Misunderestimating Thucydides: Why Crime[a] and Punishment for Russia will only get the West so far

Whenever I’m perplexed after reading something in the news, I typically turn to a much older set of papers for some context and sometimes, for some inspiration. As told by Thucydides:

The good faith, Lacedaemonians, which characterizes your political conduct and private intercourse towards each other, makes you the less disposed to hearken to what may be said to the prejudice of others; and from this, indeed, you derive a sober-minded moderation, but you labour always under a great misconception of the affairs of other States.

Thucydides was recounting the Corinthians’ address to the Spartan Senate, where they were comparing the Spartans with the Athenians. To the Corinthians, Sparta assumes that since they have a working constitution and a way of life that suits them well, they do not have to change their ways to confront this new issue: the growth of Athenian power. While this attitude is seen as being “moderate,” the Corinthians point out that this shows a kind of ignorance when it comes to foreign affairs.

Whether this account of the Corinthians addressing the Spartan Senate is 100% accurate or not is inconsequential. What it reveals though, is a recurring pattern in History: States and their leaders, try as they may, often misunderstand or do not consider the goals, actions and intentions of other States and their leaders. What does this have to do with Russia?

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you'll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

The idea that allowing the Russians to hold onto the Crimea suggests some huge decline in American power is strange, considering that in 1989, the United States’ power only reached as far as Bavaria; and if you look at the map below this one, you’ll see that it now surrounds Russia on almost all sides.

Post Cold War

Voice: “Knock knock”
Putin: “Who’s there?”
Voice: “NATO”

We’ve treated the Russians as a potential threat since the 90s. We’ve expanded NATO to its doorstep, and we’re working on building missile defense systems in Eastern Europe, all to their protest.  And then comes Ukraine, where the U.S. and a coalition of Western governments backed and encouraged protesters that led to the overthrow of a sitting president that kept close ties with Russia, which was soon replaced by an interim government hostile to Russia.  What did Putin think about all of that?  Could this happen to his own government; was Kyiv a dress rehearsal for Moscow?  I suppose you’ll have to ask Putin himself, but it’s likely that he at least entertained the thought.

You’d expect American policymakers to at least try to understand Russian concerns about Ukraine joining an alliance with traditionally adversarial powers (i.e. greater cooperation with the E.U. and NATO). Obama pundits have made the argument that the President invited this crisis in Ukraine because he didn’t take a firmer stance on Syria and chose to pull out of Iraq.  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Even if Obama had bombed Syria, he still would be faced with this situation in Ukraine, and he would have been holding the same cards.  Perhaps pundits forget that the last President’s “firm stance,” a rapid expansion of the National Security state and invading two countries, did not stop Putin from invading Georgia.   Russia’s move in Georgia in ’08 and Crimea today is understandable if you accept that most powers do not like hostile governments on their borders and that most powers are always looking to maintain or grow their sphere of influence.  After all, the United States is deeply committed to the Monroe Doctrine, which warns other great powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere, or else.  Like how Canada and Mexico are to us, Georgia and Ukraine aren’t just any states close to Russia’s neighborhood; they’re on its doorstep.  Over here, we live in a country with the Atlantic to our West, the Pacific to our East, Mexico at the bottom and Canada at the top.  That’s geography, and it’s not changing.  We have it pretty good over here.  If you’re Russia though, with Germany and NATO on one side, China on the other, and Japan breathing down your neck, it’s a different story altogether.

So the polls are in and we moved to another stage of this Crimean crisis: the Crimean Parliament declared independence from Ukraine, 97% of Crimean voters favored joining Russia, the Parliament formally asked Russia to join the Russian Federation, and the Kremlin signed legislation sealing the deal. Crimea is gone.  Whatever comes next, we have few options to “punish” Russia, at least in the short term, and Putin knows it.

