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.”
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.