The ongoing spike in geopolitical crises such as in the Ukraine, turmoil in Venezuela, Syria and the escalation in steps to carve out a radial Islamic state by ISIS in the Middle East, presents a dire warning. It is time to rally the West around protecting the ideals of freedom. Otherwise, autocratic leaders and radical Islamists whose motives seek to supersede those ideals will decide the world’s fate for the 21st century. Only America is in the unique position to lead in protecting the ideals of liberty, and now is far from the right time to abdicate such a responsibility.
Today’s events have parallels to those of the early and mid 20th century, which experienced similar challenges that are instructive to decisions that need to be made now. Unfortunately today the West has a deficit of leaders with the fortitude to recognize and deal with these challenges like leaders did in those times. On March 5, 1946 Winston Churchill delivered a speech in Fulton Mo., less than a year that Hitler had committed suicide. He told the audience in the Westminster College gymnasium in a small American town that, “ an iron curtain has descended across the continent”. This phrase became part of the geopolitical lexicon for decades to describe the tension and stark differences between communism and democracy.
He warned about the terrible possibility that a new clash against totalitarian was inevitable. Unlike the ever presence of political correctness and appeasement gestures of today, Churchill warned publicly that Stalin’s Soviet Union was a brutal dictatorship, determined to tyrannize its satellite states without fear of challenge from neighboring democratic states. Putin’s actions in the Ukraine and Georgia in 2008 are a reemergence of that political ideology. Churchill also cautioned the world about the, “all embracing police governments,” ruled “ either by dictators or by compact oligarchies operating through a privileged party and a political police.” The Russian oligarchs that benefit from and fund Putinism, and the ‘political police’ type actions in Venezuela, Turkey (which just banned Twitter and YouTube), Syria, Cuba, China and the Middle East to censor political speech and activity, exemplify the consequences Churchill foresaw not just last century but now.
These predictions of the impact of totalitarianism most likely motivated Churchill to speak out fearlessly regardless of reaction to call for “a special relationship between the British Commonwealth and Empire and the United States”. This was the very first use of the term. Churchill rallied the West and the United States led the efforts for democracy to defeat the growing totalitarian movement for communism led by the Soviet Union. Since the mid 20th century, American Presidents from different political parties knew that America had the unique capability to lead the free world against communism, still the true enemy of freedom and the facilitator of tyranny.
President Kennedy in his inaugural address understood America’s role in the world when he said. “ Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” and in reference the Soviet Union. “We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.” Kennedy later in his presidency stood at the Brandenburg gate in Berlin and declared, “Ich bin ein Berliner”, which meant, “ I am a Berliner” to show solidarity for freedom to the people still living behind the Berlin Wall in then East Berlin.
President Reagan also stood at the same Berlin Wall later and boldly declared to the astonishment of millions including some of his closest advisors, “Mr. Gorbachav, tear down this wall”. The special relationship between the USA and Britain under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher led an expanding alliance among other countries that valued freedom and denounced communism leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union.
Today it is a different story. Like the intellectual elites of the 1914 to 1930s, President Obama and many other people of similar political ideologue are convinced that major geopolitical turmoil is unthinkable because of interrelated financial relationships among the great powers. They naively think soft power and persistent compromise will taper the imperialist ambitions of regimes with totalitarian mindsets.
In addition, similar to how people of the 1930s were still recovering from the fatigue of WW1, and the dealing with the effects of the great depression made them repulsive to any strong actions against the then rising Hitler. Today’s fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the constant terrorist threats from Islamic extremists, dampens support for strong backlash towards Putin et al.
Many of today’s western leaders take this as a mandate to avoid confrontation at any cost. Such misguided mandates based on policies that amplify hopes rather than those that solve the effects of realities have led to great human costs such as world wars and ethnic cleansing. Today the costs are much greater because regimes in Russia and China that harbor imperialist and expansionist agendas under the guise of nationalism have nuclear weapons, or enable proliferation among rouge states like Iran and North Korea.
