Friday, March 7, 2014

Showdown at the Not-OK Corral

I guess it was only a matter of time. We passed (or failed, depending on one's point of view) the first test, which was Georgia... then passed/failed the second test, which was Syria... then there was a period of truce for the Olympics... and now Putin is putting pressure on Ukraine, which threatens to wander off the post-Soviet reservation, and we're passing/failing that test as well. So, basically, he took the measure of Obama, his administration, and U.S. “resolve” in general, and decided that he had nothing to lose, and a lot to gain, by showing the flag in the Crimea and at least intimidating the new EU-friendly administration of Ukraine as well as its military. And his excuse is that there are Russians in Ukraine, and they're in danger of being treated like second-class citizens. Well yeah, that's what happens when people are caught on the wrong side of a new (or old) national border. It's happened time and time again in history, and this is no exception. And it's largely Stalin's fault, because he's the one who decided that the best way to handle all the various “nationalities” in the Soviet Union was to ship half of them to the Gulag and then settle a bunch of loyal Russians in each territory in order to run things and keep an eye on the rest. So when the Soviet Union broke up – basically into pieces defined by the various Soviet republics, and in some cases by earlier borders dating from World War I, all these places wound up with Russian minorities. Too bad, so sad. So suddenly the people who had been throwing their weight around in those territories since World War II (at least) were not so secure any longer. They were, in a way, in the same position as the Carpetbaggers who invaded the South after the Civil War -- “large and in charge” until the natives asserted themselves.

Now frankly, if I were an ethnic Russian I might almost prefer to be part of a minority in, say, Estonia than in the majority in Russia – I'm talking in terms of economics and personal freedom now. But ethnic loyalties usually triumph abstract concepts of “rights”, and even economics; no self-respecting Russian wants to be ruled by Estonians, or Kazakhs, or whoever. Things have to be pretty bad for someone to renounce their homeland once and for all, the way the Cuban exiles did. Even some of the countless “illegals” from Latin America go back to their home country eventually – provided they managed to save up enough money in the U.S. And who hasn't met a displaced Californian who longs to go back to the land of their birth? And so on. “Ideas”, and internationalism, are fine things if you're a person with no national or ethnic loyalties, but most people are not rootless cosmopolitans; they will always long to go home, even if “home” is a place they've never seen. (Witness the “right of return” which is a key concept for Jews vis-a-vis Israel, for instance.)

And one can say, but isn't the migration of peoples the rule rather than the exception, historically? At any given time, doesn't a large portion of the human race find themselves strangers in a strange land? And the answer is yes. Go back to the Israelites in Egypt. People go where they have to go in order to survive, and they tend to stay there unless things become intolerable. And every once in a while, a minority becomes a majority – as it clearly did in this country the minute the colonists outnumbered the Native Americans. So whose country is it anyway? It all depends on which slice of history you want to take. Recall the trouble Serbia had (and continues to have) giving up Kosovo – because although it was populated largely by Albanians it had great historical significance for the Serbs. Everyone wants self-determination, but what that is depends on one's point of view – the group with which one identifies. Washington, DC prided itself on being “Chocolate City” a few decades back, even though it has enclaves of rich white folks; New Orleans was supposed to become even more “chocolate” after Katrina, although I'm not sure how that's working out. Mexico is reclaiming, through sheer force of numbers, territory that it lost to the U.S. right up through the Gadsden Purchase. And the number of racial/religious/ethnic groups that have a claim of some sort on Israel/the West Bank/Jerusalem is too high to count.

So what we're seeing now in Ukraine is just another example of a process of give-and-take that has characterized just about any place you can name throughout history. And the funny thing is, we have always had this notion that, in a sense, history is over with when it comes to borders. The way things were at the close of World War II is pretty much the way they ought to be, and ought to stay – as if there were some cosmic map that dictated everything once all the blank spaces were colored in. Of course we did make an exception for Israel, but in general we find shifting borders terribly upsetting – unless it's in our favor, like the reunification of Germany or the breakup of the Soviet Union. But remember how hard we fought to keep Korea and Vietnam split in half? It just raises all kinds of issues with geography textbooks when things keep shifting around. South Sudan? What the heck is that? Most Americans would have a hard time finding Argentina on a world map. So quit bothering us with all these new places. (And don't get me started on Nunavut!)

So to get back to the Ukraine kerfuffle – I'm not going to belabor the argument zipping around the Internet re: the moral equivalence of Russia in Ukraine vs. the U.S. in Iraq and Afghanistan. Actually, the Russians have a better argument. We invaded Iraq because some Saudis from Afghanistan attacked us (allegedly) on 9-11. OK, that made a lot of sense. And we invaded Afghanistan because they had provided aid and comfort to said Saudis – as if the planning for the attacks couldn't have been carried out in any Moslem country (or in any number of neighborhoods in Paris, etc.). Russia, on the other hand, has deep historic, ethnic, linguistic, etc. ties to Ukraine, not to mention they share a common border (without even 90 miles of water in between, like us and Cuba). Now, this is not to say that Ukraine isn't “diverse” in its own way, as shown here:

We can see that some people wound up, after World War I and/or II, on the wrong side of the border. But again, that's the rule rather than the exception.

