Here in Yankee land, all is tranquil and peaceful now that Ferguson’s protests have subsided. Our workers are getting ready for our pleasant Labor Day holiday, which traditionally marks the end of summer and the resumption of what is now a perpetual political campaign. Soon all Yankee eyes will turn to the lies and fantasies of Ted Cruz, Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and the attempts of pols without billionaires’ backing to refute them. The fate of the last two years of Barack Obama’s presidency will hang in the balance. The prognosis is not good.
For many of us Yanks, these campaigns of lies don’t matter much. Our economy is recovering, albeit more slowly that we like. Our stock markets are all up—way up. We Yanks still have the satisfaction of knowing that we’re “Number One!” economically, at least until the Chinese surpass us. Having fought three unnecessary decade-long wars in five decades—Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—we are returning to the isolationism from which the last century’s two world wars jolted us. We are once again feeling the suspicion of “foreign entanglements” that Washington gave us as our birthright.
But all is not well abroad. Some very dark and dangerous chickens are coming home to roost.
The first is Vladimir Putin. I have made no secret of my admiration for his early career. When he came to national power fifteen years ago, Russia was a broken, bleeding and deluded country, battered by repeated invasions and World War, traumatized by a Cold War that very nearly exterminated our species, and duped by a fictional economic system.
Gorbachev and Yeltsin presumed to offer a cure, and Putin took it further. Russia became, in Yeltsin’s words, a “normal country.” Under Putin it joined the global economy and WTO, began to build a middle class, and dropped its Soviet trash-talking and war mongering.
But Putin has changed. The change is now self-evident.
How so? One of the worst things a parent or leader can do is lie to kids. Putin did that this week. In a highly publicized meeting with Russian youth, he likened what is going on today in Ukraine to the Nazi conquest of that nation (first battered by Soviet starvation and oppression) some eighty years ago.
It is self-evidently nothing of the kind. Ukraine today is hardly the world-conquering military machine that was Nazi Germany—which, when it annexed Austria, was the strongest military power on Earth and in human history. Ukraine is a nation still finding itself and tripping over democracy. It can hardly even defend itself. Only Putin’s complete control of Russian television could make this hapless nation seem an ogre.
Even more self-evident is the motive for Putin’s lie. At long last his actions—not his words—made clear what he has wanted all along: a land bridge to Crimea, the province he recently stole from Ukraine.
Apparently I was right when I surmised
that all those big white “aid” trucks were intelligence-gathering machines. Apparently Putin has decided that taking, let alone holding and pacifying, Donyetsk and Luhansk would be a terrible task involving a whole lot of expense, risk, suffering, civilian casualties and sacrifice.
Those two provinces would have made a fine land bridge to Crimea, for the sake of military supply, economic connectedness and contiguous territory. But grabbing them would be too costly. So now Putin has opened a “new front” in Ukraine, seeking a narrow land corridor to Crimea through the Ukrainian towns of Novoazovsk and Mariupol.
Of course there are more peaceful means of reaching the same end. Look at a map
. A monstrous peninsula of Russia proper juts out between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov to greet Crimea’s east cost. There’s big gap of sea, to be sure. But overcoming that gap, whether with massive bridges, ferries, or a new Russia supply port on the east side of the big gap hardly seems beyond the engineering capability of the nation that was first to orbit an artificial satellite and first to put a man in space, and whose big rockets (before Putin’s current warmongering spooked commercial interests) were once the vehicle of choice for commercial satellite launches by every country but China.
The problem is that Putin has turned to the Dark Side. A macho man who hurt his back, in his fifties, in competitive judo, he apparently prefers conquest and territorial expansion to more peaceful pursuits like engineering.
I have noted (1
) how “leaders for life” like Mao and Mugabe destroyed most or all of what they built in their best years by egotistical caprice in their dotage. Russia’s current enterprise in Ukraine will some day be known as Russia’s Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. It will produce nothing but pain and suffering for Russia’s people.
If I were Russian, this week would have turned my mind irrevocably against Putin, despite all the good he has done for Russia’s people to date. One leader of a great power (Dubya) who tries to make his own reality with propaganda and force is enough for any century.
The tragedy of Putin’s declining years is a Russian chicken coming home to roost: insufficient attention to building political parties and real democracy. But another flock of much darker and more powerful chickens is coming home to roost in another part of the world. This is the penchant for military-industrial complexes in advanced countries, including our own, Russia, China and yes, France—to build themselves up by selling advanced weaponry to nations whose economies, governments and social systems, let alone morality, give them no hope of using those weapons wisely or well.
The main problem in the Middle East today is not the so-called Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS or ISIL. Not by a long shot. Iraq’s secular, battle hardened and experienced Sunnis could crush IS in mere weeks if they had the mind. Assad could do the same with IS in Syria.
