Friday, October 16, 2015

Generations doomed to lives of misery

In an opinion piece at WaPo yesterday, the highly respected know-it-all (I mean this as a compliment) Fareed Zakaria suggested that a course of non-engagement—with regard to international conflicts or potential conflicts—can be a wise choice, indeed that it is almost certainly a better choice than any sort of military engagement.

Entitled "Stop Swooning over Putin," the piece begins by comparing current laments over Russia's increasingly active role today with unspecified similar laments from the seventies and eighties (when the Soviets were actively trying to extend their sphere of influence in Afghanistan and elsewhere). The point of Zakaria's comparison is that there is—in his opinion—no reason to worry, because the people who were worried in the seventies and eighties were concerned over nothing, as the increasing Soviet activity (it wasn't actually increasing at all) was followed by the complete collapse of the Soviet Union. Q.E.D., foreign entanglements are bad news forever and always, it would seem.

Zakaria goes on to cherry pick some other examples to reinforce his argument, including that of Otto von Bismarck, who opted to ignore the beginnings of the Scramble for Africa, for fear that it would weaken the German empire in Europe. The implication here, though not spelled out by Zakaria, is that Bismarck's choice was the foundation of a powerful and secure Germany. And maybe that's fair, to an extent. But Zakaria is overlooking context. Germany was a new nation, having essentially been pulled together by Bismarck through a series of wars and threats of war. Germany was hardly a secure state and Bismarck's actions had created a great deal of animosity among other European powers.

So Bismarck looked inward, he reinforced German defenses, built up its armed forces, and its industrial base. And with this solid base, Wilhelm II—when he came to power in 1888—did exactly what Bismarck did not: he pursued an international expansion of Germany's holdings and influence, from Africa to China and Southeast Asia. And to support this expansion, Wilhelm increased the size of the German Navy dramatically.

There are any number of ways to view the events that led to World War I, but one thing must be fairly noted: Germany gave its European foes all they could handle. And while Bismarck's approach played a role in the growth of German power, so did Wilhelm II's. Allowing one does not mean discounting the other and it's a major error to suppose this is the case.

Nonetheless, Zakaria criticizes recent interventionist choices on the basis of his Bismarck tale. From here, he turns to the Cold War and goes on to praise Eisenhower's lack of international engagement with the Soviets, while disparaging the choices of those who followed him:
The 1950s abounded with what seem in retrospect deeply dangerous proposals designed to demonstrate U.S. vigor — including deposing Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, military confrontations in Hungary and the use of nuclear weapons over Taiwan. Pundits were outraged that North Vietnam and Cuba had gone communist while the United States just sat and watched.  
In the midst of this clamor for action, one man, President Dwight Eisenhower, kept his cool, even though it sank his poll numbers. (The Kennedy/Johnson administration ended the passivity, notably in Cuba and Vietnam, with disastrous results.) I believe that decades from now, we will be glad that Barack Obama chose Eisenhower’s path to global power and not Putin’s.
This is all good and well, but Zakaria is apparently missing the forest due to all of the trees. Why were the Soviets in Cuba? Why were they pushing the envelope in Vietnam and elsewhere? Here's a clue: it's because the rest of the world—including the United States—let them. The rise of the Soviet Union is a case study in ignoring what is happening in another part of the world because it's not happening right next door.

Zakaria says the following:
Those who are so righteous and certain that this next intervention would save lives should at least pause and ponder the humanitarian consequences of the last three [Iraq, Libya, Yemen].
The Soviet Empire at its apogee
Okay, fair enough. Pause and ponder. But what about the humanitarian consequences of not intervening? Shouldn't we pause and ponder that, as well? A war-weary world ignored what was happening in Russia after the Russian Revolution in 1917. How many millions suffered and died during it and in the aftermath? Okay, let's chalk that up to an internal struggle, one that had to play out from within. But then what about the aftermath of World War II? Again, a war-weary world sat back and allowed the Soviets to gobble up Eastern Europe. Indeed, much of it was handed to the Soviets on a silver platter. Nations like Estonia, Romania, and Poland found themselves under the thumb of an oppressive regime for generations.

But hats off to the people who paused and pondered, who avoided any sort of humanitarian consequences by just going with the flow, right?

Look, I'm not suggesting that a failure to intervene here or there is automatically a mistake. But by the same token, ignoring international events and refusing to get involved for the sake of one's golf game isn't automatically a smart move, either.

Maybe Putin is nothing but a posturing blowhard and maybe his actions will cause more problems for Russia down the road. Then again, maybe Russia will successfully expand it's influence and create a new era of satellite nations. Sitting back and watching to see which way things go may be the high percentage play in a zero-sum game, but I'm thinking that a new empire is not going to benefit those who are forced into it, by and large. Because I'm pretty sure the Estonians, Poles, and Romanians don't look back at the Soviet Era with unbridled fondness...

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