Potemkin Village

I am most assuredly among in that camp which regards the current sanctions against Russia as edentulous, token, perfunctory, superficial, tepid, symbolic, and benign. The limited travel bans and asset freezes against certain individuals are certainly pathetically inadequate to register what should be West’s unremitting disgust at – and implacable opposition to – the invasion and annexation of part of a sovereign state. Moscow’s occupation of Crimea (not to mention its brazen machinations in eastern Ukraine) should be answered with diplomatic and economic measures so staggering, muscular and disruptive as to make any probable Western military response seem utterly superfluous.

Although I do not want to run afoul of PETA or offend the ASPCA, the bear’s snout needs to be relentlessly whacked with a Sunday edition of the New York Times – tightly wound and liberally doused with pepper spray – while teeming colonies of mites, ticks, and fleas are released into its coat. The rogue carnivore’s predatory instinct must be cured. It must be convinced that it is now confined to a far smaller habitat and it can no longer gluttonously forage in the forests of others… no matter how familiar the landscape may seem… even if the strategic setting of a ring of steel jaw traps is required to prevent its unseemly intrusion. Moreover, it must learn that we no longer live in the Neolithic Era and bears no longer spark a primal collective sense of fear and panic in human communities; however, in this modern, civilized global suburbia, stakeholders consider it a nuisance when wayward bears trespass on their property and rifle through their garbage. Often disproportionate steps are utilized to deter such encroachment; and, incorrigible interlopers are sometimes neutralized and banished to the remote wilderness.

OK, I realize that this ursine analogy of breaking the beast of bad habits is becoming contrived, gratuitous, and digressive; however, I am sure that you get my point: Far more exacting penalties should be imposed! Moreover, these structures should be specifically aimed at reminding Putin that Russia is not a superpower; nor, for that matter, a great power. The land mass over which he (mis)rules, is at best, a regional power… and, increasingly a rogue state at that. In that regard, it was especially appropriate that Russia should be suspended (hopefully permanently) from the G8. Moscow should have never been inducted to the globe’s most exclusive fraternity in the first place. Its chronically “immature” economy disqualifies it from such an exalted affiliation.

Indeed! Although patently puny, the current sanctions – as everyone, outside the shadow of the Kremlin’s onion domes, has acknowledged – have subjected the Russian economy to palpable convulsions. And, that such relatively innocuous measures have precipitated significant capital flight; riveting stock market corrections; sharp slides in the ruble; dramatic rating agency downgrades; and, in general, have so shaken investor confidence – obviously these dislocations betray the fragility and vulnerability of an anemic system already in decline. Also clearly exposed is the conspicuous lack of economic development and diversification – anachronistically reminiscent of the prescribed mono-crop plantation model of colonized states in the 19th century – as Russia’s revenue largely dependent on the exploitation of raw material resources such as oil and gas. John McCain was quite correct in his characterization of Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” And, the Senator’s commentary became even more incisive when he clarified that the enterprise is “run by a mafia…”

I also very much concur with those analysts who describe the Putin regime as nothing more than a rapacious kleptocratic clique whose raison ďêtre is to systematically fleece the captive system of every single kopeck it can possibly extract from the nation which it regards as its own private ATM. Obviously such a corrupt, avaricious and cannibalistic criminal syndicate masquerading as an economy is an anomaly which is highly unstable and would be acutely susceptible to external strictures.

It would appear that Pentagon is not the only bureau of the US government which retains a vast arsenal of formidable weapons. Experts agree… a la Juan Zarate… that the Treasury Department has its own armory of financial arms which can deliver similarly destructive “shock and awe” on the economic battlefield. Treasury’s capability to ostracize foreign banks from international credit markets can eventually exert suffocating pressure even on national economies which are advanced, diversified and resilient. Considering that the Russian pseudo-economy is none of these, Treasury should readily possess the potential to bring it down overnight.  At the very least, Moscow should be afforded a demonstration of Treasury’s firepower.

Speaking of firepower, much has been made of the newly reinvigorated Russian army which is entrenched in Crimea and massed on Ukraine’s eastern border. Some observers acknowledge that it is the product of Putin’s overhaul of the military and concede that it is an effective fighting force. Others seem to marvel at the new and improved hardware it self-confidently displays. But, there have been far more skeptical assessments as well which even question the extent to which the modernization policy has actually been implemented. And, one must wonder if the persistent gremlins of low morale; logistical overreach; and deficiencies in communication between HQ and the field; have finally been exorcised. Moreover, we have not seen how the Russian units perform in actual combat. Even an army comprised of octogenarians equipped merely with water pistols and grocery carts will appear to be a triumphant conquering juggernaut when its forward march is not challenged in any meaningful way. Georgia is not a latter-day Sparta nor is Ukraine a contemporary incarnation of Prussia. Would Moscow actually prove a competitive conventional match to a less asymmetrically arrayed opponent?

And, for that matter, how fares the homefront? Obviously Putin has very artfully cultivated the image of a unified and stable Russia; and, ostensibly, the shambolic internal upheavals of the Yeltsin era are far less evident. Yet, the Russian state has become increasingly authoritarian under Putin who exhibits a nefarious nostalgia for Stalinist repression.  Media outlets which fail to tow the party line have been systematically shuttered and there is a curiously high mortality rate among investigative journalists. Non-state-sponsored demonstrations which do not showcase effusive popular support for the regime are quickly dispersed by the police; and, perhaps the most lenient punishment for challenging the Kremlin is house arrest – a sentence to which the few more prominent opposition politicians are routinely subjected. Yet, even though dissent has been largely banned and is ruthlessly suppressed whenever it emerges, resistance to the regime has hardly been extinguished.  On the contrary, despite his draconian decrees to eradicate it, Putin remains uncomfortably apprehensive of its next recurrence. And, the fact that he has in effect declared an eccentric female rock group to be Public Enemy #1, very tellingly reveals the immense depth of his insecurity. Indeed, at least one commentator has rather insightfully suggested that Putin’s determination to dismantle the democratic revolution in Kiev has far less to do with geopolitics than his own desperate objective to ensure his own survival by sending a preemptive warning to domestic dissenters not to attempt to replicate the populist uprising of the Maidan in Red Square. It is certainly interesting that so many Russian critics of the regime have unambiguously endorsed the current sanctions and that some would even welcome a dramatic expansion of the list of those apparatchiks affected. They realize that sanctions hit the crooked oligarchy where it hurts the most – in the bulging purse of its ill-gotten gain.

Although Putin has driven it underground, I detect the reverberations a wide reservoir of discontent… seething, festering, raging, swelling… beneath the surface for now, yet probing for an aperture through which to release its constrained fury. More robust economic sanctions will inevitably precipitate fissures in the decadent larcenocracy; indeed, as their capacity to steal is inhibited and the enormity of their take is limited by dwindling revenue, Vlad’s self-serving cronies may begin to regard Novorossiya as an increasingly inconvenient concept as the erstwhile enabler of oligarchic graft has now become an impediment. There has even been speculation that Putin may find himself the victim of a palace coup. At the very least, complications in the elite and incestuous bastions of his authority, will limit Putin’s room to maneuver. He will be weakened along with the entire rotten establishment over which he presides. There could be a demotic corollary as well. When those ordinary Muscovites who so giddily celebrated the “restoration” of Crimea realize that the unanticipated costs of the real estate acquisition will now be absorbed by them in the form of a plummeting ruble, inflation, and further economic downturn – they may realize that the price of Putin’s imperium is far steeper than they can afford to pay. Instead of rallying around the flag, the cash-strapped masses may become profoundly alienated from the regime. Propaganda is far more persuasive on a full stomach. This defection of Putinite loyalists, both high and low – and the rapidly eroding facade political unity as well as that of Putin’s own well-choreographed aura of invincibility and public adulation – could well be the signal for the legion of anti-regime activists to mobilize and exploit the cracks in a compromised cabal.

Although Catherine the Great may have been impressed by Grigory Potemkin’s elaborate fabrications of a prosperous, secure, and vibrant society – let us not fall so foolishly for the monumental Potemkin Village which is Putin’s Russia. The economy is as sclerotic as ever; its military prowess greatly exaggerated; and its domestic situation on the verge of tumult. And, if I might allude to another period in Russian history, more stringent economic sanctions might well serve as the catalyst to reduce the country to another, more debilitating, Time of Troubles which would make the turn of the 16th century look like the golden age in retrospect. And, I think it is this prospect of the wholesale destabilization of the Russian state – and the unfathomable chain of events which such a collapse might unleash – that realistically explains Washington’s hesitation to impose harsh economic sanctions. Considering its enormous nuclear stockpile, the potential of chaotic state failure immiserating Russia is a source of infinite anxiety to me… it is truly what keeps me up at night. However, I am no less alarmed by Putin’s demagoguery; duplicity; addiction to brinksmanship; and the provocative, reckless, and high risk, adventurism he is willing employ in order to achieve his compulsive and hegemonic mission to revive what he sees as Russian imperial glory. His behavior more closely resembles that of a gangster and gambler… not the responsible conduct of a national leader. Putin is not someone with whom the West should be doing business; and, the sooner his regime is consigned to the cesspool of Soviet history, the better. As more economic severe injunctions against Russia would certainly usher Putin & company more closely towards the door of nevermore, the much threatened embargos on the energy, mining, banking and arms sectors should be put firmly into place without any further delay.


