by Playthell Benjamin
Recently President Obama delivered an address on American policy in Eastern Europe as expressed through aims of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – an American led diplomatic dinosaur that should have died out with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Warsaw Pact in the last decade of the 20th century. And he made much of the fact that he was the first American President to speak in Estonia. Since the raison d’etre for NATO, which is a military alliance of capitalist states formed in the post-World War II period, sixty years ago, was to contain the expansion of Russian communism, when the Russian communist Party died NATO should have died with it.
Instead, under US leadership NATO expanded into Eastern Europe and incorporated former members of the Warsaw pact, setting up military bases in what were former Russian Republics. It was an incredible act of self-righteous arrogance that the wisest American analyst of Russian affairs such as George F. Kennan, Jack Matlock and Stephen Cohen warned would prove to be dangerous folly. The motion of history now testifies to the prophetic character of their analysis.
The growing crisis in Eastern Europe – whose epicenter is in the Ukraine, a former Republic of Soviet Russia – is at its root a conflict between American Exceptionalism and Russian Nationalism. Although the American government and mainstream media is engaged in a Herculean effort to define this crisis as a struggle between a beleaguered Ukrainian people fighting for freedom and democracy against the aggression of a Russian autocracy led by Vladimir Putin, the quintessential Russian Autocrat who wishes to enslave them by reincorporating them into Russia.
In this scenario Putin is the heir to a long line of Russian autocrats and dictators that harkens back to the Czars and the Communist Party, while the US led NATO alliance is the champion of freedom and democracy. From this perspective the growing antagonism between Russia and the “western democracies” led by the US can be reduced to a morality play between good and evil. And that is precisely how this conflict is being portrayed by the most influential opinion makers in the US.
However this is a self-serving and dangerous misinterpretation of the realities in the growing Eastern European imbroglio. The fact is that we have a clash of interests between power blocs over spheres of influence in which the US refuses to recognize the legitimate national security interests of Russia. No objective reading of the facts in the Eastern European crisis can fail to admit this reality. The fundamental problem arises from the fact that the US defines its national interests as global – which is also why US relations with China are growing more antagonistic as I write. Hence there is nowhere on earth that is off limits for the projection of American power, whether “soft” or “hard” power i.e. cultural and commercial or military. This attitude was called “The Arrogance of Power” by the late US Senator William J. Fulbright, who published a book under that title during the Cold War.
One of the Russians most powerful submarines, the Borei Class out on patrol-cs
This arrogance is informed by the ideology of American Exceptionalism, a counterfeit myth that all America politicians, corporate sponsored pundits and think tank supported intellectuals are expected to endorse without question. It is a way of viewing the world that is reminiscent of the classical Chinese view i.e. “We are the center of the world and all else is the barbarian fringes.” This view led the Chinese to build a wall around themselves in the belief that there was nothing of value they could learn from other peoples and cultures.
However this attitude has had the opposite effect on America’s leaders, who feel that they must remake the world in our image and anyone who refuses to go along with their program is the evil enemy. This belief led the US government to overthrow the democratically elected government on Iraq instead of Iran in 1953, the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961, the invasion of Vietnam in the 1960’s and the attack on Iraq 2003. In classical China belief in Chinese Exceptionalism led to its leaders losing touch with what was actually happening with the rest of the world and this resulted in its conquest by Europe. Alas, the bogus belief in American Exceptionalism propels America’s misguided actions in Eastern Europe and could result in our destruction.
One has only to contemplate the meaning of President Obama’s statements in Estonia – another former Soviet Russian Republic – just this morning to clearly recognize this possibility. Looking years older than when he first took office six years ago – no doubt from the many intractable crises that weigh on him around the world that he is expected to solve – the President spoke with characteristic eloquence on American solidarity with the Baltic states in a speech suffused with syrupy sentimentalism designed to tug at the heartstrings of his audience. Yet despite his moving oratory, it could prove to be a swan song for humanity.
