Tuesday, February 25, 2014


“I don’t think there’s a competition between the United States and Russia. I think this is an expression of the hopes and aspirations of people inside of Syria and people inside of the Ukraine who recognize that basic freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections, the ability to run a business without paying a bribe, to not be discriminated against because of your religion or your beliefs—that those are fundamental rights that everybody wants to enjoy. Now, Mr. Putin has a different view on many of those issues, and I don’t think that there’s any secret on that. And our approach as the United States is not to see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia.”
 —Barack Obama, February 19 in Toluca, Mexico

I am not particularly familiar with Ukraine. I have never been there or, for that matter, anywhere very near there. Yet I have something of a connection to the place.

It happens that four of my great-grandparents were born in a place called Molotschna Colony, which was located in what is now the province of Zaporizhia in southeast Ukraine. They were Mennonites, a pacifist German-speaking religious sect that had originated in the Netherlands. They had been invited to settle in the area near the Sea of Azov by Catherine the Great, who had recently captured the region from the Ottoman Empire. At the time, this newly conquered land was called New Russia or South Russia. For reasons involving taxes and compulsory military service, my great-grandparents (along with many other Mennonites) abandoned South Russia in the late 19th century for Kansas—well ahead of the rise of Vladimir Lenin or, for that matter, Vladimir Putin.

Given the history, it is no surprise that Russia feels an attachment to Ukraine or that the large Russian-speaking population there feels attached to its larger neighbor.

What has been interesting in following the American coverage of the popular protests that forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee is the way the portrayal of the situation has evolved. People in the streets expressing anger over the government always makes a dramatic narrative, but several years of Arab springs and color-coded revolutions—including Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution of 2004—have left journalists and international observers a bit less starry-eyed over displays of people power. In the absence of revolutionary romance, the ivory tower academic view seemed to predominate in the early reporting. Or maybe it just seemed that way to me because I listen to a fair amount of National Public Radio.

The early American coverage I heard tended to portray events in the Ukraine as an outbreak tribalism, i.e. the more culturally European west of the country versus the Russian-identifying east. There was also a bit of pointing to far right elements among the protestors, as if to caution news consumers not to get too swept up by emotion. But as the body count mounted and the government was put seriously on the defensive, it was impossible not to get caught up in the drama of the events.

Make no mistake, Ukraine is nothing short of a basket case. Not only is the country culturally divided, it has long been rife with corruption and its economy is on the ropes. To the extent that Russia and the West are in a competition to be Ukraine’s BFF, the country is definitely no prize to the extent that it is going to need a lot of economic help and major improvements in its economic and political culture. And these days the European Union and the United States have enough of their own problems.

So why is Putin so interested in Ukraine? The standard answer is that a somewhat paranoid Russia (Napoleon and Hitler haven’t been forgotten) likes having reliable buffers states on its borders and Ukraine’s location on the Black Sea is fairly strategic. And then there is the little matter of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet based on the Crimean peninsula. There is a word for this sort of domination by a larger power of a smaller country, but you don’t hear it mentioned much anymore: neo-imperialism.

President Obama and his surrogates mock the notion of a Cold War or of a competition between the U.S. and Russia. And most people around the world are more than happy not to see enthusiastic military competition between the two countries. But neither does the president talk of a philosophical or moral competition between the two countries. He occasionally enumerates the values the U.S. and the West adhere to and points out that the U.S. disagrees with Putin’s values, but he never quite moves past the stance of agreeing to disagree.

What was exhilarating about Ukraine’s latest revolution—despite its messiness and dark aspects—was that it was fueled by ideas. In fact, the very ideas that President Obama listed rather eloquently in his remarks in Mexico: “freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, fair and free elections, the ability to run a business without paying a bribe, to not be discriminated against because of your religion or your beliefs”—right before he repeated that the U.S. and Russia aren’t in competition.

This is what the so-called pragmatic/realist view of the world often misses. While the “experts” are busy explaining how everything comes down to what tribe or ethnic group you belong to and that stability is always better than instability, people are going into the street and risking life and limb for ideas. And those ideas—from Tunisia to Egypt to Syria to Venezuela—are very often an aspiration to greater economic liberty and wanting to throw off the yoke of corrupt government. It doesn’t always end well. Not only do the existing entrenched powers (such as the Assad regime in Syria) resist these eruptions of mass frustration, but there are often more organized ideologically driven forces (such as Al Qaeda) waiting for their chance to hijack a revolution.

