Taking Action in Ukraine: Proceed with Caution

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A short speech, if we can find an honest politician to deliver it:

Good evening. I know it’s customary to say, “I’m pleased and honored to be here.” Honored I am, but also pretty uncomfortable, to tell you the truth. That’s because you’ve asked me to talk about foreign policy, specifically about Ukraine — and Russia’s apparent expansionism. The truth is, I don’t know quite what to do about all this. But here’s a secret for you: practically everyone else will tell you emphatically that he knows what to do. He doesn’t. I don’t, you don’t, and no one else really knows.

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That said, we’ve got to do something, haven’t we? Doing nothing is doing something, so we don’t have a choice about that. We have to do something.

obamaI want to tell you right up front that I support President Obama in this thing. I think he’s got a lot of dismal choices and no good ones, and he’s being about as prudent as we need to be. Popular opinion notwithstanding, he is doing something: imposing sanctions on the Russian economy. That’s not a very satisfactory thing even for him, I’m sure, because sanctions don’t necessarily work very fast. But they do work.

Will they work in time to prevent Russia’s taking over Ukraine entirely? Maybe not. Okay, probably not. What Russia does, however, can always be undone. It will take pressure, and that is what sanctions are — pressure. Even in the most despotic regimes, some measure of popular support is necessary to maintain power in the long term. Economic failure means the end of popular support, so Vladimir Putin has a stake in responding to the sanctions.

I realize that not many people in the United States are happy with this idea. I’m not thrilled about it, either. I just think it’s better than any of the alternatives I can think of. So let’s look at the alternatives, and let’s measure them against some criteria.

I think the first consideration should be: What is America’s genuine national interest in the matter? Second, we need to examine the history of similar actions and their outcomes. Then we need to ask ourselves the likely cost to America and its allies of any course of action, balanced against its gains. But there’s more than a cost-benefit balance here. There’s risk, which is very hard to calculate.

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Let’s take a couple of examples, starting with sending economic aid to Ukraine, as some scholars suggest we should, and put the proposition to the test of each criterion I’ve mentioned.

pipelines-in-ukraine
Gas pipelines in Ukraine
(Click to enlarge.)

What is our interest in Ukraine? Is it the oil supply? The oil and gas flowing through the pipelines in Ukraine is from Russia. It’s Russia’s call whether we get to buy it or not, either way. Is our interest in the balance of power in Europe? Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and the fact that it borders NATO countries is immaterial. The Ukrainian government wanted to join the European Union, which seems to have brought on this problem. But the E.U.’s borders and NATO’s borders are not exactly the same. We have no obligation to protect Ukraine, and if the E.U. wants to do so then it is a European problem. To say we have a stake in a stable and democratic Ukraine is an empty bromide. To the extent it has been either stable or democratic in recent years, the current government wiped all that out.

All right, then. What happens historically when we provide economic aid to a country with a political problem in order to solve its political problem? I don’t want to be here all night, and you don’t want me to, so let’s confine the answer to Pakistan. To put it bluntly, we’ve been sending the Pakistanis money since 1951, and the number of dollars has ballooned in recent years. I ask you, what has it bought us?

The answer to that question also answers the cost-benefit question. That leaves risk.  Economic aid, I grant you, is a low-risk alternative.

saddam hussein
Saddam Hussein

There’s much more that some people want us to do. Some people actually want us to send our exhausted troops to the region. I’m not even going to talk about such a ridiculous idea. What about a more popular one? What about supplying arms to Ukraine to resist the Russian incursion? We do that sort of thing a lot.

The crucial question is what happens when we do. We supplied arms to the Shah of Iran. We supplied arms to Saddam Hussein. We bought arms for the Mujahideen, who turned them over to the Taliban to point back at our soldiers. And we bought arms for the Nicaraguan Contras. Need I go into that? Supplying arms sounds so right, and so easy. It works out so wrong, so often.

All things considered, I will counsel caution. What should we do? Well, really, now, what can we do, and why would we do it? Those are the questions.

Thanks for your time.