Speaking on the Independence of the Baltic States after the collapse of the Soviet Union President Obama declared:
“You reclaimed your countries. And in your new constitution you declared the independence and sovereignty of Estonia are timeless and inalienable. But the people of the Baltic nations also knew that freedom needs a foundation of security. So you reached out to join the NATO alliance. And we were proud to welcome you as new allies so that those words of your constitution, your timeless independence, will always be guaranteed by the strongest military alliance the world has ever known.”
This was a direct challenge to Russia. But since Russia has expressed no designs on Estonia, it was an unnecessary provocation, and one that would have enraged Americans if Putin made a similar speech in Mexico. This is the kind of speech one can make in the Muslim Mid-East, or South America, where the leading regional powers are Iran is Brazil. But it borders on madness when made on the doorsteps of Russia, a nuclear superpower that can obliterate the US in a half hour. What could Barack have been thinking, maybe he drank too much vodka at the meeting with Baltic leaders that have joined NATO, when he met with them earlier in the day.
After rhapsodizing about the virtues of unfettered capitalism – conveniently forgetting the havoc it has wreaked in Eastern Europe with the rise of the oligarchs, or the fact that wealth and the class privilege it brings has virtually frozen socio/economic mobility it the US to the extent that the disparity in wealth among New Yorkers is greater than that in Guatemala – the President” declared:
“And we’re stronger because we stand together. This year we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the ‘Baltics in NATO. A decade ago, skeptics wondered whether your countries were up to the task. And today they need only look at our training exercises where our troops grow even stronger together, shoulder-to-shoulder. They can look at Afghanistan where our forces have sacrificed together to keep us safe and where in just three months the largest operation in NATO history will come to an end, as planned.”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing; did he really refer to Afghanistan as a model for success for Eastern Europe? This is sheer nonsense! The real lesson of Afghanistan is that after a decade of pouring American blood and treasure into that military quagmire the Taliban – which an earlier American intervention had created – remains a clear and present danger. What the US has done – and wisely so – is to declare victory and cut out, despite the actual conditions on the ground. Perhaps that’s why he went overboard assuring the leaders of the Baltic States that things will be different in Eastern Europe.
“During the long Soviet occupation, the great Estonian poet Marie Under wrote a poem in which she cried to the world, “Who’ll come to help? Right here, at present, now!” And I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty alliance. We have a solemn duty to each other. Article 5 is crystal clear. An attack on one is an attack on all. So if, in such a moment, you ever ask again, who’ll come to help, you’ll know the answer: the NATO alliance, including the armed forces of the United States of America, right here, present, now. (Applause.) We’ll be here for Estonia. We will be here for Latvia. We will be here for Lithuania. You lost your independence once before. With NATO, you will never lose it again.”
Apparently not content with vague threats against the Russians President Obama got specific, down to the nitty gritty.
“The new initiative I proposed in Warsaw this spring includes several elements, and we’re working with Congress to get it done. Here in the Baltics, it would mean positioning more American equipment, so it’s ready if needed. It would mean more training and exercises between our militaries. And it would mean more U.S. forces, including American boots on the ground, continuously rotating through Estonia and Latvia and Lithuania.”
Alas, a close reading and content analysis of President Obama’s speech reveals that much of it sounds like it could have been written by the neo-con cabal of policy wonks from the Project for a New American Century that advised George Bush to invade Iraq. It is a world view that combines a fundamental belief in American Exceptionalism i.e. only the US has the vision and moral gravitas to lead the world, and the military might to impose that vision.
There was a lot of talk about the sanctity of “freedom” and “democracy” accompanied by a very selective reading of history and present realities, glossing over the fact that many in these Baltic nations willingly collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, while the Russian Communist were our allies in that great struggle against German fascism. While praising the collaborators he never mentioned that it was the Russians who paid a greater price in blood than any nation in the world, with 20 million dead and that Russian arms played a greater role in the defeat of the Nazis than any other country. And even worse was the falsification of the facts surrounding the events that led to the present crisis in the Ukraine.
