Ukraine: A Painful Argument for a Foreign Policy of Self-Interest

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

President Barack Obama talks on the phone in the Oval Office with Russian President Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine, March 1, 2014. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

Conservatives across the country are decrying the manipulative tactics and unabashed coercion of Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian land grab.  Putin, the critics claim, would have never taken such actions if President Obama was perceived as a strong, decisive leader.  It is the president’s abundant weakness and indecision that has enabled Putin’s brazen seizure of territory.

This is only partly correct.  Putin, a former KGB operative, is a strategic, not a tactical, thinker.  Strategic thinkers weigh a myriad of factors, especially when scheming to violate the territorial sovereignty of another nation.

Furthermore, Putin’s actions are more incremental in nature than they are brash.  He first acquired leverage over the Ukrainian government, supplying a multibillion dollar loan package and natural gas at a fraction of the cost.  Russian troops only began streaming into the country after Yanukovych used violent means to disperse protesters.  Even the buildup of Russian troops cannot be called an invasion because the Ukrainian government has allowed the Russians to operate military installations in places such as Sevastopol.

What is ironic is that Mr. Putin has called the new government “fascist” despite the fact Russian actions in Crimea have an eerie resemblance, if not an identical one, to Hitler’s territorial claims in Czechoslovakia.  Hitler, like Mr. Putin, claimed he was only trying protect ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland, which ought to be annexed to the Third Reich anyway.

These basic facts paint Putin as a calculating man with long term, strategic aims.  President Obama is more of a side dish in his cost-benefit analysis.

Besides, declaring President Obama “weak” is a statement of the obvious.  The only living organisms that lack the fortitude to walk all over this president are elected Republicans.

So how is it that the United States finds itself in such an uneasy predicament?  In an acronym, NATO.  Since the 1990s, the United States has pursued a foreign policy of hegemony.  A direct consequence of this policy has been the expansion of international security commitments.  Western European governments have exploited this generosity by continuing their vast social welfare experiments under the protection of an American security bubble.  Their militaries, since the Cold War, have gone from small to miniscule as elected politicians work feverishly to bankrupt their economies with redistributionist policies.

Far worse than lulling American allies into a false sense of security, the United States continued the arbitrary expansion of a military alliance that had become obsolete.  Since German unification in 1990, twelve countries have been added to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and four more are undergoing the membership process.  Georgia happens to be one of the countries seeking NATO membership.

Georgia, like many of its counterparts, has little strategic significance for the United States.  One reason is that the Kremlin no longer utilizes its nuclear weapons stockpile pursuing global communism.  Additionally, it can contribute little, if anything, to mitigate the burden of American military costs.  In other words, Georgia, like many NATO member countries, is seeking the benefits of American military power.

The expansion of NATO may have come at the expense of better and more interconnected relations with Russia.  Boris Yeltsin, despite his faults, worked tirelessly to liberalize Russia’s political and economic systems.  His protests against NATO expansion fell on deaf ears and became a point of contention in US-Russian relations.  Ultimately, it gave Putin a rationale for a more aggressive approach to Eastern European affairs.

Putin had the opportunity to test the credibility of American security commitments during the Russo-Georgian War of 2008.  Georgia was undergoing the NATO membership process during this period as well, and the United States did next to nothing to assist the Georgian government against the Russian onslaught.  Putin saw the United States as more talk than walk when it came to Eastern Europe and this has enabled him to test his power elsewhere, namely Ukraine.

People like John McCain insist that the United States should exercise its military power to curb and prevent such hostilities from taking place.  People like John McCain, however, have a nonchalant disregard for the severity of potential consequences and, frankly, John McCain has yet to find a war he didn’t like.  His most seething indictment of President Obama’s foreign policy is not that he de-legitimized his own red line on chemical weapons use in Syria, but that he didn’t bomb at all.  It is worth asking Mr. McCain who he supports in that conflict since it is basically an Iranian proxy fighting al-Qaeda militants.

The post-Cold War expansion of NATO was as much a farce as it was a mistake, and innocent people are paying dearly for it.  The lack of American or European resolve has emboldened authoritarians like Putin to use a blunderbuss to achieve political and economic objectives.

