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Hillary Clinton and the Cost of Political Talk

March 6, 2014

At a campaign fundraiser yesterday, Hillary Clinton managed to step on a geopolitical landmine when she compared Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler. Even though she has now been forced to backtrack a bit, her choice of historical analogy was unfortunate to say the least. Her jab at the Russian president may have played well with Hillary’s supporters, but it makes you wonder if she or anyone else in the public spotlight can ever stop politicking when it comes to delicate international events.

In the former Soviet Union there is no period in living memory as wrought with raw emotion as World War II. During the war the Soviet Union, under Russian control, served as one of the United States and Great Britain’s indispensable allies. The Eastern front, in battles of unparalleled violence and brutality, claimed the lives of nearly three million Germans and resulted in more Soviet casualties than all the other combatants combined. More than twenty-five million Soviet people perished in the “Great Patriotic War” in the fight against Nazism. In that context, had the Soviet Union failed on the Eastern front the path to victory for the United States and Great Britain would have been much more difficult, if not downright impossible. During the war, Ukraine fell to Nazi forces, ushering in terrible circumstances for that country under occupation. At the same time, however, it is well known that there were a significant number of Ukrainians who collaborated with the Germans as a way to throw off the Soviet yoke, which had cost millions of Ukrainian lives in the preceding decades. There were even Ukrainian SS units – a fact that still rankles many in Russia, since these weapons were aimed at the USSR – our Allied partner. Russian-Ukrainian tensions on this have continued to last, in some circles, to this day.

Although Hillary Clinton may get away with such an inappropriate comparison, it doesn’t mean she should have made it in the first place. Many pundits surmised that Hillary’s slam on Vladimir Putin, in the words of analyst Ian Bremmer, is an attempt to “inoculate herself” against political accusations that as Secretary of State she was the architect of the U.S.-Russian “reset” policy. This could well have been her motivation, but I believe there is more. It was also a way for her to reinforce indirectly the “wisdom” of Bill Clinton’s administration for pushing NATO expansion, even though it is another one of the underlying causes of tension between Russia and Ukraine.

Hillary Clinton’s ill-conceived assertion, however, is in keeping with the general tone adopted by President Obama and Secretary Kerry—advanced perhaps with an eye to the forthcoming midterm elections. Surely they know that it is strategically incompatible to condemn individuals in such vociferous, personal ways if they expect to gain that very same person’s trust or agreement for the crafting of a solution. Such personal attacks may also make the person dig in more. By expressing in this way their justifiable alarm at Russia’s intervention, the Obama administration has risked losing the opportunity to be an honest broker. It is now, very possibly, too late for a shift in roles.

Had the U.S. seen its value as peacemaker at the outset we might have found more receptivity for serious negotiations and redeemed ourselves, in part, for some of our own past mistakes. Earlier this week on “Face the Nation,” Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russian action: “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in [a] 19th-Century fashion by invading another country on [a] completely trumped-up pretext.”

Ha! What?

Has America’s policy-making class already forgotten our numerous “preemptive” interventions—most notably the U.S. invasion of Iraq on the grounds that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction? When it turned out there were none, advocates for the attack on Iraq found endless other “pretexts” for the necessity to act.

During the last week stepping up to the podium gave policy-makers the sense that they were doing something about the situation. But talking does not excuse the more fundamental failure to develop a sound strategic policy. Any strategy in this case must be backed by the realities that beg us to choose the highest and best use of our limited options. The situation in Ukraine is complicated and potentially dangerous. So how do we support Ukraine and its independence and, at the same time, convince the Russians that this is not a zero-sum game? The art of diplomacy has to include more than sticks. If there are no carrots on the table any outcome is far less likely to be sustainable over the long haul.

Today former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger underscored the biggest issue for the West in a similar way. “Public discussion on Ukraine,” he wrote, “is all about confrontation. But do we know where we are going? …The test of policy is how it ends, not how it begins.”

Kissinger warned against the temptation to make the Russian-Ukrainian crisis into a showdown. “If Ukraine is to survive and thrive, it must not be either side’s outpost against the other — it should function as a bridge between them.”

Henry Kissinger’s words remind us of another era, when our public officials were wise men and women – strategists who put longer-term international security concerns ahead of domestic political pandering.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. cac permalink
    March 6, 2014 5:04 pm

    Wow! Well said!
    It’s such simple idea: If you hope or need to constructively work with someone, the last thing you should do is publicly and personally attack them. Public personal attacks don’t work in Congress,the White House or in international “diplomacy” – whatever that might have been, once upon a time.

