News of America’s misadventures in foreign policy and defense.
Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, still in recovery, has become a political football to be kicked around by just about everyone, including Hillary Clinton—who is using Bergdahl’s release to distinguish herself, just ever so slightly, from President Obama. In her book, whose release this week will dominate the airways and news media, and in an interview tonight with Diane Sawyer, Clinton finesses the fact that she originally opposed making a deal with the Taliban for Bergdahl, a decision she portrays as one of the “hard choices” she had to make. Though now she’s defending Obama over the Bergdahl decision, she stressed to ABC’s Sawyer that there were “competing interests and values” involved in the decision. It’s a waffle typical of Clinton, who tries simultaneously to pander to hawks while placating the liberal base of the Democratic party.
Here’s the bottom line: if Bergdahl did desert, or leave his post without permission, then bully for him. If only more American troops had deserted that war, or refused to serve, or simply stopped enlisting in the “volunteer army.” Perhaps Bergdahl was simply shell-shocked, or suffering from PTSD. Perhaps he had just had enough. Perhaps he did indeed intend to seek out the Taliban in his own version of peace talks. Perhaps he, himself, can’t really explain why did it, although—as reported here last week—the evidence reported two years ago in Rolling Stone suggests that he had thoroughly been alienated by the war and by the conduct of American forces. If any of that is true, than the Republicans ought not wish to out Bergdahl on trial. Because he, and his lawyers, could turn such a trial into a broader inquiry into the insanity of a war that has lasted thirteen years, and which appears will continue through 2016 at least.
The say-anything conservatives and Republicans—many of whom slammed Obama for years for not doing more to get Bergdahl released, only to say now, like Charles Krauthammer, that Bergdahl is a deserter and a traitor—aren’t daunted by the fact that Bergdahl has described his years in captivity in stark terms. After twice trying to escape, he was put in a cage, and tortured. But that hasn’t stopped Senator Saxby Chambliss, the Georgia Republican, from saying that he doesn’t necessarily believe Bergdahl’s account:
I think there are going to be a lot of things that Bergdahl tells the Army and the medical folks that he’s talking to now that is going to be very difficult to validate.… That’s not to say they’re not absolutely true, but we weren’t there.… We have nobody who was on the inside. So we don’t know exactly what happened in his life over the last several years, except we do know he was captured and he’s been in the Taliban’s hands.
Yesterday, appearing on ABC’s This Week, the leader of the House intelligence committee raised what appears, at first, to be a legitimate point about the negotiations to free Bergdahl. His release, said Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican who heads the House intelligence committee, was initially designed as part of a broader set of talks to make a deal with the Taliban. (Let’s leave aside Rogers’s comment that the White House “made a serious, serious geopolitical mistake,” adding, “We’ve empowered the Taliban”—who, of course, have a lot of muscle and don’t need any empowering by the United States.) Rogers, along with Dianne Feinstein, the Democratic chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, reports the New York Times, “argued that in 2011 the discussion of releasing Sergeant Bergdahl was couched as a ‘confidence-building measure’ to allow a broader reconciliation with the Taliban.” Though efforts were made to strike such a deal, the talks eventually went nowhere. Said Feinstein, according to the Times:
If you release them upfront, there would be no reconciliation; if you release them after progress or at the end and had the agreement to do so, that you might get a reconciliation agreement. And that, subsequently, apparently, fell apart.
But that’s all mixing apples with figs. As both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have pointed out repeatedly, and as even Hillary Clinton acknowledges, getting Bergdahl released was a good thing, in itself, whether or not it led to or helped engineer a reconciliation with the Taliban. On the other hand, it’s fair to question whether or not the Obama administration has done everything it could to negotiate a deal with the Taliban. For years, and especially since Obama took office in 2009, it’s clear that the only way out of Afghanistan that could result in a relatively stable political arrangement was to rebalance the Afghan government, bring the Taliban in, set up some sort of federal system giving the southern, Pashtun areas a measure of autonomy, and—above all—getting Pakistan, India, Iran and others in the region to buy in to the new set-up. Despite efforts along those lines, beginning with Richard Holbrooke’s work years ago, the administration never really invested appropriate energy in that direction.
For the Republicans who are accusing the Obama administration now of mismanaging the Bergdahl release, however, the real issue isn’t whether or not Washington was working hard enough to make a deal with the Taliban; indeed, had such a deal been reached, most Republican would probably have condemned it as appeasement or worse.
Meanwhile, in a sign of how despicable some anti-Obama people can be, the FBI is now investigating threats made against Bergdahl’s parents—threats that may have been made made by people angered by charges, whether spurious or not, that American troops were killed while conducting searches for Bergdahl.
The controversy will continue all week, during briefings by US intelligence and other officials on Capitol Hill and when Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies on Wednesday before what is sure to be a raucous and hostile House Armed Services Committee.
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There are mixed signals aplenty between the United States and Russia, but it appears that various Western European leaders are doing their part to bring President Obama and President Vladimir Putin together and to avoid, at least, the worst possible outcome in the Ukraine crisis. Perhaps the best hope for finally ending the crisis will come when Putin realizes that his overreaching on Ukraine has had the unfortunate byproduct of strengthening and reinvigorating NATO, giving the United States new ammunition to demand that the Europeans increase their military spending. President Obama’s new talk of putting additional NATO troops in Eastern Europe—already rejected by Slovakia and the Czech Republic—and creating a $1 billion fund for military reinforcement in the region, is not a good sign for Europe and for future US-Russian relations.
Still, despite ongoing, Russian-inspired violence in eastern Ukraine, there are many hopeful signs. By and large, both the United States and Europe have resigned themselves to Russia’s land grab in Crimea, which is pretty much a done deal—and therefore, mostly, off the table as a point of contention. Putin, despite grumbles, has pretty much acknowledged that Petro Poroshenko will be Ukraine’s new leader, and by and large he’s accepted the results of the election that put Poroshenko into power, agreeing to send a top envoy to Poroshenko’s inauguration. In addition, the Russians have withdrawn some, but not all, of the forces they’d arrayed along Ukraine’s borders, easing tensions. And, not only did Poroshenko and Putin meet on the sidelines of the Normandy anniversary events, but Obama and Putin managed a short interchange, too, despite Obama’s rather churlish refusal to meet Putin formally. (Putin did, of course, have formal meetings with the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.)
Russia’s RT, a Putin propaganda outlet, reported on the Putin-Poroshenko meeting:
Both leaders “have spoken for a prompt end to bloodshed in southeast Ukraine as well as for an end to military actions from both sides—from the side of the Ukrainian armed forces and the supporters of federalization of Ukraine,” said Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov.
And Peskov also gave this account of the brief meeting between Obama and Putin:
Despite that there was no separate meeting [scheduled], the leaders of the two states had an opportunity to share their views on the situation in Ukraine as well as on crisis in the east of the country. Putin and Obama have spoken for the necessity to reduce violence and military actions.