Fundamentally, the real mandate of today’s leaders in the West is to strongly deter such motives, show solidarity or support to people who yearn to be free and want to be apart of a modern world of economic liberty, rather than facilitate via inaction the demise of achievements attained by the West in the last century.
Former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin thought he had secured ‘peace in our time’ when he waved a little paper to signify that Hitler had promised in Munich not to expand further into Europe after annexing parts of Czechoslovakia. When Churchill (before he became Prime Minister), warned about Hitler’s rise and against the appeasement of his ambitions, he was labeled a ‘war monger’. If the world had heeded Churchill’s warning we probably would not have experienced what he later described as the ‘unnecessary war’, WWII.
The victory by the West in winning the cold war allowed many countries that were formally under the boot of communism to move forward to embrace economic freedom and democracy, which uplifted the lives of millions of people. Capitalism, the economic system that enhances free societies has given us new items for a new arsenal of democracy in the 21st century. These include the Internet, and social media. Such tools have prevented a new iron curtain as the rest of the world can see what happens in most areas under the threat of a revitalized oppression. Areas such as North Korea are yet to escape the old ‘Iron Curtain’, as these tools are strictly forbidden.
More so, the Internet, Facebook and twitter etc. have been proven as invaluable tools to galvanize the efforts of those who are fighting such oppression. It is no accident that oppressive regimes censor social media because of their effectiveness in promoting political speech and exposing corruption. To the dismay of freedom fighters around the world, there was probably not a more inappropriate time to please and embolden such regimes than when the Obama administration recently decided to surrender America’s control of the Internet. Now regimes that are already curbing the Internet freedom will have more influence to do so. See: ‘America’s Internet Surrender’ by L. Gordon Crovitz in WSJ.
An inherent trait of human nature is to be free, and the inherent trait of one who seeks unbridled power is to control. The American system of government founded on the principles of limited government and that ‘one’s freedom comes from their creator and not government,’ aimed to ensure the former trait and prevent the latter. That’s where American exceptionalism comes from, and that’s why Putin took a swipe at it recently. The U.S and other countries that have based and upheld their democratic systems of government on similar ideas are the antithesis of communism and autocratic regimes. As such, the US and the West that shares similar values must lead because the alternatives that don’t share those values will fill the leadership vacuum with disastrous consequences. It is appalling that President Obama who is often touted as being so eloquent and a supposed constitutional scholar cannot explain the basis of ‘American Exceptionalism’.
While authoritarian regimes in Russia, China, Syria, Cuba etc. have been united and have synchronized their efforts to fulfill shared geopolitical ambitions or cause, the West has in recent years faltered in protecting the ideals of freedom. The Obama administration has succumbed to the illusion that the world will be a better and less confrontational place if America’s predominance was steadily receded in favor of ‘shared’ leadership with rising powers who don’t share the ideals of freedom. The hard won Cold War and the deterrence of another major world conflict due to America’s superpower status, has insulated the liberal political class of today and a generation in the West from the potential of evil empires. Some don’t even remember living with a lurking Soviet Union.
However, it is encouraging to see that most of the people who are fighting for freedom around the world from oppressive regimes are in fact of a generation barely old enough to remember the Cold War. From Kiev to Caracas, from Cairo to Tehran or from Istanbul to Beijing and Hong Kong, the inherent and natural human trait for freedom is exemplified. It reveals that this trait is not differentiated or barred due to skin color, race, class or religion. Even young people in Russia who prefer greater integration with world oppose Putin’s imperialism. The removal of the Iron Curtain and modern tools such as the Internet and social media, has allowed people to see and realize that there is a better way than having the potential of their future sapped by communism, socialism or authoritarianism. People of the world who rally for freedom used to be confident that the United States and the rest of West firmly stood with them and so they were usually motivated to fight on.
Such confidence however may be waning due to President Obama’s leading from behind. After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, President Bush sent ships into the Black Sea, airlifted Georgian military forces from Iraq back to their home bases and sent humanitarian aid. Russia was denied its ultimate goal of overthrowing the democratically elected government, an admission made to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice by the Russian foreign minister. Compare those actions to President Obama’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis and his response to the Ukraine Prime Minister who met with him in Washington when he offered MREs (meals ready to eat), rather than useful military aid.
