July 28, 2015

Huckabee’s Self-Destruction and Potential Collateral Damage

  9:41 am

Most folks here on the interwebs are familiar with Godwin’s Law: as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of comparisons involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1. Apparently, Mike Huckabee would like to apply that law not only to the internet, but to Republican primary campaigns as well. On Sunday night, Huckabee uttered these now-famous words when discussing the deal with Iran:

This president’s foreign policy is the most feckless in American history. It is so naive that he would trust the Iranians. By doing so, he will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.

There’s no problem with the first two sentences in Governor Huckabee’s response. With the final sentence, however, Huckabee simply goes off the rails.

When the Iran deal was announced, I wrote here that it seemed like an awful deal and it could present some low hanging fruit for the GOP candidates looking to attack Obama — provided they could communicate their opposition effectively. Huckabee’s comments represent the exact opposite of that, with the Governor choosing perhaps the most ineffective communication possible. What should have been a slam dunk issue for the Republicans has now transformed into a controversy and yet another reason for independent voters to not listen to the GOP. Instead of talking about how awful the deal is, or how awful the Iranian regime is, Mike Huckabee has single-handedly made this a conversation about how awful Republicans are.

The second half of Godwin’s Law is less well known than the first, but equally applicable: as soon as you invoke Hitler or the Nazis, you lose the argument. And it is quite clear that Huckabee has lost the argument, as evidenced by the firestorm he created (and illustrated by the responses at the bottom of this post — apologies in advance for the language). Of course, Governor Huckabee doesn’t see it that way: after doubling- and tripling down on his comment, he said this about being attacked:

Huckabee dismissed the backlash around his comment as proof that “I am a much, much bigger deal than I think people thought I was.”

Wow. We can apparently add “delusional” and “prideful” to the list of epithets used to describe the Governor. Huckabee truly seems to be attempting to out-Trumpify Donald Trump on this one.

Huckabee will inevitably be asked about his comments during the first debate next week on national television, and when he is, a national audience will inextricably link opposition to the Iran deal with Mike Huckabee’s inflammatory rhetoric — essentially taking the issue off the table for any of our more reasonable candidates. The Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, could not have asked for a better outcome on this front. They are now able to dismiss critics of their foreign policy as crazies, on the same side as Mike Huckabee.

It doesn’t matter how salient of a point you think Huckabee had; he chose to communicate it in a mind-numbingly poor way. The metaphor failed on two important levels: first — and although I do not believe this was Huckabee’s intent, it is still true — it directly compared Obama to Hitler (“He [Obama] will march them to the door of the oven.”). Those kinds of comparisons tend to work extremely well in politics — just ask President Kerry, who defeated George W. Bush after the Democrats went around in 2004 calling him “Bushitler”. Even then, it’s impossible to imagine John Kerry making the comparison himself. A comparison like that is simply out of bounds for, and beneath, any serious presidential candidate. And secondly, the metaphor fails because it takes a very painful reality for millions of people and exploits it for political points. Even supporters of Mike Huckabee, such as Fox News’ Geraldo Rivera, recognize that the Governor really stepped in it this time:

Geraldo Rivera started his questioning [of Governor Huckabee] with “I love you”…

Now, not only is Huckabee suggesting that Obama is pushing Israelis and Jewish people at large toward a new Holocaust, but he is presenting himself as something of an eyewitness expert on what exactly that looks like: “When I talked about the oven door, I have stood at that oven door. I know exactly what it looks like.”

After that comment, Rivera pushed Huckabee to apologize for using the Holocaust in political rhetoric. “This was the systematic attempt by an industrialized nation to wipe out a race of people. That is different. That is unique. You may not go there, and I’m begging you to apologize and to retract that,” Rivera said.

Let me reiterate Rivera’s words, because they echo the sentiment of millions of Holocaust survivors and their families: “You may not go there. I’m begging you to apologize and retract that.”

But Huckabee’s response? “I will not apologize and I will not recant.”


Huckabee became known early on as the candidate who attacked President Obama’s parenting. Then he stood up for and defended a child molester. Now, he is digging in his heels on Holocaust/Hitler comparisons even though people who love him are begging him not to. Huckabee’s campaign has, thus far, been a textbook example of how not to run for President. The GOP is left hoping that independent voters are able to separate Huckabee from the more serious candidates when it comes time to enter the voting booth.


