Does the Past Repeat Itself?

I have been reading the first volume of Churchill’s history of World War II, The Gathering Storm. How can one not be impressed with his relentless, hawkish criticism of the appeasing Chamberlain and the weak-kneed continental powers that were disarming while German was arming in the 1930s? Is there a lesson for today?

Republican critics of the Obama Administration such as John McCain and Lindsay Graham seem to think so. The bloody civil war in Syria, the uprising in Egypt and its repression by the army, the chaos in Libya, the Russian takeover in the Crimea all are laid to the alleged feckless behavior of Obama, seen by McCain and others of his ilk incapable of acting with the necessary determination and force. If only the president had acted forcefully… When we look to the past for lessons, we assume that the past repeats itself. Sometimes it does, at other times it doesn’t. Wisdom depends on our capacity to make the discrimination. I think in the present circumstances there are no lessons to be learnt from the past, certainly not from the interregnum between the two world wars. Germany of the 1930s was a nation, an organized power on which the Allies who had defeated it in World War I could focus and contend with. Churchill was right to warn his country and other Western nations about the asymmetry of Western disarmament and German armament. It may have been possible to nip Germany’s rise to power in the early 1930s in the bud. What you have now is something completely different: disorganized sectarian power groups, often, though not always, terrorists, scattered throughout the world, elusive as to location, and possessed of an inexhaustible source of human power, able to reconstitute themselves no matter how hard and successfully they are attacked. An organized military power can retaliate and provisionally contain the actions of these groups, but the groups will only defeat themselves through exhaustion, and such a prospect is not on the horizon.

These groups may join the spontaneous street actions of people with democratic aspirations against autocratic governments. We have the examples of events in Egypt and Syria. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood, hardly democratic in outlook, but better organized than other groups, joined those who initiated the successful struggle against the dictatorial Hosni Mubarak, and took power after an election. In Syria the popular movement against the autocratic Bashar Al Assad has found itself beset by outside terrorist groups that were able to infiltrate through porous borders. As of this writing, Assad remains in power, but should he lose power we may have another version of the Egyptian situation, chaotic fighting between rival groups (a failed state), if not, as in the case of Egypt, a return to an army supported dictatorship. Widespread street action by people in autocratic countries united in opposition to tyranny becomes fragmented, if not during the struggle, almost certainly when the regime is removed and “the people” have the responsibility of ruling. Organized groups within the opposition often tyrannical in character take over, provoking a countermove from the army associated with the regime that was overthrown, as was the case with Egypt. “The street” may not be powerful enough to achieve power but it is strong enough to create the conditions of chaos, massive destruction and death, as in the case of Syria. Not that “the street” is directly responsible for destruction and chaos; violence mostly comes from those in power who try to put down the generally peaceful protesters. By now, however, those engaged in protest should have the responsibility of knowing the limits of their own power and to foresee the consequences when deciding to use it.

The same is true for the United States and European nations when they are called upon to intervene militarily to end civil war or defeat terrorism or help the cause of democracy. The chances are that their entry into the internal conflicts of other countries will only exacerbate the chaos and destruction. To return to the question I raised at the outset: nothing in the pre-WWII experience is a precedent for what should or could be done now. Churchill was not addressing civil war in other countries, but the threat, which materialized, of Germany’s conquest of countries allied with Britain and ultimately of Britain itself. To intervene or not to intervene, that is the question. To his domestic adversaries on foreign policy like Senator McCain affecting Churchillian strength and determination, Obama seems feckless and weak. But the reality is the opposite. It takes an extraordinary exercise of intelligence and will to resist provocation to act when action might lead to consequences far worse than the present circumstances. Think, for instance, of the “bold” decision to invade Iraq. In general the answer to the question of whether to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries should be “no.” What to do in the case of genocide, what happened in Rwanda and something close to which is happening in Syria? Provide humanitarian help and even military assistance with the hope that things will not be made worse.
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The German annexation of the Sudentenland led to World War II. Is history repeating itself in the Russian takeover of Crimea? Like Hitler, who claimed to be defending the interests of the German population in what was Czech territory, Putin presents himself as the protector of the majority ethnic Russians in Ukrainian territory. Hitler of course did not stop with the Sudentenland. It is not clear what Putin will do next, though there is apprehension that he may want to extend his role as protector of ethnic Russians in other Baltic countries (Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) that were part of the Soviet Union. The radical difference between Hitler and Putin, however, is that there isn’t the slightest evidence in Putin’s rhetoric and behavior of world conquering ambition. In fact, there is a segment of the left (and at least one pundit on the right, Pat Buchanan) that makes the case for the legitimacy of Putin’s moves in Ukraine.

