Hammering Away

They say that when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail – which is a clever way to say some people are just stuck on stupid, or they can’t think outside the box, whatever that means, or, as the French would put it, they have that idée fixe madness – but they really didn’t see it as madness, or some sort of pathological mania, just a sad and often dangerous narrowness. Eighteenth century British writers put it differently – they mocked the fool riding his hobbyhorse. Lawrence Sterne built his brilliant novel entirely on that sort of madness, a comic masterpiece with twists and turns that would make John Locke’s head spin, which was kind of the idea. It was great fun, but in real life such narrowness is no fun at all. What is one to do with someone who says we should do this thing, because even if it had never worked before, and even if it is beyond counterintuitive, and even if anyone else who had tried it found it didn’t work at all, it really ought to work, in theory?

What is one to do? Just say no – although such people won’t take no for an answer. They’ll say cut taxes on the rich and hammer everyone else, and stop as much government spending as possible, and when unemployment surges, make sure the unemployed receive no benefits, and kick the lazy bums off welfare, even if no one will have any money to buy much of anything – because austerity causes prosperity, and vast income inequality will make everyone left with nothing, and no hope, strive for excellence, in some sort of heroic hope against hope that they too can join the rarest of the rare, that amazing One Percent, who have reached that blissful state paying no taxes and sneering at those below. It’s an aspirational thing. Tell them this makes no sense, and that every reputable economist has laughed at such foolishness, and that such notions just ruined a good number of European economies and the European Central Bank finally gave up on this austerity thing and apologized for even trying it, and they’ll tell you it really ought to work, in theory. And they won’t discuss it further. They have their theory, their idée fixe, their hobbyhorse – they have their hammer, and they’ll use it, even if no one else sees any nails around anywhere. At least none of them said that the proper response to 9/11 was to eliminate capital-gains taxes and the estate tax, although George Bush did tell everyone to go shopping – hit the malls or the terrorists will have won. That was a bit puzzling, but that was American’s hammer, as he saw it. Osama bin Laden, in his cave somewhere between Afghanistan and Pakistan at the time, must have wondered what he did wrong – but he got his holy war anyway, soon enough. Americans are an odd lot.

At least some Americans are reliable:

Sen. John McCain sharply condemned President Obama on Monday, blasting the administration’s foreign policy as “feckless” and partially responsible for the mounting crisis over the advance of Russian forces into Ukraine.

In a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, McCain (R-Ariz.) said the “blatant act” by Russian President Vladi­mir Putin “cannot stand,” even as he acknowledged that the United States does not have a realistic military option to force Russian troops to withdrawal. Instead, McCain called on the administration to enact sweeping economic sanctions against the country, including a freeze on financial assets of its prominent business leaders and preventing them from entering the United States.

The White House is already working on that, but that didn’t matter to McCain, because that effort was late and halfhearted, and without passion, which folks like him have in spades:

“Why do we care? Because this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore,” McCain said to the annual gathering of Jewish leaders in Washington.

His point is that he CARES and Obama doesn’t:

“The president of the United States believes the Cold War is over; fine – it’s over. But Putin doesn’t believe it’s over,” McCain said, citing Russian interference in Moldova and Georgia, as well as its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime.

“It’s an outrage,” McCain said. He blasted Obama for failing to take military action against Syria last fall, when the president said he would support airstrikes against the Assad regime for crossing a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons, then deferred to Congress, which opposed military action. …

“My argument to you is: Do you believe, in light of the events of the last five years, that the Iranian mullahs think we’re serious?” McCain said. “I don’t think so.”

Michael Tomasky takes it from there:

McCain floated three notions: tougher sanctions against Russia and its higher-ranking officials; NATO membership for Georgia; expanded and sped-up missile defense systems in Europe. The first is unobjectionable. The world has to do something here, and sanctions are that something. If we can’t prevent Putin from engaging in this kind of aggression – and face it, we can’t – we can at least do what we can to harm his economy and limit the foreign travel of his high government officials.

But Georgia in NATO and missile defense? McCain and other hawkish types (including, very distressingly, Joe Biden back in 2008) have been banging that gong for years now. Calls for Georgian entry into NATO go back to the mid-2000s, when “Rose Revolution” president Mikheil Saakashvili made it a top priority. It was a horrible idea then – expanding a military alliance right up to the doorstep of a certain country, all but surrounding it, is bound to be seen in that country, and not unreasonably, as a provocative act. It’s even worse when that country happens to have 8,500 nuclear weapons.

Sure, show you CARE, but don’t do something stupid:

NATO’s famous Article 5: an attack on any NATO country will be taken as an attack on all. What would the implications of that commitment have been in 2008, during the Russo-Georgian war in Ossetia? It’s true that Georgia moved first in that conflict, but pretexts for such action are absurdly easy to establish. Would the United States and the other NATO countries have been forced into war against Russia in 2008 if Georgia had been a NATO member then? It’s not at all an idle question, and it is one well worth keeping in mind now.