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To Tame a Voracious Bear

In late January, after witnessing the bizarre images of Victoria Nuland cutting a path between the demonstrators who populated the Maidan in Kiev and distributing bread to them in her wake, I was beset with the sinking realization that I had seen this movie before; I was only too familiar with how the plotline would unravel unfold; and the palpable urgency that I must get the hell out of this theater now! A decade earlier, orange seemed to quickly become the favorite color of the Bush Administration as it eagerly extended unconditional moral support to the antigovernment activists who were then assembled under similar circumstances in that same location. Yet despite the fact that the revolution of 2004 conspicuously carried Washington’s ostensibly authoritative seal of approval, its product rather readily revealed its defects. The Tymoshenko –Yuschenko condominium pathetically descended into something akin to a cartoon of warring spouses hurling dishes, pots and pans, the cat, the dog, and ultimately the kitchen sink at each other. And, it was this internecine infighting coupled with institutional indolence… not to mention incredible incompetence… which caused popular support for the “pro-Western” regime to plummet… ultimately facilitating the reemergence of Yanukovych.

Yet, in a previous existence – during which my judgment (at least on this specific issue) was uncharacteristically impaired by a cloudy concurrence of naiveté, myopia, and quixoticism – when I actually regarded a more constructive US dialogue with Moscow as a mutually advantageous project worth pursuing , I thought it in the better interests of regional stability for Ukraine to reconsider its drift towards NATO and the EU and the catalytic upset of tectonic plates which such gravitation would inevitably trigger. Nor was I necessarily averse to allowing Putin to have the run of Russia’s “near abroad” as long as he did not challenge America’s interests elsewhere.

Yet, even though Putin’s satanic anatomy of fangs, hooves, tail, and horns was finally graphically revealed to me after he so treacherously afforded refuge to Edward Snowden – and, I began to critically reassess the recurrent resets, I still harbored grave reservations as to the United States inserting itself too gratuitously into the Ukrainian conflict… even if such interference would serve to recompense, at least in small measure, Russia for its dastardly duplicity.

Considering the common myth of descent, historic cultural ties, the immutability of geography and the reality that a far more powerful Russia has quite arbitrarily dominated Ukraine since the 16th century, could Washington reasonably expect to “liberate” the country from the Kremlin’s orbit? And, even if the United States had the practical leverage to secure this objective, what would be the strategic motivation for doing so in view of the fact that we have essentially no real interests in Ukraine. Do we wish to be encumbered with the upkeep of (yet another) a failing state, of marginal geo-political consequence, mired in corruption, with a bankrupt treasury, riven with ethnic tensions, in a problematic neighborhood? Did we not in effect recently confer de facto American statehood to other such (basket) cases with disastrous consequences?

And, as events on the began to veer towards the unpredictable, I had no doubt that the revisionist-revaunchist- reactionary Putin would intervene to prevent the complete destabilization of the client regime in Kiev. Indeed as I remarked in private conversations with a number of the readers of this blog: Even though I regarded the IOC’s selection of Sochi as the venue for the winter games was one of the most obtuse, controversial, and indefensible decisions it had ever made… at least the international attention focused on the former Soviet resort due to the Olympics temporarily preempted the prospect of a Russian invasion – hard or soft – from occurring prior to the closing ceremony. Yet, although I dreaded the inevitable, I was hardly convinced that Washington should employ any measures – beyond the perfunctory and the rhetorical – to counter the Kremlin’s coming incursion.

However, my indifference, condescension, and coldly realistic calculation were ultimately superseded by an increasingly profound sense of identification with the activists. Indeed, how could one not be affected by their effervescent reservoir of courage, dignity, and hope? How could anyone so fortunate as to live in a democratic society not be inspired by their yearning to free themselves from the suffocating strictures of an oppressive, sclerotic, and dysfunctional regime and their determination to secure freedom? And, how could anyone endowed with even a modicum of humanity not be absolutely outraged as sniper fire so savagely rained down on them? It was at that grotesque and tragic turning point when I discovered that I was undergoing a very rapid process of naturalization – at least spiritually – as a Ukrainian. And so, I too joined my newly adoptive countrymen – albeit vicariously from afar – in that transformative and triumphant celebration when jubilation from the news of Yanukovych’s furtive flight and at the ascendance of the parliament began to partially alleviate lugubrious grief. Yet, when Yulia Tymoshenko – only just sprung from her hospital prison – was wheeled out onto the stage, I rather wished I had brought a golf umbrella, rubber boots, a poncho, waterproof pants, and an inflatable dinghy as I felt that torrential showers were now beating down on our parade.

Although hardly unexpected, my indignation at the Russian occupation of Crimea is as voluminous as it is visceral and I have been underwhelmed by the anemic reaction of the West. Brussels’ response has been characteristically feeble and frayed. And, while Washington’s posture has been slightly more robust, it hardly suggests muscular resolve. Yet, just as my bitter disappointment nearly propels me into orbit, I am abruptly grounded when caution constrains emotion. My empathetic Ukrainian association – though proudly and earnestly appropriated – was elective, symbolic, and of recent vintage. It is of course supplanted by a far more durable national identity which defines me as an American and one who has become utterly exhausted by unnecessary and counterproductive filibusters abroad and furthermore one who is desperately dumbfounded by our habitual and debilitating propensity to chase the wild geese of nation-building.

Even for the most competent, capable, and technocratic government, even a divinely anointed dream team of managerial, organizational, and bureaucratic over-achieving, rock stars – the prospects for effective constitutional development and economic reform in Ukraine remain stratospheric hurdles. And, as one can clearly glim from the film footage of recent events, it would appear that there deficiencies in infrastructure and ecological issues as well. Moreover, there is an entrenched, corrupt cabal of rusted relics of the Soviet era who are only too content to perpetuate the status quo and all of the ill-gotten gain it has afforded them. It is this atavistic influence which explains the lack of meaningful structural progress during the previous “pro-Western” interlude. (Indeed, with the announcement that “Gas Princess” Yulia would seek the presidency in the upcoming elections, the pesky rain started again and I began to think that I better trade my dinghy in on a larger vessel… one 300 cubits by 50 by 30). Furthermore, even the most socially enlightened, multi-culturally inclusive, and demographically representative administration will confront similarly herculean challenges in addressing the ethno-regional tensions which, at least in some aspects, have percolated for centuries. And, the state will remain perilously abutted to an imperious, vindictive, and intrusive neighbor from hell. Indeed, as many observers have conceded, you simply cannot uproot Ukraine and conveniently re-situate its territory further west. Therefore, in the absence of a monumental expansion in the technical remit of reality television in which Ty Pennington develops an Extreme Makeover: Nation Edition and Mega Movers extend their relocation skills to countries, Ukraine has a very hard row to hoe. Although it is only fitting that Washington should lend its expertise and perhaps even to provide a tiller or two, the United States should vigilantly resist the impulse to cultivate those rocky and inhospitable fields itself. No, this is a task which should be left to the good farmers of the European Union.

However, our prudent reluctance to avoid entanglement in the internal dynamics of Ukraine, must not allow us to neglect the overarching issue which is a far more relevant national security interest – and, that is, of course, arresting a resurgent Russian expansionism. And, it is indeed critical that we decisively dissuade Putin from further penetration of foreign territory; and, absolutely imperative that we do so before Russian troops roll across the borders of a NATO member-state – a catalyst which would inescapably embroil the United States in an unpredictable, costly, and… (considering our luck of late) quite possibly, protracted… conflict.

If Putin is permitted to comfortably digest Crimea – as is presently the case – his appetite will only be whetted to devour the remainder of Ukraine. Indeed – with hammer and sickle fork and knife in clenched fists and a stomach growling ferociously – he appears only too eager to ravenously engorge himself on Donetsk. And, then he will be tempted to omnivorously forage for victuals further afield… he may even acquire a craving for Baked Alaska. No Putin’s gluttonous taste for exotic cuisine must be neutralized now; and, in order to do so, Crimea must become the political equivalent of a spiny and rancid shrimp lodged in Vlad’s gastrointestinal tract: it should prompt a gag reflex; stimulate a chronic bellyache; and trigger a case of acid reflux so corrosive that it would oxidize iron. If the dyspepsia was to become this intense, might not the jackal bear regurgitate the indigestible morsel?

More substantive diplomatic and economic consequences to induce this sort of emetic effect would appear absolutely necessary as those relatively innocuous “penalties” currently in place have done nothing to moderate Putin’s aggressive posture. Cannot sanctions be implemented on a preemptive basis? Perhaps if this had been the case prior to the annexation, the Kremlin would have thought twice before seizing Crimea. Why must we endure yet another shocking episode of Russian territorial thievery before imposing measures which may exert a preventative influence? Is not international law intended to be proactively enforced?

