Wednesday, March 5, 2014

High Wire

“According to international law, we condemn the Russian Federation’s act of aggression. There is nothing strong in what Russia is doing.”
—John Kerry, yesterday in Kiev

“There is a strong belief that Russia’s action is violating international law. President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations.”
—Barack Obama, yesterday in Washington

Perhaps it’s because I have discussed the geo-strategist or “chessboard” way of looking at world events a couple of times recently that it now seems that, in every newspaper and on every TV channel I now turn to, everyone seems to be talking about “the chessboard.”

On Sunday’s American news programs, everyone seemed to be discussing whether chess was a useful or applicable metaphor for international action and diplomacy. On Fox News Sunday House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers criticized U.S. handling of the Ukraine situation by quipping, “I think Putin is playing chess and I think we’re playing marbles.” I heard an even more amusing quote sometime earlier—the source of which now escapes me—that went something like this: Russia is playing chess, the West is playing checkers, and Obama is playing solitaire.

Generally speaking, people critical of the U.S. administration like the chess metaphor and those who defend it think that metaphor is outdated—if it was ever apt in the first place. Criticizing Russia’s occupation of the Crimean Peninsula, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Meet the Press, “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.” If Kerry had his boss’s knack for snarky youthful vernacular, he might even have paraphrased the president’s debate quip to Mitt Romney and said, “Hey, Russia, the 19th century called and it wants its imperialism back.”

The most manful attack on the chessboard metaphor that I’ve seen to date comes from Sam Tanenhaus in a piece in Sunday’s New York Times. Tanenhaus is a historian, author and journalist, so I’m a little intimidated in challenging him. On the other hand, I have lived through pretty much the same span of history that he has, and my take is definitely different from his.

For one thing, his examples of Cold War “chess-piece gambits” are the American military actions in Korea and Vietnam. Uh, my dictionary says that a gambit is “an act or remark that is calculated to gain an advantage, especially at the outset of a situation.” Specifically, in chess a gambit is “an opening move in which a player makes a sacrifice, typically of a pawn, for the sake of a compensating advantage.” The wars in Korea and Vietnam were not gambits. They were the results of gambits that didn’t work out. Given Tanenhaus’s redefinition of the word gambit, it’s no wonder the metaphor doesn’t work for him. His preferred metaphor for the Cold War is “a frightening high-wire act.”

Most interestingly, though, in foreign policy terms he likens the current president specifically to three Republican presidents: Dwight Eisenhower (for avoiding military situations), Richard Nixon (for winding down a war and negotiating arms control) and Ronald Reagan (more arms control). He attempts no comparisons with such Democratic Obama predecessors as Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson or Jimmy Carter.

Tanenhaus’s central example for refuting the chessboard metaphor, however, is the Cuban missile crisis which, as he explains, was defused by a secret bargain—as opposed to strategic maneuvers. With this characterization, he is repeating the standard American narrative for that nerve-racking episode: President Kennedy’s cool calm and his decisiveness avoided a potential nuclear war and got Soviet missiles out of Cuba, therefore America came out a winner. But, if you look at it from the Soviet point of view, the chessboard metaphor fits quite nicely. The United States put missiles in Turkey, which annoyed the Russians to no end. So they took advantage of the fact that the U.S. had a brand new, relatively young president and responded by putting missiles in Cuba. The ultimate result, from the Soviet point of view, was that the Russians ended up removing their Cuban missiles (leaving them no worse off than they were before) and that the U.S. also removed its missiles in Turkey (leaving the Russians better off). That sequence of move, counter-move and retreat certainly sounds like a lot of chess games I have played in my time.

That story of the placement of missiles has a more recent counterpart. After Russia intervened in the Georgian region of South Ossetia in 2008, President George W. Bush announced America’s intention to proceed with a planned missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. The stated aim was to protect against a future missile threat from Iran, but Russia treated it as a Western incursion into its sphere of influence. In 2009 President Obama scrapped the project. This annoyed the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic, which saw the project as a means to cement their inclusion in Western Europe. Even people who did not favor the project were surprised that Obama did not take the opportunity to use the missile project as a bargaining chip and exact something from the Russians in return. But that was back in the days when all the Russia foreign policy talk was about “the reset.”

Wouldn’t it be handy to have those missiles now to use as leverage or a bargaining chip in the Ukraine situation? Instead, the Ukraine situation is complicated by the fact that the U.S. has also put itself in the position of relying on Russia for any hope of influence in the situations in Syria and Iran.

If we are entering a new Cold War, let’s at least try to take some comfort from Sam Tanenhaus, who tells us that it isn’t about chess moves and strategy. Rather, according to him, it is “less a carefully structured game between masters than a frightening high-wire act, with leaders on both sides aware that a single misstep could plunge them into the abyss.”


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