When it seemed to some at the end of the Cold War that we had also reached the end of history, more than ever, every act of rebellion and revolution seemed cause to celebrate an elevated human spirit. After a long winter of merely staving off an enemy’s further success, now freedom was rising with people uprising, and cheer was in the air. We got, relatively peaceful and colored (orange and rose), revolutions and “springs” that sprang of the hope – so richly did the sap of it rise in great municipal squares around the world – that all that is necessary to topple tyranny is for good people to yearn in multitudes together in city centers, suffer only small losses against brutish police while their uplifting cause is broadcast to the world via iPhone and tweeted the encouragement of the well-fed and meaning.
Hold, now, candles up to the night, under music, for the next inspiring Apple or Nike commercial.
Nothing could stop universal liberation now.
Except as it turned out, lots of the colors faded, and the springs were either false or soon broken, which many people, it seemed, failed to notice. More begin to now.
The course of revolutions was never swift and sure, glorious or quickly final. There were counter revolutions, restorations, and failed republics, great dictators along the way before decades might cast a shadow of the original dream. The promise of the French Revolution was not soon borne out: eighty one years passed between the storming of the Bastille and the final establishment of republican government never again to depart. Three quarters of a century after the Russian Revolution waited the collapse of Soviet barbarity and then Yeltsin on a tank just to deliver, so far, ninety-three years later, Vladimir Putin on horseback.
The American Revolution stands more and more exceptional, especially for those who make Exceptionalism the currency of their daily political barter and harangue, though not so exceptional that many of the same won’t pretend that all it requires is a freedom agenda and a perpetual footing for war to spring the world’s restive and aspiring masses, properly watered, into the same colorful bloom.
For many, after Iraq and Afghanistan and those departed springs, it could be Syria that has taken so much the bloom off that rose, though there was Iran in 2009 before it. The right’s interventionists predictably made the failure of that revolution Barack Obama’s failure, though never a credible case was made by never a soul that a president’s greater public encouragement of the “Green” revolution would have led to anything other than the same dismal end with many more dead in the street.
Somewhere now in the consciences of some, not in those of others, arises amidst the inspired freedom calls also the moderating memory – the recollection, in the moral vision of King, that while, he hopefully told us, the arc of history bends toward justice, it is in the first place long. What is it that we provoke with our policies and acts, our encouraging words and cheers, and how, most importantly of all, have we prepared not others, but only ourselves to face what it is that we invoke in the world?
What do we invoke in the world? American troops still in Iraq and not to leave Afghanistan even after thirteen years if some would have their way. The same people would have led the U.S. to enter – oh, let us not argue for the moment over just how – the Syrian civil war. They wanted us, too, to be “all Georgians now” in 2008, when Russia sent troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia. And now there is Ukraine, hotter by the day, with Venezuela just a little on the back burner. North Korea, too, there is always the threat of North Korea, and if, likely, no negotiated settlement is reached with Iran over its nuclear program – just how many air campaigns, missile strikes, policing actions, proxy wars, full-fledged attacks, and all out wars do the impassioned eminences of American imperial militarism believe the United States can conduct at once or in just a decade or two, after a decade or two, without inflaming the world and putting the torch to America’s own democracy?
What is neither reasonably nor honorably, which is not to say uncontested about Ukraine:
- that Victor Yanukovych was the most corrupt of oligarchs and a malleable instrument of Russian imperial policy
- that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is both illegal and unjustifiable.
Still, it is so that not many conclusions necessarily follow from these truths.
From the start there have been divisions over the identity and nature of those behind the anti- Yanukovych protests, with Timothy Snyder in The New York Review of Books and Steven Cohen in The Nation prominent opponents pitting freedom-loving liberals against the right wing nationalists the Russians want to cast as fascists. Snyder does not have to be wrong for Cohen to be partly right. Not all American revolutionaries were Tom Paine and Alexander Hamilton. Some retained their monarchical tastes. And do we not receive our very terminology of political right and left from the French Revolution? And did not the Bolsheviks out maneuver a host of competing and more moderate parties during the Russian Revolution? A revolution is never one thing.
