This column is a little bit about Ukraine, and we have brand-new things to think about as of this week. It is also about Greece and Spain, both of which suddenly give us a great deal to think about.
You are going to wonder how these topics could possibly be related, so I had better tell you right away.
It is because this column is mostly about us, we the nation of spectators. The world spins, but most of us seem to stir for nothing anymore other than gadgetry, gloppy food, corporate sports and bad films. None of it ever fills the emptiness that, in the course of a couple of generations, has become a standing feature of the American experience. It merely leaves us befuddled strangers.
The news of the past few days, taken together, brings me to a question. It is not, as last week, “What are we doing?” Now we turn it upside down: “What is it we are not doing, what have we stopped doing? And how did we land in a state of near-perfect quietude no matter what goes on out our windows?
I came late to the worry, expressed by a few thoughtful readers, that the Ukraine crisis bears the risk of a hot war between nuclear-armed powers. This is what you get when you neglect to “think with history,” to borrow a phrase from Carl Schorske, a Princeton scholar I have long admired. My error.
As of Monday—as of Monday’s New York Times, to be precise—we are now on notice. In all probability, in a matter of months the U.S. will begin sending lethal weapons to the Ukrainian military. Those named as part of the deliberations for this turn in policy include Secretary of State Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Defense Secretary Hagel, Joint Chiefs chairman Martin Dempsey, and Philip Breedlove, the American commander of NATO’s military forces.
Look at the list. Two soldiers, who by training and tradition think in terms of military capability alone, a Vietnam veteran turned Republican hawk who is not noted for his field of vision, and two Democrats of the breed lately achieving egregious prominence, the liberal interventionists. The take-homes here are two: One, be on notice, too, that there is little consequential opposition, if any, as Washington once more reiterates America’s right to pursue the providential mission in every corner of the planet. Two, this is not about Ukraine: It is about a greatly craved face-off with Russia with a long history behind it.
I stand astonished we are hurtling toward armed confrontation at this speed, with no one in sight to check what starts to look like an obsessive-compulsive addiction to some kind of regeneration through violence.
“The U.S. has already dragged us into a new Cold War, trying to openly implement its idea of triumphalism,” Mikhail Gorbachev, whose subtle grasp of the divide between East and West is second to nobody’s, said in an interview last week. “Where will that lead all of us? Have they totally lost their heads?”
On this side of the concertina wire, we are amid a propaganda campaign that exceeds itself as we speak. The latest is an old Pentagon “study” leaked to the networks Wednesday —and dutifully reported in grave tones—purporting to establish that Vladimir Putin suffers from Asperger’s syndrome. Any younger reader who does not understand why this column brays regularly about a return to the suffocating absurdities of the 1950s, now you know. Future generations will laugh, but we cannot now.
Along with the above-named officials, eight others gathered separately to publish a report urging—you will never guess—arming Ukraine against its rebellious population in the East and countering the yet-to-be-demonstrated Russian presence behind them. Here we have a retired Air Force general, a retired admiral, two former ambassadors to Ukraine and one to NATO, two former Pentagon officials (Michèle Flournoy could be defense secretary were Hillary Clinton to win in 2016), and Strobe Talbott, Bill Clinton’s deputy defense secretary. Talbott now presides at the Brookings Institution, one of three think tanks to issue the report. (Read it here.)
One does not imagine these people met often, since they all think precisely alike. Their purpose appears to be putting a number on the project: The report recommends the U.S. send Ukraine $3 billion worth of anti-armor missiles, reconnaissance drones, armored vehicles and radar systems to identify the source of rocket and artillery fire.
The choreography at work in the Times report is remarkable even for a paper accustomed to doing what it is told. Michael Gordon, a long-serving defense and security correspondent noted for his obedience, reported the deliberations in Washington (without naming a single source) the same day the Brookings report appeared (and in the same story).
First, anyone who continues to mistake a clerk such as Gordon for a journalist must by now be judged irredeemably naive. This is a case study of how the Times functions and the place it occupies in public space. Were Pravda to work similar angles in the old Soviet days, the Times’ Moscow bureau would be all over it for its servitude.
Second and more important, the careful coordination of the disclosures spoon-fed Gordon suggests very strongly that a) public opinion is now being prepared for a new military intervention and b) planning for this intervention is in all likelihood already in motion.
And here we go. On Wednesday the defense secretary-designate, Ashton Carter, testified at his confirmation hearings that arming Ukraine would be fine with him. On Thursday Secretary Kerry arrived in Kiev to confer with the Poroshenko government. It will be interesting to read the reporting on this curiously timed visit in light of the artlessly artful manner in which we seem to be advised of our next war in the making.
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Bad to worse in Ukraine, worse to promising along Europe’s southern rim. You already know Greeks elected the social-democratic Syriza party two weeks ago and made its charismatic leader, Alexis Tsipras, prime minister. Tsipras instantly formed a cabinet of intellectually capable allies and set about addressing what he calls “Greece’s humanitarian crisis.”
