Tag Archives: leading from behind

The growing Russian menace

It is not a return of the Cold War – but, in a sense, it may be even more dangerous.

For more than four decades, the U.S. and its allies wrestled with a formidable enemy, one armed to the teeth, from nuclear weapons and delivery systems to the best propaganda-subversion network the world had ever seen. But Washington and the West tended to obscure the enormous vulnerabilities of the autarkical Soviet economy – even when periodically it came obsequiously soliciting a blood transfer from the capitalists. Perhaps that was why only a few Russians had anticipated its extreme vulnerability and why its sudden implosion came as such a surprise in the West.

But during those decades, there was never much doubt about what the issue was, what each side’s military capabilities were, nor what both planned in the event of a breakout. It was labeled with that cliché, the balance of terror.
Today’s scene is much more unclear.

True, Russia’s weaknesses are much more apparent while Vladimir Putin increasingly challenges the West and its norms for worldwide peace and stability. There is one good reason: unlike the earlier era, this Moscow has sought and to some extent found economic integration with the world economy. So much so, in fact, that it has caught ‘the Dutch disease” – an overwhelming dependence on its vast oil and gas reserves for its relative prosperity compared to Soviet times. But the huge cash reserves for its gas exports to Western Europe only disguise its weaknesses and may be on the verge of rapid dissipation.

For in reality the Russian state today suffers all the ills of a descending power. A catastrophic decline in the birth rate has driven Russia toward a smaller and smaller population, as much as a third by 2050. Perhaps the dip in population slackening just now but continuing over the long run with a particularly high death rate for males from accidents and alcoholism. [Recent small blips of population increase are Russian ethnics returning to the “homeland” from former Central Asian non-Slav Soviet “republics”] Urbanization and the creation of a pampered elite disguise the abandonment of village economies and agriculture. Even its massive fossil fuels exports are based on antiquated and inefficient exploitation, with crumbling pipelines and depleting oilfields, increasingly dependent on foreign technology as it hopes for new oil finds in the Arctic.
Vladimir Putin, like his predecessor Boris Yeltsin, has promised reforms on all fronts. These include pumping up the once proud heritage of the Soviet military. But while he has initiated an ambitious rearmament program, it has not solved its traditional defects [disciplinary abuses, for example] of the Russian military nor moved successfully as promised repeatedly to an all volunteer force. Whether in the brief war against Georgia or in its covert aid to the pro-Moscow rebels in Crime and the eastern Ukraine, these deficiencies have been manifest.

All this explains why relatively minor sanctions of the U.S. and the EU against Russian aggression in Ukraine have impacted so heavily on Moscow. The massive outflows of capital, always a problem because of the unstable political scene which saw favorite oligarchs suddenly become enemies of the state, have soared. The stock market has soured, now short of foreign capital and domestic investors scurrying abroad. And the rubble has tumbled against the dollar.
But none of this has slowed Putin’s bombastic claims to regain for Russia the superpower status of the failed Soviet Union. [After all he has said the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.] He has ignored advice of former trusted economic advisers warning of the growing impact of Western economic warfare. In part, this has been because his “victories” in Georgia, Crimea, and continued abetting of the civil strife in Ukraine itself, have generally been supported by the new Russian elite, as chagrined as he at the second class power status Russia had fallen into after 1990. A jingoistic – and largely government controlled media – have also spurred him on.

But in a sense, Putin is being sucked into a vacuum created by the Obama Administration and the European Union’s only lackluster effort to halt the first new European aggression by a major power since World War II. Rather than send all possible military support to the besieged Kyiv regime whose forces, unexpectedly, performed reasonably well against the Ukrainian rebels and their Russian encadrement, Washington, Berlin and Brussels have negotiated toward a loose federal Ukrainian state Moscow could manipulate and pull back into its orbit.

That has embolden Putin – playing to his domestic claque – to make increasingly aggressive gestures, whether bomber patrols off North America or Russian warships in the North Sea. The old Soviet [Putin’s own political ancestry in the NKVD/KGB] espionage intrigues have surfaced on the Lithuanian border, one of the three Baltic States looking to many observers as his next target in his attempt to reconstitute the Soviet empire.

