Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The (German) politics of the (hoped-for but not really) "new Cold War" over Ukraine

... Obama was blindsided by events in Ukraine, but why the administration didn't see this coming remains a mystery. No matter what Putin says, Yanukovych's ouster was not the result of some deep Western plot, and in many ways Yanukovych deserved to go. But the United States as far from a neutral party in this process, as top U.S. officials -- including Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt -- either took actions or made statements that showed clear support for the demonstrators and a clear U.S. preference for interim Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Unfortunately, they intervened without considering how it might look to Russia, especially after 20 years of NATO expansion, the deployment of missile defenses near the Soviet border, and George W. Bush's 2008 proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This was geostrategic incompetence of the highest order, but that is what happens when presidents and secretaries of state are too busy with a zillion other things and stop paying attention to what their ideologically driven subordinates are up to. [my emphasis]
- Stephen Walt, The Solve-Everything, Do-Nothing White House Foreign Policy 03/18/2014

Über-Realist Walt isn't making excuses for Russia's misdeeds and violations of international law in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis. Nor is he drooling like many American conservatives do over Putin's shirtless manly manliness. But he is pointing out that the United States does not control the Ukraine and that Russia has a perceived stake there and that a less provocative US approach to the political turmoil in Ukraine might well have produced a more pleasant result from the Western perspective than what happened.

This is the way grownups and serious politicians should be talking about this thing.

Little Tommy Friedman, on the other hand, in Walt's words, "thinks Obama can't decide if he's Pollyanna, John Wayne, or Henry Kissinger (as if these are the only options)." (The referenced piece of Friedman's continuing self-embarrassment is The Three Faces of President Obama New York Times 03/15/2014)

But politics is politics, as Joe Stalin said shortly before he signed the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact that, among other things, divided Poland between Germany and the Soviet Union.

So I was intrigued to see this polemic by Fabian Reinbold against the German Left Party's position on the crisis, Linkspartei in der Krim-Krise: Die Putin-Versteher Spiegel Online 17.03.2014, which blast the Left Party for taking what sounds to me a position a lot like Walt's.

A bit of background. The Left Party evolved over time since the fall of the German Democratic Republic (Communist East Germany). It started off as the "postcommunist" successor party to the old East German Communist Party. It merged with a left group from western Germany to form the current Left Party.

The state of the euro crisis has put the Left Party in what is potentially a qualitatively new situation in German politics. The center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is a junior partner in Angela Merkel's Grand Coalition (GroKo). And with minor and mostly cosmetic differences, the SPD is totally on board with Angie's brutal austerity policies that are laying waste to the economies of the southern eurozone countries.

In last year's German Parliamentary election, it was only the Left Party among the real contenders for Bundestag seats that both offered a Keynesian critique of Merkel's economic policies and also had opposed them in the Budestag. The Green Party also offered such a critique but had voted for Merkel's austerity policies in the Bundestag. If the Greens and the Left Party form a working alliance, they have the chance to jointly benefit politically over the next few years. With the center-left (the social-democratic parties) in countries like Italy and Spain having badly discredited themselves by embracing ruinous neoliberal economic "reforms," it's entirely feasible that a Green-Left alliance could occupy much of the political space the SPD currently does, similarly to how the Five Start Movement surged in Italy in last year's elections.

Reinbold's polemic tries to portray the Left Party as pro-Putin. There's a couple of key points on this. One of which has to do with his insult phrase "Putin-Versteher," literally "understanders of Putin." For anyone of a mental age older than Tommy Friedman, i.e., older than elementary-school age, knows that understanding something or someone is not the same as sympathizing with or supporting them. So when someone tries to make it a stigma to understand a potential adversary nation, that's a very good sign they're up to know good. In the real world, understanding adversary countries may be even more important than understanding friendly ones. Especially when one of those potential adversaries is a nuclear power, which Russia still is.

Second, the fact that the Left Party has some historical roots in a party that possessed a reverence for the Soviet Union is a whole different thing than admiring Vladimir Putin's political model in the Russia of 2014. I mean, if you reason like a FOX News pundit or David Gregory, you might think, "Well, uh, the Soviet Union was headed by Russia, or maybe they were the same thing, and they were Communists and that's left and now Putin heads Russia so he must be a Communist, too, like Obama or something."

