Some years after the G. W. Bush administration’s entry into the Iraq war, American news outlets admitted to dropping the ball. Mainstream media acknowledged they did too little to question the purported evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, whereas challenges to the Bush administration’s assertion that Iraq and the 9/11 tragedy were linked aired only belatedly. Over a decade later, the U.S. media has again dropped the ball. This time, though, the actors are different: Ukraine vs. Russia.
To hear mainstream U.S. media tell it, one could be forgiven for the belief that any and all claims of a Neo Nazi presence in Ukraine are propagandist fragments of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imagination. The tragic shoot-down of Malaysian flight MH 17 — on the anniversary of World War I — has only added to the pressure that the West intervene. Still, media fails to recognize its role in perpetuating conflict.
Shortly before the U.S. began trotting out the interim Ukrainian prime minister following the overthrow of Ukraine’s democratically elected president earlier this year, The Guardian published profiles of Ukrainian parliament members. Putin, it turns out, was not lying. Historically, elements within the region sympathized with fascist Germany and some fought on Hitler’s side during World War II, prompting animosities that exist to this day.
Why does this matter? Because failure to appreciate our present — and to grasp our past — may doom us to repeat history.
In an apparent effort to turn down the heat, journalist and Morgan State University School of Global Journalism and Communication dean, DeWayne Wickham, argues in a March USA Today piece that U.S. hegemony in the creation of Panama and Russia’s hegemony with respect to Ukraine are not terribly different.
Judging from the response the piece drew, Wickham’s point was lost on many readers. Accusations mounted: Wickham had attempted to excuse Putin’s audacity in Crimea. Wickham had cited an passé example, irrelevant because the creation of Panama took place over 100 years ago.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the events of the past — or, conversely, latch onto the tragedy of the moment (flight MH 17) — to justify an existing conclusion. But this time getting the facts right matters because the wrong response may very well provoke another Great War.
Wickham concludes that neither the U.S. or Russia has the moral high ground within a historic context. So what’s the point in comparing U.S. and Russian hegemony if it is not for the purpose of excusing anyone? Perhaps this: As Americans better appreciate our role in history, it becomes apparent that escalating international tensions often travel a well-worn path. If keeping history alive to tell the tale of hubris past gives pause to the drums of war, so be it. The alternative is to take two, three, four, even five geopolitical wrongs and to make-believe might makes right.
Haven’t we been down this road before?
Although humanity may never relinquish weapons of war, there’s no reason why we in the 21st Century cannot learn how to reach for them more cautiously than generations past. Maturing as a civilization requires that we put ourselves in the other guy’s shoes long enough to appreciate why a particular individual or nation may feel misunderstood or provoked. A capacity to comprehend divergent perspectives — even if we do not agree with a particular point of view — allows for a more nuanced take on any given situation. Just as an oversimplified take on an event may justify a call to arms, a multifaceted perspective may call into question whether military intervention is an appropriate means to an end.
The Ukrainian/Russia conflict may seem dissimilar to the US/Mexico border crisis on the face of it, but it is nonetheless illustrative. How might American attempts to manage the chaos stemming from the onslaught of unaccompanied minors be perceived in Central America and Mexico? By executive order, Texas Gov. Rick Perry recently called up National Guard troops to reinforce the state’s border with Mexico after pleas for better security went largely ignored by the Obama administration. And therein lies the irony: Responding to a flood of children with armed men and women will no doubt give the Mexican and Central South American press a field day, not unlike the way in which the American press has played up Putin’s audaciousness in Ukraine!
Thankfully, the U.S./Mexico immigration crisis has yet to devolve into an armed clash. But play our cards wrong, and how fast might the border fiasco spiral out of control? Bear in mind, the killing of teenagers set the stage for the most recent chapter in the Israel/Gaza conflict. Should children be harmed or killed while crossing into the United States under the watch of the National Guard, how quickly might Mexico and the U.S. come to blows?
