Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Don’t Raise the Stakes in Ukraine

The release of a report this week by eight former U.S. government officials calling for the United States to send arms to Ukraine has reopened debate on the issue. The dispute is also lent urgency by the recent sickening escalation of violence in the Donbas, especially against civilians, as well as signs that some within the Obama administration may be reconsidering their stance on this issue. As appalling as the ferocity of recent fighting has been, however, the arguments against arming Ukraine remain as solid as they were three months ago. It would raise the stakes with Russia, while offering little prospect of ending the conflict.

The arguments made in the report, cosponsored by Brookings, the Atlantic Council and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs - seem compelling on the surface. The authors argue that the provision of lethal, but solely defensive, weapons would better allow Ukrainian troops to defend themselves against continuing attacks from pro-Russian rebels. As the evidence indicates that the rebels themselves are being supplied with advanced weapons from Moscow, American weapons would place Ukrainian forces on a more even footing. The report further asserts that such weaponry could raise the continued costs of backing the rebels for Moscow, bringing Vladimir Putin to the negotiating table.

Unfortunately, arming Ukraine will cause more problems than it solves. Certainly, such a move would be a propaganda coup for Russia, which has already been using state media to perpetuate the idea that NATO is involved in the crisis. Russian media is extremely good at blurring key facts to make a coherent, anti-Western narrative, even if the narrative itself is fundamentally false. It won’t matter than the weapons are ‘defensive’ in nature; the Russian media can spin this to bolster their arguments that Ukraine’s government is illegitimate and that the conflict is being driven by NATO. It could even increase popular support for the war among the Russian population.

Will Greece Unravel the European Experiment?

The Greek elections, in which the radical left-wing Syriza won a near majority, shattered the Brussels consensus.  A breakdown of the European bail-out program might make a Greek exit from the Euro (“Grexit”) the only feasible option.  And the popular revolt against outsiders dictating economic policy may block new attempts to expand Brussels’ power over EU members.

Europe remains the world’s most important economic unit.  However, the EU failed to live up to the grand hopes of the Eurocrats, the academic, bureaucratic, business, media, and political elites who dominate continental politics and policy.  Voters rejected the proposed constitution to expand Brussels’ authority and reduce national independence a decade ago. 

The Eurocrats then repackaged the convoluted constitution as an incomprehensible treaty, for approval by national parliaments. More power shifted to Brussels. 

However, multiplying bureaucracy stifled action.  Loyalty to the EU failed to extend beyond the organization’s sprawling headquarters buildings in Brussels. 

Then the Euro crisis exploded.  The Eurozone created a common currency.  Only 19 of 28 EU members today belong, but in theory all are supposed to eventually join.  Even the Euro’s architects recognized the inherent instability of creating a monetary union without a common budget.

Once in, Athens borrowed at essentially German interest rates and spent wildly.  Soon the loan bills came due and Athens couldn’t pay, which triggered a cascade of crises and bail-outs.

Although nominally concerned about Greece and other aid recipients, many Eurocrats had a larger purpose in mind.  Said German Chancellor Angela Merkel:  “We must overcome the architectural flaws that worked their way into the economic and monetary union during its formation.”  Thus, Euroelites used the crisis to bludgeon the European public to accept further continental consolidation. 

European leaders insisted that no country, no matter how badly indebted, should leave the Eurozone.  The EU would lend more in return for economic austerity.  Although the Greek economy has started growing again, it shrank a quarter since 2008 and unemployment still tops 26 percent. 

That explains why Greeks voted for Syriza, which offered dreamy promises of more spending along with angry demands for debt relief.  The Eurocrats imagined that Tsipras would moderate like so many previous radicals had done.  But so far he and his party have given no indication of retreating. 

The Oil Price Plunge Won’t Cause Russia or Iran to Capitulate

The recent dramatic drop in global oil prices has significant geopolitical as well as economic implications.  Consumers in the United States and other countries enjoy substantial savings, while marginal producers, both here and abroad, find their profit margins severely squeezed.  As I discuss in an article at Aspenia Online, some of the oil-producing states that have been especially hard hit include Russia, Venezuela, and Iran.  All of those countries are governed by regimes that are on bad terms with the United States, so there is a temptation among American political leaders and pundits to relish the current discomfort of those governments.

