The U.S. Needs to Take a Hard Look at Its Foreign Policy Commitments

In the aftermath of Malaysia Flight 17, the U.S. has to ask itself how far it’s willing to go to protect its Eastern European allies.

 In his address outside the White House yesterday, President Obama lamented an already well-documented fact reported in world media outlets: Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine have been tampering with the evidence at the sprawling crime scene of Malaysia Flight 17, and treating the remains of the 298 people aboard in a manner that, as President Obama himself put it, “has no place in the community of nations.” Referring to the agony of the families of the passengers, and their need to recover the remains of their loved ones before the bodies decompose anymore, President Obama stated that “time is of the essence,” as he then proceeded to tell America and the world that his preference is for a “diplomatic solution” to the Ukraine crisis, and will remain so.

In less than six minutes, President Obama crystallized the fundamental fantasy undergirding his foreign policy during this crisis: that Vladimir Putin and the band of thugs he has armed to the hilt with advanced missiles — and who, no surprise, demonstrate zero respect for the human remains of the innocents they have killed — have any genuine interest in peace and diplomacy. As NATO Secretary-General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, stated just two weeks ago at the White House, Putin’s incessant, scripted peace overtures are just part of his “double game” in Ukraine; a double game that has now cost the lives of 298 innocent men, women, children, and infants from 16 countries, in addition to the Ukrainian servicemen who have been killed by Putin’s weapons in recent months in the defense of their own country.

Since the downing of Flight 17, and since the horrific images of the victims have spread across the internet, many of them stripped naked in mid-air by the wind force at 33,000 feet, President Obama has faced increasing calls for “tougher” action against the Putin regime. Mostly, though with some exceptions, those calls from policy wonks, editorialists, and others amount to increased economic sanctions; sanctions that would hit the Russian economy — and thereby ordinary Russians — with far greater force than the current sanctions, as if it is a remotely moral proposition that a civilian population under the firm grip of a tyrant like Vladimir Putin — which includes his Orwellian grip on Russian media — should suffer the consequences for the litany of evils inflicted by their demonic ruler.

But what about ordinary Americans? What is their response to Vladimir Putin’s patent inter-state military aggression in Ukraine? According to a Rasmussen poll taken in April, 58 percent of the American people want the U.S. to avoid any involvement in the Ukrainian conflict.

That had to be an encouraging poll number for Putin as he continued his military build-up in Eastern Ukraine; a build-up that included the SA-11 surface-to-air missiles that our ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, believes shot down Flight 17, with either a Russian-trained separatist or an actual Russian agent pulling the missile trigger.

Underscoring the precarious Eastern European security situation all the more, a taped conversation of Poland’s foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, was leaked last month in which he made disparaging remarks about the U.S.-Poland security relationship. In addition to being “worth nothing,” Sikorski said about the security relationship between the two countries that, “It’s even harmful, as it gives Poland a false sense of security.” Some suspect that Russia is behind the tape’s release. Indeed, given that only 65 percent of the American people still support any U.S. participation in NATO, according to another Rasmussen poll, it is conceivable that Putin viewed the disparaging, seemingly ungrateful remarks of the Polish foreign minister toward the United States as just one more nail in the coffin he wants the most: the coffin bearing the corpse of NATO.

Unfortunately for the cause of human freedom, ever since the American people overwhelmingly rejected President Obama’s plans last summer to launch missile strikes against the Assad regime after that regime’s slaughter of 1,400 civilians – including an estimated 400 children with sarin gas, Putin has been playing the American people’s “war-weariness” like a geopolitical fiddle. Indeed, if the horrific sight of children foaming at the mouth and suffocating to death on YouTube from sarin gas was not enough to prompt war-weary Americans to support U.S. military strikes against the Assad regime — even without any U.S. troop deployments — America’s foes, like Vladimir Putin, could reasonably ask: What could? Anything?

From Syrian children gassed with chlorine gas by the Assad regime to the Ukrainian soldiers and officials shot down in flight in their own country by the missiles of Russian separatist rebels, and now the 298 civilians aboard Malaysia Flight 17, Putin’s fiddle-playing skills have come at an extraordinary, and ghastly, human toll.

A paradigm shift is in order.

First and foremost, the American people — all of us, not just some of us — need to be honest with themselves and their foreign allies about what they are willing to do and not do, to help protect their allies from harm. Vladimir Putin is a remarkably clear-eyed foe; any self-delusions we have about who we are as Americans — and which countries we are willing to sacrifice our blood and treasure for — can only strengthen his hand on the world stage.

Shedding our national self-delusions means asking ourselves some tough personal questions, like this: If you are an able-bodied American adult, are you automatically willing to sacrifice your life, limbs, and mental health to defend from a Russian invasion the countries of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, or Lativia, to cite just some possibilities? If the answer to that question is a “no,” you have little, if any, rational basis to support our government’s participation in NATO under its outdated terms: namely, terms that would obligate the United States to automatically come to the defense of those countries if they were attacked, as required by Article 5 of the NATO Charter. In other words, Polish Foreign Minister Sikorski was right: the contours of the current U.S.-Poland relationship can only yield a false sense of security for the Polish people, thereby placing them in grave danger. Whatever one might call that kind of relationship, it sure isn’t friendship.

