Foreign Policy

Putin’s Shambolic Improvisation In Ukraine

Being Prepared Is Hard Work

Great artists know an essential truth about the road. Doing a one-off show is often harder than preparing a lengthy tour. True whether musically, theatrically or even politically. One date demands the same rehearsal time and clarity as a tour. A lot to ask for one gig. Far easier to wing things, hoping that charisma’s momentum and spontaneity will carry the day. History’s detritus shows a vast landscape of resulting tattered reputations – from humbled musical legends to self-immolating political candidates.

War, unsurprisingly, isn’t much different. Consider Tommy Franks’ war plan (albeit with OSD and OVP intrusions) 2002-2003. Jettisoning carefully prepared pre-existing plans, not only did he comparatively wing it, Franks did a two-for. He abruptly bugged out and retired in 2003 before mistakes became devastatingly obvious. Adding Wolfowitz’ last minute failure with Turkey for a northern front and one gets the point. Conversely, much of the American success in the Pacific 1942-45 famously grew from significant planning and thinking about amphibious warfare campaigns from the 1920s.

Germany 1935-45 also is a popular topic. Germany lost the improvised war on September 1, 1939. Yet German conceptual and economic preparations for an eventual intercontinental war with the US are often ignored by the still British-dominated historiography and certain cable channels. In the European context, Germany’s 1936-37 economic crisis spurred radicalization and thinking about a general war by 1943-45. Still, the Four Year Plan and industrial base began alignment in 1938 for the later ‘inevitable’ world war with the US. The Corporal’s improvisations within this vague overall strategic concept jump started events and doomed both.

Not everyone shirks planning and rehearsals. Even for a single gig. Led Zeppelin notoriously devoted an entire month in 2007 to rehearse a solitary 2 hour London show. Embarrassed after decades of calamitously unrehearsed ‘re-unions’, vanity demanded it.

So what of Putin’s War on Ukraine? We say it’s a one-off. And Vladimir Putin is no Led Zeppelin.

Putin, Russia, Rock, Empty Cabs, Russian Rock

We know Putin launched his attack on or about the night of February 22nd relying only on his closest advisors, meaning almost no one. Assurances from MFA/MID and other senior government officials at the time otherwise meant nothing. He invaded Crimea based on a war plan dating back to the late 1990s to secure the Black Seas Fleet. We completely disagree with non-specialists who argue that a 2013 speech on the characteristics of emerging war by the General Staff is a modern “Hossbach Memorandum”, proving Putin long planned a carefully considered war of aggression on Ukraine. Such allegations by casual observers and social media hype usually misunderstand the culture, nature and purpose of General Staff discussions, planning and Putin’s 2014 context.

Putin’s war began as a ‘one night gig’, not a world tour. Out of pique.

Maidan, Berkut’s rout, Yanukovich’s flight, and cascading Lenin statutes wounded his personal prestige. Maidan’s an existential problem. Putin interprets spontaneity elsewhere as purposeful direction by others. Perversely, American general passivity re Ukraine post 2008, ceding lead role to the EU, merely compounded the Kremlin’s insistence that the US is an unseen, lurking controlling force – a Rumsfeldian “unknown unknown”.

Putin shares the Soviet/Great Russian prejudice that Ukraine is an unstructured cultural and ethnic ecumene. (“It’s not a country, George”). Yet his emotional volatility and impulsiveness triggered his war. And control him still.

Putin accelerated general re-armament and Russian geopolitical aggressiveness with his 2012 rollback. The time horizons for overall re-structuring targeted 2018 through 2025. Tellingly, for Ukraine in 2014 Putin’s government took no real advance (even clandestine) measures specifically to prepare the Russian economy, social sphere or even military force posture. Instead, he revealed prematurely Russian infowar/mass media and special forces tactics. Russia’s confused, self-defeating reactive response to even mild Western sanctions underscores the point. Much GRU success in Crimea simply is due to unopposed operations using extensive local Russian networks.

