First comes the melodrama, next comes the killing. Good vs. evil, suffering innocents vs. swaggering bullies, heroes vs. villains. The “Two Minutes Hate,” Orwell called it — the way of the world since the invention of mass media.
So it is during the current political crisis in the Ukraine. In the U.S. media, the identity of the Bad Guy has been clearly determined: Russian President Vladimir Putin, the one-time KGB operative with the hooded eyes.
“The world has not yet forgotten World War Two, but Russia already wants to start World War Three,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk has declared. He accuses Moscow of acting like a “gangster,” of supporting “terrorists,” and alleges that Putin wishes to build a new Berlin Wall.
So what’s taking him so long? If Putin really wanted a shooting war in the Ukraine, he’s had ample opportunities to start one since the overthrow of that country’s Russian-leaning elected government last February.
Instead, Putin managed to transfer the Crimean peninsula, with its strategically crucial military bases, from Ukrainian to Russian sovereignty without firing a shot — an impressive feat of geopolitical gamesmanship whether you trust the cunning rascal or not. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine any Russian head of state willingly surrendering control of warm-water naval bases on the Black Sea.
Even if the vast majority of Crimean citizens didn’t yearn to return to Mother Russia, as quite clearly they did.
Meanwhile, the role of Good Guy in the Ukrainian melodrama has fallen by default to President Barack Obama, who appears disinclined to play it.
“Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” the president asked recently, “after we’ve just gone through a decade of war at enormous cost to our troops and to our budget? And what is it exactly that these critics think would have been accomplished?”
He didn’t call any names, but Obama did mention the Sunday TV talk shows, where 2008 presidential rival Sen. John McCain frequently holds forth. It’s a rare interview that doesn’t find the bellicose Arizonian, who’s supported all 14 of the nation’s last three wars, yearning to bomb somebody.
“Do people actually think that somehow us sending some additional arms into Ukraine could potentially deter the Russian army?” Obama asked. He added that steady diplomatic and economic pressure is more likely to restrain Putin than futile military gestures.
Talk like that invariably stimulates what Calvin Trillin dubbed the “Sabbath Gasbags” to question the president’s virility. On “Meet the Press,” hairy-chested he-man David Brooks, the New York Times columnist who thought invading Iraq was a terrific idea, opined that “Obama, whether deservedly or not, does have a — I’ll say it crudely — a manhood problem … Is he tough enough to stand up to somebody like Assad, somebody like Putin?”
NBC’s Chuck Todd went all canine on him. Obama’s critics, he said, don’t actually disagree so much with the president’s policy decisions as they think, “He’s not alpha dog enough. His rhetoric isn’t tough enough.”
Now me, I don’t miss junior high school at all, but let’s get basic. Back in 1956, when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who liberated Europe from the Nazis, declined to engage the Russian army in its own back yard. Nobody questioned Ike’s masculinity.
When the Soviets crushed the “Prague Spring” rebellion in 1968, everybody understood there wasn’t a sane thing the U.S. could do about it. Everybody was extra careful not to mention LBJ’s manliness for fear he might decide to whip … well, to make a public spectacle of it.
It was much the same when Putin responded forcibly to Georgian provocation in August 2008. President Bush reacted by decisively going on vacation. Karl Rove now claims the White House sent Putin a strong message — probably dropped him from the Christmas card list or something.
These things happened because whatever the testosterone levels of U.S. presidents, Russia is what we scholars of international affairs call a very big bleeping country, with a big bleeping army. President Obama can make light of Russian military prowess all he wants, but he also knows that Napoleon and Hitler sent superior armies into Russia that never came back.
Ukrainian officials are fools if they imagine that the U.S. or NATO will help them fight a civil war where no member’s vital national interests are involved. Alas, the kinds of extreme right-wing nationalists who decked out public buildings in Kiev with fascist regalia and passed laws (since withdrawn) removing Russian as an “official” language are all too prone to folly.
These and similar provocations have been all but censored in U.S. media even as they’re wildly exaggerated in Moscow. What’s also unclear is exactly how much control Putin has over Russian-speaking militias occupying public buildings in eastern Ukraine — maybe a lot less than some imagine.
Either way, the last thing anybody needs there is heroes.
• • •
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President”. You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.