March 19, 2014
It's 1938 All Over Again, and Obama is our Chamberlain, the EU our Daladier
I think the title of this post pretty much sums it all up.
The world is reshaping in unexpected (to me) ways. For awhile I had hoped that America could disengage, retreat and rebuild. Let the world sort out it's own problems. But now? I'm not so sure.
The lesson we thought we learned immediately after WWII was that we could have stopped Hitler early on without too much of a fight. But we talked and talked for years, until it was too late. The war came and pulled us kicking and screaming into it. Tens of millions died who would have otherwise lived had we stopped Hitler early on. (See Shirer's Rise & Fall of the Third Reich for the earliest and best defense of this position)
In the 1990s revisionists like Pat Buchanan began to tell us that the real lesson of WWII was that the US didn't need to get involved at all. That the real mistake was choosing sides. It's the Homer Simpson view of foreign relations: we tried and failed miserably, the lesson here: never try.
For some time given our experience in Afghanistan and Iraq I've been partial to that latter, non-interventionist view. We did good in these countries, for sure, but as soon as we left (or leave) the place falls apart. See the Homer Simpson quote above.
This has led to a general attitude on my part that goes something like: Sure, such and such bad thing in the world is a problem, but it's not our problem.
I still feel this way about the Muslim world. It's time for disengagement, not more engagement. Let them handle their problems, I'm through with trying to help. Call me back in 100 or 500 years when you've caught up with the rest of the world. Until then, good luck with that.
But what's going on in the Ukraine? It's far too similar to the Sudetenland crisis to not draw the analogy. Inaction and milquetoast responses by the EU and US far too similar to "Peace in Our Times" to not go there.
Putin isn't Hitler, and while it's easy to forget the past and therefore doom us to repeat it, it's also just as easy to learn the wrong lessons from the past and therefore doom us to repeat it as well.
So, while when making Hitler comparisons we tend to focus on the horrors of the Holocaust, we need to remember that we didn't fight Hitler to stop the holocaust. We fought Hitler because he invaded sovereign states.
But before we fought him, we let him take over Austria bloodlessly. Before we fought him we let him violate the Versailles treaty dozens of times (rearmament). Before we fought him we let him reoccupy the Rhineland even though Germany had "guaranteed" the borders as they stood. We allowed him to take the Sudetenland without a shot fired.
The next year he carved up the rest of Czechoslovakia -- still the Western European powers did nothing. Give diplomacy a chance, the public was told.
All those bloodless invasions were done in the name of uniting Germans abroad with the Motherland, rectifying the artificial boundaries imposed by old empires and post WWI mandates. Many in the West thought this wasn't such a bad idea.
Hitler acted, no one did a thing about it. The lesson learned was that he could act without impunity and no one would do a thing.
It wasn't until Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 that the UK and France responded. And by this time, it was too late: Germany had rearmed to the point that they had the largest, most modern, and most effective military in Europe.
Again, I don't want to take this analogy too far, but we need to remember that the Ukraine isn't the first sovereign country that Russia has invaded in order to put Russian speaking people's living abroad under the protection of Mother Russia. Just ask the people of Moldova how they feel about the Russian occupied "Transnistria" or the people of Georgia about the Russian occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
As Michael Totten notes:
That’s not one, not two, but three times Russia has pulled this stunt since the end of the Cold War. Putin is doing it to Ukraine because it worked in Moldova and Georgia.And it has worked in Crimea. Putin acted, the West did nothing: the lesson here is that he can keep taking territory with impunity.
Again, I don't think Putin has some kind of grand plan for Russian lebensraum. At least, I hope not. But it seems clear now that that he does have plans for a Greater Russia. Something like the return of the Russian Empire. Perhaps his plans aren't maximalist (wanting the entire empire back), but neither is it minimalist (content with borders as they stand).
Historically, then, the question is who is right? Shirer, who says Hitler should have been stopped earlier, or Buchanan who says that Hitler wasn't our problem to begin with?
I'd like Buchanan to be right. I'd like the world to be ok without US involvement. I'd like Putin to be someone else's problem.
But I don't think he his. Sizable Russian speaking populations already live within NATO countries, especially in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Which means that if Putin has plans for the Baltic states, that we are obligated by treaty to come to their defense.
Which makes Putin our problem, whether we want it or not.
So, what's the red line where we say enough is enough? Is it Eastern Ukraine? Belarus (already effectively a Russian puppet state)? Kazakhstan?
I'm not saying we need to go to war with Russia over the Crimea, but if we continue on the path we are on with limp wristed responses that no one in Russia takes seriously then war may in fact come whether we like it or not. That is the irony of WWII: that the very actions meant to avoid war were the actions that led to it and made it much worse than it had to be.
We can put off action to the future, but we do so at the peril of that action being much worse for all parties involved.