ST. PUTIN AND THE DRAGON

By Paul

Nobody knows exactly what is going to happen in Ukraine, but the world is right to feel very nervous about the possibilities.  In Russian iconography, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of images of St. George slaying the dragon and rescuing the princess.  (St.) Putin these days appears to consider himself the modern counterpart thereof, willing to go to battle against the western dragon to save the maiden princess of the east.

Just a day or two ago, I would have written that I see no way right now that Russia will willingly “give up” the Crimean peninsula.  Today, in fact, the local Crimean parliament has (no doubt with Putin’s blessing) voted to join Russia once again.  There are, to be sure, historical and geopolitical reasons that could be pointed to for this, mostly because Crimea was part of Russia for so long (and only “given over to Ukraine” in 1954), and because Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is stationed there.  On top of all this, Crimea has for decades been considered a kind of odd semi-autonomous republic, even under Ukrainian rule, and many (although by no means all) of the people who live there speak Russian and consider themselves Russian.

But the real looming question of the moment seems to be what to make of Vladimir Putin.  What are his goals?  What are his fears?  What propels him to act, and to act especially in ways that seem contrary to the usual pushes and pulls of western political calculations?

It has to be said that Russia itself has long been a mystery to the west.  Even during the time of the Czars, European rulers puzzled over what Russia would and would not do to support various political goals espoused by Europeans.  Russia, too, has wondered over the centuries what makes Europe tick, and now what it is that the United States wants.  In the end, I fear that we continue to miss each other’s intents, to say nothing of one another’s hopes and fears.

Russia has for centuries considered itself “exceptional.”  Even during the Middle Ages, and continuing now into the 21st century, it has seen itself as the mystical Orthodox leader of Christianity, the country with a “soul,” as opposed to the corrupt, secular, anti-religious west that chases after materialism and the things of the body.  When I was in Russia many years ago (this was in 1971, during the Soviet era), spending a summer there studying the language, I once witnessed a striking example of this.  An American friend of mine and I were walking into a library in Moscow to see if we could check out a book.  Two old women were standing nearby, the classic “babushkas” with headscarves and fat, rosy cheeks.  They looked at us with, I have to say, some level of disdain, and – obviously not thinking (or not caring) that we could understand them, one said to the other:  “Ah, these foreigners!  They are trying to steal our Russian soul!”

The concept of the Russian soul, so called, is not a thing to be taken lightly.  It is part and parcel both of this feeling of exceptionalism, and of the common belief among Russians that they have always been under some kind of attack by the west.  This attack has taken not only military form, to utterly devastating effect, both by Napoleon in the 19th century and by Hitler in the 20th, but intellectual and cultural forms, as well.  If you will indulge me, here is another story that illustrates the latter point.  The small group from SUNY New Paltz that I was part of that was spending the summer there studying Russian also spent a short time in Sochi, the city of recent Olympic fame, although forty or forty-five years ago it was a much sleepier summer resort.  Two young men, fellow students of mine from the group, decided one warm afternoon to go down to the Black Sea beach for a swim.  However, they made the mistake of wearing cut-off jeans to do so.  First of all, at the time no Russian man would dream of walking in the street in shorts, especially jagged-edged cut-off shorts.  People made fun of them as they walked to the beach. Some said, “If you can’t afford a pair of pants, WE’LL buy you some!”   And then, once they got to the beach, the police actually came and arrested these two young American students.  They were kept in jail for several hours, until our accompanying professor finally got them released.  However, shortly afterwards, the police came to our hotel, gathered all of us Americans together (a dozen or so of us), and gave us a very stern lecture.  With literal wagging finger, we were told in no uncertain terms: “We will not tolerate your corrupting our Russian youth with your western ways.  If ANYTHING like this happens again, you will all be summarily sent out of the country!” And all of this for wearing cut-off jeans!

So, we see that Russia has long considered itself a country under siege, sometimes for very good reason, and sometimes for not such good reason. But that mentality continues to be at work when Russians look at so many of the countries of the old Soviet Block (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Poland, Czechoslovakia – now the Czech Republic and Slovakia, of course – Hungary, and let us not forget Ukraine) and see them “turning toward Europe.”  Most of these countries, with the exception of Ukraine, are now either part of the European Union, or have applied for such status, and some are also part of NATO.   This makes Russia extremely nervous and, given Russia’s history vis-à-vis Europe, maybe we ought to try to understand that from their perspective there may well be very good reason for this nervousness.  Now, Russia sees Ukraine, a country with profoundly deep ties to Russia, attempting to do the same thing.  Let us not forget that Ukraine was part of Russia (not just part of the Soviet Union) for many centuries, and the Russian Orthodox Church, that bastion of the Russian soul itself, was actually founded in Kiev.  There are many Russians living in Ukraine, and lots of Russian men have Ukrainian wives, and Ukrainian women have Russian husbands.  For Russia to contemplate Ukraine “going to the west,” against all of this history and all of these cultural and economic ties, is almost unthinkable.