Like many improvisers, Putin started lucky. He gained Crimea without a shot. The history books can now say he expanded Russia, unlike Stolypin. For a narcissist this is non-trivial. His agitprop at home inoculates him against Maidan. Had he stopped there, March 2014, he paid no costs. Berlin, Paris and elsewhere “understood”. Granted, unarmed Ukrainians surrendering to Spetznaz in Crimea created a tragi-comical high school troupe re-enactment of a mini Koniggratz. But an ideological win is a win. Look at Grenada.

Catch Me Now I’m Falling

Putin’s mistake was to continue. Euphoria’s high. Even now he’s still groping for a landing. Zigs and zags since March show he’s trying to assert authority over Ukraine and Russian elements who sparked his worst instincts, trying to use Putin to ignite their own dreams of domestic radicalization.

Ukraine phase two after Crimea attempted a ‘spontaneous’ uprising across the country. We’ve detailed how it and subsequent escalations failed. Novorossiya ideologues supported by Russian special forces and mercenaries acted out racial, ahistorical and emotionally revanchist themes. Ukraine itself became a prop in a larger ideological agenda.

By May, Ukrainians clearly defeated Russia’s overall “hybrid war” bum rush. Almost all regions stayed loyal to Kiev. Yanukovich’s Party of the Regions largely stood with Kiev, rejecting Moscow. Even in the Donbass, the most lawless, pro-Russian, neo-Soviet region, Russians found little native support.

Putin suffered first public loss of personal control then. Russian Donbass fascist and orthodox activists with their Russian sponsors ignored his explicit public wishes. Soon they began to criticize Putin’s refusal to escalate more troops directly. Worse, these same Novorossiya ideologues were screwing up on the ground in Ukraine beyond international atrocities like MH17. They were losing despite Russian reinforcements.

Putin began switching from the passenger seat. Until then, Putin for a period genuinely seemed sensitive to his fascist, nationalist right, including referring to Novorossiya in March. Eventually, the Novorossiya idealogues’ continued public, personal disloyalty and failures forced his hand. They weren’t going to help him find answers but give him problems.

Putin instinctively turned to loyalists. On example is Surkov. Besides being a Kremlin grey cardinal of political manipulation, Surkov before March 2014 served as an emissary to Ukraine. In this role, he vied with neo-fascist sympathizer ‘economist’ Glazyev. Glazyev, besides calling for destruction of the world dollar economy and Russian autarky, is friendly with the well known nationalist/neo-fascist Izborsk Club. Novorossiya ideologues rightly saw Surkov’s ascendancy on Ukrainian issues as their defeat.

Surkov gives Putin discretion, loyalty and cynical political savvy – he knows how to make deals. Glazyev makes Rogozin look like Warren Christopher. Speaking of Rogozin, he too was sidelined when Putin personally assumed control of the VPK, replacing Rogozin as chief of the military industrial commission. (Putin’s direct role became essential and inevitable with sanctions. Political and economic tensions within the VPK and Ministry of Defense required his personal engagement as final arbiter anyway).

The Kremlin began to seek cracks in the ultra-nationalist/fascist wedge, too. Well known Kirginyan, founder of the uber-nationalist “Essence of Time” movement (among the 20 plus neo-fascist groups in the Russian constellation), aggressively disagreed with National Unity, Dugin, Girkin/Strelkov and a host of others over Novorossiya and the Donbass as a Putin cut out. Significantly, he did it in public and with media coverage.

Putin also canned a few senior and mid-level security officials (in part for particulars, in part to send a signal). The Power Ministries? Firmly his. He also rejected a major demand of the Novorossiya ideologues and neo-fascists. Since April they clamored for a larger domestic radicalization against so-called “Fifth Column” traitors who disagreed with war and escalation. Putin announced on national TV there would be no general purge of the so-called ‘Fifth Column’ (Russian fascists also identified sixth and seventh columns in the Kremlin, too, if you’re counting). Some Western observers missed the importance of Putin’s brief comment, hungry for more sensational news to tweet. Russian ideologues saw the writing on the wall.