For one, the Europeans aren’t super excited about “crippling” sanctions; London and Cyrpus really like all of that Russian money in its banking system, and from what I’ve gathered, major arteries that feed Europe’s natural gas supply flow through Ukraine, from Russia.  And all of the Western governments are trying to pass legislation to secure a bailout for Ukraine, but when has our Congress ever agreed on anything, especially when right now we’re looking for things to cut, not add to, the deficit?   And if the history of sanctions has taught us anything, it’s that regimes are willing to endure a tremendous amount of pain to secure what they see as their vital interests.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports.  Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

Germany relies on Russia for three-quarters of its oil and gas imports. Sanctions on Russia could be painful for everyone.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t implement the tools that we have and are willing to use.  But it seems to me there’s little we can do about Russia’s annexation of Crimea.  Economic sanctions?  Installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe?  Seizing assets of Putin’s friends?  Giving the Ukrainians foreign aid [and who aren’t exactly innocent in this affair, and are only united by their hatred for Yanukovych and Putin]?  Go for it.  But the reality is we’re not going to war over Crimea, and Obama has publicly stated that we will not go to war over Ukraine.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying Russia is “back.”  Mitt Romney’s comment on Russia being America’s “number one geopolitical foe” falls short (but Obama was also wrong to snub him the way that he did).   This is not to say that Russia doesn’t matter, but let’s not give them too much credit: Russia may be playing geopolitical chess, but he’s playing defense.  This move in Crimea was a move made from weakness.   Ukraine has slowly been moving away from Russia, and inching toward the West.   The West hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Europe hasn’t lost Ukraine.  The United States hasn’t lost Ukraine.  Putin lost Ukraine, and he knows it.   So to save face he took a short term gain (Crimea, and saber rattling towards Eastern Ukraine) but a long term loss, and Russian influence over the rest of Europe will suffer.

Formal Ukrainian elections are going to be held in May, and it’s unlikely that any new government will be a Yanukovych; but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be respectful to its [Russian] minorities and nudge Russia on with provocative gestures.   The reality is that the stability of Ukraine cannot be guaranteed with at least some level of cooperation with Russia.   After all, Ukraine is “the borderland.”  Point is, we can talk about punishing Russia all we want, but decent relations with Moscow are imperative.  We need their help with Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and soon, maybe even China. Anyone who thinks this is just about Ukraine has to stop thinking like a lawyer and more like a strategist.  Thucydides would’ve understood that.

Sidenote: Though the current crisis in Ukraine is complex, we should remember that everything can always be worse.   As per an agreement signed in Budapest in 1994, Ukraine has gotten rid of all their nuclear weapons, and just two years ago eliminated all of their weapons-grade materiel.  A document signed 20 years ago prevented this from becoming a nuclear crisis. And now that’s one less thing we have to think about.

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Deal With it: Hopes, Realities and Egypt

I wake up every day combing the headlines, looking in the news for a car bomb that went off and killed dozens in Cairo. But not yet. Not today. This isn’t to say that I’m hoping for one, but let’s not kid ourselves here, we know what is coming. Both sides in Egypt know what is coming. Too many souls have been taken to go back to pretending nothing happened. Everyone has blood on their hands.

The standoff between Egypt’s military and supporters of Mohammed Morsi has left hundreds of people dead and thousands injured. Here are some takeaways from what has happened in Egypt in recent weeks:

1. Even if we do cut off aid to Egypt, don’t buy the argument that if we do that the ISF will all of a sudden start a war with Israel. Even without our help the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces, c’mon guys, get with the acronyms!) would embarrass them. Both have an interest in maintaining a stable Sinai Peninsula and Suez and maintaining good relations with the United States. If anything, expect Israel to further their ties with the ISF and reaffirm their commitment to their security relationship in the absence of U.S. support.

2. In anticipation of our cutting Egypt off, the Saudis and the rest of the Gulf monarchies all pledged to commit billions in funds and armaments. And so did our friend, Vladimir Putin, with “no strings attached” by the way. That means more influence for geopolitical and regional rivals, less influence for us.

3. The removal of one man does not mean the removal of his regime. The ouster of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt just two years ago was not the ouster of the regime Mubarak oversaw: here, I’m talking the Armed Forces, the police, the Intelligence apparatus (and the secret police), the cartels composed of the privileged and the elite who have their hands in the economic hand-basket that we see going to hell, among others. These people, these networks, are what I am calling the “regime.” They have a vested interest in maintaining their positions in Egyptian society, and I do not see them simply disappearing because of some popular elections. They, particularly the military, remain the true powerbroker of the state system in Egypt. In truth, the “revolution” we saw two years ago was not a revolution. A revolution is a fundamental/complete change in the established order. The “revolution” people have been talking about hasn’t actually happened, at least not yet.