I think the possible punitive actions against the Russian energy, banking, mining, and arms sectors of which Secretary Kerry warned during his Congressional testimony today could be far more effectively utilized as a deterrent to prevent Putin from further intervention in Ukraine rather than merely as retaliatory device if he intervenes further… that is only after his forces invade the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine and consolidate their positions. Why must Western options always be confined to the category of the purely reactive? Indeed, we must deprive Putin not only of the tactical initiative but, crucially, of his carnivorous hunger; and we must do so soon – preferably prior to Kharkiv becoming his lunch; Lugansk, served up for dinner; and Odessa, a midnight snack… which will only embolden him to start organizing his menus for May.

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Blogger’s Note: Please find below my rambling reflection on the events of the past two weeks. I had originally started the post on October 7th … fully intending to finish it within a few days. However, much like the tiresome pantomime in Washington on which it comments, my rumination undertook a serpentine if rather formulaic trajectory and it has consumed my attention ever since. In any event, now that there has finally been a respite in the surreal spectacle, I thought it best to, at last, complete the piece and post it without further delay. I have adjusted the verb tenses in the earlier passages and trust that I have done so consistently throughout. Enjoy:

Even in a city where hubris hangs as heavily in the air as DDT; site of the preeminent arena for the gladiatorial clash of monumental egos; in which rote gridlock continues to petrify into even more adamantine inflexibility; where pretentious brinksmanship perfunctorily escalates into attrition before inevitably collapsing into capitulation and consensus; and, in which narcissism, demagoguery, and obsessive careerism invariably trump any concept of public service; and in which extravagant political theater never ceases to confuse, shock, and disappoint. Yes, even in this jaundiced citadel of paralysis, dysfunction, and zero sum simulation – this Panem on the Potomac – the scandalous tableau of the past two and a half weeks has been particularly bizarre and especially disillusioning. And, the incendiary fracas has been even more remarkably bewildering when, in reality, the deep ocean of accord which unites the two warring parties is far more substantive than the micro-drop of dissonance which separates them.  But, it is exactly this incestuous cohabitation between Democrats and Republicans (which has fostered in both a seemingly instinctual compulsion to continually enlarge an already leviathan state) which has made the current row – as well as the symptomatic, chronic conflict in general – so histrionic, soap operatic, highly stylized, and campily overplayed. A performance evocative of Bette Davis as Erika Kane doing kabuki at a fringe festival.  Indeed, the ostentatious conflagration in Congress is reminiscent of sibling rivalry; the fencer whom during an noncompetitive assault with a teammate begins to believe the combat is actually real and has, in fact, been transported to the battlefield; the fundamentalist debate as to how many angels can dance on the head of a pin; and, the episode of The Jerry Springer Show entitled “Holiday Hell With My Feuding Family”. Yes, it is particularly suggestive of the latter.

Although there are tenets of the Tea Party’s platform with which I agree, I do not understand the decision of its devotees in the House to trigger a government shutdown as a desperate mechanism of last resort to delay, dilute, or defund Obamacare – especially when the defiant stunt was devoid of any realistic efficacy in securing that objective. Even as a bargaining chip, its utility was misplaced – as, far from inducing the President and the Democratic leaders in Congress toward negotiations, it merely conveniently reinforced their intransigence… particularly as the prospect of an ostensibly Republican-led shutdown could be artfully exploited. I am not a fan of a “partial government shutdown” simply for the hell of it. If it entailed an appreciable cost-savings benefit or if it was utilized as a diagnostic test to evaluate how the bureaucracy could be effectively streamlined… well, then it would serve a purpose. However, there was certainly no economic logic to this shutdown – especially when one considers that (at least according to Byron York) approximately 83% of Washington’s spending was unaffected; that those 800,000+ “non-essential” federal employees who have been furloughed will ultimately receive back pay when they return to work; and, that it was actually costing the American taxpayer more to keep parts of the various agencies temporarily shuddered rather than open for business.

Yet, the shutdown has been a controversial source of needless anxiety, frustration, dislocation, and inconvenience to many ordinary citizens. Despite the mercenary calculations of Harry Reid, it has not afforded any proportional political advantage to any specific party or institution in DC as polls largely indicate that it is intensifying popular exasperation with the “broken” system as a whole. Indeed, despite reciprocal attempts among the antagonists to exclusively pin blame on the donkey and the elephant respectively, there is no dearth of culpability as far as the public is concerned and responsibility is leveled – not inordinately at any single perpetrator – rather evenly across the board… even at the President. Admittedly, however, the ascending percentage points spread have not been favorable to the Republican Party and certainly not its maverick faction.

Although the GOP’s standing in the polls has certainly suffered (again, along with that of the Democrats and the President), the provocative tactic has hardly been the existentialist waterloo of the Tea Party which many liberal pundits have confidently, yet wishfully, predicted. Regardless of one’s affinity for its agenda, Tea Partiers in the House have demonstrated yet again their ability to pivotally project political influence which greatly exceeds the relatively small size of their contingent.  Although not impervious to schism as the national movement itself is a coalition of various decentralized, grass roots constituencies, the congressional coterie is less vulnerable to fracture than other issue-oriented alliances and, with the shutdown, continues to exhibit an episodic resilience… if not perennial renewal… and always just before the ink on their obituary has dried. For its vociferous critics who have recurrently celebrated the demise of the Tea Party – if recent history is any guide, it would be quite premature for them to urinate on its grave anytime soon.

Even as conservative Republicans in the Senate – who embraced and harnessed Tea Party support during the previous election – became increasingly philosophical and rather quick to concede that they simply lacked the votes to stop Obamacare, Tea Partiers brewed a highly-caffeinated infusion – a supremely potent and versatile antidote – which counteracted the complacency of the GOP. Indeed, the Tea Party tonic provided a powerful stimulant for Ted Cruz who readily rediscovered his dried-leaf roots and mounted a frenetic – if, at times, erratic – filibuster. The frequently spelunking Boehner must have ingested a copious swig as, for him, the tonic delivered a growth hormone as he finally seemed to develop a spine as well as some other anatomical features which also previously appeared lacking. It must have had rather an anti-depressant effect as well, as the Speaker switched off his personal irrigation system; and, as if also laced with Adderall, Boehner remained resolutely on point and resisted his reflexive tendency to cave for what must have been a new record time worthy of Guinness.  And, even for those more moderate Republicans in the House who probably haltingly administered their dose with a spoonful of sugar, it acted as a stiffener as – despite their plaintive disclosures to the media – they, with only negligible defection, voted as a bloc, at least, at the outset.

Boehner’s newfound tenacity and the extraordinary display of Republican solidarity – in grudging deference to their more militant colleagues and especially in support of such a risky maneuver – were stunning accomplishments… for which the Tea Partiers might claim credit… yet, despite their novelty, do not necessarily translate into any discernible, broader, practical advantage. To be sure, the buzz from caffeine is fleeting and the effects of even the most fortifying elixir are of but brief duration. The Tea Party should have anticipated the coming relapse and that the tannins would leave a bitter aftertaste among those who imbibed. And – aside from devising a transitory and iconoclastic coup which revealed its negative prowess to obstruct, rather than any positive capability to lead  – I am not so certain that such a pointless gambit, unable to achieve tangible strategic value, can be chalked up as a victory for the Tea Party. At least Pyrrhus won some battles before ultimately losing the war. Yet, among its disaffected constituency, there is an empowering dignity in defeat… particularly as many Tea Party supporters welcomed the shutdown as more of a political statement…an end in itself… rather than simply a tactical lever.  And, if the gremlins slowing and crashing the exchange websites are not contained, and, if popular trepidation with the ACA does not abate, the Tea Party might eventually project itself as the heroic… if rather smug… passerby whose valiant, yet futile, intercession attempted to prevent a train wreck.

In any event, the not insignificant disruption prompted by the shutdown (some of which has been instrumentally intensified for political effect) seems rather limited in comparison to the other quandaries, unfortunately embedded in the American body politic, which have been clearly exposed as a result of the imbroglio.

First of all, if more than 800,000 government workers are technically classified as “non-essential”… well then exactly how many hundreds of thousands more are officially categorized as “indispensable”? Although I realized that the federal bureaucracy was obese, I could never have imagined that it was so galactically corpulent that only Saturn’s outer ring would suffice as a gastric lap band… a device which apparently is sorely needed. Such a vast administration is symptomatic of a state afflicted with giganticism; addicted to anabolic steroids; insatiably feasting on candied lard; and, overinflated with helium. A behemothcracy whose purpose, efficiency, and accountability are clumsily impeded by its inert enormity. Okay, I will try to constrain my hyperbolic excesses which are admittedly running amok; however, does no the collective shadow of hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats – including legions of inspectors, investigators, compliance officers, examiners, code enforcers, and regulators -ominously obscure the constitutional guarantee of limited government?

