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We Have Forgotten the Lessons of History

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

One month from today, August 23, 2014, will be the 75th anniversary of an inauspicious moment in history - one that our current President and his administration has completely forgotten.  As George Santayana observed, "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  Only in this case, the lesson came at the expense of no fewer that 20 million lives.

Think about that number for a second; it boggles the mind.  The entire 2010 population of Australia was estimated at 22.3 million, right about in the middle of the estimated loss of life.  Imagine an event which would directly result in wiping out the entire population of Australia, and you have an idea of the magnitude of this upcoming anniversary.

It was on August 23, 1939, that Germany and the Soviets entered into a 10-year non-aggression treaty.  Five years earlier, Germany entered into a similar pact with Poland.  The agreement with the Soviets would assure Adolf Hitler that his subsequent invasion of Poland would go unopposed.  And that having emboldened him, he would then go on to invade Russia - who would lose no less than 20 million people in the ensuing war and related famines.

If we add the approximately 6 million Poles killed in World War II (fully 20% of the pre-war population) we have a death total pushing north of 30 million.  2010 population estimates have Canada at 34 million people.  If the casualty figures published by the Russian Academy of Sciences are used, adding the Russian and Polish deaths brings us to an event with a result equivalent to the elimination of the entire population of our neighbors to the north.

The lesson we should have learned (or that we did, only to have forgotten) is that you do not defend your population from external threats with pieces of paper.  Not treaties, not "non-aggression pacts" - and certainly not policy memos.

In numerous interviews President Obama has articulated his desire to "get the policy right," believing the politics will follow.  And the families of 298 innocent travelers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 have found out what happens when you interpret the world around you through the prism of "policy."

And this is pretty much the story of the Obama administration on the world stage.  In 2009, shortly after taking office, Obama extended his hand to the Russians by canceling a missile defense pact with Poland and the Czech Republic.  He was supposed to get Russian help with Iranian nukes.  Yet he got absolutely nothing of substance in return - other than an emboldened Russia.  Evidently Putin hadn't read the policy memos.

It seemed like his policy in Libya was a success - or not.  It turns out Al Qaeda in Libya did not read the policy memos either, and an American ambassador died as a result.  But hey, "at this point, what difference does it make", right?

And so what had been an international "red line" (the killing of an ambassador) for over 500 years (today's international system was born out of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1498) was crossed with no consequences.  Was it any surprise, then, that Bashir al Assad calculated that Obama's "red line" concerning even the "movement" of chemical weapons - to say nothing of their use - likely did not mean anything as well?  We were treated to an unprecedented display of fecklessness watching the video of the "red line" speech, only to watch Obama later claim the "red line" was not "his" red line, but the international community's.  In a sense, he was right - because of a treaty.  He apparently thinks, though, that Assad retires in the evening to read treaties... or maybe the latest policy memo from team Obama.  And it has been painfully apparent to Syrian civilians that this is not the case.

Who knew?

And then came Ukraine.  Having come to the conclusion that Obama probably does retire in the evenings to read treaties and his team's latest brilliant memo, Putin calculated that as long as his forces were not actually wearing Russian uniforms, he had an international blank check to do as he pleased in Crimea.  After all, the policy memos have certain check boxes which express treaty obligations and expectations.  By not "invading" Crimea in the manners assumed in the policy memos, Putin was kind enough to provide Obama a way to save the face which otherwise might have been lost before the actual facts on the ground.

Oh, wait a minute now, I see... Obama actually has gotten something in return for his overtures to Russia.  Silly me.

And then here comes the reconstituted Al Qaeda in Iraq.  Calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria - and having no doubt taken measure of Obama by way of his response to Russian actions in Crimea - they are on the cusp of overthrowing the Iraqi government.  And Obama is apparently hard at work, busily attending to getting the policy right - believing as he must that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is equally hard at work, studiously absorbing his team's latest policy memos.

He isn't.  Among his battle cries is "see you in New York."

But back to Ukraine, Crimea and Russian weapons and training.  Since 1944 the Chicago Convention on International Aviation has been the backbone of the sense that we can travel from country to country via commercial airlines, safely assuming that the countries of origin, destination and those in between whose airspace will be traversed have the same obligations and expectations.  But as we have now seen, the Chicago Convention - a piece of paper - cannot intercept a surface-to-air-missile.

Who knew?

As one tragedy is piled on to another, and as we enter into these next 30 days running up to the 75th anniversary of the last time world leaders thought they could secure the safety of their people with pieces of paper, it is time to hold this administration accountable for the lessons of history - lest we condemn ourselves to learning them again the hard way.

It almost seems ridiculous to have to point this out: We cannot defend ourselves with policy memos.  American foreign policy is utterly meaningless apart from a military strong enough to ensure the words of treaties and memos actually mean something and a President credibly thought by foreign actors to be willing to lead a hesitant country should the need arise.

We regularly hear this administration's resolve to hold people accountable.  Exactly what does this mean?  In exactly what way are these words anything other than pixels on the screen of a teleprompter?

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