Editor’s Note: Ever since the Russians began to annex the Crimean peninsula, and indicated that, perhaps, they have designs on the rest of the Ukraine as well, Republicans have been pontificating about how it’s all Obama’s fault. Still, none of them has come up with a suggestion on how to prevent any of this from happening, other than vague comments about “getting tough.” I guess if Mitt Romney were president now, Vladimir Putin would be so frightened he’d behave himself.


The Ball Keeps on Bouncing

 

Conservatives reflexively blame President Obama for losing Crimea. Saber rattlers like John McCain, who never met a war he didn’t like, have stopped short of endorsing military intervention, but they’re thrilled to claim Obama’s “fecklessness” in places like Syria and Libya emboldens Vladimir Putin. We’re also hearing words of wisdom from Dick Cheney, the architect of the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles, and neocon pundits like William Kristol, whose record on foreign policy matters is, at best, unfortunate.

The right-wing Wall Street Daily website blames Putin’s aggression on factors as diverse as [Obama’s] sequester of the defense budget, reductions in Europe’s missile shield and our own nuclear arsenal, and Secretary of State Kerry’s 1970s opposition to the Vietnam War. However, their alternative “recourse besides World War III” is the vague and meaningless admonition to Obama to “put up or shut up,” because “it takes action.”

The difficult task is developing a long view and an endgame in the face of the law of unintended consequences. For example, by arming the Afghan mujahedeen in the 1980s, we dealt the Soviets a crushing defeat. However, our lack of follow-up gestated the Taliban and bin Ladin, eventually resulting in 9/11.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in Afghanistan is one of the themes of the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character relates the parable of a boy who receives a horse as a gift. Everyone says, “How wonderful,” but the Zen master’s reaction is, “We’ll see.” Later, the boy falls off the horse and breaks his leg, and everyone says, “How terrible.” But the Zen master responds, “We’ll see.”

When war breaks out, the boy gets to stay home because of his broken leg, and this is seen as good fortune. But, again, the Zen master’s reaction is, “We’ll see.” Hoffman tells Tom Hanks’ character, Congressman Wilson, that the point is things aren’t over till they’re over — “The ball keeps on bouncing.” Wilson’s assessment of our victory in Afghanistan became the movie’s epigram: “These things happened. Then we f***ed up the endgame.”

We Americans prefer a more-cinematic script — a Hollywood story with a beginning, a middle and a happy ending. But the narratives in history books are more open-ended than that. The ball keeps on bouncing.

The Allies won World War I, but the Treaty of Versailles helped bring Hitler to power less than 20 years later. The Allies’ partitioning of the Austro-Hungarian Empire Balkanized Eastern Europe, just as their dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire created a map of the Middle East, with artificial states like Iraq, that’s still plagues us a century later.

Hitler’s defeat led to the Iron Curtain enslavement of Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, the Holocaust had the positive byproduct of a Jewish homeland in Israel, but this brought on a series of wars with the Israelis’ murderous and intractable Arab neighbors. Peace in the region is as elusive now as it was in 1948. The ball keeps on bouncing.

Most people now see our involvement in Vietnam as a mistake, and it was a good thing for America when we finally got out. But our defeat in Southeast Asia ushered in Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime, and millions died in the Cambodian killing fields.

Few outside Putin’s KGB would argue that the end of Soviet Communism and the crumbling of the Iron Curtain were a bad thing. But the unintended consequence was genocide in the Balkans.

Republicans still speak lovingly of “the surge” in Iraq, while Democrats make excuses for Obama’s Afghan surge. Both sides seem oblivious to the fact that history will eventually see our involvement in both of these failed wars as a colossal mistake.

The term “Arab Spring” sounds positive, and removing despots is a good idea. But the chaos in Egypt and Libya has been tragic, and the bloody Syrian civil war is a humanitarian disaster. However, Obama’s strategy of doing little about Syria may turn out to be appropriate, because there are no “good guys” there. If the choice is between doing the wrong thing and doing nothing, the latter option is always preferable, especially when no one has a clue how this will turn out.

In the late 20th century, with America worried about Japanese economic hegemony, much was made of how Asian companies took the long view, while American businesses had trouble looking beyond the current fiscal year.

The Asian mindset traditionally operates within a longer vista. In India, Hinduism’s poetic metaphor for the vast cycles of history is a bird flying over the Himalayas dragging a silk scarf across the peaks. When the mountains have been worn flat, a new cycle begins. Buddhism has a similarly large-scale world view.

In contrast, Western Judeo-Christian culture has, for centuries, viewed existence in terms of a few thousand years. Although modern science shows irrefutably that the universe is billions of years old, millions of Americans, especially in the South, cling to a 6,500-year-old creation and a belief that we’re always on the verge of a “happy ending” — i.e., Judgment Day.

You’re free to choose between a cyclical continuum and a cinematic view of history; however, when someone pontificates about how we need to become more forcefully involved in other nations’ affairs, from Syria to the Ukraine, you need to ask whether they have any idea how the endgame will play out. Because the one thing that’s certain is that the ball will keep on bouncing.


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