The quote that provides the title to this post comes from a BBC television program named “Ripper Street.” The episode concerned the moral dilemma when faced with the machinations of those who would do the world harm. We find ourselves in one such dilemma. Oftentimes art imitates life, but life also often imitates art.
For me at this point in history the dilemma that should be on everyone’s mind is Ukraine.
There has been a lot of bad history written about Ukraine lately that has made its way into the U.S. via the press. This bad history tends to convey three messages. The first is that the Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries. The second is that it doesn’t matter. The third is that the U.S. has lost its legitimacy to address the issue because of its own foreign policy misadventures.
I will take the last point first because there was a lot of skepticism voiced in Europe, and on both the political right and left in the United States, about the President’s refusal to equate Russia’s actions in Crimea and Ukraine with Iraq. This skepticism, I believe, is a knee jerk reaction by many who have other agendas, would obfuscate otherwise indefensible actions on the part of Russia, or with political axes to grind.
For my own part, I opposed from the start the military intervention in Iraq as wrong headed. I felt that it was based on a neo-conservative expansionist ideology that was removed from reality, as most ideologies are. Years ago when I was a student at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College I was fortunate to meet General Colin Powell during the heady post-Desert Storm/Desert Shield days. His message to the class was that military officers must present a political as well as military solution to the civilian leadership. I left his talk troubled because I thought the message was muddled and that there was danger in drawing the line between the political and the non-political.
General Powell had, of course, used this strategy during his career to advance to be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, beginning in the Reagan Administration, and he was doing what all successful people tend to do: advise others to do as his did. Later I expressed these reservations to the General personally. His response was nuanced but still contained, I thought, a fatal flaw–he harked back to Clausewitz that war is the achievement of political ends through violent means, he emphasized that war was a last resort after all diplomatic overtures were exhausted, that world opinion was important in considering what action to recommend, but that in the end the President must be given a political as well as military solution. It is this last that, I believe, contributed to his later loss of credibility given the disastrous and fact free U.N. speech regarding WMDs that bolstered the argument for military action in Iraq. He should have recognized immediately the ridiculous proposition of mobile chemical and biological labs, been aware of the post-Air campaign assessments of capabilities, and the shelf-life of what they did have stockpiled. But, of course, stating these facts allow for equivocation and evasion about “bad intelligence.” Politics can both seduce and distort. It can make a man with a distinguished career say things that he knows are foolish and later come to regret. General Powell, of course, was only one part in the war’s sales campaign, and responsibility for the war and its outcome cannot be attributed to him. His example is a cautionary tale.
But–and here is the big but–for all of their folly and dishonesty which caused real damage to the lives of millions of people as well as damage to the credibility and internal democratic processes of the United States, it was folly and dishonesty based on the realistic goal of eliminating a dictatorship from engaging in another genocide, and in the utopian goal of achieving self-determination and self-governance for the Iraqi people. Saddam Hussein and his sons deserved their fates. Shed no tears for those brutal psychopaths and their all too willing followers. The invasion was supported by a significant number of countries in the international community. Every step the United States took was done in public for all to see. It is unfortunate that those in power did not see that they were overtaken by self-deception. When the folly became increasingly obvious and the truth uncovered by both public institutions and the press, our institutions reacted and moved to recover. It is one of the challenges of our time to determine how so many institutions constructed to prevent this type of folly utterly failed while things were playing out. In the end, the balance of power has shifted in the region to the detriment of both democracy and modernism. The sectarian strife that began with the insurgency continues to this day.
What the United States did not do is use the nationalistic pretext of English speakers in Iraq or the significant familial connections between U.S. citizens of Iraqi descent to argue for an invasion of annexation. The United States did not engage Iraq for purposes of territorial expansion. The United States did not post its troops in the first post-invasion, newly-elected Iraqi parliament in 2005 to dictate its agenda. Iraq is now free to determine its fate, such as it is.
It is important to remember that in 2003 Iraq was a failed state ruled by a military dictatorship and, as such, had the potential to wreak a great deal of havoc in the region against its more stable neighbors, in particular, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The rulers of Iraq had invaded their neighbors, threatened Israel and engaged in terrorist anti-Semitic actions, engaged in genocide, and deployed its agents to assassinate a former President of the United States–the last an act of war in and of itself.
Given the events of 9-11, the people of the United States were in no mood to split-hairs or find nuance. This harks back to a conversation I had with the daughter of a Middle Eastern diplomat back in 2000. She asked if I felt that it was possible that there could be a terrorist attack here in the United States of any significance, given the first attempts on the World Trade Center in 1993 and the subsequent attempts to carry out other attacks that were thwarted. I replied that it was indeed possible but that it would be the exception because it would be a grave error on the part of those who carried out the attack; that the American people, once aroused, would unleash a tremendous war of retribution at the perpetrators and anyone who seemed to give them aid, and that–as with all wars–there would be great suffering for the innocents in the crossfire. Unfortunately I and everyone else who lived through these events were able to see this very scenario play out.
