The big news story this year has been Russia's illegal, tyrannical, imperialist annexation of Crimea. The big story last year was the on-going civil war in Syria, particularly the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. Let me establish right away my prejudices in both these cases; American national interests are only somewhat connected to the Syrian civil war, and only tangential to Crimea's annexation. Many, many smart people disagree with me violently about this...
and they're wrong, for the simple reason that they have no idea what they mean by "the national interest".
|Crimea. All images from Wikimedia|
Commons unless otherwise noted.
The best definition we have of "the national interest" is provided by Utilitarianism. It is the responsibility of the United States to enact policies which provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number of its citizens, FULL STOP. Policies which impose more costs on American citizens than benefits provided to American citizens are an illegitimate oppression of us by our government, usually on behalf of a special interest group.
In the case of Crimea, US interests are involved at but a single point:
Territorial acquisition by means of violence or the threat of violence is always unacceptable, under every circumstance, even in cases of national self-defense.
That's the principle that's involved here, and it's in our nation's interest to defend that principle, within certain obvious limits. But beyond those limits, it is emphatically NOT in the national interest to defend the above principle. You wouldn't want to threaten a nuclear strike in order to defend the principle. You wouldn't want to threaten a conventional war, for that matter. In fact...
the costs to the American people of defending the "no territorial conquest" cannot exceed those imposed on aggressor.
Hence, it must also be acknowledged that Russia's annexation of Crimea will not result in the net loss of a single US job. It will not cost the US tax payer a dime, because net US defense spending is going down, irrespective of any symbolic bumps we make in our aid to Ukraine. The pensions of virtually no Americans will be affected. Our kids will remain exactly as badly educated as they are now. Our infrastructure will deteriorate no more quickly, our approaching ecological catastrophe will advance no faster, the oppression of minorities and women and the poor will be no worse...
THAT'S the national interest, by God. The fact that it's meaning has been perverted to the extent that it has is a catastrophic failure of American political culture.
The case of Syria is more complicated, because a Sunni jihadist government would impact our national interests, to some extent. But in both the Syrian and Crimean cases, the ability of the United States to influence events has been badly overstated by critics of the President. We should be clear about what is taking place in Crimea. The Russians are taking over a slice of territory on their border. How many Russian planes are within strike range of Crimea? How many tanks? How many infantry divisions?
|Map from here. I gather he lifted it from a Russian language source.|
What do advocates of more "muscular", "resolute" "assertive" responses advocate? Do they want military action? Confronted with that question, critics of the President quickly disavow it. Do they want sanctions? The President has invoked sanctions, and while it's easy to demand "tougher" sanctions, what we're seeing from the Administration are the "smart" sanctions that were all the rage when it was discovered that most sanctions hurt the innocent population of an aggressor, rather than the elites responsible for the aggression.
Ultimately, the idea that the United States can dictate outcomes on the border of Russia is ludicrous. Those who assert that we can do so have a vastly inflated picture of American capabilities.
If we're going to defend the "no conquest" principle, it needs to be in ways that do not negatively affect our national interest, and it will probably involve boring, pedestrian, never-going-to-make-an-action-movie economic sanctions. The kind that brought Iran to its senses, for example.
But as I said at the beginning of this piece, the response of various identifiable groups within our public discourse has been every bit as interesting to the political scientist in me as the events themselves.
1) the Neocons are predictably rattling their sabers, demanding a “robust” response. This is because they are unconsciously pursuing what Hans Morgenthau would describe as a “policy of prestige”. A policy of prestige is the strategy inevitably pursued by a declining power. In an attempt to maintain the US position in a rapidly evolving international hierarchy, Neocons desperately want to be involved in every dust-up around the globe. Failure to get involved would demonstrate “a lack of US resolve” and the “abdication of American leadership”.
|Neoconservative idol and War Criminal Richard Cheney. Hide your kids.|
2) Conservative political hacks are attempting to use the issue to “Carterize” President Obama. This is irresponsibly partisan of them, (and grossly unfair to President Carter) but we’re talking about political hacks. This is what they do, in both parties. Perhaps their silliest formulation is that Putin did this because we failed to symbolically bomb Syria, despite Assad’s offer to disarm.
