A little background: in 2014, as we all know, Russia went in and annexed the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The DC Foreign Policy Establishment was sent into an uproar over President Barack Obama’s apparent indifference to such a flagrantly egregious Violation of Ukraine’s Territorial Integrity™.
Obama later sat down for an interview with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg (a typical Beltway neocon who was one of the biggest proponents of the Iraq War back in 2003) and provided his rationale for why it was unwise for the US to escalate militarily with Russia over Ukraine.
You will of course almost immediately detect Obama’s signature lecturey tone in the interview, but he does make some good points that the Beltway Neocon class ought to heed today–although that’s highly unlikely given the fact that the Beltway Neocons were up in arms over Obama’s foreign policy at the time it was being implemented.
“Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp. And he improvised in a way to hang on to his control there,” he said.
“He’s done the exact same thing in Syria, at enormous cost to the well-being of his own country. And the notion that somehow Russia is in a stronger position now, in Syria or in Ukraine, than they were before they invaded Ukraine or before he had to deploy military forces to Syria is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of power in foreign affairs or in the world generally. Real power means you can get what you want without having to exert violence. Russia was much more powerful when Ukraine looked like an independent country but was a kleptocracy that he could pull the strings on.”
Obama’s theory here is simple: Ukraine is a core Russian interest but not an American one, so Russia will always be able to maintain escalatory dominance there.
“The fact is that Ukraine, which is a non-Nato country, is going to be vulnerable to military domination by Russia no matter what we do,” he said.
What he’s saying is that Ukraine and Russia are next-door neighbors, and so there’s no way we can ever hope to indefinitely prevent them from falling under Russian control. Ukraine isn’t a NATO country; they’re never going to be a NATO country–and yet we are treating Ukraine not only as if they are a NATO country, but as if we actually have the capability of protecting them from Russia.
I asked Obama whether his position on Ukraine was realistic or fatalistic.
“It’s realistic,” he said. “But this is an example of where we have to be very clear about what our core interests are and what we are willing to go to war for. And at the end of the day, there’s always going to be some ambiguity.” He then offered up a critique he had heard directed against him, in order to knock it down. “I think that the best argument you can make on the side of those who are critics of my foreign policy is that the president doesn’t exploit ambiguity enough. He doesn’t maybe react in ways that might cause people to think, Wow, this guy might be a little crazy.”
“The ‘crazy Nixon’ approach,” I said: Confuse and frighten your enemies by making them think you’re capable of committing irrational acts.
“But let’s examine the Nixon theory,” he said. “So we dropped more ordnance on Cambodia and Laos than on Europe in World War II, and yet, ultimately, Nixon withdrew, Kissinger went to Paris, and all we left behind was chaos, slaughter, and authoritarian governments that finally, over time, have emerged from that hell. When I go to visit those countries, I’m going to be trying to figure out how we can, today, help them remove bombs that are still blowing off the legs of little kids. In what way did that strategy promote our interests?”
It’s almost as if our Military Industrial Complex has learned nothing from the past 60 years of American foreign policy. Or, alternatively, they know full well all of our nation-building and foreign interventionism is doomed to fail, but they don’t care because it’s so profitable for them.
But what if Putin were threatening to move against, say, Moldova—another vulnerable post-Soviet state? Wouldn’t it be helpful for Putin to believe that Obama might get angry and irrational about that?
“There is no evidence in modern American foreign policy that that’s how people respond. People respond based on what their imperatives are, and if it’s really important to somebody, and it’s not that important to us, they know that, and we know that,” he said. “There are ways to deter, but it requires you to be very clear ahead of time about what is worth going to war for and what is not.
Right. You are fundamentally at a disadvantage if you, a nation not acting based on your own national interest, are facing down an opponent that is acting in their own national interest.
“Now, if there is somebody in this town that would claim that we would consider going to war with Russia over Crimea and eastern Ukraine, they should speak up and be very clear about it. The idea that talking tough or engaging in some military action that is tangential to that particular area is somehow going to influence the decision making of Russia or China is contrary to all the evidence we have seen over the last 50 years.”
My only question now is, where is Obama in the midst of all this today?
Why isn’t he speaking up and reiterating all of this today?