by Barry Edelson
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Thugs vs. Thugs

Why must we take sides in every conflict in the world?


There seems to be something fundamentally human about taking sides. From the schoolyard fight to sports to politics, we derive vicarious satisfaction from seeing "our" side win. The more we identify with a team or a candidate, the more pleasure is derived from victory and the more disappointment from defeat. In most of life, these choices have little consequence for us beyond the ups and downs of our emotional state. However, when this tendency to take sides extends to competition among nations, the stakes are far too high to be left to a vestigial impulse from childhood.

Yet even a casual observer of geopolitics cannot help but notice that that is precisely how this deadly game is played. The tussle between Russia and the West over Ukraine is but the most recent and obvious example among many. There is little to like or admire in Vladimir Putin's cold and calculating intrusion into Ukraine (except among such self-proclaimed Putin fans as Rudolph Giuliani, whose own bullying style of "leadership" never advanced much beyond the schoolyard). Americans are naturally inclined to root for the Ukrainians as they assert their sovereign right to defend their own territory. But we would do well to remember that only a few months ago, during the demonstrations in Kiev that ultimately ousted the Kremlin-friendly president, we watched in horror as government snipers gunned down unarmed civilians in the streets. What exactly do we think the coldhearted "fascists" who ordered troops to open fire on protesters, and those who actually pulled the trigger, have been doing the last few months? As far as we know, no one was fired or courtmartialed for these killings, so we can only presume that they are still on duty defending their country. The stormtroopers for whom we are rooting to retake control of Ukraine's restive eastern regions, if not the very soldiers who followed orders to murder their fellow citizens last winter, were certainly trained in the same military system and inculcated with the same culture as the ones who guard government buildings in the capital. There is not much to like or admire on that side, either.

Nonetheless, we have firmly taken sides in this dispute. We must now avert our eyes from the atrocities committed by those we consider on the "right" side of the fight, as we have done countless times in our sordid, side-taking history of international conflict. There may very well be a reasonable and persuasive argument against allowing a strong nation to gobble up a weaker one, because it threatens to lead the world away from the relatively more peaceful and enlightened path of diplomacy and mutual interests that it had begun to forge in the last few decades. But if America really and truly felt that Russia's annexation of Crimea was so egregious a violation of the international order, not to mention Russia's formal treaty obligations, then we would have responded with all necessary force to reverse it. Claims of hypocrisy against Russia, which has demonstrated only too clearly in Chechnya and Georgia how it would respond to the threat of secession on its own territory, are in themselves hypocritical. What strong nation does not flex its military muscle to protect its near-abroad, nor criticize others that do exactly the same thing? The sovereignty of Ukraine and the conquest of Crimea, by themselves, are very small matters to America and its European allies. In fact, if the history of relations between the U.S. and Russia had been different, and we hadn't already taken sides against one another on all manner of other issues, we might very have been quietly cheering on the Russians. It was not a pretty sight and we might not have liked it, any more than we liked Britain's overwrought defense of the Falkland Islands or Israel's invasion of the West Bank and Gaza. But we know which side our bread is buttered on.

We may recall that at the height of the Cold War, a number of countries formed a so-called Nonaligned Movement that declined to choose sides in the nuclear standoff between East and West. Among the larger nations so disinclined were India, Egypt, Indonesia and Yugoslavia. It was an irksome concept altogether for Western leaders, who suspected that many if not most of these nations were not very secretly leaning towards the Soviet side, and whose vacillation was thinly concealed by self-serving statements of "principle". Soviet leaders may very well have thought the same thing. There's nothing more threatening to a bully than someone who refuses to be bullied and gets away with it. To be sure, all of the nonaligned countries were only too happy to play one side off against the other, and to accept aid of various sorts from both sides when it suited them, including a good deal of military hardware. It is a good bet that to this day there are army warehouses in quite a few of these countries whose shelves are stocked with weapons bearing the Soviet red star right alongside others stamped "Made in the USA".