November 24, 2014

Rand Paul Calls for Declaration of War to Combat ISIS

  12:09 pm

From The New York Times:

Senator Rand Paul is calling for a declaration of war against the Islamic State, a move that promises to shake up the debate over the military campaign in Iraq and Syria as President Obama prepares to ask Congress to grant him formal authority to use force.

Mr. Paul, a likely presidential candidate who has emerged as one of the Republican Party’s most cautious voices on military intervention, offered a very circumscribed definition of war in his proposal, which he outlined in an interview on Saturday. He would, for instance, limit the duration of military action to one year and significantly restrict the use of ground forces.

Unlike other resolutions circulating on Capitol Hill that would give the president various degrees of authority to use force against Islamic militants, Mr. Paul would take the extra step of declaring war — something

Full story here.

Related: Hagel OUT as Sec. Def.


August 12, 2014

The Big Lie: George W. Bush Caused the Rise of ISIS

  8:33 pm

The Big Lie in the debate over the chaos unfolding in Iraq is that somehow, the rise of ISIS would not be occurring were it not for President George W. Bush’s ostensibly indefensible ‘war of choice’; that by removing Saddam Hussein and participating in an ill-fated ‘nation-building’ project, we fostered instability and created a vacuum for ISIS — now called the Islamic State — to fill. Take away the Iraq War (and bring back Saddam Hussein), and, according to the likes of David Axelrod, we wouldn’t have to deal with this problem, since it wouldn’t exist.

It is simply a lie. Saddam Hussein, one of history’s bloodiest tyrants, was never a source of stability, and, unlike other former Arab autocrats like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, he was never ‘our bastard’; he was a longtime geopolitical nemesis and a clear threat to peace for as long as he remained in power. Saddam Hussein invaded two of his neighbors, fired SCUD missiles at a third, used chemical weapons on Iraq’s Kurdish minority, and funded regional terrorism. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed the bipartisan Iraq Liberation Act into law, making regime change the official stance of the United States toward Iraq. (As non-interventionists never tire of pointing out, yes, we did cooperate with Saddam Hussein — once, in the 1980s, when we simply determined him to be the lesser of two evils in his war against Islamist Iran).

Iraq under Saddam Hussein would have been a breeding ground for the likes of ISIS. Like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, Saddam Hussein was a Ba’athist, a secular strongman who sometimes allied with Islamists against common foes, but had little in common ideologically with them. Like Assad, he would have been a ripe target for Islamist ire during the Arab Spring, and would have likely responded in a manner much like Assad. Hillary Clinton is right that Syria poses a ‘wicked’ problem to the United States. Right now, Iraq does as well — but Assad’s fate — and his willingness to use chemical weapons against the people he claims as his — mirrors what an Iraq run by Saddam Hussein would surely look like right now, holding all else equal.

Of course, it is not necessary to hold all else equal, because, upon the recognition that the Maliki government clearly was not equipped to deal with terrorist threats to Iraq, the United States should have never abandoned the country. It is true that the government wanted us to leave — but that should not have mattered; Iraq owes the existence of its government to us, and our mission there was not primarily a humanitarian one, but was conducted for national security purposes. Do people suppose that Angela Merkel wants tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in Germany, or that Japan likes being denied its own military? Surely not. But Germany and Japan posed a threat to the United States and to the world order once, and we decided that it should never happen again — and we meant it. So it should have been in Iraq — but President Obama decided that his desire to fulfill an ideological campaign promise entitled him to suspend the reality principle. The ‘facts on the ground’ made it clear that Iraq was not ready to assume total responsibility for its own defense. This does not make Obama in any way responsible for the rise of ISIS, of course — ISIS alone bears responsibility for its own primitive savagery and inhuman barbarism — but it does make him short-sighted, perhaps foolish, even. His former Secretary of State certainly seems to think so.


July 25, 2014

The Moral Bankruptcy of Israel-Hatred

  11:33 am

In his indispensable book The Case for Israel, Professor Alan Dershowitz posits that, besides being the Jewish state, Israel is also the “Jew among nations” — constantly held to higher moral standards than its peers, and consistently singled out for one-sided, disproportionate criticism. The United Nations’ Human Rights Council — whose members include human rights dignitaries like Cuba and Saudi Arabia — voted this week to investigate Israel for war crimes while shrugging its shoulders as Hamas uses young children as human shields for their weaponry — which, as all but the most willfully ignorant among us know by now, is frequently hidden in hospitals and schools. The United States cast the sole vote against coercing Israel into a show-trial, while Europe cowardly abstained from distinguishing between good and evil.