Even with Russia still occupying parts of Georgia, President Obama and his former secretary of state Hillary Clinton pursued a ‘reset’ with Russia. Due to the demands of the Russians, plans to deploy missile defense with allies such as the Czech Republic and Poland were canceled. In addition, talks supported by the previous Bush administration of having Georgia and the Ukraine become part of NATO ceased, which again catered to the interest of Russia.
The Obama administration also entered into a flawed strategic arms reduction treaty START with the Russians, which curtailed the modernization of America’s warhead capability while allowing Russia to expand theirs. In addition, Russia and China consistently undermine the U.S and the West at the UN by aiding murderous regimes in Syria, North Korea and Iran while increasing its military influence to those in our hemisphere such as in Venezuela and Cuba.
If Russia has violated major treaties with the Ukraine, why should the U.S think Putin can be trusted with agreements it made with them such a START and others regarding arms limitations. Iranian born writer on Middle Eastern affairs Amir Taheri, recently warned in and op-ed: ‘If Russia Goes Rogue’. In it he says, “Russia has had treaties with the Ukraine to allow Russian navy to use the ex-Soviet facilities in Sevastopol and Balaklava. Russia obtained a lease until 2017 and second one extended it till 2042. Under the agreement could not increase the number of military personnel in the Crimean Peninsula or introduce weaponry without Ukraine’s consent. Nor could Russia military and security personnel intervene in Ukrainian domestic politics. In addition, Mr. Taheri reminds us that, “Russia does not have border-demarcation accords with China or Japan and maintains territorial claims against both. It has two treaties with Tehran under which Moscow could land troops in Iran to protect its legitimate interests.” That’s a loaded meaning in light of the reasons Russia just used to invade Crimea. Russia borders with several other former Soviet republics are also threatened among them Kazakhstan and Lativia.
When the civil war erupted in Syria, the Obama administration wasted valuable opportunities to aid moderate opposition groups, which could have brought the war to close, and saved thousands of lives while bringing about stability. Aiding moderate groups and allies in Syria and Kurdish region of Iraq would also have helped to counter the rise of ISIS. After the failure of the fictitious ‘red line’, Putin outmaneuvered President Obama and the West again by pretending to be the valuable mediator to Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons. Meanwhile, thousands are still dying, the Russians will keep their warm water port in Syria, and Jordan one our allies in the region and a moderate Middle East country is bracing under the pressure of refugees from Syria. Also, Syria will keep being the intermediary point for military flights from Tehran to Venezuela where Iranian and Cuban military help to keep the oppressive President Maduro in power. Putin has said the biggest geopolitical disaster of the 20th century was the breakup of the U.S.S.R. Not the the two world wars and other conflicts? This is indicative of his true passion and world view and alone should be a major 'red flag' to the West. No pun intended.
While Putin has systematically and strategically made plans to restore Russia to an empire, the U.S has repeatedly abdicated its own strategic opportunities. In 2008 then Senator Obama campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War and did everything to undermine it when he came in as President. He seemed oblivious to the task of commander in chief. The true character of an effective commander in chief is that no matter their views of the wars started under a previous president, when they become president their duty is to make sure those wars result in victory, honor the sacrifice of those fought for our country and make sure the result serves the long term interests of the United States, not just a political ideology or campaign strategy.
President Obama failed to secure a status of forces agreement to keep a residual force of American soldiers in Iraq to deter a re-emergence of Al Qaeda and maintain stability while fostering Iraq into a strategic ally. This failure was probably due to his preference to full fill his campaign promise of total withdrawal from Iraq. However, the consequences are far reaching. Iraq has returned to being a haven for Al Qaeda. Sectarian violence is spiraling out of control as the even more radical group ISIS tries to create an Islamic state subservient to the teachings and aspirations of Sharia law. So far in its purge of Christians who they are forcing to convert to Islam, ISIS has also killed hundreds of Iraqis and threaten the lives of thousands of Kurds. Forces allied to ISIS are already setting up enclaves in Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, the Central African Republic, Mali and Nigeria. They also have supporters who have set up sleeping cells with active recruitments in Latin America, Western Europe, the Balkans and Middle East countries.