Greater restraint is warranted.  The geopolitical benefits to the United States from the current depressed pricing environment are not trivial.  Increased economic constraints appear to be one factor making Iran’s clerical regime more willing to negotiate seriously about that country’s nuclear program.  Venezuela’s already substantial financial woes, caused by the leftist government’s chronic economic mismanagement since the late 1990s, has made that country a less appealing political model for the rest of Latin America.  Washington’s worries about a leftist “Bolivarian” revolution sweeping the region, which were prominent just a few years ago, have faded considerably.

The Obama administration is especially pleased about how lower oil prices are putting pressure on Vladimir Putin’s government.  Although Western economic sanctions, imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, account for some of the country’s distress, the precipitous drop in oil prices (with Brent crude now selling for well under $50 per barrel) is a more important factor.  Not only has the value of the Ruble shrunk by more than 50 percent, the Russian government faces a budgetary squeeze verging on a crisis.  U.S. officials hope that the growing financial and economic discomfort will compel Putin to make major foreign policy concessions.

Ukraine’s Fight With Russia Isn’t America’s Business

Ukraine’s military has lost control of the Donetsk airport and the rebels have launched another offensive. Fortune could yet smile upon Kiev, but as long as Russia is determined not to let the separatists fail, Ukraine’s efforts likely will be for naught.

As I point out on Forbes online:  “Only a negotiated settlement, no matter how unsatisfying, offers a possible resolution of the conflict. The alternative may be the collapse of the Ukrainian state and long-term confrontation between the West and Russia.”

Ukraine’s most fervent advocates assume anyone not ready to commit self-immolation on Kiev’s behalf must be a Russian agent. However, there are numerous good reasons for Washington to avoid the fight.

1) Russia isn’t Serbia, Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya.

While the Obama administration has resisted proposals for military confrontation with Moscow, a gaggle of ivory tower warriors has pushed to arm Ukraine, bring Kiev into NATO, and station U.S. men and planes in Ukraine. These steps could lead to war.

Americans have come to expect easy victories. However, Russia would be no pushover. In particular, Moscow has a full range of nuclear weapons, which it could use to respond to allied conventional superiority.

2) Moscow has more at stake than the West in Ukraine.

Ukraine matters far more to Moscow than to Washington. Thus, the former will devote far greater resources and take far greater risks than will the allies. The Putin government already has accepted financial losses, economic isolation, human casualties, and political hostility.

Greeks Vote Against Euro and For Democracy

Greece’s parliamentary elections could reshape Europe. In voting for the radical left the Greek people have reinvigorated home rule and democracy across the continent.

Greece has been in economic crisis seemingly for eternity. Even in the Euro the system could not generate the growth necessary to repay the debt:  the economy was hamstrung by enervating work rules, corrupting political influences, profiteering economic cartels, and debilitating cultural norms.

The inevitable crisis hit in 2009. Athens couldn’t make debt payments or borrow at affordable rates. Nor could Greece devalue its currency to make its products more competitive. The European “Troika” (European Central Bank, European Commission, and International Monetary Fund) developed a painful rescue plan.

Syriza, meaning Coalition of the Radical Left, arose to challenge the two establishment parties. Headed by Alexis Tsipras, Syriza won 36.2 percent and 149 seats, two short of a majority, on Sunday.

Syriza offered dreamy unreality:  free health care and electricity along with food subsidies, pension increases, salary hikes, and more public sector jobs. Billions in new revenue is to magically appear.

Frenemy Saudi Arabia Makes the World More Dangerous

Saudi Arabia is a medieval system whose horrid human rights practices match its antiquated political system. Official Washington breathed a sigh of relief at the smooth transition after King Abdullah died last week. President Barack Obama is visiting Riyadh to pay his respects.