I believe that it is time for everybody to step back and take several deep breaths.  First of all, Ukraine, for all of the totally legitimate reasons why it deposed its former highly corrupt president, Viktor Yanukovych, must try to remember these long-standing ties their country has with Russia, and not purposefully antagonize their powerful neighbor to the east.  The United States and Europe, for their part, too have to come to grips with these historical ties, as well as with these fears and aspirations felt by Russia, and make an attempt to realize that some of them – certainly in Russia’s eyes – may be legitimate.  Finally, Russia too has to give a little.  It must let go some of its anger towards and mistrust of the west, and see that the only way forward is through political and diplomatic channels.  You do not win the hearts and minds of people, whether they be Ukrainians, or Europeans, or Americans, through saber rattling, or military bluster, or worse, actual on-the-ground aggression.

Pres. Obama is in an extremely difficult spot right now.  The Republican saber-rattlers like John McCain and others are screaming at him to “do something.”  They are accusing him of being at the heart of the problem because he has somehow shown himself to be “weak” in international affairs.  How they get that is a mystery to me, and I believe it is enormously unfair to so accuse him.  But the President somehow has got to not anger these GOP hawks too much in such a way as to lose credibility at home, while making some attempt to understand Russia’s position, while supporting the very real and totally legitimate aspirations of the Ukrainian people, and also while getting the European Union behind him as they have never been before.

Maybe, now that I think of it, it is St. Obama we ought to be talking about, not St. Putin.   Or another way to put it, what is really needed is St. Obama, St. Putin, St. Hollande, St. Merkel, St. Cameron, and let us not forget Ukraine’s St. Yatsenyuk.   God knows, we’ll need all of them to slay this great and very dangerous dragon that threatens the very peace and stability of Ukraine, Russia, Europe, and the rest of the world, too.

HOW DID I GET IN BED WITH THEM?

By Paul

It is not very often that I find myself amazingly in agreement about anything with the likes of Pope Francis, Ayatollah Khomeini, Vladimir Putin, Rand Paul, and – as they say – the citizens of Teabagistan.  In fact, I must admit that such bedfellows make me extremely uncomfortable, and the very idea of being in any sense in political company with them leads me to question yet again my decision to come out against US military intervention in Syria, as I did on this blog last week.  Normally, my comfort zone is on the side of President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, Minority Leader Pelosi, Senator Boxer, and many other liberals, who now favor such military strikes.  If I had to put it in terms of friendship, I would say I think of this latter group as my compatriots and fellow countrymen, while the former gaggle would represent to me those who live on a distant and alien planet, far removed from my own.   And yet, here I am in agreement with them on this topic.  How has that come about?

Well, it has not been an easy journey, and I continue to examine myself each day to see if I still feel as though I must hold myself apart from my usual political alliances, my philosophical friends of the heart.  Let me, then, briefly explain how it is I feel I’ve come to where I’m at, and you be the judge as to whether or not my thinking is faulty.  I will not burden any reader with a verbatim reiteration of everything I said in my Aug. 29 “Bombs Away” posting, but for those who may not have read it, the main argument centers around the fact that military action against a country such as Syria can have untold, unforeseen, far-reaching, and frightening consequences, no matter how noble the motivation, and no matter how restricted the intended scope of the action.  That was the heart of the argument.  Tangentially, I also believe that, as heinous and despicable as chemical weapons truly are, in the end, death is death.   You cannot be more dead from a chemical attack than you can be from an artillery attack, or from a mortar shell, or a bullet.  And while at least a thousand people were killed in the chemical weapons attack (the numbers vary, depending on whose statistics you read), including women and children, no one also disagrees that well over one hundred thousand Syrians – one hundred times as many – also including women and children, have died as a result of conventional weapons in this terrible civil war.   Why then is the Obama Administration, and seemingly not many other countries thus far, hell bent on punishing Syria now, when earlier we were content to allow events to unfold with little outside input from us?