Iran has actively used Iraqi airspace to aid Syria. The Russians have stepped up relations with factions in Iraq just like they are also doing in Egypt after years of absence. Many Iraqis who had supported the U.S with their lives and were looking forward to expanded relations with the West feel abandoned, so do many in Afghanistan as they also witness a feckless American exit. People will normally align themselves with the victors or those they can count on. Unfortunately too many people in volatile areas who could be valuable strategic allies to the America and the cause for freedom don’t think it is worth it or safe to do so anymore.
America and allies in the West are still in a position to deter Russia’s imperial ambitions. The West still has a larger leverage in world banking and the ability to impose sanctions to isolate Russia. The years of a complacent and diminished NATO need to be reversed and strengthened by adding more Eastern European countries. Reviving the Bush-era agreements for missile defense installation in this region, plus adding advanced interceptors that could be used against potential Russian ICBMs, would help to build confidence with allies, and be a warning to adversaries.
Putin for years have built an energy strategy to both build the Russian economy and also as a geopolitical weapon to coerce and threaten European countries. The U.S and the West needs to implement wise energy policies that will both grow the economies of countries who value freedom plus as an alternative to the impact of volatile regions of OPEC countries and Russia. The endless Sunni/Shiite friction in the Middle East constantly warns about vulnerability of the world’s energy markets. Tensions in Venezuela and now in Europe due to Russia, only amplify these concerns.
The U.S can lead by taking steps towards a North American energy independence by first approving the Keystone Pipeline from Canada which the Obama administration has constantly delayed, and forge expanded agreements with the increasingly energy liberated Mexico. Also approving the 25 applications for liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals would create a strong gas export strategy to Europe. This while by expanding trade agreements will strengthen existing alliances and build new ones with emerging democratic countries who were formally Soviet satellites. This would weaken the economic arm that propels the re-emergence of a totalitarian socialist Russian empire.
According to The Wall Street Journal, “Ambassadors of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia recently wrote to House Speaker John Boehner with a plea for more gas, noting that technology allows them to reverse gas flows back to Ukraine. In 2013 alone, Ukraine imported from Poland and Hungary almost two billion cubic meters of gas. With Russia unilaterally raising gas prices on the Ukraine, the more ability Europe has to undermine those price hikes, the more limited the Russian influence. See: A Gas Export Strategy-WSJ.
So far the only western leader who has shown that he understands the reality and potential of aggressive Vladimir Putin is Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Recently he met with Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk in Kiev and visited the site where the first people were killed at the start of the crisis. He likened Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine to those of Nazi Germany in the lead up to the World War II. Mr. Harper comments were a stark difference from the passive voices of other Western leaders when he told a news conference that Putin’s actions, highlighted by annexation of Crimea suggested he is trying to return to a world in which the “law of the jungle prevails.” Therefore, the West needs to redouble efforts to protect democracy and rule of law, he advised. Mr. Harper also unequivocally gave his support to Israel's right to defend itself after it responded to missile attacks launched from Gaza by the terrorist group Hamas. Mr. Harper showed that he understood that there is no moral equivalence between Hamas who seek to destroy Israel while using their children as human shields, compared to the nation of Israel who tries to protect its right to exist.
The free world should heed Mr. Harper’s call, and the United States as the lone superpower can still rally the West to stem the loss of freedom and deter those who seek to destroy it. Unfortunately, a leadership deficit without more leaders like Mr. Harper makes this a tremulous time in history. President Obama by keeping his endless fundraising schedule no matter what crisis is going on, seems to indicate that he hopes to run out the clock of not having to deal with a major global conflict before his term ends. Unfortunately, his abdication of leading the West when duty called, has set the countdown clock to the inevitability. There will be a time not too far in the distance where the world experiences more major global conflicts, because we have a leadership deficit in the West now.