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America between Analysis and Emotion

America between Analysis and Emotion

Monday, 28 February, 2022 - 11:15
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

American policy on Ukraine comes from mixing analytical thinking among the national security experts with emotions among the American public that influence politicians. On the analytical side, there was an argument among experts and officials about whether the expansion of NATO to former Communist countries, like Poland, Bulgaria and Romania, after the Cold War provoked this Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

That argument now is settled in Washington. The winning side firmly believes that Putin is a dangerous dictator who wants to recreate the old Russian empire or the Soviet Union. They warn that if the world does not stop Putin now, he will attack another country again, for example the Baltic states, and cause an even bigger war. Biden therefore, has been sending more American forces to Europe; the number of American soldiers deployed in NATO countries has grown from 65,000 last year to over 90,000 now. Within that bigger deployment, the Americans have doubled the number of America forces in Poland to 9,000 and in Romania to 2,000. There is no debate here about increasing the number of American military forces on the border with Ukraine near Russian forces.

No American politician has called for American forces to enter Ukraine and fight the Russians; everyone understands the risks of a nuclear war. And there is also an analytical understanding from experience with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as well as Iran and Syria now that sanctions, even tough sanctions, have only a limited impact on dictators. But here is where the emotional side of America arrives. The scenes on television and social media of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers fighting a desperate war against a bigger and ruthless enemy is provoking the traditional American sympathy for the weaker side in a fight. In addition, some American cities like New York and Chicago have big Ukrainian-American communities. Churches in many cities are organizing special prayers for Ukraine. In this emotional climate, American popular sympathy for Ukraine and anger at Moscow is generating demands that Washington take more measures.

The biggest push will be for more sanctions. The European Union just imposed sanctions on President Putin’s personal assets and those of Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Biden administration had hesitated but the European action will probably compel Biden to do the same and find other sanctions too. The analytical and emotional sides of America both arrive at the conclusion that Washington should not start World War III but it must do more to punish Russia and try to help Ukraine.

A good political observer of American politics would pay special attention to the evolution of the Republican Party’s position in the past week. A prominent American senator who had showed support for the January 6 attack on the Congress building, Josh Hawley, was saying earlier this year that Washington must reject Ukraine joining NATO. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has big political ambitions, in January said he had enormous respect for Putin and called him a “talented statesman.” Last Tuesday and Wednesday former President Trump praised Putin as a strong leader and Trump even called Putin a genius.

After the invasion started and the public emotions rose, Trump is isolated. The Republican Party’s general position is becoming criticism of Biden for being weak and demanding a bigger response against Russia. Pompeo, considering the emotional climate here, changed his tone and said on Thursday that Washington must impose bigger costs on Putin in order to deter more Russian aggression. Hawley is now urging Biden to impose bigger sanctions on Russia, including on its energy sector.

The Biden administration until now has avoided imposing sanctions on Russian energy exports due to worries about rising energy prices. So far, the business sector is not expecting that production from American oil shale will increase, and thus companies expect that energy prices will remain high. Biden for the first time on Thursday admitted that the price of gasoline for American drivers will rise.

In addition, the Ukraine crisis will disrupt some Ukrainian and Russian grain exports and raise world food prices. Even before the crisis in Ukraine inflation of prices in the American economy is the highest in forty years. You can see the worries about higher inflation on the American stock market. Forty years ago, in response to price inflation the Federal Reserve raised interest rates so high, to 21 percent, creating a terrible economic recession. (I graduated from university and it was very hard to find a job.) The timing then was terrible for President Jimmy Carter’s re-election campaign.

I doubt interest rates will reach 20 percent, but the timing appears to be bad again for the Democratic Party, eight months before important elections for Congress.

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