It’s hard to hold the high ground this way

The Associated Press has revealed a covert program in which the U.S. Agency for International Development “sent nearly a dozen neophytes from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru to gin up opposition in Cuba”. According to AP, the recruits “posed as tourists…”, to “recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism.”

No doubt there are many who think this is fighting the good fight. Maybe it is.

Surely the USAID operation was a small one. But it comes on the heels of other “good fights” that wound up destabilizing regions, from covertly arming the Afghan mujahedeen to covertly organizing civil disobedience in Eastern Europe. Which is possibly because realpolitik quickly ends up being about careerism, about playing cowboys and Indians in other corners of the world, and riding off into the sunset after we’ve notched up another ‘win’.

If all is fair in realpolitik, then there are no other principles. All are trumped by whatever the people operating in secrecy deem to be “the good fight”. USAID. The CIA. The NSA. Politicians in Congress. Pentagon bureaucrats. The notion of a world order founded on peaceful sovereign states who respect borders and work through international institutions, so beloved of Western pontificators at the moment (see “Ukraine”), remains a bit of propaganda-fluff, useful to rally masses of people who might think it is actually intended to mean something.

So European.

In light of the epic disasters of Afghanistan (pre- and post-9/11) and Iraq, one has to wonder if Vladimir Putin’s designs on Ukraine could possibly be worse.

 

Meanwhile, the Islamic State

After days of diplomacy, Secretary of State John Kerry has apparently brokered a 72-hour temporary ceasefire in Gaza. This is considered a hard-won victory.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State captured a major Syrian gas field, despite Syrian reinforcements (their announcement here; beware graphic pictures); overran a Syrian Army base near the city of Raqqa, which they now control; and collected recruits defecting from other anti-Assad rebel groups.

Baghdad is almost under siege, even with US advisors and armed drones operating. The Islamic State is consolidating its hold over Mosul, a city of two million.

Kurdistan is pressing the US for arms to help it hold the Islamic State at bay. Washington is loathe to arm the region directly, not only because it would further undercut Baghdad’s already minimal authority, but because it might empower Kurdistan to declare its independence.

Washington is crippled by domestic politics and its inability to deal rationally with militants. Everybody’s a terrorist, and we don’t deal with terrorists. In the meantime, the entire region has devolved into post-Soviet Afghanistan writ large. There, we were able to wash our hands and forget it, until 9/11 brought it back. Not here.

What’s left is covert war, maybe along the lines of the CIA war in Pakistan, but on a much larger scale and with special forces involved, in support of an incompetent sham of a government.

Sounds a little too much like Vietnam, doesn’t it?

 

 

Just when we think we’ve got him where we want him

Is it just me, or is this turning out to be an exciting week?

The US and EU are launching draconian sanctions against Russian banks and energy companies, and against a number of Russian leaders personally. The intent is clearly to tighten an economic and political noose until Russian President Putin either backs down and abandons Ukrainian separatists (and, presumably, Crimea), or is forced from office – although just who could unwind the Russian foray without himself being overthrown in a coup is a big question.

Washington and Brussels would seem to have Mr. Putin where they want him, boxed in and caught right in their sights.

But hold the phone. The Independent claims a scoop, that German Chancellor Merkel is negotiating a deal with Putin to give everyone a way to back down. Major terms:

  • Russia keeps Crimea, but compensates Kiev for lost rent at Sevastopol
  • Russia withdraws support for Ukrainian rebels
  • Eastern Ukraine is granted more self-government
  • Kiev agrees not to join NATO
  • Moscow agrees not to interfere with Kiev’s EU trade relations
  • Gazprom enters a new long-term supply contract for Ukraine

At the very least, if the negotiations are real and become public, the sanctions will undoubtedly be eased, despite gnashing of teeth of western hardliners.

If that happens, Mr. Putin will surely have earned a black belt in political judo.

And Chancellor Merkel’s stature as stateswoman will overshadow, for a time, that of any other western leader.

Plan B

Probably to no one’s surprise, a US Magistrate has ordered the seizure of 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil parked 60 miles outside the Port of Galveston. US Marshalls will seize the tanker should it enter the US territorial limit, which it would now be foolish to do.

What is Plan B for the not-quite independent republic of Kurdistan? Well, they have sold oil to Israel in the past. But now that Baghdad has seen what lawyers are capable of, if the Kurds attempt to repeat this trick, it will undoubtedly land in an Israeli court. Baghdad claims the oil is stolen property. As much as the Israeli government might like to thumb its nose at the US, it doesn’t seem likely their courts could find a way to allow the importation of stolen goods.

Unless Kurdistan were to declare independence. They would need at least one major state to recognize it. And it could only be a state with poor relations with the West.

One comes to mind. But could the Kremlin make any hay out of the breakup of Iraq? Possibly. If Mr. Putin suddenly became the peacemaker in Iraq and Syria.

Something to think about.

 

Kurdistan Showdown

The United Kalavrvta has been cleared by the Coast Guard to begin offloading 1 million barrels of Kurdish oil in Galveston. As it threatened to do, Iraq has filed suit asking US Marshalls to seize the oil.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Kurdistan took one step closer to independence while Baghdad was reeling from ISIS victories on the battlefield, by signing a separate export agreement with Turkey, a NATO member, despite Baghdad’s assertion of sovereignty over all of Iraq.

It seems likely Baghdad will prevail in court. If so, and the oil is seized, the regional government of Kurdistan, now desperately short of cash, will have its back against the wall. You have to wonder what their Plan B is.

War

On Friday the European Commission put a draconian round of what it euphemistically calls “restrictive measures” against Russia up for approval by EU member nations. The measures are intended to inflict damage. They will be interpreted by the Kremlin as belligerent, and they are likely to be approved.

It is difficult to see how the Kremlin can back down. And if the EU launches sufficiently crippling measures, it is difficult to see what the Kremlin loses by taking the next step and openly occupying a non-NATO country on its border.

Perhaps a number of western governments will actually welcome this as an opportunity to make the “restrictive measures” permanent. So much for the reset.

While we were patting ourselves on the back for our forays into Eastern Europe in the mid-2000s, in the name of democracy, many Russians were probably remembering the 600,000 Red Army soldiers lost defending Kiev from Hitler’s invasion, and sourly noting that Ukraine only came into existence as a state with the fall of the Soviet Union. Others were undoubtedly chafing over obstructionism against the ambitious South Stream pipeline project on the part of influential members of the EU.

Which is not to defend Vladimir Putin. It is only to point out that the momentum building toward disaster in Eastern Europe is not the consequence of a single man. We might have hoped for a Russian leader who would have found a way to stifle Russian ambitions and muffle grievances, a kind of Slavic Mahmoud Abbas, but we can hardly complain that they picked one who speaks their own cultural language.

Maybe this is all inevitable. If so, if this is the best that can be done, then one shudders at the eventual collision between the West and China.