The issue at the moment is not just the question of what either side will do next. That is, will Putin push for further concessions from Poland, the Baltic States, and Finland? Or will he be content to huff and puff until the weight of the falling world energy price finally sinks the Russian economy. That could come quicker than many anticipate in the always unpredictable world oil markets.

The Saudis with their huge reserves publicly claim the current falling worldwide energy prices are only temporary. [That was after rudely and uncharacteriscally refusing all media coverage of the recent OPEC conference which failed to curb production in order to bolster prices.] Their interest may be in a world oil price that would undercut the higher sxpenses of American shale production.

Their prophecy, if sincere, seems unlikely. Not only has the shale revolution in the U.S. [and now spreading abroad] given the American economy a fillip and virtually halted net energy imports, it threatens to turn into a weapon to finally establish a uniform world gas market at cheaper prices. Despite all the problems of the Mideast, new or reinvigorated Iraqi, Libyan and Syrian oil is reaching world markets. Even Iran, living with its own faltering sanctioned regime now somewhat diluted by the Obama Administration and Europe. is pushing sales. But their hottest new market, China, is slowing imports with what looks to be as a concomitant of their longterm slackening of spectacular growth of the past three decades. With much of the world in economic doldrums, consumption promises to remain relatively slowly increasing for some time at least. All this means lower real fossil fuel prices for the foreseeable future.

Russia’s high cost production will increasingly be the victim of this more liquid worldwide energy market. At that point, does Putin pull in his horns – or will he be tempted to believe his own propaganda and make other dramatic aggressive feints? And if so, what will the West – now led from behind by a recalcitrant Obama Administration – do?

And most of all, will both sides read the other’s actions correctly, avoiding an escalating clash?


Beyond Obamcare. lies the world waiting …


With the U.S. transfixed by the Obama Administration’s massively bungled attempt to nationalize one sixth of the economy, the health welfare system, the rest of the world watches the slow motion unfolding of another debacle: the loss of post-World War II American leadership of the worldwide alliance for peace and stability.

Pro forma protests over snooping by the U.S. National Security Administration European and Latin American leaders are for popular consumption. Spying, and unfortunately counter-espionage which the Snowden revelations appear to be, have been and will continue to be a generally unspoken part of international relations. In fact, one can imagine German Chancellor Angela Merkel berating her own intelligence organizations for superior U.S. technology’s ability to listen to her limousine cell phone. The Saudis’ “renunciation” of a UN Security Council seat is no more than a media event. With their new vulnerability brought on by the Shale Revolution in the U.S., Riyadh’s antediluvian princes in their colorful robes have no place to go.

But these are tokens, taglines to a much larger eroding international picture.

Of course, the current disarray is not sudden, nor only the product of the Obama Administration. But Obama’s missteps have exaggerated growing difficulties for international governance “inevitably” arising from changes in the international balance of power over a half century since the Allied victory in World War II. And as always, of course, there is the unanticipated and the unintended consequences of well intended strategies and policies.

America’s junior partners, the European democracies, after five decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity, are facing domestic breakdown increasingly limiting their contribution to the world system. Social democratic remedies at the workplace have failed everywhere. A demographic catastrophe not only threatens their economies, but growing unassimilated immigrants from alien societies threaten to overwhelm their post-Christian cultures. A pampered public will not accept belt-tightening much less painful surgical elimination of waste and corruption. Greece, ancient home of democracy, is the apotheosis of the problem, a ticking timebomb on the doorstep of the rest of Europe.

Furthermore, the attempt to create an integrated European economy – let along a new international polity which could speak with one voice on international affairs – is in jeopardy and probably failing. British participation, essential to the project, is now more remote than ever given the failures of the continental Euro and resurgent English as well as Scot and Irish nationalism.

European integration had been seen as the ultimate panacea. It is now clear that is not the case, nor, indeed, is it apparent it can even be effected. In Berlin Das Mädchen,, representing the disproportionately most powerful of the member nation states, talks out of both sides of her mouth. She advocates a new European superstate but zealously guards Germany’s narrowest national interest as demanded by her role as an elected leader still obligated to put together an unstable governing coalition.

