By Robert Wallace
Lessons from the Past
My heart fell about ten days ago when my wife told me the news that President Obama had canceled the missile-defense program that President Bush had agreed upon with Poland (to house 10 interceptor missiles) and the Czech Republic (to house the radar system). The headlines from Drudge that morning captured many of my immediate concerns.
LETTING HIS GUARD DOWN…
OBAMA KILLS MISSILE DEFENSE FOR POLAND, CZECH…
Makes announcement on 70th anniversary of Soviet invasion…
NO SHIELD FOR EUROPE…
May embolden Russia hawks…
‘Iran Rocket Threat Downgraded’…
PAPER: ‘Shameful’ surrender…
NATO chief: ‘Positive step’…
I immediately started work on this post, but then schoolwork overtook me and I was unable to do more than post related stories to my Facebook Page and discuss the news briefly with a couple of friends.
But this is not a story that I can let go.
The reason that I feel so passionately about this story can be boiled down to a simple address: Andrássy út 60. Although I know most American readers won’t recognize the address–or even that it is an address–Hungarians will instantly recognize it as the location of the Terror Háza (House of Terror).
The house at Andrássy út 60 was the headquarters of the ÁVH — Hungary’s KGB-directed State Protection Agency. The photos along the wall in the image above are Hungarians who were tortured to death within the walls of the building.
I was living in Budapest when the Terror Háza first opened and I toured the building with an elderly Hungarian who mixed historical and person recounts of its history. I remember strange things — like the office of an ÁVH official who had mounted a machine gun in the ceiling aimed at the door to his office which he could control from his desk to avoid assassination. I remember ominous things — like the decrepit Soviet tank on display in the lobby. And I remember heart-breaking things — like the basement cells where men and women were tortured for opposing the occupation of their country.
It is fitting that cruelty of the ÁVH is what provided the spark to ignite the 1956 Revolution. ÁVH goons arrested students who had been peacefully protesting, and a crowd of Hungarians gathered to demand their children be returned. The ÁVH opened fire. The ensuing rage swept aside not only the ÁVH, but the Soviet army as well.
The Hungarians took their country back, and between October 23 and November 4, 1956 they held onto it. During that time they hunted down and executed members of the ÁVH. As one Western witness described:
The secret police lie twisted in the gutter . . . the Hungarians will not touch the corpse of an ÁVH man, not even to close the eyes or straighten the neck.
They booted Soviet occupiers from the country, declared that free elections would be held, and announced their intention to leave the Warsaw Pact. At first the USSR seemed hesitant to invade Hungary and take it back, but a deal was struck with the United States (despite Radio Free Europe broadcasts that encouraged the Hungarian revolutionaries and gave them the false hope that NATO would support them). In return for turning a blind eye to the attack by US allies–the UK, France, and Israel–on Russian ally Egypt to end the Suez Crisis, the United States agreed to ignore desperate Hungarian pleas for help. On October 29th the attack on Egypt was launched. On November 1st the Soviets crossed the border into Hungary.
The Soviet assault included nearly 32,000 infantry and 1,000 tanks as well as artillery and air craft. The small Hungarian army was swept aside, but defiant Hungarian civilians holed up in the industrial sectors for nearly a week before finally surrendering. Over 2,500 Hungarians lost their lives in the fighting and thousands more died as a result of the political purges that followed.
Although the Russians never again tried to control Hungary to the degree they had before the 1956 Revolution, the net result for the rest of Europe was a devastating loss: Soviet expansion was seen as inevitable and anti-communist movements were set back for decades. The Secretary-General of NATO called it “the collective suicide of a whole people,” and Nikita Khrushchev used it as an example of United States duplicity: “support by United States . . . is rather in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”
Andrássy út 60 symbolizes two things: the price paid in the long struggle for freedom and the tragic consequences of depending on allies who are not there for you.
Repeating Past Mistakes
When the US woke up the foreign minister of Poland in the middle of the night to tell him that we were renegging on our agreement to house part of our missile defense system in his nation Obama wasn’t just repeating the mistakes of the past. He was doing something far worse.
It was a mistake to trade Hungary for the Suez Canal, but at least you could make the case that we couldn’t have supported the Hungarians effectively without starting World War III. In addition we didn’t have any treaty or agreement with Hungary in place beforehand. And lastly: at least we got something for our concession.
None of those facts apply in the present situation. No one really thinks we could start a war of any kind over the missile defense shield. We did have an agreement with Poland. And we’re getting nothing from the Russians in response to our unilateral concession. Well nothing unless you count “scorn and a fresh set of demands” as something.
Let’s start with the rationale that is coming out of the White House for the change in missile-defense strategy. Secretary Gates–quoted in Wired–has said:
Over the last few years, we have made great strides with missile defense, particularly in our ability to counter short-and-medium-range missiles. We now have proven capabilities to intercept these ballistic missiles with land-and-sea-based interceptors supported by much-improved sensors. These capabilities offer a variety of options to detect, track and shoot down enemy missiles. This allows us to deploy a distributive sensor network rather than a single fixed site, like the kind slated for the Czech Republic, enabling greater survivability and adaptability.
