The Cold War haunted many of us when we were young, whispering always about the possibility of nuclear exchange, sometimes, as in the Cuban Missile Crisis, shouting about it, and reminding us of another kind of life, of an oppressive, miserable slave-state existence some saw as justice. It seemed that it would last forever except that suddenly the Soviet Union crashed. The Cold War was gone.
Is it back again? No, not yet and not exactly, but there is something very much like it knocking on the door, having arrived in part because of a strutting Vladimir Putin, the Russian president who recalls the glory that was empire, the grandeur that was military intimidation. He has invaded Ukraine in defiance of decency, international law and peace, will do heaven knows what next and quite likely feels that a virtual invitation to act this way had been issued by President Obama.
Obama is awake and worried now though his dreamy, submissive policies helped prompt aggression and he is still befuddled enough to have told Putin he is on the wrong side of history. That’s meaningless tripe that implies historical inevitability when we all know how even strong likelihoods can be easily undone.
The likelihood may have been shrinking tyranny, but you can betray such a possibility when you make warnings to Syria without meaning them or tell Poland to forget defensive missiles because Russia raised an objection. And what are these negotiations with Iran all about? Maybe they will conclude marvelously and Iran will give up its WMD ambitions, but it seems to me we dismantled some sanctions because some tigers vaguely hinted they might then change their stripes. The last time I looked, the tigers still had their stripes.
I do credit Obama for more effectiveness in the war on terrorism than I expected, but I think his foreign policy on the whole has been the kind of whimper Putin expects more of, figuring he can live with that, even thrive on that. Right now I suspect he is figuring Obama is more talk than walk and that Europe cares more about Russian oil and gas than Ukrainian democracy.
On the one hand, he may well be thinking, he can reach beyond Crimea for all of Ukraine and then reach elsewhere in reassembling a great deal of the Soviet bloc as it had been before. On the other, he can be Mr. Nice Guy, abandoning much of everything he has ever dreamed about in order to avoid unpleasant rhetoric, intimations of action that will never materialize and the possibilities that everyone will forget the nice impressions of the Sochi Olympics.
Instead, he must be made to see Russian poverty, isolation, insignificance and humiliation as consequences of too much bravado, and this means counter-policies made explicit and definite enough that he cannot doubt they will come his way if he goes further astray. This means a lot more than ejecting Russia from the G-8. It means, among many other things, major reductions in trade desperately needed to keep Russia kicking. Yes, the hurt could go more than one direction, but it has been noted there are methods of compensating, as in doing more to unleash our own energy boom to afford sales to Europe.
What must happen is for Obama to get and stay on the right side of analysis, understanding the point of some experts that the behavior of more countries than Russia is at stake here. Of course, the behavior of Russia alone matters greatly. While it might never be quite as much a threat as the old communistic Soviet Union, this corrupt, dictatorial, nuclear-armed regime could be a deterrent to all kinds of wondrous human developments while constantly antagonistic to American interests. It is not a given that nothing like the Cold War can ever come back.
Jay Ambrose is an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune.