Mr. Putin and America's Phantom Limb Syndrome

          Uncharacteristically,  I find myself inclined to agree with Keith's analysis posted on these pages  in a critical response to Tom Friedman's NY Times article on American policy vis-a-vis Russia and Syria. (American Counterpoint 10/6/16)  However, I imagine Keith and I have arrived at this position via different routes. Here is my own narrative.

          For those of us growing up in the  in the aftermath of World War II, the Cold War that soon followed was already omnipresent by the time we were old enough to see and hear. The Soviet threat  loomed everywhere and penetrated our dreams.  I can remember as a child getting a chill in my spine every time I heard a siren or curfew alarm in the town where I lived. Like everybody, I'd seen the duck-and-cover films, and sirens meant that Soviet bombers might be arriving soon to deliver a holocaust on our town.  While it has become fashionable in the years since to make light of these existential fears from the 1950's, it is my opinion from today's vantage point that the fears were quite rational even if over-dramatized.
Stalin's Juggernaut

          From its inception in 1918 the Soviet Union was a malignant force that starting coming fully into its own after its WWII victory. Joseph Stalin at that moment had the most powerful land armies in the world, and his agents had already stolen the nuclear technology that would give him the A-bomb by 1949. The Marxian ideology he promoted preached the inevitability of worldwide "proletarian" victory over capitalism, which was said to be approaching the final stages of a pre-determined crisis. The Leninist overlay on this philosophy was that the process could be accelerated by disciplined action on the part of a revolutionary "vanguard".
          By the time Stalin came to power, neither he nor many of his confederates actually believed in this poppycock. What they did believe in was the expansion of their own power, and they sustained  the ideology because it provided useful cover for their real intentions. Stalin's negotiating position was strong at the War's end, and when he and his erstwhile allies partitioned Europe into spheres of influence, he could pretend to be advancing the revolutionary vanguard and imposing proletarian justice everywhere on his side of the dividing line. He left little doubt that to him the line was temporary.

Guns Of August Redux

          At this stage of history, it is likely that both Soviet and Western planners still believed  a "limited" nuclear war was possible. Such beliefs  made the moment nightmarishly dangerous because, as in the treacherous years leading up to World War I, the belligerent who struck first was expected to gain the overwhelming advantage. When Stalin died in 1953, his successors lacked both his lust for power and his taste for gambling, but they nonetheless had confidence in their position and expected to gain ground in the years ahead. Like him, they had little respect for democratic politicians and believed it was only a matter of time before history provided them the opening they needed to extend their dominance over the rest of Europe and isolate the United States. They hoped to do all this by political means, but saw military blustering and nuclear brinksmanship as part of the game.

Probing With The Bayonet

          The relative vibrancy of western economies during most of the 1950's and 60's  gave the Soviets some pause, because it called into question the theory of capitalism's inevitable collapse. However, the economic malaise of the 1970's raised their hopes again, as did America's humiliating defeat in Vietnam, abetted as it was by Soviet and Chinese support for their communist proxies. The vacillating foreign policies of American presidents Ford and Carter reinvigorated the notion that American power had peaked and that the real sweep of history was still moving in favor of the Soviet Union. One of Lenin's most famous injunctions to his followers was to "probe with the bayonet" and then either pull back or plunge forward depending on whether steel or mush is encountered. Having internalized this dictum, the Soviets  greatly expanded their military capability during the 1970's and began testing American power all around the globe in various proxy wars and destabilizations.  Posturing as they were as history's favored agents, they sought to instill defeatism in their enemies with the feeling of battling against the inevitable.

Calling The Bluff

          What few people seemed to grasp, however, including the purblind Western intelligence agencies, was that the Soviets had an under-developed economy. Furthermore, they had stretched it about as far as it could go to support their expansive military presence, and they were still to stretching. Their sclerotic system was incapable of the technical innovation necessary to sustain modern military capability.  In 1979 Margaret Thatcher came to power in the U.K., followed by Ronald Reagan in the U.S. a couple of years later. Both of these politicians seemed to understand instinctively that the Soviets had it exactly backwards and that they were in fact the ones being left behind by history. Reagan defiantly vowed to end the dangerous charade once and for all by spending the Soviet military past its breaking point.

