Dangerous ‘Toughness’ on Ukraine

A grave danger from false narratives like the one on Ukraine now dominating the U.S. news media is that they give rise to disastrous policies, such as the idea that the only possible response to the crisis is American “toughness” against Russia, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The rhetorical drumbeat from rightward portions of the commentariat, to the effect that Russia’s moves in Ukraine should be attributed to a supposed pusillanimous “retreat” of American power and to adversaries responding by becoming more aggressive, shows no signs of abating.

It continues even though, as Robert Golan-Vilella nicely explains and I have noted, the historical evidence simply does not show that the world works that way and that other governments make foreign policy decisions that way.

Ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

Ex-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice

The impetus for the drumbeat includes broader habits of exceptionalist thinking about American power and the more specific political objective of disparaging Barack Obama by blaming him for just about everything going wrong in the world. The theme regarding the latter objective is that Obama is weak and unassertive, this notion being basically a continuation of the mythical “apology tour” that Mitt Romney used to talk about.

An opinion piece by Condoleezza Rice illustrates another, complementary motivation, which is to try to paint over the failures of past policies that have laid claim to being strong and assertive. Rice’s message is a simple one that more military spending, more obduracy, more militancy, and more deployments of armed forces are a good thing, and always will make others cower in the face of U.S. power.

There is nary a bit of analysis, even of the limited sort that would fit in the confines of an op-ed, as to exactly how any specific policy implied by what she is saying would be, with respect to any of the topics that she quickly mentions, better than the alternatives.

Rice even still seems to be in regime change mode. She says, “We should reach out to Russian youth, especially students and young professionals. … Democratic forces in Russia need to hear American support for their ambitions. They, not Putin, are Russia’s future.”

So what conclusion is Putin supposed to draw, and how exactly is that supposed to influence his behavior or the behavior of any adversary anywhere else? Is he going to pull back from Crimea because our “reaching out” would cause his regime to totter? Hardly.

Give Rice credit for having the audacity to try to go on the argumentative offensive on some of the very topics on which she ought to be most defensive. One is the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The invasion, which was, as with Crimea, a Russian use of military force in a former Soviet republic, is Exhibit A for the proposition that the ostensibly tough policies that Rice favors do not dissuade people like Putin from doing things like that.

The invasion occurred in the last year of the George W. Bush administration, after nearly eight years of such policies. Yet Rice would have us believe that by sending U.S. warships to the Black Sea and airlifting Georgian troops back home from Iraq, a Russian goal of toppling the Georgian government was foiled (“an admission made to me by the Russian foreign minister”).

She blames the Russian military occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on lily-livered Europeans unwilling to take tougher anti-Russian actions, later exacerbated, of course, by Obama’s policies. She makes no mention of just what threat of military action was being communicated by U.S. moves, whether any such threat was credible given the consequences if it were executed, and what those consequences would be (a U.S.-Russian land war in the Caucasus?)

Rice says “signs that we are desperate for a nuclear agreement with Iran cannot be separated from Putin’s recent actions.” That’s an odd formulation to begin with, given that Russia is part of the diplomatic coalition, as a partner of the United States, that is negotiating the agreement, so Russia must be just as “desperate.”

And if one looks at the negotiations as not just an exercise in demonstrating toughness or weakness but instead in terms of their actual objective of placing strict and verifiable limits on Iran’s nuclear program, Rice again is quietly whitewashing recent history. The Bush administration, uninterested in doing any business with Iran, blew an opportunity to limit that program when there were only a fraction of the Iranian centrifuges spinning that there are now.

The preliminary agreement reached last November is the farthest-reaching restriction on the Iranian program ever achieved, with only minimal sanctions relief in return. If that’s desperation, we need more of it.

In trying to connect assorted messiness in the Middle East to Obama’s “retreat,” Rice refers to a “vacuum being filled by extremists such as al-Qaeda reborn in Iraq and Syria.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq was born, not reborn, as a direct consequence of the Bush administration’s war in Iraq. It didn’t exist there before, and since the U.S. invasion it never went away.