By mid-Summer Putin still had no plan but attended to specifics. First, Dugin was fired from his professor’s chair. His entire department at Moscow State University also purged of like-minded. Significantly, court jester Zhirinovsky took Dugin’s place in an exquisite demotion of Dugin twice over. Dugin blamed Surkov which is to say Putin.

Putin’s broom also swept the Donbass. Girkin and the whole Novorossiya lot recalled and now twist in a vague, quasi obscurity. The intended message? What happens in Donbass will be because the Kremlin made the call, not idle orthodox radical oligarchs, an odd club and hired atavistic re-enactors. Putin’s replacements included an Old Guard from 1991 Soviet crackdowns and later Moldova’s frozen conflict. Will Putin’s deck clearing work? The jury’s still out. (With overt Russian military in the Donbass, Putin trimmed freelancing but also increased direct responsibility).

By August, Putin saw an outline of a plan. He attempted to nail his exit and smell his rose. He jettisoned the Novorossiya ideologues’ earlier dreams of bum rushing the whole Ukraine as in April. He settled for protracted negotiations over Donbass. His signal to the West? From Yalta in Crimea in early August. Before his government and international journalists, Putin veered far off standard Russian cant and declared Russia desired a unitary Ukraine, an independent country, a cease fire and federalization. These words are spikes through the heart of the Novorossiya ideological project.

Zhirinovsky specifically was assigned to sit on stage with Putin, playing again in the assigned court jester role. He trots out all of the fascist Novorossiya arguments comically, only to be cut off. Putin rolls his eyes in front of all several times before rejecting the Novorossiya ideology as merely Zhironovsky’s personal passion. Putin underscores those views are not official Russian state policy. Naturally, Putin can’t and doesn’t allow this to be televised at home. Its audience was abroad.

Breaker, Breaker Do You Read Good Buddy?

Putin’s stumbling included a stab at improbable role of humanitarian hero. Russia media ramped a concerted campaign to launch him and cast the Donbass in that light. “He’s above making war; he cares.” The Kremlin typically surveys Russians more extensively than an American presidential campaign with voters in October. He knows Russians don’t want body bags (Cargo 200) coming from Ukraine. Hence the initial humanitarian Potemkin Convoy for Russian TV. Was it a workable plan? Putin forgot Ukraine and the international community wanted a vote. Putin’s intended PR victory lap became an embarrassment. The convoy sat idle, mired in delays, the trucks exposed as empty.

We said at the time the convoy’s mission was (1) PR optics for Russian domestic politics; (2) exfiltration of men, casualties, equipment & evidence; and (3) a replay of Germany post May 1945 re seizure of capital plant. A little of all occurred, but Putin’s improvised hero moment fizzled out. Still, he did not escalate militarily. Ukraine’s ATO controlled Luhansk, most of the Donbass except for Donetsk and the extended pocket. Merkel, criticized at the time, travelled to Kiev in August to caution Poroshenko about over extension.

Denied a hero role, Putin in sullen mood then went to Minsk in August to meet Ukraine’s Poroshenko, Lukashenko (Belarus) and Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan). It was an inauspicious day. Putin offended the other presidents from his own micro Customs Union. Already high tensions only grew. Poroshenko then forgot Vladimir Putin’s personal truth: everything is personal. Unfortunately, Poroshenko and the Ukrainians were perceived as acting as though the ATO already secured victory. Russians claimed to be annoyed by Ukrainians’ alleged difficulties clarifying if a bilateral Putin-Poroshenko meeting would occur and when. When the two met, a bad day got worse. Poroshenko left to the Ukrainian embassy to give an address, blowing off a planned wrap up session with all four presidents. Ukrainians spun the day as a success; the Russians hinted Putin took it all as a series of personal slights.

The next day the Russian army overtly entered Donbass in moderate force without pretension and assaulted Ukrainian volunteers exposed and unsupported by the Ukrainian military. Luhansk fell. Poroshenko finally saw the difference between an ATO and a focused military campaign. On TV Poroshenko claimed 60% of forward-deployed Ukrainian military equipment was destroyed. For domestic reasons, Putin slapped the Novorossiya label on the now much stronger Russian position in Donbass. The title gave a sop to sidelined Russian ideologues calling for troops; really, Putin now claimed Novorossiya for himself, personally.