Instead of utilizing ordinary logic and blaming Hamas for setting up children to die and using their corpses as war propaganda, for perpetuating the violence that will lead to the deaths of countless more innocents, and for refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Israel-haters assert either that Israel has brought Islamist terror upon itself, or that it simply shouldn’t give in to Hamas’ provocations — since, after all, defending its citizens will only invite more hatred and blame. The former throw their lot in with Hamas by fundamentally denying Israel’s right to exist, but the latter, like teachers who tell bullied students that they ought to stop making themselves targets for their tormentors, are no less reprehensible. For these people, Israel has two choices: stand by idly in response to unprovoked terrorist attacks, and allow its civilians to die — or fight back, only to be informed that it is not allowed to fight back unless it is willing to bear responsibility for the outcome of Hamas’ disturbing tactics. The Jews, then, must either allow themselves to die, or they must accept responsibility for the fact that they are hated. Heads, Hamas wins; tails, Israel loses.

Israel exercises force against Hamas rather than attempting to negotiate with it because Hamas simply cannot be negotiated with. This is not an opinion: it is in the words of its charter, which begins by approvingly quoting Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood: “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it.” The charter then declares that this interpretation of Islam is its worldview, and declares that “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious.” Current Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal explicitly denies Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Peaceful coexistence is impossible with people who wish only for your extermination.

Virtually all of the criticisms of Israel that deny its right to self-defense rest upon standards to which no other nation would ever be held. We are told that Israel’s response to Hamas is ‘disproportionate,’ the evidence for which is usually presented in the form of a t-ledger comparing the two sides’ respective body counts — as if the fact that Hamas has killed few Israelis in recent years is due to a lack of effort, rather than Israel’s vigorous efforts to defend itself — or, even more nauseatingly, as if Israel has a moral duty to let more of its own die before fighting back. We are told that Israel cannot legitimately conduct military operations in which civilians are likely to die — as if Israel does not go above and beyond to minimize civilian casualties, or as if some number of civilian deaths are not a tragic — but unavoidable — part of any military operation, just or unjust. Countless innocent German civilians, including young children, died in World War II. Are we to condemn as unjust every war conducted in the history of the human race?

Ultimately, the debate over Israel figures so prominently and arouses such passion because it serves as a proxy argument about morality and legitimacy in international relations. The world has increasingly turned against Israel. Is morality a popularity contest? Civilians, including children, die both in terrorist attacks and in military operations conducted in response to them. Is there no moral difference between the two? Hamas has explicitly stated its desire to exterminate the Jewish people — and the people of Gaza voted them into office — while Israel is an outpost of liberal democracy and individual liberty in a region that is otherwise a political wasteland of chaos and oppression. Must we view Israel and Hamas simply as two bickering sides?

All states are imperfect, and it really ought to go without saying that there are countless legitimate criticisms that may be leveled at Israel, its government, and its military. But Israel-haters and their fellow travelers’ ignorant propaganda masquerading as concern for children is a thin veil for the ugly relativism — and sometimes worse — inherent in any ethical perspective that is so morally enervated that it cannot reason beyond emotionally evocative photographs of dead children and t-ledgers of body counts.


July 17, 2014

The Kurds And Their Ways

  4:16 pm

Many have noted, in the current centenary observance of the beginning of World War I, that among the ongoing direct consequences of that global conflict and its aftermath was the Middle East map created at the 1919 Versailles conference. As with many of the contrived boundaries formulated at Versailles that year to satisfy the victors’ (Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States) revenge against the vanquished powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary,Turkey) AND their territorial ambitions, the lines drawn, and the new nations created, were mostly artificial and unstable, often ignoring the historic religious and ethnic groups in disputed areas.

In addition to the punitive terms against Germany, the most egregious acts of the resulting treaties were in the Middle East. The British government’s false promises to both the Jews in Palestine and the Arabs throughout the region are by now well-known and have led to decades of chronically bitter conflicts. Concessions to Italy in North Africa backfired before and during World War II. The aspirations of religious and ethnic groups were usually ignored. The dissolution of the vast Turkish empire did lead to a post-war revolution and the creation of a democratic secular regime in the now-smaller nation of Turkey, but even there the seeds of minority ethnic persecution and unfulfilled national aspirations festered.

Among the smaller but historic and culturally-rich groups in that region were the Armenians and the Kurds. The Armenians are Christians; the Kurds are Moslems. The former suffered genocidal and violent persecutions between the world wars, their populations were divided into the regions controlled by hostile larger groups. Eventually, following the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, an independent democratic Armenian state was created, fulfilling the aspirations of the first Armenian nation that existed 2600 years ago

The Kurds, on the other hand, have not been allowed their own state, although a revolt in 1922 declared the short-lived kingdom of Kurdistan that was suppressed in 1924, and its territory was turned over to the British mandate of Iraq.