The Obama Administration’s answer to this dilemma is not that different from the waning years of the Bush Administration. Pres. George W. Bush’s earlier steadfast resolve gave way to Condoleezza Rice’s “clerk” management. In any case, Washington’s stance toward Europe in part always has been a myth about who led whom and how during the post-World War II recovery. Alas! the charismatic and determined [if occasionally misguided] leadership of Churchill, Adenauer, DeGaulle, and de Gaspari, and their technocratic supporters, has been replaced by feckless politicians. The 80s decade-long common-sense reign of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was only brief relief from the general intellectual decline.

The American standard around which the Europeans rallied, even when they were in denial or hypercritical, has been replaced by a bogus concept of “leading from behind” That kind of Machiavellian manipulation of others’ power would under the best of circumstances have been exquisitely difficult. But in the hands of the Obama amateurs, it descends into virtual chaos. Witness the Libyan intervention as its classic example. The Obama Administration and European friends failed to provide a model for a small, fragile but oil-rich Arab state. And the U.S. paid a terrible price with the murder of an ambassador and a major psycho-political blow to American prestige which will dog U.S. foreign – and domestic — politics for decades.

The naïve “transformation” which an inexperienced but arrogant elitist presidential mafia thought they could foist at home on a traditional society but one in revolutionary technological transition has been matched with aberrant theory abroad. For whatever reason, the idea that the Obama Administration could make a pact with a nonexistent, romantic version of Islam – a political religious belief still mired alternatively in pre-modern torpor and nihilistic violence — has shredded what was left of decades of Middle East strategy.

There Washington now finds itself on the wrong side of virtually every issue. By rote it nudges Israeli-Arab “negotiations”, which long ago foundered on Palestinian corruption and incompetence. Washington mistakenly believed it were the central issue, not the region’s poverty, illiteracy, tribal warfare and demagoguery. Obama’s refusal to personally intervene for a status of forces agreement to permit a continued military presence in Iraq squandered 4,000 spent American lives. It removed all possibility Washington could have a major impact on a recreated but highly volatile Baghdad and its enormous oil resources. Obama then launched into an effort to dethrone the barbarous al Assad Syrian regime, backed away, and now finds U.S. Syrian strategy at the mercy of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, himself increasingly turning to despotism and foreign adventure to hang on to his throne.

The Obama Administration continuously has importuned Iran, oblivious to that regime’s single-minded goal of making itself the hegemonic power and arbiter of the region’s vast fossil fuel resources. In the process, the White House ignores the interests of America’s longtime allies in the Gulf including, until now, the world’s marginal oil producer, Saudi Arabia. The Obama Administration helped install and got into bed with the Moslem Brotherhood in Cairo, the fountainhead of modern Islamic terrorism, apparently believing it some sort of Islamic equivalent of European Christian democracy. When that regime collapsed from ineptitude and domestic violence, Washington refused to accommodate to a popular military takeover endorsed by its other regional allies. Pres. Obama’s “best friend”, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has turned out to be a very bad regional weathervane. Even worse, Erdoğan duplicity [confusion?] in dealings with Palestinian Islamicists, Israel, the Brotherhood, the jihadists in the Syrian opposition, aided by an intelligence chief who favors Iran’s Shia fanatics, is adding to the regional chaos. Worst of all, Erdoğan with whom Obama fellow-traveled, endangers what’s left of NATO by playing with Chinese weapons possibilities.

The continued U.S. entanglement in the Mideast, always predictable, has put into question Washington’s announced “pivot” of resources to the growing Chinese Communist aggressive feints toward East and South Asia neighbors and Washington’s friends. With that strange aloofness which characterizes this Administration’s treatment of allies, it has failed to respond enthusiastically to the first strong government in two decades in the U.S.’ keystone Asia ally, Japan. [Luckily reflex collaboration between the U.S. military and its Asian allies, hangover from the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, has reinforced strategy in the absence of White House leadership.]