          In 1990 the Soviets made the mistake of permitting Saddam Hussein in Iraq, one of their client states, to invade neighboring Kuwait, essentially an American client state at the heart of the world's oil economy. President George H.W. Bush, sensing both threat and opportunity here, decided not only to bolster proxies in the region but to intervene directly with both firepower and American soldiers. The payoff on this gamble was spectacular. In one of the most lopsided military victories in history,  Saddam's army,  equipped with the best their Russian sponsors could offer, was driven home quickly and nearly destroyed with minimal American casualties. Smart bombs and other dazzling high-tech gadgetry applied the necessary lethal force.

          The Soviets were stunned. Having staked everything they had on building what they wanted the world to see as indomitable military force, even this was now exposed as a sham. They had proved helpless to rescue a key strategic ally. Already aware of their fatal economic deficiencies, hardliners within the Soviet Union now looked like empty suits, and they had little left on which to base their power. Ten months after the end of the Gulf War, Mikhail Gorbachev bowed to the inevitable and announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The various Soviet republics gained their independence, and the pre-revolutionary Russian flag was raised over the Kremlin. The "worldwide proletarian revolution", mythic avatar as it was for raw Soviet power, had been stopped dead in its tracks. In this extraordinary moment, everything of which my generation of Americans had grown up in dread was gone overnight. For us, the sun had emerged and was shining brightly. It was suddenly a unipolar world and we were on top.

Squandering Opportunity

          Unfortunately, American strategists proceeded to draw all the wrong conclusions from their victory. They saw a world yearning for peace, democracy and free enterprise and ready to flock gratefully to Americans who now could bestow these benefits, unhindered by serious opposition.  Perhaps they had been influenced by too many cowboy movies in which honest shopkeepers regain control of their town after some heroic gunslinger has emerged to help them drive the black hats back out into the countryside. Americans seemed to believe now they could apply limited force anywhere and achieve miraculous results.

          The illusion didn't last long. One serious problem immediately started brewing in Russia itself, where the loutish Boris Yeltsin after a brief period of heroic bombast proved himself incapable of governing his traumatized nation. The figure who gradually emerged to take control was former KGB officer Vladimir Putin. Putin had been a loyal servant of the old regime, but he clearly had no interest in its self-destructive messianic ideology. He was a careful student of power who wanted to restore Russia's pride and its sphere of influence but who understood its limitations. While he maintained the outward forms of democracy and capitalism, he sought a controlled autocracy and exhibited contempt for America's many self-righteous illusions about its own system and its place in the world. It seemed only a matter of time before Russia and America would confront one another again.
          The more immediate problem though was in the explosive passions emanating from the Muslim world now that the balance of world power lurched into its new configuration. Resentment against the West that had seethed there for centuries was suddenly liberated to find new and virulent forms. "Terrorism" became the enemy, but terrorism had no home. When Saudi billionaire-turned-Islamic-warrior Osama Bin Laden engineered his sensational attack on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, the world experienced another seismic shock. The one global hegemon left in the new unipolar world had just shown itself incapable of preventing an assault on its own homeland. Where was the enemy now, and who was safe anymore?  There was, of course, a profound irony in play  here that has to have amused Vladimir Putin, who knew full well that the Americans had funded Bin Laden during 1980's. The bearded Saudi had at that time been among the heroic "mujahedeen" battling, of all people, the hated Soviets during their ill-fated occupation of Afghanistan.

Seeking A Stationary Target

          After a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance following the 9/11 attack, America roused itself and counterattacked as best it could. It had to strike back somewhere. Bin Laden was proud of his brutal achievement and American intelligence had no trouble identifying him as the culprit behind the atrocity. The Americans gave the Islamicist government sheltering him in Afghanistan a brief warning and then attacked in full fury. The government fell quickly, but Bin Laden himself eluded capture and began his soon-to-be-legendary odyssey through the mountains and caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. There was a new game afoot, and he seemed to be the omnipresent man of the hour writing all the rules.