Many in the West misunderstood Putin’s move post-Minsk. Tactical escalation didn’t herald an imminent, wider offensive into Ukraine. (Mariupol was the first clue). Putin still undermined his own clumsy PR by boasting he could take Kiev in 2 weeks. Russian is complicated with subjunctives. Without hearing the conversation, our sense at the time was Putin tried to brag his position. “Look, I’m standing where I am. Don’t you think if I wanted to take Kiev we would have done so already?” As with most Putin self-puffery, it rings hollow. The Russian Army fully mobilized would be pressed. Domestic Russian tolerance for war and casualties is already low. And of all peoples, the Russians should know taking something and holding it are worlds apart.

We’re essentially back at Yalta. Putin called Poroshenko’s ATO bluff and raised the ceasefire ante. Putin flirts with dangling a unitary Ukraine hobbled with pro-Russian federalization (Kiev rightly wants the much different de-centralization). Kiev controls far less of the Donbass than before Minsk and suffered extensive casualties. Amidst cease fire negotiations and provocations, Kiev must focus on the economy, which teeters. Ukraine’s capacity to function as a society must come first. Sustaining that beyond short term loans will require deep reform and anti-corruption.

Western aid is and will be vital, including less glamorous things like advising on General Staff reform and C3 issues. Ukraine’s westward story will be told in years, not months. Kiev should be realistic about non-political options for changing ground truth immediately. Weapons alone won’t be the answer.

Time to Pay Attention

Hello, He Lied

Will Putin settle for a frozen conflict now? Unlikely. Improvisers like Putin generally don’t know when to stop. The gamble is the next hole card an ace. Still, Putin needs this (temporary) truce as much as Poroshenko.

Putin will remain tactically opportunist. His position, allegiances and personnel can change for clear, short term gain. Ukraine should focus its priorities – on reform, economic progress and anti-corruption. That Ukraine, simply by existing, rebukes and threatens Putinism.

Putin’s still emotionally volatile. Following the Minsk Summit, he went out of his way to question his erstwhile ally Kazakstan’s sovereignty and national viability. The sizable number of Russian speakers there make a threat of another Ukraine resonate. The Baltic allies, too, see Russian provocations. Russian planes perform intrusive stunts from Alaska to Finland.

The good news? Putin’s overt war on Ukraine was and remains to date a largely unsuccessful one-off improv. The costs are still mounting. Western sanctions disappointed many but ample signs of impact are real. Raiding rival oligarchs for cash and assets already beginning. Capital outflow continues at staggering levels – $3,805 every second. The sober view? Putin’s larger quest to upend the Western order and undermine perceived American influence will continue in different guises, if not expand.

Ukraine withstood irrational, nihilist violence, propaganda and concentrated subversion. Almost everything Russia could throw. Putin’s so-called “hybrid war” to gain all or most of Ukraine on the roll failed. Ukrainian newborn nationalism fought Russia almost to a standstill in the most pro-Russian region outside Russia itself. Despite Ukrainian treason, local oligarch duplicity and surprise. Putin may spin his mess in Donbass a win. He’ll certainly keeping looking for the next hole card.

Kiev’s commitment to the West means Putin and Russia lost the real prize. That’s encouraging to all supporters of freedom along the periphery.

Play Russian Apologist Bingo!

We present to you “Russian Apologist Bingo!” Apologists for Russian aggression, lies and even lunatic screeds are everywhere. They’ll do about anything to defend Kremlin propaganda. From the infamous “Whataboutism” to “change the subject” or claiming that Ukraine tried to shoot down Putin’s plane and hit MH 17 (never mind Putin was in South America) — all their greatest hits are here. Play, won’t you?

Russia, Bingo, Propaganda

Can you spot all the Kremlin apologists’ tricks?