As for missile defense, the United States is already scheduled to install missile interceptors in Poland in 2018, which is mistake enough. But at least Obama has drawn back here from stronger commitments to Poland (a charter member of the coalition of the willing, remember?) made by the Bush administration. The Bush commitment was for interceptors of intercontinental ballistic missiles. Obama scaled that back to interceptors of intermediate-range missiles. There will now be pressure from McCain and others to go back to Bush’s plan, and to get them there faster than 2018, which is the Obama timetable.

I’m hardly an expert on the different types of missile interceptors, so if the question is which one to deploy, I readily confess I’m not your man. But I have a better question: What in blazes does Poland have to do with this anyway? Is Putin set to invade Poland – a member of the European Union and of NATO? Is this 1939? The hawks do love those Hitler-era talking points. Yes, certain parallels can be drawn between what Putin is doing here and what Hitler did in the Sudetenland. But do we really think he wants to drag all of Europe into a war, wipe Germany off the map, and put Russia’s and Europe’s gay population in concentration camps? Putin is a hideous person, but a latter-day Hitler he is probably not, and even if he did want to do those things, trillions of dollars in trade are at stake for him in his relations with Europe in a way that wasn’t at all true in the 1930s.

In fact, yesterday Putin accepted Angela Merkel’s mediation offer for a contact group to discuss the crisis, suggesting perhaps that his aims here, however repugnant, may fall short of world domination.

Ah, but when all you have is a hammer… There’s no point in going further, but Tomasky has a larger point:

And as for McCain and his Cold War caucus: McCain wants the United States to do the things he wants it to do so that the United States remains the world’s only true hegemonic power. For almost all of John McCain’s sentient life, we had a bipolar world, and then, after 1991, a unipolar world. The McCain’s of America think the bipolar world was a freak accident of history and the unipolar world is the default way things ought to be.

But the unipolar era of U.S. dominance is – increasingly, was – itself a product of particular historical forces, and those forces are changing rapidly. We’re returning to a multipolar world in which there will be other powers that can operate more or less on the United States’ level. Far from resisting this we should welcome it.

Let others share the burden, no matter how much that hurt’s McCain’s pride, because his idée fixe is just sad and pointless now:

Recreating a bipolar world of U.S.-Russia conflict is at the very bottom of our global “to do” list. We don’t have to like Putin or what he’s doing here, but let’s not pretend that who controls the Crimea is a question of first-rank global importance, and let’s not play into Putin’s grubby hands. Demagogues only gain power when they can whip their people into a frenzy about an outside enemy. Obama must not help him, and mustn’t let himself get cowed by a hectoring neocon right into saying things he shouldn’t say.

Daniel Larison points out here that it’s Marco Rubio too:

Over the weekend, Rubio offered eight proposals for “punishing” Russia. Some are old stand-bys of symbolic retribution (e.g., condemnation at the U.N., boycotting the next G-8 summit, expelling Russia from the G-8) that are more or less easy enough to do and will have no effect, while others are much more reckless and foolish, such as pushing harder for Georgian membership in NATO, that will certainly make Russia more intransigent. Speeding up the process of bringing Georgia into NATO is just the sort of useless, ill-considered goading that will make it even more difficult to avoid further escalation in Ukraine. It is the sort of proposal one would make if one wanted U.S.-Russian relations and the situation in Ukraine to keep getting worse.

No, they don’t want that, but all they have is a hammer, and Andrew Sullivan reacts to McCain’s AIPAC speech:

It really was a beaut: full of the usual bluster and bravado and bad but winning jokes – and, of course, no strategic sense whatever except bromides about “strength” and “weakness”. Believe it or not, he declared Obama “weak” and all but invited Iran and China and Russia to take advantage of it. This, I surmised, was an act of indirection: he was really goading AIPAC to help secure a war against Iran and permanent annexation of the West Bank. To what end? As I said, you don’t listen to a John McCain speech for strategy, or an exploration of costs and benefits in a dynamic and tense situation. What’s important is strength! As if “strength” without strategy helped us in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Sullivan, however, sensed something else:

What’s fascinating to me is a kind of Putin-envy. For all the loathing McCain has for the desperate autocrat, he also clearly gets a thrill up his leg when talking about him. If only the US president could see that this is still emphatically a zero-sum world, that moving your military around is the first thing you do when confronted with a foreign policy challenge. If only we could be as tough as Vladimir! You sense in McCain’s worldview – and that of countless others still stuck in 1978 – that we need to out-Putin Putin.