Neither is doing so now because each sees IS as a means to an important end. Iraq’s Sunnis see IS as a means to regain a share of the wealth and power they once had in Iraq. Assad keeps IS alive because it supports his “all my enemies are terrorists” narrative. This clever ploy has even duped some misguided Yanks and Europeans, who think the West should ally with a psychopath who has utterly devasted a once peaceful country, on the theory that “my enemies’ enemies are my friends.” Isn’t that quaint notion as modern and apt as the Code of Hammurabi?
No, IS’ troops are no more than twenty thousand religious fanatics, foreign and alien to the places they now control. They are mostly strangers in strange lands. Russia has more than twice that many troops on the border of Ukraine. The Sunni Baathists that we Yanks stupidly purged from Iraq’s army and government number five times as many. When the locals have a good reason to crush IS, they will. But not before.
big problem in the Middle East is something that came to our scattered-brained Yankee attention just this week. The entire Middle East is taking sides. The Turks and Qataris are with IS, at least as against Hezbollah, Assad and Iran. So are the Saudis. Iran is with Syria and Hezbollah and against IS. Recently Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, of all things, sent modern planes to bomb Libya.
PBS pundit Mark Shields likened
the situation to the last century’s Spanish Civil War. Volunteers from all over the world came to fight in that civil war, which was a precursor to World War II.
But what’s happening in the Middle East today is nothing like the Spanish Civil War. It’s not confined to a single country. Unlike the Spanish Civil War, it’s not primarily a matter of ideology, although the Sunni/Shiite schism figures importantly in it. It’s a witches’ brew of religious schisms, ancient enmity between ethnic groups, and the ambitions of primitive nation-states. In the worst case, it threatens a monstrous, regional free-for-all, with territory and alliances up for grabs.
In fact, it’s much more like a precursor to World War I. Half formed nation-states, including the Saudis’ medieval monarchy and the Gulf sheikdoms, are striving for survival, influence and dominance using modern weapons that their present state of social, let alone scientific, development never would have allowed them to have. Many of these “nations” still live by the Code of Hammurabi and the rules of monarchy and aristocracy that Europe and England abandoned centuries ago, and that we Yanks never had.
So what the world today is facing in the Middle East and North Africa is a replay of Europe’s devastating religious wars of the eighteenth century and World War I’s pointless struggle of nascent nation-states for empire—both at the same time.
The resulting conflagration could consume most or all of the Middle East and North Africa. It could stop the flow of oil on which the global economy depends. If enough of the participants gang up on Israel, it could result in the first use of nuclear weapons in war since 1945.
So when the President says we don’t have a strategy, he’s right. We don’t even have a strategy for defeating IS without setting this tinderbox on fire. And we sure as hell don’t have a strategy for heading off what could be World War III—not a global nuclear conflagration as feared in 1962, but a regional “world” war that devastates the Middle East, interrupts the flow of oil, wrecks the global economy, and generally produces unpredictable and probably catastrophic consequences.
Until we have a good strategy to head off this third world war, we should be doing exactly what the President is now doing: no harm.
Whatever strategy we develop will have to meet two goals. First, it will have to insure Israel’s survival. Second, it should do as little harm as possible and minimize the possibility of repeating the useless religious wars in Europe or the tragedy of World War I.
The President is absolutely right to want to think before acting. We acted before thinking in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. As Sarah Palin might say, how’d that approach work out for ya?
To say that the problem is multifaceted and difficult would be understatement of Obamanian proportions. A solution will require application of the greatest minds around the globe, with the same diligence and perseverance as our containment of Soviet Communism during the Cold War. We don’t just need great thinkers like George Marshall (the father of our Marshall Plan) and George Kennan (the father of our containment policy). We need a passel of them, with expertise in all the strange countries that make up the Middle East, as well as non-countries like Libya, Syria and Iraq today.
As we devise a solution, we must involve our traditional allies. We should also try to involve Russia and China, despite the current contretemps in the Ukraine and China’s own difficulties and conflict as a rising power. A third world war in the Middle East and North Africa is in no one’s interest, although it might make Russia’s oil and gas more valuable for a time.
We should also work to involve the countries in the region that are most advanced socially, most democratic and least governed by religious fervor. Those are, in order: Turkey, and (except for their own religious fanatics) Iran and Israel.
The Saudis, who have spent most of the last half-century
[link downloads a document file] supporting Islamic extremism, jihadism and terrorism around the globe, need not apply. They are part of the problem and could become part of the solution only if leopards can change their spots utterly—an extremely unlikely eventuality. As much as we need to pull the big bad Russian bear off hapless Ukraine, we need far more to contain the Saudis and close the Pandora’s box of extremism that they have unleashed upon the world.