LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP

Posted in Rants on March 2nd, 2014 by Ed

When I was in college I was a full blown Sunday Morning Talk Show addict. Let's overlook how sad that is and jump to the part about how eventually I couldn't take it anymore: the incessant George Will monologues, the same ten Senators in an endless rotation, and the David Brooksian devotion to the Beltway Consensus politics of Moderation and Reasonable People and all that happy horseshit. It starts as an effort to inform yourself but before long it sounds like exactly what it is: meaningless noise, with the curious spectacle of Raytheon commercials.

It would take something very special to get me to fall off the wagon. The prospect of seeing the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the world give sage foreign policy advice about the Russian Bear was it. Well, it was enough to get me through about 15 minutes; then I thought death would be preferable to continued viewing.

There's nothing quite like watching angry, impotent old men who know they will never be calling the shots talking tough about what they would do and trying to convince themselves that with a white Republican president everyone would cower in fear of America once again. The domestic politics of this Crimean crisis are playing out so predictably that we can shut off all of the analytic parts of our brains and treat it as pure cabaret. As always, it doesn't much matter what the President does, the GOP is foaming at the mouth to criticize it. If he does something immediate and decisive, then he's a tyrant and dictator. If he waits, he gets to listen to a South Carolina hillbilly who couldn't find the Crimea on a map if his life depended on it call him "weak and indecisive." More Neville Chamberlain references, tough guys!

The Republican message this weekend was remarkably consistent: clearly Obama needs to Do Something. Exactly what he should do, no one can say. That's inconsequential to Republicans, of course; all that matters is that the Kenyan One is a pussy and so on. In practical terms, though, the fact that no one has the slightest idea how the U.S. could or should respond is rather important. Every Republican hayseed who can get his face in a camera is making demands; boycott the G8. (Ooh, that'll show him!) Send in the aircraft carriers. (Sure, we'll start WWIII!) Impose economic sanctions. (They depend on us economically for what, exactly?) If this is the best they can do, it does nothing but underscore the dearth of realistic options available to the U.S. in a situation halfway around the globe that has absolutely nothing to do with America or its interests.

I'm not an expert on the region, but here are a few relevant facts. The Crimea is part of the Ukraine but is populated mostly by ethnic Russians who strongly support Russian influence in the area. The Russian military (following the Soviet tradition) pays Ukraine to maintain the Black Sea Fleet on the island, much as the U.S. pays Cuba for Guantanamo Bay. The Crimea, which is already essentially autonomous within the Ukraine, is about to hold a vote on independence at the end of March. The recent political upheaval in Kiev has left the entire country unstable and Putin saw an outstanding opportunity to fuck around and indulge his quasi-imperialist "We'll put the old Russian Empire back together again!) fantasies with relative impunity. Given these and all the other facts – You know, part of the Ukraine wants to move toward the EU and NATO while part of it wants to remain within Russia's sphere of influence – what exactly is the United States supposed to do about this?

It is clearly troubling that Putin has a Bush-like disrespect for the territorial integrity of the Ukraine, but this is hardly a surprise. He never passes up a chance to try to extend and solidify Russian influence over former Soviet states and the recent political turmoil practically rolled out the red carpet for shenanigans. If a response is needed, it needs to come from the European Union. Russia supplies more than one-third of all natural gas and nearly one-quarter of the oil used in continental Europe. An embargo would have a real impact there, although it might be as unpleasant for Europe as it would be for Russia. Moscow might easily find other markets for Garzprom while Europe would find itself short on gas in the middle of a frigid winter.

The only response that makes any sense from an American perspective is the ol' freeze-the-assets trick on Russian oligarchs stashing their plundered billions abroad. That would require coordination between the U.S. and Europe – you know, the kind of thing that takes time and doesn't work if the American president flies off half-cocked like Republicans believe a Real Leader would do. That might place enough domestic political pressure on Putin to get him to reverse course. Or perhaps this is all Putin's contribution to the old Khrushchevian buffoonery in international affairs, the joy Russia seems to take in watching the West panic and rush to respond to its every move (Berlin is, unfortunately, no longer the Testicles of the West). Maybe there's a little more to the concept of intervention than rushing in waving around our national dick.

No more Meet the Press until 2024.