For those of us who think that liberty is a good thing, it becomes increasingly clear that the mere holding of elections is not sufficient to achieve freedom. Looking around the world we can see that meaningful political freedom does not exist without corresponding economic freedom. Unfortunately, the established name for a system of liberal free markets is capitalism. And the forces that abhor too much freedom among the masses have done a very good job of vilifying that word around the world—including in many places in the West.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Gotta Love the E.U.

Nothing quite catches my eye like a provocative mixture of earthy Anglo-Saxon and the elegant Gallic language.

That is why my eye was drawn to a headline in Sunday’s Le Monde, the closest equivalent France has to The New York Times. The headline read: Les cinq leçons du « fuck the EU ! » d’une diplomate américaine.

That refers to the conversation that was posted on YouTube last week, in which Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland could be heard candidly discussing the situation in Ukraine with the U.S. ambassador to that country. Everyone is taking it as given that the Russians recorded the conversation and then made it public in order to embarrass the Obama administration.

Nuland uttered the expletive as a way of saying that the Americans would be better off working around their nominal partners (the Europeans), rather than with them, when it comes to dealing with the situation in Ukraine. People in that country have taken to the streets in protest of their government’s intention to move closer to Russia.

So what are the five lessons referenced in the title of the article, as enumerated by its author, Sylvie Kauffmann? Briefly, they are that 1) Moscow has no hesitation in using old KGB tricks, 2) there is no longer any secrecy in diplomacy, 3) the U.S. and the European Union are divided on Ukraine, 4) the U.S. is not only clumsy but arrogant, and 5) Germany is fed up with the U.S.

Kauffmann notes that, despite the obligatory expressions of utter offense by E.U. leaders, much of the non-official reaction has been more bemusement, if not outright amusement, as demonstrated by the image (accompanied by “In anticipation of Valentine’s Day ;-)") tweeted by the E.U ambassador to the U.S., Joao Vale de Almeida:

Some of the amusement comes from seeing the tables turned on the Americans, who were so recently and dramatically revealed to be spying on and monitoring friends and foes alike around the world—including, most famously, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Her anger had particular resonance because of her personal history of growing up in repressive East Germany.

There is no small irony in hearing Europeans vent about American clumsiness and arrogance in the sixth year of the presidency of a man who got elected, at least in part, by promising to change that very perception of the United States in the world. The paradox is that President Obama has never stopped being personally popular around the world, even while attitudes toward America and its foreign policy have not really changed—or, if anything, have worsened. It is as if people around the world do not actually see the U.S. government as something that Obama is the head of but rather as something that operates separately from him. This perception is only enhanced by the president’s interesting manner of sometimes sounding as though he is speaking for himself personally rather than for the government as a whole.

If the Nuland recording tells us anything new, it is the degree to which Vladimir Putin does not take the U.S. government seriously. As a former British ambassador was quoted as explaining in The Times of London, if it was indeed the Russians, “they have chosen to sacrifice a very strong source of intelligence to make a very strong propaganda point.” It seems as though Putin enjoys tweaking the American president publicly.

Last March, two months before Putin began his current term as president, President Obama was caught by a microphone telling then-President Dmitry Medvedev he needed more time “particularly with missile defense,” adding, “This is my last election… After my election I have more flexibility.” Replied Medvedev, “I will transmit this information to Vladimir.”

So far we have not seen Putin take advantage of Obama’s offer of flexibility, but he has certainly been aggressive in strengthening Russia’s influence in a breakaway state like Ukraine, where it’s pretty clear that the population wants closer links to Western Europe, and in a client state like Syria, where Obama briefly threatened—then disavowed—military action after flagrant chemical weapon attacks. While the Syrian government continues to slaughter its own people, Russia defends it against criticism for missing deadlines for turning over its chemical weapons. To date it has handed over less than five percent of its acknowledged stockpile. As for peace talks, Russia is blocking sanctions in the U.N. Security Council against Syria for a lack of progress. And as for Iran, Russia is already warming up for an oil deal in anticipation of a full lifting of sanctions by the U.S. and E.U., and Iran is warming up by testing new laser-guided ballistic missiles.

Long gone are the days when American schoolchildren were taught drills in case of a Soviet nuclear attack, but Putin’s Russia has shown that its interventionism can result in plenty of misery in other parts of the world and that it can definitely make the world a more dangerous place.

In a 2012 debate, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney for calling Russia America’s biggest geopolitical foe, quipping that “the 1980s, they’re now calling to ask for their foreign policy back because, you know, the Cold War’s been over for 20 years.”