Mainstream media may not be doing Americans much of a favor in elucidating the issues that plague our planet. Even so, Americans should not be condemned to knee-jerk diplomacy thanks to a woefully incomplete picture of international events. Big or small, weak or strong, it is not uncommon for neighboring nations to differ in their interests. That Ukraine is an underdog no more excuses their role in provoking international crisis than Russia is excused for their complicity. That Mexico is a smaller, poorer U.S. neighbor, similarly, does not diminish the right of the U.S. to protect border cities — be they overrun by cartel members or unsupervised youth.
As global citizens, it is useful to distinguish between comprehending another point of view and endorsing that point of view. It is not necessary to agree with the actions of another party to seek to understand why they do what they do. Take, for instance, the oft-forgotten fact that Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, following former President Vicktor Yanukovich’s ouster, was thought to have come under threat. The mere possibility that a strategic Russian naval installation in the Crimean peninsula may be overrun in the chaos served as an invitation to send in the reinforcements. Should this come as a surprise? Probably not. Were conflict in Syria, Iraq or elsewhere in the Mideast to threaten the U.S. military presence in Turkey, the U.S. might very well do the same — move to “protect” national security interests in the region.
Just as it can be argued that Putin latched onto an opportunity to invade Crimea, it can be said various agitators in Ukraine handed Putin an opportunity he was too foolish — or proud — to pass up. The West, for its part, did not help. The fact that the EU, with support of the Obama administration, refused to await democratic elections in Ukraine after Putin earlier this year refused to recognize the acting Ukranian prime minister following what Russia perceived as a coup conveniently goes without mention. After all, it begs an obvious question: Had a concession been made to await what were then upcoming democratic elections in Ukraine — to table bailout negotiations in deference to an elected leadership the parties could agree upon — the stage to annex Crimea may not have been set! In the early days of the crisis, however, none of the stake-holders cared to yield in the interest of peace. That nobody foresaw civil war coming in Ukraine as a result of this geopolitical game of hardball is patently false. If efforts to keep the peace were botched, they were botched in the most transparent of ways.
So how is it that the powers that be, externally as well as internally, have exploited Ukraine as a pawn on a geopolitical chessboard? Two words: media complicity. If only one thing is clear by now, it’s this: There is enough propaganda on all sides to give any thinking person pause. And this begs yet another question: Who benefits?
If the surge of illegal aliens across the US/Mexico border fails to abate, it is not unrealistic to think the U.S. may act to protect its interests. The fact that our neighbor to the south is comparatively “weak” does not mean we ought to tie our own hands, any more than the West could realistically expect Putin to abandon Russian interests in Ukraine. Appreciating this fact — that nations are vested in what takes place on their doorsteps — ought to be cause to avoid dashing headfirst into World War III. Failure to accept geopolitical reality, conversely, only makes for “comic book moralism” — a simplistic worldview in which one party is good and the other evil.
Many years have indeed passed since the U.S. hatched the Panama-as-independent-state scheme as a means to build the infamous canal through Columbian territory. But that’s more reason, not less, to get smart. Wising up starts with a refusal to go along with the same old geopolitical ploys, no matter who or what is said to be behind them: so-called rebels, boogieman terrorists or a rogue leader. After all, whether a rag-tag insurgent or a uniformed member of a state-run military, mounting an offensive or armed resistance takes training, organization and funding — funding historically derived from the very powers charged with keeping the peace.
Today, even underdogs have powerful backers in a fight. And that’s why oversimplification of international affairs ultimately places more lives on the line for causes rarely as heroic as they seem. But we’re smarter than citizens at the turn of the previous Century — right?
“Origins of the Ukrainian Crisis: Washington’s Double-Cross and Expansion of NATO” | David Stockton’s Contra Corner
“Generational Rift”: Ukraine’s Maidan Protests Compared to Occupy Wall Street | Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
“What will it Take to Rein in Rightwing Nationalism in Ukraine?” | The Huffington Post
“Ukraine and Russia: Why is Ukraine’s Economy in such a Mess?” | The Economist