[This is a guest post by Morgan Deane who is a military historian that teaches history for BYU-Idaho. He is an Mphil/PhD student at Kings College London and writes at http://mormonwar.blogspot.com and http://www.arsenalofvenice.com. He has written a book titled, “Bleached Bones and Wicked Serpents: Ancient Warfare in the Book of Mormon”, which will be released shortly. His guest post is in response to Geoff B.’s recent post: Perspective on Ukraine]
Every time the U.S. might take potential military action there are a variety of people who argue that these tyrants and dictators are little different from the U.S. This article in particular caught my eye, since it contained so many of the common moral equivalence errors. Despite the legitimate mistakes made in American foreign policy, America is a different and better country than Russia and our foreign policy is morally superior to that of Putin’s. The quotes are from this article from Geoff B.
“The United States is currently occupying Afghanistan”
Occupy is a loaded term with a negative connotation. We have troops there, but the most frequent criticism about Obama is that we are leaving too soon. We just left Iraq and the leverage we had there, so I’m amazed at how consistently America is attacked over “occupations” when we seem to be heading towards the exits like scolded gorillas. If we compare ourselves to things like the British Empire, we hardly maintain the territorial control for the length of time exhibited by that country. (Some argue that we have so many bases in so many countries that we are the same thing. But most of our bases are small refueling bases; the lack of relevant bases is why the U.S.S. Cole was exposed to a bombing attack in 2000 for example. We only have a significant number of troops in a handful of countries, and even those aren’t garrison soldiers to exercise direct control over a country similar to Roman or British soldiers.)
On top of that, only a handful of countries recognized the Taliban’s existence before 9/11. And that radical government actively supported even more radical terrorists who attacked us first. A democracy that wages war against a country that attacked us first, and then only stays with permission of the new government, is far different than a dictatorship gobbling up its neighbors.
“At least a 1,000 civilians were killed during the Panamanian invasion”
A democracy using its’ legitimate war powers[ref]When Harry Truman questioned the need for congressional approval in the Korean War Secretary of State Dean Acheson listed literally hundreds of instances where the President committed troops without that approval. The later War Powers Acts codified the president power to send in troops with the condition that he report to congress in 60 days, so military force is constitutional without an official declaration of war.[/ref], trying to follow the rules of war by attacking the rival military, using proportion and discrimination accidentally killing civilians is different than a dictator that seeks to maintain power by attacking its own people or its neighbors. All deaths are tragic, but only the latter is immoral.
“Great powers have spheres of influence”
Russian aggression towards the Ukraine is a pretty good example of Roosevelt’s sphere of influence arguments. But there is actually a conflict of influence. The Ukraine was moving towards west with items like the Orange Revolution, joint NATO exercises, and the long standing question of whether Eastern European countries should join. As one of my colleagues at Kings College London described, this is a tug of war between the pursuit of democracy and a respect for the rule of law, versus autocratic tendencies: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/newsevents/news/newsrecords/2014/February/Whats-behind-the-turmoil-in-Ukraine-.aspx
So instead of simply acceding Russian dominance, sphere of influence politics suggests that we should contest the Russian attempt to move the Ukraine in their directions. On top of that, this is also about Ukrainian independence. Ukrainians are united on that front, and as a beacon of democracy, we should be concerned about the rising tide of dictators.
“The people of Crimea are greeting the Russians with open arms, just as the Panamanians did with us”
There is no source for this but I assume he is referring to the many ethnic Russians that live in the Crimea. So of course the Russian separatists would cheer the Russian army. This historical example screaming in my mind, even though German analogies are overused is that of the ethnic Germans that longed to be reunited with Germany. Of course ethnic German minorities cheered the German army when they forcibly annexed territories like the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia. Many heads of state at the Munich Conference who then thought that Germany had a perfect right to do so and the Western countries shouldn’t stop it because of their own moral failings. And of course, ethnic Russians cheering the soldiers of a Russian dictatorship is far different than the soldiers of a democracy being cheered by the majority of the population.
“In a perfect world, big countries would not invade smaller countries”
This is so vague as to be almost meaningless. The size of a country doesn’t guarantee righteousness or victimhood. Germany was a lot smaller during the Soviet Union but it didn’t make them the sympathetic ones. Nor did it make German claims to “living space” at the expense of their neighbors any better for its neighbors. Nor did it make the small country of Panama, with its petty drug running tyrant, any less worthy on intervention. Perhaps the author meant this in terms of power more than geographic size; but that simply highlights the principles that the strong prey on the weak, and thus only another strong country, like the U.S., can deter it.
“I don’t think there is much the U.S. can and should do. Russia will do what it wants there, just like the U.S. did what it wanted in Panama.”
Again, there are vast differences between Russia and the U.S. Just consider if Russia is a stable democracy not run by a Czar, if they have a parliament that does not rubber stamp its policies, if they will allow free elections, jail and poison dissidents, and fight according to the rules of warfare. Obviously the character of the countries, the reason for intervention, the conduct and strategy of the armed forces are different. The conduct of their forces is still tbd in this case, but consider Russian action in Chechnya and the Russian puppet Assad’s used of chemical weapons in Syria for examples of how Russia has operated in the past and what they will likely do in the future. There are vast differences between the character and conduct of our forces. That is why we not only can do a great deal, but should do something.
America has a bully pulpit and I’ve already discussed the danger of Obama’s rather weak response. (http://www.arsenalofvenice.com/#!The-1930s-Called-/c1q8z/4E81AA1D-BCB4-4E29-93C5-581EA6BAC735) The U.S. can start economic sanctions, offer humanitarian aid to offer Ukrainians, and rally the force of moral opinion throughout the world. The promotion and encouragement of social media campaigns similar to ones in the Arab Spring can help shine a light on the abuses and topple dictators. The U.S. can ship arms to rebel groups. They can choose systems that counter specific Russian assets; and they can offer this on the condition of background checks so they can help prevent the arms from being obtained by undesirables. (This had the added advantage of increasing our intelligence and leverage while simultaneously hurting the Russians.) We can change the decision on the missile shield in Eastern Europe.
Moving towards the use of military assets, though I’m not sure anybody is suggesting we intervene directly, we can simply move two destroyers allowed by treaty into the Black Sea. Russia already has one docked in Cuba so this will be a chance to show our strength in return. Keep in mind that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved when we closed our bases in Turkey (which borders the Black Sea) in return for the Russians removing their missiles from Cuba. Even if our forces are never used, and I assume we have no intention of doing so, a show of force matters diplomatically. On this matter we could simply cancel the planned reductions in the sized of the armed forces.
American credibility matters. America has been the greatest force for good in the world and a strong and active America promotes world peace. Even the author of the linked article recognized that Panama is a better place now because of American intervention. I strongly doubt anybody will argue that Ukraine and the Crimea will be a better place with Putin holding more power there. Due to the nature of government, the causes of the conflict, and conduct of the forces, the American’s use force is different than the Russian’s, and America has not only a right but an obligation to act.