  2. Bob Hanfling permalink
    March 6, 2014 5:05 pm

    To say that this is the most logical and straight forward article I have read about the Ukraine-Russia-US situation is really not that big a compliment. Why? Because it is the ONLY written piece that I have read that recalls history and the bitter current memories that must be considered.
    Hillary, what were you thinking – or not thinking? A Russian (Putin or any other) like Hitler is a terrible statement, with more than 25 million (+++) families remembering the past. In my mind, the Bill Clinton NATO expansion, which I liked, came very close to the historical Russian/Soviet Union fear of encirclement. If Obama “red-lines” have no meaning, Russian/Putin “red-lines” for Georgia and the Ukraine were and are real.
    I personally have no historical love for the Ukrainian people who ran many of Hitler’s extermination camps, and have a long history of anti-Semitism, but that part of the past is not relevant in this situation. Between NATO expansion and the EU “encroachment” into Russia’s real (to them) or perceived (which should have been to us) economic, ethnic and political relationship to the Ukraine needs to be considered. Yes, Putin’s move to “protect” Russians in the Crimea does sound like “H’s” move to protect “Germans” is not enough to state a direct comparison.
    The lack of bi-partisan support or at least silence, is terrible. Sen. McCain’s comments are terrible. Your comment about the many “actions” the U.S. has taken into independent countries for various reasons, is laughable at this point.
    Sorry for the long reply, but please keep these sane, reasonable, clear comments coming.
    I hope the people who count will read your comments, understand them, and step back from “confrontation” and provide the “bridge” to peace.
    Thank you,
    Bob

  3. John Egan permalink
    March 6, 2014 5:06 pm

    Bravo Susan, right on target. If only the American leadership would listen to either Henry or you! John Egan

  4. Ronda Scott-Marak permalink
    March 6, 2014 5:15 pm

    She was not comparing Putin to Hitler in the same sense everyone usually uses the reference. She was making a legitimate reference to historical events and comparing them to current actions. It may have been a troublesome reference but compared to the over the top rhetoric usually putting moustaches on President Obama it was a correct usage.

  5. March 6, 2014 5:46 pm

    She’s not fit. Nor is anyone who panders with soundbites. What does it say about us when such people return year after year to Washington?

  6. Karen Fain permalink
    March 6, 2014 6:13 pm

    Unfortunately you left out Stalin starving 30 million Ukranians in the 1930’s. Don’t you think that is imperative to understanding the complex relationship of the Russians and Ukranians?

  7. QNetter permalink
    March 6, 2014 6:14 pm

    As a gay Jew, I feel every bit at risk were I to go to Russia as my family were in Germany and Poland.

  8. March 6, 2014 6:19 pm

    Because of the number of people we hear from, I do not respond to commentators. However, your point is well taken–my reference to the “Soviet yoke”– deserves more. I have made the adjustment. SE

  9. Tom Graham permalink
    March 6, 2014 6:33 pm

    Susan
    Wonderful, thoughtful, well written commentary.
    Tom

  10. Rick Jones permalink
    March 6, 2014 9:43 pm

    Susan, I think/feel one of your most very insightful pieces EVER!! I understand from friends visiting Russia, an entire generation MISSING(25Million youth lost/more than obvious).If it weren’t for 1)Nazi struggles Russian front, 2) your G-father’s D-Day success, we may well be speaking German & wearing Swastika armbands, not all that far-fetched!! Germans feel a “God-Given” right to rule all land masses of the WORLD!! Love Hillary Clinton(voted against 2008 primary) but she may have been less divisive @ President than B.O. w/”racist” overtone GOP!! But Hillary has to be careful about shooting from the hip(offensive or otherwise) & picking your political battles(domestic or foreign) VERY CAREFULLY!!

  11. March 7, 2014 10:29 am

    Again, a sound view, with historical understand, and suggestions. Brava Susan.

    Louis

  12. Tony DuPuis permalink
    March 7, 2014 11:32 am

    Once upon a time…
    There was this Great new Nation…
    Within the com-positional hearts and minds of that great new Nation, was Honor and TRUTH.
    As time progressed… hubris and a new internal lurking power began to come into play…
    The power grew and grew…so much indeed, that at this point, the very fabric of what once was a Great Nation has changed. “Some” of the people of that great Nation now continue to be baffled by the “power’s” ability to over-ride the ever respected truth, justice and freedom of our nation. So many of the hard working people who reside in this nation are so busy with 1, 2 or 3 jobs- just to pay the bills and reality itself just passes them by. Reading, learning and understanding seem to be no longer the norm… the actual occurrences on a daily basis of MAJOR events and power plays, are done right in front of the “texting/tweeting/SLEEPING” eyes of the American people. So many are clueless that so much is done in the geopolitical underworld to harm our Nation’s stance, reputation, and well being. It’s also done right under the watchful eyes of the rest of the World, who is quite informed of the major US power plays and players.
    Ha! What? INDEED !!!
    Great Commentary Susan!!!
    once again, THANK YOU for being WHO You ARE… :-)

  13. Ernest Kolowrat permalink
    March 7, 2014 2:08 pm

    As one who saw Hitler and his military might roll into Prague, I especially appreciate your comments about Hillary Clinton’s inappropriate analogy. After reading your piece, I AGAIN wonder what our relationship with Russia would be like today if you had been in Moscow as our ambassador empowered to press that RESTART button.