Last Sunday, more. Podemos, an out of nowhere party that is in essence Spain’s version of Syriza, brought somewhere between 100,000 (police count) and 300,000 (the Podemos count) into the squares of central Madrid. It starts to look as if Europe is about to move significantly leftward. At the very least it has a pitched political battle in its near future.
As all reports indicate, these two parties stand against the stringent austerity policies the EU and the International Monetary Fund insist upon in exchange for assistance in countering a financial and economic crisis now 7 years old. As many economists have come to agree, the European project now is to recover from Europe’s recovery strategies, which are neoliberal in all respects.
O.K. as far as it goes. But the essence of this movement, if that is what it is, lies far deeper. The common themes sounded among Syriza and Podemos leaders—and those in similar organizations elsewhere in the crisis countries—are dignity, an end to humiliation (personal and national), a right to democratic process. These are political values. There is relief but not much dignity if a finance minister cuts a new debt deal with private creditors and the EU’s bankers.
The distinction is essential, it seems to me. The new conversation in Europe has to do with a kind of political restoration. After years of the neoliberal orthodoxy, Europeans who understand its fundamentally undemocratic aspects are saying what Lionel Jospin, a French premier in the late 1990s and early 2000s, said as well as anyone ever has: “Market economy, not market society.”
Among the many implications here is just who is likely to get shoved into a very tight corner. Conservatives and fiscal hawks such as David Cameron and Manuel Valls, the British and French prime ministers, have little more to worry about than they did before Tsipras was elected and Podemos (“We Can”) got an astonishing crowd into Madrid’s streets. No, it is the Continent’s versions of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair who are now worth watching.
These are the mainstream Socialists and social democrats who drank the Kool-Aid Clinton and Blair mixed. Clinton called it “triangulation,” remember? Blair had “New Labour.” Opposing oligarchic corporate, financial and political elites was yesterday’s tired old idea. You did business with business; you horse-traded with the rightist parties (until there was little left to trade).
Where people such as Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, and France’s François Hollande leap next will tell us a lot about the future political direction Europe may take (and hence something about the future of the Atlantic alliance, too). It will say something about the future of left politics, too. These people tend to talk left and govern right, in the Clintonian, Blairite style. As a British columnist put it last week, what was so recently the new suddenly looks old.
* * *
It is odd, and a little bitter, to watch these various events as an American. How to describe the sensation? It is like watching the world from behind a glass wall. Or living amid an enveloping ennui. We have persuaded ourselves—and we have done it, in the end; it has not been done to us—that citizens in the 21st century remains of democracies are powerless. Ruling cliques are possessed of an immense will to power, while those ruled are sapped of any.
Odd, bitter and humiliating to watch Washington proceed into a war it appears to be intent on enlarging while many of us, maybe most, see no sense in it and those who claim to rely for argument on the propaganda they are victims of. Nothing happens among right-thinking people? No one has a voice to raise?
The same sensations arise as Europeans say no to the destruction of their polities, their public spaces, their democratic institutions—altogether the humanity of their cultures and societies. And here 300 million supine former citizens, silent?
The columnist is of a certain age, O.K., but there is more to these questions than memories of the Vietnam period and various fights afterward over the preservation of America’s public spaces. Nostalgia is a type of depression, and I am allergic to it in any form. The concern is for now, as we are (and no longer are).
In the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period, the American right regrouped, as is well known, and the decades of narcissism ensued. Reagan elevated greed and depraved selfishness to virtues. The media—not just the press, but advertising, television, film, the lot—took down the consciousness that stood up straight. Soon enough the presumption was of futility. Perfectly ordinary perspectives and sentiments became suspect.
I see a fundamental wrong in this narrative. Nothing in it is false except the onus of responsibility. As the noted French thinkers of the postwar years argued persuasively, under any and all conditions there are choices we make freely. That is why freedom frightens most of us. Make no choices and you have made yours.
The Ukraine crisis comes up to the edge of fearful now. The dynamism that starts to animate European politics is to be envied, although one would rather be too busy with American variants of the new European themes to be bothered with anything like envy.
But the greatest source of fear, it seems to me, now arises here among us. We have a profoundly broken political system, and our institutions are torn up by those professing most to honor them. Unless we fix this we will go down in who knows what fashion. Ukraine as it proceeds into more war is a function of this: One thing Vietnam showed everyone watching was that war cannot be conducted without either domestic consensus or silence. As to our political paralysis when set against Europe, the point is too obvious to belabor.
The anatomy of true, irreversible decline begins to reveal itself precisely as we watch events abroad. It comes of too many of us simply sitting there, maybe watching another television drama in which the surveillance cops and the computers save the day. Banal times 10. We have a little time left, but as these weeks go by, not overmuch.
Footnote: Needless confusion in last week’s column, and thanks to those readers who caught the error. I offered the quotation, “There are only two peoples now. Russia is still barbarous, but it is great. The other young nation is America,” etc., and attributed it to de Tocqueville. The French traveler said something very similar as he concluded Vol. I of “Democracy in America” in 1835, but Sainte-Beuve, as readers noted, said it 12 years later in the words I quoted. Oddly, I put the passage in an earlier column and had the attribution right.