The whole world heard the hacked conversation of the American Ambassador to the Ukraine on the phone with the US State Department’s Undersecretary for European affairs plotting the overthrow of the democratically elected president of the Ukraine. The response of the Obama Administration to this embarrassing tape was to denounce the Russians for hacking the phone call…. even as the US National Security Agency was hacking into the cell phone of Andrea Merkle, the German Chancellor.
Furthermore, the American Senator John McCain was photographed marching with neo-Nazis in Keiv while calling for the overthrow of a democratically elected Ukrainian government because their president chose a closer economic relationship with Russia rather than joining the European Union, with the closer ties to NATO that such a relationship required. Why would ethnic Russians want to remain part of a nation that expressed such hatred for Russia? This is what sparked the present crisis, not “Russian aggression.”
Hence Barack was engaged in an exercise of political propaganda not an objective recounting of history; the former is an attempt to rearrange facts about the past in order to justify policies in the present, while the latter is concerned with an unbiased reading of the evidence in order to uncover the truth about the past so that we can avoid making the same mistakes in the future. They are very different enterprises and are guaranteed to deliver dramatically different results.
The failure of President Obama to admit that the real roots of the present conflict with Russia is the aggressive American led expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe until this anti-Russian military alliance is now at their door steps, will not help find a path to peaceful relations with Russia. Indeed, it could lead to thermo-nuclear war if NATO makes any attempt to admit the Ukraine into this military alliance.
Yet this is the course of action that Senators John McCain, Lindsay Graham and other verbose Republican hawks are calling for. Hence despite the fact that Barack did indeed sound like “the brown face of American imperialism” he emphatically reiterated his position that there is no military solution to the Ukrainian crisis. This makes him the clearly the lesser evil. One has only to imagine the state of the world if John McCain had been President for the last six years…or if Mitt Romney were president as I write, in order to envision how lucky we are to have Barack Obama in the Oval office at this dangerous juncture in history. Compared to these pretenders Barack’s foreign policy choices looks like Solomonic wisdom.
Thus I continue to disagree with the leftist ideologues like Glen Ford and moral absolutists like Cornel West that there is no significant difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, or John McCain and Barack Obama, the kind of misguided thinking that ignores political reality and led to them helping elect George Bush over Al Gore. This nation and the world is still suffering from that disaster but the left has never assumed responsibility for their role in bringing it about. What the ideologues and moral absolutist refuse to accept is that in real politics, as opposed to rhetorical exercises, one takes the best deal one can get, and in a participatory democracy a people will get the kind of government they deserve. Hence we are in the mess we are in because of the deeply flawed people Americans have elected to lead them over the years.
I continue to believe that the low level of much of American political leadership, and thus the crux of our problem, is due to the ignorance and apathy of the American electorate. The ideologues don’t want to face this fact, so they continue to spin fantasies about the “revolutionary masses.” They refuse to admit that as a politician Barack has to get elected and his party has to win a majority of seats in Congress in order to get anything done on behalf of the American people. Thus what Abraham Lincoln said at the end of the Civil War is also true of Barack: “Clearly I have not controlled events… but events have controlled me.”
President Obama is bowing to public sentiment in taking a tougher stand against the Russians, although the public has no idea of the danger involved; he must appear to answer the constant Republican charges that he is weak and feckless in the face of the strong and decisive Putin. That this is foolishness is quite beside the point it is irrelevant in political terms. Thus he is pushed into a tough guy role with the Russians that in his head and heart he knows this dangerous folly…. and appears prepared to shoot craps with the fate of the earth for the sake of domestic politics because the Russian bear will fight if NATO continues to threaten the security of his lair.
Benjamin is a veteran political journalist out of Harlem NY. His essays can be read on his blog site Commentaries on the Times.