Now, in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Shams (ISIS), it has become as well the most extreme participant in the violence in Syria.

If one were to try to make an argument about connections between the crisis in Ukraine and reputations nurtured by previous U.S. policies, a more plausible argument, more plausible than the one about lack of toughness encouraging tough guys to make trouble, involves the Iraq War.

That act of U.S. aggression is recent enough that it still is a prominent detriment to U.S. credibility whenever the United States tries to complain about someone else’s use of military force against another sovereign state, including Putin’s use of force in Crimea. This damage is, along with ISIS and heightened sectarian conflict in the Middle East, part of the mess from his predecessor that Obama is having to deal with today.

As national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice had one of the most egregious failures that anyone holding that position could have: the absence of any policy process leading to a foreign policy decision as major as launching an offensive war. No meeting or option paper ever considered whether launching the war was a good idea.

Had there been a policy process, maybe the likelihood of some of the resulting mess would have been considered. That horrendous failure cannot be undone, but we can at least resist Rice’s later revision of history.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Dangerous ‘Toughness’ on Ukraine

  1. jo6pac
    March 11, 2014 at 11:03

    “We should reach out to Russian youth, especially students and young professionals. …

    Amerikas bankster can give them student loans since that program has worked so well here;) We have 2 rices and there is no difference.

  2. Jonny James
    March 10, 2014 at 13:50

    …and the current crop of sociopaths who advocate for more war crimes and treason are little different than this sycophant of power. With so-called liberals like Kerry, Clinton, Obama, Dr. Zbiggy B. and the gang, we don’t need no stinkin neocons.

    As I see it, Rice is simply rubber-stamping the Washington Consensus, nothing really different in substance, only style.

  3. Joe Tedesky
    March 10, 2014 at 13:15

    I cannot get over how Rice, Cheney, and the rest of those Neocons constantly talk from the point of their success. They have run up the national debt to levels unheard of prior to their time in office. They have the blood of so many innocents on their hands, and yet no one brings them to justice. Only in America could these warmonger’s get away with this by their use of their right wing media outlets. Oh, I forgot media is liberal…really?

    Here is a link to Putin’s news conference….keep it ‘Fair & Balanced’!


    • March 10, 2014 at 16:10

      Under our laws, the current President could have brought Rice, Cheney and the rest (including Bush) to justice but he was busy looking “forward” and thus neglected to uphold the laws and Constitution of the United States — so if a sitting President who, constitutionally, has the power to have done justice, decides not to, what recourse do we have? I often dream about winning hundreds of millions of dollars — one of the first things I would do is get some prosecutor or judge somewhere in the world to actually go after these malefactors (now including Obama) without let up. But even that effort that may have been closed off by the rotten treatment of Judge Garzon in Spain. These great banditti have the money, the influence and the connections in security services world-wide to make sure the rest of their disingenuous lives are not disturbed by us petty mortals, or matters of justice.

  4. sbo
    March 10, 2014 at 12:52

    Great post.

  5. March 10, 2014 at 12:03

    Who in their right mind would even listen to a person like Rice who was at the nexus of widespread international criminality, lies, and obfuscation? One would have to be literally insane or an amoral sycophantic dolt to even sit down next to her. She should have kept on with her piano training and become a professional musician, instead of trying to play the CIA’s grand “wurlitzer” of disinformation, propaganda and nefarious thinking.

    • Jonny James
      March 10, 2014 at 13:39

      Excellent point. This appears to be quite normal in our post-Orwellian world: war criminals like Henry Kissinger and Tony Blair are lauded as great men. Alan Greenspan (corrupt bank lobbyist) is still interviewed. The corporate media dictates who is supposed to be revered, we have no say in the matter.

      • Scherzo
        March 12, 2014 at 16:22

        She would have made a terrible musician.

  6. nmb
    March 10, 2014 at 11:01

    End of an era for the West

    The support of neo-nazis in Ukraine destroys the last pretexts and wakes up nightmares of the past


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