The Washington Post, which has its own propaganda value but which is closer to actual journalism than RT, reported that “the United States, Russia and Ukraine took small steps to ease tensions.” Earlier, before Obama and Putin talked briefly, the Post reported on the G-7 meeting by saying in its lead that “President Obama and other leaders meeting here offered an olive branch to Russian President Vladimir Putin,” and adding, “It was clear that the international big chill imposed on Moscow over its actions in Ukraine is starting to thaw.” But is it? Despite recent, apparently conciliatory actions by Putin, very, very serious problems remain.
The chance that a shooting war might erupt over Ukraine are virtually nil, and despite the resistance of some pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, it’s likely that Poroshenko and Putin will agree to resolve the conflict without civil war or permanent division of the country. The leaders of Western Europe—and Europe’s Big Business—clearly don’t want the Ukraine crisis to interfere with business as usual. Despite pressure from the United States, France is going ahead with a $1.6 billion contract to sell advanced helicopter carriers to Russia. And both German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose business community is deeply engaged with Russia, and Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron—whose London serves as home away from home for many Russian billionaires—have been making efforts to ease the crisis. President François Hollande managed to engineer two separate dinners last night, one with Obama and another one with Putin. As The New York Times reported:
Earlier on Thursday, Mr. Hollande joined Mr. Obama, along with the leaders of five other major powers, in condemning Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea. But France, like other European nations, has economic reasons to maintain cordial relations with Russia. Despite explicit opposition from the United States, France remains on track to deliver two advanced warships to Russia in the coming years.
But Obama didn’t do much to help ease the crisis by setting what appeared to be a vague, four-week deadline for Putin to resolve the crisis. Though Obama didn’t specify exactly what steps Putin has to take, and although resolving the standoff may take many weeks or months, Obama warned that Russia may face new, tougher sanctions soon.Said Obama:
Russia continues to have a responsibility to convince them to end their violence, lay down their weapons and enter into a dialogue with the Ukrainian government.… On the other hand, if Russia’s provocations continue, it’s clear from our discussions here that the G-7 nations are ready to impose additional costs on Russia.… We will have a chance to see what Mr. Putin does over the next two, three, four weeks, and if he remains on the current course, then we’ve already indicated what kinds of actions that we’re prepared to take.
Despite Obama’s missteps, however, things could be a lot worse. Obama didn’t really set a deadline for anything, since he didn’t say what has to happen in “the next two, three, four weeks,” and in any case it will be difficult to impossible to get Western Europe to impose harsh economic sanctions on Russia. (Russia, after all, isn’t North Korea or Iran.) And so far at least Obama has resisted pleas from American hawks and from the government of Ukraine to supply Kiev with military aid. During his meeting with Poroshenko, Obama did the least possible, given the political circumstances surrounding their much-anticipated meeting, agreeing to provide Ukraine a piddling $5 million worth of “night-vision goggles” and other “nonlethal equipment.” It would appear, from all indications, that Obama is trying not to inflame the situation, whose resolution depends now on whether Putin and Poroshenko, the latter backed by the United States and Europe, can arrive at some amicable way to forget about Crimea and to set up a limited version of autonomy in Ukraine’s east.
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One question about the controversy over the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in exchange for five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo is: If it’s clear that various GOP hawks, including the irrepressible and irresponsible John McCain, will go all out to use the story to paint President Obama as an appeaser, a negotiator-with-terrorists, and worse, then will former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton join them? Because back when she was secretary of state, Clinton opposed the exchange for Bergdahl, and on the same grounds that Republicans are blasting the deal now.
Fact is, talking to the Taliban—indeed, negotiating with them, freeing some prisoners and perhaps offering them some power in a rebalanced government of Afghanistan—is the smartest strategy for making sure that Afghanistan can be stabilized by 2016. And if the Bergdahl deal leads to that outcome, then it will have been a very, very smart thing. In the meantime, if Bergdahl—assuming that he isn’t permanently traumatized by his years of captivity—speaks out about the craziness and illegitimacy of the war since 2001, then he might become a hero to and spokesman for the antiwar forces in the United States.
Already, the nonsensical furor over Bergdahl’s release, after five years of being held as a prisoner by the Taliban in Pakistan, has done the impossible: it’s eclipsed another nonsensical non-scandal, the one over Benghazi. And if the Benghazi flap is designed to undermine Clinton’s presidential posture, the Bergdahl flap may boost her image—even though Clinton has now come out defending the deal that she opposed, privately, to support it publicly.
The best place to start in understanding the Bergdahl story—and, after all, both he and the efforts to free him have been in the news for half a decade—is with Michael Hastings’ brilliant piece in Rolling Stone back in July 2012. (Disclosure: I knew Hastings, who died tragically in a car accident, and we both wrote for Rolling Stone about Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s insurrection against the White House. It was Hastings’s piece, of course, that brought McChrystal down.) As Hastings makes clear—in a piece called “America’s Last Prisoner of War”—Bergdahl was a questioning, home-schooled Idahoan who joined the army and went to Afghanistan because he thought he’d be doing good, but when he arrived he was quickly disillusioned by the brutality he witnessed, by the sheer incompetence and witlessness that he experienced by American officers and others.
Once Bergdahl gets home, gets treatment and counseling, and recovers from his harrowing captivity, we may learn more about him and about his story. Clearly, he hears the beat of a different drummer—and what he expected or hoped to accomplish by walking off base in 2009 into the hands of the Taliban—who apparently captured him while he was defecating—isn’t known, exactly. Whether he was simply a quirky loner who snapped, or whether he was carrying out some sort of protest aimed at bringing home the insanity of the Afghan war, or something else, isn’t clear. But, in emails to his family, quoted in the Rolling Stone article, Bergdahl fairly explicity denounces the war and America’s military. In one, worth quoting at length (edited slightly for grammar), he wrote:
The future is too good to waste on lies. And life is way too short to care for the damnation of others, as well as to spend it helping fools with their ideas that are wrong. I have seen their ideas and I am ashamed to even be American. The horror of the self-righteous arrogance that they thrive in. It is all revolting.… In the US army you are cut down for being honest… but if you are a conceited brown nosing shit bag you will be allowed to do what ever you want, and you will be handed your higher rank…. The system is wrong. I am ashamed to be an American. And the title of US soldier is just the lie of fools.… The US army is the biggest joke the world has to laugh at. It is the army of liars, backstabbers, fools, and bullies. The few good SGTs are getting out as soon as they can, and they are telling us privates to do the same.…
I am sorry for everything here.… These people need help, yet what they get is the most conceited country in the world telling them that they are nothing and that they are stupid, that they have no idea how to live.… We don’t even care when we hear each other talk about running their children down in the dirt streets with our armored trucks…. We make fun of them in front of their faces, and laugh at them for not understanding we are insulting them.
Indeed, from the start Berghdal told family and fellow soldiers that he might just walk off into the mountains one day. And so he did.
That Bergdahl was apparently a disillusioned, angry soldier who had come to believe that the war was crazy didn’t dissuade President Obama and the White House from seeking to arrange his release before the American force draws down to a small presence next year and disappears entirely in 2016—nor has it endeared Bergdahl to some in the military command, the Pentagon and Congress. The controversy over whether to trade prisoners to win his release has raged from the start. Indeed, in one hilarious passage in Hastings’ piece, he recounts how McCain, fuming at the idea of letting the five Taliban officials go, said: “They’re the five biggest murderers in world history!” To which then-Senator John Kerry replied, incredulously: “John, the five biggest murderers in the world?”