Despite the internal contradictions that ultimately broke the nonaligned movement apart, one is compelled to wonder whether a truly principled version of this attitude might not serve the world much better than the multipolar quest for power that has shaped nearly all of the history of the modern system of nation-states. Perhaps it is too much to ask of the United States to remain neutral. We were reminded of American's singular role in world affairs just the other day by President Obama, who followed a long bipartisan tradition when he declared America the one "indispensable" nation. But what does it profit us to choose between Putin's nationalist thugs and Ukraine's nationalist thugs? Or between Assad's secular totalitarian state in Syria or al Qaeda's dream of an Islamic totalitarian state? Or between a military dictatorship in Egypt that crushes all opposition or a Muslim Brotherhood state that crushes all opposition? We would love to have choices as simple as our rhetoric, between freedom-loving democrats and power-hungry tyrants, but that is almost never the choice we face. There are in fact reasonable people in these countries who are fighting just for democracy, but they are barely in the fight at all, and our support for them hardly matters in any but symbolic terms.

Inevitably, someone will argue that these situations are not all the same. Whether a Western-looking or backward-looking government emerges in Ukraine doesn't matter very much, because neither poses a real challenge to the United States, other than the loss of credibility of choosing the wrong side. On the other hand, the Middle East spawned an Islamist movement that does pose a direct threat to us, and we have no choice but to take sides. Those who espouse this point of view, in the first place, are mistaking the threat of terrorism with the existential threat of invasion, to which countries like Ukraine may be vulnerable but we are not. Furthermore, they are arousing the ghost of Henry Kissinger's realpolitik, under which the rights and aspirations — not to mention the lives — of countless millions around the world, from Vietnam to Chile to Saudi Arabia to the Philippines, were sacrificed on the altar of American "interests". We may have forgotten already how we propped up numerous vile dictators solely because they were nominally anti-communist, but the dispossessed and disenfranchised of these nations clearly have not. Every time a bomb explodes outside a hotel in Kabul or a cafe in Baghdad, every time gunmen slaughter innocents in a shopping mall in Nairobi or a hotel in Mumbai, it is the long memory of repression bursting forth from the nether regions of human misery.

It need hardly be said that terrorist acts are irrational and inexcusable and ultimately pointless, and those who commit them are manipulated into committing suicide for causes that are poorly defined and which serve the interests of a ruthless, power-seeking minority. But these realities do not eradicate the sense of grievance that grips the consciousness of many millions of people around the world. Islamists would find no recruits in populations without serious grievances. No one is responsible for terrorist murders other than the terrorists themselves, and any claims that we somehow deserve it are repellent. But it is naive to suppose that a nation that is as deeply involved in every region of the planet as our own can expect to be left alone. That was the calling card that was lost in the rubble of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The perpetrators may very well have been evil fanatics, but they are merely the tip of the spear. More to the point, they are dismissive of America's good intentions and have very long memories.

We have no choice but to engage in certain conflicts, and we go to some lengths to justify each one at the time it erupts, but our record of military and political intervention over the long arc of history is so long and complicated that our actions look painfully indiscriminate. When our last president warned the nations of the world that they were either with us or against us in the fight against terrorism, it did not at that moment of national grief seem disproportionate to demand that everyone take sides in so monumental a struggle. But in the clear light of day, after the emotion has been spent, it ought to be obvious that there are in fact many nations that are neither with us nor against us. They are not turned into friends or enemies just by our saying so. We cannot conduct our foreign policy in response to the ideologies of fringe groups and fanatics; they will despise us and fight against us no matter what we do. Wherever we or our allies are threatened, and we can make a difference, we should act. However, there are many conflicts in which our involvement not only does us no good, but does no good to the "right" side that we are attempting to help.

It is equally foolish to imagine that we can barricade ourselves against the barbarians as it is to argue that every act of barbarism anywhere is a call to American arms. Our failure to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary fights has cost us dearly in the last dozen years. The taking of sides is a game for schoolyard bullies, not for large nations with large costs to bear for choosing badly.


June 1, 2014


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All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.