That’s fine, let him fanaticize, but Sullivan then cites this odd item on how Russians, in Russia, feel about going to war to win back the Ukraine:

The Kremlin’s own pollster released a survey on Monday that showed 73% of Russians reject it. In phrasing its question posed in early February to 1600 respondents across the country, the state-funded sociologists at WCIOM were clearly trying to get as much support for the intervention as possible: “Should Russia react to the overthrow of the legally elected authorities in Ukraine?” they asked. Only 15% said yes – hardly a national consensus.

Hell, George Bush did a better job at bamboozling Americans, and Sullivan adds this:

From Simferopol, Simon Shuster counts the costs already incurred: $60 billion was wiped off the Russian stock exchange today, and the ruble went into free-fall. Gazprom lost $15 billion in value in one day. Of Putin’s neighbors, almost all have come out against Russian aggression: Kazakhstan wants an end to hostilities right away; China opposes any intervention; Poland would have a strong case, along with the Baltics, for even stronger ties to the West, as do all of Russia’s neighbors with Russian-speaking minorities. And that leaves aside the possibility of cutting off the Western bank accounts of Russian oligarchs and of revoking Russian inclusion in the G-8.

None of this has occurred to John McCain of course – which is one reason – after his similar “We are all Georgians now!” hissy-fit in 2008 – that Americans elected Obama instead of him. That decision looks wiser and saner by the day, doesn’t it?

Yep, Obama had a whole toolbox, not just a hammer, but these guys just don’t see it:

Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher said Monday that while he doesn’t support Russia taking military action in Ukraine, “that doesn’t mean Putin and pro-Russia forces in Ukraine are in the wrong,” in an interview with BuzzFeed. …

In the interview with BuzzFeed, Rohrabacher described Putin as trying to protect Russian interests in the region, saying Putin “has a right to be upset” with the ousting of the democratically elected government under President Viktor Yanukovych, who was pro-Russian.

In short, at least Putin has the balls to do something, not just sit and think, unlike Obama, except Tikhon Dzyadko wonders what good Putin is doing for himself:

Questions about the legitimacy of the new government in Kiev will fall away; the IMF and the West will be tripping over themselves to help Ukraine financially; this, in turn, will prop up the government in Kiev, which is currently broke; and, finally, the Ukrainian people will be united in their fight against an occupier – and isn’t this exactly the kind of unity you need after a revolution? Russia, on the other hand, will be left with international isolation and yet another neighboring territory recognized by no one. In 2008, it was Abkhazia and South Ossetia; now, it is the Crimea. But in acquiring the Crimea, Russia will lose Ukraine, its biggest partner for transporting gas to Europe.

Alexander Motyl sees the same thing:

If Putin knew his history, he’d know that nothing consolidates post-revolutionary regimes like invasions. Some counter-revolutionaries join the invaders, but most people put aside their differences and rally around the flag. The threat of existential annihilation strengthens post-revolutionary states, invigorates national identities, and encourages leaders to adopt radical change. The ongoing Ukrainian response to Putin’s invasion fits this bill to a tee: even the country’s top oligarchs, all Russian speakers, have condemned the invasion and rejected partition. When the crisis ends, Ukraine will be stronger and its diverse population may finally possess all the features of a modern nation. Ironically, Putin might accomplish what Ukraine’s elites have thus far failed to achieve: effective state building and genuine nation building. And that Ukrainian state and that Ukrainian nation are as unlikely to regard him with affection as they are certain to want good relations with a democratic Russia rather than Putin’s.

Oops. Sullivan adds this:

Putin has all the strategic sense of Dick Cheney, doesn’t he?

Yeah, well, that’s why everyone on the right kind of admires him, and wishes Obama were more like him, but in the Guardian, Michael Cohen responds to that:

You don’t have to listen to the “do-something” crowd. These are the same people who brought you the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other greatest hits. These are armchair “experts” convinced that every international problem is a vital interest of the US; that the maintenance of “credibility” and “strength” is essential, and that any demonstration of “weakness” is a slippery slope to global anarchy and American obsolescence; and that being wrong and/or needlessly alarmist never loses one a seat at the table.

The funny thing is, these are often the same people who bemoan the lack of public support for a more muscular American foreign policy. Gee, I wonder why.

And now the detail:

As in practically every international crisis, the pundit class seems able to view events solely through the prism of US actions, which best explains Edward Luce in the Financial Times writing that Obama needs to convince Putin “he will not be outfoxed”, or Scott Wilson at the Washington Post intimating that this is all a result of America pulling back from military adventurism. Shocking as it may seem, sometimes countries take actions based on how they view their interests, irrespective of who the US did or did not bomb.

Missing from this “analysis” about how Obama should respond is why Obama should respond. After all, the US has few strategic interests in the former Soviet Union and little ability to affect Russian decision-making.

