James Kirchick built not one, but two, humongous exaggerations for his recent Daily Beast article on Ukraine and US foreign policy. And two, friends, is better than one.
The Ukrainian situation has thrown Washington’s literati into a tizzy, and rightfully so. Practically everyone has to weigh in on an issue that involves NATO, great power politics, righteous protesters, ethnic conflict, invasion, and Vladimir Putin’s weird loss of the ability to conduct a coherent press conference. There’s a lot of virulent opinions, and almost as much ignorance. Like this one.
James Kirchick’s recent piece in the Daily Beast titled “How the ‘Realists’ Misjudged Ukraine” definitely was not his finest. Kirchick, who was until recently a journalist for Radio Free Europe, took the route of least resistance: Regurgitate and simplify a very old ideological conflict and essentially make up one side of the debate to give that conflict meaning. The result won’t make his “Best of” portfolio.
Kirchick’s fallacies, in fact, come right at the beginning. The deck reads:
The paradox at the heart of foreign policy realism, is that the same, all-powerful West which is capable of overthrowing governments with the flip of a switch is incapable of confronting Russian hard power.
Current “realism,” like “neoconservatism,” is impossible to discretely define, but a straw man is being built here using 1970s Kissingerian overthrows of peripheral governments to define the operational ideas of those who attempt to divorce geostrategic interests from moral missions and consider the prosperity and security of Americans to not always be at odds with unsavory situations abroad.
What current (and, frankly, past) realists—at least those in the few publications cited by Kirchick—believe is definitely not that the West is “all-powerful” and capable of coups at the “flip of a switch.” They often discuss the relative decline of the US and the need to accept a less unipolar world. Frequent critics of more activist roles in the Middle East and elsewhere, realists of today tend to focus on the difficulty of removing a regime and how the costs usually outweigh the benefits. In line with their essentially conservative (gradualist) outlook, realists relatively rarely call for harsh rhetoric or other minor antagonistic actions that may make coming to an agreement based on mutual interests more difficult. A quick and dirty summation: They can be closer to non-interventionists than hawks.
The reason for this is a belief that major powers dictate the general security situation. Other issues, such as as terrorism and middle powers such as Iran, remain important, but the extraordinary strength of the US renders these issues containable and unworthy of the major commitment of resources involved in changing the situation—the opposite, we contend, of overthrowing governments willy nilly. In the case of Iran, the magazine Kirchick cites as the “premier realist journal,” The National Interest, is definitively against attacking that country because, for the most part, its writers believe it to be a poor strategic choice that also happens to be illegal under international law. They also typically contend that Iranian influence on the region is malign and should be countered. Kirchick conflates realists noting the extent of US power makes the country very secure vis-a-vis much weaker states with the idea that Washington should simply “knock off” whomever it pleases. In fact, realists come to the opposite conclusion.
In his own simple-minded worldview, Kirchick also fails to understand how realists approach ideology and world politics. Although realists contend that ideology does not play a major role in driving foreign policy decisions, they do believe that (1) ideology can exacerbate tensions, misperceptions, and threatening behavior and (2) the most powerful ideology in international relations remains nationalism—precisely the ideology at stake in Ukraine. This is not Catholics vs. Orthodox or Democracy vs. Totalitarianism. The problems in Ukraine are directly related to how Ukrainians and Russians imagine their ties to each other (obligatory hat tip: Benedict Anderson).
What is wrong with Stephen Cohen’s widely panned piece in The Nation is not realism, if he is a realist. Cohen’s problem—like many specialists—is that he sees the situation from Russia’s point of view. But however problematic Cohen’s apparent apologetic for Russia, it remains paramount that we understand Putin’s worldview if we are to deal with him. Thus Cohen’s work cannot simply be dismissed. Russia’s offenses here are easier to spot and more egregious, but plenty of Ukrainians have been using the opportunity to engage in some pretty shady behavior. For some thoughtful analysis, check out Tim Snyder’s posts at the New York Review of Books. Jack Matlock also seems to have thought about the problem carefully.
Briefly to the second straw man: There is nothing about realist thought that prohibits its adherents to present options for “confronting Russian hard power.” The theory is not naturally deficient; rather, its proponents simply do not see compelling reasons for the US to heavily involve itself in the Ukraine with the maximum possible public profile and vigor. Short of risking nuclear war, there has never been anything that Washington could do to counter Russian military action in Ukraine if Moscow believes it to be in its interest. If the Russians want to pick at the sore spot of Ukrainian nationalism it can only end in disaster for them. What President Obama and Secretary Kerry should be doing is somehow find a way to convince Putin that the costs outweigh the benefits. We’re far from the first people to point out that framing the debate as Ukraine choosing between Europe or Russia is a false dichotomy, or that tinkering with missile defense and expanding NATO irritates Moscow to no end and for no good reason.
Pundits like Kirchick misunderstand the concept of international credibility. Realists know that President Obama’s credibility is at stake, but it has little to do with the wildly different and particular problems in Syria, Iran, China, or North Korea. Empty threats—as they must be in regarding Ukraine—are useless and even harmful. What is the point of publicly doing everything possible to force the Russians to retreat when the United States and its allies have no willingness to follow through on extreme economic sanctions and some military action? Such a policy lacks credibility, and let’s hope the Obama administration doesn’t pursue it.
 We could have titled this “Carcosa” or “The Yellow King” to get cheap clicks from all of the True Detective freaks, but everyone knows you’re holed up in a bunker trying to tease out the final episode. Go with God, friends, and watch that dental hygiene.
 Look no further than his “Steve Walt is an anti-Semite” cheapshot for an idea of extent of Kirchick’s lazy writing here.Tweet