The answer seems to be that a “red line” has been crossed, namely, the use of chemical weapons.   And while there is no doubt that this argument carries with it a degree of weight, is it strong enough for us to risk the other consequences that may well result from a military attack on Syria?  These include the possibility of sucking the United States, willy-nilly, into yet another Middle Eastern conflagration, a quagmire out of which we will not know how to extricate ourselves, and even of the widening of the current civil war itself to include other nations of the region and of the globe.  These are not mere fantasies of a frightened mind.  They are very real possibilities, which we must face in any decision-making process.

The other argument for “doing what we said” in regard to the “red line” has to do with the notion of credibility.  Pres. Obama said just a day or two ago in Sweden that his credibility was not on the line, but rather that of the world community.  By this, we must assume that he is saying he’s willing to do what he said he would do, but that others (the US Congress? the signatories of the Chemical Weapons Ban?  any right-thinking person or country?) might not be willing to do so.  The Chemical Weapons Ban itself stipulates that parties pledge to provide “assistance and protection,” and to swiftly dispatch “expertise” when needed, but it does not specify that military action must be taken against any rogue state that makes use of such weapons. Furthermore, speaking of agreements we have signed, the United Nations Charter does demand that no country attack another, for any reason, without the prior agreement of the Security Council.  Additionally, we might recall that Saddam Hussein, our ersatz alley at the time, used chemical weapons against thousands of Kurds, and the US government, for geopolitical reasons of its own, said and did nothing.  So, it would seem that, in the end, red lines come in many different varieties of value and intensity.

Indeed, what the credibility issue may really come down to might only in small part have anything to do with Syria.  Instead, it may have to do with Iran, and whether or not it is working on the creation of a nuclear weapon, and with our pledge to Israel in regard to this particular line in the sand.  The argument in a nutshell goes something like this: if we back down in the face of Syria, a much smaller fish in the region, what will we ever do in regard to Iran, the biggest fish swimming in the Middle Eastern sea?  And, therefore, would we in essence be pre-abandoning Israel, as it were, if we were somehow not to stand up to Syria now?

I am not asserting that these questions ought not to be asked.  I am simply saying, let us be fully upfront about them.  My own take on the answer to the red line question as it pertains to Iran and Israel is that we are comparing giants and midgets.  The overwhelming opinion of the American public, and of French and British public opinion too by the way, is against military action in Syria.  The same, however, is not the case in regard to how we feel about Israel, and its struggle to survive in a region where so many seem to want it to disappear.  In other words, let Iran beware, and be wary.  The Ayatollah should not mistake a robust debate about the wisdom of attacking Syria for the use of chemical weapons, or even – if it were to come to that – a decision not to attack, with an unwillingness to protect America’s long-standing alley and co-democracy partner in the region.  Nor, I think, would the US Congress balk, the way the House of Representatives (if not the Senate) currently seems poised to do concerning Syria, were it to consider a resolution for the defense and protection of Israel.

Thus, credibility, like a red line, must be viewed in its proper context.  In the end, I fear I remain still in the same unlikely and very uncomfortable bed I found myself in at the beginning.  I’ll say it again:  I don’t like it, but here I am.  So it goes with politics sometimes, and with world affairs.  You’ve got to follow your heart, and afterwards, if you’re lucky, maybe you’ll work out in your head some reasons as to why you also think this should be the case.  So, move over Mr. Putin, your Holiness, and Mr. Paul.  I’m here, it would seem, with you this time.  Just, please, don’t get used to it. And don’t worry, either.  I fully expect this to be the first, and surely the last, time you will ever see me ensconced in this horribly cramped, unbearably uncomfortable, and highly disagreeable bed with you.

BOMBS AWAY, OR AWAY WITH BOMBS: WHAT OPTIONS DO WE HAVE?

By Paul

At this point, it would appear all but certain that the United States, along with whatever allies in the end decide to join with us, is planning to commence military action against Syria.  The goal is not “regime change,” but deterrence, that is, preventing Syria from further use of weapons of mass destruction, aka in these circumstances, chemical weapons.  At the moment, this would seem to be the best spin we can put on any decision for military action on the part of the US and its friends.