Obviously the 800,000 people directly employed by the federal government have been subjected to financial hardships as their paychecks have been suspended. Yet, also experiencing the deprivation were inestimable thousands more of ordinary citizens who rely on the state for various means of support [and keep in mind that the principal entitlements… Social Security and Medicare… as well as most provisions of the safety net are largely unaffected by the shutdown] as well as numerous sectors of the economy which count on government contracts. Many services – social, recreational, nutritional, rehabilitative, recreational, and charitable – which are funded, partially, if not fully, by Washington have also been interrupted, thereby extending the shatter-zone even further into the broader population.  Philosophical arguments about the inherent benevolence of the welfare state aside, it is really beneficial for so many individuals and businesses to be – to varying extents – so dependent on the federal government for basic physical and material satisfaction? Have civic society and the free market now completely faded away in the very Republic in which state institutions were intended to remain unobtrusive towards the natural vitality of popular collaboration and private enterprise?  Are we all being ushered into a congested queue staggering into a colossal state-run smorgasbord (in which the tariff is not immediately visible) where beyond the buffet of food, massive display tables offer housing, education, healthcare… even emotional fulfillment and eternal bliss. As tempting as these delicacies may appear, one must resist the urge to partake. The prudent consumer would do well to remember that old adage: “There is no free lunch!” And, its sound logic equally applies to homes, diplomas and surgical procedures.

In any event, why must politicians and journalists resort to the most utterly alarmist rhetoric when they instruct the American people as to what they see as the negative repercussions which will inevitably result from the shutdown? We were instructed that failure to pass the CR would wreak unimaginable havoc on our still fragile and recovering economy… and, again the United States would be flung into the depths of recession. Well, I am not so sure that we have yet climbed out of the economic hole. But, at any rate, we were issued similarly dire advisories in the event of sequestration. And, if there were any ill economic effects from the mandatory across the board cuts earlier this year, they must have been patently inconsequential as they barely warranted sustained comment from the doom-prophesying media. Nor, have the markets necessarily plunged into free fall in response to the shutdown… although the angst on Wall Street regarding the looming debt limit deadline was certainly another matter. And, again, as the clocked ticked ever more closely towards the 17th, the apocalyptic scenarios proliferated and were spiked with patently dystopian prognostications. Yet such sensationalistic scare tactics warning of economic armageddon… unless the government implements sweeping measures to preempt the crisis… have quite been integral props in the official arsenal ever since (quite curiously) the Great Recession solidified in 2008.

We were also warned that the nation’s food supply would be at risk as the homebound USDA inspectors would no longer be able to ensure the safety of edible products on the supermarket shelf. Fish was repeatedly singled out as a prime example. This I found profoundly ironic as only a few short months ago there were reports that – despite federal inspection – only a small percentage of the fish sold at grocery stores in the United States accurately corresponded to the variety and country of origin on the label under which it is advertised. Moreover, many news anchors seemed curiously eager to suggest some sort of correlation between the current salmonella outbreak from the tainted chicken from California and the fact that some 9000 employees at the CDC were temporarily off the job… or, at the very least, that the crisis would be far more difficult to resolve without the scientists in place. This was a most unfortunate emergency… the timing of which could not have been worse; but, have there not been numerous – and, difficult to trace and check – incidences of salmonella, e coli, listeria, and other foodborne illnesses even when the CDC was fully staffed?

Yet, the American public was susceptible to far more menacing threats than bacteria as the shutdown has made the country more vulnerable to terrorist attack. This was the foreboding interpretation of numerous pundits and reporters following James Clapper’s recent testimony before Congress in which he discussed the detriment to counterterrorism efforts posed by a smaller workforce in intelligence.  Even though some experts questioned this assessment; and others were quick to point out that the majority of analysts and operatives – especially those involved in the most sensitive sectors – are of course classified as “essential” personnel; and, an authoritative consensus rapidly reiterated that in no way had the shutdown reduced the United States a sitting duck with a bulls eye on its wing – it was, however, the more frantic and sinister impression which resonated in the popular imagination and, at times, was recklessly reinforced by the media.

Obviously, we must remain ever vigilant against al Qaeda and other enemies. And, and to permit any circumstance to weaken American resolve; to retard our military preparedness; or to compromise national security in any way is the absolute height of irresponsibility. Yet, considering the tragedies which we as Americans have endured here at home and the increasingly volatile climate we confront abroad, I think it is equally irresponsible to create an atmosphere of anxiety and unease in such uncertain times. Suffice it to say that I am totally exhausted by the blizzard of jeremiads. We have ample about which to be frightened and depressed without cynical fear-mongers attempting to incite mass panic. If only the shutdown could be extended to the disingenuous peddlers of doom as well!

Yet, as the shutdown most assuredly does not apply to Congress, our ears would still be assailed by the cacophony of churlish invective. How many incessant vows of civility must our representatives take before something even remotely akin to a respectful dialogue, commensurate with the dignity of their office, develops among these privileged and pouty tantrumites. Name-calling, mud-slinging, character assassination, and the ad hominem attack are nothing new to American politics and, at least since 1828, have punctuated many a campaign. Yet, must provocative harangue define the routine discourse among an already seated legislature and must the members of Congress plumb the absolute depth of calumny to employ the most offensive and emotive imagery, metaphor, and analogy to callously berate their colleagues? Must they suck the sourest persimmons before standing in front of the camera for what else could account for the obnoxious scowls which accompany their curt remonstrance?

But of course the most truculent reproach and the most contorted grimaces have been reserved for the Tea Partiers, which in the eyes of many Democratic politicians and their allies in the media… and even among far too many Republicans… are indicted as the principal and malignant instigators of the shutdown and all else which is wrong with America. Yet, the vast left wing centrist conspiracy to vilify the Tea Party is not new either; it coalesced shortly after the tricorn hat came back into vogue a few years ago and those who don this colonial cap have been derided as a radical rebellion which is injurious to American democracy ever since.  Yet, interestingly, only a few short weeks ago, many liberals dramatically dialed down their denunciation of the Tea Party – which did not seem nearly so reactionary – when many of its activists wound up on the same side as the antiwar left in opposing the prospective strikes on Syria.  Indeed, at more parochial levels, a rather durable détente – if not indirect cooperation – has developed between Tea Partiers and proactive progressives both of whom rally for transparency, integrity, and accountability in local and state government.  However, if some of the Tea Party’s precepts straddle the ideological divide and occupy the mainstream, one would never know it from the recrimination and ridicule which has been so unsparingly heaped upon the organization in the wake of the shutdown.

Clearly much of the backlash against the Tea Party understandably stems from what is seen as its red  hand in forcing the government shutdown – the basic rationale of which continues to puzzle many Americans… including myself. Again, the inherent risk of the ploy was exceeded only by its obvious futility; impractical pursuits seldom generate tangible returns; and, it is unwise to employ gratuitously contentious tactics which opportunistic detractors can assail as subversive. Yet, beyond the spontaneous, vernacular criticism of the Tea Partiers in Congress which has arisen as a result of the turbulence of this frustrating fortnight, there is a more concerted and comprehensive condemnation of the movement itself (and all for which it stands) – articulated and amplified by an elite, establishment, entrenched, duopolistic, chattering class “hit squad” – which appears determined to aggressively divest the Tea Party of any semblance of legitimacy. Why is the wrath of the anti-Tea Party juggernaut so vehement, vituperative, and vindictive? And, for the Republicans who are currently violating Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment with impunity, why do they feel the need to outdo liberals in the spiteful and systematic rebuke of their intraparty colleagues?

One must wonder if the seething intensity of antipathy is somehow fueled by the fact that the emergence of the more militant, doctrinaire, and less collegial Tea Partiers within the Republican ranks has fundamentally altered the traditional pattern of dissent within a deeply-rooted duopoly which has defined the parameters of American politics for well over a century. The Tea Party’s aversion to the clubby congressional status quo; fundamental vision of a downsized, less intrusive, and constitutionally constrained, state; and, the inviolable compact sealed with its local constituents to fervently, and without compromise, pursue its remedial mission rather tends to make the ideological divergence – as it relates to basic policy preferences – among Democrats and the mainstream GOP appear far less salient than the compulsive competition between the two parties would ever suggest. The Tea Party is introducing alien and awkward sequences into the intricate choreography which permits two rival and wailing prima donnas to dominate a single stage. During the dueling doublet, each ruthlessly vies for the attention of the audience… attempting to outshine, and even sabotage the contribution of the other.  Yet, despite the conspicuous strife which occasionally threatens to derail the entire production, there is a predictability to the performance which has been only too well-rehearsed over time. It is after all an ensemble, and the song remains the same. Even though, during the course of the duet, the rendition may convey variation, tension, and discord, toward the end of the composition, the jaded divas will harmonize as one and deliver the familiar crescendo just minutes before the exhausted spectators are required to exit the closing auditorium.

Indeed, was it any surprise that Democrats and Republicans dutifully reconvened in the House last night to pass the deal at the 11th hour? And even if the Tea Partiers had not audaciously attempted to upstage the reigning divas’ recital through mischievous improvisation, I highly doubt that the tortuous process of getting to yes would have been any less protracted, paralytic, polarized or pandemoniac. We have seen reruns of this classic episode regularly in the past and it was already in syndication long before the genesis of the Tea Party in 2010. I was sorry to learn of the stenographer’s meltdown at the House podium and trust that she is getting proper care. However, I do not understand why this incident has attracted such attention in the media. Was her unfortunate outburst any more unseemly than the outrageous spectacle orchestrated by the legislators in both Chambers which we have witnessed these past seventeen days?