Our interests lie in a stable Europe, and that’s why the US and its European allies created a containment structure that will ensure Russia’s territorial ambitions will remain quite limited. (It’s called NATO.) Even if the Russian military wasn’t a hollow shell of the once formidable Red Army, it’s not about to mess with a NATO country.

The US concerns vis-a-vis Russia are the concerns that affect actual US interests. Concerns like nuclear non-proliferation, or containing the Syrian civil war, or stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those are all areas where Moscow has played an occasionally useful role.

The idea here is that the territorial integrity of Ukraine “is hardly in the top tier” of US policy concerns. And it’s odd to treat this as a zero-sum game:

Putin has initiated a conflict that will, quite obviously, result in greater diplomatic and political isolation as well as the potential for economic sanction. He’s compounded his loss of a key ally in Kiev by further enflaming Ukrainian nationalism, and his provocations could have a cascading effect in Europe by pushing countries that rely on Russia’s natural gas exports to look elsewhere for their energy needs. Putin is the leader of a country with a weak military, an under-performing economy and a host of social, environmental and health-related challenges. Seizing the Crimea will only make the problems facing Russia that much greater.

For Obama and the US, sure, there might be less Russian help on Syria going forward – not that there was much to begin with – and it could perhaps affect negotiations on Iran. But those issues are manageable. Meanwhile, Twitter and the opinion pages and the Sunday shows and too many blog posts that could be informative have been filled with an over-the-top notion: that failure to respond to Russia’s action will weaken America’s credibility with its key allies. To which I would ask: where are they gonna go? If anything, America’s key European allies are likely to fold the quickest, because, you know, gas. And why would any US ally in the Far East want Obama wasting his time on the Crimea anyway?

Ed Kilgore adds this:

I’m no foreign policy expert, but there’s clearly something wrong when the supposed experts seem to borrow most of their analysis from adolescent psychology, where it’s all about who’s tougher and who is sending signals of weakness.

Well, adolescent psychology explains a great deal here. Adolescents are necessarily narrow – it comes with the territory. Early on they find a hammer of some kind, and it’s pretty cool, and they then go looking for nails to pound, which for a time seems to impress people – but sooner or later they’re just another kid pounding random nails, looking for approval. And obviously John McCain and his cohorts found their hammer long ago – simple brutality will keep you safe in this world and that’s all you need to know about the world. They still think that’s an impressive hammer, and they’re still pounding whatever nails they can find, to prove it – but everyone else grew up and moved on. And guess what? This latest Crimean crisis doesn’t involve nails.


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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One Response to Hammering Away

  1. Rick says:

    Three random observations. First:

    “At least none of them said that the proper response to 9/11 was to eliminate capital-gains taxes and the estate tax, although George Bush did tell everyone to go shopping – hit the malls or the terrorists will have won. That was a bit puzzling…”

    I’ve always felt that was one of the few things Bush said that came close to making any sense. Our economy took a big dip after people became afraid of traveling on planes, and more spending was exactly what we needed. That may be the closest any Republican came to an acknowledgement that an economy is comprised of spending, and that when demand drops, spending drops off, and the economy suffers. Too bad he and his Republican friends couldn’t keep that thought in their brains long enough to do something to make it happen when the economy collapsed eight years later.

    Secondly, from the Guardian’s Michael Cohen:

    “Missing from this ‘analysis’ about how Obama should respond is why Obama should respond. After all, the US has few strategic interests in the former Soviet Union and little ability to affect Russian decision-making. … The US concerns vis-a-vis Russia are the concerns that affect actual US interests. Concerns like nuclear non-proliferation, or containing the Syrian civil war, or stopping Iran’s nuclear ambitions.”

    Although I do think one interest we do have is whether or not we want to “abandon” a nation that wants to be our friend, and looks to us for protection from Russia. This is not to say we need to fly arms to them, but at least it is a concern we need to be aware of.

    And finally, Andrew Sullivan on John McCain:

    “[H]e was really goading AIPAC to help secure a war against Iran and permanent annexation of the West Bank. To what end? As I said, you don’t listen to a John McCain speech for strategy, or an exploration of costs and benefits in a dynamic and tense situation. What’s important is strength! As if ‘strength’ without strategy helped us in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

    Not to mention Vietnam, the war that theoretically made McCain a foreign policy expert — although I’m not quite sure what he was supposed to be learning about geopolitics as a POW.

    Yes, I do believe he was a war hero, simply based on his paying a personal price for serving his country, but that shouldn’t allow him to parlay it into something it doesn’t mean. If his wartime experiences made him so insightful, how come he keeps wanting us all to go back and relive them?

    I’m sorry to say this, but McCain’s role today is like that of the cocker spaniel who can always be counted on to let us know when the mail has arrived.


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