Countries with NATO protections are encouraged to pursue blunderbuss policies of their own.  Turkey has made its position known in the Syrian Civil War and, for a period, had numerous artillery exchanges with the Assad government.  Had the Syrian regime taken more serious military action against Turkey, Article 10 of NATO would have been enacted in which all member countries would assist in Turkey’s war with Syria.

A foreign policy of self-interest is long overdue for the United States.  It is the responsibility of the federal government to make serious judgments about the nation’s security needs, who its adversaries are, and what the United States’ long-term objectives ought to be.  The American taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the military budgets of countries that refuse to pay for their own defense.  More importantly, American families should not fear the possibility of losing a son or daughter in a NATO misadventure.  The Libyan intervention stands as a perfect example.

Countries such as Britain, Italy, and France used their troops in Afghanistan as leverage when persuading President Obama to intervene against Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.  One billion dollars and several bombs later, Libya is now home to gangs, militias, and terrorist training camps.  The American people received four body bags in return for its efforts.  It is morally dubious to argue the United States had a responsibility to protect the people that control Libya now.

Vladimir Putin’s actions are detestable and the result of American weakness–intellectual weakness.  If the United States ever commits to a serious foreign policy of self-interest, dictators and authoritarians will perceive America as both strong and credible.  Until then, we’re stuck shooting spitballs at barbarians.

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  • Edmond Dantes

    “The American taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize the military budgets of countries that refuse to pay for their own defense.”

    Unless, of course, an Objectivist is talking about Israel.

  • writeby

    Israel’s military spending, 2014, will total $51 billion. The U.S. pays Israel an additional $3 billion in military aid; $0 in economic aid. There are, as far as I know, no U.S. military bases in Israel. (Unfortunately & stupidly, the U.S. also provides military, as well as economic, aid to Arab countries.)

    One might argue that Israel’s strategic importance (post 911) justifies that $3 billion. Similar self-interested reasons might also justify U.S. presence in S. Korea.

    I’d agree to dropping the $3 billion in aid (as well as all other aid, military or economic, to all other nations & withdrawing from all treaties of “mutual defense”) and withdrawing from S. Korea (as well as every other foreign nation) if the U.S. would from thence forward follow a self-interested foreign policy.

    The foundation of that policy would be the recognition that a free–or even a semi-free–nation is morally superior to a despotic one and, given this, has a moral right to destroy any dictatorship whenever it is to the self-interest of the free nation. Self-interest in this context meaning any genuine threat to that nation’s liberty. This would include pre-emptive strikes–after war has been declared.

    Always, always after a declaration of war. No more so called “police actions” or 90-day executive privileges to commit U.S. troops to battle. But when we do declare war, to fight the war with only one goal: absolute total destruction of the enemy. In war, victory becomes the moral standard. (See below for more on this.)

    Given that context and the current threat to the U.S. by Islam, I might consider $3 billion in aid to Israel to our self-interest.

    Two caveats: 1) it would be far better & more effective for us, after declaring war, to wipe out Iran & nuke Mecca (followed by the automatic repeal of all “security laws” (e.g., Patriot Act, airport security act (or whatever it’s called) passed since 911); 2) taxpayers ought become an obsolete term; that is, government taxation ought be eliminated.

    The elimination of taxes and the absolute requirement for declaring war would act as checks and balances against our government engaging willy-nilly in any so called military aid or in any armed conflict whenever it suited the politicians.

    See also:

  • writeby

    Victory is the Moral Standard

    No nation ever won a war by giving a damn about enemy civilians. If one wants to win a war, there is only one overall strategy to follow: Destroy the enemy by any means possible. There is only one goal to such a strategy: The achievement of victory. All else is subordinate to that strategy and to that goal, including the welfare of enemy civilians. Indeed, achieving victory may even require the killing of enemy civilians.

    After destroying most of Germany’s industrial centers, allied bombers intentionally targeted civilians, in Dresden, Berlin and throughout Germany. The bombings were intended to break the will of the German people by demonstrating, violently and mercilessly, that initiating war for conquest only ends in the annihilation of the war-mongering state. The result was unconditional surrender followed by more than a half century of peace with a free Germany. That is the justice that victory achieves.