Perhaps the most important politico-economic Asia-Pacific instrument in Washington’s hands, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an effort to create a common market to meet the competition of China’s state capitalism and subsidized trading, is hanging. The concern is that the Obama Administration’s next three lame-duck years, especially after the drubbing it seems now likely to take in next year’s elections, will not pursue it forcefully. In the balance is a revolutionary overhaul of a quarter of the world’s commerce and what may be the reemergence of a more vital Japanese economy.

Alternatively, the Obama Administration’s increasing reliance on the United Nations burdens that organization with more responsibility than its corrupt and incompetent secretariat can bear. Idealistic multilateralism is an excuse for lack of U.S. policy and inaction on a huge variety of fronts. Washington has, for example, increasingly abandoned leadership of the UN specialized agencies – whether the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, ignorant of the 17-year Tehran march toward nuclear weapons, or the growing specter of out of control biological breakthroughs which have enormous potential for solving life problems, or creating new diabolical weapons of destruction.

The shock and geopolitical lesson of 9/11 has been left behind somewhere in the bowels of the State Department and the Obama Administration’s National Security Council. Lost is recognition that the American homeland was no longer – if it had ever been in the world of intercontinental missiles – immune to the kind of destruction that our allies and enemies in Europe and Asia suffered in World War II.

With the strong prospect that the U.S. domestic scene will continue an impasse, as Obamacare has proved, America’s role abroad will be in abeyance. The world will just have to get along with the beached whale of a U.S — at least for a while.


The hard choices

The hard choices

A perennial American foreign policy debate sets “realism” against “idealism”, national interest versus morality. The dichotomy is often overstated. The two currents divide and merge incessantly in the flow of implementation of any concrete overseas policy and tactics.

American statesmen have argued — contemporary politicians still do as did The Founding Fathers — absent the racial, ethnic and millennia of common history of America’s largely European forebears, the essence of the American Republic was ideological. Most Americans, even if innocent of the larger argument, still do identify themselves as belonging to a society based on freedom of the individual largely lodged in British traditions of common law. But that belief is joined in a larger Judeo-Christian ethos of “the shinning city on the hill”, a perceived model of pursuit of rectitude with an accompanying missionary zeal to share it with the rest of the world. And that is where it enters U.S. foreign policy.

Where American foreign initiatives have been successful, the moral concept has been an integral part of what purported to be hard-nosed, even cynical “realism”– what today has come to be called exerting “soft power” — especially when Washington successfully led coalitions, first against Nazism and then against Communism. For U.S. leadership rested not only on the American economy’s strength helping a devastated Europe and Japan and then trying to energize the so-called “developing” world but on its force as a model for resolving domestic conflict with justice in a peaceful [the Civil War excepted] if not always orderly fashion.

Pres. Barack Obama has specifically rejected this “American exceptionalism”. But his denigration of past U.S. initiatives, his “leading from behind” and the carping by the usual foreign suspects of American “real intentions”, notwithstanding, the world still looks to Washington for leadership. But Americans are now weary: two Mideast wars, seemingly, for the moment anyway, are ending inconclusively despite expenditure by U.S. standards of too much blood and extravagant riches by the world’s count.

Nevertheless, now, again, even while public attention is diverted to a crippled economy and the quadrennial, sometimes silly, season of choosing new leadership, the U.S. is asked to take on new overseas burdens. But just as 9/11 with its unprecedented attack on the American homeland [far more portentous in its strategic implications perhaps than Pearl Harbor], forever changed perceptions of foreign threat, the digital revolution’s effects on mass communications, public opinion and the U.S. political system in evaluating new moral issues is still emerging. The Balkan Wars [Bosnia, 1992-95 and Kosovo, 1996] were precursors in their appeals for adjudication when the Europeans, initially, looked the other way at problems on their doorstep. A generation later in another century Washington’s dilemma has not gone away, but perhaps grows.