Now, partly spurred by claims from some in the armed forces that several US troops died seeking to find and perhaps free Bergdahl, McCain is feigning outrage—even though it appears that in the end McCain ended up, privately, supporting the idea of trading for the release. Now, though McCain said of the deal, “It’s done,” he called it “ill-founded,” a “mistake,” and “unacceptable,” adding that those released are killers and the “hardest of the hard-core,” a charge that has been at least disputed.
In the most extreme case, as Hastings reported, some hawks urged the Taliban to dispense with Bergdahl:
Ralph Peters, an action-thriller writer who serves as a “strategic analyst” for Fox News, took to the air to condemn Bowe as an “apparent deserter.” The Taliban, he declared, could save the United States on “legal bills” by executing him.
Obama, to his credit, isn’t waffling. Of the deal, he said:
[We have a] pretty sacred rule and that is we don’t leave our men or women in uniform behind and that dates back to the earliest days.… Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.
Still, The New York Times portrays the White House as “on the defensive” about the Bergdahl story, thanks to the fury unleashed by Republicans and conservative radio and TV blabbers.
The Washington Post, in its behind-the-scenes account of the internal debate over the swap, notes that in the White House the idea of a deal was explicitly linked to the notion of encouraging reconciliation with the Taliban—and that Hillary Clinton was against it:
During the same debate, officials were considering the emerging prisoner-exchange proposal. White House advisers believed that a successful exchange would not only free Bergdahl but would also encourage moderate Taliban members to take an Afghan-led reconciliation process seriously.
But Panetta and other officials—including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr.—opposed the terms of the proposed prisoner exchange, according to the official.
Clinton replied in writing to the written concerns of lawmakers in between the various meetings, according to House aides. The contents of her responses were deemed classified and were not available for review by reporters, the aides said Tuesday. Clinton, now considering a run for president in 2016, on Tuesday publicly endorsed the deal to free Bergdahl that the official said she once privately opposed.
Let’s hope that as Clinton does her nonstop book tour after the release next week of Hard Choices, she’ll be grilled on exactly that flip-flop.
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Now that Ukraine’s presidential election is over, and as preparations are made in Kiev for swearing in the newest billionaire wheeler-dealer to run that country on June 7, President Obama and America’s allies in Western Europe need to eschew triumphalism and get serious about making a deal to stabilize Ukraine. A symbolic chance to kick-start that effort will happen in France later this week, when Obama will have what is likely to be an awkward encounter with autocratic and self-aggrandizing President Vladimir Putin of Russia during ceremonies marking the anniversary of D-Day, 1944.
Unfortunately, and despite Obama’s stirring speech last week in which he repeatedly declared his reluctance to use military options in dealing with political problems abroad, before the Obama-Putin encounter this week—and it’s just, so far, an “encounter,” because no formal meeting is planned—it looks like Obama will use his visit to Poland as an opportunity to talk about NATO, about strengthening America’s security commitment in eastern Europe and about insisting that Europe take a hard line on Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal, reporting in advance of Obama’s trip, says that Obama is “concerned international pressure on Russia may ease in the wake of a successful election in Ukraine,” and so he “will use a visit to Europe this week to urge U.S. allies to maintain a hard line against Moscow.” The Journal quotes a White House official thus:
What we don’t want is for everybody to exhale, “the election went well, now we’re all done.”
Well, no, we’re not all done. There’s still dangerous fighting going on in parts of eastern Ukraine that border Russia, including a report on Monday of a 500-person assault on a border post by pro-Russian (i.e., mostly Russian) forces. But Russia has signaled that it’s ready to talk turkey with Petro Poroshenko and the new government in Kiev, and Russian troops have moved away from the border, easing tensions. So, you’d think that Obama would use the opportunity presented by a trip to Poland—a country, by the way, with deeply ingrained anti-Russian instincts and close ties to western Ukraine, parts of which used to be “Poland”—to launch a major initiative to ease the crisis. During the trip, Obama will meet Poroshenko. Maybe Obama will announce steps to reignite diplomatic efforts over Ukraine, but it’s not looking good.
Instead, it seems that it will all about projecting American strength into the region. Reports The Wall Street Journal:
In a speech in Warsaw on Wednesday, he is set to reaffirm U.S. commitment to defending the region’s security during the 25th anniversary celebrations of Poland’s first free, post-Communist elections, White House officials said. Upon arriving in Poland, the president is set to visit an airport hangar in Warsaw with American and Polish pilots. The visit is intended to underscore the increased joint air training missions in the wake of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
If it’s only hand-holding the nervous Poles—and, after all, Russia isn’t about to threaten Poland!—then fine. But the emerging Obama Doctrine, if there is one to be discerned, seems focused on building alliances—including military ones—with “partners” overseas. In Europe, that means NATO. In Asia, it means the countries surrounding China. And in the Middle East, it means not just Israel and Saudi Arabia but anti-terrorist units in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Jordan that will be bolstered by the $5 billion anti-terrorism fund Obama has proposed.
Writing an op-ed for The New York Times, Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that the United States ought now to focus on resolving the Ukrainian crisis, not making it worse by “pushing ahead with Ukraine’s rapid institutional integration into the West.” Instead, he says:
The Ukrainian government and its Western partners need to focus on three priorities that would do far more to stabilize and unite Ukraine than the recent presidential poll: an end to the “anti-terrorist operation” and a good-faith attempt at a negotiated settlement with separatists in the east; formation of a more inclusive government; and constitutional reform that decentralizes power.
To be fair to President Obama, he’s hardly been sounding the triumphal trumpet over Ukraine, so far at least, and he’s intelligently resisted calls from hawks—and from the Ukrainian government, including its president-elect!—for arms and military support from the United States. (And from Ted Cruz, that august statesman, who just visited Kiev and said, “One thing I took away from the Ukrainian leaders is that the military lacks basic equipment, such as armor, communication tools and night-vision goggles.”) But what Europe needs most of all, when it comes to American leadership on Ukraine, is not reassurances of America’s commitment to the Atlantic Alliance but some well-crafted strategy for making the Ukraine problem go away.
The right argument is one of “strategic patience.” In the long run, just as in the Cold War, the sheer power of the Euro-American economic juggernaut, in comparison to Russia’s extraction-and-export based economy, will eventually pull Ukraine into the West’s orbit. There’s no need to force the issue, or to exacerbate Ukrainian divisions over it. And Russia’s rump Asian economic alliance, with that Kazakhstan powerhouse, hardly constitutes an alternative center of gravity for Ukrainians with a sense of their own self-interest. Plus, the iron, steel and coal industries of the Donets Basin region are, by all accounts, decrepit and inefficient.
It isn’t known whether Putin, who’s made it clear that he’s willing to use force and subterfuge to destabilize Ukraine, has figured out that in the long run Ukraine will go its own way. (In an increasingly leveled, multi-polar world, that doesn’t necessarily mean in America’s direction. Europe itself is finding its own identity, as Poland has figured out.) But whatever direction it is, it’s not worth fighting over.
