In the Absence of Alternatives

“The absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously.” ~ Henry Kissinger

“History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives.” ~ Abba Eban

Clever quotes are cool, but these two guys may have got it wrong. Kissinger was the master of Realpolitik – the amoral assessment of national interests and nothing else – and thus didn’t think much of humanitarian concerns and doing the right thing and all that idealistic nonsense about spreading freedom and democracy. We could support brutal dictators, or those who overthrew brutal dictators – it didn’t matter. What mattered was what was in it for us, and that always left only one geopolitical alternative. In spite of all the noble talk about this and that, that does tend to clear the mind. It’s just that this ignores an array of values that almost everyone has – and that meant Kissinger was laughing at anyone who had a sense of right and wrong. He obviously got no points for being warm and fuzzy, and, in fact, he was a bit of a moral monster. The late Christopher Hitchens wrote a long thundering book about that – but then Abba Eban would be considered a dangerous fool in Netanyahu’s new Israel, which grabs all the land it can by building permanent settlements in disputed areas, will negotiate nothing, and spends most of its time trying to shame the United States into wiping out Iran, because they’d rather not. All other regional alternatives were exhausted long ago. No one came to their senses. Certainly no one over there is behaving wisely now – neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians – because there is no longer any incentive to behave wisely. Eban obviously misunderstood the result of the exhaustion of all possible alternatives. It’s not resigned acceptance of sensible compromise. It’s endless seething resentment, punctuated by belligerence – you know, like our own Republicans these days.

The absence of alternatives is dangerous, but that’s where the United States finds itself at the moment. The Ukrainians had their odd revolution of sorts, throwing out the president they had actually elected, who turned out to be a crook, grabbing all the goodies for himself and his friends, and jailing anyone who complained – and who had decided to turn down all cooperation with Europe and deal only with Russia, enraging the Ukrainian-speaking majority, who don’t think of themselves as Russian in any way, but pleasing the Russian-speaking minority in the industrial east of the country, and down in the Crimea. The Ukraine used to be part of the Soviet Union. Some don’t miss those days at all. Some really do miss those good old days, and Vladimir Putin, the former KGB guy, seems to want to reassemble the old Soviet Union. What any of this has to do with the United States is a mystery, but we support the concept of self-determination, and this matter had been settled – the people spoke. We also support democracy, the idea that people get to vote on how things are run, and who should run them, and this odd revolution was about tossing out the guy who had been elected freely and fairly, which is a bit troubling – but no matter. The Russians can’t just go in and take over, but they did. This was the weekend they pretty much took over all of the Crimean peninsula, with the Russian parliament granting Putin’s request that he be authorized to use military force in all of the Ukraine, not just Crimea, in any way he saw fit. And what are we going to do about it? What are our alternatives? Tell him to stop, or we’ll tell him to stop even louder?

We seem to have no leverage, and Kissinger isn’t the only master of Realpolitik. Russia’s only warm-water port is in the Crimea, Sevastopol, where they park most of their navy, and the new and unelected Ukrainian government might decide to toss them out. Talk about the will of the people and international law, about the sanctity of international borders, is pleasant enough, and perhaps righteous, but Russia cannot lose that port. Like Kissinger, Putin seems to be willing to be the utterly amoral bad guy here. And what are we going to do about it anyway? We’re not going to go to war again. Vietnam was bad enough. Iraq and Afghanistan sealed the deal, and Russia has nukes. War with Russia would be the real thing. All we can do is huff and puff, but we’re not blowing anyone’s house down.

So it was huffing and puffing:

Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “stunning, willful” choice to invade Ukrainian territory and warned of possible sanctions.

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country,” Kerry said on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” one of several appearances on network interview shows.

“It’s serious in terms of the modern manner in which countries resolve problems,” Kerry said.

In short, these things just aren’t done, so it must be that Putin is acting out of “weakness” and “desperation” – he’s really a pathetic ninety-seven-pound weakling or something. It was name-calling, but his was a “brazen act of aggression” and maybe, just maybe, everyone will move to kick Russia out of the Group of 8 in addition to boycotting the G8 summit in Sochi this summer. That’ll show Putin a thing or two, as if he cares. Kerry also called on Congress to put together an economic aid package for Ukraine, to help out the good guys, and said we’d be “prepared” to impose economic sanctions on Russia, if we must, as if Putin cares, but our alternatives are limited:

When Putin sent Russian troops into Georgia in 2008, then-President George W. Bush dispatched warships to the region and distributed humanitarian aid on military aircraft. Asked if Obama was prepared to take similar actions, Kerry replied: “The hope of the United States and everyone in the world is not to see this escalate into military confrontation. That does not serve the world well, and I think everybody understands that. The president has all options on the table.”