Going back to the 2004 Orange Revolution, the evidence of Ukrainian liberal leaning toward the West is clear enough, particularly in the western Ukraine. The problem of Ukraine 2014, whatever the Russians say, is not who is behind the uprising, but what the West thought it was doing in Ukraine and what thought it gave to what the Russians would do when the West did it. The evidence is that what the Europeans and the U.S. thought they were doing was far too simple minded, and that barely a competent thought was given to what the Russians would do.
One does not have to be Henry Kissinger, characteristically unmindful of moral considerations, not to be James Kirchik, treating geopolitical fault lines as cause for a modern crusade on a high horse to the New Jerusalem. One need not be Kirchik to know which side acts more, in King’s words, to uplift human personality, or Kissinger to know when acts are better guided by the possible. The world is not remediated by zealotry.
The most telling words of anyone, by far, in these events were uttered by Vladimir Putin himself when he finally spoke to the public.
I think they sit there across the pond in the U.S., sometimes it seems … they feel like they’re in a lab and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats without understanding consequences of what they’re doing.
This striking observation reveals much. First, for the man who in the past year has emerged as the American right’s latest master strategist, the personal resentment – what should not guide the policy of master strategists – is palpable. Second, the words nonetheless confirm what many on the right have already charged – that Putin holds Obama in contempt. Third, Putin is right. The conclusion of amateurish fooling around in Ukraine, without “understanding consequences of what they’re doing,” is escaped only through partisan rationalization.
But a greater understanding of the mistakes here escapes both Putin and Obama’s home front critics. When all those EU diplo- and technocrats were luring Ukraine toward membership, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, declaring the EU could get fucked, was picking and choosing who should govern Ukraine after a successful rebellion, it was not, clearly, just the Americans who were wearing lab coats. And it was not the Obama administration, but many of its current critics, before this administration, who have publicly desired all these years to bring the “defensive” lines of NATO right to the borders of Russia, about which the Russians were expected to think what – “Oh, we know, you’re the good guys, we shouldn’t worry”?
Steven Cohen has been infuriated by his own critics calling him a Putin apologist – and why should anyone so intimately connected to The Nation ever be considered tainted by anti-American apologetics – yet it is true that one can, without Cohen’s soft sell of Putin’s autocracy, understand matters from a Russian perspective. It is what fundamentally competent strategists do, and what is required to be done if one wants actually to accomplish a strategic goal and not simply posture about it before the alter of world-historical righteousness.
What stretch of imagination is required to recognize that Putin would not perceive Nuland’s and all the others’ lab set ups benignly? Nuland et al. may envision themselves as no more than traveling preachers tending to their flock’s greater yearning for nearness to democracy, but how much empathetic projection is needed to intuit that Putin, or any Russian leader, would likely see them as outside agitators firing up the flock, stirring up trouble in his own neighboring parish, about which, it just so happens, he cares a little and has an interest? How much geography and history must one know to recognize the significance of Ukraine to Russia? Or that Crimea, once, in 1954, in very different times, literally given to Ukraine for Soviet administrative and political purposes, would not now, seemingly pick-pocketed from Russia’s geopolitical hip, be simply given up with a shrug and a smile? “Oh, well, you win this time. Come back at ya with Mexico when I get a chance.”
Unsurprisingly, entreaties to true believers that they try reversing roles have been facilely dismissed. The U.S., they insist would hardly, in contrary circumstances, invade and annex part of Canada. The easy reply to that easy claim is that, no, obviously, the United States is not Russia. To whom other than rankest of crank extremists on either end of the political spectrum does that case need to be made? Less facile is to wonder just how obvious it is that the United States would not act similarly. American interventions in behalf of national interests are a twentieth century historical marker. Had the Canadian or Mexican governments been toppled during the Cold War by Marxist leaning street protests, how hard is it to conjure the frenzied calls, particularly from the right, for American action? In fact, the United States has maintained possession of Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba, occupied by treaty signed under the duress of colonial domination, even as the internationally recognized government of Cuba has for more than fifty years protested that continued foreign occupation. Once the American Civil War was over, the U.S. began covertly to supply arms to Juarez in Mexico, in opposition to the French-installed Emperor Maximilian. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine declared that European interference, not in a neighboring country, but anywhere in the Western Hemisphere would be considered “manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
None of this is to argue an equivalence between the United States and Russia. These commonalities alone create none such. Rather it is to hold out Russian interest in Ukraine as obvious and its response to events easy to have anticipated. That Putin would seek to regain Crimea, which had long been part of Russia. That he might opportunistically lie in wait for eastern Ukraine. That no election in May will invalidate the license Putin feels now even more strongly, as has the West all along as well, to work clandestinely to shape the future of whatever Ukraine will remain. Still, unprepared for the response so far, Western voices rail against it as a behavioral outlier.