Quite suddenly there is a dramatic case in point: if you have not seen the 28-minute video “Kony 2012”, you probably will soon. Whatever its merits – and it is under attack as naïve even from those who share its sponsors’ concerns in Uganda and elsewhere – its protagonists already have mobilized the U.S. government. After a quarter of a century inaction, the Obama Administration has sent a 100-man military detachment to try to help Ugandans and other Central African governments capture and bring to justice one of the world’s greatest monsters, Joseph Kony, leader of his misbegotten “Lords Resistance Army”. For almost three decades this personification of evil has kidnapped and trained thousands of children in mass murder, seemingly without any aim other than inflicting terror and exerting his personal power. The film’s sponsors, reversing old methodology, are now trying to reinforce their successful government lobbying by mobilizing public opinion.

The American military detachment’s task is awesome for Kony has retreated into the Africa of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As in so many guerrilla conflicts, there is considerable possibility of “escalation”. It is not that the U.S. has not been down this road before. But in this instance, no real argument has been made for U.S. “national interest”, i.e., “realism” – but only an overwhelming case for a humanitarian cause for which American expertise is critical.

U.S. military assistance is turning up elsewhere in volatile Africa; for example, a military training group recently in Mali to help reserve another fragile post-colonial state from disintegration. There will be other requests, certainly.

And so a new round in the debate on realism versus idealism begins.


Perfidious Americus

Running an empire is not for sissies.

Since 1945, the U.S., holding the aces, had to finesse a role once played by the Europeans with Washington pulling up the Latin American rear. But that tacit alliance maintained worldwide stability for only two decades, in part because pre-digital America could sulk behind two oceans.

After Western Civilization’s second bloody civil war, rules changed: colonialism was abnegated, first “officially” in the 1943 Cairo Declaration. Pres. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Nationalist China ally Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek acknowledged European domination would go following the Allied victory. Of course, Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, there too, was soon to meet British class voter retribution, and within less than two decades, the last of the Tory Grandees, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, would wrap up what had been the empire on which the sun never set. So much for Churchill’s vow he had not become the King’s first minister to preside over liquidation of the British imperium.

But Soviet aggression setting off The Cold War, and, U.S. amateurism, never allowed Washington. to get ahead of the time curve. [After “Cairo” former Sec. of State Dean Rusk, then a young political officer in the South East Asia Command, signaled Washington for instructions on French Indochina. He never got a response.] Furthermore, it was always America’s idealistic aim to set new standards for mutual respect and benefit, even while it had not yet cleaned up its own racist backyard.

Washington learned quickly managing alliances never comes easy, even with hegemonic power. The reason is obvious: too many conflicting demands. Still Pres. Harry Truman’s good old Midwestern common sense, gifted European leadership, and American dough-re-me, girded Western Europe to defeat the Soviet challenge. Although we may well look aghast at today’s tatters, NATO was perhaps the most successful alliance in history, winning a long, costly struggle – “peacefully”.

You wouldn’t know that, of course, listening to the self-deprecation and, indeed, abysmal groveling, of the Obama Administration. That alone would have torpedoed current American prestige and strategy, unhinged by Islamic terrorism and an abrupt end to the most prosperous era in world history – gained in no small part through trillions of dollars in U.S. generosity still continuing to client states.

The Obama Administration, though, was intent on “leading from behind”. Too clever by half, as our British cousins would say, forgotten were the first elements in any alliance: at least temporary loyalty to a common cause, and stalwart if sometimes painful leadership by example. First there were petty insults to the Brits – return of Churchill’s bust from the Oval office, gimcrackery for the Queen, etc. Instead of securing an Iraq alliance at the heart of the Arab/Muslim world, there was a hallelujahed withdrawal timetable. There is, apparently, coming abandonment of a Kabul regime on lifesupport long before victory. Vociferous equating of Israeli and Palestinian claims doomed any accommodation there, especially after a problematic “Arab Spring” explosion demonstrated Israeli-Arab relations was only one, and probably not the most important, Mideast problem..

In all these instances, typically, semiruptures came with American media piling-on, campaigns of fact and fiction about the steadfastness, or lack thereof, of allies. This tactic flouts — particularly with third world countries — the obvious: helping inept, corrupt regimes to modernize is the name of the game. Were that not true, America would not be there in the first place.