He also added:
The X-band radar is a single directional. In other words, when you put it down, it points in a single direction. And it will be very clear that it is pointing south towards Iran.
So–and I want to be perfectly clear on this–I’m not necessarily opposed to the technical changes in the missile-defense strategy. I do not believe that it is a good idea to unnecessarily antagonize Russia; if we can develop a missile-defense system without provoking them, then so much the better. Furthermore, if a missile-defense system would provide better security coverage located elsewhere than in Poland and the Czech Republic, then that is where it should go.
On the other hand, I’m intensely skeptical that President Obama is really, truly committed to a missile-defense strategy of any kind, and I believe that it is vital to our long-run interests. Whether it happens tomorrow in Iran or ten years from now in some other country, hostile nations will develop both nuclear weapons and the platforms to deliver them to the US and our allies.
Some argue that Iran is a rational country despite the threats made by leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and that they wouldn’t ever launch a missile at the US or our allies knowing that the response could wipe their country off the map. Literally. Even if that’s true–and I certainly doubt that it holds in general even if it does hold of Iran–the fact is that the real reason nations seek nuclear weapons is not necessarily to use them. It’s because the threat of using them brings incredible political power. An effective missile shield not only protects against the threat of real nuclear attacks, but it also neutralizes the political gains of acquiring the technology. For that reason, it is an essential element of America’s long-range defense strategy.
But, aside from the technical strategic considerations, I have two real problems with the Obama decision:
- It damages American credibility
- It invites aggressiveness from hostile nations
Obama’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric revolved around rehabilitating our international reputation. It was clear then and it is clear today, however, that Obama’s view of what constitutes a good international reputation is hopelessly mired in the twin fantasies of liberal academia: first, that the world is fundamentally a good place and that conflict is an aberration; second, that international relations are like interpersonal relations, that countries are basically analogous to individual people, and if you do a favor for someone they will like you more and do favors for you in return.
When your typical college freshman wears these fantasies like a badge of ideological pride it’s sort of cute. When your typical over-the-hill tweed-wearing hippie professor promotes these fantasies like some kind of nostalgic heirloom from behind his tortoise-shell glasses, it’s sad. But when the president of the United States starts making calculations that involves these fantasies as assumptions, it’s downright dangerous.
The objective of foreign policy should never be to avoid conflict by being nice. It should be to manage conflict while being strong.
Take this typical Yglesias piece as an example of where the liberal logic leads to pitfalls:
Conservatives, because they’re stupid and immoral, have decided that antagonizing the Russians is a feature rather than a bug of the program. Thus, Senator Jim DeMint thinks it shows “weakness” to stop wasting money on a useless but annoying-to-Russia program. Michael Goldfarb deems it “appeasement”. This is another example of inane spite-based thinking in foreign policy. Basically the idea is that if the Russians don’t want us to do something, we have to do it because otherwise we’re appeasing them and next thing you know Vladimir Putin will be marching on Paris.
Common sense indicates the exact reverse. In general, you should avoid antagonizing other countries and especially other major countries with which you have a complicated bilateral relationship.
There’s a nugget of truth buried in Yglesias’s rantings — if we can avoid antagonizing Russia unnecessarily, we should. But it’s a straw-man argument. He has to describe conservatives as “stupid and immoral” in order to avoid thinking seriously about the situation. We don’t have the luxury of deciding today whether or not Bush should have agreed with the Poles and Czechs yesterday to put installations there. What we have today is the decision about what to do given the context we find ourselves in.
Now if you’re a delusional liberal this is no big deal. We’ll just apologize to the Russians for bothering them, move the installations, and–because conflict is avoidable and countries are like nice neighbors–they will smile and thank us for our consideration and we can all have cotton candy and unicorns and rainbows.
Back in that special little place I like to call “the real world,” however, things don’t look quite so rosy. The Russians might make grateful-sounding noises, but only as a prelude to their next set of demands. The fact is, they have desires that are incompatible with our desires. Russia and the US have some shared interests and some incompatible interests, and thus we are already in conflict. We will always be in conflict to some degree or other with every other nation in the world because conflict is that natural order of all organisms, human beings, and countries in a world of finite resources. You can acknowledge this fact and attempt to mitigate it through rational compromise, or you can blissfully ignore it and walk face-first into a brick wall.
And in this case the brick wall is this: Russia wants their empire back. Given a choice between “more power” and “less power” they would rather have the former and foist the latter upon us. And in order to get that they need to flex their muscles over their neighbors. You know, eastern Europe.
So this brings us back to our two problems, and to American credibility.
We have made commitments to nations in Eastern Europe. We’ve made them rhetorically and philosophically in all our pledges to support freedom, we’ve made them materially in foreign aid, military advisers and more, and we’ve made them formally in terms of admission into NATO. It would have been possible to redesign the missile-defense system while honoring these commitments. We could have:
- Worked with Poland and the Czech Republic to design an alternative set of commitments to the missile defense shield.
- Made the announcements jointly.
- Publicly stated our ongoing support for our Eastern European allies in no uncertain terms.
Would this have ticked off the Russians? Perhaps. Any amount of solidarity with our allies in Eastern Europe is going to tick off the Russians. The alternative is to sell our allies down the river.
