Foreign Policy Rooted in Wishful Thinking

Foreign Policy Rooted in Wishful Thinking
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For the briefest of moments Thursday, a certain cable news network stopped breathlessly reporting on the missing Malaysian airliner as if its disappearance is a harbinger of the end times, and turned to another news story of more lasting importance, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A brief summary of the dreary news of the day from that embattled nation ended with a mention of some thuggish behavior by extremists who represent a small faction of Ukrainian nationalists. The incident provoked a comment from the show’s host. I can’t find a transcript of the remarks, but as best I remember it went something like this: We’ve been told the Russians are the bad guys and the Ukrainians are the good guys but things are never as simple as we’re told. Sometimes America supports some pretty bad people.

Well, one thing is certain. Things are never as simple as many cable news hosts try to make them out to be. But in this instance, contrary to the opinion stated above, the conflict essentially is a contest between good and bad.

Russians, led by an impetuous, paranoid, corrupt and dangerous man, invaded a neighboring country without just cause. Ukraine did not threaten Russia’s security or legitimate interests. Vladimir Putin invented threats to ethnic Russians in Crimea to justify the invasion. It’s the kind of manufactured casus belli that acquisitive tyrants have historically used to take possession of another country’s territory. All of this makes Russia, in point of fact, the villain.

The Ukrainians did nothing to provoke Russia other than replace a corrupt and repressive government and choose their own foreign associations. The interim government in Kiev has exercised great restraint in reaction to Moscow’s threats and provocations. It refrained from any military response to the invasion and annexation of Crimea. Its leaders have stressed their willingness to find with Russia mutually satisfactory means of coexistence. All Kiev insists on is the right to self-determination. That makes Ukrainians the good guys.

Yes, there is a party in Ukrainian politics usually described in the shorthand of Western journalists as “right-wing extremists,” even though right/left distinctions, as Americans perceive them, aren’t apt here. More accurately, they are a group of militant nationalists active in Ukrainian politics, who have been known to use violence and undemocratic means to achieve their ends. They are a small minority. There is no evidence to suggest they are exerting any real influence within the interim government, which continues to act with all the caution, tolerance and intelligence anyone, including Putin, could ask for.

To take a few isolated incidents and impugn the general character of the mostly democratic, nonviolent, and pro-Western Ukrainians is to turn victims into aggressors. That’s the job of Putin’s propaganda organs -- not American journalists. No doubt that was not what the cable host intended to do, but lack of seriousness ought not be a defense in journalism anymore than it should be in government, which brings me to another more serious concern.

It’s regrettable that cable news’ preference for sensationalism and superficial reporting, and the overt partisanship of some networks, is making it an unserious news medium. It’s regrettable, but in the end, who cares? There are still plenty of places to find important news reported thoroughly, intelligently and without fear or favor.

There are no good alternatives, however, to U.S. leadership in a crisis of this magnitude. Yet here we have the vice president of the United States hurrying to Europe trying to reassure skeptical NATO allies -- whom we are bound by treaty obligation to defend from attack -- that they can rely on us should Putin decide he would like to acquire parts of their countries. NATO’s charter asserts an attack on one member is an attack on all members. For over 60 years, every member of the alliance had confidence in that guarantee. Now, not so much.

That’s what comes of five-plus years of a mostly rhetorical foreign policy, where the president seeks to woo the world with words, but where deeds rarely follow and wishful thinking passes for strategy. Now, as the president threatens a tough response to Putin’s aggression and then announces a modest sanctions regime barely worth the trouble, while administration officials warn that more threats and tougher sanctions will be forthcoming unless Putin gives back that which has cost him almost nothing to take, no one, friend or foe, seems to accord it much weight.

The president who ran for the office boasting he would restore seriousness and realism to American foreign policy has conducted the least serious and most unrealistic foreign policy in living memory. His pronouncements barely make an impression even on cable news anymore and are mocked by apparatchiks from Damascus to Moscow.

Putin is probably not done with Ukraine or with Moldova or maybe even Poland and the Baltics. Europe is hedging, uncertain where to turn for leadership. The slaughter continues in Syria. Iran is watching. China is watching. The world is watching an American president’s words go forth and scatter like dandelion spores in the wind. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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