But in the post-elementary-school population, that would be a pretty sad assumption for people to make. Because if there are people who consider themselves "left" who also admire Putin's kleptocratic-oligarichal half-baked version of democracy or consider it a goal to strive for, I'm not aware of it. And I think that it's fair to say that in the German Left Party, neither those who judge Putin's Crimea maneuver more harshly nor those who are more focused on the EU's and the United States' mistakes in the crisis consider Putin a "left" model or an ally to be defended.

It's like the old "red-baiting," except it's more like Russia-baiting.

I doubt the Left Party will be inclined to bow and scrape and try to show their foreign policy belligerency by denounced and double-denouncing Russia and Putin. I doubt that approach works much better in German politics than in the US. (See Digby, Objectively Pro-Putin Hullabaloo 03/18/2014)

The larger question is how the Greens will play this. If they let stuff like this drive a wedge between themselves and the Left Party that prevents making a combined political effort as the opposition in the Bundestag, that would likely prove to be a self-defeating course.

There are some dubious signs so far on the Greens' response, such as the Greens' Bundestag caucus head Katrin Göring-Eckardt portraying Left Party leader Sahra Wagenknecht as a Russian today. (Göring-Eckardt Twitter post 14.04.2014; Michael König, Grüner Streit um Anti-Wagenknecht-Kampagne Süddeutsche Zeitung 17.03.2014)

And some hopeful ones, like this petition signed by Robert Zion and other Greens declaring, "Wir Grünen stehen auf der Seite des Friedens und der Freiheit. Unsere Seite ist nicht die des Nationalismus, weder die Seite Putins, noch die der Gruppe der Rechten in der Ukraine." ("We Greens stand on the side of peace and freedom. Our side is not that of nationalism, nor that of Putin, nor that of the rightists in Ukraine.")

Albrecht von Lucke writes in Die gespaltene Opposition Gegenblende 11.03.2014:

Dort, wo Linke und Grüne in der Opposition tatsächlich zur Zusammenarbeit verdammt sind, etwa zwecks Einberufung eines Untersuchungsausschusses, werden sie notgedrungen kooperieren. Ansonsten aber herrscht ein gewaltiges Distanzierungsbedürfnis – auch und vor allem von Seiten der Grünen.

[There where the Left Party and the Greens in the opposition {to the GroKo} are actually condemned to work together, for instance in the need to call for a investigative committee, they will be compelled to cooperate. But otherwise a powerful need for distance reigns - particularly and especially from the side of the Greens.]
There have been differences of emphasis in the public positions of various Left Party leaders on the Ukraine/Crimea crisis, which seem to turn less on differences in actual policy outlook than on the degree to which they are willing to target the SPD and the Greens in their criticism. Wagenknecht has been more inclined to do so, Party Chairs Katja Kipping und Bernd Riexinger less so. (Markus Decker, Kipping und Riexinger kontra Wagenknecht Mitteldeutsche Zeitung 13.03.2014)

It's worth noting that one of the more notable figures expressing criticism of the EU's policies toward Russia in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis is former SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who surprising more-or-less explicitly admitted to having committed war crimes himself to defend or at least explain Russia's actions. (Gerhard Schröder, Russia and the Crimea 03/09/2014) And Schröder even has Russian financial connections that make his comments more dubious than anything Fabian Reinbold quotes from Left Party figures.

The SPD had the theoretical opportunity after last year's election to attempt to form a center-left coalition government with the Greens and the Left Party, because together they had a majority of seats in the Bundestag. The SPD national leadership wasn't in the least interested. But to reassure the Party base that wasn't entirely happy about their entering a Grand Coalition headed by Merkel, the SPD leaders promised that next time, four years from now, they would consider a coalition with the Left Party. (You didn't have to read hard between the lines to get the suggestion that it meant in four years, or when hell freezes over, whichever comes later).

SPD Vice Chancellor and loyal Angie-bot Sigmar "Sigi Pop" Gabriel; Reinbold reports that Steinmeier is grumping publicly that the Left Party is parroting "dummer Propagandalügen des russischen Staatsfernsehens" ("dumb propaganda of the Russian state television"). Sigi Pop can't distance himself from the Left Party fast enough. No surprise at all there.

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