Kerry said if Putin rolled back the military intervention, the U.S. would work with Russia to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine and “stand up to any hooligans, any thuggery” there.

That’s it? Well, there was the phone call:

When asked on CBS if a ninety-minute call between President Obama and Putin on Saturday had any impact, Kerry said “we’re going to have to wait and see.”

Obama made it clear during the call that Russia’s military intervention is “absolutely unacceptable,” Kerry said. “President Obama wants to emphasize to the Russians that there are a right set of choices that can still be made to address any concerns they have about Crimea, about their citizens, but you don’t choose to invade a country in order to do that,” Kerry added.

One assumes that Putin listened politely, while feeding the dogs and tidying up the office. It was all noise, and Heather Parton (Digby) explains why:

It’s very hard as an American to righteously defend the precepts on International Law with respect to national sovereignty after what we did just eleven years ago in Iraq. I feel like an idiot saying it out loud to anyone and am embarrassed to see John Kerry shaking his fist and proclaiming the illegality and illegitimacy of Russia’s actions when he personally voted for that illegitimate and illegal invasion. From what I gather, this is not a problem for most people so perhaps I’m in a minority, but to me, that misbegotten war has completely shattered any claims we have as a nation to lecture others in this way. It sounds hollow and phony and completely without what the neocons used to call “moral authority.”

I think that this matters, particularly for a democratic military superpower that has pretensions to benevolent hegemony. You do something like Iraq and you invite others to do the same. Indeed, one could make a better case for the Russians doing what they’re doing today than what we did just a few short years ago – there is a long, long history among these people and common borders that have been drawn recently (by historical standards) are always in flux. Compared to our patently phony rationale for invading Iraq, the violation of international law here is far less egregious.

Putin could have said one word – Iraq – and made his point. We have to pay a price for that war of choice, not that this makes any difference to those here who are angry with Obama:

I have no hope for the bellicose wingnuts who are doing the usual flag-waving and warmongering. If they had their way we’d be “liberating” Ukraine this week – and onward to Moscow. And I certainly agree with the liberals and realists who want to prevent Russia from pushing further into Ukraine and provoking a bloody war. Nobody wins when that happens. … Mostly I’d just like to see a little less sanctimony from our leadership as they try to work their way through this. It’s not helping anyone.

To be honest, this is a moment I’m glad we have President Obama in office right now. He’s shown admirable restraint in these matters in recent months and I’m hopeful he will prove to be a cooler head than most of Washington seems to be this weekend. At least he doesn’t sound like an amnesiac when he wrings his hands over national sovereignty being violated. His hands are clean on that one.

Yes, but the anger is there:

President Obama has only limited options to punish Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over military action in Ukraine, but some Republicans say that is partly the result of Obama’s own foreign policy.

“Putin is playing chess – I think we’re playing marbles,” said Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, speaking on Fox News Sunday. Rogers said the Russians have been “running circles around us” in negotiations on such items as Syria and missile defense.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., speaking on CNN’s State of the Union, said “we have a weak and indecisive president,” and that “invites aggression.”

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum counters that:

This kind of knee-jerk reaction is unsurprising, but it’s also nuts. Has Rogers even been following events in Ukraine lately? The reason Putin has sent troops into Crimea is because everything he’s done over the past year has blown up in his face. This was a last-ditch effort to avoid a fool’s mate, not some deeply-calculated bit of geopolitical strategery. [Yes, Drum is mocking George Bush there.]

Make no mistake. All the sanctions and NATO meetings and condemnations from foreign offices in the West won’t have much material effect on Putin’s immediate conduct. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about this stuff: he does, and he’s been bullying and blustering for a long time in a frantic effort to avoid it. Now, however, having failed utterly thanks to ham-handed tactics on his part, he’s finally decided on one last desperation move. Not because the West is helpless to retaliate, but because he’s simply decided he’s willing to bear the cost. This is a sign of weakness, not a show of strength. It’s the price he’s paying for his inability to control events.