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Soup Kitchen Syndrome

My first encounter with the concept was when I was a little boy browsing through the gift shop at an Atlanta hotel. Situated on the shelf among some small crystal sculptures of unicorns, it was elegantly – but indelibly – inscribed on a folded card of fine vellum:

“I am lovely to look at,

And a joy to hold.

But – if I am broken,

Then, I am sold!”

Even as I child, I thought the admonition illogical, presumptuous, and rather intimidating… (what can I say, I was a precocious kid and excessively analytical even at that early age). Yet, at that time, I could have never imagined that a truncated and exceedingly blunt version of the shopkeeper’s slogan would figure so prominently as a tenet of American military planning during the Bush-Obama era. Indeed: “You break it… you buy it!”

If the unsatisfactory experience of the past decade is any guide, war seems to have morphed into merely a prelude for nation-building. Nation-building is, of course, that most quixotic of misguided socio-political wild goose chases – supremely ambitious, exorbitantly expensive, painstakingly protracted, and almost always unsuccessful – which (according to its proponents and critics alike) basically seeks to install a functioning democracy, complete with a vibrant civic society which exemplifies an inclusive and collective sense of belonging, further augmented by a flourishing economy, amid the chronic anarchy of a failed state, ethnic conflict, and extreme poverty.

The initial salvo of shock and awe is quickly superseded by a sustained regimen of transfusion and rehabilitation intended to readily recast the occupied state in our image… regardless of any structural, cultural, or pragmatic realities on the ground which may impede this herculean task. The dogs of war are promptly muzzled; and, then, something akin to Ty Pennington radically expanding his remit and hosting a show entitled Extreme Makeover: Nation Edition is orchestrated to renovate the unsightly institutional infrastructure. And, if you will forgive another allusion to reality television, it is like Jon & Kate Plus 62 Million. Indeed, it is as if the entire populations of the invaded lands are adopted en masse by the American taxpayer as policymakers in the White House, Pentagon, and State Department insists that, as a result of attacking the country, we must now assume complete responsibility for the welfare of its inhabitants.

Despite the passage of many more years than I would care to recall, I remain just as baffled and perplexed by the incoherent rationale of the “break it/buy it” stipulation as I was that day as a child in the gift shop. If Washington determines it necessary to launch military action against a foreign power, does it plausibly follow that we must, for all practical purposes, admit that country into the Union through the back door by indulgently conferring a gargantuan gift bag crammed with cash, hardware, blueprints and construction teams, technocratic specialists, a praetorian guard and legions of foot soldiers, food, medicine, schoolbooks, etc., etc., etc…  Indeed, we export nothing less than a colossal, state of the art soup kitchen which frenetically dispenses all manners of goods, services, amenities intended to replicate the Republic in an alien, and often inhospitable, environment.

Although the United States is quite adept at deploying its preponderant military power to dislodge antagonistic regimes, its capability to constructively remodel the liberated societies has proven an elusive, prolonged, agonizing, exhaustive, and unappreciated process – and, often, a myopic exercise which has actually been counterproductive to our strategic interests in the region.  Many of the posts – indeed, far too numerous to hyperlink here – on this blog have comprised a compendium of what I regard as the utter failure of nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although there is no need to regurgitate the voluminous catalogue of snafus – suffice it to say, after the ruinous investment of blood and treasure in Iraq, the installation of “democracy” has resulted in an authoritarian regime which oppresses Sunnis; is increasingly mired in ethno-confessional violence and impotent to shield its subjects from almost daily terrorist bombings; and is losing control of the autonomous Kurdish territory in the north. And, our exorbitantly expensive and seemingly unending project to foster “good governance” in Afghanistan has sadly ensconced a kleptocratic and uncooperative client whose ingratitude is surpassed only by his insolence; and whose geo-juridical authority barely extends beyond the capital while the remainder of the vast country is the fiefdoms of warlords and a staging ground for a resurgent Taliban – now so prevalent and powerful that Kabul and even Washington feels compelled to negotiate with the extremist enemy. In each case, even the most casual observer must wonder and can be graciously forgiven for inquiring: Exactly what have we accomplished?

Even as my fellow Americans were readily adopting a far more circumspect attitude toward military adventurism abroad and I welcomed the evolution of the mature and critical public perspective, I nevertheless supported our collaboration with the French and British to bolster the anti-regime rebels in Libya… but, only in the most telescoped of objectives to deliver justice to a despicable terrorist. Although our participation was, to a certain extent, characteristically disproportionate in that we had to essentially provide most of the firepower as allied arsenals soon began to run low as well as principally facilitating the no-fly zone, I commended the prudence of the Obama Administration in not expanding the scope of intervention to include ground forces in significant numbers nor in attempting to physically micro-manage a post-Qadaffi Libya.

Yet, there were some familiar voices which advocated a far more salient American footprint in the Libyan desert to ensure the exact placement of socio-political building blocks which would ensure Libya’s emergence as a democratic, pluralistic, and economically sound, card-carrying member of the international community. Fortunately however, this constituency remained a minority and the populous official cadres of bureaucrats, troubleshooters, social workers, and professional do-gooders of every stripe… flanked by even larger contingents of US troops… it envisioned were never dispatched to Tripoli. Nevertheless, the plaintive apprehensions of the nation-building lobby – that in the absence of a continuing American “intervention” in Libya, the country will likely descend into chaos – were hardly misplaced… Libya today is in no way a paragon of political stability, effective administration, civic accord, commercial vitality, human rights, and the rule of law. However, for that matter, neither are Iraq and Afghanistan – even after years of munificent, sustained, and conspicuous American tutelage, reconstruction, inspiration, patronage, guidance, financing, consultation, resuscitation, parenting, protection, development, encouragement, contribution, mentoring, alliance, dedication, stimulation, apprenticeship, motivation, and the indefatigable exertion of every other transformative influence imaginable!

For those analysts who consign Libya to the category of “failed state”, where exactly would they situate Iraq and Afghanistan on the continuum of state integrity? How qualitatively superior is either example in terms of comparative criteria? If Libya is “failed”, would not Iraq and Afghanistan qualify as “failing” or at least “at significant risk”? If the achievements of US nation-building in these countries are so negligible, can policymakers in Washington offer any credible justification for these futile nation-building missions… the monumental (human and material) costs of which are so staggeringly incongruent with the meager results realized and which do not seem to benefit American security interests in any way which is even remotely proportional.  And, even if the United States had succeeded in implanting a utopia in Iraq and a shining city on the hill in Afghanistan, could it possibly have been worth the grotesque, ridiculous, and unconscionable price (and counting) we have already paid – 4500 American lives/$800 billion and 2300 American lives/$600 billion respectively?  HELL NO!

The writhing torrent of adamant popular opposition to yet another intervention unleashed by the prospect of limited strikes against Syria was obviously intensified by the inextricable morasses in which we have been ensnared in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearly every journalist concurred that the American people were enervated by a wilting bout of “war weariness” to which I would add a concurrent diagnosis of “nation-building neurosis”. There was grave collective alarm that even a symbolic “shot across the bow” might inexorably lead to boots on the ground and ultimately to the rise of yet another titanic, US-mandated soup kitchen. Even among some of the players in Washington who were wary of military action, there seemed to be an explicit and perfunctory acknowledgement that now war and nation-building had become the two sides of the same coin. During his uncomfortable inquisition before a skeptical, critical, and combative House Foreign Affairs Committee, even a very conservative Congressman from Georgia pointedly reminded Secretary Kerry of the shopkeeper’s slogan: “You break it… you buy it!” It was certainly this immense and palpable trepidation among such a broad swathe of the American public that Syria might become the 53rd state (or, perhaps, 59th … depending on your methodology) which compelled it to so vigorously lobby its representatives on Capitol Hill to suppress what has been a far too familiar impulse towards military intervention abroad which can inevitably transfix the United States in debilitating and interminable entanglements.

Before the matter was completely eclipsed by the government shutdown, President Obama’s speech on US foreign policy at the United Nations last week elicited extensive commentary – especially from those congregants in the “liberal internationalist” denomination who were disappointed by what they heard:  They regrettably suspected that the dutiful citizen of the world was forsaking his cosmopolitan ideals; and, even as President of the United States, was unceremoniously downsizing America’s normative and universalist mission to promote democracy, protect human rights, and, in general, to make this Earth a far better place. It amounted to an ignominious – if not wholesale – abdication of indispensable and authoritative American moral leadership towards a planet of many repressed populations where it is sorely needed. His words signaled a cynical, instrumental, and unapologetic embrace of realpolitik and a narrow and selfish redefinition of US interests which would selectively condone despotism in some quarters while callously neglecting humanitarian imperatives elsewhere. Indeed, the reaction was rather negative.

