get the U.S. Congress to sabotage the nuclear negotiations with Iran by slapping on new, deal-breaking sanctions. Perhaps he also felt a need to amp up the attacks to bring attention back to the Iranian specter from the crisis in Ukraine.
Over at The New Republic, TNI publisher Dimitri K. Simes blasts the Obama administration's handling of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine:
We are speaking very loudly. We are carrying a small stick....We are acting like King Lear. We are issuing pathetic declarations which nobody is taking seriously. When I saw Secretary Kerry on television yesterday, I think it was a very sad performance. He was visibly angry. He was visibly defensive. He was accusing Russians using very harsh language of violations of international law. His description of the political process in Ukraine which led to this situation was incomplete and disingenuous at best. And then, after he said all of these things, he did not say, “Well, because of the Russians violating international law, threatening international security, that because of that the President of the United States is moving our naval assets in the Black Sea!” With the language he was using, that’s what you would expect him to do.
Simes also analyzes Russia's decision to invade:
The Crimean crisis has energized those who wallow in a conventional wisdom that, as Fareed Zakaria noted last week, had already become a familiar theme on the opinion pages. This is the theme that the United States is in retreat, that it is insufficiently assertive, and that this lack of assertiveness is having awful consequences around the world. The crisis is tailor-made to encourage such wallowing, involving as it does a use of armed forces by the successor to the old Cold War adversary. So no time has been wasted by those who complain that soft U.S. policies have brought things in Ukraine to this juncture and who cry for more U.S. assertiveness in response, including saber-rattling with U.S. armed forces.
Sarah Palin knows what's wrong with President Obama's approach to Ukraine. In a Facebook post, she said that she had predicted that after Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Obama's "moral indecision" would prompt Vladimir Putin to tackle Ukraine next: "Yes, I could see this one from Alaska. I’m usually not one to Told-Ya-So, but I did." The Washington Post editorial page also knows what's wrong.
"Mr. Obama," it says, "has been vague about the consequences of continued Russian aggression." An aggression that is taking place, we are told, in "the center of Europe." It suggests that the most forceful measure Obama could take would be to threaten to...well, to threaten to exclude Russia from our banking system.
It's time to get real. Ukraine may be about to get sundered in half. If it does, the reaction will be consternation but little more because 2014, as Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger writes in an astute column, is not 1914. Nor is the Crimea Danzig. And few in Europe were even prepared to sacrifice themselves in May 1939, the year an article appeared in Paris called, "Who Will Die For Danzig?" Contrary to Senator John McCain, who seems to adopt a new country every few months, we aren't all Ukrainians now. And Crimea is not suddenly at the "center of Europe," no matter what the geographers at the Post are now decreeing.
A sometimes fascinating sideshow to political upheaval has been the sudden opening to public view of material evidence of how those who had been powerful and privileged, but are now fallen, had lived. There was, for example, the shoe collection of Imelda Marcos. Now there is the opulent estate of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, with its classic car collection, golf course, private zoo, and all the rest. Much of our fascination is basically the same as the titillation afforded by glimpses into the lives of our own rich and famous, of whom any compromise of personal privacy is accomplished not by rebellious mobs crashing through gates but only by paparazzi with long-range lenses.
Potentially more substantive revelations, which sometimes accompany the exposure of lavish lifestyles and sometimes don't, come from gate-crashing political action that provides access to troves of documents. One of the best-known instances in modern times, which had nothing to do with lavish living, was the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979. Officials at the embassy did their best to destroy documents as their compound was about to be overrun but were only partly successful. Some documents were seized intact. Others had been put through a shredder but were compromised anyway when Iranians laboriously pieced together the strips of paper. The Iranians published many of both types.
John Judis, whose new book Genesis is critically and soberly reviewed by the eminent historian Bernard Wasserstein in the new National Interest, has been coming under fire from a number of conservative outlets for allegedly displaying hostility toward Israel. He was also disinvited and then reinvited to speak about his work at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York. Now a new and perhaps more unusual denunication has surfaced in the form of a letter to the historian Ron Radosh that has appeared in the neoconservative organ the Washington Beacon. In it, New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier alternately mocks and dismisses his colleague, a vocation he specializes in. Though the letter was sent privately by email, it was clearly intended to go public.