When Saddam Hussein was overthrown through U.S. intervention in 2003, the Kurds of Iraq, living most in the north of that country, formed a semi-autonomous province, and although part of Iraq, they have for the most part controlled their area with their own leaders. As the U.S. has completely withdrawn from Iraq, and the central government in Baghdad faces insurrection from a new terrorist offshoot from Al-Qaeda which now proclaims itself the new Islamic “caliphate,” the Kurds have seized on the Iraqi disorder to reclaim and secure nearby areas and cities which were historically Kurdish lands.

Importantly, Turkey, which has long opposed an independent Kurdistan on it border, has reversed itself and now accepts Kurdish national aspirations in Iraq.

It is, as many have now observed, a rare opportunity to at least in a small way to repair the current Middle East map by creating an independent Kurdish nation. The Kurds are Moslems, but they are generally pro-Western and opposed to Islamic terrorism. If given their own nation, and supported by the U.S. and Europe, they would likely be another island of balance to the rabid anti-Americanism in Iran and Syria. Because the Kurdish territory contains
some of the current Iraqi oil fields, an independent Kurdish state could be economically self-sufficient. Since the population would be mostly ethnically and religiously homogeneous, an independent  Kurdish republic would likely have few of the tensions so prevalent in the current “artificial” nations of Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Longer-term, Kurdish minorities throughout the region could settle in the new Kurdish state. Located between Turkey and Iran, it could serve as a buffer between conflicting Islamic forces in the region. Israel is known to be ready to welcome an independent Kurdish state, and would promptly add the new nation as a trading partner.

The Obama administration has stubbornly opposed a new Kurdish nation as a threat to Iraqi “unity,” but any true unity now seems beyond any reality in the present political situation. The United States should be advancing Kurdish national aspirations, not blocking them.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


April 15, 2014

Yes, Mitt Romney Was Right About Vladimir Putin

  7:30 am

Writing at the National Interest, Robert O’Brien joins a chorus of conservative commentators happily reminding the world that Mitt Romney was right to tag Vladimir Putin’s Russia as America’s top geopolitical foe, even going so far as to compare Romney to Winston Churchill. This has elicited eye-rolling from Daniel Larison, who in 2012 dismissed Romney’s criticisms of Putin’s Russia as “bizarre” and “outdated”:

Romney assumed that Russia was an inveterate foe of the U.S. on everything because Russia sometimes opposed U.S. policies. This took an unremarkable observation–Russia strongly disagrees with the U.S. on a few high-profile issues–and turned it into an absurd, discrediting exaggeration. He seemed to think that any kind of diplomatic engagement or accommodation with Russia on any issue was equivalent to appeasement. It didn’t matter that he couldn’t ever explain how the U.S. had “appeased” Russia (or any other government)–he was just reciting from an ideological script that he picked up from other people in his party.

In light of this year’s events, it is perplexing that anyone could any longer reduce the moral and diplomatic chasm between the United States and Russia to “disagreement on a few high-profile issues” — as if the clash between the two nations is nothing more than a petty ideological shouting match.

One may question the wisdom of Romney’s particular policy prescriptions — and it is no great surprise that the leader of a national political party would “recite from an ideological script” — but the question at hand is not about Romney per se, but about President Obama’s blindness toward Vladimir Putin’s imperial ambitions. In the campaign against Romney, Obama mocked him for being stuck in a “Cold War mentality.” But the so-called “Cold War mentality” is little more than a recognition of the stubbornly persistent primacy of power politics in foreign policy.

As Robert Kagan has cogently written, liberal internationalists have long dreamed of a Kantian world of ‘perpetual peace’ in which reason, diplomacy, and economic incentives will finally replace the need for projections of power — but this is a seductive illusion. The self-congratulating American narrative is that, as a threat to the prevailing liberal order, authoritarianism was vanquished at the end of the Cold War. To acknowledge that Russia is once again a geopolitical threat would be to admit that the ‘End of History’ has not arrived after all — and a war-weary public, tired of the burdens of global leadership, is loath to confront yet another imperialist autocrat who provides moral and material support to the world’s bloodiest dictators, seizes foreign territory, criminalizes dissent, and makes a fool of our president on the world stage. But this year’s events have decisively proven that Vladimir Putin intends to reassert Russia as a great power — and that his vision for the world is unquestionably hostile to American interests — and to the moral vision of classical liberalism.

