We’ll never learn the truth
By Herbert Rothschild
“Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was a free choice. And whatever role U.S. policy played in determining Putin’s decision, it did not force his hand. Critics of NATO expansion would be wise to stipulate this point, since doing otherwise only renders their causal analysis easier to stigmatize.” (Eric Levitz, March 3, 2022)
The quote is the last paragraph of an article in New York magazine’s Intelligencer, to which a very intelligent friend of mine referred me. He did so because he thought that the first two columns I wrote about the international crisis over the Ukraine seemed to go beyond trying to understand Putin’s behavior and were justifying it. I assured him that I fully agreed with Levitz, and if I conveyed the impression that I condoned Putin’s behavior, that was a failure of expression, not of moral judgment.
War is an abomination. That has been a frequent theme of Relocations since I began writing the column in 2014. Beyond that, I consider it an abomination even to organize members of one society to kill members of another. Repeatedly, I have been in the streets and in the jails protesting against both. However, except for helping to end the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race (and even that end now appears a mere pause) and perhaps hastening the end of our war in Vietnam, my efforts have had no discernible impact. I continue them out of long habit. And I feel the need to speak my truth, as we Quakers say.
Speaking my truth about Ukraine mustn’t omit a condemnation of Putin’s invasion. My first column, however, was written before the invasion, and I hoped that our government might be convinced to pledge not to offer NATO membership to Ukraine in return for Putin’s pledge not to invade. Among my efforts to promote that course of action was to mobilize Peace House and try to mobilize other peace organizations in Oregon, to contact the White House, to seek meetings with the field directors of our two U.S. senators, and to attend Jeff Merkley’s virtual town hall on Feb. 17. What occurred at the town hall convinced me that my hope was quixotic.
I got on the stack and asked Merkley why the U.S. wouldn’t take Ukraine’s membership in NATO off the table if it would prevent an invasion. His answer was that NATO wasn’t an issue. In support of this assertion, he said that no nation that has territory occupied by foreign troops is eligible for NATO membership. Now, I’ve long been an ardent supporter of the senator, but I regarded that answer as bizarre in at least two ways. Had I thought it appropriate to follow-up, I would have asked him whether Ukraine’s ineligibility for membership wouldn’t give us even more reason to declare that we won’t offer it.
There are perhaps three U.S. senators on whom one can count to promote peace. Merkley is one of them. So, to learn that Merkley had adopted the position that no diplomacy could deter Putin because Putin’s motives were simply evil was cause for despair. My last recourse was to speak the truth as I discerned it.
But what was that truth? It wasn’t until after I published my second column, in which I accused our national security strategists of being either inexcusably shortsighted or stubborn given Putin’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, that the sickening thought came to me that they were neither. Rather, they knew he would invade Ukraine under the same circumstances. And if they knew it and still refused to offer the one thing Putin repeatedly indicated would make a difference, then they wanted him to invade. As I said when I shared that thought in my column last week, only a person thoroughly disillusioned by the blood-soaked history of Big Power politics could entertain it. It may be wrong. We’ll never know because the relevant discussions will never see the light of day.
What comes to mind now is U.S. behavior just prior to Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait. On July 25, eight days before the invasion, Saddam met with April Glaspie, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and unbeknownst to her their conversation was recorded. When he asked her what the U.S. would think if he invaded to resolve Iraq’s longstanding grievances with its neighbor, she replied, “We have no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait. Secretary [of State James] Baker has directed me to emphasize the instruction, first given to Iraq in the 1960s, that the Kuwait issue is not associated with America.” Embarrassed by the recording, some officials maintained that Glaspie had failed to make our position clear. Others argued that Saddam already knew that the U.S. opposed use of force to resolve border disputes. But the obvious question (and it was asked) is why Glaspie wasn’t instructed to make our opposition explicit, either at that meeting or in the next few days. And one possible answer is that we wanted Saddam to invade. Again, we’ll never learn the truth.
To forestall further misunderstanding of my moral judgment, of course I think Saddam was a brutal tyrant, and his invasion of Kuwait was as inexcusable as his invasion of Iran 10 years before, which this country hailed and later abetted.
Email Ashland.news board member and columnist Herbert Rothschild at email@example.com.