          The Americans desperately needed a stationary target if they were to demonstrate that the military hegemony they had worked so hard to achieve still meant something. Following America's victory in the Gulf War a decade earlier, Saddam Hussein had been hunkering down back in his homeland. He was a bad actor virtually without friends in the world now that the Soviets were gone. He had used chemical weapons against the Iranians in the 1980s, as well as against tribal enemies on his own soil, and virtually all the world's intelligence agencies suspected he still had stockpiles of these weapons, in addition probably to the beginnings of a nuclear program. Starting from this patchwork of historic fact and imaginative supposition, the Americans cobbled together a brief for their theory that Saddam,  backed by the threat of "weapons of mass destruction",  was preparing to destabilize the Middle-East and seize control of its oil resources. The alarmist theory sold, and preemptive action was readied. 

          The "Second Gulf War" got underway in March of 2003 and initially looked like it was going to be another breezy high-tech success for the Americans. The military phase of the operation indeed was exactly that, with Saddam's army collapsing quickly and his government falling soon after. No weapons of mass destruction were discovered, but it didn't matter because that really hadn't been the point of it all anyway. However, what followed now was a lesson for the Americans about the dangers of meddling as neophytes in environments they didn't understand. With Saddam gone, ancient religious and other sectarian feuds re-emerged from underground, and the Americans found themselves caught in a multi-dimensional chess game with hidden players and ever-changing rules. This violent snake-pit surely didn't look like Dodge, and no one wanted an American marshal.  

America's Phantom-Limb Syndrome

          Phantom Limb Syndrome is a nervous illusion sometimes experienced by people who have lost an arm or leg. They imagine the missing limb still to be there and available for use because it seems to be returning tactile sensations to the brain. Phantom Limb Syndrome can be used as a metaphor for understanding America's increasingly addled international behavior since the end of the Cold War. Our nation is acting as though it still possesses hegemonic power that has in fact been slipping away.

          The chaos that enveloped Iraq following the American invasion slowly infected much of the region. America  was not solely to blame for these perverse developments, of course. The former imperial powers of Europe, in particular France and Britain, had been suffering from Phantom Limb Syndromes of their own since losing their respective empires in years past. Working together in ad-hoc coalitions, the Western powers now battled terrorists and various authoritarian strongmen as though swatting aimlessly at so many flies. However, every time a strongman wavered or fell,  ugly factions rose to the surface just as they had in Iraq. Freedom-loving democrats were rarely anywhere to  be found, yet they always served as the rhetorical justification for interventions. 

          The most dangerous quagmire emerged in Syria, where the son of long-standing dictator Hafez al-Assad had inherited is father's power and was fighting a hodgepodge of rebel factions arrayed against him. Vladimir Putin, who knew obviously better than the Americans how to pick his battles, had been keeping a cautious distance from most of the Middle-Eastern conflicts but made it clear to everyone that Syria was different. Assad Sr. had been a key client of the Soviet Union and there were important economic ties between Assad's nation and Russia. Putin was still keeping his powder dry, but everyone knew he would not accede meekly to the fall of the Assad regime. Barack Obama, who came to power in the U.S. in 2008, had drawn his famous "red line" around any nation employing chemical weapons in combat. He quietly backed away from this empty pledge when Assad Jr. did exactly this in 2013.  Obama was not going toe-to-toe with Vladimir Putin in a place where Putin had put his stake in the ground.

          Even closer to home for Putin, of course, was the Ukraine.  This region had been the breadbasket of old Czarist Russia and the most important of the Soviet republics outside of Russia itself.  Stalin had brutalized its peasant population, and its leaders eagerly embraced their independence upon the eventual collapse of Stalin's empire. The republic was naturally at the top of Putin's list of real estate he wanted back, yet the Western powers - led by Germany this time but implicitly backed, as always, by American military power - attempted to coax Ukraine into NATO. Seeming to have re-donned his old KGB hat, Putin responded by installing a Russia-friendly president in Kiev, only to see him deposed by "pro-democracy" forces backed by the West in 2014.
          This was enough for Putin. Reverting brazenly to Cold War form, he launched a destabilization campaign, complete with false-flag paramilitary forces, that climaxed in Russia's annexation of the Crimea, previously a Ukrainian province.  He left no doubt that another shoe would drop if the Ukrainian leadership continued with its unauthorized flirtations. After the usual moralistic blustering, Obama, Merkel and the other Western leaders shame-facedly acquiesced. Putin knew perfectly well they would go no further on his very doorstep.

