American Hawks Risk Escalating the Ukrainian Crisis

The question is whether President Obama has the backbone to withstand the pressure to "get tougher" with Russia.



With Russia and the United States confronting each other over Ukraine, the world is at a dangerous juncture. While the chances of war between the two behemoths seem small—these are, after all, nuclear powers that have avoided war for over 60 years—nothing can be taken for granted. No one wanted the Great War that began in central Europe a century ago this year either, but things can get out of control. Governments are run by human beings who, perhaps more than others, are tainted by arrogance, vainglory, and the fear of humiliation.

What's most worrisome is not what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing in Crimea and threatening to do in eastern Ukraine. Not that Putin's actions are good or justified—they are neither. What's most worrisome are the actions of the U.S. government, which could aggravate the conflict.

U.S. regimes from George H.W. Bush onward have done their utmost to demean Russia and its rulers. In violation of Bush's promise to Mikhail Gorbachev, NATO expanded its membership to include states formerly part of the defunct Soviet Union's empire and publicly talked about admitting both Ukraine and another former Soviet republic, Georgia. The United States has also cut deals with former Soviet republics in central Asia, further putting Russian rulers on edge.

But despite these aggressive U.S. actions, Putin should not have escalated the Ukrainian conflict by sending troops to Crimea or obtaining his parliament's authorization to invade the rest of Ukraine.

No government is to be trusted, and among the most fearful components of government is the military. Thus Putin's moves toward mobilization are to be condemned by all who love peace and oppose war. Any war would kill innocents and run a high risk of careening out of control. For that reason, Putin's responses to events in Ukraine merit the contempt of all decent people.

But Putin alone cannot heighten the risk of a big war. That would also require certain moves by the Obama administration. President Barack Obama talks about imposing sanctions, which is bad enough. The question is whether he has the backbone to withstand the pressure to "get tougher" with Russia.

This pressure comes from the usual hawks, like the dependably opportunistic Republican senators John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), as well as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. Obama, we're told, is naïve, playing marbles while Putin plays chess. Do they not see the hypocrisy of supporting America's preventive wars while condemning Russia for violating another country's sovereignty?

The theme of the Obama-goading is that Putin wouldn't have dreamed of intervening in Ukraine had America not "retreated from the world."

The problem with this claim is that it is utterly without foundation. There has been no U.S. retreat from the world. After pointing out that Secretary of State John Kerry has both asserted and rejected the retreat claim, foreign policy writer John Glaser commented, "I can't think of one single place in the world where the United States is withdrawing."

Not only is the U.S. government exerting influence, however ineptly, in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, it's been heavily involved in the very location under examination, Russia's backyard. (I agree that Russia should not attempt to control its backyard, but how many Americans believe the U.S. government should stop trying to manage its backyard?) As Glaser writes,

Our State Department has helped usher in a change of government in Ukraine, as Washington continues to compete with Moscow for influence in a post-Soviet state that is of no vital interest to the U.S. Across Europe, in countries like Germany, Italy, Greece, Belgium, et al., Washington maintains military bases and continues to push for the expansion of NATO.

Yes, indeed. Talk about bringing Ukraine and Georgia into NATO is heard once again. NATO, which should have disbanded along with the Soviet Union, operates on the principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all. Imagine if Georgia had been a member when it fought with Russia over South Ossetia in 2008. Imagine if Ukraine were a member now.

It's unlikely any good would come from more U.S. intervention. Obama should pull back and resist the confrontationists. 

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. The theme of the Obama-goading is that Putin wouldn’t have dreamed of intervening in Ukraine had America not “retreated from the world.”

    What pisses me off is that the usual GOP chickenhawk media is citing Obama’s cancellation of those ridiculous trillion dollar “missile defense systems” in Poland and Czech Republic as evidence of his supposed “retreat”.

    The spineless Krauthammer is one of them. What a jackass. “Small government” my ass.

    1. A missile defense system which not only would not stop Russia troops in Georgia or the Ukraine but which US officials have said would not do much to stop Russian missiles.