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The scary fascists who, according to Russia, have taken over Ukraine since the “coup d’état” and ousted the former president didn’t do too well. Who did do well were the actual scary fascists in Western Europe who were supported by, well, Russia.
According to one report:
The supposed reservoirs of reactionary thinking in Western Ukraine generated an embarrassing 1 percent of the vote for Oleh Tyagnibok of ultra-nationalist Svoboda Party and less than 1 percent for Dmitry Yarosh of the new Right Sector party that sprung up during the protests. A story run by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency notes that Tyagnibok and Yarosh together received fewer votes than Vadim Rabinovich, a Jewish candidate who captured a little over 2 percent of the ballots.
There’s no doubt that Svoboda and Right Sector are bad actors. But the overweening propaganda from Moscow claiming that Kiev is being ruled by “fascists” is now proved to be ridiculous. (Not that Moscow’s propaganda since the Ukraine crisis erupted has been anything but ridiculous, starting with its claims that it wasn’t invading Crimea and its claims that it isn’t secretly behind the eruption of ersatz “people’s republics” in Eastern Ukraine’s Donets Basin region.)
Meanwhile, the elections for the European Parliament—admittedly, a weak institution—reflect a troubling shift toward right-wing, fascist-leaning and ultra-nationalist politics in several European countries, including France and Great Britain. While some left-leaning parties did well, too, the biggest gains were made by parties such as the UK Independence Party, France’s National Front and a pair of far-right Greek parties. As I wrote in this space on May 21, Russia has formed an anti-EU alliance of convenience with many of these self-same fascist parties in Europe.
Timothy Snyder, writing in The New York Review of Books, pointed out last March that the Russians, so quick to denounce fascism and anti-Semitism in Ukraine, are themselves among the worst offenders:
The point man for Eurasian and Ukrainian policy in the Kremlin is Sergei Glazyev, an economist who like Dugin tends to combine radical nationalism with nostalgia for Bolshevism. He was a member of the Communist Party and a Communist deputy in the Russian parliament before cofounding a far-right party called Rodina, or Motherland. In 2005 some of its deputies signed a petition to the Russian prosecutor general asking that all Jewish organizations be banned from Russia.
Later that year Motherland was banned from taking part in further elections after complaints that its advertisements incited racial hatred. The most notorious showed dark-skinned people eating watermelon and throwing the rinds to the ground, then called for Russians to clean up their cities. Glazyev’s book Genocide: Russia and the New World Order claims that the sinister forces of the “new world order” conspired against Russia in the 1990s to bring about economic policies that amounted to “genocide.” This book was published in English by Lyndon LaRouche’s magazine Executive Intelligence Review with a preface by LaRouche. Today Executive Intelligence Review echoes Kremlin propaganda, spreading the word in English that Ukrainian protesters have carried out a Nazi coup and started a civil war.
The populist media campaign for the Eurasian Union is now in the hands of Dmitry Kiselyov, the host of the most important talk show in Russia, and since December also the director of the state-run Russian media conglomerate designed to form national public opinion. Best known for saying that gays who die in car accidents should have their hearts cut from their bodies and incinerated, Kiselyov has taken Putin’s campaign against gay rights and transformed it into a weapon against European integration. Thus when the then German foreign minister, who is gay, visited Kiev in December and met with Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight champion and opposition politician, Kiselyov dismissed Klitschko as a gay icon. According to the Russian foreign minister, the exploitation of sexual politics is now to be an open weapon in the struggle against the “decadence” of the European Union.
Indeed, under Vladimir Putin Russia is gradually becoming a heartland-of-Asia power whose leaders encourage anti-Semitism, ultra-Orthodox religious nationalism, virulent anti-gay propaganda and more.
Meanwhile, in the so-called people’s republics of Ukraine’s east, there’s trouble. There are factional clashes between what appear to be local militiamen and more organized forces tied directly to Russia’s special forces. As The New York Times reported:
Increasingly, a cadre of commanders with Russian citizenship like Mr. [Alexander] Borodai and a shadowy military commander named Igor Strelkov seem to be seizing control of the often rudderless rebellion as clashes with the Ukrainian Army intensify….
New questions had surfaced on Tuesday, when local officials revealed that a large share of rebels killed in intense fighting with the Ukrainian military on Monday were Russian citizens.
On Thursday, commanders of the separatist forces said they planned to repatriate the bodies of 33 Russians from brigades that were organized in border cities on Russian territory and then traveled to Donetsk. Thirty-three coffins would be trucked to the border on Thursday, a member of the rebel force said.
Yet even as the coffins were being prepared for transport, dozens of camouflaged rebels from the Vostok Battalion, which many of the Russians had joined, were breaking down doors in the rebel headquarters, where the leadership of the fledgling republic sat.
It’s clear that when Russian leaders, such as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, say that Ukraine is involved in a “civil war,” he means a civil war that is being deliberately stoked by Russia. Still, it’s good news that leaders of Russia and Ukraine may meet soon to talk about resolving the crisis, and talks are underway about resolving disputes over Russia’s supply of gas to Ukraine. And it appears that a significant number of Russian forces that had been massed on the Ukrainian border are being withdrawn, according to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel.
Now that Russia has tentatively welcomed the election of Petro Poroshenko, the new Ukrainian leader has a tricky path ahead. Weakening and disarming the mobs that have taken over several cities in eastern Ukraine without inflaming the situation by heavy-handed tactics and overuse of force will not be easy. Meanwhile, President Obama, who’s maintained a hands-off attitude and rejected calls from US hawks and Ukrainian officials to supply arms to Kiev, needs to stand fast.
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Already the right-wing and hawkish critics are shrieking, and the centrist and right-leaning pundits on CNN are saying that the president didn’t try to answer his neoconservative opponents, but President Obama’s speech to West Point graduates was a powerful defense of the notion that war is not the answer.
In his five years in office, Obama hasn’t always lived by those words, needless to say—having twice escalated the war in Afghanistan before winding it down, having stepped up a worldwide war by drones against terrorists and wrongdoers, and having engaged in an undeclared war in Libya. (In the comments section, feel free to add other examples.) But in the main, Obama firmly and repeatedly declared that American military power should not be the solution to each and every problem. Indeed, the president even slammed interventionists on the “left,” which may or may not have been a knock against the liberal interventionists who inhabit the misguided world of the “responsibility-to-protect” doctrine.
The glaring hole in Obama’s speech was his continued defense of America’s drone wars: “When we have actionable intelligence, that’s what we do.” But throughout his speech, Obama said, again and again, that he will use force—that is, troops and planes and ships—only as a very last resort. It is, indeed, refreshing to hear that from the commander in chief, especially in the face of continuing pressure from hawks, neoconservatives and pro-military flag wavers for the president to get tough in Syria, Ukraine, the South China Sea and Afghanistan.
