Morning reports have it that German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Francois Hollande are, as I write, flying to Moscow. Their mission: to head off what the London Telegraph terms a “total war” between Russia and Ukraine (http://bit.ly/merkel2Putin) that could draw in Western Europe and the United States.
The paper reports “tensions are running high” in the region. After a long period of indecision, the U.S. is now on the verge of providing arms to embattled Ukraine. Meanwhile in the past week, the recently retired secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, warned that the Russian aggressiveness toward its neighbor “is not about Ukraine. [Russian president Vladimir] Putin wants to restore Russia to its former position as a great power.”
The former Danish prime minister continued, “There is a high probability that [Putin] will intervene in the Baltics [Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania] to test NATO’s Article 5.” Article 5 makes an attack on one NATO state and attack on all. Intended to provide a U.S. security guarantee to Western Europe during the Cold War, it has been invoked only once since the alliance was founded in 1949. That moment came in 2001 after the September terrorist attacks on the United States.
The meltdown along Europe’s frontier with Russia and in the Middle East with the advances of ISIS cries out for a clear-eyed American approach to the world. But, as numerous American foreign and defense veterans told the Senate committees last week, there is no such clarity in U.S. policy today.
Some of the reason is the fecklessness of the Obama administration. The United States is paralyzed before the “major security challenge of our generation,” General Jack Keene said in one forum. In another Reagan administration Secretary of State George Shultz noted we are facing forces with a “different view of how the world should work.” Mr. Shultz was referring in part to the rise of non-state players like ISIS, which this week underlined the former secretary’s point about its barbaric disregard for global norms when it released a video showing its forces burning alive a caged Jordanian prisoner.
Yesterday the president himself seemed to underline General Keene’s point about national security paralysis when he chose an appearance at the National Prayer Breakfast seemingly to suggest an equivalency between the likes of ISIS and the West. Doubts abound nationally and globally about whether he and his team – or their supporters in Congress – have the slightest clue about the nature or danger of the challenges the western world faces.
But having said that, it is also true that shaming the administration into responding to the crisis of the moment, as the Republican Senate is in part working to do at the moment, does not mean that the opposition party has its own well thought out view of what our global challenges are and our strategies and goals should be.
Arguably we are in the fourth phase of what could be characterized as a by-now-century-long global war. In the first phase (World War I) four empires broke apart, the German and Austro-Hungarian, the Russian and the Ottoman.
In the second phase, the United States, Britain and their allies were forced to confront the backlash of phase two, the rise of Nazism. In the third phase, they and allies old and new were challenged by and ultimately prevailed over the aftermath of the Russian imperial collapse, the Soviet Union. The current phase began in the old Ottoman realm, born of forces that had been festering since the creation of the modern Middle East after conclusion of the Versailles Treaty. Unresolved issues with Russia are now making it more dangerous.
The U.S. was effective at developing strategies to meet the challenges of the first three phases. The same cannot be said of the period we are in now. In his second inaugural address, President George W. Bush articulated the strategic objective of opposing tyranny and supporting democracy around the globe. But while read at the time as a something new and sweeping, it was never more than a restatement of enduring American objectives, to be pursued as circumstance allowed.
I am saying all this because getting a grip on how to approach phase four of the hundred-year storm is a major task for 2016 GOP presidential candidates, one about which those who have spoken so far appear largely clueless. Yes, the next president must end brain-dead tactics like announcing exit dates upon entering a theater of war. But he or she must do much more.
With the nation’s global insecurity having risen to until recently unimaginable heights over the last six years, what does a world in which the United States and its allies are truly secure look like? How do we get there? Speaking for myself, the candidate who can satisfactorily answer those questions will have gone a long way to winning my vote. Yours, too?