Ukraine Illustrates The Danger Of Entrusting Foreign Policy To Top Men
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Ukraine Illustrates The Danger Of Entrusting Foreign Policy To Top Men

The past two days have revealed the dangerous ramifications of the narrow-minded foreign policy elite in Washington, and a media establishment that has for so much of President Obama’s tenure accepted the statements of the administration as gospel. Just as we learned the dangers of the lack of a questioning element – a healthy, serious, skeptical voice in the room – within the administration of George W. Bush, so too we see the consequences of a narrow viewpoint on global affairs which now exists within the Obama administration.

As Eli Lake outlines, the decision of Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine came as a sudden shock to a Washington that less than a day earlier had dismissed such possibilities:

On Thursday night, the best assessment from the U.S. intelligence community—and for that matter most experts observing events in Ukraine—was that Vladimir Putin’s military would not invade Ukraine. Less than 24 hours later, however, there are reports from the ground of Russian troops pushing into the Ukrainian province of Crimea; the newly-installed Crimean prime minister has appealed to Putin to help him secure the country; Putin, in turn, is officially asking for parliament's permission to send Russian forces into Ukraine. It’s not a full-blown invasion—at least, not yet. But it’s not the picture U.S. analysts were painting just a day before, either… U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence on the fast moving situation in Ukraine tell The Daily Beast that analytic products from the intelligence community this week did not discount the prospect of Russian provocations and even light incursions in the Russian majority province of Crimea, the home of Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea. Nonetheless, until Friday, no one anticipated a Russian invasion of Ukrainian territory.

These officials were not alone. At Foreign Affairs, the headline was “Why Russia Won’t Invade Ukraine”; at The New York Times, “Why Russia Won’t Interfere”; and at Time, “No, Russia Will Not Intervene in Ukraine”. Joshua Tucker at The Washington Post has already had to change the now-ludicrous title of his post, explaining:

Those who have already read this post (including the first 15 commentators below) will know that I originally posted with the title “5 reasons for everyone to calm down about Crimea”. Developments in the ensuing hours have shown how poor a title that turned out to be.

It’s no surprise that, given the echo chamber of the media, the administration itself gives all the signs of being caught flat-footed, unable to adjust to the situation that runs against their preconceived notions and those of the chattering class:

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu on March 1, telling him that there was 'no change' in the U.S.'s military posture toward Ukraine in the hours after Russia's parliament approved a Russian military presence in Ukraine.

If this is the sort of foreign policy anticipation that the establishment delivers, it’s little surprise that no one trusts America’s self-styled policy elites any more. They are too used to judging the world according to the patterns toward which they are already biased, as opposed to seeing it as it is.

As for the situation in Crimea itself: while the 1994 Budapest Memorandum does not require that the United States enter into this current conflict, as it is not a formal treaty, it does make the situation for the Obama administration a great deal more complicated than, say, the 2008 situation in Georgia. The Ukrainian situation has a nuclear subtext which matters in the broader context: because Ukraine had to surrender its nuclear arsenal as part of the 1994 agreement, U.S. inaction now sends a signal that nations ought to maintain their nuclear arsenal as opposed to trusting the Americans to defend their legitimacy. The mix of Polish, Turkish, and Russian interests here make for an all the more dangerous situation given the spillover potential of a major crisis.

What ought to be a first priority in this context is the administration’s opportunity to position itself as ready to use the leverage of international economic policy and energy policy to dissuade the Russians from their current trajectory or, at least, loosen Putin’s stranglehold on European energy markets. U.S. law currently prevents American energy producers from freely exporting natural gas or crude oil to anywhere even remotely near Europe. To remedy this glaring economic and geopolitical mistake, the president (who has shown no qualms about using sweeping definitions of executive power in other areas) could issue blanket executive orders declaring all US natural gas exports to be in the “public interest” and all crude oil exports to be in the “national interest”, the applicable legal standards for both commodities.

While immediate gas exports directly to Europe would be limited by a lack of U.S. export facilities (thanks, again, to glacial government policy), crude exports could begin instantly and US gas could be exported thru Canada and Mexico. At the very least, these moves would serve as a significant signal to global energy markets and to the Russians that the United States fully intends to use its newfound energy abundance to stabilize global markets and counterbalance Russian influence across the Atlantic. At best, they might actually help to weaken Russian energy oligarchs and, by extension, Putin himself.

Senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, who have both recently expressed support for US energy export liberalization (Cruz especially), should take up this message at once. It represents an opportunity to use expanded trade freedom and American economic might to prevent further loss of life and signal the United States’ seriousness on the matter, without firing a single American bullet. And, unlike the United Nations or the World Trade Organization, it is a step that can be done unilaterally with, quite literally, the stroke of the President’s pen.

In the meantime, at least the president himself is taking it seriously.

Smart power, indeed.

Photo by Secretary of Defense
Ben Domenech is the publisher of The Federalist. Sign up for a free trial of his daily newsletter, The Transom.
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