      1. They’re not especially confident of its effectiveness against hypothetical Iranian missiles, either.

        1. The Russians seem quite confident, otherwise why would they care so much if we waste millions?

          1. No one wants to underestimate a potential adversary’s weapons systems; that’s just basic military science. I think they’re also more concerned that the system’s radar would be monitoring their airspace.

            You might recall that the Russians proposed a joint missile defense radar station at an existing facility they rent in Azerbaijan, which would have been cheaper, politically positive and actually in the theater we’re supposedly worried about, but that was turned down, and doing so didn’t exactly build trust.

          2. It’s not that they think our system would work, it’s the big American dick that we would be waving in their face – from their backyard no less. It has nothing to do with it’s actual effectiveness or lack of effectiveness, but it’s perception.

    2. Calling Krauthammer is real classy.

      1. spineless

    3. My god, did I wake up in another universe? I agree with Tony’s Shriek Plug. Yes, chickenhawks.

      And did you see the neocon Lorax Bolton at it today? I wish he would really go away.

  2. No government is to be trusted, and among the most fearful components of government is the military.

    True. As well as the police, and the legislature, and the courts…

    1. NATO, which should have disbanded…

      DING! Another winner.

  3. Do they not see the hypocrisy of supporting America’s preventive wars while condemning Russia for violating another country’s sovereignty?

    No. A true hypocrite cannot see it.

    1. “No. A true hypocrite cannot see it.”

      Correct. Obo is blind to many things other than his own power.
      He’s famous for ignoring his blatant lies.

    2. It’s not really hypocritical, though. The hawkish point-of-view, as Putin demonstrates, is to consistently pursue the best interests of your own nation. On one day that may require invading, and on the next condemning an invasion. I’m not saying I agree with it, but it’s only “hypocritical” if you insist on mistaking diplomatic gestures for reality.

  4. U.S. regimes from George H.W. Bush onward

    Sheldon, the worst thing the US did to antagonize Russia was bomb Serbia. And that wasn’t Bush. That was Clinton.

    If you are going to write on these topics, you might try to know the background a bit more or at least be less sloppy with your language.

    1. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but Clinton was “onward” of Bush I.

      1. Yes, My mistake. Missed the HW.

      2. Although that brings up another interesting point, WTF did Bush I do to “demean Russia”? Not help prop up the Soviet Union?

        In fact, relations with Russia were quite good until Kosovo. Where does Richman get this idea?

        Is it just out of the fog of leftist crap he no doubt learned in college?

        1. Might be the Soviet Union / Russia distinction.

  5. And Reason didn’t seem so concerned about Putin’s feelings when Obama was fucking with him over the gay laws and the Pussy Riot case.

    I agree with you that it is a bad idea to antagonize Russia. But Reason seems to think doing so is bad except when it involves gays or libertine punk bands.

    1. Defending the principle of inalienable human rights – such as laws suppressing particular points of view under threat of state force – is bad when it involves being nice to homos. Got it.

      If you want to say anti-discrimination laws are bad, fine, but let’s have some consistency.

      1. You miss the point Susan. It has nothing about whether Russia’s gay laws or treatment of Pussy Riot were right. They are not. But right or wrong the US and the President in particular grand standing about them most certainly antagonizes Russia.

        Russia seizing the sovereign territory of Ukraine is wrong too. Yet Reason is all of the sudden concerned about antagonizing Russia where they were not before.

        1. Maybe but how much, really? Twitting Russia about something we have no control over and they won’t change just makes Putin look like a hero standing up to the Godless west (my how times have changed)and doesn’t cost us anything.

          War is kind of pricy and complicated. We’re wading into ethnic and political tensions stretching back hundreds of years. Intervening just makes a mess of a situation we can’t comprehend. It’s not necessarily about antagonizing Russia and more playing a deep political game.

  6. Also need to point out that this great expansion of Russia involves

    Two small break away areas of Georgia which on their own won defacto independence in 1991 after a civil war where each side was trying to ethnically cleanse the other.

