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Harvard Professor Stephen Walt has described the current contretemps over Ukraine as “geostrategic incompetence of the highest order” on the part of the White House. Seconding that I would add that the central problem with the Obama foreign policy, guided as it is by a bundle of poorly defined principles, is that it has no coherency. Moscow is claiming that it has intervened in Crimea, for the most part peacefully and with the overwhelming support of the local population, because it has a responsibility to protect Russian nationals living among its neighbors and also because its national security is threatened. All of that may or may not actually be true, but the argument has a certain plausibility in that one of Russia’s major naval bases is in Crimea while the population is largely Russophone and identifies as ethnically Russian. The jubilant crowds celebrating the referendum that overwhelmingly approved reunion with Russia should give pause to those insisting that the process was somehow coerced.
From Moscow’s point of view the new government in Kiev might reasonably be regarded as a US puppet which will not be heedful of Russian interests. The “Nuland tapes” revealing a phone conversation between senior State Department official and noted neocon Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt describing how Washington would form the new government suggests that Moscow’s assessment is likely correct, that the American policy both was and is geared towards moving Ukraine away from Russia and towards Western Europe. Why the United States should feel compelled to do that is not at all clear as the Cold War ended in 1991 and Russia has generally been a responsible player on the world stage since Putin gained power.
The lack of coherency surfaces because the United States has itself recently abused the “national security” argument to prolong its unhappy stay in Afghanistan, to threaten Iran and to justify an aborted plan to bomb Syria, all nations that are many thousands of miles away from the continental US and which would hardly seem to endanger anyone apart from their own citizens.
The US vice-president, Joe Biden, speaking during a recent visit to Poland and the Baltic states aimed at reassuring Russia’s neighbors, said that Russia stands “naked before the world” and is guilty of international aggression. But Biden’s effusions aside, Moscow can at least claim that Ukraine is of critical importance because it is on Russia’s doorstep. Indeed, if intervention in another country to reorder its politics under the pretext of strengthening one’s own security is a standard to judge by then the United States under Bush and Obama has been a serial offender while Putin’s Russia has been relatively peace loving. The difference between Washington and Moscow is that the former seeks to maintain global dominance while Russia pretty much operates within its own local zone of influence.
Washington’s hypocrisy is also on full display when it denounces the largely peaceful separation of Crimea from Ukraine while ignoring its own support of separation of Kosovo from Serbia in 1999 after a prolonged bombing campaign. The US military occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the forty-six year domination of the Palestinian West Bank and East Jerusalem by Israel are arguably much more brutal than anything occurring in Crimea. Russia can claim that Crimea was actually part of Russia prior to 1954, while the Israelis’ historical claim is shrouded in antiquity and requires a leap of faith to be considered credible. Washington’s nation building role in the Balkans and Asia has even less justification than either, apart from the desire to continue to be kingmaker in what have been sometimes regarded as client states.
Unlike Israel, Russia is not dispossessing the existing inhabitants of Crimea and planting colonies on the occupied land, nor has it been maintaining its extraterritorial presence by using drones to kill suspected militants American-style. Israel has also within its pre-1948 borders institutionalized various degrees of citizen status based on religion for the local Arab population that it did not succeed in forcing to leave while all Russian citizens are legally the same. Palestinians on the West Bank have no rights at all and the Israelis have never allowed a referendum to determine whom they wish to be ruled by. So if Washington truly stands for what passes for international law and “American values” where are the sanctions on Israel and its leading politicians and why haven’t American politicians themselves been regularly appearing before the International Criminal Court in the Hague?
Washington also claims that it is defending Ukrainian sovereignty even though it worked hard to overthrow the country’s government, just as it had been meddling in places like Egypt and Russia itself before the respective governments got wise and expelled the so-called democracy promoters. When the national security appeal fails or is not convincing it is always possible to claim that one is spreading democracy, which is surely a good thing. Or is it? Consider for a moment what it actually amounts to in many cases. It means sending in teams of Americans to train local people in how to organize and act politically. That translates into setting up and supporting groups that are opposed to the government, and that is exactly how many foreigners see it and why there are so many claims that the US is interfering in local politics.
Imagine for a moment how Mr. Obama would have reacted in 2012 if the Russian government were sending over advisers to educate American voters on what would have been needed to bring about a change of government in the United States. Impossible, right? But that is precisely what the United States does overseas through its National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and associated groups, which are allegedly “Non-government organizations” or NGOs but which are in fact largely funded by Congress. Sending in a bunch of NEDers, which has been described as doing openly what the CIA did covertly back in the 50’s and 60’s, is usually the first step in the process to destabilize the local government.
The Republican branch of NED, the International Republican Institute, is headed by John McCain and the Democratic version the National Democratic Institute is headed by Madeleine Albright, two outstanding examples of American interventionism. Well-funded efforts to overthrow the legitimate government of Syria and encouraging “democrats” in places like Iran continue. Within recent memory Washington has succeeded in actually replacing governments in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, nations that most of the world then considered to be sovereign for all their faults, leading to concerns that the US is intending to advance the neocon strategy for regime change in a large number of Muslim countries.
National legitimacy or statehood is not enshrined in international law and is generally considered to be conferred de facto when a substantial number of other countries recognize the new nation, so if other governments recognize that Crimea is now part of Russia it will actually become so in the real world. Many countries have embassies in Israel but no one, not even the United States, recognizes its annexation of all of Jerusalem and much of the West Bank. Few countries now think that the US invasion of Iraq was either justified or legal given the fact that self-serving lies were employed to make the case. So sovereignty and legitimacy are tricky things that depends very much on the eye of the beholder.
And then there is the usual inside the beltway hypocrisy about the Palestinians. Even though Palestine is recognized as a state by 134 United Nations General Assembly members, it is not considered to be so by Washington, as that status is regarded as subject to Israel’s eventual approval, which might never take place. So the White House does not recognize a country that nearly the entire world accepts in Palestine while supporting a regime in Ukraine whose former government it subverted. It is also simultaneously denying peaceful self-determination to Crimea while supporting a violent version in Kosovo and invading and setting up puppet governments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Confusing, isn’t it? And hardly coherent.
The other sitting on the shelf and “available for use” hook to permit intervention without calling it intervention is the “responsibility to protect,” which has become increasingly popular with the Obamaites because they are, after all, former community organizers with a great love for the common man. When Samantha Power talks about “protecting” at the UN she always looks like she is about to cry and it’s impossible to be more empathetic than that. To use the acronym, R2P means that if one suspects that a government is somehow killing its own people the United States has a moral responsibility to get involved. This was exploited to bring about regime change in Libya and has been most recently applied to Syria, though the US public somehow did not buy into the latter argument as both sides were clearly involved in the massacres. R2P does not, however, apply to anyone on a White House kill list or who is otherwise on the receiving end of an American drone because that is considered “constabulary action.”
So it is clear that one needs a dictionary and a thesaurus to try to figure out Obama foreign policy because commonly used words have lost their meaning. If one listens to the White House press spokesman, the United States no longer invades anywhere, just as the global war on terror has now become overseas contingency operations. Washington stands for international law, supporting national sovereignty and universal democracy. It is against any government’s killing of its own citizens. It all sounds good but in reality the US government doesn’t actually stand for any of those things and is adept at using language to misrepresent actions that in another place or time would have been considered reprehensible if carried out openly. George Orwell called in “newspeak.”