    The U.S. dropped the A-Bomb on Hiroshima & Nagasaki to break the backs of the fanatical Nippon civilian population. But even before that, incendiary bombings of Japanese cities, which garnered many more civilian deaths than did the A-Bombings, were intended to kill as many of the civilian population as necessary to achieve victory.

    (Incidentally, Sherman employed the same basic strategy in Georgia, which many historians credit with ending the Civil War. He took the war to the Confederate civilians. Had that strategy been employed at war’s beginning, how many civilian lives might it have saved on both sides, if concern for civilians is one’s mantra?)

    Needless to say, but I’ll say it anyway; in a properly prosecuted war there can be no such thing as rules of engagement. In war there is only one rule: Win it!

    In the rush for the Rhine, units of Patton’s army as well as units of other American armies, were ordered to “take no prisoners”—literally. Surrendering German soldiers were shot down where they stood, with their hands up. There was no facility available to secure these prisoners and to try to make one would have cost the offensive it’s lightning advance and, thus, American soldiers’ lives.

    That is what war looks like. It is devastating; it is cruel; it is sickening; it is horrible in its destruction and in its slaughter. War is more than hell; it’s the end of the world—the civilized world, which ends on the battlefield; and for the nation that initiates war for conquest, it is the end of any moral consideration, too, except in the form of one moral imperative for those fighting such a nation: Destroy it.

    General George Patton knew it and said so: “There is only one tactical principle which is not subject to change. It is to use the means at hand to inflict the maximum amount of wounds, death, and destruction on the enemy in the minimum amount of time” [Emphasis added].

    Therefore, if gaining victory requires fire bombing an enemy’s cities, so be it. If victory requires one’s army to gun down surrendering enemy prisoners, so be it. But there’s even more. If victory requires sending our guys on near suicide missions like the bombing of the Ploesti oil fields or busting the Mohne, Eder and Sorpe dams in the Ruhr Valley, so be it. If victory requires that we incinerate enemy cities with nuclear missiles (as on 912, after declaring war, we ought to have done to Kabul, Khartoum, Damascus, Tehran, Cairo and Tripoli), so be it.

    (The difference, by-the-way, between the Ploesti and Mohne missions and those of the Kamikazes, the Islamists and their like—I should not have to point out but will—is that the pilots of the former risked death in achieving the goal of the destruction of the enemy; the latter strove for death as a goal, while destruction of the enemy was a side issue at worst, equal at best. Such suicide-as-goal tactics, as any military strategist knows, almost always end indefeat. If victory is one’s standard, one doesn’t employ them.)

    What victory does not require, though, indeed what can turn victory into defeat, is granting moral consideration to the welfare and lives of enemy noncombatants, including civilians. Doing so is morally wrong and amounts to treason if acted upon. In mapping out one’s war strategy, placing concern for the lives of enemy civilians on par with the achievement of victory will only result in the corruption of one’s tactics, compromising one’s fighting effectiveness and putting the lives of one’s soldiers at risk. Ultimately such concern will undermine a nation’s moral resolve to fight a war through to victory. Such concern, in the end, creates a blueprint for defeat.

    That blueprint was followed in Vietnam. The U. S. military could have wiped out North Vietnam in six months or even less. Instead, the most powerful military force on earth was stymied for nearly eight years, not by the NVA or by the pajama clad, ill-equipped Viet Cong, but by a strategic policy whose formulation was derived, in large part, from a concern for enemy civilians. One such expression of that concern was the attempt by the American military to “pacify the countryside,” i.e., to “win over the Vietnamese people.” As if war were a political discussion or a high school debate.

    That “pacifying” strategy, rooted in the concern for the lives of enemy (else why need we win them over?) civilians in turn determined, in large measure, the nature of the U.S. Army’s tactical operations in Vietnam. One such infamous example of the results is a battlefield commander’s confused and Kafkaesque-like response to an American news reporter’s question after the commander’s men had leveled a village held by the Viet Cong:

    Reporter: “Why did you destroy the village?”
    Commander: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

    No. We had to destroy the village in order to destroy the enemy in it. Period.

    That commander is not to blame, though. He was attempting to justify his unit’s proper tactical action within the framework of an immoral war strategy based on the United States government’s unjustifiable concern for the welfare and lives of enemy civilians. That concern, in large part, is what defeated the
    combined might of America’s armed forces in Vietnam.