4. Building off the previous point, the military is the only institution capable of holding the Egyptian state together. And they are not leaving anytime soon. For reasons mentioned above, the Arab world (in this case Egypt, but the MENA region in general) did not have the roots of liberal democracy that could take over during the Arab Awakening. There have also not been many modernizing autocrats who built broad, educated middle classes that could organize themselves and eventually effectively take control. The only two parties that have that sort of discipline and structure is the ISF (military) and the Muslim Brotherhood. If you cannot entertain even the thought of that-which-was-just-mentioned, I really don’t know what to say.

That being said, militaries are often quite reluctant to get involved in the long-term, day-to-day governance of a country. It’s too complicated and messy. The determining factor is whether or not there are any groups or institutions to hand that role over to. After what the Muslim Brotherhood tried to pull over the last year, they have reason to be cautious and uncertain.

We think of democracy as the standard, the measure by which we assess a country’s progress. But progress is indeed possible without democracy preceding it. Take Latin America as an example: for all of the horrible things Pinochet and his cronies did in Chile, he played into our anticommunist containment strategy fairly well. At the same time it is safe to say the country as we know it today would be nothing if it weren’t for the reforms he strong-armed through. It is now considered one of South America’s most stable and prosperous nations, and a liberal democracy at that. But the former came first. The same can be said of Fujimori of Peru, who helped eradicate the Shining Path, the Maoist terrorist group, and put Peru on a path of economic growth that makes it as competitive (in conjunction with several other economies) as China. And although he has stood trial for crimes against humanity, the name Fujimori is revered; in fact his daughter is a member of the Peruvian legislature and almost won the Presidency in 2011 (she lost in a runoff by 3 percentage points). Look to Asia for more examples. China, Japan, Singapore, India; they have their share of decades of strongmen, dictators, and shady democrats with authoritarian tendencies, but the kicker was that most of them were modernizers. Think Nehru, Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping; these were people who focused on building infrastructure, both physical and intellectual. This, coupled with entrepreneurship and an export-led economy is a chief reason why we’re seeing a rising middle class in these countries. A strong middle class and relative political stability are precursors to a peaceful transition to liberal democracy (that is, if that’s what the people want. Citizens of Singapore for example seem to be content with their situation).

All speculation aside, as I remember my history, our own revolution was not an easy transition either; it led to a bloody civil war a half century later. We seem to expect that others will do it differently. I don’t know of any society that has changed without struggle. We didn’t. The Russians certainly didn’t. The French didn’t. Neither have any of the African states or most of the Asias ones. In the short history of mankind, we seem to spend a good deal of time either plotting to conquer or kill each other. If you think Egyptians won’t do the same, I challenge you to pick up a newspaper and tell me I’m wrong.

Out with the Old, in with the Coup: Reflections on Morsi’s Ouster

Ok, so if you’ve been living under a rock this week, you’d think that the people of Egypt are hijacking our 4th of July celebration! The truth is, even if you haven’t been living under a rock for the past week, you may come to the same conclusion.

Egyptian military (SCAF) chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi (pictured above), announced on July 3 that the country’s president, Mohammed Morsi, had been removed from office in the wake of public, but largely popular, unrest in the streets. The number of Egyptians protesting, some 33,000,000, was the largest number of protesters in a political event in the history of mankind (that I know of).

[The now] Ex-President Mohamed Morsi was a political unknown a year ago; he was not a great statesman. But in Egypt’s first popular presidential election, Morsi was the torch bearer for the Muslim Brotherhood and won 51.7% of the popular vote. The organization, which was founded in Egypt more than 80 years ago, had been banned for decades, most notably suppressed under the rule of Hosni Mubarak, has dreamt of ruling Egypt and the rest of the Islamic world.