That line was much funnier (and less offensive) than anything Victoria Nuland might have come up with. In hindsight, though, it’s actually kind of hard to fault the assertion that it was ridiculing.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Rules

Normally, I am not inclined to feel sorry for politicians, but sometimes I do anyway.

Not really, but sometimes sort of.

Usually, this happens when one of them is going about his business, following “the rules” as he understands them, only to discover suddenly and without warning that “the rules” have changed.

That happened to Richard Nixon. As president, he was preceded by Lyndon Johnson and, before him, John Kennedy. Those two were elected president and vice-president in 1960 (defeating Nixon) in one of the closest elections ever. Vote fraud was uncovered in a number of areas, particularly in Richard Daley’s Chicago and in Johnson’s Texas, and many people believed it was sufficient to have shifted Illinois’s and Texas’s electoral votes to Kennedy and keep Nixon from achieving the requisite 270. Though Nixon’s staff urged him to fight the results in court, he chose not to contest the results. Dirty tricks are just part of the game, he may have thought, and gentlemen don’t call the voters’ attention to them.

But when Nixon got involved in his own dirty tricks in advance of his own reelection as president, the establishment didn’t look the other way for him. While there is no evidence that he was actively involved in or even knew about the Watergate burglary in advance, he did clearly attempt to cover up his people’s involvement in it, and a couple of pesky reporters would not let it go. Before it was over, most of Washington and the country were calling for his resignation and Congress was threatening impeachment. He must have felt that “the rules”—which had applied to Kennedy and Johnson and a number of other presidents before them—had been changed.

Speaking of Kennedy, he benefited from an unwritten rule that said, when a popular leader has a few dalliances on the side, the press looks the other way. Lots of reporters were apparently aware that he had a busy love life, but they didn’t dig into it because it was his own private business. That, presumably, was the rule that Bill Clinton thought he was operating under as well. Unfortunately for him, some of the women whom had propositioned in the workplace spoke out. Still, not much attention was paid to them until one of them brought him to court and his subsequent perjury somehow become part of a totally unrelated special investigation.

Clinton seemed genuinely confused and disappointed that his extra-curricular activity did not get ignored or brushed under the carpet by the press and his fellow politicians as it had for previous presidents. In the end, though, he fared better than Nixon. Not only did he get to keep his job, he went on to be a respected elder statesman.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is the latest high-profile politician to see “the rules” change for him. Everybody knows that New Jersey is one of those places where politics are played pretty rough. (Chicago is another.) Yet normally you don’t often read in the national press about the bullying and the favors for friends and payback for enemies that goes on. It’s just part of the culture. Journalists seem to factor in the local culture when covering politics and, as a consequence, the kind of behavior that would be noted in one place is simply taken for granted in another.

To the extent that this was a “rule” in covering in New Jersey, that rule has now changed—at least for Christie. The fact that his staff did something to punish someone they didn’t like has become national news. At this point there is no way to know how much, if anything, Christie knew about the bizarre vendetta against the mayor of Fort Lee and the traffic jam caused by it.

Maybe this story makes some sort of sense in New Jersey, but it totally confuses me. Why would a governor’s staff want to punish a mayor of the opposite party for not endorsing the governor’s reelection? And how is inconveniencing so many New York and New Jersey drivers (not just those from Fort Lee) a punishment for that mayor anyway? It is baffling. I keep thinking there was some other point to it, but I don’t know what it would be.

What I do understand is that Christie or, by extension, his staff would never have done anything so stupid if they hadn’t reasonably expected to get away with it. In other words, they were operating under a certain set of “rules” as they understood them. And now they have found that those rules, if they ever actually existed as they thought they did, have changed.

As I mentioned, Chicago is another place where, when it comes to politics, “the rules” seem to be a bit different than other parts of the country. Like the time a relatively inexperienced politician was on the verge of losing Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate until the Chicago Tribune somehow got hold of the messy details of the frontrunner’s divorce records from six years earlier and which were supposed to be sealed. Or when the same young politician was trailing the in subsequent general election until the Chicago Tribune (again) got hold of the frontrunner’s messy divorce details (again supposedly sealed) from five years earlier. This time the details were even more headline-grabbing since the ex-wife was a Hollywood actor: Jeri Ryan, whose roles have included the reformed, Borg Seven of Nine, on Star Trek: Voyager.

It doesn’t look as though we will ever know exactly what went on behind the scenes to cause the political destruction ten years ago of those two politicians—one Democrat, the other Republican. Maybe it was just a coincidence and that promising young Senate candidate simply happened to the luckiest politician in Chicago.

Or just maybe, for people working in support of Barack Obama, “the rules” never happened to change.