When freedom agenda crusaders, particularly, rail so obviously about how good we are, and how bad is the autocrat of the day, they despoil statecraft with a simplistic Manichaeism. In this mode of thinking, Putin knows he is bad – chooses to be bad, like Satan in rebellion against God. He mentally spurns and is rejected by the goodness he recognizes and that in a better world would have been his. His opposition to “us” is thus a kind of private wound, a closely nurtured insufficiency that justifies itself in devilishness, while all the while he actually knows just how bad he is.
This is a misunderstanding of personality at its core.
While it is standard operating procedure to identify all of Putin’s lies, which, of course, are many, identifying Putin particularly with lying exhibits just that core misunderstanding. The autocrat is not fundamentally a liar, but a bullshitter.
Telling a lie is an act with a sharp focus. It is designed to insert a particular falsehood at a specific point in a set or system of beliefs, in order to avoid the consequences of having that point occupied by the truth. This requires a degree of craftsmanship, in which the teller of the lie submits to objective constraints imposed by what he takes to be the truth. The liar is inescapably concerned with truth-values. In order to invent a lie at all, he must think he knows what is true. And in order to invent an effective lie, he must design his falsehood under the guidance of that truth. On the other hand, a person who undertakes to bullshit his way through has much more freedom. His focus is panoramic rather than particular. He does not limit himself to inserting a certain falsehood at a specific point, and thus he is not constrained by the truths surrounding that point or intersecting it. He is prepared to fake the context as well, so far as need requires.
Regarding Ukraine, we see that Putin does more than simply lie, in the claim, for instance, that uniformed troops in Crimea without insignia are not Russian, which no one believes: greater, he fakes the context of Ukraine entirely. The authentic individual lie is meant to deceive, to be mistaken in the greater context for the truth. Bullshit, however, is intended to confuse, so that the truth disappears. This is what all autocrats intend, the vanishing of the truth beneath the panorama that is their vision of the world – the extension of their own egos. The truth that is manifest in history is that autocrats believe in what they are doing.
To strategize against the likes of Putin, then, one must work with that understanding, along with historical and geopolitical fundamentals. From that perspective, there is no question of the autocrat’s commitment to negotiations as a matter of preferred principle, some shared belief that talking together, regardless of conflicting interests, is always preferable to conflict. The autocrat will employ – as Assad has done – Mao’s policy of fight, fight, talk, talk until one way or the other he gains as much as possible of what he wants. (And, yes, the date on that linked article about Iran is 2005, under the Bush administration, not 2014.)
Effective negotiations against the autocrat will have two characteristics. They will offer the autocrat a less costly, limited win more easily achieved than through other means, and they will deliver to democrats their own limited win that blocks any near-term further success by the autocrat through continued conflict or subterfuge. Absent that second characteristic, democrats will have been outmaneuvered, as the U.S. thus far has been outmaneuvered on Syria, where a failure even to come close to meeting the February 6 deadline for the removal of all chemical weapons has been allowed to pass with barely comment from the Obama administration, let alone action of any kind. At the same time, the administration had a vision of Syrian peace talks, but, astonishingly, apparently believing that Assad actually wanted to talk, rather than use the talks to delay, had no strategy for the talks whatever beyond the idea of them. And now there is the distraction of Ukraine.