Nixon And The Dog Days Of August

Nixon is back, haunting every August as usual. This year he fights the centennial of the Great War for media mindshare. It’s an uneven match. Americans emerged almost unscathed from the first European civil war.

Relentless Pat Buchanan cuts and pastes his annual apologia. He reminds us:

Then he [Nixon] succeeded where liberalism’s best and brightest had failed. He ended the Vietnam War with honor, brought all our troops and POWs home, opened up China, negotiated historic arms agreements with Moscow, ended the draft, desegregated southern schools, enacted the 18-year-old vote, created the EPA, OSHA and National Cancer Institute.

Another reminder of how far we’ve come. The Nixon Center/National Interest can’t resist agreeing, too. Just attempting any of Nixon’s acts would galvanize the Movement to start impeachment calls. John McCain today would be against freeing John McCain.

Most striking? Nixon remained an internationalist realist even as America turned inward, indeed to his last day. Nixon advocated his views in both policy and practical political terms.

We’re certain Nixon would be baffled by Obama’s passive acceptance of the political status quo as setting limits on himself and the country. Nixon understood presidents are above all political actors. To lead they must engage political means to achieve their ends – beyond empty rhetoric. (We speak of his legal actions).

Obama believes politics is about judging others and declaiming rational choices. His job is to explain them, often as scold. Societies, however, require politics to address and somehow give meaning to the irrational as well. Aristotle understood we are all political animals.

His comments about Russia could be about anything:

But Obama says, quote, “people don’t always act rationally.” He says sometimes people don’t act based on their own interests.

True, the Movement after 2010 essentially destroyed functioning government beyond even the 1973-77 era. Obama’s passivity is a major causal factor there, too. We all together warned here in 2009-10 about the then embryonic Movement. We explained how Obama should act to co-opt, marginalize or impede it in early 2009.

The Obama White House publicly mocked the Movement, doing nothing, politically. And the Movement seized Congress and ended his presidency.

Nixon, Watergate, Vietnam

Obama sees the world as defining his limits, and thus ours. Successful presidents use politics to change the world and elevate us. Obama’s ISIL airstrike address this week merely another version of his earlier West Point address fiasco. At West Point, he may be the first modern president to “subtweet” his critics so passive aggressively.

Our Obama critique unfortunately remains true since 2007. He seems small today because he abdicated most of what makes a successful president.

In this sense, Obama is the anti-Nixon. And that’s not a compliment.

Putin’s New Style Of War Careens Off Course In Ukraine

Ukraine is dealing a strong setback to Putin’s allegedly novel model and doctrine of 21st century irregular war. Not because Ukrainian forces rout Russians and their allies in Ukraine and now control 2/3 of the Donbass.

Putin, Ukraine, ATO, Donetsk, Luhansk, MH17, War

Russia’s ‘new’ model of war escaped Moscow’s control. Putin understands it conceivably could evolve into a political threat inside Russia and even the faintest whispers of revolution. The regime could ignite war in Ukraine but not control its perceived domestic political impact on Putin’s authority.

We finally see the limits of Putin’s escalation. He will not risk even the perception of challenge to his authority. Of course, he still plays to win in Ukraine at some level. Ukraine will bear the brunt of his malice for years. And his global revanchism is unchanged.

Meanwhile, he refuses frantic demands in Moscow and from Russians fighting in Ukraine to commit formal Russian troops. Lavrov now calls for “a quick resolution” of the crisis. And Russian state controlled media is banishing Ukraine from the front pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda and changing tone, depicting Putin as face-saving “humanitarian” rather than war lord.

His personal, emotional obsession with revanchism remains. He still yearns to tear down the international order and gain his psychological revenge on Americans for the Soviet Union’s demise and his modest height (5′ 6″).

Putin is taking a walk because he no longer could control the nationalism and overt fascism he courted and stoked in through April 2014. Various ideologues surrounding Putin and their movements have always had more independence than most in the West understood.


Ukraine At War Spring 2014

Putin‘s war of aggression in Eastern Ukraine failed its original purpose: to replicate Crimea’s easy capture and herald the so-called “Russian Spring.” Putun must now play for time and bank on his ability to improvise better than Western passivity and derail the May national elections.