    The Crimea which has been a Russian military base since before the US was a country.

    1. ^Russian Army only goes places where it has popular support. Russian Army is not all that awesome, and going places where it is hated by population (like West Ukraine) will end badly for it. Even in Chechnya, they stick to bases and administer the republic through pro-Russian Chechens.

    2. How is that relevant? “It was ours until just yesterday” is pretty much always the pretext for this sort of invasion. Russia wants to regain territory it once controlled under the USSR or the Czars. Of course they do. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care.

      1. Russia may want a lot of things, but realistically, it can accomplish very little.

  7. What seems to be ignored here is that it is NONE OF OUR DAMN BUSINESS.
    It is the business of Russia, Ukraine and I’d say the Euros and I think all three of them ought to figure out what to do.
    Meanwhile, let’s get on with trying to figure out a way to permanently disable most everything the liar in the WH has done or plans on doing.

    1. Ukraine is literally the most corrupt country on earth. If Putin annexed the entire country, it would usher in an era of comparative good government.

      There are some places in the world worth standing up for. Poland and the Baltic states would be two examples. Those countries have made something of themselves and are productive members of the world community. Ukraine is none of that. If Poland or Estonia fell under Putin’s control, the world would be a much worse place for it. If the Ukraine did, the only difference would be Ukrainians might notice their local government officials are marginally more honest.

      I wouldn’t risk a missed golf outing to save Ukraine.

      1. I guess you haven’t seen the women there….or perhaps you’re not the chivalrous type.

  8. When did Neville Chamberlain start writing under the nom de plumes de poulet Sheldon Richman?

  9. “I can’t think of one single place in the world where the United States is withdrawing.”

    What is Guantanamo, chopped liver?

    1. Did he miss the news about Iraq?

      1. We also left Grenada, and I think Panama is devoid of US Troops now.

        Are we still in the Phillipines?

        1. Sort of, but nothing like we used to be.

        2. Ha! John and UCS — It’s “*is* withdrawing”!

          1. Okay. But that makes it a pretty meaningless statement doesn’t it? By that logic, we could end our military presence abroad entirely and Sheldon could still make that statement.

    2. errr, yes….yes, it is…

  10. Speaking of red lines, what’s with the new comment box color in the mobile version of HyR?

  11. OT – Joe, the Patron Saint of Urban Planning from Lowell appears to have possessed Mrs O!…..ce-in-fla/

    1. “Tell him he could get hit by a car will get penaltaxed by the IRS. It’s crazy. They don’t think about that kind of stuff.”


    2. Per the hed, the obligatory:

      …in some of America’s toughest neighborhoods.

  12. It doesn’t matter what option Bozo McFlappyears goes with; his foreign policy record indicates that he will bungle it and make matters worse.

    1. And if we get lucky one more time, Putin will save our asses and Obo will claim victory.

  13. Honestly I think this is stupid.

    NATO and the US are not going to put boots on the ground in Ukraine for anything and Putin is not going to invade Poland or the Baltics or Germany for anything short of that.

    The hawks and doves can squawk all that they want but at the end of the day Nukes dictate that Putin is going to be able to do pretty much whatever he wants to do in Ukraine with virtually no risk of it leading to a broader world war

    The real risk to the west is that they will puff up their chests and draw a line in the sand, one which they obviously could not enforce and when Putin shows that it will weaken our attempts to diplomacy elsewhere as the rest of the world starts to see us (rightly or wrongly) as paper tigers

    1. Yes. The danger is we blunder into a war.

      I said the other day is that the problem with internationalism is that it creates conflicts were none existed before and escalates regional conflicts into world conflicts.

      No one wants to or should want to go to war over Ukraine. It is Russia’s sphere of influence and there are doesn’t have to be international repercussions over this. Not every leader is Hitler and not every crisis in Munich.

      1. I doubt we blunder into war because of the nukes. What we will blunder into is global economic depression….

      2. “It is Russia’s sphere of influence”

        How very libertarian!