3) The Biblethumpers are getting moist between the legs about Putin, because they are authoritarians at heart, and Putin is a charismatic authoritarian. At least, he’s charismatic if you’re the kind of rube that likes that macho cowboy shit. They fall for the judo and shirtless horseback riding the way they fell for “Bring it on” and “Mission Accomplished”. Kinda embarrassed for them.
|Not sure who owns this image. I pulled it from here.|
4) The neorealists who dominate the State Department are feeling hawkish, because they believe in the power in international norms, and feel the need to enforce them to prevent them from breaking down. The problem with their perspective is that international norms temporary and ephemeral things, which will always be violated the instant a particular nation-state perceives it to be in their interests to violate them. Full disclosure: I'm a Classical Realist.
5) The Libertarians have gone completely silent, of course. As acolytes of Glenn Greenwald and admirers of Edward Snowden, they can’t really condemn this evil Statist action by Russia, because that would draw attention to the fact that a) Mr. Snowden is currently the guest of an Imperialist Authoritarian State, and b) maybe Russian aggression is an argument that the United States needs some sort of SigInt capability. But then, they’re completely silent about Putin’s treatment of Russian homosexuals, too.
6) The Beltway media is thrilled to get the ratings/readership boost, and will cheerfully parrot every single talking point said in their hearing, until something goes viral. They will then repeat that emerging meme, ad nauseum. God help us, we're still hearing the "warm-water port" crap Jeanne Kirkpatrick revived.
|Andrea Mitchell, groundbreaking journalist and Syria Hawk.|
7) The Far Left continues its slide into madness, which makes me very sad. We Center-leftists need the Far Left, and they’ve lost their frigging minds. After sucking face with the Libertarians (and LaRouchies!) during Occupy Wall Street, they decided to get in bed with them over this NSA stuff. Now, they’re really making asses of themselves as they desperately try to find a way to make the US the bad guy because Putin is muscling a weak neighbor.
On some levels, it’s hysterically funny. I’ve had people I admire deeply on the Far Left tell me “Putin has geostrategic concerns that must be accounted for!”, as though “geostrategic concerns” was EVER a legitimate motivation for ANY State action in the eyes of the Far Left.
This is hypocrisy of the worst kind. When the United States was passing the ill-considered Patriot Act, the Far Left correctly condemned it as an example of over-reach that provided insufficient checks on executive action. No one on the Left tried to justify it on the basis of our having the shit scared out of us by 9/11. For the Far Left to suddenly demand we take Russia's justified concerns about NATO expansion as some sort of excuse to seize territory at gunpoint from a sovereign state, in violation of their diplomatic undertakings is...
a bit obvious. Let me make one additional observation on NATO expansion. While I was and am opposed to it, and feel strongly NATO should have been disbanded with the end of the Cold War (remember the "peace dividend?"), the decision to join NATO was made by sovereign states, employing democratic political institutions.
National sovereignty used to be an important principle to the Far Left.
The latest mantra I’m seeing is that “It’s hypocritical for the US to condemn Russia when we did the exact same thing to Panama and Iraq”. I have some sympathy for this view, although I will note that we haven’t annexed anyone for a long time. But they REALLY get mad when you point out that it’s equally hypocritical to condemn US imperialism but give Putin a pass.
Of the typology I outline above, the only one that really floors me is this last one, and I find it depressing as Hell. We have an ideological sub-culture in this country that believes in greater income equality, and marriage equality, and criminal justice reform, and US disarmament. They simultaneously support an oligarchic Russian regime that systematically persecutes homosexuals, imprisons political dissenters and settles its national security concerns by means of armed invasion.
The dichotomy there is a grim reminder of the extent to which our political discourse has become tribal, with group identity dictating policy positions rather than the other way around.