Trying to distinguish himself from “self-described realists” who say that crises in Syria, Ukraine and Africa “are not ours to solve,” Obama added that he also differs with “interventionists on the left and right” who say that the United States’ “willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos.” He added:
But to say that we have an interest in pursuing peace and freedom beyond our borders is not to say that every problem has a military solution. Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint, but from our willingness to rush into military adventures—without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans. As General Eisenhower, someone with hard-earned knowledge on this subject, said at this ceremony in 1947: “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”
After saying that he is “haunted” by the deaths and injuries suffered by the men and women that he’s sent into combats, Obama said:
I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.
Perhaps the best line of the speech—are you listening, John McCain?—was this one: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.”
Obama asserted that he’s ready to use force when allies are on board, in the context of United Nations support, and under the umbrella of international law—and, although the drone strikes don’t abide those rules, Obama appears to be making an exception for drone attacks as opposed to Iraq-style, or Afghanistan-style, combat. As he put it, “A strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable.”
Instead, Obama announced a $5 billion plan to support counterterrorism programs in other countries, helping to train, advise and equip nations in Africa and Asia in fighting terrorists in their own neighborhoods. This, of course, could lead to a vast expansion of America’s military presence abroad, if handled wrong. But, handled correctly, it could keep the United States out of wars in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. At least Obama recognized that many of the decentralized Al Qaeda affiliates around the world have “agendas focused in the countries where they operate,” which “lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the [US] homeland.” Here’s how Obama described his idea:
Earlier this year, I asked my national security team to develop a plan for a network of partnerships from South Asia to the Sahel. Today, as part of this effort, I am calling on Congress to support a new Counter-Terrorism Partnerships Fund of up to $5 billion, which will allow us to train, build capacity, and facilitate partner countries on the front lines. These resources will give us flexibility to fulfill different missions, including training security forces in Yemen who have gone on the offensive against al Qaeda; supporting a multinational force to keep the peace in Somalia; working with European allies to train a functioning security force and border patrol in Libya; and facilitating French operations in Mali.
Interestingly, and to the outrage of a semi-apoplectic Christiane Amanpour on CNN, Obama didn’t announce any new plan to arm and train the Syrian opposition, even though such a plan had been rumored for the speech. It may yet happen, especially if operated covertly by the CIA, already much engaged in training Syrian rebels in Jordan. But Obama called the war in Syria “increasingly sectarian,” warned about “the growing number of extremists who find safe-haven in the chaos,” and pledged to help “confront terrorists working across Syrian borders”—terrorists, that is, who are part of the anti–Bashar al-Assad forces. Unfortunately, and without giving any specifics, he said: “I will work with Congress to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists and a brutal dictator.” But he then countered that with an emphasis on a political deal to end the war, which of course means working with Russia and Iran, Assad’s main backers:
And we will continue to coordinate with our friends and allies in Europe and the Arab World—to push for a political resolution of this crisis, and make sure that those countries, and not just the United States, are contributing their fair share of support to the Syrian people.
So read the whole speech. Sometimes when Obama speaks, it’s like he’s giving a pep talk to himself: “Yeah, this is what I believe, what I stand for! Why can’t I live up to it?” Maybe he’ll listen to himself more closely.
Read Next: Bob and Barbara Dreyfuss on why the left ought to worry about Hillary Clinton, hawk and militarist, in 2016.
It’s foreign policy week for President Obama. The jet-lagged president, who made a quick, previously unannounced visit to Afghanistan over the Memorial Day weekend, plans a major speech on Wednesday at West Point to outline his administration’s foreign policy approach. It will, the administration hopes, clear up the confusion that Obama created in late April when, in somewhat off-the-cuff remarks during a news conference with President Aquino, Obama expressed frustration about his critics, especially those who say that he’s not strong or tough enough. (According to the White House, part of Obama’s message on Wednesday can be summed up in four words: “Don’t do stupid stuff.”)
Before we preview Obama’s speech tomorrow—and check back here tomorrow and later in the week, after the speech, for a detailed Nation critique—let’s review some of Obama’s comments back on April 28, in Manila.
In regard to his critics on Syria, he said:
So if you look at Syria, for example, our interest is in helping the Syrian people, but nobody suggests that us being involved in a land war in Syria would necessarily accomplish this goal. And I would note that those who criticize our foreign policy with respect to Syria, they themselves say, no, no, no, we don’t mean sending in troops. Well, what do you mean? Well, you should be assisting the opposition—well, we’re assisting the opposition. What else do you mean? Well, perhaps you should have taken a strike in Syria to get chemical weapons out of Syria. Well, it turns out we’re getting chemical weapons out of Syria without having initiated a strike. So what else are you talking about? And at that point it kind of trails off.
And on Ukraine, Obama said:
Well, what else should we be doing? Well, we shouldn’t be putting troops in, the critics will say. That’s not what we mean.Well, okay, what are you saying? Well, we should be arming the Ukrainians more.Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army? Or are we more likely to deter them by applying the sort of international pressure, diplomatic pressure and economic pressure that we’re applying?
And then he summed it up using the now-infamous baseball metaphor:
The point is that for some reason many who were proponents of what I consider to be a disastrous decision to go into Iraq haven’t really learned the lesson of the last decade, and they keep on just playing the same note over and over again. Why? I don’t know.But my job as Commander-in-Chief is to look at what is it that is going to advance our security interests over the long term, to keep our military in reserve for where we absolutely need it.… We don't do [things] because somebody sitting in an office in Washington or New York think it would look strong. That's not how we make foreign policy.… And that may not always be sexy. That may not always attract a lot of attention, and it doesn’t make for good argument on Sunday morning shows. But it avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.
Back then, Obama’s comments created pushback from the hawks, who made fun of the president for talking about hitting singles and doubles—even though the president could have pointed out that under President George W. Bush the United States mostly hit into double plays, committed a record number of errors, struck out a lot and finally topped the Chicago Black Sox of 1919 for sheer infamy. In fact, what Obama said, especially in regard to Syria, Iraq and Ukraine was pretty much on the mark. But the White House believes that it’s time for Obama to outline his foreign policy in more concrete and thoughtful detail. We’ll see.
As I’ve written in the past, on a foreign policy scale from one to ten, with left-wing doves at one and neoconservative hawks at ten, Obama falls, Goldilocks-like, nearly exactly in the middle. White House aides, in previewing the speech for reporters, used a weirdly middle-of-the-road description of what Obama’s foreign policy is designed to be, saying that it is “both interventionist and internationalist, but not isolationist or unilateral.” In other words, not too hot, not too cold—just right! Yet Obama has alienated many in his base, and among the voters who elected him, by pursuing a global “war on terrorism” and vastly increasing the use of armed drones, while seeming to stumble from interventionist (Libya) to internationalist (Syria) to isolationist (Bahrain) to unilateral (Israel) all at once in the Middle East. And while on Ukraine Obama has wisely refrained from getting involved in a showdown with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, whose interventionism the United States has little wherewithal to halt, the United States is slowly building up alliances in East Asia in what looks like an effort at containing China that is certain to be even less effective.