Ukraine, Putin, Russia, Sloviansk

The initial operation featured 100 Spetsnaz GRU special forces officers leading pre-identified networks of pro-Moscow forces in Eastern Ukraine. Joined by Russian citizens (“tourists”) flooding into Ukraine, the FSB and GRU operatives used the social smart phone app Zello, Twitter and other means to direct and rally ‘spontaneous’ pro-Moscow support. GRU intercepted calls reveal they were taking direction from Moscow-based PR agencies.

Stage one was to seize key Eastern cities such as Kharkov, Donetsk and Luhansk like in Crimea. Once secured, the Russians planned to spread west and south, backed by the threat of Russian military forces across the border. The plan didn’t work.

Ukrainians surprised Moscow by their resistance or passivity. Despite Moscow offering up to $100 a day to join a pro-Russian protest, no crowd ever topped 4,000 anywhere – in cities with a million or more population. Most crowds were pitifully small. More disappointing to Russia, Yanukovich’s old Party of the Regions, the main political force in Eastern Ukraine, largely supported a unified Ukraine with conditions. Some oligarchs also played a double or triple game with their patronage networks and private militias. Local police frequently were bought off, but local populations still remained inert.

Moscow used the Geneva negotiations to buy time. The Crimea model failed. But Moscow lacked reliable local cadres to pretend to be the face of an ‘authentic’ Ukrainian protest against Kiev.

In the new strategy, the GRU no longer hid its hand. Russians operated openly after taking over government buildings in Sloviansk and Donetsk, etc. Moscow discarded its hoped for partner in the Party of Regions. Russia is recruiting and activating more radical elements in the East, Ukrainians (and transplanted Russians) who despise not only Kiev, but the entire kleptocracy of oligarchs, Party of Regions, local government, etc. Organized crime in the East is also a natural partner, preferring lawlessness and disorder to a successful Kiev stabilization.

This new approach is a revolutionary step. Moscow not only is rejecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity but its existing institutional base – from political parties to local governance. Even pro-Moscow figures such as Kharkov’s mayor Kernes are abused as traitors and enemies. Eventually Kernes was shot and denounced in pro-Russia social media. Moscow is trying to build a new mass, radical political movement on the fly.


2014 And Limits Of New Romanticism

2014 And The New Romantics

We’re witnessing another New Romantic historical moment end. We see it wind down in domestic American politics, including L’Affaire Snowden. And in Kiev’s Streets. We turn our gaze from Syrian killing fields. Spontaneous, unorganized mass sentiment failed to create real change anywhere.

1848 Europe’s revolutionary, democratic moment and its lessons come to mind. Europe saw its widest ever democratic revolutionary wave quickly collapse into a Continental reactionary resurgence. Historical analogies should always be suspect, especially here. Yet, we can’t help but ask, “What comes next, now?”

The New Romantics Aren’t A Pop Group

Our last 15 years constitute a Romantic Moment. First it flourished with the Colored Revolutions’ early promise. Even elements of Americans’ manipulated arc in Iraq and Afghanistan floated on misguided sentiment. Mass sentiment erupted in Tehran, ignited the Arab Spring, Syria, rock both Thailand and now Ukraine, again. Obama’s improbable 2008 presidency and aftermath are part of the tableau, too.


Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Europe, Russia & Ukraine: Stumbling Waltz

Ukraine, much in the news, is essentially a failed (failing?) state. Yet everyone wants to have a dance with her. Who will be on the card?

The EU still seeks an association agreement after Ukrainian President Yanukovich’s last minute rejection at the altar. He faced severe Russian coercion and is inherently pre-disposed to Moscow and Putin’s neo-Soviet “Customs Union”. After pro-EU riots broke out in Kiev, the Russians declared it all pre-planned foreign manipulation.