    Now contrast the strategy used in fighting the Vietnam War with that of WWII. During WWII we did not seek to “win over” the German or the Japanese people. We weren’t concerned about enemy civilians except to kill them when necessary. It’s true that some politicians attempted to equate enemy civilians with our own citizens by saying: “We are not at war with the German (or Japanese) people. We are at war with the German (or Japanese) government.” But the American people and the American soldier never bought that attempt at moral equivalence. Americans knew who elected the German government. They knew who blindly followed their emperor and who supported his medieval form of government. For America, World War II was fought as total war. As a result, it ended in total defeat for the enemy and, ever since, total peace with those former enemy nations. The unconditional surrender of Germany and Japan, for those too young to know, is what total victory looks like.

    The strategy of total war to achieve total victory,
    however, has not been used by America since WWII. Look at the results. If it is civilian deaths about which one is concerned, how many civilians have died or are dying in North Korea, Vietnam, in the killing fields of Cambodia & Laos, in Lebanon, Syria and in Iraq prior to conquest (and after)? How many died in NYC, true innocent civilians! And in Iran, not only how many have died, but also how many more true innocents may soon die should the mullahs get the Bomb?

    Much has been said regarding what others may think or say about a policy of waging war with no concern for enemy civilians. The short answer to that is: Win the war first. Worry about the critics afterward, if indeed there are any.

    The more extended response, though, is that such criticism is usually ignorant of the truth: A free nation is morally superior to and, therefore, morally justified in destroying any state that engages in war for the sake of conquering another nation. If a free nation is at war with such a tyranny, that nation need be pitiless in seeking its enemy’s destruction. This moral superiority justifies, indeed requires, that one not give a damn about the lives of enemy civilians.

    Sometimes, though, such criticism is a
    fraudulent attempt to force one to choose between achieving victory and preserving the lives of enemy civilians. If one accepts that fraud, the results will always look like Vietnam, a pseudo-war in which 50,000 American soldiers died without the initiation of a single offensive campaign against North Vietnam. In the stultifying defeat that followed:

    Tens of thousands of Vietnamese were slaughtered by the communist victors.

    An entire nation was entombed in slavery and remains so to this day.

    The U.S. withdrew into a decades long military passivity that allowed our current enemies time to arm, time to entrench, time to form allegiances and, thus emboldened by those successes and our passivity, the means and opportunity to attack us and kill thousands of our civilians.

    There is only one truth in war, one choice: Victory or death, and to hell with the welfare and lives of enemy civilians. This does not mean, however, that one makes the killing of enemy civilians the chief aim of one’s war strategy, as for example Hitler did in the Battle of Britain. Hitler chose to ignore the critical tactical importance of British industry in order to wreck his petty vengeance upon the English people. He elevated the killing of civilians above victory.

    Not giving a damn about enemy civilians does mean that one does not flinch when it becomes necessary either to ignore enemy civilian causalities in planning and executing military operations or even to make the killing of enemy civilians part of one’s military tactics when the achievement of victory demands it.

    In the tactics of war there is no room either for vengeance against or sympathy for enemy
    civilians. There is in fact no room for any emotion at all. There is room only for the cold-blooded, decisive destruction of the enemy. And there is only one moral standard by which to measure one’s success in that endeavor.


  • Edmond Dantes

    I didn’t read most of your 2nd comment (it’s too far off-topic), but I agree with virtually all of your first. The only question I would raise is if it actually is a strategic asset to have Israel as an ally. The idea that it is presupposes the notion that Islam needs to be militarily confronted. There’s a strong argument that if not for US support of / alliance with Israel, Islamic jihadists wouldn’t have much of a pretext to hate America. Yes, of course, they would still hate the US – their religion necessitates it – but it would be more of an abstract hatred than the kind that can get indoctrinated young people to make themselves martyrs.

    Also, why does Israel even need to exist? The jews would have been just as well off, and just as safe from persecution, post WWII had they come to America. They could have settled in some place like Utah – like the Mormons. Besides, Utah looks a lot like Israel. Just conjure up some story about how it’s the new holy land or whatever.