I can’t help but note that much of the criticism from the world community among our allies regarding Iraq are laced with crocodile tears, happy that the United States did the dirty work to address the mess that European imperialism bequeathed to the region. Thus, to equate Russia’s actions in Crimea to the U.S. actions in Iraq is not only dishonest and wrong headed, it invites the charge that the speaker supports the fifth column tactics that have been used in the crisis thus far. This is particularly evident in the writing of Patrick L. Smith over at Salon.com, who charged that Secretary of State John Kerry was ignorant of history in criticizing the actions of the Russian oligarch and went so far as crowning Mr. Putin as “a gifted Statesman.” Unlike Mr. Smith, our Secretary of State only has the experience of living with the consequences of history by having actually served in a war and engaged in combat, in his case Vietnam, and then risking everything, including the ire of his fellow citizens, to clearly and eloquently state his case to oppose that war. Unlike Mr. Smith and the oligarch he so clearly loves, our openly and freely elected president is constrained to act by both constitutional and international processes and institutions.
In terms of Ukraine’s significance, this is borne out by its history. Ukraine was one of the most powerful nations in eastern Europe up until the 18th century. It has long been considered the breadbasket of Europe and that has made it a region targeted for domination by a number of powers, especially since its fall as an autonomous power. Poland, Russia (later the Soviet Union), Germany, and Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) have figured most prominently in eying its resources and its strategic value as a pathway both to the east and west, and to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. It presently also possesses a robust industrial capability. Its neighbors have partitioned its territories at various times in history. In popular imagination this is the land of the Russ, Cossacks, and Tatars. Given the number of nations involved in the region and its geographical position, Ukraine is an amalgam of the many ethnic and religious groups that have crossed its land. The people there speak a combination of Ukrainian and Russian, given the mixed history of the region by the most dominant powers, but that doesn’t make them ethnically homogenous. One idea, however, that the people there have often pursued and given their lives in the face of foreign domination is self-determination and self-government, with this hope being stillborn after the Russian Revolutions in 1917.
But in July 1990, with the unraveling of the old Soviet Union, Ukraine was finally able to achieve its independence–a move that was opposed immediately by hardline communists, who also attempted a coup against Mikhail Gorbachev. With that immediate threat defeated, the young country held its first elections in December 1991. Since that time it has faced challenges as all nations have–in particular it has grappled with the issue of internal corruption and the power of money to subvert democratic processes, not an unfamiliar problem among other nascent democracies and countries in the west. Thus, for 24 years Ukraine has been a free and independent nation. Crimea, which has been part of Ukraine during that entire time, has been a semi-autonomous region within the country, but it too has a history of Russian interference in its politics and autonomy.
For all of the talk of the west crossing lines and Putin being provoked, the fact is that Ukraine threatened no one. The people of the country expelled President Yanukovych for abusing his power in trying to suppress the Euromaidan protests after he had been intimidated into taking a deal by Putin to walk away from talks for the integration of Ukraine into the European Union–an internal issue that was resolved peacefully with the democratic institutions in place taking control of the levers of power after Yanukovych fled to Russia. Ukraine’s military is weak and its objectives are to establish a working representative democracy where its autonomy is preserved.
Obviously Russia considers these goals–a strong central organizing democratic republic with its autonomy safely within the European Union–a threat; and the reasons for viewing it as such lie in the manner that Russia treated the territories it formerly occupied. Ethnic Russians and those speaking Russian, particularly under the communist regime, were favored elites. Across eastern Europe, Moscow encouraged the emigration of its most ardent communist supporters to move to those countries and territories for the purpose of enforcing social and political control, often treating the existing populations as second class citizens and worse. So the history that Mr. Smith would have the west endorse and accept is an artifact of totalitarian Soviet control and racism, which was a continuation of the Czarist police state system under different guise. These so-called Russians living in Ukraine represent both an effective fifth column and a convenient pretext for territorial acquisition.
The purpose of NATO and the support for the European Union is stability and peace. The targets of these institutions were not just aimed at the containment of the old Soviet Union, but also to ensure the autonomy of the countries in Europe against the recurrent nationalism that often led the world to war. Since the fall of the old Soviet Union the focus of NATO and the EU has moved east. In Eastern Europe, the major powers who competed for dominance were Germany and Russia. A structured framework of nations in place there will prevent such a revival of animosities. I am not sure if in the first third of the 21st century the continent needs a reawakened and militarized Germany facing a newly aggressive Russia. Make no mistake, Poland and the Baltic states are watching what happens in Ukraine with great concern.
Mr. Putin is threatening the peace in Europe in ways not seen since the 1930s. He has moved to do what he wants in those areas that he has sensed western weakness. I am not certain if the west wants to go to war over Ukraine, and even if it did, whether it could sustain operations effectively or within the time needed. But I suspect that a reckoning will have to be faced.