Saturday, March 1, 2014

The West misled Ukraine

Salon's Patrick Smith has a sadly plausible take on the West's role in creating the current Ukraine situation. The U.S., and to some extent the E.U., indulged a reckless and irresponsible desire to play real-life Risk, to try to corral one more nation into the "capitalist democracy" column.
Having induced a convulsion to shake a nation loose, neither seems willing now to see through the undertaking. One suspects they recognized they had taken on more than they could manage the minute they got the prize. From the present vantage point, it looks as if Ukraine was never about Ukraine for the West, but about biting Putin on his backside.
One of Smith's most damning pieces of evidence is a quotation from a New York Times piece:
Turned off by what he saw as Mr. Bush’s crusading streak … Mr. Obama, aides said, was wary of being proactive in trying to change other societies, convinced that being too public would make the United States the issue and risk provoking a backlash. The difference, aides said, was not the goal but the methods of achieving it.
The goal didn't change. Many of us who voted for Obama in 2008 didn't think he could achieve anything like the unrealistic expectations his most starry-eyed supporters had for him, but we assumed that he at least didn't harbor the same delusion of changing the world that George W. Bush did. One didn't have to be as coldly practical as Henry Kissinger to think that the U.S.'s foreign policy badly needed a renewed emphasis on recognizing how complex the world is and how limited the U.S.'s power to change things really is. Moreover, as Iraq should have taught us in a punishingly blunt way, reckless change can bring disastrous consequences.

If Smith is right — and as I said, his take is uncomfortably persuasive — Barack Obama's exceedingly mixed foreign policy record isn't the result of naivete, as some of his detractors claim. To the contrary, his record is the result of the same inexplicable desire to make an idealized world as his predecessor. Indeed, to some degree Obama shares the same zeal for evangelizing democracy as virtually all of his predecessors going back to Woodrow Wilson.

I think that if people are free to choose how they govern themselves, that's a good thing. As such, democracy in the abstract is a good thing. However, democracy as enjoyed by many Western nations requires a citizenry that knows what to do with it and how to hold onto it. The people of a country have to be ready for it. As disingenuous as China's claims of a "Chinese form" of democracy are (the Chinese Communist Party obviously has a vested interest in creating the appearance of democratic rule without actually making itself vulnerable to genuine political challenges), it's true that cultures have to find their own way to self-governance.

Yet if Smith is right, President Obama is as ignorant of — or more likely, as impatient with — that indisputable truth as most of his predecessors going back a full century.

If you're cynical you can chalk up all our presidents' zeal for nation-building (of other people's nations) to the overweening influence of big business. Major corporations have a long track record of insinuating themselves into newborn nations and it's easy to see why they'd like the U.S. Army to make the job easier. Pressure from big business seems more plausible as a driver of (dumb) U.S. foreign policy than a president's own supremely naive zeal for democracy.

Smith convincingly makes out the Ukrainians as the latest victims of Western duplicity — a desire for ideological victory without a realistic road map, and at heart without the will, to make it happen.

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