He couldn’t keep his friend in power in the Ukraine, he’s having a hell of a time convincing the world that his guy in Syria, Assad, is a fine fellow, and now he could lose the one naval base that matters, so it comes down to this:

Having decided that he’s willing to pay the price for his action, Putin now has to be sent the bill. It will pay dividends down the road.

That’s our alternative, and as for now, Putin is doing what he must, as Slate’s Fred Kaplan explains here:

Putin may face a bad month or so in the world media – perhaps face some sanctions and other troubles – for moving tanks, planes, and Russia’s own brutal brigade of riot police to quash protesters, overthrow parliament, and restore some version of the old regime. But in his mind, that’s nothing compared with the prospect of losing Ukraine.

Putin, after all, has lamented the breakup of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. He considers Ukraine to be a Russian “territory,” not an independent nation (and said so to President George W. Bush in 2008). And the Crimean peninsula, which Nikita Khrushchev ceded to Ukraine in 1954, is Ukrainian in name only – and even then just barely. (Khrushchev didn’t quite surrender the land but declared it an autonomous enclave.) …

Yes, Russia signed an accord guaranteeing Ukraine’s borders, and Secretary of State John Kerry scored debater’s points by noting that Putin couldn’t very well insist on Syria’s sovereignty while violating Ukraine’s. None of this matters to Putin, nor would it have to any other Russian leader in memory. Putin could cite the Crimean people’s pleas to restore order in their streets (not that they’d been teeming with disorder). If the crisis persists, he could easily find someone in the eastern part of the Ukrainian mainland – which is largely pro-Russia – to issue similar pleas. “I’m not invading Ukraine,” he could say, “I’m only answering the calls for fraternal assistance from citizens endangered by hooligans and terrorists.” (Indeed, in his phone call with President Obama today, Putin reserved the right to protect Russian interests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.)

Of course, these are rationalizations, not real reasons. Putin’s principal motive, now in the Crimea and possibly later in eastern Ukraine, is to reassert Russian hegemony.

Kaplan is just not sure that Russia can sustain an occupation given that most of the Ukraine has an “ancestral hatred” of Russia, and we should all calm down:

Is this horrendous? Yes. Is it a big surprise? No. What can we do in response? Not a whole lot – again, unless we want to go to war, which would be stupid. There are good reasons why even George W. Bush backed off (or at least stopped short of pursuing) a pledge to consider Ukraine for NATO membership. First, calmer minds weighed the level of Western interests in Ukrainian independence against the cost of defending it in a pinch, and found the former coming up short. (A military alliance like NATO, in which an attack on one is seen as an attack against all, should mean something.) Second, polls suggested that only a minority of Ukraine’s citizens wanted to join this alliance; about 40 percent saw NATO as a threat.

Still, we’re in a pickle:

Why did Obama publicly state that aggression in Ukraine would trigger “consequences”? Clearly he was telling Putin to recalculate the potential costs and benefits of an invasion. But Obama was ignoring a simple fact: Putin would incur almost any risk to avoid losing Ukraine. To put it another way: There are no consequences – none that the United States could credibly threaten – that would keep Putin from doing whatever it takes to hang on to Ukraine.

Perhaps Obama is the one who has to learn Realpolitik, but Mary Mycio adds interesting detail:

Most of the Crimea is basically a desert, with less annual rainfall than Los Angeles. It is impossible to sustain its 2 million people – including agriculture and the substantial tourist industry – without Ukrainian water. Current supplies aren’t even enough. In Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea Fleet, households get water only on certain days. In fact, on Feb. 19, when snipers were shooting protesters on the streets of Kiev, Sevastopol applied for $34 million in Western aid (note the irony) to improve its water and sewer systems.

The Crimea’s dependence on Ukraine for nearly all of it electricity makes it equally vulnerable to nonviolent retaliation. One suggestion making the rounds of the Ukrainian Internet is that the mainland, with warning, shut off the power for 15 minutes. It may not normalize the situation, but it could give Moscow pause. …

So, while Vladimir Putin rattles his sabers, the authorities in Kiev might decide to just hold tight, for now. If Yanukovych destroyed his own power, he may very well destroy Putin’s as well. The fugitive ex-president, whose greed extended deep into the peninsula, isn’t a popular figure there either and any efforts to install him…

And so on. We may not have alternatives, but the Ukrainians might. Cut off the power now and then, randomly, so they can’t plan for any particular outage, and do the same with the water. Shrug and say it was routine maintenance. Then keep doing it. They’ll get the message – or they’ll roll the tanks into Kiev and let the rest of the world cut them off from everything. It’s a plan.

