Russia’s aggression in Ukraine has one big unintended consequence: it has sucked up all the oxygen supply to policy-making in Washington and other western capitals. We risk falling once again into the mindset of the Cold War when we viewed all international relationships through the prism of confrontation with the USSR. Our built-in disdain for fence-sitting – we condemned it as ‘neutrality’ in those days – had consequences, mostly bad, for U.S. policy. This led to a number of ‘own goals’. In the Middle East, for example, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles drove Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser into the embrace of the Soviet Union. We overthrew Iran’s first democratically elected prime minister; a fact that Mullahs still use against us with their own people. We coddled dictators, including some very brutal characters, and tolerated outrageous actions by ‘anti-communist’ allies that harmed U.S. interests, i.e., the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus. American diplomats of that era quickly learned that advocating democracy was not career enhancing when democratic elections might lead to the wrong guy winning. I had first-hand experience of this when I served in Nicaragua during the regime of ‘Tachito’ Somoza, an imbecilic brute. When the Cold War ended we found a slew of open wounds that still undermine our interests; Afghanistan being an excellent example.
This policy made some sense then. We were engaged in a world-wide confrontation with the Soviet Union, a nuclear-armed Superpower we deemed capable of making a grab for world hegemony. We needed allies for a titanic confrontation that, if badly played, could have ended humankind. We had a good case for holding our noses. We do not have the same excuse now. We are now engaged in an indirect confrontation with a third-rate ex-superpower that has trapped itself in an unwinnable war with a smaller neighbor. Unlike Stalin’s USSR, Putin’s Russia lacks both competitive military power and a seductive ideology to offer the world, unless one can describe ‘kleptocracy’ as an ideology. The Ukrainians have acquitted themselves well on the battlefield and hold the upper hand diplomatically. Putin’s dreams have become a nightmare – NATO has displayed amazing unity and this week, Sweden and Finland, the last remaining neutrals bordering, Russia have asked to join NATO. The United States and its allies are providing Kyiv the military equipment, reinforced by economic pressure on Russia, sufficient to potentially force Moscow to negotiate. It has cost us peanuts relative to the size of our economy. Russia will emerge from this self-inflicted debacle weaker and less influential on the world stage. In fact, we should worry that it is not so weakened that it falls into China’s orbit.
We need to take a breath. Otherwise, we risk elevating the Ukraine war to the existential levels of the Cold War. We do not need to pressure other countries to feign moral outrage and enforce the economic actions we have taken against Russia; we are winning anyway.
The Biden administration came into office championing democracy and human rights, America’s most winning appeal. Unfortunately, we have reacted to Putin’s aggression by reverting to Cold War opportunistic policies. President Biden had called Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salam a ‘pariah’ for the savage murder of an American journalist and demanded he stop his brutal war against Yemen, which has killed and starved far more Yemenis than Putin’s war in Ukraine. Instead, we send official envoys to placate him and get more oil flowing. (NB: He said No!). If we want to get more oil flowing, fast, we should revive the nuclear agreement with Iran, which has 110 million barrels of crude oil we blocked stored on tankers that can sail for Europe tomorrow. It will also stop Iran refining nuclear-bomb-making material and lessen the likelihood or another Middle East war. Instead, we seem frozen in place.
Turkey’s autocratic leader, Recep Tayyep Erdogan, had so angered the United States – the list of his actions is too long to enumerate here – that we cut Turkey out of key defense programs. Erdogan has played the Ukraine crisis artfully, tantalizing us with his supposed influence with Putin, and selling (not gifting) military equipment to Ukraine while offering safe haven to the yachts of Russian oligarchs. Despite the Ukraine war, Erdogan has attacked Kurds, jailed more politicians, and doubled down on military and rhetorical provocations against Greece, i.e. brazenly overflying inhabited Greek islands for the first time. He also hinted he may veto the Swedish and Finnish applications to NATO unless they stop offering sanctuary to Turkish Kurdish refugees. In return, the United States appears to be discussing how to get back in Erdogan’s good graces. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has exploded once more, thanks to the misguided policies of the previous administration. The major U.S. diplomatic effort required to keep the lid on has gone AWOL in Ukraine. We just issue anodyne statements. Wannabe autocrats are slowly strangling democracy in previously democratic countries. No matter how Ukraine turns out, the neglect of these and other crises drifting out of control will come back to bite us.
Our only real ‘peer-competitor’ adversary, to use the current jargon, has benefited from our relative lack of attention. China has played the game carefully and quietly, supporting Russia but signaling that the support has limits, while signing an agreement for a naval base in the heretofore pro-western Solomon Islands, deep in the American zone of influence in the Pacific.
We do not need to spend all our diplomatic capital chasing every country in the world to impose economic sanctions on Russia. The outcome will be decided on the Ukrainian battlefield, and we are doing a great job there. We have to attend to other challenges in the world before they get out of hand and weaken our ability to deal with China.