Dangerous Posturing Even Further Afield

          The most credible long-term threat to America's slipping hegemony is, of course, The People's Republic of China, the size of whose economy is now approaching that of America's. China's military capability will be slower in catching up, but even with that, it seems only a matter of time before something close to parity is achieved. Since Mao's death 40 years ago, China has largely eschewed braggadocio and has focused on pragmatic power-building, including more recently the redeployment of its formidable economic surpluses into strategic investments all around the world. However, its leaders fully understand their growing position in the world and will not hesitate to exercise aggressive power if and when they judge it expedient.

          A foreshadow  of our strategic future can been seen in the dispute brewing right now in the South China Sea, where China is constructing artificial islands designed to extend its influence over an area rich in energy deposits and positioned near key shipping lanes. While President Obama is right to raise concerns about this potentially dangerous development, he should look at a map and make sure he understands whose shore it is against which the South China Sea laps up. We're not going to war here with China any more than we are with Russia in the Ukraine. Hollow bluffs against serious adversaries are more likely to earn contempt than cooperation.

Negotiating Within A New World Order

          All of this is my rather long-winded way of agreeing, at least partially, with my friend Keith's observation that we should be trying harder to understand the issues of our adversaries. I, of course, never agree wholehearted with Keith on much of anything - that's why we maintain this blog -  and my problem here is with his unspoken nuance rather than the actual words. Understanding the other guy's issues has for years been the standard prescription American liberals have tried to apply to our nation's foreign policy, as though adversaries will surely come around if only they can be made to see we understand them. The attitude is patronizing because it implies that all we really seek is for everyone to ascend to our level on the moral high ground. Trying as it does to disguise our self-interest, the stance is dishonest in my opinion.

          Leaders like Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping respect power and they despise moral posturing. They also know a bluff when they see one. The particular virulence of the Cold War conflict stemmed from the fact that both sides were claiming the moral high ground, with America always fighting to bestow freedom on the world and the Soviets the benefits of socialism. With such universal principles at stake, virulence comes naturally in defending them. Underneath it all, both nations were pursuing power politics. Our side won, but time has now moved on and we must too.
          In the new world order, the United States still possesses the world's largest economy and most powerful military.  These relative advantages are slipping, however, because times are changing and other countries are evolving. Ingrained habits tend to persist even when the environment that instilled them has transformed.  The bipolar world of the Cold War is over, as is the unipolar world that appeared fleetingly when it ended. In the new multi-polar world, Amerca's old hegemonic habits are dangerous because they risk antagonizing nations with which we must learn to co-exist.

          What's in part needed is, as Keith suggests, a willingness to understand their issues. Beyond this, however, what's also  needed is the willingness to define without ambiguity our own priorities and to make sure potential adversaries understand  how far we will go in defending them. So long as all this is mutually understood, productive negotiation is possible.
          We in fact have quite a bit in common at this point with Russia, China, and to some extent even Iran, as well as with our traditional European and Asian partners. All of us have an interest in ensuring that the Muslim world can be peacefully integrated into the global system and that rogue states and self-proclaimed "caliphates" are contained.  We also have a mutual interest in controlling nuclear weapons, ensuring stability of the global financial system, and sustaining international trade.

          Surely there is enough common ground here that it pays for all of us abandon hubris and learn to get along.



Tom Friedman's NY Times column on 10/4/16 argued that we need much more forceful sanctions against Russia and Syria. This was my response:

Instead of dismissing Putin and Assad as pure villains, out to kill their people and destroy the world, why don't we pay attention to THEIR difficulties. In Putin's case, if you read William Perry's On the Brink autobiography, it's clear that GW Bush's effort to encircle Russia with missiles freaked him and the Russians out. The plunge in oil prices threatened to destroy Putin, so like so many leaders he turned to jingoism and blaming external forces. It seems to me that by understanding Putin's issues, we have a better chance of getting his cooperation than by trying to pressure him. As to Assad, he and the Alawi tribe are desperate. If they lose, the Sunnis will almost certainly bankrupt them all, if not simply masscre them. Their back is to the wall. Does this not suggest other ways of dealing with Russia and Syria than just threatening a war that could easily become nuclear?