At the bottom of Larison’s ambivalence toward Vladimir Putin is a sort of benign neglect; a lazy moral relativism that, while well-intended, cannot reliably distinguish between good and evil, seeing in Obama and Putin just two sides of the same belligerent coin. But the distance between the United States and Russia is not simply a “disagreement” over “a few issues” — it is a fundamental conflict of visions about the world order. In 2012, Larison approvingly quoted Heather Hurlbert, who argues that the ‘Cold War mentality’ is a sort of psychological need to rely on the “comfortable certainties” of the 1980s. But it is those who would ignore or dismiss Vladimir Putin who are retreating into the mirage of certainty; the implicit assumption that the existing geopolitical order will persist for all time if we would only leave well enough alone. But America’s enemies will never accept the unipolar order — it must be constantly, vigorously defended. If we choose to shirk from our responsibility to uphold the world order, others will step in and remake it in their own image. Vladimir Putin is taking the long view in his pursuit of power. America must do the same.



March 20, 2014

The Republic Of Venice?

  4:17 pm

I recently wrote an article entitled “The Plot Against The World Atlas” in which I pointed out the numerous secession movements active in virtually all regions of the globe. The latest place where this has just occurred is the autonomous region of Crimea which has declared its independence from Ukraine (and imminent merger into Russia). The status of neighboring eastern Ukraine is, as of this writing, uncertain as it too might be (forcibly?) separated from Ukraine. These developments have dominated world headlines for some several weeks.

But almost ignored has been another place considering secession, one of the world’s most famous cities (and its surrounding region). For more than a thousand years, the Venetian Republic existed until Napoleon invaded and took it over. Now the voters of Venice and it surrounding region are voting during the next week whether or not they will secede and re-create a sovereign state separated from Italy. It’s not a official vote, although Venetian secessionists are hoping its results will lead directly to the famed tourist city separating from Italy, and the creation of an independent nation.

Having visited Italy many times, and being a enthusiast of Italy’s music, cuisine, art, literature and culture, I thought I had some sense of what Italian history was, but after recently reading The Pursuit of Italy (2011) by British historian David Gilmour, I realized how little I did know about this European nation which arose after the demise of the Roman empire on its territory.

It also helped me understand what the citizens of Venice and environs are trying to do, why they are doing it, and why it just might succeed.

The “nation” of Italy did not exist at all until after the mid-nineteenth century. Portrayed as an heroic and epic unification of the Italian peninsula, the creation of a “unified” Italy was actually a hasty contrivance in which its component parts rather reluctantly were cobbled together.

After the end of the Roman empire in the mid-first millennium, A.D., the territory around Rome divided into numerous city states, kingdoms and duchys. In the eight century A.D., the young city of Venice became one of the modern world’s first true and successful republics (a thousand years, it should be remembered, before the creation of the United States of America in 1789). The Republic of Venice itself lasted for more than a millennium, and was one of the political glories of Europe until Napoleon decided to embroil it and destroy it in his schemes of conquest.

There were other states on the Italian peninsula, including most notably, the Piedmont Duchy of Savoy (capital: Turin), the Papal States (capital: Rome), Kingdom of Naples (capital: Naples), Kingdom of Sicily (capital: Palermo), Duchy of Milan (capital: Milan), Republic of Siena (capital: Siena), Republic of Genoa (capital: Genoa), Republic of Florence (capital: Florence), as well as city states in Mantua, Asti, Lucca, Ferrara and elsewhere. Each of the cities and regions developed their own dialect of what has become the Italian language, their own distinct customs, traditions, cuisine and identities — and in large and important part, maintain them today.

In effect, Dr. Gilmour suggest, there is no true “Italy” at all, but a conglomeration of idiosyncratic cities and places cobbled together. This goes a long way to explain, perhaps, why the Italian peninsula, source of so much of the Western World’s culture from Roman times to the present, has had since World War II one of Europe’s most unstable and dysfunctional series of governments.

Most Americans, if they think much about Italy, think of it as divided between north and south, with its dominant city being Rome, and most of its other major cities being in the north, i.e., Milan, Genoa, Florence and Venice. In fact, until the nineteenth century, the largest city in Italy was Naples, capital of southern Italy.