So am I saying that Russia ought to be huffing and puffing, and throwing its weight around Ukraine? Ideally, no. But ideally, any minority in any country ought to be allowed to live in peace without having to cry out to some other country (especially a big and powerful one) to save it. And common sense should apply as well. Who, in Iraq, asked us to invade Iraq? Ditto Afghanistan. So if we're talking aggression here... well, hopefully you get my point.

Then there's the question, what should we “do” about it – if anything? Sarah Palin was ready to start a war with Russia over Georgia. Obama – who couldn't be further from Palin on the political spectrum – was all ready to invade Syria until Putin looked him in the eye and said “unh-unh”. The paleocon/libertarian position is that it's none of our damn business. But our leaders are all a-tizzy, making all sorts of threats, most of which are pathetic, frankly. It would be more respectable to just stand up and say, we're over here and they're over there, and the twain are not going to meet. We're not cops, and the world is not our beat. Besides, we're bankrupt. Et cetera. But of course, no one's going to say that because it would violate our “core values”, and be an admission that the American Era is over with – or at least fading fast. I mean, imagine leaving world affairs to the tender mercies of Russia and China – scandalous! Humiliating! Demeaning! Et cetera. So it's better to spit and hiss and wring our hands – much more respectable, ahem. (Oh, and by the way, people are already starting to talk about a “domino effect”, like if we let Putin get away with this, who's next? Lithuania? One of the “stans”? Who knew there was this much Cold War nostaliga floating around? Heck, there's even a decent amount of Stalin nostalgia in Russia.)

It's been remarked that “Putin plays chess, and Obama plays basketball”. In other words, the typical Russian strategy is to make a move, see what happens, make another move, etc. In chess it's called a gambit – and the result may appear to be a setback, but it's part of a larger plan. What's required, above all, is patience, and being able to operate below the surface of things. The long run is what counts – and no one is more of expert in this than the Chinese, but the Russians aren't far behind. After all, didn't Uncle Joe wait patiently all through the 1920s, 1930s, and World War II before he made his move to establish the Iron Curtain and the Warsaw Pact? The Soviets could have moved into Europe at any time after the end of World War II, but they didn't; in fact they allowed some areas that had been part of the old empire, like the Baltic States, to declare independence. But once the opportunity arose – aided, in no small part, by Uncle Joe's friends in the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, they made their move... and, again, there wasn't a whole lot we could do about it.

The basketball strategy, on the other hand is, basically, you charge ahead and if you get knocked on your ass you get up and charge ahead some more. Subtle it ain't (at least as far as I can tell). A perfect metaphor for American foreign policy in our time. (And in fact, we aren't even that good at passing the ball – not that anyone else is interested in it... )

I see our helplessness as just another earmark of a waning empire. But again, as with national borders, our dominance on the world stage was meant to last forever – unlike that of all the empires and pretenders up to now – because we have ideas, and principles, and are the shining city on a hill, etc. Yeah, well, if that's true why has so much of the world failed to sign on? I mean, OK, our economy is linked to nearly all other national economies in a way that would have been inconceivable up until recently; even the British Empire could never have claimed the interdependency that exists now. Our culture – such as it is – has spread far and wide. National leaders world-wide are wearing suits and ties now. People are eating Big Macs. And so on. In some senses we really have taken over the world. But in other ways we have no more influence than ever – less in some cases (militant Islam, e.g.). People in sub-Saharan Africa who wear Nikes and “Hard Rock Cafe” T-shirts still engage in the same primitve, brutal tribal warfare that they have for millennia. The only serious resistance to American cultural influence comes from fundamentalist Islamic countries – and they still use cell phones and laptops. So we have “conquered” the way the European powers once conquered much of Africa, Asia, and Latin America – everyone speaks English, they all use our gadgetry and dress in our clothes, but below that superficial level the age-old beliefs, habits, memes, etc. are alive and well. Once again, things that people can identify with – the age-old truisms – tend to, in the long run, trump ideas. If the pen is mightier than the sword, then home and hearth are more powerful than either one.

But in another sense, the “American Empire” isn't American at all – assuming it ever was. It has been absorbed into a larger empire – that which I call the Regime or Cabal – headquartered in Europe. We still do the heavy lifting – we're the cannon fodder – but we're taking orders from people way above Obama's pay grade; all he does it pass them on. Now, the EU is the most prominent overt manifestation of this Regime, and we have seen the loving care with which it beggars less-solvent economies (the so-called PIIGS) and then takes them over. And this is the entity that half of Ukraine wants to join? Even knowing that it will be next in line? On the other hand, the attraction of Russia has to be somewhat tarnished given that Stalin & Co. tried, within living memory, to exterminate Ukraine – or at least the Ukrainians – in one of the great genocides of the 20th Century. The Ukrainians call it the Holodomor, which was, for them, the equivalent of the Holocaust. This alone would give anyone pause when it comes to cozying up to Russia.

So, as so often happens, the little guy (even though Ukraine is a fairly large country) finds itself caught between two larger entities, both of which may have evil intent. Poland experienced it in World War II, and now it's Ukraine's turn. One can only hope and pray.

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