According to Politico, Obama will expand on the Goldilocks theme:
At West Point, Obama “will explain how we move out of a period of war in Iraq and Afghanistan to a new stage in our engagement with the world, what we expect to accomplish over the next two and a half years of the administration, and how our approach in hot spots like Ukraine, Iran and Syria fit into that construct,” the official said. “You will hear the president discuss how the United States will use all the tools in our arsenal without overreaching.”
And, raising more questions than it answers is the following comment from a White House official, reported in The New York Times:
Sketching familiar arguments but on a broader canvas, Mr. Obama will emphasize his determination to chart a middle course between isolationism and military intervention. The United States, he said, should be at the fulcrum of efforts to curb aggression by Russia and China, though not at the price of “fighting in eight or nine proxy wars.”
Did he really suggest that the “fulcrum” of US foreign policy will curbing “aggression” by Russia and China? And if “eight or nine proxy wars” is too many, how many is OK? And how many are we in already? (I’d argue that, at the very least, we’re fighting a proxy war against Iran in Syria and a proxy war against Pakistan in Afghanistan, but there are simmering proxy wars in Ukraine, Japan vs. China, parts of Africa and elsewhere—not to mention America’s nearly unilateral support for Israel in its proxy war against the Palestinians. So, perhaps four or five proxy wars are acceptable, but eight or nine aren’t.
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UPDATE Tuesday, May 27: Poroshenko's victory has been welcomed by both the United States and, a bit less enthusiastically, by the Russians, too. The president-elect, as he appears to be, says that he'll visit Moscow to talk to Putin, and that his first trip will be to eastern Ukraine to try to resolve the mini-crisis there. That's all good, and perhaps the crisis in Ukraine -- which has been overblown by many into an incipient WW III -- is over, or at least winding down. No doubt, Ukraine will keep the military pressure on the rag-tag separatists in the Donets Basin, without launching the kind of all-out offensive that would put pressure on Russia to intervene on their behalf. Stay tuned.
ORIGINAL POST Leave aside the nonsense and chatter over Ukraine—the less-than-astute observation from Prince Charles that Vladimir Putin is a new Hitler and Putin’s own efforts to portray modest violence in eastern Ukraine as a “dangerous civil war”—and it appears that things are getting better in Ukraine just days before its presidential election is held. Unfortunately for Ukraine, the winner is likely to be yet another unsavory billionaire and oligarch, but that’s just about all Ukraine has had to choose from in recent years, and there’s no Thomas Jefferson on the ballot. But even Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who’s been decrying “fascists” all over Ukraine, appears to agree that the leading candidate, if no Jefferson, is at least not a fascist.
Still, as Ukrainians get ready to head to the polls, even in most of the east, Putin says that even though he considers the May 25 elections illegitimate, he’ll respect the new president of Ukraine and that he’s ready to work with him or her, according to The Moscow Times:
We want to calm the situation and we will respect any choice Ukrainian people make. … I just hope the violence will halt after these elections. We will work with the new Ukrainian authorities.
Not only that, but after several weeks of promising to withdraw Russian forces from just across the border with Ukraine without actually carrying out any pullback, Russia now seems to be removing some of those forces, says the Kyiv Post, citing NATO’s commander. There are still deadly skirmishes in the east, including one that left at least thirteen Ukrainian soldiers dead and another in which Ukraine says that its border guards halted armed men from crossing into Ukraine from Russia—but in any case it’s overwhelmingly clear that most Ukrainians in the east, whether Russian-speaking or not, don’t want partition or division of the country and don’t support the ersatz “people’s republics” that have been proclaimed by would-be Lenins in the Donbas region.
The likely victor in Sunday’s election, who’s far ahead in the polls, will be Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king” who, according to Al Jazeera, is close to or over the 50 percent threshold that will prevent a runoff vote. (One Ukrainian quoted in the Al Jazeera piece calls Poroshenko the “best of the worst,” which sounds about right.) During his political career since the late 1990s, Poroshenko has worked all sides of the fence in Ukrainian politics, serving in Parliament and working under the “pro-Western” President Viktor Yushenko as well as under two other “pro-Russian” presidents, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych, the latter of whom recently fled to Russia after the Ukrainian revolt.
In its report on Poroshenko, The New York Times—which describes him as a “pro-Western billionaire”—outlines a behind-the-scenes story that suggests that Poroshenko could indeed serve as a bridge between the West and Russia if and when he takes office. According to the Times, Poroshenko’s “path to the presidency” was brokered by a corrupt wheeler-dealer who has close ties to Russia’s gas giant and to the ousted Yanukovych. Reports the Times:
The deal was reached at a meeting in Vienna orchestrated by Dmitry V. Firtash, the gas-trading tycoon, who was a longtime political patron of Mr. Yanukovych and has close business ties to Gazprom, the Russian state-controlled energy giant.
In an op-ed for the Kyiv Post, Firtash tries to portray himself as both Western-leaning and one who advocates neutrality for Ukraine and a balance between West and East, noting that his own business has “business partners and private capital from the East and the West,” and adding:
I believe in a united, independent, and neutral Ukraine. This is not only in the national interest of our great country; it is, without doubt, in the interests of all who want peace and prosperity for all people.
Like most Ukrainian oligarchs, Firtash appears to be a crook, and he’s been indicted in the United States for bribery. The Moscow Times, quoting an interview with Firtash in Bloomberg, seems to suggest that despite his record Firtash might be a half-decent mediator:
Ukrainian billionaire Dmytro Firtash, charged with bribery in the US and currently awaiting an extradition hearing in Vienna, said that he is “ready to act as a negotiator between Russia and Ukraine,” Bloomberg reported Tuesday.
“I know what to do. If Ukrainian politicians are impotent, I have to step in,” Firtash said. The businessman said that his connections to Russian state-run oil giant Gazprom and its affiliate Gazprombank, as well as his friendship with Russian construction magnate Arkady Rotenberg, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, give him a unique position from which to broker a resolution to the Ukrainian crisis.
In late April, in a lengthy interview with The Washington Post, Poroshenko laid blame for the eruption of violence in eastern Ukraine on Russia’s special forces—not an outlandish suggestion—and said that he’ll resist radical federalization of the country, which is what Moscow has proposed, but stressed that if elected he’ll want good relations with Russia, “Because without a direct dialogue with Russia, it will be impossible to create security.”
Meanwhile, there’s an interesting parallel between Ukraine and Syria. In Syria, where there is a real civil war—more than 100,000 killed and millions of refugees created—President Bashar al-Assad is once again running for president, with the vote scheduled for June 3. In that contest, Russia is backing Syria, and Putin seems to have no problem with holding a vote in the midst of near-chaos. On the other hand, in Ukraine, where the violence is sporadic and limited to a few pockets of rebellion, Putin and Lavrov suggest that it’s probably impossible to hold a useful vote. Still, for the past several weeks, both Putin and Lavrov have suggested that the election in Ukraine might elevate someone that Russia “can do business with.” Let’s hope so.
Read Next: How Putin is aligning himself with Europe’s far right.