Secretary of State John Kerry called the departed king a “man of vision and wisdom.” President Barack Obama declared that Abdullah “was always candid and had the courage of his convictions.”

U.S. officials long have celebrated their friendship with the Saudi royals, who sit atop vast oil reserves. Even more important, the American military continues to act as the Saudi royals’ bodyguard.

President George H.W. Bush inaugurated the first Gulf War as much to safeguard Saudi Arabia as liberate Kuwait. He left a garrison in Saudi Arabia later targeted by the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks. America’s presence on sacred Saudi soil was one of Osama bin Laden’s grievances.

While American officials are conflicted by the tension between democracy and stability, the Saudis suffer no such indecision. Essentially a totalitarian dictatorship at home, the House of Saud favors whoever and whatever reduces threats to the monarchy abroad.

Yemen’s Chronic Instability

The last few days have brought dramatic news from Yemen: rebels occupied the presidential palace, initially forcing constitutional concessions and then the resignation of President Abdurabuh Mansur Hadi. The president was, at least nominally, a U.S. ally, cooperating with U.S. forces on drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Yemen (AQAP).

Yemen itself had even been hailed as one of the few successes of the Arab Spring, with a negotiated transition resulting in steps toward democracy. But such an interpretation glosses over Yemen’s long history of instability, as well as intervention by foreign powers. The current conflict is not only a popular uprising, it’s a proxy war, one that has been worsened by U.S. policy in Yemen.

Yemen has experienced chronic instability throughout its history, in large part because of interference from Saudi Arabia, which has long been worried about Yemeni influence. The first Saudi king, Abdulaziz, is reputed to have called his senior sons to his deathbed, admonishing them to “keep Yemen weak.” The Kingdom has at various times provided funds not only to the Yemeni government, but also to various opposing tribal leaders.

The most recent iteration of Yemeni instability is a decade-long civil conflict between the Saudi-backed Yemeni government, Sunni militias, and a Zaidi Shi’a militia group known as the Houthis. This latter is also known as the Shabaab al-Marmineen (or the Believing Youth), and is believed to receive large quantities of funding and arms from Iran (and formerly Syria). The insurgency has spanned a decade, with only sporadic ceasefires, resulting in widespread death and displacement. The Houthis even initiated cross-border attacks against Saudi Arabia in 2009, which led to a large-scale Saudi invasion of Northern Yemen.

The Houthis were also heavily involved in the 2011 protests against Yemeni dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, although they rejected the Saudi-negotiated transfer of power to then–Vice President Hadi. Since late last year, the Houthis have controlled large parts of the capital Sanaa, although power has remained nominally vested in the hands of the Hadi government.

The crisis in Yemen is thus not only a civil conflict, but also a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this, it is similar to the early Syrian civil war, which was initially driven by Saudi support for rebel groups and Iranian support for the Assad regime. While the situation in Yemen is unlikely to deteriorate in this way, it is worth focusing on the fact that many conflicts in the Middle East are actually driven by larger regional actors, some of them U.S. allies.

U.S. involvement in Yemen has also helped to worsen this crisis. The Hadi government’s support for U.S. drone strikes against AQAP contrasts strongly with Yemeni popular opinion, which has been widely outraged by the killing of innocents. Such unfortunate killings are driven by U.S. reliance on Yemeni targeting data: Yemeni leaders have a tendency to present political rivals as terrorists in order to engineer their demise. These deaths have driven growing anger at the Hadi government.

Ironically, the Houthi fighters are themselves strongly opposed to AQAP and actively engage in combat against the group. There is even evidence that the United States has cooperated with the Houthis on targeting AQAP.

The situation in Yemen remains fluid. The country appears to have no leader, and it is unclear whether the Houthi occupation of the capital constitutes a coup or not. But in either case, the United States should stay out of the conflict, evacuating the embassy if Sanaa becomes too dangerous. The crisis in Yemen is typical of the country’s long-running instability, and the pressures it faces from regional powers. U.S. involvement won’t help.