Ukraine’s economy is a wreck. Its contraction during the 2008-09 global economic crisis the highest percent in the world. Its leading export is commodity steel. Yanukovich’s government has no love for economic reforms as demanded by the IMF as a precondition to financial support. Ukraine’s government is almost as dysfunctional as Washington. Yanukovich’s political position in parliament hangs by a thread. Demographically, Ukraine is also a quasi-basket case.


NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

NSA, Obama & Digital Vandals Shaping American Power

One of NSA Director Keith Alexander’s cruelest feats? Forcing some of his fiercest critics (us) again to defend American self-interest and the role and purpose of intelligence. Despite NSA’s (and the Community’s) wanton, flagrant contempt for both. If Neocons were America’s malignant Id at her moment of apogee, then as Nemesis follows Hubris, they ushered in her over soon decline. NSA and the Community, engorged on national security self-entitlement, scuttled behind as ever-present shadow.

We get no pleasure writing that. Nor seeing so much needless and perhaps irretrievable ruin in Snowden’s aftermath. Much of it gleefully celebrated by those who care nothing for American interests, privacy or otherwise. It takes a big man to bring down an epoch in American and global history, they say. So why are Alexander and Snowden perfectly, coevally so small?

Crushed Like A Spent Can Of Diet Coke

The seemingly ancient preceding post here about Obama’s first NSA-focused press conference reads quaintly now. We see in stark relief the cost of this Administration’s (typical) passivity. That’s not to excuse or diminish NSA’s stunning, profoundly stupid (and so totally unnecessary) transgressive acts. But we all should be clear about one distinction – intolerance for NSA’s transgressions is not embracing others’ attempt to exploit political fallout to see America diminished.


Death Of An Ambassador – The U.S. In A Ring Of Fire

Ambassador Chris Stevens and three colleagues’ deaths in Libya and Egyptians storming embassy walls underscore the Arab Spring was always the Arab Decade. Both events also should give further pause to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) sentimentalists blithely calling for military action against Assad.

Middle East, Libya, Egypt, Chris Stevens

Focus On Each Country And Its Politics

Contrary to many media outlets, we’re not convinced the infamous anti-Mohammed YouTube video proximately caused the deaths and riots. We believe local politics and intrigues played the key roles and the video used as an excuse or cover; blaming a video helps create an easily understandable overarching explanatory narrative. Comforting but unhelpful.

For example, in Cairo a handful of long-standing militant Islamists protesting outside of the embassy for months took advantage of momentary confusion to climb the embassy walls and plant their black flag. The next day, the Egyptian government eventually restored order. That delay raises worrying signals about the new Egyptian government’s intent.

In Benghazi it increasingly looks like an armed faction opposed to liberal democratic process pre-planned a coordinated guerrilla assault with mortars, RPGs and artillery fire. That now famous YouTube video clip mocking Mohammed at most served as cover and distraction. Attackers knew routines and consulate layout. Contrary to Neocon claims Libyans dragged deceased Americans through the streets, U.S. officials report 10 Libyans died defending the consulate and others hand carried the U.S victims to the hospital.

If you’re reminded of Sérgio Vieira de Mello’s assassination in Iraq, the purposes are not too dissimilar. U.S. resolve is certainly being tested. We support engagement in Libya yet believe the American people – for many reasons – have not been told the time and commitment and risk of non-engagement.

Questions about Libya carry over to Syria, too. As we noted above, Syria is a separate ethnic, economic and political mosaic. Even if force of arms ala Libya could be made politically viable, operationally it’s no Libya as you know Dear Reader – logistically and militarily. “Assad must go”. Even more than Libya, and then what?

As we said at the outset, the Arab Spring is really the Arab Decade. Each nation will take that long to work out its political institutions and new traditions – and likely will arrive at different answers.

Romney’s Lehman Moment?

Not much needs to be said here about Romney’s bizarre partisan public responses. You’ve seen the coverage. Craven? Irresponsible? Sure. But that’s been his M.O. during the primaries and to date on a variety of issues. When expediency is one’s polestar, one can’t expect honoring the tradition of bi-partisanship in the face of national tragedy.

That’s what John Galt would do.