Vladimir Putin may or may not have blinked on Ukraine. His promise, thrice made, to withdraw Russian troops along the border has yet to be carried out, it appears—but the Russians seems resigned to the idea that Ukraine will hold its presidential election this Sunday, May 25. And the pro-Russian separatists who’ve declared various “people’s republics” here and there in Ukraine’s east are losing steam, thanks in part to the work of a local billionaire who’s apparently decided that his coal and steel empire prefers Western outlets and credit lines, rather than Russian ones. In any case, if Russia is serious about wanting a negotiated, diplomatic solution in Ukraine, then the election of a president and the creation of a government that has some more legitimacy will give Moscow someone with authority to talk to.
But, please, Mr. Putin, stop with the talk about Ukraine being run by “Nazis” and “fascists”—at least as long as you’re in league with actual pro-fascist parties in Europe.
This isn’t exactly new, and of course Russia’s alliance with Europe’s Nazi-like far right takes second place to Moscow’s enormous business ties with Europe’s oil and gas consumers and Germany’s corporate elite. Still, it’s getting new attention lately, and it’s more than troubling that Moscow is in bed with Hungary’s Jobbik party, Geert Wilders’ Party of Freedom in the Netherlands, Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and other anti-European Union extremists.
Part of it is pragmatic. That is, Russia wants to exploit the anti-EU sentiment of Europe’s anti-immigrant, fascist-leaning right wing. And the rightists in Europe, who include traditional, pro-family, pro-religion types and would-be strongmen and mini-Mussolinis, are attracted to Putin’s penchant for putting down dissent, suppressing the Internet, building up the Orthodox Church and its rightist priesthood and inflaming Russia’s own “exceptionalist,” nationalist constituents.
Writing last month in Foreign Affairs, Mitchell Orenstein detailed much of Russia’s support for Europe’s far right, in a piece called “Putin’s Western Allies.” In it, he says:
In Hungary, for example, Putin has taken the Jobbik party under his wing. The third-largest party in the country, Jobbik has supporters who dress in Nazi-type uniforms, spout anti-Semitic rhetoric, and express concern about Israeli “colonization” of Hungary. The party has capitalized on rising support for nationalist economic policies, which are seen as an antidote for unpopular austerity policies and for Hungary’s economic liberalization in recent years. Russia is bent on tapping into that sentiment. In May 2013, Kremlin-connected right-wing Russian nationalists at the prestigious Moscow State University invited Jobbik party president Gabor Vona to speak. Vona also met with Russia Duma leaders including Ivan Grachev, chairman of the State Duma Committee for Energy and Vasily Tarasyuk, deputy chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Utilization, among others. On the Jobbik website, the visit is characterized as “a major breakthrough” which made “clear that Russian leaders consider Jobbik as a partner.” In fact, there have been persistent rumors that Jobbik’s enthusiasm is paid for with Russian rubles.
And he adds:
The Kremlin’s ties to France’s extreme-right National Front have also been growing stronger. Marine Le Pen, the party leader, visited Moscow in June 2013 at the invitation of State Duma leader Sergei Naryshkin, a close associate of Putin’s. She also met with Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin and discussed issues of common concern, such as Syria, EU enlargement, and gay marriage. France’s ProRussia TV, which is funded by the Kremlin, is staffed by editors with close ties to the National Front who use the station to espouse views close to National Front’s own perspective on domestic and international politics.
One doesn’t have to go to the establishment American press and pundit class to learn about Russia’s showering of favors on Europe’s far right. In a recent interview on RT, the Russian media outlet, there’s a long interview by a fawning RT reporter with Geert Wilders of the fascist, anti-immigrant Dutch party. Among the softball questions to Wilders, whose Euroskepticism (i.e., his anti-EU diatribes) is well known, the RT interviewer “asks”:
I want to talk about the rising Euroscepticism. Prominent US politician and author Pat Buchanan, I’m sure you know who he is, he recently said that nationalism is on the rise, while globalization is a the thing of the past. Do you share his point of view?
Of course, Wilders agrees. Later on the RT interviewer favorably cites Wilders anti-EU, anti-immigrant allies in the UK, Switzerland and France, in another “question”:
But you’re not the only one actually voicing this concern—there is France that is being actually very worried about the immigration problems. Switzerland is tightening its borders, also Britain is sounding alarm. Do you think it’s something that’s going to pass, or is it something that is going to escalate into something bigger?
Or Pravda. In a recent, shocking editorial, Pravda pretty much openly acknowledged Russia’s support for the fascists in the European Parliament, which holds continent-wide elections this month. The editorial, entitled “European Parliament May Stop Acting Like USA’s Lap Dog,” says:
The extreme right have the largest influence in France, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Great Britain, Finland, Greece and Denmark. They have two main slogans—to refuse from the European Union [sic] as a supranational body that enslaved national sovereignty, and revise migration policy towards its extreme tightening. The only countries, where deputies of extreme right parties are not represented in the election, are Portugal, Spain and Germany. To Russia, this trend is interesting from the point of view of the fact that these forces support Russia in its position on the Crimea and Ukraine. Thus, the leader of the French National Front, Marine Le Pen, said that she shared “common values” with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Marine Le Pen believes that good relations with Russia make the minimum necessary for peace in Europe. In her opinion, the EU actions against Russia come contrary to the interests of the Europeans. “I want to stand at the head of a non-aligned state, which does not subordinate to either the U.S. or Russia, and conduct equitable negotiations with both powers,” AFP quoted Le Pen as saying.
The New York Times, in a European survey piece, reports extensively on Russia’s ties to Europe’s far right. Reports the Times:
Some of Russia’s European fans, particularly those with a religious bent, are attracted by Mr. Putin’s image as a muscular foe of homosexuality and decadent Western ways. Others, like Aymeric Chauprade, a foreign policy adviser to the National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, are motivated more by geopolitical calculations that emphasize Russia’s role as a counterweight to American power.
Russia has added to its allure through the financing, mostly with corporate money, of media, research groups and other European organizations that promote Moscow’s take on the world. The United States also supports foreign groups that agree with it, but Russia’s boosters in Europe, unlike its leftist fans during the Cold War, now mostly veer to the far right and sometimes even fascism, the cause Moscow claims to be fighting in Ukraine.
Naturally, the neoconservatives, The New Republic, and other outlets for American nationalism are having fun with Russia’s support for the far right in Europe. But US conservatives had better be careful—after all, it wasn’t too long ago that various right-wing American politicians (such as Ted Cruz) were contrasting Obama to Putin, and unfavorably—as satirized by John Stewart in a segment called “Big Vladdy.”
Read Next: Pepe Escobar on the geopolitical earthquakes reshaping Eurasia’s economy.
Reading through the comments of various State Department officials leading the US delegation in the P5+1 talks with Iran—the latest round concluding last week and the next one scheduled for June 16–20—it’s hard not to detect a creeping pessimism. But it’s wrong to conclude that the talks—which last week included a three-hour bilateral meeting between the United States and Iran—won’t be successful, if not by the self-imposed deadline of July 20 then after the six-month extension that has been built into the framework of the negotiations. What’s needed most of all is patience, along with efforts to beat back the naysayers, the hawks and neoconservatives, the Israel lobby and its allies, and others, including the wrecking balls in Congress.
Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif said, after the latest round: “Agreement is possible. But illusions need to go. Opportunity shouldn’t be missed again.”