  • writeby

    There is no relationship between Israel and hatred of the U.S. by Islamist. Islam is a conversion-by-conquest religion. If you ain’t Muslim, you are the enemy. (See below.) The U.S., because of its classical liberal roots and because it’s the most powerful nation on the planet, is enemy #1.

    As for the partition of Palestine, the place was British; prior, pretty much inhabited by nomadic tribes. Establishing a Jewish state there–or any other free nation–was moral. The Jews could’ve done it on their own; that it involved the League of Nations and, later, the UN, doesn’t disqualify the act as moral, despite the illegitimacy of both those bodies.

    The history from the partition onward emphasizes that, although anti-Semitic, the main reason the Arabs hated it was because they were tribalists & Israel a modern state with somewhat of a classical liberal bent.

    The exact reason for their hatred against the U.S.

    In short, the conflict is: primitivism vs. civilization.

    A short history of Israel might also help to illustrate this:

    May 15, 1948, approximately one year after the UN had recognized the rights of both the Jews and the Palestinians to establish independent states in the Middle East, and one day after the Jews had announced the establishment of such an independent state for themselves – to be called, Israel – Egyptian, Trans-Jordanian,
    Syrian, Lebanese, Saudi Arabian, Iraqi and Yemeni armies attacked Israel.

    After Israel had won that first Arab-Israeli War, 75% of the land previously partitioned by the U.N. as the future home for Arab Palestinians was annexed by the Arab nation of Trans-Jordan.

    In the following decades, nearly all of the remaining 25% ended up under the control of the Arabs; yet not one inch of it was set-aside for the Palestinians.

    Since 1948, the Arab tyrannies have attempted to destroy Israel, either by
    conventional war – in 1956-57, 1968 and 1973 – or through terrorist bombings.

  • writeby


    Islam is a conversion-by-conquest religion.

    Much like Judaism was thousands of years ago.

    Much like Christianity was during the Dark Ages.

    Religion, in any guise, must rely on converts; however, because religion relies on faith, rather than on reason, those converts many times must be conquered. Must be coerced. Must be forced–or frightened or shamed–into believing.

    And when two religions meet, there is no room for discussion, because no discussion can occur where the emotionalism of faith trumps the objectivity of reason.

    The only reason that Judaism and Christianity are no longer conversion-by-conquest religions is because of 1) Rome (Judaism) and 2) (for Christianity) Summa Theologica (thanks to an Aristotelian Aquinas), its product, the Renaissance and the subsequent progression of human thought that became the Enlightenment. This centuries long advancement tempered both religions, leaving them only to rely on fear or guilt to proselytize. (Indeed, if Christians and Jews actually *lived* their faiths as was done, respectively, in the Dark Ages and thousands of years ago, we’d all be living lives that would be nasty, brutish and short.)

    Islam, though, has had no such eras. Subsequent to Rome. No Aquinas. No Renaissance. No Enlightenment. And thus Muslims–and the Mideast (with the exception being Israel)–still live in the Dark Ages.

    With automatic weapons, RPGs, jet fighters and atom bombs at their disposal, thanks to the West–particularly the U.S. presidents Truman and Eisenhower–allowing Mideast tribalists to nationalize Western companies’ oil drilling and production facilities, a wealth that reaped these tribalist lords and princes billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

    Conservatives, in the main, because they believe Christianity the source of the Declaration of Independence and the concept of rights (and all that followed, apparently, from invention and industrialization to scientific discovery and artistic achievement) have a vested, even if, perhaps, subconscious motivation to view Islam a “good faith hijacked by primitives.” But the fact is, *all* religions are primitive (philosophies (and, no, socialism is no more advanced, substituting State (or proletariat) for God and “brother love” (or some sort of supernatural conditioning of workers by machines (means of production) for faith)).

    Unless and until the Mideast (with Islam) goes through the fire (nuclear or intellectual) of a Renaissance and an Enlightenment (ironically, something like that having begun in the Arab world while Europe groveled on its belly during the Dark Ages, but which was shut down by Islamic religious leaders), we shall continue to see nothing but holy wars against the West follow in that religion’s wake (with the so called ‘moderate’ Muslims tacitly approving by remaining silent).