        Sorry you are now back to being slaves of Imperial Russia – but you are “in their sphere of influence”. So much for self-ownership.

    2. You’re putting it kindly. Much of the world has far less flattering feelings for us.

      I have a feeling Putin’s envisioned Eurasian customs union could really take off, if enough other countries sign on to it, and the EU keeps doing what it does as badly as it always has. Frankly, I wish I could find an easy way to buy rubles, because that’s a great forex opportunity right now.

  14. John McCain…the Senator who would have had us intervening in Georgia. And the Russian troops are still there, and yet not one American can indicate any adverse consequence in our own country because of that Russian aggression.

    But McCain should indicate for all what Tom Coburn always demands about new expenditures…what budget offsets does he propose to pay for all these interventions? What weapons systems get cancelled, what bases get closed, or is it all funded by magic money, like it always is for the hawks?

    1. McCain’s not Coburn. Coburn even advocated offsets for federal relief to his home state after tornadoes. For McCain, one dollar less in military spending = terrorists/Russians/other baddie wins.

  15. “The United States has also cut deals with former Soviet republics in central Asia”


    Sheldon Richman here again dumbs “intervention” down to such a low bar that any form of foreign relations activity at all is considered ‘inflammatory’ or ‘demeaning’ or ‘aggravating’. Even our own hollow, impotent rhetoric in response to Russian meddling in the Ukraine is considered far too intervention-y. Anything short of Vulcan-esque dispassionate neutrality is considered blameworthy.

    Let’s recap =

    Sheldon Richman wrote more or less the same piece on the same day masked Russian gunman took over the Crimea. We are told that ANY DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS will only make things ‘worse’.

    (e.g. “It would be best if Russia and the EU did not press agreements on Ukraine”)

    To what should be his great satisfaction – the West has done nothing but hem and haw and stamp its feet. But no = we must now ‘pull back’ – retreating from a non-position, ‘check our attitude’ or something. Even our very ‘talk’ is commensurate with Imperialist Aggression.

    Never mind the Russian troops – no, our main concern is to avoid ‘aggravating’ a conflict with Russia, who has already demonstrated absolutely no concern at all with any gestures of any kind made by the West.

    The wonderful convenience of the Sheldon Richman Foreign Policy is that you really just need to change the date on the piece, flip a few names around in the “Do nothing about X! More is bad!”-mix, and voila! Dogma refreshed.

    1. OK, and what would you have Obama and Kerry do that would effectively stop the Russians?

      1. “creech|3.6.14 @ 12:04PM|#

        OK, and what would you have Obama and Kerry do that would effectively stop the Russians?”

        How dare you suggest that the US do any such thing!

        If you can’t see any distinction between,
        …then you’ve missed my point entirely.

        Sheldon was agitating for the former even before the Russians rolled in hot, and continues version 2 of the same piece the day Crimea votes to ‘join’ Russia at gunpoint.

        Do I (personally) think anything could be done to ‘stop’ Russia? No.

        Do I think there are ways we could make it so painful and expensive that in the end it becomes something they wish they never did? Yes.

        Do I think we *should* do those latter things? I don’t know. What I do know is that the entire point of Sheldon’s Foreign Policy is that we NEVER HAVE THAT DISCUSSION. Because his whole schtick is the advocacy of ‘non-foreign-policy’ where any activity aimed at bringing about any desired condition is wrong by *default*

    2. Beautiful.

  16. In related news = The Sheldon Richman Counseling Center for Abused Spouses has also released an update of its perennial best-selling self-help book:

    “Shut Up, Bitch! = Why Everything Is All Your Fault – and how to make better sandwiches”

    Now with new tips on = ‘Be helpful: lock yourself in the closet in advance!’ and ‘calling the police: how doing it a second time will kill you’.

  17. I call BS on the premise of this article. Just because some pundits and politicos are making noise doesn’t mean that it matters any or that we would act. We aren’t going to do shit about Crimea.

  18. I agree. A few more days of posturing then…..LOOK!! SQUIRRELS!!

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