However, if the “liberal internationalist” critique summarized above is actually warranted, and the President’s more explicit articulation of realism will prevent us from bumbling into yet another fool’s errand of nation-building abroad… then, I should have liked to have been present at the UN General Assembly hall to have earnestly applauded the presidential address and to have repeatedly exclaimed: “Bravo!”

But, it may be premature for the liberal internationalists to reach for the Prozac just now. I do not think that President Obama has been completely possessed by the spirit of Bismarck just yet; nor, do I think he will accommodate Kissinger in the Lincoln Bedroom, for an extended stay, to afford easy access to regular advice, anytime soon.

Have we not heard the rhetoric of realism from 44 before? Prior to the surge in Afghanistan in 2009, President Obama made it crystal clear that the massive augmentation of additional troops was being deployed to the country to eliminate the enemy… not to engage in nation-building. “Counter-insurgency” was the watchword for a more decisive and formidable campaign; however, it turned out only to be (nation-building by another name). Indeed, by the following summer, there were astonishing complaints that the rules of engagement under which our troops are required to operate have been, at intervals, so restrictive and cumbersome that some soldiers felt that they lacked the latitude even to defend themselves… much less to eliminate the enemy.  And, in another patently bizarre – yet unmistakably telling – incongruity, as he testified to Congress during that same season, General Petraeus cited the rising numbers of Afghan children being vaccinated and enrolled in school as indicators of the success of the revitalized war effort. The soup kitchen remained very much open for business.

As I suggested in a previous post, the “Iraq Disorder” – which can now be rechristened as the “Soup Kitchen Syndrome” – is likely to temper the American expeditionary impulse for many years to come. And, if the hard-learned lesson from the past decade helps insulate us from idiotic forays into pointless nation-building boondoggles in the future… well, then, we may have gained something from the debacle in Iraq and the imbroglio in Afghanistan. Yet, we cannot permit the Soup Kitchen Syndrome to weaken American resolve … especially not in this increasingly volatile international climate in which we confront very real threats to our national security. Indeed, we must remind ourselves that nation-building is not an inseparable complement of warfare. C-17s heavily laden with all of the requisite supplies and personnel to fabricate nation-states need not necessarily follow in the wake of B-52s. Nor should one be inhibited by the defective rationale of the slogans of shopkeepers. If a crystal unicorn should fall from shelf, even if it shatters into a thousand pieces, the browser can always simply refuse to pay and then merely exit
the store.

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The ($)800 (Billion) Pound Gorilla

Although I hardly subscribe to the doctrinaire, ostrich-like isolationism of the Pauline libertarians, I nevertheless regard the Washingtonian admonishment of 1796 as exceedingly sound and durable advice which remains instructive… indeed, especially relevant… even today. Anyone who has read this blog is aware of the fact that I – as a realist – have been quite critical of the recurrent episodes of American military adventurism abroad in the post-Cold War period as I did not believe that our national security interests warranted the majority of these interventions. And, my deep-seated  reservations were very painfully reinforced when so many of these incursions … were characteristically and catalytically commandeered by mission creep, accomplished virtually nothing, dramatically backfired in our face, ultimately proved to be quite counterproductive, ended in disaster , well, suffice it to say… did not go as planned. Yet, I often felt that mine was the lone voice crying in the vacuous political wilderness as so many of my countrymen always appeared only too eager to endorse the expeditionary impulse with a gung-ho, can do, and how high? determination… confident that American resolve, preponderant military might, and the inherent morality of our mission would ensure its success.  The Vietnam Syndrome had been miraculously cured by the heady antidote of Desert Storm and the debacle of the return engagement in Iraq had yet to be so painfully experienced. Yet, like its earlier Southeast Asian variant, what currently may be coined as the “Iraq Disorder” appears to be proving itself to be a potentially chronic – yet, in this case, not undesirable – condition.

When the prospect of U.S. involvement in Libya two years ago sparked such an animated public debate, I was pleased… although hardly surprised… that so many Americans vigorously questioned the rationale of such action. The skeptics incisively argued that, as we do not import oil from there and the country figures negligibly in our geo-strategic playbook, we have no business inserting ourselves into the unpredictable crossfire of a bloody civil war. Indeed, I witnessed, with a profound sense of relief, the energetic emergence of the increasingly vocal anti-interventionist lobby vis à vis Libya; and, I, as I wrote in March 2011, My only regret is that so many of the policymakers, pundits, politicians, and activists who have now seemingly coalesced into this increasingly vocal alliance did not see the light sooner. Yet despite the comfortable common ground between us, I disagreed with the anti-interventionist lobby on a definitional basis as I believed that the United States actually did have a (sole) national security interest in Libya and that was to bring down a terrorist – whom some had pathetically attempted to rehabilitate – whose hands were indelibly stained with American blood. Yet, I made it quite clear that our participation in the mission should end promptly with the neutralization of the regime – any occupation, reconstruction, de-Qadaffication… and, to be sure, any wild goose chases projects even remotely resembling “nation-building”… should be left to the EU and the Arab League – or perhaps Don Quixote and Lance Burton.

And when the Administration ineptly unveiled the cryptic pantomime of the punitive response against Assad late last month – and as its serpentine trajectory was continually rerouted by confusion, convolution, and contortion – new and ideologically disparate anti-interventionist blocs quickly arose. And, although they have not yet coalesced into a cohesive pressure group, its advocacy has proven to be unexpectedly decisive. And even though the high profile “A-list” constituents of the anti-Syrian-strike assembly are not the same as those who comprised its Libyan antecedent, the “no” campaign is buttressed by a vast grassroots alliance of ordinary Americans who are articulating their adamant opposition to military action at raucous town hall meetings and in curt communications to their Congressional representatives. And, obviously, the popular, blunt message managed to slash the sinewy red tape of Capitol Hill as legislators in a deeply divided House – in a rare glimmer of bipartisanship – readily acquiesced to the demands of their districts back home.  Even the impenetrable cocoon of the Senate – which virtually every observer took for granted would comply with the Presidential petition and likely to countenance a far more comprehensive attack – withered in the intense humidity of the pervasive antiwar atmosphere as the anticipated arithmetic suddenly went awry.

In principle, I again welcome the resurgence of agnosticism and that my fellow citizens have adopted such an exacting and deliberate calculus to scrutinize the merits of intervention. I am also gratified that their concern was effectively channeled via civic activism to their elected legislators who acted in accordance with the popular will. Indeed, is this not the most elemental architecture of the democratic experience?

Yet, at the same time, I certainly recognize that a logical case can be could have been made for the strikes on the basis of our national security interests in the region. However, an angst-ridden, meandering, and pedantic President Obama was unable to persuasively substantiate this perspective as, from the outset, his methodology was critically undermined by a conspicuous lack of clarity, continuity, and conviction.  Indeed, as I posted last week, even his most compellingly realpolitik argument for intervention… that the attack on Syria would send a “message” to Iran… was ultimately undercut by a glaring incongruity in policy.

It is hardly strategically opportune that the American people’s more mature attitude towards military adventurism abroad has so unmistakably manifested itself during this bleak climate when U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East – if such a thing still even exists at all – has continued to awkwardly unravel against a maelstrom of reversals which decision-makers in the White House and State Department do not seem to fully comprehend… nor, to which they can even adequately respond.  Unquestionably, the ignominious climb-down has inflicted immense damage to American prestige and authority in the region – yet, considering that the unfortunate fact that our policy-making process has been so constantly complicated by (again that constipated concurrence of) confusion, convolution and contortion, U.S. influence will inevitably recede.

Yet, considering the titanic, stygian, and catastrophic imbroglio into which the Bush Administration so needlessly, ruinously, and exhaustively ensnared us in Iraq – and from which we have neither sufficiently recovered nor completely extricated ourselves – is it any profound mystery, that the majority of Americans should be doused with a bracing astringent… one part dread & two parts déjà vu… when confronted with  the prospect of even limited airstrikes against another Arab despot (even though this one actually has WMD) which might inevitably entangle us in yet another brutal ethno-sectarian civil war? Although proponents of the Syria action insist it is all about Iran – for opponents, it is actually all about Iraq. And, indeed, Iraq is obviously the ($) 800 (billion) pound gorilla in the room… which is also defiantly fouling the floor; rambunctiously climbing the wall; and vengefully stomping the roof.

We were warned that Saddam was baking yellowcake and cynically manipulating the puppet strings of al Qaeda. We were assured the campaign would be exceedingly brief and our troops would be greeted as liberators. We were also instructed not to fret about the bottom line… the Treasury would be reimbursed to the penny for the vast cost of the invasion from the eventual sale of Iraqi oil. But far from stepping on rose petals our soldiers sank into the voracious quicksand of ethno-confessional strife and abruptly sucked into the vacuum of a rapidly collapsing state. Iraq was the preliminary project of the grand neo-con vision to systematically install democracy in the Middle East; and, when a quixotic Washington pompously embarked on the “nation-building” mission, it entrenched U.S. forces and resources in a protracted, extractive, and highly speculative venture which would have been inordinately ambitious even for an alchemist.  Yet what this plan lacked in functional practicality, it over compensated in inestimable liability. Indeed, the United States paid through the nose and bled from every other orifice as well: Nearly 4500 American troops killed with more than 31,000 wounded; and, a cost of more than $800 billion with the calculator continuing to add.

