Ohhh yeah, Ukraine! Remember Ukraine? Yeah, that little country that “almost triggered World War III” a couple months ago. Hah. Yeah.
I’ll confess with ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever people are calling it today, I’ve not been immune to the frenetic, distracted focus of news media ADD. It’s been hard to stay heavily invested with the Ukraine incident, especially with hilariously irrelevant dinosaurs rising from their tar beds to weigh in with “sage” advice on how/not to proceed in Iraq. If current events are entertainment, and the twenty-four-hour news cycle certainly perpetuates that concept, then this has been a blockbuster year.
This blog is fairly new, so all three of the people reading weren’t subjected to my views on Ukraine when it was “relevant.” It’s safe to say now that Ukraine is not the site of the next Assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, or the next Invasion of Poland, but Ukraine is still relevant. Granted, if the United States and NATO had a memory worth speaking of it might not be, and that’s more or less the issue I’d like to address.
While people were invoking Austria-Hungary and Poland, the boiling incident in Ukraine reminded me of something more recent: the Cuban Missile Crisis. Here was an incident where a tiny neighbor of a huge major power threatened to join a military alliance that disproportionately endangered the neighboring major power. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, that threat was armament with missiles capable of destroying American cities. This year in Ukraine, it was possible admission to NATO.
Military force was absolutely an option considered, strongly, by the Kennedy administration confronting Cuba’s armament. If the United States attacked Cuba, there is little doubt it would have lead to nuclear war. It was the prospect of this World War III that stayed Kennedy’s hand, just as Khrushchev observed similar caution. The United States and the Soviet Union had a lot to lose from Mutually Assured Destruction, but there were points where such a catastrophe seemed inevitable, and truly, small decisions made differently could have provoked just such a result. In the end, cooler heads happened to prevail.
The same reason that makes the Cuban Missile Crisis such a success is the reason why it is ignominious. It was not a great military victory, or a pronounced diplomatic success that resulted in a severe blow to the Soviet Union and prestige for the U.S. abroad. It was a dodged bullet. It was a visceral reminder of what the Cold War could, and in many respects, should have lead to, which was utter and complete annihilation. The Cuban Missile crisis was a non-event because the best possible result was a return to the status quo.
America has a tendency to forget these moments, these points in history where the United States has faced defeat, or where it has confronted the realities of policies that it willfully perpetuates. When the 9/11 attacks were committed, and the name of Osama Bin Laden rose again to the public consciousness, few remembered that CIA agents in Afghanistan funded the Mujahideen in Operation Cyclone, arming and equipping men who would go on to be known later by the name of “Al Queda.”
By 2003, talk quickly turned to an invasion of Iraq. Yet there were few conversations about the role of Donald Rumsfeld, then Secretary of Defense, in assisting Saddam Hussein two decades earlier on behalf of Ronald Reagan.
These are not secret, shadowy conspiracy theories cauterized from public record by an army of Hydra-esque footsoldiers working for the New World Order. This stuff is on the internet, in encyclopedias, it’s been on the news. The NSA thing is still fairly recent, so there’s not much excuse for Americans to claim ignorance about these incredibly important incidents of myopic hubris in American history.
Most Americans can tell you how the US “kicked Hitler’s ass” in World War II, or how it trounced foreign soldiers to gain independence from Great Britain in 1783 (though they may remember the year as 1776). Most will remember the startling blitzkrieg of Operation Desert Storm (one, that needs to be numbered now), and some may even remember how the U.S. viciously screwed over Mexico.
What about the Korean War?
The War of 1812?
Then there’s Vietnam. While remembered much more than, say, Korea, it would be a lie to say it is analyzed or studied with anywhere near the enthusiasm or joyful scrutiny of World War II. Remember that, because I’m going to jump back in a second. For now let’s return to the subject of Ukraine.
Putin has backed off. Ukraine is now just another distant country in another civil war that we, from the safe distance afforded by most of a continent and a generous ocean, can ignore while watching the World Cup. There were important lessons to be learned from Ukraine. For one thing, it demonstrated that Putin is every bit as human and vulnerable as Khrushchev was in 1962. Despite his bellicose calls for violence, economic and political pressure got him to back down. The Russian cub reborn in 1992 is growing, but it still realizes it’s not ready to fight with the Bulldogs and Eagles. That will change, but for now it enforces a current analyses of the US and its allies as the most powerful force on Earth, at least so far. Still, Putin got the part of Ukraine, just as he got part of Georgia in 2008. One would be remiss not to recognize these as a disturbing pattern of concession.
The incident in Ukraine has also demonstrated that NATO continues to be a source of conflict. As Russia and China continue to grow in power and influence, the Cold War relic will likely continue to cause friction in the future. For now, NATO continues to justify its own existence, somehow. In the future, it may be more of a liability than an asset, if it isn’t already.
These may seem like small lessons, but they have great implications. Putin is going to stay in power for a long time, and his behavior under these circumstances grants a valuable look into his political methods and priorities. The U.S. and E.U. came very close to open conflict with Putin, and such a conflict could spark in earnest sometime in the future. Any information that could prevent such incidents from occurring again should be valued highly and remembered well.
I doubt, however, that America will remember. There have been huge mistakes, grievous mistakes, made because America has not remembered. I hope this will demonstrate what I mean.
A man, some would call him infamous though he was certainly highly intelligent, analyzed a fairly recent historical incident with which he was intimately familiar and came to these astute conclusions:
1. We misjudged the geopolitical intentions of [the enemy], and exaggerated the dangers to the US of their actions.
2. We viewed the people and leaders of [the country we intervened in] in our own experience.
3. We underestimated the power of [an ideology] to motivate a people to fight and die for their beliefs and values.
4. We were profoundly ignorant of the history, culture, and politics of the people in the area.
5. We failed to recognize the limitations of modern, high-tech military equipment, forces, and doctrine.
6. We failed to draw Congress and the American people into a full and frank discussion and debate of the pros and cons of becoming involved in large-scale military engagement in [the region of conflict].
7. We did not explain fully what was happening and why we were doing what we did. We failed to maintain national unity.
8. We failed to recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.
9. We erred in taking unilateral military action not supported by multinational forces and the international community.
10. We failed to recognize that in international affairs there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions.
11. We failed to organize the top echelons of the executive branch to deal effectively with the extraordinarily complex range of issues at hand.
I was sneaky and made some omissions; you can find the original list here, from Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect.
That book was published in 1996, after thirty years of opportunity for analysis. McNamara was not a singular genius, and thanks to the Pentagon Papers, he did not have exclusive access to the only pertinent details that might reveal hidden truths about Vietnam. He was not the only person aware of these lessons, nor the only one capable of forming these conclusions. All it required was an interest in remembering history and a desire to learn from past mistakes.
On a global scale, Ukraine has lost its bid for historic significance, and has rejoined what most Americans consider a kind of poorly-understood cloud of obscurity most countries in the world fall under if they don’t directly provide us with military alliances, oil, and commercial goods, or share our language. Few Americans think about Cuba or Vietnam anymore, either. Ukraine could have been World War III or another Afghanistan. It happened to be a bullet we dodged. These incidents are not random happenstance, befalling our innocent nation. The U.S. is responsible, at least indirectly, for many of the conflicts in the world today. We may not have fired the bullet, but we provided the motivation to fire it, and NATO provided the ammunition.
It’s beyond trite nowadays to utter the oft-quoted phrase, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but it is a perfectly valid observation. America refuses to remember, and miraculously, while it has suffered the consequences, it has escaped doom time and again. Maybe we’re just lucky.
Luck can’t hold forever.