    All good wishes always.

  14. Milos Puaca permalink
    March 7, 2014 5:53 pm

    Hillary was far overrated as Secretary of State. She did not address some things that happened during her term. She has been fast to attack and slow to understand. This is the state of world affairs that she left for whomever dared follow her words and actions.

    As for those who apologize among these comments, how would you characterize Reagan’s invasion of Grenada to protect U.S. medical students? Does this make him like Hitler? Of course not. (A well-considered Administration in 1999 would not have dropped bombs on the Balkans, especially like Hitler – on the city of Belgrade on the day of Orthodox Easter.) Putin is not finished but Clinton is.

  15. March 7, 2014 9:09 pm

    I absolutely agree with your (as always) very level-headed and well-informed post: to deal with the present diplomatically, we must realize that other peoples have their own backgrounds and — shocking! — may think differently from how some Americans think.

    As Bob Hanfling comments, we need to recall “history and the bitter current memories that must be considered.” In that vein, some may wish to see my post “Learning from maps and history: The case of Ukraine” at http://politicswestchesterview.wordpress.com/2014/03/04/learning-from-maps-of-ukraine/.

  16. Ann & Bruce Brookens permalink
    March 11, 2014 11:56 am

    Your editorial makes sense. Perhaps you should run for office…? Ann & Bruce Brookens of Colorado ( We remember you well from 2008, Dem. Convention)

  17. Joe Von Lehman permalink
    March 20, 2014 11:47 am

    Putin now, after Crimea, seems a lot more like Hitler, but smarter. He took Crimea with barely a shot being fired. But, we can’t let him get away with it totally.
    At this point in the situation, short of war, there is not much anybody can do.
    However, as wild as it might seem, there is something that can be accomplished.
    Russia must be made to pay for/ make reparations/ to Ukraine.
    Or if you will – buy Crimea.
    The whole world might rally around a financial solution.
    I suggest a starting number for reparations at twice the Ukraine national debt. Russia could assume the debt and then pay cash for the other 50% of the price.
    The money should be administered by the UN or other responsible, ethical, capable entity – not the current and weak Ukraine government.
    Russia should also be required to enter into a very favorable long term (say 200 year) contract to provide Ukraine cheap gas and oil.
    Russia would also need to guarantee save exit and fair treatment for Crimean citizens who wish to leave.
    There’s much more to work out – but those are the foundation of a solution.
    Joe Von Lehman, Union, KY

  18. June 26, 2014 7:12 pm

    I would like to see Hillary Clinton in the White House with former President Bill Clinton. This time he could serve as her assistant. I hope Ms. Eisenhower will support the Clinton’s return to Washington. DC. The Clintons represent what moderate Republicans under Dwight Eisenhower supported. The Republican Party of today is too conservative; it no longer represents the values of Lincoln, Willkie, or Landon. It is no longer the party of Theodore Roosevelt. The New Democrats under Bill Clinton were good. There were jobs, prosperity, and good times. Let us return the Clintons to the White House. We made a mistake when we elected George W. Bush and Barack Obama to the White House.

  19. June 26, 2014 7:35 pm

    I wonder how President Eisenhower would have felt about our social status today. I know he would support racial equality; however, homosexual marriage and adoption, I do not think so. What about Hillary comparing President Putin to Hitler concerning the war in the Ukraine, I believe he would disagree with that assumption. The US does not need to get into another war. President Woodrow Wilson was right when he wanted to keep us out of war. Teddy Roosevelt thought war was glorious; however, that is wrong. William T. Sherman, former Union General said: War is hell. He was right.

  20. June 28, 2014 8:53 am

    I wish to add something else. My late grandfather, Duncan Miller, was Chairman of the Republican Party in Bertie County, NC in 1936. He was very much for Gov. Landon and disliked President Franklin Roosevelt. My father was different from his father and was a liberal Democrat. He only voted Republican against conservative Democrat Harry Byrd of Virginia and against Senator George McGovern in 1972. I have voted for both parties when the Republicans were more moderate. I do not like Tea Party Republicans. I have voted mostly Democratic over the last few years. I like Senator Tim Kaine and his father-in-law, former Republican Governor Linwood Holton. He has been supporting Democrats too.

  21. July 18, 2014 11:12 pm

    I must change my mind about President Putin. I believe he wants to recreate the old Soviet Union. It seems to me that the war is getting worse. I do not look forward to this. Why can the Russians not live in peace. I feel that our friends in Europe are in danger; therefore, we will have to support them. May God bring a spirit of peace to our world.

  22. September 16, 2014 11:10 am

    Ms. Eisenhower,

    I hope that Mrs. Clinton will appoint you Secretary of State if she is elected president in 2016. I believe you would do a great job in that position. The holidays are coming; therefore, I hope that they will be grand for you.

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