Stephen Cohen, an expert on Russia, wrote an article for Reuters, entitled “The Demonization of Putin,” a defense of Russia’s aggressive behavior toward Ukraine. Cohen is the husband of Katrina Van Heuvel, the publisher of The Nation, so it should not have come as a surprise that the article was reprinted in The Nation. The surprise, however, was to find a defense of Putin in a left liberal journal; or should it have been a surprise? Cohen’s argument when reduced to its essentials is that Ukraine has been traditionally in the Russian orbit, that NATO and the European Union have hubristically extended their ambition to the Russian border, and that American indignation about Russian aggression is in bad faith, given its own adventures in countries far from its borders when it felt its national interests to be in jeopardy. (A distinction needs to be made, which Cohen fails to make: The European Union has not sent troops into Ukraine; the overthrow of President Yanukovich, a Russian sympathizer, was the result of massive demonstrations by Ukrainians wanting to join the European Union.) There is merit in the criticism that NATO, a military alliance, has tried to reach into countries traditionally part of the Russian sphere of influence. What NATO has not done, however, is send in troops to enforce its ambition. It is true that The United States has never abandoned its commitment to the Monroe Doctrine, for instance, in its vigilance about Soviet influence in countries in the Western Hemisphere. Consider our behavior toward the Soviet presence in Cuba and even now when the Soviet Union has disappeared. Would an American government allow an anti-American revolution in Mexico? Answer: It depends on which Administration is in control. There is also merit in the argument that Yanukovich for all his corruptness was duly elected and in effect deposed by mass action on the street—a questionable way of changing governments. Moreover, Crimea and indeed the Eastern part of Ukraine have a majority of ethnic Russians who may prefer an association with Russia rather than with the European Union. In which case, their agitation for autonomy or even secession from Ukraine and association with Russia is as legitimate as the action of the protesters in western Ukraine, who overthrew Yanukovich. But that argument is a diversion from the fact that the principle of self-determination and non-intervention, which Putin himself rhetorically upholds where his own interests are concerned, has been violated by Russian military intervention in the Crimea. The European Union and NATO did not directly intervene in Ukraine. As his policy toward Chechnya shows, Putin is very selective in his support of ethnic self-determination, supporting it only where it serves Russian national interests. Russian intervention in Ukraine might be justified if there was credible evidence of ethnic cleansing, violence and torture of ethnic Russians, but there is no such evidence. Indeed, supporters of Crimean autonomy or annexation of Crimea by Russia were free to demonstrate in the streets without reprisal from Ukrainian authorities and even more strikingly free to administer a referendum calling for autonomy or annexation by Russia.

What is surprising is the ease with which a left liberal journal like The Nation can so easily accommodate an argument based on realpolitik. Its usual way is to take the high moral ground and denounce Western imperialism and colonialism. The US may have disqualified itself as an agent of indignation over Russian aggression, having acted as it did without provocation in Iraq, for example. But why should the moral failure of the US justify Russian aggressiveness? Understanding the reasons for Putin acting as he did should not translate into a justification for the action. Could it be that we are witnessing a return of the politically repressed: the old left liberal sympathy for the Soviet Union, the disintegration of which, in Putin’s words, was the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Cohen’s ire should be directed toward the blowhard rants of men like Senators McCain and Graham for strong action against Russia (what that means beyond what the Obama Administration proposes in the way of sanctions is unclear), but not toward the president and the secretary of state both of whom have shown nothing of the imperial/interventionist mind set Cohen condemns. Let us say that the United States would behave aggressively toward an anti-American revolution in Mexico on its border in the way the Russians have conducted themselves toward Ukraine and earlier toward Georgia, countries on the Russian border. Would not the Nation raise Cain about American behavior? American governments are perfectly capable of applying double standards and acting in bad faith, but so apparently are its critics from the left. Bad behavior in the past by the United States does not justify bad behavior by Russia.

The United States and the European Union have no alternative but to impose sanctions against Russia. It does not follow, however, that the West act on a false analogy between Putin and Hitler, which would entail a rupture of relations between Russia and the West that would make further negotiation impossible. It would be wrong to draw a lesson from Churchill’s warnings about Hitler. Pace the war hawks, Obama must exercise restraint. He needs to keep open the invitation to negotiate about the future of Ukraine and other interests such as the fates of Syria and Iran.