Andrew Sullivan adds this:

Putin has panicked. To initiate a full-scale war with Ukraine, after effectively losing it because of the over-reach and corruption of Yanukovych, opens up scenario after scenario that no prudent Russian statesman would want to even consider, let alone embrace. That doesn’t mean he won’t continue to over-reach or that we should be irresolute in confronting this aggression; just that we should be clear that the consequences of further escalation will be deeply damaging for his regime – and certainly far graver for him than for the West.

As for Obama’s long chat with Putin, Sullivan notes what Leon Aron had to say about that:

Ideally, the conversation would have been one in which the American president was speaking not only for the US, but also for NATO and the EU. The president is likely to have pointed out that the risks would involve Russia’s membership in the G8, the safety of financial and other assets of the Russian elite which are located outside of Russia, as well as the ability of the members of this elite and their families to visit, live or study in the U.S. and the EU. In addition, Moscow’s behavior could trigger new export controls, which given its dependence on Western technology, particularly in the oil and gas sector as well as in the food industry, could have a very negative impact on the Russian economy.​

Alongside these measures, the U.S. and its allies might also provide – publicly and in private – a few face-saving devices for Russia, such as guarantees that the Russian-speaking Ukrainians will be free from harassment or discrimination of any kind; an introduction of UN peacemaking forces in Crimea to protect the political rights of all Crimeans, and the reaffirmation of the pre-existing “special status” of Crimea within Ukraine, as well as the continuation of the pre-existing Russian sovereignty of the leased naval base in Sevastopol.

Aron thinks we do have leverage, both sticks and carrots, so there are alternatives of all sorts here, at least alternatives to war, and the New Republic’s Timothy Snyder explores those:

Russian propaganda about depraved Europe conceals an intimate relationship. Tourism in the European Union is a safety valve for a large Russian middle class that takes its cues in fashion and pretty much everything else from European culture. Much of the Russian elite have sent its children to private schools in the European Union or Switzerland. Beyond that, since no Russian of any serious means trusts the Russian financial system wealthy Russians park their wealth in European banks. In other words, the Russian social order depends upon the Europe that Russian propaganda mocks. And beneath hypocrisy, as usual, lies vulnerability.

Soft power can hurt. General restrictions on tourist visas, a few thousand travel bans, and a few dozen frozen accounts might make a real difference. If millions of urban Russians understood that invading Ukraine meant no summer vacation, they might have second thoughts.

Damn! Ditch pure communism and allow a bourgeois middle class to develop, and a top layer of ultra-rich thugs owning the oil companies and such, who are quite useful to keep you in power, and your options are suddenly limited. Crushing Ukraine starts to seem like a real bad idea.

Sullivan sums it up this way:

We have many cards to play. Putin has one: military force. But if he uses it, he will be in a full-scale war within his own region of influence. Whatever else that is, it is not a demonstration of strength. It’s a sign of profound weakness.

If so, what should we do? Remind him of the costs of playing that one card he has to play, in detail, often, and hope for the best. Maybe Abba Eban was right. Men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives. Or they don’t. All we can do is wait and see what happens – that’s it. But then absence of alternatives clears the mind marvelously. Now we wait.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to In the Absence of Alternatives

  1. Rick says:

    “Russia has nukes. War with Russia would be the real thing.”

    It occurs to me that maybe, those few years ago, we shouldn’t have worked so hard to get Ukraine to give up its nukes? Although I guess, in the long run, it’s just as well this is not a nuclear standoff.

    But what seems evident to me is, it’s not only is Obama who’s been put in a bind by all this — with no good alternatives — but he work to isolate Russia from the rest of the world, and even that is something we’d rather not see at a time when we need Putin to help us with Syria, among other issues — but it seems that Putin himself was pretty much painted into a corner by this Yanukovych guy.

    Although I guess Ukraine, and therefor Putin, might have been in roughly the same dilemma if, instead of Yanukovych, Ukraine had had a president who opted to align with the West instead Russia. Putin would probably have had to act, either way.

    In any event, leave it to Andrew Sullivan to, once again, dig a little deeper and show us things might not be what they seem. It’s nice to know at least that Obama has some leverage here over Putin, even if in the best of worlds, we wouldn’t want to see him have to use it.


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