Distracted by Iraq and the World Cup: Pacifism and Appeasement continue to dictate West’s “non-response” to blatant Russian aggression in the eastern Ukraine (revised and updated June 18, 2014)

Last Revised and Updated June 18, 2014

Distracted by Iraq and the World Cup, the leaders of the West seem to have forgotten about the Ukraine in general, and their earnest threat of “third-stage”, sectoral sanctions against Russia, in particular.

“Nothing New in the West” remains the order of the day as the U.S., and EU and NATO member countries remain gripped by pacifism and appeasement–and pure cowardice–in failing to respond in a serious manner to the ongoing Russian invasion of the eastern Ukraine.

Russia continues its policy of blatant aggression against the territorial integrity, sovereignty and political independence of the Ukraine. The West, as was the case in Syria, fights back with words and not deeds, with empty threats that have no credibility because they are never carried out. It is always “too little, too late”, as if a man who is knifed in the gut responds to his aggressor with a slap to the cheek.

Meanwhile, the international political and legal order is falling apart, from Europe to the Middle East.

The state of Iraq is crumbling, after tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers threw down their arms and fled from battle, with Sunni regions falling to the advancing forces of ISIS, an al-Qaeda-type organization. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmurga forces have moved into Kirkuk to fill the vacuum, further threatening the dismemberment of the country into Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish regions.

With the West’s attention distracted by both the World Cup tournament in Brazil (Angela Merkel was in Brazil for Germany’s victory on Monday) and the rapid advance of the ISIS forces in Iraq, Putin and Russia continue to play their “double game” of saying one thing and doing another. In recent days, a column of Russian armor, including three tanks, has crossed the Russian border into the Ukraine. So-called “separatists” have used a surface-to-air MANPAD missile to bring down a Ukrainian military transport, causing the deaths of 49 Ukrainian solders.

A hot war is going on in the eastern Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin has demonstated once again his utterly perfidious character. He moves like a leopard around the Ukraine, waiting for the moment when the attention and unity of the West falters in order to attack and pounce upon his prey.

So long as Putin remains in power, the West will never be able to trust Russia again.

The United States has a clueless president, whose foreign policy currently consists almost entirely of words. His first response to any crisis is to issue a well-crafted statement. “All options are on the table,” he reflexively states, and he will consider the options that are brought to him by his national security team.

The options that are always all on the table, always seem to suffer a curious fate. After the doors are closed, a space in the floor opens up, the top of the table opens downward, and those options disappear into the void below, never to be seen again.

Without analyzing the situation, Obama announces that no American boots will be deployed on the ground in Iraq. Reluctantly, he sees himself pushed by his national security advisers to do something. The present circumstances are urgent, in view of the collapse of the Iraqi army and the advance of ISIS toward Baghdad, after taking Mosul.

Obama dithers. When he finally gets around to taking some action, it is usually too little and too late to be effective.

After Russia invaded the Crimea, the U.S. sent “non-lethal” military
aid to the Ukraine consisting of MRE rations (meals ready to eat). The first-round of targeted economic sanctions imposed on a small number of individual Russians was a bad joke.

All of the mistakes, shortcomings and failures of Obama’s foreign policy are now manifesting their consequences, like chickens coming home to roost.

Syria, Iraq and the Middle East are collapsing in front of our eyes. Russia is invading the eastern Ukraine, after invading and annexing the Crimea. Everywhere the United States is failing to lead, by not acting independently when this is urgently required–even with military force, if necessary–and by not effectively leading the Atlantic Alliance, including both NATO and the EU.

Obama’s foreign policy lies before us in a shambles, like a heap of shards of broken glass. His West Point speech of two weeks ago has already been overtaken by events.

Democrats with knowlege of foreign and defense policy are afraid to speak out publicly against the president, whether because they don’t want to hurt Democratic election prospects, hope for future posts or consulting work in government, don’t want to prejudice their positions within the organizations in which they work, or are simply apprehensive about taking strong stands against the government in the new surveillance state.

Some leading members of the foreign-policy elite seem themselves to be as clueless as Barack Obama. The president of the Council on Foreign Relations, Richard N. Haass, for example, suggested on the Charlie Rose program last night (June 13) that, to counter the growth and advances of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. should consider joining with Bashar al-Assad and Russia to attack the ISIS forces. Michael R. Gordon, the distinguished military affairs correspondent of the New York Times, had the presence of mind to point out that joining with a mass murderer like al-Assad would be inconsistent with American values, and not likely to engender support.

Without any discernible American strategy, and few key officials with any sense of history, foreign events appear to pop up out of nowhere and to take the Obama administration utterly by surprise.

Absent a policy anchored in enduring American and Western values, such as dedication to defending human rights and democracy and respect for international law, any policy or action seems possible, in a present which seems to have expanded almost infinitely, obliterating the past while encompassing all possibilities for present and future action.

What can be done?

1. Stage-three, sectoral sanctions should be immediately imposed by the United States against Russia, while the U.S. should lead in exercising real, intense pressure on EU countries to join in adopting similar sanctions.

This would necessarily include cancellation of France’s sale of two Mistral-class warships to be delivered to Russia in the fall. Training of Russian sailors, scheduled to begin shortly, should be canceled sine diem, and not reconsidered until after Russia disgorges the Crimea and returns it to the Ukraine.

2. NATO should announce the immediate deployment of additional ground troops to Poland, Romania and the Baltics, and move foward urgently, and loudly, in developing plans for the permanent stationing of large numbers of NATO troops in these countries.

3. Western leaders should immediately stop all telephone calls and meetings at the deputy foreign minister level or above with Russian leaders and officials. Telephone diplomacy has failed. It only enables Putin to discern differences between Western countries and devise actions that divide them, e.g., in order to defuse the threat of sectoral sanctions.

4. The U.S. and its allies should undertake military and other action in Iraq, immediately, in order both to halt the advance of ISIS forces toward Baghdad and to forestall Iranian military intervention in Iraq in the coming days.

5. While these steps are being taken, the U.S. should develop a real strategy, using all forms of American power, to both defeat ISIS and to secure a non-sectarian government in Iraq, as coalitions are formed to choose the next prime minister following the recent elections.

6. The U.S, should exercise its influence in Afghanistan as necessary to ensure that the vote count following the presidential run-off election today (June 14) is transparent, and not deprived of legitimacy by uncorrected corruption.

Indications of widespread fraud (denounced by Abdullah Abdullah) and Hamid Karzai’s control of the electoral commission raise the possibility that this last chance at gaining legitimacy may be lost. If it is, it should surprise no one if, within a few years, the Afghan army collapses just like the Iraqi army which ran from battle in Sunni areas of Iraq in recent days.

Will the president stop dithering and analyzing, and take the needed actions outlined above?

To do so would, in Secretary of State Madelaine Allbright’s memorable phrase, take some “cojones”.

That is precisely the element of U.S. foreign policy that has been missing. One can only hope that it can be found, and deployed.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.