Contrary to the belligerent harangues of American militarists, however, the West and the Obama administration have not been outmaneuvered because they – really, the U.S. – are not prepared to shake a militant fist at every trouble spot and throw punches often. They are adrift because they had no coherent strategy either to accomplish the kind of end they sought in Ukraine. Obama has a proper global vision for the twenty-first century – a U.S. that resorts to military action only rarely, in vital or self-defense, and no longer multiple times a decade in vestigial Cold War defense of imperial interests, no longer in bearing the burden of ill-conceived humanitarian interventions on behalf of everyone else,. There is, too, the belief that in time, centers of power and concern will shift to Asia. All this is good, but it is a partial geo-strategic position, not a plan for getting there. Not a plan, most of all, for how to act in long term consonance with a part of the nation’s vital self-definition: a great democracy standing unselfishly, yet with a mature understanding of historical development, in support of democracy for all nations.
One senses that Obama embraces such a national self-definition with very great, truly conservative reserve. Thus he has no regional and global strategy for playing this role, and was as unprepared as were the Europeans for the entirely foreseeable response of Putin, who quite reasonably, by his lights, took developments in Ukraine as aggressive meddling in his interests. The militarists will assert that they are advocating the aggressive resolve that won the Cold War. But for all the necessary military preparedness, Western success in the Cold War was ultimately a holding action in which one side outlasted the inner contradictions of the other. On a contrasting track, with the exception of Korea, nearly every coup, proxy war, or semi-proxy war the U.S. fought during the Cold War was just as ultimately a disaster, for the U.S., the third nation involved, or both.
It is probable that a long end game in Ukraine would have been no different with planning than it may be now: re-absorption of Crimea into Russia, with some or all of the remainder of Ukraine, amid continuing contention with Russia, aligned now toward the West. Adequately prepared, with continuing contention thus perhaps moderated, and with all the pro forma legal and diplomatic objections to the Russian annexation of Crimea, Ukraine might have been successfully framed as a win for democracy – because it would have been, as it still may be – rather than as a crisis.
To avoid careening from one crisis to another, however, a clearer vision of future roles is required. The militarist American right will prefer a long continuation of the United States’ Cold War imperial leadership. That self-destructive vision needs to be dimmed. However, inadequately, Obama’s presidency came at the right time finally to begin to turn those lights out. More, though, is needed. Some clearer articulation of a more sharply defined strategy is required by a center-left neither committed to defining the American role via military action nor allergic to the legitimacy of it. A coherent expression of the international role of democracies in the twenty-first century must be formulated. An evangelizing freedom agenda is simply cold warriorism without the defensive rationale. It is a formula for endemic and destructive global conflict, which is an occurrence in nature sufficient to need no assist from the laboratory coats. Still, democratic nations cannot be expected in their intercourse with other nations not, by their very nature as democracies, to give expression to the character and promise of political freedom. They cannot be expected not to share their knowledge of this freedom and its rewards with those who seek it. But we must always understand what we are doing when we do so in any given context, with what chances of producing good rather than harm to those we hope to help, and to even more around them. We must consider how it advances a larger project, or retards it. We must consider the conflicting interests of others, and we must do it without the kind of righteous arrogance that produced during the Cold War, in Graham Greene’s words, a self-delusive American innocence of good intentions, in Vietnam, that was “like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”
Essential to any new strategy will be a significantly elevated role for Europe and other democracies. Europe particularly has enjoyed a nearly free ride on the American people and their economy for over six decades. One strong expression of American leadership can be leadership to end that state of affairs and to bring mature democracies more fully into actively funding and engaging the defense of freedom. Another will be a recognition that the United Nations has run its course. It is exhausted as an instrument of assertive and effective action in support of the many supreme paper principles it has enunciated over its life. It is used by the worst tyrants in the world, through cynical manipulation of ideal expressions and exercise of institutional powers, to thwart actual amelioration and change in the world, such as what might have been possible in Syria without the veto power of Russia and China. It is time to start on the long course of superseding the United Nations with a new Global Union, in which the extent of a member nation’s institutional role is determined by a measure of its actual adherence to organizationally expressed principles of democratic practice and human and civil rights.
That would be a freedom agenda too, and the beginnings of a plan to help the many future Ukraines the world and history still has to offer.