Now in the election silly season, Obama Administration foreign policy proceeds on autopilot. Not only are arms – required under U.S. law – denied Taiwan but “a high official Administration source” publicly trashes the opposition candidate in the upcoming January presidential elections. Regarding Pakistan, whose overwhelming problem is dysfunctional government, Washington chooses war on the front pages and NPR, simultaneously publicly delivering ultimata. These latter may, in the end, turn bluff given the critical role that country’s geography and its menace of becoming a factory for creating jihadists [with nukes] on a half a billion impoverished, semiliterate Muslim base.

Alas! It is all too reminiscent of the unlearned lessons in the demise of the South Vietnam alliance now a half century ago after loss of 58,000 American lives and enormous treasure. Pompous media, including some conservatives, are still repeating old clichés. No wonder Washington doesn’t seem to have learned a lot about running alliances. Perfidious Albion, indeed!


Waging war from the pages of The Washington Post

Whatever else he has done, Pres. Barack Obama has introduced new forms of warfare.

In Cairo, in what is likely to be the most forgotten seminal speech in history, he waged propaganda warfare against any concept that the world’s problem was a bigoted, backward and reactionary Islamic world.

Then we got Libya, where a tinpot dictator, tottering after 30 years of the most idiosyncratic regime in history, was falling of its own weight. But rather than offer a helping hand to our European allies — who for whatever reason — thought Muammar Khadaffi had to go, Obama decided to “lead from behind”. He almost got his what’s-it in a ringer when it turned out that as everyone else knew, the Europeans did not have the wherewithal to do the job.  So we led, shall we say, “from the left side”?

Now we are faced with an even more dangerous and difficult job.

Our on and off — the switch in Washington used as much as in Islamabad — alliance with the Pakistanis is in deep do-do. The army, which we helped usher out of power in order to restore “democracy”, apparently cannot control some of its echelons.

Someone, perhaps not the senior officials, knew Osama was there. Shamed not only by our successful raid to grab him, but by an almost hilarious — had it not been so bloody — virtually simultaneous invasion of its principal naval base in its largest city through a whore house operating on the premises, the army is fraught.

And there isn’t much to Pakistan institutions except the military, as corrupt and inefficient as it may be.

The Obama Administration has decided in this instance to wage war from the pages of The Washington Post.  Given its past record of service to the cause of stable government and its current seediness, somehow that doesn’t seem the way to solve the problem for this observer.

Ultimata are usually delivered through diplomatic echelons — that’s so, that when you or the other party has to back down, it can be done with a certain amount, of shall we say, finesse? Delivering ultimata on the front page of The Washington Post is a little like undressing in Macy’s windows — seduction it is not, more like exhibitionism.

Pakistan, with its more than half billion people, most living in ignorance and on the verge of constant disaster, are being run by a government lost somewhere in the pages of Kipling and Somalian anarchy. At any moment, the army may have to step in as it has always done to save drowning politicians.

Excoriation on the pages of The Washington Post wont make it easier.

But what can be done there and is being done there is to further diminish the prestige, the stature and the power of any Pakistan government — leading not only to anarchy but to the further radicalization of Pakistani Muslims ready to believe any cock and bull story about the Americans.

It could be helping to set up a factory for turning out jihadists with unlimited resources in manpower and with enormous resources among its diaspora communities in the West. And there are always the nuclear arms lying around for the pickup.

It may well be as several spokesmen, loud and clear, have enunciated that the attacks on the US embassy in Kabul are coming from the Haqani network, egged on by elements in the army’s ISI, the notorious and probably vastly overvalued intelligence organization.

But rooting out the Haqani won’t be done on the pages of The Washington Post.  Either the US will have to satisfy itself that this is the case and go after the culprits in some of the most difficult terrain in the world, or reach a compromise with the Pakistani army for information which would defang them.

Either way, the Obama Administration can not lead this war from the pages of The Washington Post in a critical and perhaps the most dangerous situation facing the world today.