Cohen is not an outlier in the stance he takes; he is not alone. In an article supporting Cohen’s view of the Ukrainian situation (“The Cold War That Threatens Democracy, March 17, 2014), Tom Hayden acknowledges Putin’s “illegal occupation of Crimea,” but his real target is the “growing US pattern of ignoring democratic outcomes where they are inconvenient.” It is true that Yanukovich, Russia’s ally, was democratically elected and brought down by mass action in the street and not through the electoral process. Hayden analogizes the action to the actions of Republican mobs that put George W. Bush in office, despite Gore’s victory in the popular vote and probably in the electoral college if the Florida vote were properly counted. (Would he extend his condemnation of mass protest against Yanukovich and mob action in favor of Bush to the mass protests in Syria, Tunisia, and Libya—indeed, all mass action that potentially or actually overturns autocratic rule everywhere. And if not, why not?) Hayden takes no account of the grievances of those who demonstrated against Yanukovich and of the lethal violence his security forces committed against them. He views the protest as the work of “pro fascist militias based in western Ukraine, who demanded an alliance with their friends in Europe and NATO.” There was an extreme rightist, even fascist, element in the street demonstrations, but Hayden offers no evidence that it constituted the whole or majority of the protesters. Moreover, there is the irresponsible insinuation that Europe and NATO are friendly to pro fascist militias. It is hard not to hear echoes of the old Soviet sympathizing left lumping together all adversaries as social fascists. Hayden even dismisses the Western view of Putin as autocrat, likening him to Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, whom he apparently regards as unautocratic victims of US imperialism. (America does not have clean hands in their treatment of Cuba and Venezuela, but neither are the hands of Castro and Chavez clean.) The Obama pivot to Asia, from this perspective, is little more than an aggressive entry into the Chinese sphere of influence. Greater democracy will come to both Russia and China if the US lays off on it aggressive democratic rhetoric, a view that resembles the justifying explanation offered by the old left for Stalin’s iron rule: the Soviet Union needed to protect itself against capitalist encirclement. (Where is the evidence that Putin harbors democratic aspirations that American bullying prevents him from realizing?) It is not as if there is no truth in the Cohen/Hayden/Nation view of American behavior. It is that it is so one-sided and so lacking in nuance that whatever truth it possesses is distorted or obscured.

Hayden spreads his net wide. Here for instance is his reading of the Egyptian situation. “Nothing that President Morsi did as president justified the violent coup by Egyptian generals in 2013. That coup was fervently desired by Israel and Saudi Arabia, whose pressure made Obama succumb” [to what?]. Yes, the military coup has turned out to be a disaster for the prospect of Egyptian democracy. But Hayden’s formulation of events obscures the mass demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere by secularists and liberals, young and old, as what by most objective accounts (yes, objectivity is still possible) was the incompetent and oppressive regime of Mohamed Morsi. This is not to justify the actions of the Egyptian army; it is to describe more accurately the character of the Egyptian revolution against Mubarak and its aftermath. Turning to Venezuela, Hayden is right to point out the sorry record of Chavez’s opponents, but Chavez had shown himself capable of leading a coup and of behaving autocratically when in power. One might infer from Hayden’s characterization of the West that capitalism is its exclusively defining feature. Capitalism, however, is not the only thing that characterizes the West; there is also Western democracy. Nor is Western capitalism a unitary phenomenon that Hayden makes it out to be; it has many variants in the United States and Europe with benign as well as malign attributes. Consider the differences among the United States, France, England, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian countries. It is hardly accurate or fair to describe Obama’s foreign policy as a “new cold war policy,” given every instinct in his Administration to prevent war from breaking out and not intervening in places where even some on the Left believe he should intervene, as in Syria.

What is most troubling in the views of Cohen, Hayden and those readers of The Nation who follow them is the failure to see a political and moral difference between Ukraine in the Russian orbit and the European orbit. Ukraine under the regimes of Yanukovich and his adversary Julia Tymoshenko was politically corrupt. It is doubtful that genuine democratic reform would occur if Ukraine remains within the Russian orbit. Genuine reform is required if Ukraine were permitted to join the European Union. There is no coercion from the European Union to join. Ukraine is free (or should be free) to decide whether it wants to be part of the European Union. And in order to join the Union Ukraine must fulfill its obligations of reform of its own free will. Cohen and Hayden seem completely indifferent to the difference.

Putin is not Hitler. He is the Tsar redivivus bent on restoring the sphere of influence beyond Russia’s borders that was diminished when the Soviet Union disintegrated. Though it is likely that sanctions imposed on Russia and aid to Ukraine will not force a withdrawal of the Russians from the Crimea, sanctions might discourage further Russian action in Eastern Ukraine and elsewhere in the Baltics. Putin, who is not irrational or crazy as some have made him out to be, knows that Russia will pay a price economically and politically for his behavior. He is fully capable of calculating costs and benefits. It is of course possible that he may feel provoked and emboldened to move beyond Crimea, knowing that NATO is neither willing nor prepared to directly confront Russia militarily. The US and Europe, nevertheless, have a moral obligation to denounce the annexation of Crimea and punish it through sanctions. What Obama and the Europeans should not do is draw red lines, the crossing of which would necessarily entail military action against Russia. It is impossible to predict the outcome of what appears to be the current strategy of the West, sanctions, financial aid for the struggling Ukrainian economy, perhaps military assistance, and negotiation with Russia, but they offer the best prospect for avoiding the unthinkable, world war.

From April, 2014