There are, however, other points of view to consider.   The United Nations will not officially agree to sanction such military action, because Syria’s ally, Russia, will not agree to it.  As a result, if the Obama Administration does decide to commence with missile attacks, it will have to be with other justification.  The Chemical Weapons Treaty, implemented in 1993 with 189 signatories, is designed to protect member states from the use of chemical weapons.  And while Syria never signed it, the United States did.  Does this, then, give us “legal cover” to attack another country?  Additionally, the Arab League has not called for military action, as much as it has condemned the use of chemical weapons.  There is, in fact, no argument on the part of any responsible state regarding the utterly abhorrent use of chemical weapons.   But is it absolutely certain that the Assad government ordered their use?  There appears to remain at least some measure of doubt in this regard. And, even if it were proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that Assad ordered their use, what to do about it is still another matter.

From all reports, it would seem that the planned US military action is designed to be limited to missile strikes which will, in theory at least, provide a deterrence against further use of chemical weapons.  Are such limited strikes even possible, it can be asked, and exactly how far do they go and what good will they do?  Will they, in the end, even accomplish their stated goal, or will they serve merely to further inflame an already highly volatile region?

One of the many complications faced by the United States and its allies is that only some of the insurgents in this civil war want anything like what we might term democratic processes to take place in Syria’s future.   We know that Al Qaeda has, in fact, infiltrated a number of factions within the Syrian opposition, and it is absolutely imperative that the United States not give aid and assistance to them.  Another question to consider is what benefit do we think might accrue to the United States from such military action, if it is to take place?  What are the pluses, as opposed to the whole set of minuses, that we might hope for?

The stated goal of the United States thus far in the civil war is to do what it can to equip and train those pro-western forces within the Syrian opposition.  Whether or not we have been successful in this so far is anyone’s guess.  But yet another purpose that the US may have in deciding to strike militarily is to show to the world, and perhaps Iran in particular (and, in a more round-about way, Israel), that we will respond once a stated “red line” has been crossed.  But was it wise in the first place to draw such a line in the sand?  Surely, there are other ways to state policy forcefully and emphatically than by essentially painting yourself into a corner, and then feeling forced to act in accordance with what you are on record as having said.  It could also be added, although not everyone agrees on the particulars, that it is up to Congress to declare war, not the president.  And what else can a military attack on another country be called, except a kind of declaration of war?  The only exception is in case of immediate need for self-defense, which hardly appears to pertain in this case.

There is no doubt, and no argument, that the use of chemical weapons is an outrage.  Just as, by the way, blowing people up with bombs and artillery fire is – a thing which the Assad regime has been doing for a long time now.  And although it is perhaps too horrible to say, people who die from an artillery attack are just as dead as those who die from chemical weapons.  Even so, whether it makes sense or not, there seems to be a general consensus that so-called weapons of mass destruction are more heinous and more abhorrent than ordinary weapons of destruction.

So, the question remains, should the US, and whatever allies might join in with us, commence air strikes against the Syrian government, both as a retaliation for the use of chemical weapons and as a deterrent against the future use of them?  If I were an advisor to the President, my counsel to him would have to be “no.”  At least not without UN sanction, and even then only if a truly viable coalition of nations were to go in on it together.  Which is exactly the way it happened in 2011 with regard to Libya.

But as things currently stand, there is no unequivocal, world-wide consensus, and no clear indication that missile strikes will achieve the desired end anyway.  They may well only cause further chaos and havoc in a region of the world that is already highly inflamed and insecure.  Additionally, the history of such quick hits on the part of the United States has hardly been a completely positive one.  If anyone needs proof of this, just think back to the 1983 strike against Lebanon, the 1986 airstrike against Libya, and the use of cruise missiles and bombs against Iraq in 1989.  None of these “strategic strikes” brought any lasting positive results.  Quite the opposite, in fact, could be argued.  Add to this mix now the fact that Russia has just today ordered several warships into the eastern Mediterranean, and we can see how quickly tensions might escalate.

As abominable and reprehensible as the use of chemical weapons is, the question very much remains as to whether missile strikes on the part of the United States might yet further destabilize and inflame an already unstable region.  If the United States were to begin military strikes, and if we were – even against our will — ultimately drawn into yet another Middle East conflagration, the end of which is unclear at best, those who currently call for missiles would be the first to condemn Pres. Obama for getting us into yet another quagmire.  As easy as it is to understand the impulse to strike out at a regime that is willing to kill its own people for political gain, let us remember that, so far at least, our record in dealing with such regimes has not in the end proved highly effective or been widely applauded, either by those in the countries themselves, or by the rest of the world.