Boundaries between this potpourri of city states and regions changed frequently, as did their rulers, especially as Italy became a Mediterranean focal point of trade and commerce. The military intrusions of England, France and the Austro-Hungarian empire were frequent, and for many hundreds of years, much of southern Italy was part of the Ottoman (Islamic) empire.

Dr. Gilmour makes the case, with considerable evidence and persuasive argument, that the Republic of Venice — of all this myriad of republics, kingdoms, and duchys — was the most accomplished polity on the Italian peninsula for so many centuries in the past. With the plebiscite now taking place there, we might be seeing the re-emergence of that historic national personality, and the first of many renewed divisions in Europe now underway — in Scotland, Catalonia, Belgium — each of them more peaceable and voluntary than what seems to be occurring in Ukraine.


-Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


March 3, 2014

Perennial Planetary Hotspots — Latest Edition

  5:28 pm

The nature of international life is that there are always “hotspots” or areas in some form of natural, economic, military or cultural crisis that draw the world’s attention and concern.

As far as I know, there has not ever been, nor will there likely ever be, a totally peaceful or untroubled planet inhabited by human civilization.

What is curious, having established that, is that the crises tend in occur over and over, albeit sometimes years apart, in the same places.

Currently, the world’s “hotspots” include Ukraine, Venezuela, North Korea, China, Japan, Turkey, the Middle East, Spain, Italy, Greece and Argentina.

The reader familiar with only a limited background in history will recognize that over the past several centuries these same places have had recurring crises of one kind or another.

The one listed “hotspot” perhaps least well-known to Americans is Ukraine. This Slavic eastern European nation is one of the youngest countries in the world. Settled thousands of years ago, it eventually became the center of medieval Slavic life, and Kiev, its largest city, the de facto capital of the region. The cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, today much larger than Kiev, were then only outposts, and the tribes that created the Russian nation, then not as powerful and successful as those who lived in Kiev and its surrounding territory.

In the 1300s, Kiev had numerous rival rulers and declined. By the 1500s, however, the Romanov dynasty was established in St. Petersburg, and a Russian empire under the czars was created, stretching eventually all the way east to Siberia and the Pacific Ocean, and to the west, to central Europe. The early settlements of Kiev (Ukraine) and White Russia (Belarus) soon became subordinate and part of this empire.

Ukraine is remembered best in America today perhaps by its millions of Jewish immigrants and their descendants who came to the U.S. in waves from 1880 to 1920 following intense persecution by the Czar (and many Russians and Ukrainians) in a series of pogroms (or murderous attacks) on their ghetto communities in what was then called “The pale of settlement” — a region that included today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Poland.

Except for a short-lived Cossack republic in the 17th and 18th centuries, and a very brief period following World War I and the Russian Revolution (begun in 1917), modern Ukraine has not been a sovereign nation. Known as the “breadbasket” of Europe, the region produced most of the wheat and grain for two continents. After the Soviet dictator Stalin had consolidated his power at the outset of the 1930s, he instituted the deliberate and brutal starvation of the Ukrainian peasantry, and prior to the outbreak of World War II, millions of Ukrainians died from hunger. Nazi armies than overran Ukraine, and murdered millions more, including most of the Jews living in the region.

When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, Ukraine became one of the breakaway republics that became independent nations on the new Russian border.

The problems that face Ukraine are many. Although by now a major industrial area, as well as agricultural area, it depends on other nations (primarily Russia) for its energy needs, including supplies of oil and gas. The western, and largest, part of Ukraine 1s inhabited primarily by ethnic Ukrainians (77% of the population) who speak their own Slavic language. Their memories of what the Russians had done to them under the czar and Stalin have made them decidedly anti-Russian, and eager to join the western European community. However, in the eastern part of the country, around Kharkov, most Ukrainians are ethnic Russians (17% of the population), and speak the Russian language. A third region, to the south, is the autonomous republic of Crimea which it had been “given” to Ukraine in the Soviet years. This is the most tropical part of Russia and borders on the Black Sea with naval access to the world. (The Russian fleet uses Crimean ports by agreement with the previous Ukrainian government.) Most of those who live in Crimea are pro-Russian.

Although now adopting a representative democratic political form, Ukraine’s history and ethnic divisions have overshadowed the new republic’s attempt to create a viable nation. Political and economic corruption was rampant, and as in neighboring Russia, oligarchs soon emerged controlling vast parts of the Ukrainian economy.

It has been suggested that Russian President Vladimir Putin wishes to reconstruct the old Soviet empire. If this is so, then Ukraine is an absolutely necessary component of such a reconstruction. An independent Ukraine that is part of the western European Union would mean that the old Soviet Empire could not be put back together. Ukraine is too large geographically, too populous, too economically significant, and too strategically located for such a Putin ambition to be fulfilled without it.

