30 January 2015

What matters in foreign policy?

Not long after he chided President Obama for an apparent refusal to acknowledge that Islamic extremism is a specific problem that needs to be addressed by name, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has discovered a more pressing issue. Before Obama has a chance to take his advice, Friedman now writes that "Ukraine matters — more than the war in Iraq against the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS." This is going to be a hard sell, because no matter what Americans may think about Vladimir Putin and his "near abroad" policy, very few, apart from those who imagine him looming over the Alaska border, see him as an inherent threat to the United States. That's not what matters to Friedman, however. After all, he didn't say Russia matters, or Putin matters. He said Ukraine matters. He means that defending Ukraine against Putin matters more than defending Iraq or the moderate Syrians against the IS. Why should that be? The answer seems to be that Friedman is more certain that there are good guys in Ukraine than he is about Iraq or Syria. In his words:

It is still not clear that most of our allies in the war against ISIS share our values. That conflict has a big tribal and sectarian element. It is unmistakably clear, though, that Ukraine’s reformers in its newly elected government and Parliament — who are struggling to get free of Russia’s orbit and become part of the European Union’s market and democratic community — do share our values.

"Our" values apparently include the right of a mob to overthrow a government by intimidation.  You don't have to believe the more heavy-handed Russian propaganda about Ukraine to question whether a mob uprising against a duly-elected government has legitimacy according to liberal constitutionalist principles. That's what the Maidan uprising in Kiev was, but because the Maidan leaders "share our values" and the Yanukovich government presumably did not, the events in Kiev are yet another vindication of "people power." But would it be "people power" if the Democratic party, convinced that George W. Bush stole the election, reacted to his war plans by calling a mob to occupy Washington D.C. until Bush resigned? Some readers might say yes, but my point is that Thomas Friedman, though presumably a Democrat or at least a liberal himself, would almost certainly say no. The difference is that Friedman never really acknowledged the legitimacy of the Yanukovich government, presumably because he saw Yanukovich as a stooge of Putin, in spite of the widespread support for Yanukovich, or opposition to the Maidan, expressed through the uprisings against the new regime in eastern and southern Ukraine. To the extent that these uprisings favor Putin, they can be ignored since those people self-evidently don't share "our values."  It's a strange liberalism that shows such intolerance, that concludes that it doesn't have to respect other people's choices or even acknowledge them as choices, or even those who make those choices, dare I say, as people.

Friedman might dismiss these arguments by pointing out that Putin is trying to reverse the outcome of the Maidan through military force. For the sake of argument, I won't deny that Russia is covertly supporting Ukrainian rebels. Nor can I claim that the military option chosen by those rebels is morally equivalent to the relative nonviolence of the Maidan. But I'll repeat that neither the uprisings nor the Maidan share our values, which include respect for both the rule of law and the results of elections. It's more likely that the Maidan shares our (or Friedman's, or President Obama's) interests, and that for some reason Putin and the Russians don't. But whatever affinity exists hardly justifies the sort of moral crusade against Russia Friedman wants, however modest it is given the threat he perceives. He wants the U.S. to send more military aid and more or less subsidize the Ukrainian economy, or else Putin might try to reclaim all the old Soviet empire. And if people wonder why Putin's people seem paranoid about the west, Friedman quite openly expresses his hope that Ukraine's success will destabilize Putin's regime by setting an appealing example of liberal democracy for Russians to imitate. He says this at the same time that he warns that Putin might do something crazy like formally invade Ukraine, or some other former Soviet republic, simply to raise the price of oil and revive the Russian economy. I hope Friedman won't think I'm trying to discourage criticism of Putin ("the Thug" in his description )by calling him a Russophobe, but in this case there's little rational behind the columnist's ravings. I'm no fan of Putin or his followers, but some Americans have simply driven themselves crazy obsessing over the threat he supposedly represents to our way of life, and it's time for an intervention.


Anonymous said...

Let Mr. Freidman buy himself a rifle and ammunition, a one-way ticket to Kiev and all the luck in the world to ya', Mr. Freidman. Just because someone "shares" the value of profit over people doesn't mean the United States should commit economic or human resources to support a bunch of thugs, just because they happen to be enemies of some other thugs.

Samuel Wilson said...

Not that it changes your main point, but profits or people isn't the issue in Ukraine,since Putin is no communist and his occasional nostaliga for the USSR is really a nostalgia for superpower. Both the US and Russia are trying to profit from Ukraine, while the Ukrainian people are split between those who identify with Russia and those who see Russia as their historic oppressor. Ideology probably has less to do with it than people like Friedman think.

Anonymous said...

I know this already. And I don't care. I just think everybody who believes the U.S. should keep deploying troops and wasting money in foreign incursions should be sent to the front line first and foremost. That should end the warhawk mentality within a couple of generations.