Monday, September 15, 2014

Ignorance is Not Bliss

I am going to do something radical—tell you stop reading this (please come back) to turn to something other than Syncopated Politics.  Instead, I recommend you look at an essay by Keith Gessen in the London Review of Books entitled “Why Not Kill Them All?”  

Gessen writes about Ukraine, about the good guys and the bad guys, about Putin, about the Ukrainian fascists, the nationalists, the separatists, about the Maidan protests in Kiev, about the illegal coal mines set up by Aleksandr Yanukovych (son of the deposed former President) that pockmark the countryside with open pits and corpses, of people’s governors and oligarchs, and mobs, and thugs, and massed tanks, and on and on.

Gessen reminds one of what a good journalist can do, but he also confounds my efforts to keep everything straight in my head.  Who are the good guys here? We know Putin is an ogre, but there are also ethnic Russians, who, surprise, want to be Russians. Is that wrong? There are nationalists who want to keep the country together, and nationalists who are scary fascists with a taste for using their fists.  None of these folk are choirboys.  All seem to know how to march, know how to throw the odd Molotov cocktail, and all seem to have the same willingness, if not the propensity, to use violence.   

The most pervasive sense you get in reading the essay is chaos and an ad hoc response to every situation.  Government representatives visited Donetsk, a major urban and industrial center, met with civic leaders, but spent most of their time trying to convince hard-liner football (soccer) fans to take up arms and ready themselves to fight the pro-Russian forces in the city. Soccer fans! You might call this the Ukrainian Hooligan Resistance.  There are beatings, kidnappings, and “enhanced interrogations.” There is class conflict; the middle class seems to line up the more nationalistic sensibilities, the working class seems to go with more of a schismatic, pro-Russian, but paradoxically anti-oligarch movement.  Yet the biggest of the oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov, was secretly financing the separatists.     

I sent the link to Gessen’s essay to three very smart friends, and I think they felt as I did. It is a kaleidoscope of information that is very hard to integrate, as if you have been dropped into an ancient city with only an outdated map in an unknown language written in an incomprehensible script.  You aren’t just uneducated—you are un-educable.

What should we be doing in Ukraine?  Good question. Clearly, there’s no consensus here for anything besides blaming Obama for not taking on the Russian Bear.  But, even if you buy in to the GOP trope, which, essentially involves the unsupported statement that a more assertive President would have kept Ukraine together and dissuaded the Russians from moving troops across the borders, how do you deal with what amounts to an internal civil war? 

Here’s what John McCain had to say to The Guardian in December of 2013: These people love the United States of America, they love freedom – and I don't think you could view this as anything other than our traditional support for people who want free and democratic society.”

A ringing peroration, but which people was he talking about?  When you read Gessen’s essay, is there any group, any group at all, that fits that description—lovers of the United States, and lovers of liberty?

Here’s what Gessen said about the thinking of the people that McCain presumably would embrace as allies:  “This is what I heard from respectable people in Kiev. Not from the nationalists, but from liberals, from professionals and journalists. All the bad people were in one place – why not kill them all?”

“Kill them all” doesn't quite seem to fit our vision.  I am not blaming McCain, per se.  He’s just one of the many flapping mouths, from politicians to opinion writers, who are falling into the same trap, whether it’s Ukraine, or ISIS, or Syria.  They all seek the simplest of answers to the most complex of issues.

Part of the problem is pure politics.  There’s an election coming up (there’s always an election coming up) and grabbing a microphone and spouting out certitudes looks good for the base.  We used to have more cooperation between the parties on issues of national security, but it would be a sanitized version of history if we were to ever say that politics stops at the water’s edge.  It never has, and it never will.

Sheer ignorance plays a role, an ignorance that is grounded in outmoded certitudes.  The people who make policy in this country are too often living in the past.  They are still 20th Century Euro-centrists.  Think the World Wars, when the nasty old Germans, as a country, would periodically erupt from behind their borders in wars of conquest.  First, the invasion of the Low Countries and surrounding lesser powers.  Then the French display appalling ineptness (with appropriate Gallic pride, of course.)  Somewhere in there, the Italians switch sides a couple of tines. The Brits hang on, manfully; solid bulldog chins making it through with characteristic grit.  Then our boys come over to liberate the continent, the bad countries surrender, and it’s all over with.  The mean Germans are shown the blessings of democracy, and all of us cultured Westerners get to take on the Ruskies and Godless Communism.  It’s beautifully linear; each country aligned for, and against, other countries, and it’s always possible to tell who is wearing the white and black hats. 

Of course, we know this is deficient in a time where crazies are everywhere, where countries (like Ukraine, and Iraq, and Syria) are riven with tribalism, and where smashing a country just doesn’t have the positive impact it used to. And, in our heart of hearts, we know that pure force will be deficient as well.  Beating up people who have been driven by hatreds for centuries doesn't suddenly make them permanently passive.

But the most important deficiency in the way we make foreign/military policy isn't politics or even ignorance.  It’s cowardice.  Not the cowardice of insufficient force.  The cowardice of an easy conscience and an insufficient imagination.  No one says this is easy.  Try reading Gessen several times, as I did, and then pick a pure side, if you can.  Or try figuring out a way to surgically separate friend and foe in the Middle East.  You won't be able to. 

But, that’s not our job as laypeople.  We aren't the President, we aren't Congressmen and Senators charged with making the right choices.  And they can’t even bother to debate it.  The House just put off discussion of an authorizing resolution to act on ISIS until October—October to talk about what some people describe as an existential threat. 

My hunch is that there are a lot of people in Washington, who, when outside the cameras and the lights and friendly media outlets, know they don’t really know all that much.  And they fear that, fear being challenged, fear being exposed in their ignorance.  That’s why we haven’t had the hearings and policy debates at the Congressional level. 

But not knowing something is no shame—it's a curable condition, with effort. It is refusing to learn, refusing to discuss, that is a disgrace. 

We are better than that, and we ought to start showing it. 

September 15, 2014

Michael Liss (Moderate Moderator)

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