In order to be honest with, and thereby help Poland and other Putin-vulnerable Eastern European neighbors effectively deal with the grave geopolitical threat they are now facing, Americans should tether their involvement with the outdated Article 5 of the NATO charter — crafted in 1949 before most of us were born — to our modern political reality: namely, to subject Article 5 to continuous democratic review. One way to accomplish that would a be a constitutional amendment requiring that all provisions of treaties mandating collective defense of foreign nations, like Article 5, be ratified by both houses of Congress — not just the Senate — every three months. That way, those nations that we claim to be our allies, like Poland, could get a more accurate temperature of the American people’s actual willingness to come to their military defense, and adjust their defense portfolios accordingly. Real friends are honest with each other, especially on life and death matters. Poland, and other NATO countries formerly under the Soviet boot that are now threatened by Putin’s military ambitions deserve that kind of ongoing candor from the American people ourselves, not eloquent, but empty, promises from our term-limited U.S. presidents.

Another reason to modernize and democratize our participation in Article 5 of the NATO Charter is that it would send some of our currently reckless and irresponsible NATO allies, like France, an unmistakable message: we will not be played for fools in order to line their war-profiteering wallets. Indeed, even after the horrors over the Ukrainian sky caused by Vladimir Putin’s missiles, France is still hell-bent on going ahead with its sale of two highly advanced, and highly deadly, amphibious warships to Russia, known as Mistral Carriers. The two ships, for which France is raking in $1.7 billion, are scheduled be delivered to Putin this November.

It is a moral obscenity of epic proportions that the United States government would ever send young American men and women off to war and be exposed to death and injury by a missile fired from those French-built Russian ships, as they are ordered to help defend France in battle under the terms of the wholly outdated Article 5 of the NATO Charter. That any self-respecting American would accept such a nationally self-defeating scenario out of a blind devotion to all provisions of a 1949 treaty — a self-defeating scenario that is by no means out of the realm of possibility under the current geopolitical circumstances — simply boggles the mind.

Therefore, for our own self-interest and in the furtherance of authentic, reality-based friendship with the Putin-vulnerable nations of Eastern Europe, it is imperative that the U.S. relationship with Article 5 of the NATO Charter reflect our modern, living reality, as opposed to the reality of what America and the world were back the 1950s. Only the continuous, sustained democratic review of, and assent to, Article 5 of the NATO Charter can bring about that proper reflection.

Though they are not a NATO member, we should apply the same democratic principle to our actual willingness to help in Ukraine’s security crisis. The Ukrainian people, after all, are not children of a lesser God simply because their country does not have NATO membership.

One proposal, for example, to help Ukraine comes from former U.S. national security advisor under President Jimmy Carter, Zgbniew Brzezenkski, who has argued that the U.S. should supply small arms to the Ukrainian government to deter — and repel if it comes to pass — a broader Russian army invasion. Under Brzezenski’s proposal, these would be weapons specifically designed for close-range urban warfare; shoulder-launched rocket grenades, for example, that could be fired at invading Russian tanks.

If one shudders at the thought of soldiers inside tanks getting killed, whatever their nationality, it would be a far better course to demand from Congress, as well as from the NATO Parliamentary Assemby, that they urgently develop international aid programs to help Russian conscripts to access secure safe havens in our world where they can be free of Putin’s demonic plans for their lives, as opposed to putting up political barriers to help the Ukrainians exercise their fundamental right under international law to defend their country from foreign invasion.

Is that kind of arms supply plan, which would involve no U.S. military intervention in Ukraine, but would give the Ukrainian people a fighting chance to save themselves from the Russian military — a military which could easily crush Ukraine’s military — something the American people could support?

I asked one of America’s top foreign policy statesmen, Tom Pickering, if he would support Brzezenski’s proposal. Pickering, who was U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. during the first Gulf War and served as U.S. ambassador to six countries – including as U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 1993 to 1996 — thinks the U.S. needs to send a special envoy to Ukraine to get a clearer sense of what kind of weaponry the Ukrainians need, and then to quickly report back on the finding to U.S. policymakers. If President Obama tasked him with that mission, alongside a team of weapons experts, Pickering informed me that he would accept.

Instead of making grandiose, but ultimately empty, security pledges on behalf of the war-weary American people as he recently did on his visit to Poland — pledges which Polish officials quite rationally question — President Obama should address Putin’s threat to European and global security by sending an American of stature, like Tom Pickering, to Ukraine who can then quickly report back on how the U.S. can provide Ukraine with the proper weaponry to deter the Russian Army — and yes, repel it if need be. Whatever strategic weapons package is recommended, it should be put to an open vote in Congress so that the American people can register their views with their elected representatives on the matter and vice-versa.

Putin, of course, would shudder at the thought of such open, rigorous democratic discourse about his nation’s interface with the wider human family. Americans, on the other hand, should have no such hesitation, even when we may disagree with one another.

If a nation defending its own people and territory against a foreign military invasion — as the Ukrainian government is now doing — is not the very essence of a just war, then frankly, nothing is.

Arguably, the main question at hand is this: Will the American people, whose very conception of what constitutes a just war is under constant mental bombardment from domestic interests and who make their livelihoods off of live wars — including wars that have nothing whatsoever to do with the defense of this nation and have only served the strategic interests of our sworn enemies like ISIS — be able, in the midst of that mental bombardment, to recognize a just war when it’s staring humankind in the face, as it is right now with Ukraine’s plight?

Only time will tell. And only time will tell if we can muster the spiritual wisdom to build authentic alliances that will transform the forces in this world, be they at home or abroad, who find the mirror reflection of their own souls in guns both big and small.

Image via the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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