This means that it is likely that Mr. Putin will continue to intervene in Ukraine until it is under his de facto control. The invasion and occupation of Crimea now apparently taking place would be only the first of many interventions. After securing Crimea, Mr Putin will move to control eastern Ukraine.

Europe and the United States, for obvious reasons, would oppose this turn of events, but, at least for now, lack enough leverage to counter it successfully. Ukraine’s immediate needs include a large infusion of funds, something Mr. Putin had offered the deposed Ukrainian president as an incentive not to join with western Europe. The U.S. and the European Union are now scrambling to come up with finds for Ukraine, but so far none of them are talking about enough funds to make a difference.

Eastern Ukraine and Crimea are clearly pro-Russian and would likely cooperate with some form of Russian “occupation.” Larger western Ukraine, where the recent revolution began in the capital Kiev, would like resist any Russian attempts to restore the previous government. Thus, there are prospects of a civil war, or the partition of Ukraine into two nations.

With the European Union already in an economic crisis overtaking several of its members states, including Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy; and the U.S. in an historic withdrawal from its leading role in world affairs, it would seem that prospects for Ukraine at the outset of 2014 are not very bright.

This part of the world has known suffering and violence continually for a thousand years. This suffering and violence will now continue for at least another sad chapter.

Copyright (c) 2014 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


December 20, 2013

Changing Warfare: No Sanctuary

  11:33 am

One conclusion that can be obtained from reading about the actual warfare in World Wars I and II, and then about the much briefer military experiences in the Persian Gulf, Afghan and Iraqi wars, is that the nature of these immense physical and violent confrontations has changed with astonishing velocity. The battles of 1914-18 now seem primitive and thoughtless, and it is startling how little intelligence was available to all sides as World War II began.

In the latter war, of course, the Allied side soon gained a significant advantage by acquiring the Axis side’s secret Enigma (German) and Purple (Japanese) codes. In spite of the Gestapo’s and other Axis spy groups’ ruthless reputations, their intelligence efforts, with a few and occasional exceptions, were generally spotty or poor. As the German dictator complained during the planning of “Operation Sea Lion” (the invasion of England) to his top generals, “We are separated from our enemy (Great Britain) by a ditch only 32 kilometers wide, and yet we have very little information about what they’re doing.”

Likewise, on both sides, Axis fifth column efforts against the Allies, and resistance efforts in the Axis-controlled European continent, were much more limited than the spate of  romantic and often exaggerated accounts and novels which appeared after the war, and continue to do so in the present day.

Life in Britain during the threatened German invasion, including the blitz, was frightening and dangerous. Life in occupied Europe was even more so. (The courage of many who lived through these events, however, probably cannot be exaggerated or diminished.)

Until late 1944, the U.S., heavily embarked on its own Manhattan Project, had virtually no idea of the state of the German atomic bomb efforts (they had been abandoned in 1941). The German army did not know, until it had begun, where the Allied armies were landing in France on D-Day in 1944. The German leadership greatly underestimated the Soviet Union’s industrial capacity to recover after initial Axis successes in 1941-42.

At the outset of the Korean War, the U.S. misjudged the Communist Chinese willingness to cross into North Korea, and the Chinese subsequently did not calculate that the United Nations forces against them could recoup and return the battle lines to the 38th parallel.

The U.S. misjudged the tenacity of the Viet Cong guerrilla army in Viet Nam, and failed to put up sufficient forces to overcome its enemy.

The atomic bomb brought World War II thankfully prematurely  to a end (although hindsight critics of President Truman’s order continue to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the Japanese military was prepared to fight on after 1945, even if their mainland were invaded, and were willing to sacrifice millions of their own people’s lives as well as the lives of Allied troops).

Since that time, military technology has advanced logarithmically and frighteningly, with its capacity to harm civilian as well military targets. Above ground, it seems there are few secrets anymore, and the nature of intelligence gathering, the ingenious novels of the “alcoholic” James Bond notwithstanding, has been fundamentally altered with computers, infrared detectors and cameras, and many other amazing devices now doing most of the spy work.

The current outcry about U.S. government surveillance, while perhaps justified in its objection to NSA overreach in its blanket spying on American citizens, is basically a national misunderstanding of the new conditions of global intelligence gathering, The experience of September 11 should have made most Americans aware that there are no longer any “rules” generally accepted in warfare in our time.