Now many people might say: “Gee, we might lose those 500 troops that the Czechs sent to Iraq . . . boo-hoo!”. And yes, the Eastern European nations are small. But small nations have a vital role to play. How happy were we, after all, when Turkey put the ixnay on our plan to use their territory to launch part of the Iraqi invasion? Not to mention that our entire post-9/11 strategy for Afghanistan depended on the Uzbeks letting us use one of the abandoned Soviet bases in their country as an airbase.
So what makes a country decide to help us out or not? It’s not–contrary to liberal delusions–an issue of whether or not they like us. It’s a question of cost-benefit. It’s a question of “what do they get?” versus “what do they give?” This isn’t because human beings are self-centered bastards; even the most enlightened of leaders have a responsibility to do what’s right for their own citizens. And when a country is tabulating up the benefits of helping out the Americans, you can bet they already know we are rich and powerful and can help out. The question is: will we? The key ingredient in the equation is not money or weapons–we’ve got plenty of those, or at least the latter–it’s credibility. Do they trust us to fulfill our commitments?
And when various nations look to answer that question down the road, they are probably going to ask the Poles and the Czechs. Wouldn’t you? If we sell our allies down the river–even the small ones–we send our credibility right along with it.
Of course it’s worse than that, because credibility matters with hostile nations just as much as it does with allies and potential allies. How many times did the UN threaten Saddam Hussein? How effective were those threats? The UN has no credibility, and therefore the UN has no power. Credibility is the most vital force-projection tool there is. It matters even more than aircraft carriers and long-range cruise missiles because if our enemies know that our behavior will match our rhetoric then we often don’t have to use military power for the simple reason that potential enemies know that we will. Whether we come with F-22 Raptors or sailing ships with cannon, the fact that we will retaliate is the surest guarantee that hostiles will avoid incurring our wrath in the first place.
Liberals call conservatives anything from cynical to evil. They claim that we are out to antagonize people and spread violence. What they don’t understand is that wandering around with insane notions of universal peace and harmony will get humans–Americans and others–killed much faster and in much greater numbers than would their mindless wishful thinking. American conservatives can’t afford to be as cute and cuddly as Yglasias because we evaluate the consequences of our actions against a model of the world that is much less kind and forgiving than theirs. Unfortunately for everyone, that model is also much more realistic.
In the real world, cute and cuddly foreign policies are the quickest path to death and misery for all concerned. Just ask Neville Chamberlain.
Weakness Invites Aggression
As mentioned before, the US and Russia have contradictory goals. We want eastern Europe to be allied with the West and Russia sees that as a threat. The question is not “will there be conflict?” — instead, the question is “what will the nature of the conflict be?”
So here’s a question: if Russia thought that they could get away with it, would they re-annex Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine, Bucharest, Georgia, and others? Of course they would.
The only thing that prevents them from doing this is that the cost is too high. If the cost were low enough, they would take a shot. And thus we get to a fundamental rule of foreign policy that liberals don’t understand: weakness invites aggression.
The liberal model holds that niceness breeds niceness. If you apply that paradigm, then retreating on the missile installations is a good thing in and of itself. We were nice to the Russians. They will be nice back. That’s about as plausible as thinking that if you spend your life communing with bears they will refrain from eating you.
The very actions that liberals see as nice Vladimir Putin will see as weak, and that weakness lowers the cost of confrontation with the US and thus incites additional confrontation. It’s a sad fact that appeasement doesn’t merely allow ambitious leaders to expand their rule — it encourages it.
All that being said, we see that liberals and conservatives see the world through fundamentally different lenses. The liberal lens is unquestionably nicer. If we only “give peace a chance” then all conflict will cease because conflict is an aberration from the natural order of things. (For all their environmentalist ways, I wonder: do these people never watch animal documentaries?) If we are nice to other people, they will be nice to us.
The conservative lens is darker. Conflict is inevitable because resources are finite, and sometimes niceness is perceived as weakness. Peace is not something which comes along to those who just relax and let it happen, it is something which is fought for. It is something that American boys and girls have died for and, if we are not willing to pay that cost again, it is something that we will most definitely lose.
I don’t know the truth about the technical differences between the missile defense system put in motion by former President Bush and the one being kicked around by President Obama, but I do know that due to his rose-tinted glasses, Obama is treating the Russian bear like a threat.
Conflict is permanent, but there are two ways to escalate it — you can pick unnecessary fights, and you can appear vulnerable. Realistic foreign policy must walk the fine line between these two by preparing for war without inviting war, and by projecting strength without being belligerent. The key to American safety lies not in being well-liked or well-feared, but in being well-respected.
The way that the missile-shield strategy change has been handled doesn’t even approach this down-the-middle maxim. It is an exercise in erratic behavior which threatens our credibility and projects weakness. In so doing, it alienates current and potential allies and emboldens not just Russia, but countries everywhere who see opportunity in the perceived softness of the American nation.
And, on a final note, when did Democrats start falling over themselves to appease the Evil Empire that wants to gobble up the smaller nations on its border. Aren’t these guys supposed to be the party of the little guy?