Laura Rozen, writing in Al Monitor, outlined the State Department’s view of the just-concluded talks this way:
“This was the ‘sticker shock’ meeting,” a former senior U.S. official, speaking not for attribution, told Al-Monitor Friday.
“Significant differences remain on how many centrifuges Iran should be permitted to have to meet ‘practical needs’ for nuclear energy and research, as well as significant differences on the length of the agreement and the pace and scope of sanctions relief accompanying a final deal,” the former U.S. official said. “Other areas, like the possible military dimensions of past Iranian nuclear research, are also tricky.”
“So, instead of papering over these differences in a post-meeting statement, the negotiators apparently felt that they had to return to their capitals to consult with national leaders about how they might overcome them,” the former US official suggested. “It remains to be seen if that is possible, but both sides still appear committed to overcoming the nuclear crisis.”
Speaking to reporters last week via teleconference, a senior State Department official (who wouldn’t allow her name to be used) said:
The discussions this week have been useful, but they’ve also been at times difficult, which they knew—we knew they would be. We’ve said this repeatedly throughout this process, that this would be difficult. We are just at the beginning of the drafting process, and we have a significant way to go. There are significant gaps. These are complicated issues. As we’ve said, if this were easy to solve, it would have been done a long time ago.
This has, candidly, been a very slow and difficult process, and we are concerned with the short amount of time that is left. But let me be very clear: We believe we can still get it done. It’s important to remember that we’re at the beginning, and the parties are all at the table talking in a serious way. But we do not know yet, as we’ve always said, if we will be able at the end of this to conclude a comprehensive agreement.
In any negotiation there are good days and bad days, and there are ups and downs. This has been a moment of great difficulty, but one that was not entirely unexpected.
Until now, there was plenty of optimism about the current round of talks, and it still seems likely that a deal will be struck, despite the difficulties outlined by the American delegation. They’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of the particulars, attempting to write—paragraph by paragraph—a detailed accord that deals with a wide range of issues. And both sides agree that there will be no deal until every issue, big and small, is settled—in other words, there won’t be any partial agreements. The biggest sticking point appears to be exactly how big Iran’s enrichment program will be as part of a final accord; that is, how many centrifuges Iran will be able to spin, and what kind, and producing how much low-enriched (i.e., not weapons grade or anything close) uranium, for civilian purposes. (There are plenty of other issues, too, of course, including Iran’s heavy-water Arak reactor, its missile and related military programs, and plenty more.) The American side seems fixed on the idea of preventing Iran from quickly moving toward “breakout,” that is, an ability to produce a nuclear weapon quickly, or relatively quickly—it could still take years!—after an accord is reached. But as Jim Walsh, an MIT professor and arms control expert who’s long been involved in the Iran issue, said in response to last week’s talks:
I think most discussion in the U.S. of the size—what’s required, what’s the minimum and maximum size, number of centrifuges, separated work units, however you measure it—much of that debate has been framed by the question of breakout. And I’ve been rather troubled by our discussion of it. Breakout is an important issue, every agreement should be assessed in terms of looking at the risk of breakout, but breakout is only one issue in many issues, and much of the discussion of breakout seems pretty flawed and ahistorical.
As Walsh points out, “breakout” means—at least in the US view—the ability of Iran to cobble together enough highly enriched material for a single bomb, leaving aside whether or not Iran could manufacture a weapon and the means to deliver it, both challenging projects. (So far, Iran has none of that: no weapons-grade uranium, no warhead, no ability to deliver one.) As Walsh puts it:
Breakout is extremely rare in the international system and it’s a definition that itself is flawed. There’s no country that I know of, as someone who studies nuclear decision-making, there’s no country in the history of the nuclear age that has broken out with the purpose of developing one bomb’s worth of material. … Does Iran look like a good candidate for breakout, when you look at its past deceptions and the history of the program, does it look like a good candidate? And I think the answer is: not really.
The hawkish Washington Post, in an editorial, luxuriates in its pessimism. The Post seemed almost gleeful in proclaiming that President Hassan Rouhani of Iran needs a deal desperately, suggesting that President Obama can afford to delay the talks, even adding another six months onto the negotiations, in order to up the pressure on Rouhani. Says the Post:
Whether that discrepancy can be used to leverage the major concessions Iran must make for a workable agreement is anyone’s guess—though this week’s talks were a bad omen. A senior U.S. official said “we do not know if Iran will be able to make the tough decisions they must.” Chief among those is steps that would make it impossible to produce the material for a bomb in less than “six months to a year,” a time frame mentioned by Secretary of State John F. Kerry in recent testimony to Congress.
And the Post adds that members of Congress opposed to a deal can work alongside the influence of the hardline Revolutionary Guard in Iran to block an agreement:
In the end there will be a strong check on any concessions made by the Obama administration: If Congress or Israel are dissatisfied, they may be able to scuttle the deal. Iranian hardliners will have a say, as well. Considering the challenge of constructing a compromise that satisfies the Revolutionary Guard and Republican senators, it’s no wonder that optimism seems out of place.
That’s a kind of brinkmanship that’s inappropriate in international diplomacy, and the Post almost seems eager for the talks to fail.
Another sticking point is the web of economic sanctions that have been imposed on Iran. Supporters of sanctions labor under the illusion that the hardships they impose on Iran’s economy will compel Iran to make a deal that erases its basic national interests, including what Tehran says is its fundamental right to enrich uranium on its own soil. Yes, the sanctions create an incentive for Iran to talk—but they won’t force Iran to make a deal that goes against that bottom line, and in any case no Iranian leader could surrender that and survive politically. Unfortunately, in its public pronouncements so far the United States has been unwilling to say much about how the sanctions might be reduced, waived and eventually lifted as part of a deal—or how long it might take.
As Trita Parsi, head of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC), put it in a teleconference last week:
On the Iranian side, Rouhani has essentially—I don’t want to use the word gambled—but the negotiations over the nuclear issue are the core issue of his entire presidency. If this fails, and if it fails because there is a perception in the international community that Iran cannot live up to the agreement, that it wasn’t flexible enough, then that will be the end of Rouhani’s presidency as a capable and influential president.…
And this is where I think one of the problems with sanctions relief is coming in, in the sense that so far the Iranians have either not received the sanctions relief in practical terms that they were promised or it’s essentially come way too late, which is largely an issue of the function of the fact that the sanctions regime has intimidated banks from partaking in any transactions with Iran, even permissible transactions.… If this psychological sanctions war is not starting to fall apart or be reduced to the degree and at the pace that the administration would like, and the Iranians are not receiving the benefits of a deal faster than they are right now, then I would start getting worried that the political insulation of the negotiations that has existed on the Iranian side would start to disintegrate, and that could be very bad. It would essentially mean that the U.S. side would no longer know that they are negotiating with a team that can deliver.
The Iranian side, too, expressed disappointment with the latest round of talks, according to AFP:
A source close to the Iranian delegation in Vienna was quoted by the IRNA news agency as saying that “the West has to abandon its excessive demands.”
“We had expected the Western side to become more realistic but this doesn’t appear to be the case yet,” the source added.
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