Nazi assaults on European civilians, not to mention their unspeakable role in the Holocaust, were a shock to the “civilized” Western world (still recovering from the traumas of chemical warfare and the mindless waste of troops on both sides in World War I). Although the U.S. and its allies won the recent “military” confrontations of the Persian Gulf, Afghan and Iraqi wars, their aftermaths have turned out to be quite problematic, The “enemy” in these confrontations did not simply surrender and dissolve, as they had almost always done in the past.

Proliferation of nuclear weapons, actual use of new chemical and biological weapons, and the testing of high-altitude electromagnetic pulse devices as weapons indicate that human loss of life and disaster can be obtained in hostile conflict on a much greater scale than ever before in history, perhaps even putting in mortal risk the human race itself.

Juxtaposed with the incredible advances in peace-time pursuits and humane interests of technology, including the mapping and use of human genome DNA, sophisticated robotics, transportation innovation, megacomputer capabilities, and so much else, it is becoming rather clear that the nature of daily life is about to include, much more than even the recent past, unsettling new conditions, anxieties and risks, and hopefully beneficial possibilities.

There will probably be no place to hide.


-Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


September 5, 2013

Follow-Up: What Should Be Done In Syria?

  10:27 am

Several days ago, I suggested that American military action in Syria, the use of chemical weapons by Syrians against their own people notwithstanding, was not advisable. I enumerated the American past experience in the Middle East, going back to the Versailles Conference of 1919 when Euro-U.S. interference and involvement in the region began, and continuing with our inability to control events during the so-called “Arab Spring and its aftermath. I did suggest that some serious effort should be made to punish those who used the chemical weapons against civilians, which was clearly a horrendous war crime.

Since I wrote my thoughts in “What Should Be Done In Syria?” on these pages, no military action by the U.S. has taken place, but the Obama administration has ordered military preparations to make such action imminent. Before ordering that action, President Obama, as commander-in-chief, decided to ask for the support (but not the approval) of the U.S. Congress, and hearings for this are now taking place. It is not clear what Mr. Obama would do if he fails to receive congressional support. He has said it is not necessary, but he has asked for it anyway.

I would agree with the president that the proposed limited action, presumably bombing of Syrian targets (but no U.S. troops on the ground), does not require congressional approval. His gesture is clearly a political one. If he fails to get approval (more likely in the U.S. house than in the U.S. senate), he thus can rationalize his failure to observe his earlier warning to Syria that he would act if the “red line” of chemical weapons use was crossed. If he does get approval, he can share any blame that might result from U.S. action with the Republican opposition. His greatest risk would be taking action without the approval of both houses of Congress.

In the case of British Prime Minister David Cameron, he called Parliament back into session and sought approval for British action in Syria from a House of Commons his party clearly controlled. But in an historic turn of events, the House voted against his request, the first such action there since 1782 when the British leader Lord North asked for further military action against the rebellious American colonies, and was turned down. Mr. Cameron promptly withdrew his nation from the Western alliance planning to take action.

Only France today remains firmly committed to action in Syria.

Since there is very little support in the U.S. (and, to be fair, within the Obama administration) to commit troops to any action in Syria, the obvious choices seem limited to various aerial attacks by planes or missiles against Syrian military assets, including their remaining chemical warfare supplies. The question is: What meaningful result can occur from such a limited action? This question is especially pertinent since any element of surprise is presumably gone with all the publicity to our intentions in the region. A decisive military action or a highly successful special military operations might now be justifiable, but there is no indication yet that this is planned nor that Mr. Obama would order it.

Is Mr. Obama’s personal credibility, following more than a month of hesitation and delay, worth the expenditure of an expensive but only probable symbolic gesture? And what of that always critical factor, the unintended consequences, of any action we might take? “Unintended consequences” have been, so far, the major reality of our involvement in the seeming permanently hostile (to the U.S.) Middle East.

I do not share the same rationale that most U.S. “isolationist” officials and commentators have brought forward so far. I do not believe that the U.S. can retreat from its unique role in the world, nor be indifferent to threats, violence and subversion to the world’s democracies. But I do think that the use of American power, military and economic, must be employed more wisely and effectively than it has been. Nothing from the Obama administration so far indicates that any proposed military action would fulfill that goal.

Until and unless Commander-in-Chief Obama can prepare and execute a military action that would make a positive difference in the Middle East, Congress should withhold its support and consent.

Copyright (c) 2013 by Barry Casselman. All rights reserved.


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