Walt’s Top Ten Things To Prepare For Foreign Policy: A Missed Opportunity

Stephen Walt’s school season trend piece, Top 10 Things Would Be Foreign Policy Wonks Should Study (notice the meme-friendly Top 10ism) deserves a Gentleman’s C+/B-.

His list is safe. History? Check. Economics? And so on. Granted, Walt’s list is click bait for Volvo Moms and Dads driving Little Ones to a dorm for the first time. Walt still demonstrates after 2001-2011 that Realists aren’t about cadre-building or meme promotion.

Area Studies As Key For Foreign Policy

To be blunt, the American foreign policy field suffers from an acute and growing shortage of area specialists. At both undergraduate and graduate levels area studies sink further into eclipse. Abstraction permeates as ‘terrorism’ studies, ‘national security studies’ and yes, ‘foreign policy’ – even when seemingly rigorous with phony statistical analysis. Former Neocon militant romanticisms are temporarily quiescent. Yet their replacement as a dominant academic trend, for example, is the equally disassociated development theory. Area studies’ eclipse is particularly stark post-graduate.

Area studies’ empirical, granular focus on the specific was and remains the antidote for Neocon manipulated simplicities. One reason Neocons are so hostile to native language speakers, specific histories and facts in context. Indeed, to understand the Neocon war on what once was CIA (Soviets before, ‘terrorism’ 2001-2007) or the Foreign Service is to discover this truth.

Area studies is a relatively new concept in American foreign policy and academic thinking. For decades after WW II, American foreign policy cadres evolved from Euro-centric and British-derived experiences. Even Kissinger’s at-the-time novel Metternichian formulations a variation.

Area Studies, Stephen Walt, Foreign Policy

America began to invest in area studies really only beginning in the 1960s. Too late to impact the tragedy in Southeast Asia. Area studies briefly flourished. Even so, Americans prefer to substitute technology for area studies’ tedious discipline. Before it was FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Intercept Service), now it’s automated computer translation. George Schultz was probably the only Secretary of State to support and promote unreservedly area studies (given his Princeton and Stanford experiences).

The results? You know what happened in 2003-06. And later with Afghanistan, COIN and the bogus 3 Cups of Tea, for example.

Specific Quibbles With Walt’s List

Regarding Walt’s list, learning a foreign language is good discipline. Like playing a musical instrument. Languages develop memory and neural pathways. And any language creates linkages with another culture. As to which language? The romance languages are easiest but also least useful. Some languages are strategic and others aren’t.

Similarly, history without focus has little value. Unconnected with language and other studies, it’s utility for foreign policy is hit or miss. History does inculcate respect for facts. Yet, again, some history yields more returns than others. The last thing a job applicant and the Nation need is another forced march through McNeil’s “Rise of the West”.

‘Economics’ similarly on its own has only tenuous connection to foreign policy, empiricism or professional advancement. We agree that most foreign policy ‘wonks’ understand economics like a GOSPLAN apparatchik. So some quant work good training.

The key is again to seek comparative studies. To recognize that other non-Western prisms are effective, such as the initial and widely copied 1955-1989 Japanese phenomenon, the Soviet (for a time) and current German managed export-led growth.

Economics as taught in American schools is ideology cloaked by the trappings of rigorous empiricism. Aside from quant training, economics’ true value is placing Anglo-American ideology-cum-‘science’ in perspective with other regions. One can then grasp the global implications. Comparative economics will reveal how others have succeeded in overtaking the American/British ideological fixations. So yes, learn macro and micro theory. It’s useful as a beginning. But to be useful for realism or foreign policy? More.


We understand Walt’s list was a toss off and possible troll bait. A conversation would likely develop quickly into nuance.

Similarly, our emphasis on area studies is perhaps addressed best at the post-graduate level. But our central point remains: a French-speaking (say Foreign Service level 2), European history major with a smattering of pareto-efficient economics and ‘counter-terrorism’ studies does little to advance their career, realism or what the Nation needs.

Freshmen and parents, listen to us. There’s always time in life to become generalists. The best ones have tactile and specific training.

Too harsh?