Hosni Mubarak (former decades-long ruler of Egypt, now behind bars and rocking some sweet shades)

In the eyes of many that day was a great day for Egyptians; the people voted, and a party that was persecuted for most of its existence was actually elected and trusted by a majority to govern the country and bring the people’s demands for bread, freedom and social justice to the forefront. And it’s not like the SCAF, who were skeptical of the democratic alternative to Mubarak, intervened and didn’t give the Brotherhood a chance to rule. The SCAF gave Morsi and the Brotherhood a chance to rule; in fact they gave the Brotherhood a whole year to rule and the party publicly failed on its own merits over the course of that year. Perhaps the military chose not to intervene when the Brotherhood did win so as to prove to everyone that they were not fit to rule Egypt (that’s speculation of course).

Mohammed Morsi, the man of the hour.

The Brotherhood was elected with a slim majority (51.7% means that 48.3% voted for somebody else) and in the technical sense of the phrase, they “totally blew it.” Morsi and the Brotherhood assumed power and adopted a hardliner, exclusive approach to governing. They ignored a crippling economy, failed to ensure basic security and protection of minority groups, and refused to include other parties (even other Islamist groups) in a coalition government that we in the United States and other Westernized democracies, perhaps take for granted.  In the end, the Muslim brotherhood led Egypt down the path of Islamic despotism and economic decline. But I guess since the Brotherhood took all the power, they can take all the blame.

That being said, I think the recent events of this week set a dreadful precedent for the region’s future. It encourages the people to get rid of their elected leaders by disrupting their rule as opposed to voting them out. It goes to show that the people were more concerned with Morsi’s failure to govern rather than with the democratic process. The thing people have been calling “democracy” in Egypt though isn’t the democracy we think of; this is mob rule, democracy in the rawest sense of the word, and probably one that Aristotle would think of (pull out your Freshman-year Political Science notes). But let’s not kid ourselves here and think that what’s happening now in Egypt is in the interest of ALL Egyptians. If you think that, then you probably think that the millions of supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood live on the moon. Well, they live in Egypt too, and they also have interests, interests that they tried to force on others with no checks or balances. And that’s politics for you: factions and societal and economic pressures all in one pot that must be reconciled and sorted out. It is a constant struggle, and even some of us in the United States grow impatient of our own political struggles. Maybe Egypt isn’t quite ready for this experiment we call “democracy” yet.  Now before you all get offended by this, I think democracy for an unprepared populace could be far worse than a Mubarak. Even Thomas Jefferson, a great American hero and a father of our Republic, agrees with me here.  In a letter to Lafayette after Napoleon seized power, quelling the chaos of the French Revolution, Mr. Jefferson wrote (as an intellectual exercise, pretend he’s writing to someone in Egypt now):

“A full measure of liberty is not now perhaps to be expected by your nation, nor am I confident they are prepared to preserve it. More than a generation will be requisite, under the administration of reasonable laws favoring the progress of knowledge in the general mass of the people, and their habituation to an independent security of person and property, before they will be capable of estimating the value of freedom, and the necessity of a sacred adherence to the principles on which it rests for preservation. Instead of that liberty which takes root and growth in the progress of reason, if recovered by mere force or accident; it becomes, with an unprepared people, a tyranny still, of the many, the few, or the one.”

A few more takeaways and things to look for/expect in the near future:

1) Don’t think just because the Muslim Brotherhood was booted out that all is ok now with them. Expect the Brotherhood to keep resisting and push back against this move by the military; they will not forget.

2) The people protesting in the streets were all united in that they wanted Morsi and the Brotherhood out, but that’s about all they really agree on. The future will be a struggle of their competing interests. Unfortunately for the politics of the Middle East, most countries have a “winner-take-all” policy.

3) For decades, since the Cold War to today, the military has essentially ruled, approving and backing an individual or a party.  This is primarily because no military wants to be involved in the day-to-day affairs of running a country. The military has and will remain the primary source of power in the country, as with many countries, and will throw its weight behind any party or coalition that will see to managing the political economy and as such, limiting unrest.

4) Washington cannot do much to shape Egyptian politics right now, even if it tried. And for many reasons, it shouldn’t. I’m not going to say anything more about that point

I call upon the Egyptian people to prove me wrong. I would wholeheartedly welcome that. I sincerely hope that this coup is more akin to the one we witnessed in Portugal in 1974 than the one in Algeria in the 1990s. But as with all things though, time will tell.