So what sort of dividend has the United States earned from this unconscionable expenditure of blood and treasure in Iraq? Well, according to my ledger, essentially nothing… certainly nothing which has enhanced our strategic interests in the region. Washington did not get any oil; and all it really succeeded in doing was to replace a secular Sunni dictatorship – malevolent to be sure, but which was nowhere near the atomic threshold, nor had any truck with bin Laden; and, which posed no credible threat to the United States as Saddam had already been effectively contained; but, nevertheless served as a convenient bulwark against Iran – with an authoritarian, quasi-revivalist Shia regime which has alienated the Sunni population; cannot maintain any semblance of internal security nor neutralize the al Qaeda affiliates operating on its soil; has lost nearly all influence over the autonomous Kurdish north of the country; is viewed with suspicion and derision by our Sunni allies; and, which has cultivated the coziest of ties with Tehran. The new Iraqi regime has also been extraordinarily unhelpful with regard to the Syrian conflict as our alleged friends in Baghdad blithely acquiesce as Iranian cargo planes, heavily laden with war materiel bound for Damascus, regularly traverse (in contravention of UN statutes) Iraqi airspace nor do they  prevent militant Shia partisans from Iraq from entering Syria to augment Assad’s forces. Indeed, the American people hardly got their money’s worth in Iraq – far from it – and this tragic legacy intensifies our extreme skepticism with regard to Syria.

As I have very grave reservations concerning any action which might ultimately cause U.S. troops to parachute into a vicious and intractable ethno-sectarian conflagration which is quite inadequately described as a “civil war”, I think the American people are exercising great prudence in vigorously lobbying against military involvement in Syria. Moreover, this spirited public engagement on the issue of intervention in general is quite therapeutic for our democracy and might well prove conducive towards promoting a more rigorous, specific, and realistic definition of the national interest… in which American objectives are more prominently, and unapologetically, prioritized. However, at the same time, we do not have the geopolitical luxury of burying our heads in the sand either. In this increasingly chaotic world, there are very real threats to our national security which may eventually require a robust and sustained U.S. response. Yet, in the meanwhile, it is imperative that we avoid those elective, gratuitous, and peripheral engagements in which our strategic interests are less clearly evident and for which we pay a staggering price only to collect so little in return.  If only we could have learned this essential lesson after the debacle in Somalia in 1993, the United States may have been spared the debilitating and persistent trauma of Iraq a decade later.

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(Mixed) Message in a Bottle (Rocket)?

As the surreal, soap operatic saga of the on again, off again, Syrian strike graduates from sensational farce to experimental (political) theater of the absurd, I find myself ever more firmly situated among that not so silent majority of Americans who are wary of US entanglement. Although I concede that a logical case can be made for intervention on the basis of our strategic interests in the region, the cogency of even the most obvious evidence is awkwardly obscured by the conduct of a tepid and erratic prosecutor.  Ostensibly, one of the more compelling arguments (at least theoretically) that the Obama White House has appropriated, and continually amplified, is that a military response to Assad’s (most recent) chemical weapons attack would send a strong “message” to Iran regarding its nuclear program… i.e. (presumably) Washington will ultimately employ military force to prevent Iran from developing the bomb.

Yet even here, the rationale is undercut by a glaring incongruity in policy.

I am all for sending such a muscular “message” to Iran. Quite frankly Washington should have sent a “message” to Iran in 1979 and on recurrent occasions since. Indeed, I am utterly alarmed by Tehran’s nefarious machinations the atomic sphere and I regard the prospect of a nuclear armed Iran as nothing less than a geo-political catastrophe far too grave to contemplate. Yet, even as the clerical dictatorship expands its centrifuges and moves ever more ominously towards critical mass – apart from the alleged importation of a computer virus and sanctions which have only recently sprouted teeth, the United States has undertaken no decisive steps to effectively dissuade Tehran. In fact, the Western response as a whole has been patently underwhelming… indeed, with merely marginal disincentives such as these, is it any wonder that Iran has continued to brazen defy international injunctions? And, in this regard, I can only assume that “limited”, “proportional”, “measured”, “unbelievably small” action – prescriptively unintended to effect regime change nor to incite retaliation -against Syria will send a similarly insufficient “message” to Tehran to abandon its nuclear project.

But, even though the Administration proudly touts its transparency, there had been various reports from John McCain, ABC News, and other sources which assert that, in fact, President Obama is planning a far more extensive and devastating attack which will invariably debilitate Assad and reverse “momentum” on the ground.

Perhaps a spectacular display of American might in over Syria – aimed at decapitating the regime and systematically depriving it of its war-making capability; and which, for purposes of demonstration, utilized canyon-busting bombs; and, of course, should Washington decide to apply an exquisitely honed edge to the  “message”, it might even “accidentally”, “unintentionally”, “inadvertently” target migratory Iranian military assets on the ground in Syria… a la the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 – could hypothetically send a more instructive and effectual message to Tehran. But, of course, a massive operation would also probably blow the lid off a monumental Pandora’s box and unleash a catalytic chain of triggers which could chaotically accelerate the fragmentation of Syria; exacerbate the humanitarian apocalypse; destabilize the region even further; and forebodingly ensnare American boots in a voracious quagmire of intractable ethno-sectarian strife in which we have absolutely no business being!

And, in any event, HELLO, if the US intervention in Syria is actually “all about sending the ‘message’ to Iran” as many observers insist… well then, would it not make far more sense for Washington to simply “avoid the middleman” and deliver the “message” directly to Tehran?

Certainly, the Administration seems to encounter no impediment in conveying other signals straight to the Islamic Republic… absent the Damascus detour.  Apparently as a result of an exceedingly premature and shockingly gullible subscription to the double myth that the newly elected Iranian President Rouhani, is a maverick moderate effusively eager to engage the West and that he can somehow magically muster the autonomy to deal independently of the adamantine Ayatollah Khamenei, a naïve White House is imparting gestures – which, far from indicating confrontation – actually suggest conciliation: pleasantries have been registered; emissaries have been dispatched; exemptions are being granted for sanctions; and, even though years of negotiations have yielded absolutely nothing but more time for Iran to develop its nuclear facilities, a fresh coat of polish is being applied to the multilateral conference table. I am of course aware of the concept of a dual-track approach, but these conflicting cues to Tehran seem more of a muddle than anything which even remotely approximates Kissingerian dexterity.

And, now as even the Senate is largely adopting the “Just Vote No” attitude of the House, and President Obama is expediently probing Putin’s precarious proposal – the entire matter may be reduced to the realm of the academic. However, even if the sole motivation for the intervention in Syria was to issue a stark warning to Iran to end its pursuit nuclear weapons, again, I think a symbolic series of surgical strikes would have had no meaningful effect in in modifying Tehran’s (mis)behavior – especially when once imminent military action against Syria has now chronically stalled… yet, nevertheless, diplomatic overtures to Iran continue. Indeed, any “message” which Washington may be attempting to send to the Islamic Republic seems to be, at best, very clumsily “mixed.” Any communication intended for Iran should be direct, unmistakable and unadulterated by its vicarious transmission via Syria; nor, should the United States subject itself to the risk of being entrapped in a potentially extractive and apparently peripheral conflagration in order to essentially define that conflict as a relay station to transfer the “message” to its ultimate recipient.

This post is hardly complete and I can only offer my profuse apologies for ending it so abruptly and rather inconclusively. Yet, nine o’clock is rapidly approaching and I want to tune into the upcoming episode of the soap opera… I mean the latest performance of the experimental political theater. It should be interesting!

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Rethinking the Russian Reset

From the very first post on this blog, I have lobbied for a more constructive dialogue with Moscow and this recurrent strategic entreaty became more urgently articulated when events in Egypt in February 2011 convinced me that the pillars of international stability were collapsing far more rapidly than even  I – the Henny Penny of foreign affairs specialists – had dared imagine. My advocacy of better relations hardly stemmed from any great affinity for Russia… as I remember those dreadful days of the Cold War with a lingering sense of grievance which is hardly conducive of trust. Nor, was it the product of an unqualified confidence in the Kremlin’s current leadership as Vladimir Putin’s dubious past as a KGB apparatchik is evocative of all that was so unremittingly execrable of the predatory Soviet system. Yet, analytically, I realized that Russia was not the only tangoist whose behavior was responsible for the spasmodic permafrost which complicated bilateral cooperation; there was no longer a coherent rationale for perfunctorily prodding a less menacing bear; and, certainly there were tactical advantages – crucial to U.S. security – which Washington could obtain through a reinvention of détente.

In return for American amity, Moscow could pressure Pyongyang to behave and, more importantly, definitively end its support for the Iranian nuclear program. Moreover, as both our countries unfortunately have been regular targets of Islamic terrorism, collaboration in combating this common threat seemed imperative and could prove an effective deterrence to subsequent atrocities. Also, with an emergent China – likely to attempt to challenge U.S. supremacy in the Pacific at some point in the far too near future – who better to serve as a formidable counterweight than the – at times, far less than neighborly – conterminous federation to the north. And, more generally, that this state – which so desperately clings to the illusion that it is still a superpower – could function as something akin to a junior partner in helping to preserve some semblance global order which is so rapidly fleeting from the face of this earth.

Yet, in view of Putin’s provocative affront to grant temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, I find myself compelled to critically reassess the wisdom of intensive American assiduity in attempting to cultivate an entente cordiale with Russia when – as in this instance and in others- our earnest efforts are so callously rebuffed.

Certainly the Obama Administration – from Hillary’s endearing (albeit mistakenly labeled) reset button to the Pentagon’s placating reevaluation of placing missile defense shields in Poland and the Czech Republic – has been far more conciliatory towards Moscow than its predecessor… and more attentive in the pursuit of a durable modus operandi aimed at superseding the sporadic glacial flashbacks of the recent past. Yet, in retrospect, one must wonder if the degree of reciprocal Russian responsiveness has been commensurate with American initiative.  After all, the proof of the pudding – or perhaps borscht, in this case – is in it taste… and my palate is assaulted by the bitterness of some truly putrid beets.

Although Moscow has hardly incited the Kims – well, at least not the second and third generations – to wage war against the United States, its sway over the volatile and vindictive regime in Pyongyang is limited. And, although Russia – for its own sake – may welcome a less explosive atmosphere on the Korean peninsula, only Beijing, as was witnessed to a certain extent earlier this year, can effectively constrain the most reckless inclinations of the pugnacious personality cult. However, Russia deviously exploits an audacious racket with regard to another anti-American antagonist… Iran, whose alarming nuclear project has benefited from vital, lucrative, and opportunistic Russian collusion. Although the Kremlin would be loath to see the Islamic Republic ultimately produce the bomb, as Nikolay Kozhanov revealed last year in an especially incisive policy brief for the Washington Institute, this does not prevent Moscow from playing the “Iran card”… that is ostensibly and partially enabling the program as a vehicle for manipulating American policy. According to this Machiavellian minuet, Moscow only withdraws from Tehran… with instrumental intermittence – and thereby suspends its technical and material assistance in the atomic sphere – when Washington’s plans are deemed to be sufficiently non-injurious to Russian interests. As a realist, I of course realize that business transacted between sovereign states is not always governed by the precepts of transparency, altruism, and good will; however, treachery, conspiracy, and extortion surely provide a completely defective and dysfunctional basis for the conduct of diplomatic relations.

Following the Boston Bombing, there were recriminations between U.S. and Russian authorities as to who was responsible for dropping the ball on the Brothers Tsarnaev. Although there was some exchange between the respective security services regarding the elder terrorist, the level of collaboration was obviously inadequate to preempt the attack. Yet, as Andrew Weiss examined this very issue for The Daily Beast in April, he revealed that counterterror cooperation between Washington and Moscow was a project that never matured.  Although there was resolute mutual determination to cooperate in this regard in the days immediately following 9/11, the prospective teamwork was continually retarded by the frustrating vicissitudes of U.S.-Russian relations in the years which followed. And, if we apply Weiss’ thesis to the post-Snowden future – even in the aftermath of the marathon massacre – the recently renewed commitment to counterterror collaboration is likely to be derailed by other irritants.

Although I shall here selectively neglect a consideration of the Atlantacist vs. Eurasianist debate among the Russian elite as well as an appraisal of the Putinite vision of the Eurasian Union, suffice it to say that the prospects of enlisting Russia as a bulwark against China are… at the moment… far less than promising. Indeed, despite deep-seated differences – some which are exacerbated by the geo-strategic anxieties born of contiguity – Putin has not permitted the problematic past to prevent expanding avenues of traffic with Beijing. He has been quite keen to court the Chinese commercially and even willing to extend this collaboration into unprecedented and sensitive spheres as well. Once Russian and Chinese forces exchanged deadly fire across the Ussuri River, now they peaceably cooperate in joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan. I was, almost palpably, struck by this extraordinary development… not only in terms of its historical significance, but, by what I detected as its anti-American implication – if not (potential) application. Obviously what some have prematurely dubbed as the Moscow-Beijing Axis is hardly a done deal and is likely to remain so for the intermediate future. However, I think if the matter of choosing sides in a strategic alliance aimed at constraining another hegemon was left solely to Putin, he may well be more apt to cast his lot with the Chinese rather than with us.

Yet, nowhere has Putin’s aversion to accommodate the West been more conspicuously exhibited than in his supreme unhelpfulness with Syria. Even as 100,000 have perished in an increasingly brutal war of attrition, Russia has been only too eager to sustain its besieged and barbarous client with political patronage and military hardware. A duplicitous Putin lambasts Washington for its decision to (possibly) send small arms to certain rebel factions while brazenly delivering sophisticated missile systems to the Alawite dictatorship.  Far from serving as a responsible stakeholder in promoting international security, Putin – through his gratuitous support of Assad – cynically stirs a catalytic cauldron of conflict which could potentially engulf the entire region.

Following the unrelenting domestic turmoil of the Yeltsin years and the virulent anti-Americanism which infected many ordinary Russians as a byproduct of it, I initially regarded Putin as a not unwelcome source of stability for a vast country – with an equally vast nuclear arsenal – which urgently needed a steadier hand at the helm. Certainly a stable Russia was in long term security interests of the United States. Yet, less and less a reliable guarantor of stability, an increasingly authoritarian Putin has become a polarizing instigator of widespread dissension. Indeed, the regime have shown no compunction in wielding an extremely heavy hammer and sickle to harass, silence and imprison a burgeoning camp of nonconformists – including journalists, human rights activists, politicians, and even a female rock group – who are unwilling to tow the Putin party line. Other dissenters have met untimely ends which hardly appear coincidental. Although Putin continues to command considerable popular support, there is also a seething undercurrent of vehement resentment – which, as we have witnessed recently in other countries, can suddenly erupt in most unpredictable ways. Moreover, it is this oppressive infrastructure of the Russian state which suggests that it is far more characteristic of its dystopian antecedent than of any government that even remotely resembles a liberal democracy.

Yet far from persevering to present a more acceptable face to his critics in the West, Putin rather seems to relish the prospect of alienating them even further. Sochi has always been a less than ideal venue for the Olympics… but, to legislate an incendiary package of homophobic prohibitions on the eve of the Games and to awkwardly insinuate that foreign athletes and visitors also may be subject to these controversial and intrusive statutes – seems tantamount to self-sabotage of a premier international event and to installing monumental lightning rods on every onion dome in Moscow. The average Russian rejoiced when Putin – albeit for purely political reasons – cracked down on the oligarchs who dominated the Yeltsin era… those politicized tycoons whom their impoverished countrymen regarded as nothing more than greedy, gluttonous, glorified gangsters who, like sharks, encircled the Kremlin as they continued to ravenously feed on the carcass of a collapsed command economy inequitably reanimated by Western capitalist defibrillation. However, with some sources now estimating Putin’s personal net worth at a figure somewhere between $40 and $70 billion, one must wonder if the locus of corrupt accumulative practices has gravitated from the periphery of power to very center of it.

Consequently, it should come as no surprise that Putin is now often likened to a predecessor whose repression, petulance, irascibility, and avarice were – with the possible exception of Ivan the Terrible – infamously unequaled in Russian history and truly the stuff of which national nightmares are made.  Although the various analogies linking Putin to Stalin are not always congruent and are sometimes defined by hyperbolic license as much as historical parallel, nevertheless this very telling tendency to specifically associate the two has gained increasing currency in Russia and abroad… even Gorbachev has gotten in on the act. One should think that – despite Stalin’s disgusting rehabilitation among some segments of the Russian population – the numerous comparisons to the most monstrous madman to ever occupy the Kremlin would be an irresistible spur towards introspection for Putin. If so widely derided as a latter-day Stalin, the image projected by Putin is… to say the least… certainly not that of a universally respected statesman.  And, this begs the question: Is he someone with whom the United States can do business?

As Washington evaluates the lack of progress in our bilateral relations with Moscow which it cited today, it must very carefully discern the factors which may account for this stagnation:  For policymakers of a certain age, is it actually possible to psychologically supersede the mutual mistrust engendered by the Cold War? Do the structural variables of multi-polarity and the dynamics of Great Power politics theoretically impede closer ties with Russia? Or, is the problem simply Putin?

Although I think President Obama’s decision to cancel the September summit is quite appropriate and entirely justified, I would not recommend that we disconnect the hotline just yet. Even though it has been, at times, contorted, exhausting, and unresponsive, we must continue the diplomatic tango with the Russians. Yet moving forward, we must adopt an approach which is more practical, circumspect, and exacting… in short, we must drive a harder bargain in which American interests are paramount and vigorously promoted. And, let us not be under any further illusion: although Washington may have earnestly preferred a longer-term relationship, Putin was seeking only a one night stand a far less complicated assignation. Let’s recalibrate our expectations accordingly.

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